Gregory Kirschling
January 10, 2005 AT 05:00 AM EST

On the first night in their vast new apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, in the still-in-boxes corner office that they’ll call his writing room from now on, Ron McLarty’s wife, Kate, is kneeling on his lap, planting baby kisses on his eyelids. He’s keeping her there with a hand on her backside and a bit of sweet talk. They’re newlyweds in love. Life couldn’t be better.

Especially because now, after more than 30 years of writing longhand five hours a day — after churning out 10 unpublished novels, 44 unpublished plays, hundreds of unpublished short stories, and ”an encyclopedia’s worth” of unpublished poems — McLarty is finally, finally a published novelist. And a millionaire first-time novelist at that. Viking paid ”two-point-something” million dollars for The Memory of Running, his sentimental picaresque about a fat guy named Smithy who bikes across the country.

”I’m looking at it, I can’t believe it’s in print,” marvels McLarty, his lap empty, eyeing the copies of Running unpacked on his shelf. ”I never expected to make a penny from my writing. It gave me a respite from bad times, and it explained the world to me.” He calls his luck ”inexplicable.”

True, literary power hitters don’t usually fall out of the sky. But EW faithful might recall Running: Stephen King declared it ”The Best Book You Can’t Read” in a 2003 back-page EW column that set off a bidding frenzy among publishers. King was onto Running because it began life as an audiobook. McLarty is a not-very-well-known actor, though you might recognize him from Spenser: For Hire or Law & Order (where the widower met his second wife, actress Kate Skinner). His forte is reading books on tape, and he persuaded Recorded Books to let him record Running as a straight-to-audiobook affair in 2000. Then King spun the 12 CDs in his truck stereo, and McLarty’s star was born.

”It knocked me out,” says King, who compares it to The Godfather and The Exorcist, pop books ”you can’t put down. I was pissed off that it was on CD because I was tied down to that word-by-word narration. I couldn’t just read as fast as I could go. Then I put in one of the CDs and that motherf—er started to skip! And I said, ‘You can’t do this to me!”’

So when seven publishing houses were duking it out over the rights to the novel in 2003, and the increasingly ridiculous money offers kept pouring in (”I don’t know how to use a computer,” McLarty laughs, ”but I’m a whiz at the fax!”), the author asked each publisher if all this interest was only because Stephen King liked the book. ”And more than one said, ‘No, it’s just that we wouldn’t have read fiction from someone at your age,”’ recalls McLarty, who’s 57. ”Publishers want someone for a long-term career. But you know, they got 10 books right here,” he booms, pointing to manuscripts at his feet, ”that they can put out any time they want!”

Meanwhile, he’s earning another million writing the Running screenplay — he met just yesterday with Harry Potter 3 helmer Alfonso Cuarón, who’s set to produce. ”It creeps me out a little bit,” says King. ”This is how close it came. The audiobook was rolling around behind the seat of my pickup truck, and if I hadn’t picked it up, the book never gets published, probably. Who knows how many others are out there in the same boat?”

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