October 2, 1993
By Kerry Dougherty
The Virginian-Pilot

THE HOUSE has a lived-in look. Pictures adorn the walls. Books are neatly arranged on shelves. The cupboards are stacked with dishes. There is not a single cardboard box in sight.

The only sign that the occupant has lived in this airy, two-story Norfolk home for less than two weeks is the army of workmen sawing and hammering, inside and out - installing central air conditioning. It is this kind of meticulous attention to detail and organization that enabled Michael D'Orso to write a blockbuster book in just six weeks.

On this morning the second-floor study of D'Orso's Colonial Place home offers a cool and quiet refuge from the cacophony below. A soft breeze blows in off the water. Outside weeping willow branches sway, and a bird briefly alights on the window sill.

"Great, isn't it?'' D'Orso says, smiling and surveying the house.

Abruptly, a dust-covered man appears in the doorway, carrying the day's mail. D'Orso politely introduces the workman, explaining that he is being interviewed for a story for the newspaper where he works.

"You write for the newspaper, too?'' the man asks. "I thought you just wrote books.''

It would be easy to make such an assumption.

Hanging neatly on the wall near D'Orso's desk are the jackets of his books in lucite frames.

The most recognizable is "Rise and Walk,'' which features football player Dennis Byrd's face. The biography was released in August, excerpted in People Magazine, selected by the Book of the Month Club and promoted on the talk show circuit and in a full-page New York Times advertisement.

"Rise and Walk'' is the number one best seller on the Christian bookstore list, and Barnes and Noble is listing it 20th among non-fiction works. The Fox cable network has purchased the movie rights.

It has been months since D'Orso, 39, actually sat at his desk at The Virginian-Pilot and The Ledger-Star. He left the paper in May to jump into the whirlwind Byrd project. He had just six weeks to write the book to ensure that it would be in stores by the start of the 1993 NFL football season.

Byrd was the Jets lineman who broke his neck last Thanksgiving Day. Doctors doubted he would walk again. But by midwinter it was clear Byrd's recovery was nothing short of miraculous, and he began planning to write his autobiography.

Byrd knew he needed a collaborator. He interviewed many and selected D'Orso.

That decision changed both of their lives.

The $1.1 million advance Byrd and D'Orso received from Harper and Collins was so remarkable that the New York Times ran a news item when the deal was finalized last spring.

"I got part of that,'' D'Orso says coyly of the advance. "I got enough to put a down payment on this house and to qualify for the mortgage . . . and I was able to set up an account for Jamie (his 8-year-old daughter) for college.''

But D'Orso doesn't write biographies for the money. If he did, he would have jumped at the chance to collaborate on the autobiography of Los Angeles Police Chief Darryl Gates several years ago.

Gates wanted D'Orso to write it. Before agreeing to what would have been a very lucrative deal, D'Orso called the Los Angeles Times and collected newspaper clippings on the cop.

"This was before the Rodney King case,'' D'Orso says. "But man, it didn't take me 10 minutes of reading about Gates to realize he was a cowboy run amok.

"I called my agent and said, 'No thanks.' ''

He has rejected other projects as well.

"When I do one of these collaborative books I get inside the person, I get inside their skin,'' he says. "We become intimate. I have to know that the person I'm working with is someone I can live with like that.'

What D'Orso does used to be called ghost writing. Today the writer is no longer anonymous. His name is on the cover.

D'Orso's first subject was Dorothy S. Redford, a Portsmouth social worker and the descendant of slaves. Her book was titled "Somerset Homecoming.'' Next came Carl Elliott, a septuagenarian who had been an eight-term congressman from Alabama. Elliott was a liberal squashed by the George Wallace machine in the 1960s. "The Cost of Courage,'' is his story.

Last year D'Orso collaborated with Madeline Cartwright, the brash principal of a Philadelphia inner-city elementary school, to write "For the Children.''

D'Orso is sought after in the highly specialized world of collaborative writing because of his talent for composing the story in the voice of the subject.

"Michael is amazing,'' says Judy Sandman, his editor on "Somerset Homecoming.'' "He has a wonderful way of relating to people. . . . He really gets into their stories without ever putting himself in the way.''

