August 4, 2008
Author Writes to ‘Give People Hope”
By mark kennedy of The Associated Press
NEW YORK - It's only 9:33 a.m., but already Danielle Steel is having a lousy morning.
She's in a Rockefeller Plaza dressing room, having her hair tugged and her makeup tweaked. She's endured questioning from Matt Lauer on the "Today" show and soon faces a second round with Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb.
Crowding around are fashionably dressed publicists, agents with noisy cell phones, burly camera operators and various preening hangers-on. The plaza outside vibrates with throngs of screaming fans, aching to rub shoulders with the famous - anyone famous.
Steel hates it.
From her pained expression, it's clear she'd rather be anywhere but here.
"This is so not me," she said. "I hate having the spotlight on me. I hate being the focus of attention. I like being the invisible observer. So this is very painful."
Steel, who turns 61 in August, doesn't need fame: Her name is virtually synonymous with the romance novel. She doesn't need cash: Some 570 million of her books are in print. What she wants is a Garbo moment: To be left alone, to write more.
So why would she agree to an interview sandwiched between TV appearances? "Occasionally, I have to stick my nose out the door," she said. "Otherwise, people are going to think I'm 100 years old and dead."
What brings her to New York and the media glare is her 75th book, "Rogue," the tale of a sober-minded psychologist and her playboy ex- husband "whose kisses were as intoxicating as everything else about him." When one of the two considers remarriage, their lives take a turn.
The novel, which Publishers Weekly called "a familiar formula with fresh results," debuted at No. 4 on The New York Times list of best-sellers, No. 8 on USA Today's list and No. 6 on The Wall Street Journal's.
Steel's books are usually populated by smart, attractive heroines juggling work, love and family. About one in five are historical, set in, say, pre-World War II Europe or the Russian Revolution. Some tackle larger issues, such as homelessness, domestic violence, infertility and even cloning.
"I think the one recurring theme that I didn't used to be aware of is that I try to give people hope," she said. "I think that's so important. Love is wonderful, but hope is more important. Without hope you can't live."
Critics haven't always appreciated the effort, often recoiling from her shallower characters, brand-name dropping and the sugary aftertaste her books leave behind.
No matter - the woman is critic-proof, a Teflon one-woman publishing phenomenon. Steel is a leader of a genre that generated $1.37 billion in book sales in 2006, outselling every market category except religion/inspirational, according to the Romance Writers of America.
The latest book came out of her head the way most of the others did, with a mixture of happenstance, a keen eye for potential drama and a dose of mystery.
"They just happen. I can't tell you how they come. I hear about an issue that I like or something comes to mind - they always kind of drop out of the sky," she said. "I mean, I was in a closet some years ago putting stuff away and I heard a noise and I suddenly thought,'A book about a ghost!'So I wrote a book about a ghost and I had to construct this whole elaborate thing to get there."
That book, naturally, became "The Ghost."
She pounds out all her novels in a tiny office in her San Francisco home, where she lives half the year. (The other half is spent in Paris, where she refuses to work.) All the books are written on a 1946 Olympia manual typewriter and first drafts are usually done in a punishing 20-hour shift while "dressed in my nighty with my hair sticking up straight."
Nita Taublib, senior vice president and deputy publisher at Bantam Dell, says she didn't know what to expect before she started working with Steel nine years ago.
"From the second I met her, I just felt the warmth from her," said Taublib. "She really is charming and normal and probably the opposite of everything people would expect her to be. She's just a real human being."
The one thing Steel isn't warm about is questions - ironically - about her love life. She has been married and divorced five times, but visibly stiffens at queries about them.
Born in New York, she lived through her parents'divorce and was working in public relations when she was urged by the then-editor of Ladies'Home Journal to write a book, which became "Going Home."
"I tried it. I thought it was a fun idea. And it sold very quickly. And then I wrote five more that nobody ever bought. They're in my basement in a box," she said with a laugh.
Steel, who has seven children and is the stepmother to two more, lifted her cocoon of privacy in 1999 to write "His Bright Light," the chronicle of her son Nick Traina's battle with manic depression and suicide in 1997 at age 19.
The loss of her son and collapse of her fourth marriage soon led to a cause she champions: ending homelessness.
"I was praying,'Who can I help that's more miserable than I am?'And I got this thing in my head,'Help the homeless.'I was like,'You didn't understand. Let's try that again. A different message, please?'And it kept coming. So I thought,'OK, OK.'"
So she traveled the streets of San Francisco and was haunted by what she saw. Steel set up an outreach team called Yo! Angel! and goes out about once every month, incognito, handing out sleeping bags, food and toiletries.
"I can't stop," she said.
Even so, she won't leave her typewriter for too long.
"I'm driven from inside. A story will come to mind and it has to come out, like a frog with a bubble," she said. "I want to work forever. And try to get better forever."
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