"Oh, I had a little work done," confesses Janet Evanovich.
"You know, gravity is not kind… I had no relationship with the person in the mirror. I didn't know who she was. I had a total face lift, and it was fabulous," she exclaims, as though describing a great vacation. "They take your skin and they staple it to the back of your head. It's great!"
The 66-year-old author of the best-selling Stephanie Plum adventure romances - the latest, Finger Lickin' Fifteen , hit bookshelves last week - is as accessible as her work. Just as her writing barrels along from one scene to the next using straightforward language, so does Ms. Evanovich.
One minute she's on the subject of her refreshed face, the next she's discussing how she hired a personal chef, whose food has helped her drop 10 pounds since January, and after that, she's explaining the brand of the Evanovich Inc. enterprise, which she runs with the help of her two adult children, her son-in-law, and her husband of 45 years.
(In addition to family members, she employs a staff of 10.)
"I made a choice that I was not going to be a pretentious writer," she responds without hesitation when asked how she deals with the perception that she is a mass-market, low-brow novelist. "I work real hard so the reader doesn't have to. I don't want them to have to look up words. And there are no flashbacks. This is a linear novel."
Stephanie Plum was born out of Ms. Evanovich's frustration as a romance writer and her worries as a cash-strapped mother of two. A graduate of art school, she wrote romance novels for Bantam Loveswept, among others, under the pen name Steffie Hall for five years, starting in 1987. She was paid $2,000 for the first one - a huge sum, she thought - and by the time she had written her 12th, which was to be her last, she was earning $7,000 a book. "Some years I wrote four books. It depended on how bad I needed money," she says, explaining that when her children were small, she would often stand in line at the supermarket "sweating and adding everything up on the bill, and half the time I had to take an item off."
Despite her success, she was dissatisfied creatively. "I was sort of kicked out," she says. "It was getting more and more difficult.… I wanted to go into romantic adventure, which is what I am doing now, but I couldn't sell it."
She studied mystery writers, from Sue Grafton to Tom Clancy, and figured out a hole in the market she could fill. "I wanted to take what I liked from the romantic genre - the sexual tension and positive characters and the humour - and move that into the mystery structure. … Sue [Grafton]and others brought the female detective to the front of the stage but they were still pretty hard-boiled, and my lady was soft-boiled. She is a girly girl. She is a Jersey girl." Stephanie is actually a composite, Ms. Evanovich says, of herself (she grew up in New Jersey, the daughter of a factory worker and a housewife) and people she knows.
"I became very deliberate. What I realized halfway through writing romance is that you start out intuitive, and you make all these choices mostly based on yourself and what you like and what talent you have, and … if you want to have any quality control over your product, you have to stop being intuitive and start being more of an analyst."
She describes the attributes of her brand with bullet-point clarity. Write in the first person because it's fast and more immediate. "A lot of narrative gets tedious." Be funny. Make it a "positive read." Don't make readers cry. Don't try to solve world problems. "[Steven]Spielberg presents us with the dark side. [But]that's not my job. That's Spielberg's job. I am on the other side. My job is to remind the world that there are small heroes all over the place."
The first book in the Stephanie Plum series, One for the Money , hit the jackpot in 1997. She was paid her usual $7,000 as an advance, but soon got a call from Hollywood with an offer of $1-million for the film rights. (A movie version has yet to be made.) "We were living in this little brick house in northern Virginia. We had no money. We had two kids who had gone through two very expensive post-secondary schools. It had been a hard winter. The shingles from my roof were on the front yard, and we had no hope of getting a new roof."
The family leapt on the opportunity to build a business. Her husband, a mathematician who was working for the U.S. Navy at the time, quit his job to help his wife, who set about her novel-writing, pressing out words like widgets. She rose at 5 in the morning to work seven days a week until 6 at night. (She still keeps the same hours. "I actually put in two whole days every day," she says. They moved to New Hampshire, where life was less hectic, paid off their children's student loans, and gave them the opportunity to work on their mother's brand. Their daughter, a graduate of Brooks Institute, an arts school in California, works on the website. Their son, who attended Dartmouth College, came on board as financial officer and later became her agent.
Three years ago, the entire family moved to Naples, Fla., where they all live within five minutes of each other.
As the chief word-maker, Ms. Evanovich is acutely aware of her responsibility. When she swapped roles with her husband, she suddenly became aware of "the pressure that he had to provide." She also had an identity crisis. "I knew who I was as a housewife, and I had no idea who I was as a professional."
But she adapted quickly. While her husband has taken up golf and tennis in the last few years, she has no intention to retire. Not even to play golf with her husband?
"My world is better," she says, snapping the words like gum. "Why would I want to waste my time playing golf? I can get up in the morning and be in this whole other world. I love my life."
And that includes the money.
Early on in her million-dollar success, she had a revelation that removed any doubt about her motives. With a $200,000 multi-book contract and the film money socked away, she consulted a psychiatrist about how to reconcile her private, shy self with the public figure her fame required. "Well, you know, is it worth the money?" asked the shrink. "And I was, like, 'Lady, you have no idea,'" Ms. Evanovich recalls. "I then knew that yes, it is worth the money."
She leans forward with her youthful, clear face, bright red hair and blindingly white, veneered teeth.
"I have been with money and without, and it's better with."