"Rise and Walk'' and "For the Children'' were released during the same week in August. The simultaneous publication of the two books appears to leave D'Orso feeling like a father with two children: One has just won an Academy Award while the other has just landed the lead in the school play. Everyone is talking about the Byrd story while the Cartwright book is enjoying a more modest reception.

"They mean the same to me,'' D'Orso says, shrugging. "I made a lot more money on Dennis' story, but I put the same amount of work into both.'' Those who know D'Orso say the amount of work he puts into his books is stunning.

"He gets in there and lives with these people,'' says David Black, his New York agent. "I don't know any other authors who do that.''

Black means that literally.

While he was writing Carl Elliott's book, D'Orso lived in the Elliott house in rural north Alabama. For five months he slept in the bedroom of Elliott's deceased wife.

"Her jewelry was still rattling around in the drawers,'' D'Orso recalls. "It was eerie. It was ghostly. It was depressing.''

To do the Byrd story D'Orso holed up in a $23-a-night motel in Tulsa, Okla. He spent six hours a day interviewing Byrd and at least five every night conducting telephone interviews and writing the book.

"It was pretty intense,'' D'Orso admits. "I had to remind myself to eat sometimes.''

His editor at Harper Collins calls the Byrd book a "Herculean task.''

"Harper Collins has been around for 180 years and this was the fastest crash in our history,'' says Rick Horgan, using publishing jargon. "We shook hands on the deal the third week of May and I had the manuscript in my hands on July 15th. Mike is absolutely masterful.''

Since the publication of Byrd's book D'Orso has received other book offers and projects. His desk is neatly stacked with file folders and letters. As he carefully examines his options, D'Orso says his requirement for any new project is that he not have to leave Norfolk for an extended period of time.

"I want to be near Jamie,'' he says of his daughter, who lives with his ex-wife a few miles away. "I couldn't stand being away from her like that.''

D'Orso, the son of a naval officer, lived in 12 cities and attended 10 schools before he graduated from high school. He says the migratory nature of his childhood has tainted his life and ability to form lasting relationships.

"I think I've always been searching for a home,'' he says, looking away. "I see how important it is, especially for children, to grow up in one area with a circle of friends that remains the same.''

Ironically, in settling in Hampton Roads D'Orso has come full circle. He was born at Portsmouth Naval Hospital in 1953.
After living in locales as far-flung as Key West and Frankfurt, Germany, the D'Orso family moved to Fairfax County. Mike D'Orso graduated from Hayfield High School, and because he was a Virginia resident, went to William and Mary. He majored in geology, then switched to philosophy.

"From rocks to air,'' he jokes.

D'Orso graduated in 1975 and spent several years working at odd jobs - at a ski resort in Colorado and playing semi-pro baseball. He attended law school for one day before deciding it wasn't for him. D'Orso then earned his master's degree from William and Mary and landed a job teaching English at Kempsville High School. He taught for just one year, 1978-1979, and boasts that he never entered the teacher's lounge. It was during his year of teaching that D'Orso got a taste for writing. He began contributing to the Virginia Beach Sun. A few months later, he was writing the entire three-page sports section. D'Orso says that reading his early work is painful.

"I cringe at all the cliches I used,'' he says.

He landed a job on the short-lived Commonwealth Magazine before coming to The Virginian-Pilot in 1984. During his nine years as a feature writer, D'Orso has also written for magazines, including Sports Illustrated. He even wrote a Mel Tillis country song called "Rain,'' which appears on one of the singer's albums. D'Orso says he is reluctant to cut his ties to the newspaper, although with publishers panting for his next book it is unlikely he'll be back anytime soon.

"He long ago developed a reputation as a thoughtful, quality writer,'' says Black. "He has a hell of a future ahead of him.''

For his part, D'Orso says it matters little to him if he never has another big book like the Dennis Byrd story.

"It's a once in a lifetime thing, I know that,'' he says. "Now I just want to enjoy writing other things. And I need to keep working. After all, I have a mortgage to pay.''