Interview with Danielle Steel

August, 2011
Danielle Steel Prolific writer Danielle Steel's life sometimes sounds like the plot of one of her glittering novels: half the year in Paris, a stylish house on the hill in San Francisco, and a yearly summer vacation with five of her children on a boat in the Mediterranean. But it's not all Château d'Yquem and couture clothing. Many of Steel's popular works veer far from frivolous subjects, tackling tough issues such as bipolar disorder, terrorism, and the Holocaust. Goodreads chats with the world-record-holding author for best-sellers about her latest novel, Happy Birthday, how persistence wins the prize, and why ghostwriters are simply shocking.

Goodreads: Your newest novel, Happy Birthday, tells the story of three characters who are all facing unpleasant birthdays: 30, 50, and 60. Did one of your own birthdays inspire the book?

Danielle Steel: Yes! I had a birthday I didn't like and woke up in the morning horrified by it. I lay there, feeling very sorry for myself, and then thought, "Well, relax. Nobody knows your real age." Then I kind of staggered into the kitchen feeling sorry for myself and turned on the radio, and of course it announced that it was my birthday and my age, and of course I almost had a heart attack. And then it was in the newspaper and on TV and everywhere else. I kind of used that to inspire the characters.

So many people don't like landmark birthdays, so I used three different landmark birthdays and all the reasons why people don't like them. It was meant to be kind of a fun book, one of the themes being what I called "Why Not." Instead of being limited by their usual lives, people decide to be more open-minded and do things that they normally wouldn't do. They decide not to be limited by age, whether it's 30 or 40 or 50 or 60 and to try new things in life. The truth is that there are so many things that we can do, and it's not just about having money. It's about daring and not just staying in your same rut all the time, which many of us have a tendency to do, including me.

GR: Happy Birthday has a little bit of everything: restaurants, a Martha Stewart-esque character, even a hostage attack. Was it the anniversary of 9/11 that inspired you to touch on this last theme?

DS: No, those things just come out of the air. In fact, I did a book 15, 18 years ago where there was an attack on the Empire State Building at the time, and a friend who often reads my books before they're published said, You've really gone too far with that one—it could never happen. My editor calls it channeling. A lot of times I've written things that just come out of the air for me, and they turn out to be real at some later date.

GR: You have a large, lively, and accomplished family. How do they inform your novels? Do you ever base any of your characters on them?

DS: I never write real characters. I learned that in my first book. The agent I had at the time strongly discouraged it and told me that if you use real characters, you'll always be limited by those people, and you're much better off doing fictional ones. And I always stuck to that, and it gives you much, much more freedom. The other way you think, "Jamie wouldn't do that." And also, you can offend people, and I just don't like writing about real people. They're inspired by what I've learned of real people and they're composites of characters, but they're totally fictional.

GR: You've written 118 books, had 21 of your novels adapted for television, and have been listed in the Guinness Book of World Records for having at least one of your books on the New York Times best-seller list for 390 weeks. That's a lot of books and a lot of stories. Did you always think you were going to be a writer?

DS: It kind of picked me. My training was in design. I graduated from college very early, so I was 19 (I went to NYU and Parsons school of design), and I wound up working for a PR firm in New York, and one of our clients was the Ladies Home Journal. The editor was this incredibly nice man, and I did a little freelance writing for them, and he said, You should write a book. I was naive and very young, so I thought I should write a book! I tried and I did, and it [Going Home] sold remarkably quickly.

Then I thought I'll do this again, but then I wrote five others that nobody ever wanted. I have no idea what made me pursue this. I think just stubbornness. I had no thought of becoming famous, and I had made practically no money on the one I sold. But I just always had another story that I wanted to tell, and while those ones were not selling I just kept writing more. And finally the seventh one sold again. I had five unpublished in between my first and the next published book.

