FRANK GARVIN YERBY, 38, probably makes more money from books than any novelist now writing in the U.S.
In eight years he has produced eight historical novels which have sold 8,000,000 copies in hard covers alone (The Saracen Blade, The Vixens, The Golden Hawk, etc.). Doubleday's Dollar Book Club (nearly 750,000 members) has picked seven of the eight, and the Literary Guild has often used Yerby's novels as "gift books" to attract new members.
Sales of the novels in paperback editions now total 3,500,000 copies. Since 1946, when The Foxes of Harrow first jumped to the top of the bestseller lists, Yerby's books have earned him an estimated $1,000,000 (exclusive of movie and magazine rights). The really intriguing item in this success story is that Yerby is a Negro a Negro whose stuff is just as terrible (and entertaining) as any white author's.
A torrential storyteller who has been compared with France's famed mulatto novelist, Alexandre Dumas, Yerby says: "Dumas was proud of his race, and so am I, but I don't flaunt it." Few of the Southern housewives who buy Yerby's slick melodramas of sex, sadism and violence know that their favorite author is a Negro. Nothing in his stories of strutting white aristocrats, swooning heiresses and yassuhing darkies would declare it, and jacket blurbs, noting that the Georgia-born author formerly taught at Florida A. & M. and Louisiana's Southern Univesity, leave it to the reader to know that these are Negro colleges.
Yerby shuns both literary parties and Negro causes. He has been accused by some writers in the Negro press of racial disloyalty. But others, such as Novelist Ralph (The Invisible Man) Ellison, count it a score for Negroes that Yerby has won pre-eminence in a general field without regard to his race.
Twelve years ago he was a foundryman in a Detroit war plant. Today Yerby lives on the French Riviera with his tiny, light-skinned wife Flora and their four children. When he is not whipping out profitable prose in his villa garden in Cimiez, Nice. Author Yerby goes skin-diving in the Mediterranean, skiing in the Alps or whizzing off in his Jaguar XK 120 to attend sports-car races.
Yerby started out trying to write "serious" fiction. In 1944 he worked up a Richard Wrighteous novel about a boy in the steel mills. "A perfectly terrible book," says Yerby now. "I was in love with Bessemer furnaces an unrewarding kind of a romance." Yerby then made his decision. He quit his foundry job and went to New York. He told the Dial Press's George Joel, the only publisher who had shown a faint interest in his steel-mill epic, that he wanted to try a fast historical opus. On the strength of 27 pages turned out in one night (by day Yerby worked in a plane factory), Joel gave him a $250 advance. The book became The Foxes of Harrow.
Yerby sometimes talks of writing "something really good eventuallywhen I'm 50 or 55 perhaps." In the meantime, "I write the kind of books I write because it's the only kind I know how to write. Besides, I don't think it's the writer's job to try to change moral, political and religious beliefs. For all Tolstoy's arguing, people go back to Anna Karenina for Anna and that's all."