Many of the works of Walter Tevis, author of The Queen's Gambit, made the leap to big screen

Walter Tevis (right) with David Bowie on the set of The Man Who Fell To Earth, which was adapted from Tevis' novel. PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - The wildly popular Netflix series The Queen's Gambit (2020) has done for chess what late celebrity chef Julia Child once did for French cooking.

Chess-set sales have skyrocketed; enrolment in online chess classes has surged.

The series has been the subject of hundreds of articles and interviews. The novel that inspired the show, first published in 1983, has been on The New York Times' trade paperback bestseller list for seven weeks.

Yet, little attention has been paid to Walter Tevis, the author whose creation has stirred all the commotion.

Tevis once pegged himself as "a good American writer of the second rank." But Allan Scott, the screenwriter who first optioned The Queen's Gambit in the 1980s, disagrees. Scott co-created and executive-produced the Netflix show.

"I think very highly of Tevis," he said in an e-mail. "I think he was one of the best American writers of the 20th century. The Queen's Gambit lays out a terrific story very simply. Child, mother killed, orphanage, touch of genius, addiction. It's Dickensian."

It took decades to bring the book to the screen, Scott said, because studios thought the subject of chess was a commercial dead-end.

Born in 1928, Tevis wrote six novels, a surprising number of which made high-profile leaps to the screen: The Hustler (1961), about a young pool shark played by the late actor Paul Newman; The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976), starring singer David Bowie as a lonesome alien; and The Colour Of Money (1986), a follow-up to The Hustler, which won Newman his first Oscar.

Tevis' 1980 science-fiction book, Mockingbird, a commentary on humanity's dwindling interest in reading, has long had a modest cult following.

Tevis was a family man who played board games and fished with his kids, a popular professor of writing and literature at Ohio University in Athens, a cat-lover and movie aficionado and a talented amateur chess and pool player.

He was pale and gangly. Some of his students called him "Ichabod Crane". His fiction often plumbs his psyche, metaphorically.

"He's the hero of all his own books," said his son, Will Tevis, 66, before correcting himself: "He's the antihero."

Walter Tevis considered his terrain to be the world of underdogs.

"I write about losers and loners," he told The New York Times in 1983. "If there's a common theme in my work, that's it. I invented the phrase 'born loser' in The Hustler. In one way or another, I'm obsessed with the struggle between winning and losing."

Tevis was born in San Francisco, into what he called a "feelingless, uptight" home. His parents moved to Kentucky when he was 10.

Because young Walter had a heart condition, his parents left him behind in a convalescent home, where he spent months drugged on phenobarbital, like Beth Harmon, the main character in The Queen's Gambit.

As a boy, Tevis had a heart condition and stayed in a convalescent home, where he spent months drugged on phenobarbital - like Beth Harmon, the main character in The Queen's Gambit. PHOTO: NETFLIX

In an essay published in 1990, Tevis' first wife, Jamie, wrote: "He never got over the scars of the early experience with narcotics."

Tevis believed that early experience fuelled his later alcoholism.

When he left California to rejoin his family, Tevis found his new environment bewildering.

In a 1981 interview, he said that The Man Who Fell To Earth, about an alien who lands in Kentucky and cannot adjust to life on this planet, was "disguised autobiography".

"It has to do with my having moved from what I thought was the city of light, San Francisco, when I was 11, to Lexington, Kentucky, where I went to a tough Appalachian school in the fifth grade and was beaten up regularly," Tevis said.

Tevis gave the movie version of the book a C-plus, calling it confusing, but when he met Bowie, he found him to be "a wonderful man".

The Hustler, drawn from Tevis' rough-and-tumble pool hall experiences before and after the war, came out in 1959, followed by The Man Who Fell To Earth in 1963.

Then Tevis published almost nothing until 1980. He and his wife, whom he met when they taught at the same high school, raised two children while he was at Ohio University.

He played chess and shot pool, often with his colleague Daniel Keyes, who wrote Flowers For Algernon.

Tevis drank heavily and his marriage suffered. Even so, his children remember Tevis as a devoted parent.

His daughter Julia McGory, 63, said his kids had experienced some of "the sadness and complexities of our father", but "never doubted how much he loved us and enjoyed being with us".

In the mid-1970s, Tevis sobered up, partly with help from Alcoholics Anonymous. Deeply frustrated by his writer's block, he got a divorce and decided to try his creative luck in Manhattan.

He began a relationship with, and eventually married, Ms Eleanora Walker, who worked for his agent.

Tevis also regained his writerly mojo, finishing four more novels and a collection of short stories.

He helped convince Newman to star in the movie version of The Colour Of Money. He also wrote The Queen's Gambit during those years. The writer Tobias Wolff called it an "overlooked masterpiece."

Actors Tom Cruise (left) and Paul Newman in The Colour Of Money. PHOTO: TOUCHSTONE PICTURES

In a 1981 interview, Tevis said he had realised in middle age that "life is worth living".

He hoped to write one book a year for the rest of his life. Three years later, he died of lung cancer at 56.

Tevis' publishing career may not be over. His estate holds two unpublished children's books, said Ms Susan Schulman, the agent who represents it.

Gangster Cat is the story of a New York City cat and his gang. Turnip Island is the story of a family who live on an island of nothing but mud.

"They are completely delightful," Ms Schulman said.

If he were still alive, Will Tevis said, his father would be "basking in glory right now. He had desires for the spotlight. He wanted to be known and noticed."

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