As some of you know, from reading my Blogs on a variety of subjects, I’ve reacted with amazement, shock, and outrage when people have asked me in my fan mail, who writes my books. WHO writes my BOOKS??? Are you kidding? Who do you think writes my books, as I hover over my typewriter for weeks at a time, working on a first draft, with unbrushed hair, in an ancient nightgown, with every inch of my body aching after typing 20 or 22 hours a day at a stretch. That’s who writes my books: Me. and in recent years, I’ve discovered from my agent and publisher that it has become common practice for some very well-known successful authors to write the outline for a book, and hand it over to a team of writers to write the book. Holy Sh–!!! How do they do that?? Both the author and the elves. I have a fit when a copy editor fiddles with a word, or moves a comma. I WRITE EVERY WORD of the books myself. And believe me, by the end of the book, I look it, and am pretty beaten up and look like I’ve been through the wars, it’s hard work!!!. But bleeding fingers (for real!), aching hands (I popped a vein in my hand on my last book, which has happened before),screaming muscles, and aching back, I still wouldn’t trade that for anything, and would never just hand off an outline for someone else to write. It wouldn’t be my voice, or my book, if I did. And I simply cannot imagine having someone else write it. For me, the story and the process is like a movie I hear in my head, a vision that I see, like a movie I’m watching as I write, as the ideas and concept flow (from an outline I work on for a year before I write the first draft), and I write what I hear in my head. Whose book would it be if they were writing what they hear in their head? I can’t imagine it. So I definitely write the books myself. 126 books so far. (My acupuncturist wants me to get to 200. I’m trying!!)
But as I sent off a bunch of emails today, to the people most important to me, and my writing life, I realized that I do in fact have a ‘team’. They don’t write the books, but they make it possible for me to do it, and each one is incredibly important to me. Many of them have been in my life for a long time. All are wonderful people, and I thought it might be fun to introduce them to you here, and tell you what they do. I wrote my first book at 19, and have been hard at work at it ever since, and several of these people have made my writing life both possible and easier over the years.
My kids of course, to whom I dedicate the books. Only three of them actually read the books, the others are just happy that I do it. I’ve never talked about my work a lot with them. When they were kids, I never did. I am just their Mom, and I never made an issue of my career when they were younger. They say they didn’t even know I was famous til they went to college, which is exactly the way I wanted it. I talk about my work more with them than I used to, when they were younger, and I think it’s important that they know I love what I do (which is a huge blessing). When they were kids, I wrote when they were asleep, or in school, so I would have free time with them and for them when they were at home. And now that they’re grown up, I write all the time!!! I used to dedicate my books to my husband too, but since I’m not married or in partnership now, I just dedicate the books to the kids. Each book I write is a kind of gift to them, from my heart. And to YOU, my beloved and greatly appreciated readers!!! Without you, there would be no one to read the books!!! So you are a VERY important part of the process and team too.
The man at the top of the pyramid is my agent. His name is Mort Janklow. He is extremely famous and a remarkable person. Without him, I probably wouldn’t have the career I do today. I had another agent previously. Actually one who fired me when I wrote my first book (and no longer admits it), and another agent I had for my early books, in the beginning, before I became well known. Mort represents a long list of extremely famous authors. He’s an attorney, a brilliant businessman, an extraordinary agent, a wonderful person, and beloved friend. He has been my agent for almost 32 years. He has made all the important events in my career happen, and has supported me through every book. He defends me like a lion, calms me down when I get angry, rights injustices, forces me to be reasonable (ugh, but I love him anyway). He is the voice of reason, wisdom, and compassion in my life. I don’t think I would have become famous without him. He has incredibly advanced, brave, and creative ideas about the business end of publishing, and I even discuss the subjects of the books with him, and he gives me excellent comments and advice, on every aspect of my writing life. And when I think of Mort and the many experiences we have shared, what instantly comes to mind is his greatest act of friendship. When my son Nick died at 19, someone in my office called him immediately to tell him. I was in such a state of shock that I don’t remember talking to him myself. I got the news at nine in the morning, noon in New York where Mort lives and works. And by late that afternoon, my doorbell rang, and there was Mort. He must have gone straight from his office, had someone pack him a bag (his wonderful wife), and caught the next plane to San Francisco. He said he was there to do anything he could to help, and that’s what he did. He was there to help with my 8 kids, who were also in a state of shock, keep us company, shepherd the kids, talk to friends, answer phones, and even deal with my mother. It was an act of love and friendship I will never, ever forget, and he is very dear to my heart, and super, super, super important to my books. The sale of any book starts with him, and even the earliest conception of the book.
