In honor of Janet Evanovich's Sizzling Sixteen out this month, Mystery Scene is re-releasing this gem of an interview with the author of the beloved Stephanie Plum series. (Originally published in sold out Mystery Scene Issue #77.)
When Janet Evanovich sold her first book, the 1987 romance novel Hero at Large, to the now-defunct Second Chance at Love line for $2000, she quit her secretarial job and devoted herself full-time to writing.
Today, Evanovich is not merely one of the best-loved mystery writers in the country, but she’s an industry unto herself, with recent books in her Stephanie Plum series debuting at the top of the New York Times bestseller list, book signings drawing between 300 and 3,000 people, a twice-yearly newsletter with a free subscription base of 70,000 fans, a website (www.evanovich.com) that boasts three millions hits per month and a small line of self-produced T-shirts, key tags, and mugs. She’s even incorporated—Evanovich, Inc.—with husband Pete managing the business, son Peter handling the finances and daughter Alex running the website, all of them working full-time.
And 1987’s Hero At Large? Even with creases, a tear and a cocked spine, a copy of the slim paperback (published under the name Steffie Hall) lists for no less than $35 on the Internet—yet another testament to the public’s steadfast interest in all things Evanovich.
This season, Evanovich takes her writing and the business behind it to yet another level, upping her output to two books per year with the novella-sized seasonal title Visions of Sugar Plums. The holiday fable starts with everyone’s favorite bounty hunter Stephanie Plum visited by a tall, blond, athletic stranger named Diesel who possesses supernatural powers and may be anything from a space alien to the “friggin’ Spirit of Christmas;” the story continues with the two of them trying to track down Sandy Claws, a skip wanted on a burglary rap, and with Stephanie trying in vain to track down a Christmas tree; and the book ends with… well, with yet another success added to Evanovich’s enviable résumé.
Mystery Scene: Mary Higgins Clark has written several seasonal books and John Grisham published Skipping Christmas last year. What prompted you to add a holiday title to the Stephanie Plum series?
Evanovich: First of all, I wanted to do two books a year. My fans had been telling me “You don’t write fast enough” and I knew that I didn’t have time to do two full books a year, so I knew what I really wanted to do was 1 1/2 books. Because my books come out in June, the logical timing to do the second book would be November-December, so it just made sense that it would be a holiday book. Plus I had this idea for a new character that I wanted to bring into this series—Diesel.
About Diesel…The Stephanie Plum series occasionally has otherworldly elements—the character of Ranger is certainly out of the ordinary—but the new book steps more explicitly into the fantastic, the fabulous, perhaps even the world of the comic book with Diesel and with Sandy Claws and his elves and with a villain who siphons electricity to blast at the good guys. What sent your writing in this direction? And how do you think readers will react?
The Plum series has always been about heroes, but very special kinds of heroes. These are people like you and me, and just like you and me, sometimes things happen where you just have to put yourself on the line and do the right thing—do something that is maybe a little heroic. In Hard Eight, Stephanie’s sister—who is not a heroic character by any means—has to step in and save Stephanie and do something that she would never have thought that she had the nerve to do. So these are the heroes that interest me—ordinary people who are heroic in their own small ways. I wanted to do a book that had more of this heroic theme to it, but maybe about a guy who, if you met him on the street, looked like you and me but who actually had certain heroic attributes. I think that the reader is really going to like Diesel, because even though he kind of moves into the superhero, fantastic area, he still is somebody that you know. And he’s a sexy guy, a funny guy, and the book is filled with action—all of the same elements that the Plum novels are filled with. I think that the real measure of this is that my daughter started reading the book and said she was sort of put off that I had brought a mystical character into the world of Plum. But by the time she finished, she had bought into the character. And that’s what writing fiction is about: being able to suspend the reader’s disbelief in a way that works.
And if Diesel becomes a regular character, Stephanie’s soon going to have a lot more men to juggle in her life.
Yeah, [laughs] I like complicating Stephanie’s life.
You talk about heroes. Now, more than a year later, we’re all still clearly affected by the events of September 11, 2001. In Hard Eight, you have a character talking about anthrax, but that’s the only small reference to the terrorist attacks, despite Jersey being among the areas most affected by those events. Meanwhile, a fellow Jersey native, Bruce Springsteen, is dealing explicitly with 9/11 in his recent work.
