When the phone rang, Janet Evanovich and her husband, Peter, were relaxing with glasses of Sonoma County wine (“I’m a cabernet and pinot noir girl”) while waiting for their chef to cook dinner. They were at their home in Naples, an exclusive town on Florida’s Gulf Coast, where the beach sand is like fine sugar and the mosquitoes are as big as gulls.
“I’m not that fancy that I have a chef, but it turns out I can’t cook,” explained the mega-selling romantic-adventure novelist. “I never got the whole spice thing. Besides, I have a constant weight issue because I sit all day at a computer and I hate to exercise.”
Naples is light years away from hard-core New Jersey, where Evanovich lived most of her life and where her 20-title Stephanie Plum series is set.
“We got tired of the weather, so we settled here,” she said. “It has a Home Depot and a Costco – all those things a Jersey girl needs. There are no seasons, so I need only one wardrobe – sneakers, Pilates pants and a T-shirt, and I’m there.”
Evanovich’s newest title is “Takedown Twenty,” starring her longtime gal-pal, Stephanie. It’s the Bee Book Club’s choice for November (Bantam, $28, 320 pages; on sale today).
Evanovich, 70, introduced the plucky Newark, N.J.-based bounty hunter in “One for the Money” in 1994, and populated her heroine’s world with a cast of eccentric recurring characters.
Stephanie is undecided between two love interests – Joe Morelli, a cop and her on-again, off-again boyfriend; and security specialist Ranger, her mysterious protector and mentor.
Grandma Mazur is Stephanie’s maternal grandmother, an over-the-top senior who carries a Glock and once shot a cooked chicken at the family dinner table.
The plus-size Lula is a former hooker who works as a file clerk in the bail bonds office run by Stephanie’s cousin Vinnie, and is Stephanie’s occasional partner.
In “Takedown Twenty,” Stephanie is hunting for mobster Salvatore “Uncle Sunny” Sunucchi, who’s hiding out in Trenton, dodging a murder charge. Compounding matters is a startling discovery: Uncle Sunny is Joe Morelli’s godfather.
As if that weren’t enough, Ranger turns to Stephanie for help with an investigation into the suspicious death of a client’s mother, who just happened to be bingo buddies with Grandma Mazur at the senior center. Between working undercover at the center and dodging mob hit men, Stephanie has to find enough cool for the end-game takedown. Oh, one more thing on her to-do list: Figure out why a giraffe named Kevin is running loose in the hood.
Such wacky freneticism might actually happen in Trenton, but never in sleepy Naples, which is fine by Evanovich.
“It’s great here, aside from having a house with too many stairs,” she said. “I’m a voyeur, as all writers are. I walk around the mall and look at people and eavesdrop. I walk the dog and look in people’s windows. I love sitting in bars, they’re great places to talk with new people.
“Basically, though, I’m a little boring,” she said. “I sit at the computer screen. I don’t have any hobbies and I hate sports. My writing schedule is very heavy, but it’s what I like to do. I’m up at 5 and at my computer at 5:30 with a cup of coffee and my little dog, a 10-pound Havanese ankle-biter.
“Stephanie is a little boring, too, though,” she said. “But she can hang out with Lula and Grandma Mazur, the two people who can get away with anything. They can be totally politically incorrect, and Lula can wear spandex and show her hoo-hah, and it’s all perfectly OK.”
The laugh-aloud Stephanie Plum series is just plain fun and the characters are delightfully zany, which follows from Evanovich’s sharp sense of humor and appreciation for the absurd. But don’t be fooled: Though the author and her sometimes ditzy main character are soul sisters on the page, Evanovich is a decisive, determined and talented woman who parlayed an early career as a romance writer into a megamillion-dollar enterprise.
When Evanovich’s career took off with the publication of “One for the Money,” she drafted family members to help organize and run the show. Her husband left his job to come aboard, though these days he’s mostly on the tennis court and golf course. Her son, also named Peter, is now her agent and manages the finances. Daughter Alex oversees the marketing, advertising, merchandising, social media and more. All of them critique Evanovich’s manuscripts.
“What my family tries to do is remove everything from my desk but my writing,” Evanovich said. “I think of myself as an entertainer, and I believe I have a calling to make people happy and make them think they’re not alone, that the people who don’t do everything right manage to get by in the end because they don’t give up.”
Though Evanovich devotes most of her time to the Stephanie Plum books, she has other series and stand-alone books as well. The two-title paranormal “Wicked” series made best-seller lists, as do all of Evanovich’s books, but she hasn’t scheduled the next one.
“The problem is, I just can’t write any faster,” she said. “I would love to do another ‘Wicked’ book, but I just can’t get to it. I would love to do more graphic novels, too, but again there’s a time issue.”
Over the past decade Evanovich has partnered with other writers for four series, most recently with Hollywood TV writer Lee Goldberg for “The Heist.” The second entry, “The Chase,” is due next year.