The other most important person in my writing life is my editor, Carole Baron. Editing is a separate skill from writing, and it is a gift. Very few people still edit today, it’s often done by amateurs, or people who think they know what they’re doing, and they don’t. (I could not edit a book, but I can write one). Writing without a good editor is like dressing in the dark—–you come out looking a mess, and so does the book. Carole has been editing my books for almost 32 years. She is a genius. Our work together is like a dance, sometimes like tennis or ping pong, and sometimes like ballet, with incredible harmony of thought. Or she makes a suggestion I don’t like but it inspires me to think of something else, and I bat it back to her, and we go back and forth, for hours at times. When I get an idea for a book, I call Carole, sometimes before the idea is even formed. “I have an idea for a book” I announce victoriously on the phone. And Carole is all ears and wants to know what it’s about. “It’s about a woman!”, and then I pause, and that’s all I’ve got….while Carole waits…..”uh….well…actually….I don’t have the rest of it worked out yet….” Great. “Call me back,” Carole says, and I do, many times, as I work out the story in my head, and we discuss it, as I fill in the holes, and then I write an outline, and she criticizes it, or makes suggestions, which I do or don’t like. And then finally, many months or even a year later (after thinking about it a lot), I write the first draft. And that’s where her skill comes in, and I have to brace myself and try to be brave about it. She sends me encouraging comments about what she does like, and then she sends the manuscript back to me, with comments on every page, whole sections torn apart or rejected, things she wants changed (it’s up to me how I change them, but she is like the teacher giving me the grade, and I rarely get above a C+ on the first round, and sometimes even a D-, and it’s up to me how I get my grade up.) I must say Shit a thousand times while I read her comments, and along with the notes on the manuscript (which is a mess by now, thanks to both of us), I get about a 50 page letter of corrections, AND an ‘editing letter’, with everything that’s wrong with the book. If you think I just whip the stories out and the publisher prints them, think again!!! And when you first read those comments, you want to go to bed and forget it, or give up writing, or maybe burn the book. But then I start thinking about what she said, and I realize she’s right, that Chapter 3 moves too slowly, or chapter 7 is too fast, or a whole section of the book sounds flat, or we really don’t know who the hero is yet and we need to know more. She makes me think and sweat and struggle and go back to the book again, tear it all apart and make it better. You have to be willing to forget your ego, take harsh criticism, and have an open mind that maybe what you wrote is not perfect and you can do it better. She makes me WANT to make the books better. And the re-writes I do are MUCH harder than writing the original book. And sometimes I have to do that to a book 4 or 5 times (wanting to rip my hair out every time!!). But every single time I do it, I feel like I climbed Everest when it’s over, and I realize she was right, and the book is so much better after I re-write it, again and again and again, to get it right. It is a brutal process, and she is merciless in her pushing me to write the best possible book I can. Mort makes the best book deals possible and gives me the best overall advice, but Carole helps me write the best possible books I can. She stretches me to my limits and beyond. She is like a marathon trainer who pushes you until you think you’ll drop, and then pushes you some more, but the results are fantastic!!! The books are better because of her every time, and it’s worth the agony to get there!!! When you love one of my books, it’s because Carole beat me up until I got it right. And she is also a beloved friend after all these years. When Mort got on the plane in NY the day Nick died, Carole came with him, and manned the kids and the kitchen for a week along with him. One doesn’t have many friends like that in a lifetime. And I am so grateful to both of them.
