In This Interview…
“I’m going to be a very lonely old lady if I’m not careful”
The queen of romance writing is still searching for a happy ending to her own troubled story. The very private Danielle Steel grants a rare interview, to Karen Angel.
Romance novelist Danielle Steel wouldn’t seem to have much missing from her life. She recently signed with New Line Cinema, which wants to make straight-to-DVD movies based on her romance novels, and with Elizabeth Arden, which wants to create a new fragrance named after her. She has her own art gallery, dedicated to contemporary art and nurturing emerging artists. And she’s made it through raising nine children, with her youngest set to leave for college later this year.
Oh, and she has sold hundreds of millions of books – more, her agent says, than any other living author.
What could possibly be missing?
True love. Danielle Steel, whose name is synonymous with romance, has no man in her life, and she wishes she did.
It’s not as if she had nothing to do – Steel began writing her books at night, often making do with only four hours of sleep, in order to be there for her children during the day, and she still keeps to the same gruelling schedule, hammering away at the same 1946 Olympia typewriter she has always used. But writing isn’t enough any more.
“I have nothing else to do,” she says, “and because of that schedule I will never have anything else to do. I move between San Francisco and Paris… I have a wonderful beach house in California. I have these wonderful homes, and no one to share them with.”
It’s a theme that recurs throughout a telephone conversation from Steel’s San Francisco home, a few weeks before the February release of her 66th novel, The House, and less than a week after the death of her mother. It’s the author’s first major interview in more than a decade, partly because she calls herself “very painfully shy” but largely because she wanted to protect her children from the tabloids.
“Being famous has made it so much worse,” Steel says. “In the old days I was too busy with children, and I always had a husband to drag me out. Now I have to force myself. It’s difficult to talk to people… I walk into a room and I’m Danielle Steel, and whatever I say is going to be taken apart… People are much more inclined to believe and say bad things about you if you’re famous.
“It’s hard being visible, so I’ve made myself invisible,” she concludes. “I’ve shut myself inside these walls, and I’m going to be a very lonely old lady if I’m not careful.”
Now in her late 50s, Steel has averaged three books a year since 1973, when her first was published. Every one has hit bestseller lists in hardcover and in paperback, and in 1989 she made The Guinness Book of World Records for having a book on The New York Times bestseller list for 381 consecutive weeks – a record she has since broken with more than 390 consecutive weeks.
“I’m astonished by my success,” Steel says. “I wrote because I needed to and wanted to. It never occurred to me that I’d become famous. I did it at night because I loved it. I never did it to make money, as a job. I just did it because I had to.”
Millions of readers have connected with what she had to say, which Steel finds gratifying.
“I try to write about the stuff that torments us all,” she says. “I think I’m very real as a person, and that comes across in my work. I try to give people hope. Even though life is bleak, there’s hope out there.”
Her characters typically move from naive contentment to heartbreak, followed by an epiphany and a bold life change that leads to romance, betrayal, more heartbreak and, eventually, true happiness. Even so, Steel sees her books as “all very different,” and says that they stem from various sources. The House, for example, began in real estate and moved on to family.
“(It was) a friend of mine trying to buy her great-grandmother’s house that sparked this story,” the novelist says. “I like the idea of four very different generations of women… It’s about a mysterious great-grandmother who leaves her husband and family, and about the next generation, the heroine’s grandmother and her mother, a woman in her 60s who’s extra-tough and somewhat bitter, and married to an alcoholic and dealing with all the issues of someone who had a very bad marriage…
“Through the older people, the younger woman realises what she does and doesn’t want to do with her life.”
Sounds like another hit. US publisher Delacorte ran a first print run of about 800,000 copies, an astonishing number for almost any other author but, for Steel, simply business as usual.
In real life Steel has had a life so colourful that, well, it would make a good romance novel. The mother of seven children and stepmother of two has been married and divorced five times, colourful liaisons that have attracted much unwanted publicity, especially involving husband No. 2, who is in a Colorado prison serving a 40-year term for rape. No. 3 was a heroin addict and convicted burglar. But Nos. 1, 4 and 5 – French banker Claude-Eric Lazard, cruise-line chief executive John Traina and venture capitalist Tom Perkins – are more what you’d expect from a Steel hero.
Steel doesn’t like discussing her early marriages, and blames the sleazy revelations about them in a 1994 biography of her for destroying her marriage to Traina. Authors Lorenzo Benet and Vickie L. Bane had obtained records of Traina’s adoption of Steel’s son Nick, whose biological father was No. 3, William Toth. She sued in an effort to keep the records sealed, but lost.