To a large extent, my humor comes from social commentary. And everybody knows that New Jersey, besides competing with L.A. to be the smog capital of the world, is also famous for taking part in the anthrax business. So that was just one of the Jersey things that I threw in as part of the mix. But I made a very conscious decision not to reference 9/11 or terrorists or any of that tragedy because I feel like my job as a novelist is to address positive issues. Now that doesn’t mean I don’t want to make people think, but my mission in life is that when someone reads my book they feel better about themselves and about the world around them. Rather than dwell on the cathartic side of things and feel the need to purge yourself of all the atrocities and the sadnesses, I allow people to laugh, and I create characters that are positive and that people love, and while people read the book, they’re smiling. Maybe they’re nice to their dogs and their kids and their husbands and their wives while they’re reading the book, and maybe they like themselves a little bit better. So that’s my mission statement, and to bring something like 9/11 into it…that’s someone else’s job, it’s not my job.
In a Q&A section of your website, you advise first-time authors to “Write for the reader.” And you are very clear about the relationship you want to cultivate between yourself and your reader. You started out as a romance writer. How did those early experiences impact your approach to your readers, to your writing and to your career?
It was a very large influence. Starting in romance gave me a fantastic opportunity to find my voice as a writer. I was writing a lot of books very quickly, and it gave me the opportunity to decide what I liked and what I didn’t like. I realized that I like the positive characters. I loved writing with humor. I found out I did not like writing all the internal narrative that went in a romance—the business about the heroine thinking about her life and her love. And I didn’t like writing the very specific sex scene. What I liked was the adventure of the sexual tension—the chase, the hunt. About two-thirds of the way through that career, I realized that I probably was in the wrong genre, because I wanted more action. The crime element helped move my story forward, so I decided that I would move over into the crime genre, take with me the things that I loved to do and leave the others behind.
Your “Perpetrator Case File” from St. Martin’s Press says you’re wanted for “offenses against literary convention” and for “breaking every rule in the publishing industry.” What are those offenses? How is your career different from that of other writers?
I can’t imagine what they meant by that! (laughs) I think that’s probably stretching it a little, but I like it. Some of it may have to with things other than writing. I think of myself as a full-service entertainer. I try to be a good writer. I try to have good skills. I have causes that I love and I have things that I want to communicate to the reader. But my primary purpose is to entertain, and I’m not sure that that’s true of all writers. When I was in college, I was an art major—a painter—and what we learned was that you paint for yourself. And if someone comes to that painting and takes something away, that’s wonderful, but that’s not really your purpose; your purpose is to serve some higher calling within yourself. When I first started writing, I was writing these very esoteric, unique, quasi-literary sort-of things, and I wasn’t having any success with it, wasn’t even really enjoying it, and I realized after several years of not being published that that wasn’t who I was. My kick came from the audience, from communication, and that really changed the way that I wrote dramatically. I started looking at my audience and loving and respecting my audience and thinking what is it that they need from me that no one else can give them. I started looking for a product that the reader would really enjoy. And I think that that possibly sets me apart from some other writers and from publishing philosophy as well. Also, I spend an enormous amount of my own money on promotion and just on enjoying being a writer. On the web site we have a store where we sell mugs and t-shirts and we don’t make any money on it, it’s all non-profit, but we thought it would be fun. So I think that I do a lot of things like that that not everyone does.
You earn high praise for your writing, your plotting. But you’re clearly a savvy marketer as well. What role does marketing yourself play in your success?
Marketing is critical. And I think it’s very important that you become a business person as well as an author. As I said before, my kick is the audience, and the bigger the audience, the more fun it is for me. If what’s really important to you are the numbers and the readers, then you have to start paying attention to how you reach those people. You can’t just sit back and expect that your publisher is going to do the whole job today, because publishers have tons of authors that they’re trying to promote, and your number comes up once a year. The publicity departments are overworked and publishing has a certain budget for marketing and so I think that everybody has to be very smart about how they use all of these resources. It’s necessary to be just as creative about your advertising and your marketing and the way you sell yourself as you are creative about the book that you put out.
And that’s why you and your daughter host the monthly games on the website, provide the chance for people to ask you questions on email? Why you have your mailing address printed right inside the dustjacket of your books?
