More than 30 years and many millions of sales later, the story of her first book deal still makes Janet Evanovich cry.
“I collected rejections for 10 years,” recalls Evanovich, best known for her Stephanie Plum crime novels. “At the end they were in a big cardboard packing crate. It was full of rejections. I had a rejection that was on a bar napkin, written in lipstick.”
With her children nearing college age, and her husband’s salary as a college professor not enough to support them, she found a job as a secretary, burned all the rejection notices and resigned herself to a traditional working life. Then came the tearful plot twist.
“My daughter was taking ice skating lessons and I was standing there after school, watching. And my husband and my son came and they put their arms around me and they said, ‘Your editor just called.’ And my life changed,” she says. “I was in my 40s and thought my dream was done, and it wasn’t.”
The 76-year-old author was in Manhattan recently to promote her 26th Stephanie Plum novel, “Twisted Twenty-Six” (G.P. Putnam's Son, $28), which features New Jersey’s most famous bounty hunter. The story heightens the role of Plum’s beloved Grandma Mazur, who has the bad fortune to marry a gangster.
“Twisted Twenty-Six,” which came out last month, debuted at No. 1 on The New York Times’ hardcover fiction bestseller list, practically a second home for Evanovich. The Naples, Florida, resident has more than 20 No. 1 bestsellers overall and worldwide sales topping 75 million copies.
Evanovich started out as a romance writer and received $2,000 for the book that was unexpectedly accepted back in the 1980s, “Hero at Large.”
Speaking in the restaurant of an upscale mid-Manhattan hotel, the kind of fancy place that would make Plum long for the plainer confines of Trenton, New Jersey, the auburn-haired Evanovich has a cheerful, witty style that readers know well from her books. “The funny stuff is easy for me,” she explains. “The serious is hard.”
In her early years as a writer, she worked on books whenever parenthood permitted. Now, she has a steady, uninterrupted routine: She wakes around 5 a.m., makes coffee and, joined by her dog, a Havanese named Ollie, steps into her home office and “enters that little world,” building upon a set of notes she wrote the night before.
Her books are a family project, Evanovich Inc., with son Peter and daughter Alexandra pitching in on everything from marketing to web design. Her extended family of readers stays in close touch, through emails and traditional mail, and at the readings she gives around the country.
Evanovich's books have also kept up with societal changes, most notably, the #MeToo movement. "When I started the [Plum] series there was no #MeToo," she says, "and men played a very different role in women’s fantasies. … Things have gotten a little confusing now. I think I’m much more sensitive about that. I think I’ve stepped back from the macho guy, [although] not entirely. Because there was some reality to that with the whole Weinstein thing. There are some lecherous guys out there; you don’t want to make them into heroes. So I’m more aware of walking the line now."
One approach she took early on to keep her novels fresh was taking to the stage. It wasn't about becoming a star, but about developing a better ear for dialogue.
"I started doing improv theater because I knew one of my weakest points was this wooden dialogue," she says. "And when you do that, you’re on stage and you’re walking around and you’re creating this character for your audience — by gestures, mannerisms, the way they smile, the way they walk, the way they dress, the nervous things that they do, voice inflection. All of these things. This is what actors do and this is what we do as writers … I still do this. I’m still onstage with Stephanie, walking around and talking. And I think dialogue now is one of my strong points."
Perhaps more rewarding than performing for an audience is the chance to meet her readers. "There was a woman last night," she says. "She was maybe in her early 20s. And she got up to me and I could just see her eyes welling up. She said, ‘My mom and I were going to come to this to see you because we’ve been reading your books together for 15 years, and she just passed. But I had to come.’ I don’t even have any words."