“Lee does things well that I don’t do well,” she said. “He does the first draft and I do the final rewrite so that it stays more in my voice.”
Is the Plum series the most satisfying?
“Whatever book I’m writing at the time is the one I love,” she said. “But once it leaves my desk, it belongs to everyone else. I’ve found it helpful to get out of the world of Plum, because when I come back to it I always have better growth for my characters.”
Writing won out over art
Evanovich graduated with a degree in art from Douglass College, at New Jersey’s Rutgers University, but there were issues in the art world. For one thing, she was allergic to the turpentine associated with oil paints, a situation that could have come straight out of a Stephanie Plum novel. “I constantly had a rash over two-thirds of my body,” she said.
For another, she found herself more interested in her made-up stories about her paintings than in the paintings themselves.
“I had a thunderclap moment when I realized that storytelling was what I loved to do and it was more satisfying than art, so I decided to start writing,” she said. “(Also) it’s very difficult to make any money as an artist. You have to sell your wares on a street corner. It’s like being a hooker. Writing seemed like an easier thing. How hard could it be? I’d write a book, sell it to the movies, and get rich and famous. Twenty years later that actually happened.”
At first, she was writing “weird stuff for myself and nothing was coming of it. But I had read romance when I was a young mother staying at home and was familiar with the genre, so I decided to write that.”
That took some years to catch on. Finally, she burned the box of rejection slips she’d collected from publishers and went to work for a temporary-help agency. “I worked everywhere for an hour and a half,” she said. A few months into it, she got a call from a romance publisher who was impressed with one of her manuscripts. He offered her $2,000 for it. She took it. She was 44.
Evanovich went on to publish 12 romances in five years, with titles that included “Naughty Neighbor,” “Back to the Bedroom” and “Ivan Takes a Wife.” But romance writers toil within strict guidelines, and Evanovich has always walked her own way.
“I sort of got kicked out of romance,” she recalled. “I was the resident humorist and I’d get editors who couldn’t understand how romance could be funny. I was getting frustrated, so I started sneaking in little mysteries and adventure stories and they’d kept pulling them out. Finally, it was apparent I was in the wrong spot.”
Evanovich stepped back for a year “to figure out where I wanted to go. I thought I could take the things I did well as a romance author and put them into a mystery-adventure format.
“(Detective-fiction authors) Sarah Paretsky and Sue Grafton had women PIs, but they weren’t really girly-girls,” she said. “I’m sorry, but Stephanie Plum would never cut her hair with nail scissors, not gonna happen, honey. So that was where I started. As it turned out, my ‘soft-boiled’ female detective was something people hadn’t seen.”
But why make Stephanie a bounty hunter, of all things? It was serendipitous that Evanovich saw scenes from the movie “Midnight Run” on TV, was intrigued and rented the movie. In it, Robert De Niro is a bounty hunter who collars bail-skipper Charles Grodin.
“I thought the profession had cachet and a lot of freedom to it,” Evanovich said. “My bounty hunter could wear whatever shoes she wanted and wasn’t restricted by work hours or very many rules.
“So I called some bail bondsmen and they put me in touch with some guys they hire to make apprehensions. I hung out with them. I carried pepper spray in my purse to feel what that was like. I tried shooting guns and realized I was totally inept at it. I made all that part of Stephanie. She was an easy character for me because I took this weird job and placed myself in it, and that’s who she became. A lot of her experiences were really mine.”
The Stephanie Plum series is incredibly popular, and Evanovich’s fans are legion. Her e-newsletter reaches 1 million people, and her website gets around 8 million hits a month. Fans fly from out of state to attend her appearances, which regularly draw 2,000 people. Her 46 novels have sold more than 75 million copies worldwide.
In a publishing world crowded with crime-busting heroines, some with more serious miens than others, why does Stephanie rule?
“She’s approachable and someone people can relate to,” Evanovich said. “She’s an average person doing a bizarre job – not always doing it well, but she hangs in there. I look at what’s available to us on television and at the movies and in the news. There is so much negative stuff, and people are not kind. There’s a hunger to find the character that is.”
When Evanovich finished “One for the Money,” her agent sold the film rights to Tristar (now Columbia) for $1 million “before it was even a book in bookstores,” she said. The movie finally came out last year, starring Katherine Heigl as Stephanie Plum.
What else is on the horizon? “Sony is thinking about taking Steph to television,” Evanovich said. “I’m not terribly involved in it, but I’d love to see it. As they say on the West Coast, we take meetings.”
On a more personal note, is Evanovich still famously addicted to Cheetos?
“No, my body rejected Cheetos a couple of years ago,” she said. “I was turning permanently yellow. My computers were all gummed up with them, so that when I’d finish a book I’d have to get a new keyboard.”
Given her fans’ scrutiny of everything Evanovich, is there anything still unknown about her?
“Probably, but I’m not going to tell you,” she said. “If I did, everyone would know.”
Call The Bee’s Allen Pierleoni, (916) 321-1128. Follow him on Twitter @apierleonisacbe.