I always use it as an example for young writers because persistence is the most important thing. Had I given up anytime between number one and number seven, I would never have had the career I have today. I really think it's important to keep at it and keep with it. And people are very unkind about unpublished authors. You know, the minute you say you're a writer, they say, "Have you been published?" and if you haven't, they think that doesn't make you a writer. But you're a writer if you're writing. And it may take longer than you want to get published. But keep at it. I think persistence wins the prize in almost anything.

GR: Your first books were categorized in the romance genre. How did you end up there? And now you cover a vast array of genres—historical fiction, suspense—many of which touch on difficult topics. Tell us about your evolution as a writer.

DS: In the beginning I wrote paperback originals. And in those days they were categorized as romance. But long, long ago I said to my publisher and my agent, "I don't want to write paperbacks forever. I want to write hardcovers. What do I have to do?" So we talked about it, and I worked hard and got out of being stuck in that genre. I write contemporary fiction. I'll write everything from wars to cancer, and about a fifth of my books are historical and they're very thoroughly researched. I work with a wonderful researcher who's worked with me for my whole writing career.

Essentially I write about human relationships, not just romantic ones but familial ones. And friendships and all sorts of stuff. The problems of the human condition are kind of the same in every era.

GR: Goodreads Author Andrea Buginsky asks, "Do you have a favorite among your books?"

DS: My favorite is always the one I'm working on or the one I just finished. It's not as complicated a book as some of the ones I've written, but I love Happy Birthday. It's a fun book, but it's got substance. And I got to research the restaurant business, which was fun. Probably my favorite is the one I wrote about my son, His Bright Light. [Nick Traina struggled with bipolar disorder and committed suicide.]

Among my novels, I never read them again once I'm totally finished with them.

GR: You never read your books again?

DS: I do probably six major rewrites after I finish them. I edit them for two and a half years. After I'm done, after it goes off for the last time, I'm done.

GR: Goodreads member Meme would like to know, "Do your stories come strictly from imagination or are some from personal experience, like friends or family, with a few embellishments?"

DS: Sometimes some incident will inspire me, and some things are completely out of nowhere and I have no idea where they come from. Sammie [her daughter] inspired me years ago. She was studying how the Japanese were put in the internment camps during WWII in school, and when she came home to dinner—I think she was ten—she said, "You should write a book about that, Mom." And I said, "Yeah, yeah."

Then an hour later I thought that's kind of cool. So I did, and I love that book, too. It's called Silent Honor. And that was a wonderful book to research, and I interviewed a lot of people for that book. Another book I loved a lot was Echoes, which was historical. There were themes that I wanted to touch on. One of them was the Kindertransport, which was the train that the British organized that went through Europe for about ten months before the war. They were trying to save kids, Jewish kids, before the war was declared in Europe. The experiences of those people were just unbelievable.

GR: Goodreads Author Patti Roberts would like to know if you work with a ghostwriter.

DS: It's a shocking question. I've been asked by my fans, "Who writes your books? Does someone help you?" And I said something to my editor not long ago, "It's so insulting that people would even say that." She said, "Yeah, but you are one of the few authors left who doesn't use somebody." There is a very, very famous best-selling author who has apparently eight writers. He writes the outlines, gives them chapters to write, and doesn't write his own books—I was so shocked. And there is not just one. I don't know if the public knows that or not. Maybe I'm the last idiot on the planet, up until 4:30 in the morning typing my own work. It's just incredible. Then you are not a writer; you are some sort of scriptwriter. Nobody writes my stuff. I find it a shocking concept. It's different if a celebrity wants to write their memoirs, and they have no writing ability. OK, then they use a ghostwriter. Otherwise it's like becoming a tennis pro and having a stunt double. What's the point of that?

GR: Tell us a bit about your writing process.

DS: I work for about six months to a year on an outline and do it by hand mostly. Eventually I type up what I've got, send it to my editor, get comments, and alter it, send it back, get comments, alter it again. And I eventually sit down to write the book, and when I do that I pretty much lock myself up for about a month and do only that for about 20 hours a day. And it goes back and forth like a tennis ball between me and my editor for about two years while I rewrite it. I'm usually working on four or five books at once.