“Nick never wanted the other children to know that he wasn’t John’s child,” Steel says. “The records of adopted children are sealed in California. That seal is considered inviolable… The judge ruled that, because I was famous, he didn’t have the same rights as other kids.
“We could have appealed,” she adds, “but the whole thing was so traumatic for my son that we decided to let it go, so they did print that he was adopted… We told the siblings before the book came out. It probably would have come out in our family eventually anyway.”
So bruising was the episode that Steel briefly decided to stop publishing her books, letting them be printed only after her death. She backed off from that resolution within a year, at her children’s urging, but stuck to another for much longer.
“I decided I would never do interviews again,” she says. “I have stayed below the radar for 15 years… I didn’t want to humiliate them. They were being chased around by tabloids.”
Steel’s own childhood was, by her own account, a lonely one. She was raised in New York by her German father, a minor player in the Lowenbrau beer dynasty.
Her parents divorced when she was seven and her mother, who was Portuguese, moved to Europe. Steel rarely saw her.
The novelist vowed that her children’s lives would be different – she refers to herself as “a mommyaholic” – and structured her life around them. As her youngest daughter prepares to depart, she admits to finding herself at a loss. “Being run over by a train would have less of an impact,” Steel says. “I have spent 35 years of my life being a full-time mother. It’s the best and most fulfilling job.”
It’s not always a happy job, though: In 1997, at age 19, her son Nick committed suicide. Though she calls herself “a super-private person, practically a recluse,” Steel went extremely public with the experience. His Bright Light: The Story of Nick Traina, telling the story of her son’s life, his struggle with manic depression and his death, became a bestseller and remains the most personal of her books.
“I didn’t want him to slip away in silence,” Steel says. “I wanted people to know that he was an amazing kid… and (wanted) what we learned to serve others.”
One thing she learned was that no amount of fame can provide a complete buffer against the blows of life.
“I’ve had my share of tough stuff,” Steel says. “When people look at me outside, they think, ‘She’s so lucky,’ but no one’s exempt from tragedy.”
Steel’s novels have addressed serious themes, treating issues such as cancer, infertility and kidnapping. She has tackled some of history’s darker hours, telling stories set on the Titanic, in Nazi Germany, in a Japanese internment camp and in Vietnam.
Critics generally have been kinder to her weightier efforts, but that’s not why she writes them. In fact, Steel says, she doesn’t read her reviews. Ever.
“My early reviews were so bad that I decided I didn’t want to read them again,” she says. “Either the world likes them or it doesn’t, and fortunately enough people seem to.”
New York Times
In This Interview…
Danielle Steel’s Favorite Book and Favorite Author
The Difference Between a Writer and a Storyteller
How to Get Published
Posted on Monday 26 January 2009 – 06:29
Kingsley Kobo, AfricaNews reporter in Abidjan, Ivory Coast
World renowned novelist Danielle Steel granted audience to AfricaNews over the weekend on wide ranging issues. The author of the over 60 books of 570 million copies worldwide spoke about her career, the ideal woman, the African woman, the global economic crisis and the election of Barack Obama.
Steel has climbed the mountains other writers are still clambering. She is a noted genius and history has already penned her. She stayed more than 300 consecutive weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.
Born on 14th August, 1947, in New York, to an American father and a Portuguese mother, Steel spent much of her childhood in France, where she started writing poems and short stories as early as nine. She later studied literature, design and fashion after passing out of Lycée Français high school in New York.
Today, she is rich, popular and powerful, but absurdly, she is a shy person and hardly grants interviews. However, she opened up to AfricaNews. Excerpts of her interview below:
AfricaNews (A.N): Are you a writer or a storyteller?
Danielle Steel (D.S): I’m a storyteller.
A.N: Is there any difference?
D.S: Yea! A writer writes, a storyteller tells (laugh).
A.N: But you don’t tell your stories orally to your audience – I mean your readers. You write them down, and so you’re a writer too.
D.S: Look, writing is generic, but storytelling is specific. A storyteller doesn’t write only what she has seen like the writer does. She writes out what’s done in her inside. I mean, a storyteller relates the life in her with passion.
A.N: From where do you get your ideas?
D.S: This is one of the hardest questions for any author to answer. A book begins with an image or a character or a situation that I care about deeply. Over weeks and months – it’s a long process – I take notes and write scenes and become immersed in this world. At a point, ideas begin bubbling up almost of their own accord. The world gradually takes shape, the characters become real, and suddenly, I’m a bystander in the unfolding drama!
A.N: Are your books based on real people and on your own life?
D.S: Never on real people, and virtually never on my own life. I prefer to create fiction, and not be bound by “real” people in my work.