The research and my researcher. As you know, I write both historical and contemporary novels. In historical novels, you need to carefully research wars, historical periods, the way a city looked at the time, maybe 100 years ago, and all the details of the historical era you’re writing about, or the event, or war, or whatever. In a ‘modern’ book, you need to know the city you are writing about, or the industry, or the situation, or the laws, or where the court house is, or what the Grand Jury rules are, or the best restaurants or hotels, or how long it takes to drive from Biloxi, Mississippi to Atlanta on which freeway (to give it reality), or what the local industry is, or the laws of the state are, whatever the book happens to be about. Or even the details of an illness, and the medications given for it, or how long a surgery takes, or how many people were at a certain concert, or the number of casualties in an actual plane crash. All the details you read in my books that relate to real life are real and carefully researched. Sometimes my researcher will go to a place if I haven’t been there, just to get the feel of it. And I even need to know what you see when you look out the window of a certain hotel, what does the city sound like, and smell like. How noisy is it? What do you hear? Crickets or bulldozers or fire engines? Nancy Eisenbarth is my researcher and is amazing. She is a historian by education, and she has done the research on my books since the very beginning, and I drive her insane, calling her at 3 am, or sending her emails, needing to know what floor something is on, how many people died in a famous fire, what is the decor of a certain restaurant, or a detail about a unit of the French Resistance in WW2. Nancy knows exactly what I need from ancient history to the present, and combs libraries, diaries, memoirs, history books, the Internet, to give me what I need. Like Carole, mercilessly demanding as close to perfection as I can get, Nancy will tell me that my idea just won’t work, because there was no train in that part of Nepal at that time….or the hotel I want to use was actually built 2 years later, or the surgery I want to use can’t be performed at that hospital in that year, She is the voice of reality, always calling me to order. And I only once cheated and wrote about a train that didn’t exist. But I try to keep the details in my book as real as I can, and Nancy keeps me on the straight and narrow and gives me absolutely fantastic information!! Once I have an idea for a book, I send her the outline so she’ll have an idea of what I’ll need when I write the book, and she starts sending me material for me to read and look over, about geographical areas (Ethiopia, Libya, Italy, the south of France, Arkansas, New York), historical people I may want to include in the book, or industries, locations, and world events. She sends me a huge amount of stuff, which I then whittle down and decide what I want to use. And then once I’ve written the book, I send her a list of precise questions (sometimes 100 of them) to verify that I have my facts right, or add further information (what street is such and such on? the name of a pizza parlor, or a Chinese restaurant). She too is a wonderful person, and a dear friend, we are the same age, and have worked together since our late teens, early twenties, and our earliest common bond is that we discovered we were in love with the same boy at 13 !!! He was a lot cuter then than he turned out to be later! I met her through her older brother who is also a writer. Nancy has been a great gift in my life too. And without her I wouldn’t have all those great details and facts that give reality to the books (one of our best ones was “Zoya”, about the Russian Revolution, which we loved doing. I even knew what perfumes the grand Duchesses wore, and what their handwriting looked like). Each person makes a valuable contribution to the books. Even if the story is entirely mine, and all the hard work, they help me to get the best result I can in the end. And they all work hard to, on their specific contributions.
The Clean Up. After the work is done, I’ve written the book, and Carole has made me re-write it 6 times, and Nancy has given me all the factual details I need, by then the typewritten manuscript is a total mess. There are notes in all the margins, asterisks everywhere, things crossed out, coffee stains from Carole, chocolate smudges from my late nights with the book in my hand and a chocolate bar in my mouth, you sometimes have to turn a page 360 degrees just to read 4 different sets of notes, and my little hand written squiggles run right off the page…by then, no one can read it except me and Carole, it is almost totally illegible. And then it goes to Judythe Cohen in Mort’s office, and she types it into a clean version we can send to the publisher. She puts her heart and soul into it, and the best part is that she sends me running comments on it, about what she loved best, the characters or events that really moved her. She is the first person to read it who was not in on it from the beginning, and my first test of how the book sounds to someone else. She is incredibly generous with her praise, and she reassures me that we got it right. And the manuscript looks gorgeous, and is legible when she’s done!!