GR: What are you reading now, and who are some of your favorite authors?

DS: I read much too little, because when I'm writing I don't read anybody. There is always the risk that you'll pick someone up without meaning to. And so I never read anybody while I'm writing, and that's ten months a year. I only get to read in the summers. For fiction I only read French because it's my first language. I read Marc Levy, who is the popular easy-read in France. And I read a lot of religious stuff. And my children make fun of me, but I love Joel Osteen. He's an inspirational writer. And I'm rereading one of his books right now. One is called Become a Better You. I find it really cheers me up. [Laughs.]

GR: What's next?

DS: The next one out is coming in the fall called Hotel Vendôme. It's about a man who puts together a terrific luxury boutique, very, very high-end hotel in New York, and is a single father and his little girl grows up in the hotel. And all the exciting stuff that happens in and around that hotel.

GR: Like a grown-up Eloise?

DS: I was naughty enough to name her Eloise, but with an "H" [Heloise].


Comments (showing 1-37 of 37) (37 new)

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message 1: by Denise (new)

Denise Endearing interview. I look forward to reading Happy Birthday and Hotel Vendome!


message 2: by Andrea (last edited Aug 04, 2011 05:10PM) (new)

Andrea Wonderful interview. I was thrilled to have had my question among the selected ones from goodreads' members. Thank you! I look forward to reading the new books :)


message 3: by Patti (new)

Patti Roberts Great interview. I really enjoyed reading about such a successful Author who still writes all her own books!


message 4: by R. B. (new)

R. B. Kiernan As a professional ghostwriter, I'm always impressed when I read of an author who actually writes her own work. I didn't think that was still done. A Wiki article states that ghostwriters write about 40% of the material out there. I suspect it's at least double that.

Thank you for giving such a lovely interview. I appreciate reading about your writing process and how you find inspiration.


message 5: by Barbara (new)

Barbara Abate I had no idea how naive I am, considering that it never occurred to me to wonder if Danielle wrote her own books or otherwise suspect she might be one of those prolific authors who sadly depend on a variety of other minds at work "behind the curtain." I just always surmised that she's the real deal, and am most happy not to be disappointed by learning otherwise.

Much appreciation for such a truly fantastic interview.


message 6: by Dawn (new)

Dawn I have been reading Danielle Steel's books for forever but then got away from them. However, I have always admired her prolific writing abilities as well as the diversity of her plots since "going hardcover". I will have to pick up one of novels again - and look for her new one this fall that looks like so much fun! Many thanks for an interview with someone I go way back.


message 7: by Tina (new)

Tina I have always loved her and have been collecting her books since I was a teenager. In fact, I just this month completed my 'collection' of her Hardback books...yes, all of them. Whew! I am reading Happy Birthday right now and an quite enjoying it. :)


message 8: by Taylor (new)

Taylor Napolsky I can't believe how little she reads. Wow, she spends ten months a year not reading. That's the first time I've ever seen an author say something like that in an interview.


message 9: by Andrew (new)

Andrew Douglass On the ghostwriting topic.... I confess ignorance. Is it really that common? I know ghostwriters are nothing new, in fact have talked to them myself, but thought of it as the exception for famous non-writers telling their stories or the most prolific and somewhat formulaic publishing machines (Ms. Steel excepted). How many readers realize this, and would they care? But at some point it becomes a deception, a fraud; or am I missing the point: the book is the thing.

For the record, I wrote this comment by myself, much like any book I will ever write under my name. :) As an author -- it's hard enough to write well. It must be painful to watch someone else take the credit, or even praise themselves for it. I don't need credit really, but I'd rather not have others claim to *be* me.