A.N: Your first novel, “Going Home”, was written in 1973 while you were just 19, how did you manage to get it published?
D.S: The usual way – through series of rejections, revising and trying again. Finally, I was fortunate enough to find a good literary agent.
A.N: You used the word “fortunate”. Does a writer compulsorily need luck to get her book published, even if she’s highly talented?
D.S: What a question! Listen; there are always many new writers out there – so talented, so innovative. And therefore, as a newcomer, you just kind of stand in need of some divine grace to meet an agent / a publisher who would throw her faith on the potentiality of your work and give it a chance.
A.N: Throwing faith on your work means belting on your manuscript that it will somehow do well in sales, right?
A.N: Then, can we say writing career is a risky adventure?
D.S: Well, vaguely risky if you abandon every other life’s pursuit for it. But, I’d advise new writers to write out of passion first of all, before the pay.
A.N: How long does it take you to write a book?
D.S.: From the beginning to end, the entire process takes about two and a half years.
A.N: But how come you’re able to produce two to three books per year? For example, in 1978 you published two books; in 1980, three; in 1981, three again; 2008, three; and two are already announced for 2009.
D.S: See, I’ve developed the ability of juggling through five projects at a time. While carrying out research for one book, I’m writing the outline for another. And at same time, I continue writing the one in hand as I edit two others already written.
A.N: With this kind of schedule, how do you manage to have time for your family – your big family?
D.S: (Laugh) It’s a hard one – very hard. I don’t sleep! My kids are more precious to me than anything. So, I’m with them all day, and I write all night.
A.N: We’ve never seen a sequel to any of your books, and why?
D.S: No, I never do sequels. They’re an invitation to unfavourable comparison, and I’ve got too many new stories to tell!
A.N: Who is your favourite author and what is your favourite book?
D.S: Well, I always go back to the classics. I love French literature. Colette is a special favourite of mine. But at the moment, I’m enjoying John Grisham’s books quite a bit.
A.N: What’s your favourite book you’ve written?
D.S: This always changes. It’s often the last book I’ve written, just because I become so involved in it. But right now, MESSAGE FROM NAM, FIVE DAYS IN PARIS and KALEIDOSCOPE stand out.
A.N: I understand you’re a great lover of pets. What kind of pets do you have?
D.S: I’ve got five miniature Brussel Griffon dogs, one rabbit, one parakeet, and a Vietnamese pot-bellied dog named Coco. What a zoo!
A.N: In September 1997, your son, Nick Traina, who was the lead vocal of Link 80, committed suicide. And you immediately converted this loss and pain into a non-fiction book titled, HIS BRIGHT LIGHT. Was it to efface the bad experience or to honour his memory?
D.S: To honour his memory. See, he was suffering from an indisposition called bipolar disorder. All what happened to him wasn’t really his fault.
A.N: Can we say writing is another weapon for suppressing, converting or depleting ugly memories?
D.S: I think it’s a great weapon for that. The process elevates you to another plain that tends to make you stop weeping, and instead, you turn active and lively, creating characters that are passing through same experience. And rather than crying yourself, you assume the role of inventing scenes and situations that comfort your bereaving characters. Good one!
A.N: As a woman who has seen the good and the bad sides of marriage and family, how would you counsel the ideal woman?
D.S: Look, life is an open game; anything can happen. Never be too sure of yourself or anyone. Understand and believe what’s dear to your heart, and strive to protect it. Look, happiness is not perpetual. There’d be rough times, but never let yourself to be swept away.
A.N: I know you’ve never lived in Africa, but I believe you know the African Woman, a piece of advice?
D.S: Yeah! The African woman would be more productive if she had a broader freedom and a stronger independence.
A.N: Are you saying they are not free?
D.S: Not necessarily. But I believe she would dominate more if she’s fully emancipated.
A.N: Who or what would she dominate if she was fully emancipated – her husband or her society?
D.S: Her society.
A.N: How would you interpret the current global economic crisis? Is it another fiction or a painful reality?
D.S: A painful reality. I wish it was only a fiction. There are so many sufferings around the world today – loss of jobs, bankruptcies, etc. I wish we were better off. Well, I’m somehow tempted to be realist about this all. But truly, we have just one choice, and that’s hope. We must remain hopeful. This is not the first time the world is experiencing this. If people had come out of it before, we can still do. As the governments play their role, we individuals need to play ours. Everybody has to do something to solve these problems. Either by cutting personal spending or giving a helping hand to a neighbour, or even giving counsels – lets’ act.
A.N: Barack Obama is the new president and he’s becoming the world’s strongest man. What are your sentiments?
