Janet Evanovich has a cold today. She apologizes for her raspy voice and then apologizes again profusely for taking so long to get to the phone. It's her 42nd wedding anniversary, and her husband has just returned from a trip to Austria and presented her with an extravagant gift. But still, she's working.
Truth be told, Evanovich is the sort of author who never really stops working. If she's not plotting out the next in her Stephanie Plum series (currently working on No. 13), she's busy on her Metro series, or co-authoring a book with a romance writer friend, or doing radio interviews, or answering fans' questions on her website. The empire she's created—since her humble beginnings as a Harlequin pulp romance writer—is staggering. It's a prolific and profitable industry all built around the Evanovich name.
YOUR HEROINE STEPHANIE PLUM HAS HAD QUITE A LONG PUBLISHING RUN. YOU JUST PUBLISHED BOOK NO. 12. WAS PLUM CONCEIVED AS A SERIES FROM THE START?
Yes. I was doing three or four romance novels a year to put my kids through college. And I just got tired of jumping from one set of characters to the next; I really wanted to find some people I could stay with. So I thought it would be fun to do a series and let the characters evolve. With a series, you have time; you can keep a little mystery; you can feed it out a little at a time to your readers. The series is fun. It's a totally different animal than doing one book, because you don't feel like you really need to give so much to your reader in that one book.
HOW DO YOU REINTRODUCE YOUR CHARACTERS WITH EACH NEW BOOK IN THE PLUM SERIES? DO YOU ASSUME YOUR READER ALREADY KNOWS THESE CHARACTERS?
It's hard, because 60 percent of my readers are brand-new. And the other 40 percent are return readers, and you don't want to bore them. I spend a lot of time on that part of the book, trying to find a new way to say things. Sometimes you're more successful than others. But I actually spend a lot of time trying to reintroduce the characters so it's a part of the entertainment package.
YOU STARTED OUT WRITING ROMANCES, BUT NOW, YOUR BOOKS GET CLASSIFIED AS "MYSTERY." IS THAT HOW YOU'D DEFINE THEM?
You know, they're not romance, and they're not literary fiction, so by default they're mystery. But there are a lot of things in these books that aren't typical of a mystery. It's very character-driven, and when I started the series, a lot of mysteries were plot-driven. So I'm kind of being honest about what the book will be. You want the reader to feel comfortable with whatever that package is. I like to start the book with a paragraph or two about my heroine that's not directed at the mystery. What it says to the reader is, this isn't strictly a mystery; it's going to have some humor and humanity; and it's going to be about Stephanie Plum. That's something I do deliberately, because I was a romance writer, and I had a lot of readers. I want my romance readers and the people in the mystery section to know what they're getting. It's a hybrid.
WERE OTHER AUTHORS DOING THESE KINDS OF CROSSOVER ROMANCE/MYSTERIES AT THE TIME?
No. There were people writing with humor but [it wasn't a] broad humor. My humor is like "I Love Lucy." So I think I brought more humor in and created the romance hybrid. I hate to take credit for chick lit—and I don't think I can—but I contributed to it. And I don't think what I write is chick lit, but I think that the people who came after me and created chick lit were looking at Stephanie Plum. I brought a very character-driven female into the mystery genre, and while Sue Grafton had been doing that for years, her characters were hard-boiled. What I introduced was soft-boiled.
WHAT'S THE DISTINCTION?
When Sara Paretsky and Grafton came in, they just knocked the socks off everybody—here was the female protagonist that was just like Sam Spade. These characters were doing a good job; they were tough, but they were women, in charge of their destiny. But they really were hard-boiled detectives in the Mickey Spillane mode. Maybe not as violent, but in terms of being good at what they did and not caring about "female" things. But Stephanie Plum isn't at all hard-boiled. She's not real good at what she does. She knows nothing about guns or self-defense and acts on instinct. She's a Jersey girl. If she finds herself in a bad situation, she puts on more mascara.
WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO CREATE THE BARNABY SERIES?
I had all these other ideas as a creative person. And I had a very specific idea in mind. I wanted to do what really was the opposite of the Plum series. In the Plum series, Joe and Ranger are classic bad-boy heroes. They're great at what they do; they're serious. Stephanie Plum is like a romance heroine in that she's innovative, and she's got a lot of spirit. But she's still held by the constrictions of the society around her. She has to make dinner at 6 p.m., and she cares about what the community thinks of her. Stephanie Plum has flaws. I'm the world's most average person, and Stephanie's like that. She puts one foot in front of the other every day. She wants to make her rent payment. She never really has any drive or goals.
I wanted to reverse that in the Metro series. Alexandra Barnaby was born with this mechanical ability. She worked at her father's garage since she was a kid. But she turned her back on it because she wanted to do something different with her life. And the guy in the Metro series is a more accessible hero than the guys in the Plum series will ever be. I find writing another series very refreshing.
YOU SAY IN YOUR BOOK HOW I WRITETHAT YOU ONCE HAD A PSEUDONYM, AND YOU LIKED IT. WHY?
Yeah, when I started writing for Harlequin, they required it. At the time it was a convention. I think there are advantages to using a pseudonym. If I had it to do over again, I'd just write as Janet. Evanovich is way too long a name on a book cover. And there are privacy issues. I'm recognized now. I can't be snotty to anybody. I could be a real bitch if I just had a pseudonym. [Laughs]
SO, WHY DO YOU USE YOUR REAL NAME?
Your name is important as a writer. Go into a bookstore, and there's a barrage of books. How do you choose? You choose it the same way you choose a cereal—by brand name. It's getting consumers to recognize your name. So you really don't want to use a pseudonym if you're interested in growing your audience.
AND YOU ALSO LEND YOUR NAME TO CO-WRITTEN BOOKS. WHY?
The reality is, it's hard moving up the ranks of publishing. It used to be we had a midlist, but publishing conglomerates now have front-list mentality. There are lots of good writers out there who can't get attention. One of the ways they can get there now is to throw in with a front-list author and get your name out there. So I co-write books that are essentially an Evanovich brand. The reader knows what they're going to get.
YOU'VE SAID THAT YOUR AUDIENCE, FOR THE PLUM BOOKS IN PARTICULAR, IS 40 PERCENT MALE. WHAT DO YOU THINK ACCOUNTS FOR YOUR RELATIVELY HIGH MALE READERSHIP?
Their wives are reading it, maybe laughing about it. Now, I think the men like my male heroes: They identify with Ranger and Morelli because they're macho men. I also think the kind of sex I write isn't romantic sex, and men feel comfortable with that. I don't go into the internal narrative like in a romance. It's physical and funny.
WHO WERE SOME OF THE WRITERS YOU EMULATED EARLY IN YOUR CAREER?
Robert B. Parker for his linear, clean style. He has a strong moral code for his hero, and it's easy reading. He's a fabulous wordsmith; it's perfect prose. I think of his writing and my own as making a reduction sauce. I don't have pages of description. I spend days trying to say in two sentences what I could say in two paragraphs. And Carl Barks, who wrote the Uncle Scrooge stories. That's what I read as a kid—adventure stories.
YOU USE STORYBOARDING INSTEAD OF OUTLINING. CAN YOU EXPLAIN THIS PROCESS?
Storyboarding is a little more visual. When I' m plotting out a book, I use a storyboard—I'll have maybe three lines across on the storyboard and just start working through the plot line. I always know where relationships will go, and how the book is going to end. When I storyboard, they're just fragments of thoughts. I write in three acts like a movie, so I have my plot points up on the preliminary storyboard. Another board I keep is an action timeline. It's a way of quickly referring to what happened a couple of scenes ago. The boards cover my office walls. (See "Off the Wall" at right.)
IT'S MORE SCENE-ORIENTED THEN THAN AN OUTLINE MIGHT BE, THEN?