A very good interview, I'm glad I gave Ms. Steel a listen.


message 10: by R. B. (new)

R. B. Kiernan Andrew wrote: "On the ghostwriting topic.... I confess ignorance. Is it really that common? I know ghostwriters are nothing new, in fact have talked to them myself, but thought of it as the exception for famous n..."

There are some authors who are famous for hiring ghostwriters while they take the credit. For example, this is taken from Wikipedia about Tom Clancy:


Thomas Leo "Tom" Clancy Jr. (born April 12, 1947)[notes 1] is an American author, best known for his technically detailed espionage, military science and techno thriller storylines set during and in the aftermath of the Cold War, along with video games which he did not work on, but which bear his name for licensing and promotional purposes. His name is also a brand for similar movie scripts written by ghost writers and many series of non-fiction books on military subjects and merged biographies of key leaders.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tom_Clancy

The Wiki entry about ghostwriting goes into additional detail about him and "his" writing. I suspect this sort of thing is much more common than the major publishing houses or famous "authors" would ever admit. A quick Google search on "ghostwriting" will give more information about other "authors" who don't actually write their own work.

I know I've ghostwritten books and articles for doctors and others in the medical establishment. In these cases, all I'm given is a brief list about some topics they would like to see covered. I usually provide all of my own research. Pharmaceutical companies famously hire ghostwriters to write medical "articles" about their products, which they then hire a doctor to sign and publish under his name. The doctor then gets the credit and a handsome fee, the pharmaceutical company gets the advertising under the guise of being an actual medical article and the ghostwriter gets paid - often per page though sometimes at a flat rate for the completed assignment. This practice is coming under increased scrutiny but it is still overwhelmingly common.

When ghostwriting fiction, I'm usually presented with an outline of ideas and character names. From this, I'm expected to "flesh out" the topics and write a story. Sometimes I'm also expected to write a plot summary and submit it for approval before I can actually start work on the novel. This seems to happen when the "author" has a few vague ideas and little else. Again, this is surprisingly common.

In both fiction and nonfiction, the ghostwriter will sometimes get credited on the cover in smaller print under the "author's" name. Other times the ghostwriter will end up in the acknowledgments, often listed as a "research assistant". I suspect more often than not the ghostwriter isn't mentioned at all. There is usually a legal contract the ghostwriter must sign, stating that she cannot reference her work or acknowledge working on the project in any way. For that reason, it's harder to research what books are genuinely written by the author and which ones are from ghostwriters. While I personally can discuss (in vague terms) the sort of ghostwriting I've done, I cannot actually discuss my clients or quote from my work in any way.


message 11: by Andrew (new)

Andrew Douglass So, as a certified ghost what do you think of (morally, financial, artistically) the "authors"? The readers who don't suspect? You used quite enough quotation marks to arouse suspicion and cynicism. :)


message 12: by R. B. (new)

R. B. Kiernan Andrew Wells wrote: "So, as a certified ghost what do you think of (morally, financial, artistically) the "authors"? The readers who don't suspect? You used quite enough quotation marks to arouse suspicion and cynicism..."

I make my living as a ghostwriter, therefore I need people who are unwilling or unable to do their own writing. I also understand that the definition of an "author" is:

1. a person who writes a novel, poem, essay, etc.; the composer of a literary work, as distinguished from a compiler, translator, editor, or copyist.
2.the literary production or productions of a writer: to find a passage in an author.
3.the maker of anything; creator; originator: the author of a new tax plan.


Technically, calling a person an author even though he does not compose, produce nor create anything is a bit disingenuous. If the definition of an "author" changes to include those who hire or use ghostwriters while not doing any of their own writing, I will stop using quotes around the word "author" as it will be the correct term.


message 13: by Patti (new)

Patti Roberts Rbkiernan wrote: "As a professional ghostwriter, I'm always impressed when I read of an author who actually writes her own work. I didn't think that was still done. A Wiki article states that ghostwriters write ab..."