D.S: Wow, it’s a great, great, great event. Everybody seems to be happy. Well, I just hope this would bring about the real change people across the globe are hungry for – change in America, change in Europe, in the Middle East, in Africa, etc.
A.N: In 2002, you were decorated by the French government as a “Chevalier” of the Order of Arts and Letters (Chevalier de l’order des Arts et des Lettres) for your contribution to world culture. Was it an enough recompense for a 36-year career?
D.S: More than enough.
A.N: In 2006, you launched a perfume called “Danielle by Danielle Steel” with Elizabeth Arden, and then you went further to say it wasn’t a business venture. What is it for then?
D.S: It’s a perfume specially made for my readers. I wanted them to feel what my characters express in my books, which ere engagement, love and emotion.
A.N: How can a perfume do this?
D.S: Danielle perfume is a mixture of mandarin, jasmine, orchid, rose and musk. These fragrances are somehow feminine and masculine. They appeal usually, to the human sensibility and sensuousness.
A.N: And that’s why Danielle is sold only in selected stores?
D.S: Yeah, stores where my readers go to shop.
A.N: How long will you keep writing?
D.S: Until I drop.
KING: She may be the best-selling author ever in the history of the world. She is Danielle Steel, prolific, she has written 82 novels, a score of nonfiction books. Her latest is “Amazing Grace.” There you see its covers.
You don’t do a lot of interviews.
DANIELLE STEEL, AUTHOR, “AMAZING GRACE”: I don’t do any interviews. I do maybe one every 10, 15 years.
STEEL: I am a very private person. I’m very shy. I have a lot of children and especially when they were young I tried very hard to stay out of the public light and out of the sort of public eye.
And there are a number of causes that are very important to me and so now I’m coming out more and so I have a chance to talk a little more about things I care about.
KING: We’re happy to have you here.
STEEL: Thank you. It’s a great honor to be here.
KING: Did you write as a kid?
STEEL: I did but I didn’t mean to. I was very into the visual arts. I studied design. I wanted to be a designer. But for fun I wrote and my father said that I wrote my first book at 5 with corrugated cardboard covers and I made my own book. And I always wrote for pleasure and I never really thought about writing professionally.
KING: Do you resent being called a woman’s novelist, that you write books for women?
STEEL: I don’t resent it but it’s not accurate. Apparently my readership is 30, 35 percent male. And I have to admit I’m always very proud when a man comes up to me and says, oh, I loved your last book, because I think if I am perceived as a woman’s writer, it takes greater courage for them to read it. And I think men prefer to read nonfiction. Men prefer to read fiction written by men so when a man reads my book, it’s really a victory.
KING: What is — “Amazing Grace” is about an earthquake?
STEEL: It’s about an earthquake. I get ideas out of the air and I suddenly thought it would be very interesting to create an earthquake a hundred years after the last very big one. And what always fascinates me in writing is putting unusual people together under stressful, unusual — or not only unusual, also usual circumstances and then what happens.
And so I — in “Amazing Grace” I brought together four characters: a journalist who has had a very spotty career and is a recovering alcoholic; a nun; and a young teenage super successful rock star; and a young wife whose husband has just committed a crime.
And these people get thrown together during the earthquake and then it’s how it develops and how they affect each other’s lives.
KING: Is there usually some kind of message?
STEEL: I don’t pen them that way, but I do think to some extent and I think the uniting theme in my books is one of hope. They’re about the things that happen to all of us. That none of us are exempt from, difficult things sometimes, illness, loss, challenges in life, and what we do with them. And the message that I think is one of hope and I think it’s, if I wanted to make a message it would be that.
KING: What — when you’re this successful, and you don’t need it for the money, why do you do it?
STEEL: You don’t have any choice. It sort of bubbles up in you. At one point I decided to retire. My kids were young and the tabloids had had sort of a field day and I felt too public. And I thought, OK, that’s it, I’m not doing this any more.
And I decided that what I would do is I would write and put everything in a vault and they could sell it when I died. Eventually a year-and-a-half later I went back to publishing.
But I don’t think you have a choice. You have a story inside and it has to come out of you kind of like a frog with a big bubble coming out of its mouth.
KING: Nine kids?
STEEL: Yes. That is the great joy of my life.
KING: Are you Catholic?
STEEL: Yes. But that’s not why I had them.
KING: You had them because you wanted them.
STEEL: I had them because I wanted them and they are the greatest gift of my life and the greatest joy and what matters most to me.
KING: Do you know where your characters are going?
STEEL: When I start a book? Yes. I spend about…
KING: You lay it out?