Exactly. Because I know the relationships, and I already know my characters and how I'm going to reveal my characters to my readers—how I'm going to feed them information about that character. That stuff doesn't have to be in my outline. What I have to outline is action and plot because I'm not particularly good at that.
CRITICS HAVE CALLED YOUR BOOKS FORMULAIC. HOW WOULD YOU RESPOND TO THAT CRITICISM?
I think it's semantics. I work very hard to make sure my books meet my readers' expectations. I think those critics are putting a negative spin on something that's an important element of my career. I don't think my readers want me to surprise them. I think they want each book to be refreshing and different; they want the security of knowing that I'm going to make them happy; they want to know more about those characters. It's the critic's job to look for the innovative, shocking things. But not everyone wants her reading experience to be that. Sometimes we need the familiar. We want it to be entertaining and learn something new. But basically we want to visit with an old friend, and I try to provide that experience.
IF YOU HAD TO SUM UP YOUR WRITING CAREER, HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE IT?
I work all the time. It's taken me years and years. I've scratched and clawed my way up, and I still don't feel com-fortable; every day I wake up and worry about disappointing my readers. Before a book hits the stands, I wake up in the morning in a cold sweat, anxious that it's not going to meet expectations and that people are going to be disappointed.
I do love the process, though. It's why I get up in the morning. I wake up and get my coffee and my cat, go into my office and go back into my world. I'm not sure what drives me to succeed. It's not necessarily about the money. It's somehow about growing that audience. If I were really well adjusted, I wouldn't need this, but because I'm so maladjusted it's not enough for just my family to love me—I need everybody to love me. I think it's true of every comedian.
IS THAT YOUR RAPPORT WHEN YOU'RE OUT IN THE PUBLIC—THE COMEDIENNE?
Yeah, I think people expect me to be entertaining. And it's a struggle. I'm not that funny. I'm funny when I write because I have days to think of it. I'm the person who always—10 minutes later—thinks of the perfect thing to say. But when I'm on the road, people want me to be entertaining, so I have this little schtick I do. Being a Jersey girl, I have that irreverence. I have absolutely no sense of privacy. Anything could roll out of my mouth. I embarrass everyone around me constantly.
IS THAT DRAINING, HAVING TO PUT ON A SHOW? OR IS IT SOMETHING YOU ENJOY?
It's a mixture. I love going out and seeing who's reading the books. The hard part is the travel. I have to say that when a signing goes beyond six hours, well, it's hard to smile that long. I come home from a signing, and I can't stop—it's like my mouth is frozen. Sometimes we get a lot of people, and the people at the end of the line waited all this time. It's not like you can just stop.
YOU'VE DONE A GREAT JOB OF KEEPING YOURSELF AND YOUR BOOKS IN THE PUBLIC EYE. WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO A WRITER WHO'S TRYING TO GET NOTICED?
A really good website is very important. But it has to be vital and entertaining. If you put up a static site, people will come only once. And a newsletter list is very important. Collect names and addresses of people who like your work. Aside from that, only your publisher can make you a star. You have to have a lot of books in the stores, a great cover and promotion so people want to buy them. Attitude goes a long way. You have to love and respect your readers. If you respect your readers and treat them like intelligent people, then everyone is going to make money and be happy. As soon as you're thinking you're doing that reader a favor, it doesn't work. I see this all the time. Struggling bookstores don't understand that one basic concept: You suck up to the reader. Books sell by word of mouth. Some booksellers hand-sell, but basically it's the consumer. We just haven't been able to move beyond that. The percentage of authors who can get radio and TV coverage is very small. Never pass up any opportunity.
When my new books come out, every Thursday, I'm doing radio all day. Satellite radio tours are wonderful. If I were putting my money into anything, it would be satellite radio tours. You get an opportunity to really talk for a few minutes. I don't turn anyone down. If it's a college radio station, I talk to them. I'm happy for any media.