by ZJ Czupor

The Silence of the Author

This successful author has kept a low profile for the past forty years. He rarely gives interviews, preferring to let his work speak for itself. He does, however, answer his fan mail and poses for pictures when he’s recognized.

He has a Santa-Claus quality about him—big, bearded, and jovial and described as a soft-spoken southern gentleman. Aside from writing popular thrillers, he’s a nature lover and often takes orphaned squirrels and injured ibises to an animal rescue center on Biscayne Bay in Florida. While he’s volunteered there since 1999, no one realized who he was. The center’s director said, “We had no idea. He’s such a kind, gentle man.”

He draws, cooks gourmet meals, and often dines with friends. A retired Miami-Dade police sergeant said, “If you didn’t know who he was, you’d think he’s just a little old guy from Mississippi. He’s not impressed with himself, or anybody else.”

Writing by hand, he begins his day at 8:30 and finishes around 2 or 3. He has lunch and a nap. He describes his writing process as starting with a scene that appears in his head. He thinks through what came before and after. He describes “the very act of writing as a kind of torment…” But his agent, Mort Janklow, says his books never really need editing. “What he delivers has the quality of a precisely cut gem.”

Thomas Harris (1940 –) grew up in a small town in Mississippi where his family owned a cotton, soybeans, and wheat farm. He majored in English at Baylor University, rode a motorcycle, and worked nights as a reporter covering the police beat in Waco, Texas. In 1968, he took a job with the Associated Press in New York as a general assignment reporter and night editor on the city desk. While there, he and two other reporters (Sam Maull and Dick Riley) cooked up the idea for Black Sunday, a novel about a terrorist plot to commit mass murder during the Super Bowl game in Miami. He wrote the novel, sold it to Putnam in 1975, and he and his friends split the advance.

In 1978, the film version was nominated for the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Motion Picture.

Harris’s second novel, Red Dragon (1981), introduced one of America’s most grisly villains—Hannibal Lecter, the psychiatrist turned psychotic. In the novel, Dr. Lecter appears as a minor character and is already in prison. Stephen King compared that book with The Godfather and later called Hannibal “the great fictional monster of our time.”

It was Harris’s third novel, Silence of the Lambs (1988), that became a pop-culture phenomenon and is considered a masterpiece of suspense. Anthony Hopkins won an Oscar for his performance as Hannibal Lecter in the film version (1991), which won five awards—only the third film in Academy Awards history to sweep the Oscars in major categories—(best actor, best actress, best screenplay, best director and best picture).

After his first novel (Red Dragon) was adapted into a film named Manhunter (1986), Harris was disappointed in it and in Hollywood in general. So, he didn’t watch Silence of the Lambs until two years after the Oscars. He liked it. His next two novels were sequels Hannibal (1999) and Hannibal Rising (2006). He wrote them on a $5-million-plus deal with Dell/Delacorte publishing.

While the last two novels were also adapted into films, audience reaction began to wane and journalists kept pestering him about where his twisted ideas came from, implying he held deep-seated psychopathic tendencies. His response was “I don’t make anything up. So, look around you. Because everything has happened.”

His novels have sold more than 50 million copies. His latest Cara Mora (2019), is his first in fourteen years and while it doesn’t feature Hannibal Lecter, he introduces a new evil villain who is hairless, owns a white latex plugsuit, and a liquid cremation machine.

Harris has written six novels, five have been adapted into films, one into a television series, with a new TV series in production. His estimated net worth is $73 million. Not bad for a quiet, unassuming southern gentleman who creates monstrous villains.

And that’s your Mystery Minute.

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Author’s Note: CBS recently announced the go-ahead on a new series for next season—a Silence of the Lambs sequel titled Clarice, which follows FBI agent Clarice Starling six months after the events of the movie. Rebecca Breeds takes over the Jodie Foster role from the 1991 film.