STEEL: I spend a week — a week. I spend a year on the outline. And honing it down and changing it and moving pieces around. And then I write the first draft and then I spend about two years editing.
KING: Danielle Steel, the extraordinarily successful, talented Danielle Steel. Her newest is “Amazing Grace”. Back with some more after this.
KING: Her newest is “Amazing Grace,” it’s about an earthquake in San Francisco. Our guest is Danielle Steel. She has already written the one following that, right?
You’ve got another book that’s coming already? Tragedy in your life, you lost a son to suicide.
STEEL: Yes, yes.
KING: Does that affect your writing?
STEEL: I think it affects you as a person. So inevitably it affects your writing. It makes you deeper. I think, unfortunately, there is always the risk that something hard will break you or that it will make you better. And I wanted it to make me more, not less. And I hope it shows in the writing.
KING: Did you write about it?
STEEL: Yes. I wrote a book about him called “His Bright Light.” And he was bipolar all of his life and put up a noble fight. And I wanted to share his life and honor him. And I also wanted to help people struggling with the same thing, both sufferers of the illness and those who love them.
KING: After the occurrence, did you stop writing for a while? STEEL: No. I started writing his — I wrote more, strangely enough. I started the book about him three weeks later. And wonderful things have happened from it. The proceeds go to a foundation that helps fund organizations for the mentally ill and a lot of youthful bipolar suffers and adults.
And families write to me, and I had a letter last week from a young woman who said that I’ve attempted suicide twice and I was planning my third attempt and I’m bipolar and I read the book and I’ve decided to go back on my meds and I won’t commit suicide for now.
And I was so grateful and he has helped so many people after his life, so his life has been a blessing for me and for many people.
KING: Have you ever started and then torn up a book?
STEEL: I’ve started outlines and not proceeded with them. But by the time I start a book, I’m pretty — I know where I’m going. The outlines are about 80 or 100 pages long.
KING: And when you finish, like “Amazing Grace,” are you totally satisfied?
STEEL: No. I’m never totally — well, for about five minutes I think oh, this is my best book. But then I do a lot of editing and then I think it’s my best book ever and then my editor will say, no, no, no, no, no, no. Now you go to work. And then I do two years of rewrites.
KING: Two years. How important is the editor?
STEEL: Super important. Super important. I always say that writing without an editor is like dressing in the dark because you write it the way you feel it and then you need somebody to say no, no, it droops over here and it is too fast over there and you need to pad this out.
KING: Choosing characters. In “Amazing Grace,” why a rock star?
STEEL: They choose me. I wanted to do a very young person who was being controlled by her mother, and to see her take possession of her own life. And the earthquake allows her to do it because it creates an interruption in a career that is being run by a stage mother.
I wanted an opportunity for rebirth for the recovering alcoholic journalist whose career had sort of gone to pot because of his alcoholism before. I loved the idea of writing about the nun and I loved the idea of the young, brilliantly successful couple where it turns out that the husband, who has committed this awful crime, which comes to light because of the earthquake.
KING: Do you write quickly?
STEEL: I do. I do. And then I rewrite very slowly.
KING: Do you use a computer?
STEEL: No. I use a 1946 typewriter.
KING: A Royal?
STEEL: No, an Olympia named Ollie (ph).
KING: It has got a name.
KING: Is it a manual or electric?
STEEL: Manual. Giant, big, fat manual.
KING: Now it’s slower isn’t it?
STEEL: Well, it has actually I think a very quick keyboard, but if I use an electric, I rest my hands.
KING: Where do you get ribbon?
STEEL: You still can get ribbon and you still can get people to repair them. And it behaves very well and hasn’t let me down very often.
KING: Why have you — you have resisted the computer, why?
STEEL: Yes. I’m not a mechanical person. I now use a computer to do e-mail with my children when they’re in college. But basically I — and it doesn’t, you know, e-mail when you do computers, they crash. They eat your book. Ollie doesn’t eat my book.
KING: Do you ever envision not writing?
STEEL: No. I hope not. I hope that I do this. People are always talking about stopping and retiring. And I always think why would you do that? I would hope that the stories will keep coming. And I hope I do it until I’m 99 the years old and fall into my typewriter.
KING: I hope so too.
STEEL: Thank you.
KING: As Milton Berle said, retire to what?
KING: Danielle, what an honor, thank you. STEEL: It’s a great honor for me. Thank you so much.
KING: Danielle Steel, one of the world’s most popular and prolific authors, written scores of best-sellers and her latest is “Amazing Grace”. Danielle Steel. Thank you so much.
STEEL: Thank you very, very much.