Yes, i think that you guys are the unsung hero a lot of the time!


message 14: by Andrew (new)

Andrew Douglass my 2¢: I think it's dishonest, though I'm still free to enjoy the product. The main reason to leave the ghost's name off is to mislead people and presumably make more money. Sometimes it might be to protect the *ghost* but I doubt that's often. Insofar as credit is important, as a reader I expect it to be accurate. Maybe the industry is just so used to it that it will be impossible to change.

Thanks for the inside view. I realize you don't want to bite the hand that feeds you, but hope you realize many readers do in fact care. "It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit." -- Truman


message 15: by Patti (new)

Patti Roberts Andrew Wells wrote: "my 2¢: I think it's dishonest, though I'm still free to enjoy the product. The main reason to leave the ghost's name off is to mislead people and presumably make more money. Sometimes it might be t..."

well when you consider that the gaffa boy even gets a mention in the credits in the movie industry!


message 16: by Andrew (new)

Andrew Douglass Good point, but the film industry is much more ethical. (ha ha ha ... I hear screenwriting credit is a very haphazard affair)


message 17: by Altuhafi (new)

Altuhafi lahat kayo semil


message 18: by Witnie (new)

Witnie I have read a lot of book of Danielle, she's so inspiring. i have a lot of book of her at home that i do not have enough time to read, but it feels good to know that they are around.her book about her son makes me see the real person , the strong one. I have learn a lot from her.Congrats!


message 19: by Cyn (new)

Cyn Enlightening that Ms. Steel does all her own writing. Does that mean she is responsible for the "Smokey the Bear" line in "Happy Birthday". There is no "the" in Smokey Bear!!


message 20: by Mm (new)

Mm To Rbkiernan

Consider the source before stating something as fact. It is known that anyone can post anything on Wikipedia. That, however, does not create a truth.


message 21: by Mm (last edited Aug 09, 2011 10:46PM) (new)

Mm Oh, meant to add that Thurston House, was my absolute favorite of Danielle Steel. That is an opinion!


message 22: by Cyn (last edited Aug 10, 2011 02:55AM) (new)

Cyn Excuse me Mm. I do not read Wikipedia. This is the official Forest Service site. In it, it says Smokey is often mistakenly called "Smokey the Bear"! Consider the source before you post a reply!


http://www.smokeybear.com/


message 23: by Mm (last edited Aug 10, 2011 04:19AM) (new)

Mm That was someone else not me.


message 24: by Patti (new)

Patti Roberts But lets get back to the Author.... :)


message 25: by Cyn (new)

Cyn OK, sorry Mm. To whomever said "let's get back to the author" I am talking about the author when I say I am a big Steel fan and have read all her books. I get upset when big famous authors make glaring mistakes. In my opinion, we all should expect these authors to live up to a certain standard. After all we pay for the books.


message 26: by Patti (new)

Patti Roberts Cyn wrote: "OK, sorry Mm. To whomever said "let's get back to the author" I am talking about the author when I say I am a big Steel fan and have read all her books. I get upset when big famous authors make gla..."

to err is human, to forgive divine :) I think I would forgive a slip up like that :)

But i get it.... It would be like saying Robin The Hood :)) that does sound funny :)


message 27: by Nadja (new)

Nadja Notariani I've read so many of Danielle's books! Over the years, I've amassed quite a book collection. Some have stayed, and some have gone, but I have shelves of Steel's novels lining my office walls. My personal favorite was Zoya.

I particularly enjoy that within Steel's novels, I find a wonderful story time and time again. They're all so different, and I'm looking forward to reading Happy Birthday.

I'm glad she was 'stubborn', as she phrased it. Without that character trait, readers would have missed out on fantastic reads! ~ Nadja


message 28: by Melinda (new)

Melinda Freeland Wonderful interview. How surprising (and encouraging at the same time) that Danielle had her first book published, but then had five others rejected before her next book was published!

