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, which features New Jersey's most famous bounty hunter. The story heightens the role of Stephanie's beloved Grandma Mazur, who has the bad fortune to marry a gangster.
Twisted Twenty-Six 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.
"It seems that Janet was ahead of her time with Stephanie, who is a foul-mouthed hilarious figure who doesn't take, ah, stuff from anyone," says Otto Penzler, an editor and publisher of crime fiction and owner of the Mysterious Bookshop, in New York City. "And because most people with a brain like a woman who is no one's whipping post or toy doll, she appeals to men as much as she does to women."
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, 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 in the morning, makes herself 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.
Here are other highlights from her interview.
When I started the (Plum) series there was no #MeToo, and men played a very different role in women's fantasies. Actually, I think they still play the same role in women's fantasies - aggressive. You want to know that that man is attracted to you. You want to know that he wants to put his arm around you, that he wants to kiss you, he wants to go further than that. That was how you felt attractive.
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.
On how stage acting years ago made her a better writer:
I started doing improv theatre because I knew one of my weakest points was this wooden dialogue. 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.
The first time she met one of her readers:
When my first romance novel Hero at Large came out, I was so excited. I was living in Northern Virginia, so I went to my Walden store and I stood there. They would bring out seven new books every month, and I stood there, waiting for someone to buy my book. And the first day there was no one who bought the book, so I came back the next day.
And it took three days and someone finally came and bought my book. ... I tapped her on the shoulder and I said, "I wrote that book, would you like me to sign it?" So they called security, and I had to show them my driver's license before they let me sign the book.
What it's like meeting her readers now:
There was a woman last night. 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.