Books

Visiting author Catherine Coulter is a tale in itself

“My brain works quickly and I write quickly,” said best-selling author Catherine Coulter, shown here in her home office in Sausalito.
“My brain works quickly and I write quickly,” said best-selling author Catherine Coulter, shown here in her home office in Sausalito. apierleoni@sacbee.com

The visitor navigated the narrow, winding, one-lane road up into the steep hills overlooking Sausalito, peering through jungles of flowering foliage, hoping to find the right driveway.

The destination: The Pink Palace, the four-level, 6,000-square-foot home of best-selling novelist Catherine Coulter and her husband, Anton, a retired physician. They’ve shared the house for 16 years. It has an elevator, the compartment colored purple, a “conversation piece” left by the previous residents.

Finally, the visitor pulls into the compound to begin what will turn out to be a laughter-filled visit with a gracious host who has promised to serve the world’s best kringles (Danish pastries).

Before meeting her, and afterward, we learned:

▪ Coulter is the best-selling author of nearly 80 novels in multiple series and as stand-alones, in at least four genres – historical romance, contemporary romance, contemporary romantic thriller and suspense thriller.

▪ She holds a master’s degree in 19th-century European history from Boston College (“The Napoleonic era is my expertise”).

▪ Her mother was a concert pianist and organist, and Coulter herself is an accomplished player. Her father was a university professor and one of the inventors of the low-speed wind tunnel.

▪ Her Hungarian-born husband helps edit her “FBI Thriller” series. They’ve been married “eons.”

▪ Coulter is a world traveler and snow skier who exercises on a stationary bike at home every day and goes to a gym three days a week. She posts to her fans daily on Facebook. “I’m always preaching at them to stay fit – it’s one thing to do for yourself – but I try to be funny.”

▪ She is organized and “scheduled.” “Anybody who knows me knows exactly what I’m doing at any time. God, I’m so boring.”

▪ Personal philosophy: “I’ve come to believe that life is just one serendipity after another.” Also, a sign on her writing desk reminds her, “Attitude is everything.”

▪ You can meet her at catherinecoulter.com.

Inside the Pink Palace

Just as the visitor gets out of the car to approach the house, an energetic woman suddenly appears and leads him inside. Karen has been Coulter’s personal assistant for 25 years and is “my right and left brains,” the author said.

In the massive kitchen, the cook/flower arranger, Leslie, said she was prepared to warm the kringles, just let her know when. She’s worked for Coulter for 20 years. Two other employees, who are off-site today, have orbited in the Coulter universe for a combined 33 years.

Coulter herself walked into the living room, dressed in designer jeans and a blue batik-looking top, hazel eyes alert, looking much younger and moving more vibrantly than a woman of 73. Asked about the loyalty of her staff, she explained, “We do great birthday and Christmas parties.”

Coulter offered a tour of the house. The walls were covered in striking original art, and vases of flowers brightened every room. The views from the balcony were stupendous.

“This is my ‘Alice In Wonderland/Harry Potter’ room,” Coulter said, in her office. It was filled with an array of kaleidoscopic furniture and carpets that would be at home in a Tim Burton movie, from design company MacKenzie-Childs, a line sold through Neiman-Marcus.

A neatly arranged bookcase was filled with her novels, and framed book covers were displayed on the walls. Is that an illustration of Fabio Lanzoni on the cover of that one, holding a woman about to pass out from ecstasy? “Yes, but with his clothes on,” Coulter said.

Coulter’s daily writing regimen begins at 6:30 a.m. with the business of answering email and posting on Facebook (she maintains a newsletter, too), then breakfast (always toasted English muffin with peanut butter and sugar-free jam) while she writes until 10:30 a.m. “I am prolific,” she said. “My brain works quickly and I write quickly.”

Coulter’s first book was in a specific sub-genre of romance called “Regency.” She later rewrote and expanded “The Autumn Countess” (1978) to add “humor and mystery – can you imagine?” and retitled it “The Countess.” It was followed by a long run of historical romances “because I know history very well and I love to fit people into it. Eighty-five percent of readers are women. Like, duh!”

Coulter was working as a speechwriter for a Wall Street firm while publishing her first books. “I began making too much money writing to continue that, so I walked away (in the early 1980s).”

Later came the segue to more suspenseful tales, which led to her über-popular “FBI Thriller” series beginning with “The Cove” (1994). The newly published “Insidious” is the 20th title, the first with her new publisher, Simon & Schuster (Gallery, $27, 368 pages).

In 2000, the FBI invited Coulter to Washington, D.C., for a VIP meet-and-greet because “I’m very pro-FBI,” she said. An assistant director spent the day with her, introduced her to the behavioral sciences team and escorted her to the shooting range. She still calls the FBI information officer for guidance. “I’ll say, ‘Can I do this?’ And she’ll say, ‘No, you can’t.’ And we spend time on the phone figuring out how to make it happen.”

Coulter partnered with another New York Times best-selling female author, J.T. Ellison, to co-write the three-title “Brit in the FBI” series, starting with “The Final Cut” (2013). The manuscript for the fourth, “The Devil’s Triangle,” sat on Coulter’s writing desk, ready to be mailed.

From romance to risk

Coulter is now known as a thriller novelist, though she intersperses those books with “little novellas that are historic romances, so I get my fix.” Still, the switch from romance to thriller must have been tricky. Or not.

“In my experience, women who start out in romance blossom all over the place in other genres,” she said. “(Suspense thriller) is a very different genre than romance, but it’s such fun. Your brain has to flip a 180, because you’re concentrating on keeping the reader guessing and turning the page. Pacing is the key. Whereas in romance, you can take your time. ‘Let’s have a nice soft scene here.’ Who cares?”

Coulter doesn’t outline her stories, relying on expanding a “what if?” concept into a finished book. “I’ve never outlined because I don’t know what the books are about, which means a lot of rewriting. I just sit down and I’m sure things will come, and they do.”

Coulter is closely engaged with her huge fan base via social media. “They’re loyal,” she said. “Every book is not a 10, but most of the fans who correspond with me always give me the benefit of the doubt.”

The hour was getting late and Coulter had another appointment, so there was just enough time for her to sit at the dining room table with Karen and Leslie and the visitor and eat kringles, warm from the oven.

One last question: Given her transparency, is there anything her fans don’t know about her?

“I tell them everything, but maybe they wouldn’t know I was raised on a quarterhorse ranch in Texas and would ride bareback, standing up, with my mother screaming in the background. That happened so many times.”

P.S.: The kringles were delicious.

Allen Pierleoni: 916-321-1128, @apierleonisacbe

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