I have not yet sent my manuscript out to all the agents and editors that I am going to, but to hear such a popular author have this kind of beginning, it does reinforce my motto(and hers too apparently) to never give up.

There ARE so many "non-writers" who DO make negative comments like Danielle said if you're not yet published.

I printed out this interview and put it in my little "Inspiration & Encouragement" file -- highlighting this section of her interview:

"You know, the minute you say you're a writer, they say, 'Have you been published?' and if you haven't, they think that doesn't make you a writer. BUT YOU'RE A WRITER IF YOU'RE WRITING. And it may take longer than you want to get published. But keep at it. I think persistence wins the prize in almost anything."


message 29: by Jerri (new)

Jerri George I was a birthday hater until a friend shared why they never bothered her...Barbara came from a large Italian family and spent years around the dining room table,with relatives young and old, celebrating all sorts of milestones.

She could remember that no matter what the number of years, someone who was older (and wiser) would comment "when I was..." and go on to extoll the virtues of life at that specific age in their past.

She learned early on that age was best seen from the eye of a former beholder! Forty was vibrant, fun and sexy to a sixty year old but sixty was youthful and dynamic to an eighty year old, and so on.

Can't wait to read the book!


message 30: by Erin (last edited Aug 10, 2011 03:40PM) (new)

Erin Zarro Wow, great interview. I used to read her stuff way back when, but then discovered fantasy. I might check some of her hardcovers out.

And doing all her own writing? Awesome, just awesome.


message 31: by Patti (new)

Patti Roberts Rbkiernan wrote: "Andrew wrote: "On the ghostwriting topic.... I confess ignorance. Is it really that common? I know ghostwriters are nothing new, in fact have talked to them myself, but thought of it as the excepti..."

very interesting post :)


message 32: by Patti (new)

Patti Roberts Andrew Wells wrote: "On the ghostwriting topic.... I confess ignorance. Is it really that common? I know ghostwriters are nothing new, in fact have talked to them myself, but thought of it as the exception for famous n..."

Agree, I could never take the credit for someone else's hard work. Never! I would feel like a complete fraud.


message 33: by Jane (new)

Jane What's surprising to me is that there are so many authors who are willing to write and not get credit for it (i.e. ghostwriters). Who are these people? Do they ever write under their OWN names? What's the motivation? And can they ever reveal/prove they've written a particular book?


message 34: by Patti (new)

Patti Roberts Jane wrote: "What's surprising to me is that there are so many authors who are willing to write and not get credit for it (i.e. ghostwriters). Who are these people? Do they ever write under their OWN names? Wha..."

Well it is their job, they get paid for it. some of them I imagine get to work with the best and get paid very well. It is just surprising how many of the "best" don't write very much of their own books these days! :)


message 35: by Germaine (new)

Germaine Chevarie Andrew Wells wrote: "On the ghostwriting topic.... I confess ignorance. Is it really that common? I know ghostwriters are nothing new, in fact have talked to them myself, but thought of it as the exception for famous n..."

I feel exactly like Andrew Wells.Why bother to write if you aren't going to get the recognition? No amount of money would entice me to be a ghostwriter! I have written 2 books and selfpublished them and I'm proud of it. I think they're good but I might be fooling myself. Ta ta.......


message 36: by Andrew (new)

Andrew Douglass Oh, I'd do it -- write for money, no attribution. I did it plenty as a lawyer. :) And then there's when you just want to get the ideas out there, see them in print with eyes on them. It's not so much a credit thing as a wince over others claiming credit and taking compliments, which drifts into fraud. A guy I knew ghosted an autobiography for a judge who, he said, stood up at the party introducing it to pat the book and say to everyone, "This is my proudest achievement." My friend was for this reason and many others more than a little cynical!


message 37: by Germaine (last edited Oct 17, 2011 09:02AM) (new)

Germaine Chevarie Ah! Danielle Steel's worst book has to be The Klone and I!!!!!! It's pathetic! A waste of my reading time allotment.


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