The Publisher. AFTER all the writing and editing and research and typing, Mort sends the finished book to the Publisher. I always hold my breath when I send the manuscript to Carole, my editor, terrified she’ll tell me I blew it entirely, and just throw the book away (she never has, but it’s always my worst fear). Then I have to go through that process again and now it’s For Real. What if the publisher hates the book, and she doesn’t like the way it turned out? What if all the hard work that went into it doesn’t capture her heart or imagination? I am always terrified when I send it in. I had one publisher for my first book, and a different one for all the books since. I have been with the same publishing house for 36 years now, so the ‘house’ is the same, but the person/the publisher has changed several times over the years. My current publisher is a wonderful woman, Jennifer Hershey, who believes in my books, is very supportive, and likes what I write. So she reads it, approves it, and I heave a sigh of relief. We did it!!! And after that, together we decide on a cover for the book, how it should look, the ads, and all the publishing details of the book. It is very exciting working with her, and very gratifying to work with someone who really cares about my work.
The Home Team. So those are all the people involved in the writing and business end of the books—-but then there are the people who make it possible for me to get the time and peace to do it. I have two incredibly wonderful assistants. Heather has worked with me for 22 years, and Allee for 11. Both started working with me when they were in their very early 20’s, barely more than kids. And they handle everything for me (other than writing), and shield me from the ‘real world’, while I hole up in my nightgown with my typewriter to write the books. It would be hard to get the peace and quiet I need without them fending off phone calls, pesty people, minor and major crises, and even friends, since I don’t talk to anyone except my kids when I’m writing. The newest member of the Home Team is Alex my Paris assistant, who goes to San Francisco with me too. He has added a new element to my writing life: food. I have terrible eating habits, and in my early days for some reason lived on a writing diet of liverwurst and Oreo Cookies, which became the subject of many jokes. I don’t take the time to stop and cook, or even eat, and I don’t want to stop and eat anything complicated while I work. All I think about is the book, and I’ll eat whatever is placed near me, without even noticing what it is. Finger food works best, and now thanks to Alex, trays appear next to me, with little bits of chicken, mozzarella, and even blueberries, and wonderful cappuccino. He’s Italian, and was horrified by some of what I would eat when I worked, or the fact that sometimes I didn’t bother to eat at all. If no one fed me, I just went without. So now I eat some great nibbly stuff while I work, which has added a new element to my writing life. And then of course there is always my unlimited supply of dark chocolate in my desk, without which I could not survive, at my desk, or anywhere!!! These three people are who and what make my life work, when I’m writing and when I’m not. They fend off press, protect me from paparazzi, talk to lawyers, bankers, plumbers, and handle my business life when I check out to write. They take wonderful care of me and are beloved friends as well. They make my life possible, and keep everything on track while I’m off in the land of my imagination, writing a book.
There is one more important person on the team that makes my work and life possible, and she too is a beloved friend. Virginia Harris, who is a minister and religious person, and writing a book or undertaking any major challenge really is like climbing Everest in some ways. It is physically and mentally grueling, and you have to be prepared and willing to face all the challenges that go with it, which can be daunting, intimidating and just plain scary at times. Most of us are like David in the ‘David and Goliath’ of life, and we feel small in front of life’s challenges. I feel like David a lot of the time, especially when faced with a box of blank paper and a book to write. Can I do it again? Will it be any good? Is the story tight enough? What if I can’t? I always ask Ginny to pray for me when I am working on a book, or facing any major challenge. Her clear thought, endless support, and loving prayers give me the strength I need to keep going and have the faith that I can do it, no matter how hard or scary it gets. And I am so grateful for her friendship, love, prayers and unfailing support.
There are a number of other people who help carry the book to completion once I finish my work—-who sell the book to foreign publishers, design the marketing plan, and are the network of people around the book. But the people I have described to you are the inner circle, who sustain me, and make my work and life happy and worthwhile, and even possible at times, and have become my most beloved friends.
So that’s the whole team that helps make it all work. They don’t write the books, but without them I’d be lost. They are the very important people in my life, the elves in my life, while I do the work. I may get the glory, but they are “The Wind Beneath My Wings”. My thanks and love to them, and to you for reading the books!!!