I didn’t want to be an author in an ivory tower. Maybe it’s the mother in me, but I think of my readers as an extended family, and it seems a shame to drop a book in their laps once a year and then go away. And so we decided that year-round we wanted to be accessible, we wanted to entertain, and so we play games and have contests. We try to think of fun things to do on book tour, because if somebody is going to be driving for four or five hours to come see me, we should have something interesting for them to see. For a couple of cities, we brought in a live band, and this year in New York, I dragged a friend of mine, Lance Storm the wrestler, onstage with me to take his shirt off and read Joe Morelli, and because you can’t have a WWE wrestler without a slut, my daughter volunteered to be the slut of the night. She came out in her little spandex skirt with her bleached blonde hair, and we all had fun. This is what happens when you get a certain amount of success as an author. You have opportunities that you never had before, more money available to you, a little more influence on things. And you get a sense that you’re standing in a bakery and you can eat anything you want. There’s just nothing that you can’t take a shot at, so do something different, have some fun. If it works, great; if it doesn’t, you don’t do it next year. But give something back to the fans and enjoy it for yourself too.
What’s your advice for an aspiring writer who doesn’t have the keys to the bakery? How should they approach their craft and approach the issues of marketing?
First of all, if this is important to you and you love it, you don’t give up. I wrote four books that never got published. It took me 10 years to get published from the time I got started seriously trying to write. If you’re not successful at first, you just need to stick with it. Do a lot of reading and start making lists. What do I love about these books? What do I hate about these books? What am I going to incorporate into my own book? Look at style, at how people build books—because that’s what pacing is about: a chunk of narrative, a chunk of action, a chunk of dialogue—and at how you vary all these elements so that the reader turns the pages. Become the very best craftsman that you can. Think about the reader and respect that reader and write a story for them.
And as far as learning the business part? Finding an agent, an editor, a publisher?
I think that organizations are very helpful. Romance Writers of America, whether you want to write a romance or not, is a very nurturing organization for establishing peers, for learning skills, for getting market information. Sisters in Crime is another great organization. And I think you need to read Publishers Weekly every week to see what’s going on. You want to look at the bestseller lists and see what people are reading and enjoying, and see if you can stay in front of the curve. A lot of writers would disagree with me on this because a lot of writers write the book that’s in their heart and that needs to be written, and I think that’s fantastic. But I’m a very commercial writer and I made part of my success just because of timing. I came in on top of the wave. Women were flooding onto the crime scene, and they offered readers something different: the female protagonist who was not part of a cozy. She was a hardboiled female protagonist, she was her own person, and readers really responded to that. I came on right at that time, right behind the crest of the wave—Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky—and I rode that in. And I think that’s important when you’re starting out to understand where the market is going and see if you can look to the future, see if you’re riding a wave—if a wave exists.
Riding the wave, watching the trends…. Perhaps you don’t want to write just for yourself, closing yourself off from your audience, but isn’t there a balance between that extreme and simply responding to what the market demands?
I think that there is a difference between writing for the reader and writing what the market demands. Writing what the market demands is like what they do on television: one cowboy show works so the next season you have 45 cowboy shows. That’s not exactly what I meant. What I meant is that you look at who your audience is and try to figure out what these people need and want from you. At night when they’re tired, they come home from work, they’re overworked, they’ve got the kids in bed and they only have 45 minutes, and what is it that they want from you? What is it that you, as a unique person, can bring to them? And it has to be part of you. The Plum series is me. I know Stephanie inside and out. I am not Stephanie, but this comes from my own childhood. These are people that I know, that I lived with. This is a place that I know—Trenton is a character for me. As a writer, you put an enormous amount of yourself and your experience and your background into this and you do write for yourself to a large extent. But you don’t ignore that person who’s going to be buying that book. You never want to write what the market demands. You just want to look and see what the reader would enjoy. I think that it’s easy to confuse the two.
I’m sure that a frequent question at your readings concerns which writers had an influence on you. As a twist on that, which writers have you had a positive influence on?
I don’t know a lot of writers that I’ve influenced, although I suspect that I have. I think there are probably writers who put a lot more humor into their books because I broke that ground, but I don’t know who they are. But I do know from my fan mail that I’ve influenced a lot of readers to be brave, and to be nice and to smile. I get letters from ladies who have gone through chemo and have taken my books in with them because they knew they would need something to make them laugh and make them feel good. And I get a lot of letters from seniors who say, “I’ve lost a partner” or “I’m a shut-in and your books made me smile.” And I get letters from people who say if Stephanie could get through the day, then even with all of my shortcomings, surely I could do that too. That’s the influence that I know about, and I think it’s real. I don’t try to delude myself that I could change the world or that I could even change one person. But I do think that I have influenced people in small ways… 10 minutes at a time.
And 10 minutes can really go a long way.
I’m happy with 10 minutes. I think that’s a good thing to do.
Illustrations of Ranger, Stephanie Plum, Joe Morelli, and Bob the dog courtesy of www.evanovich.com.