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The lighter side of Danielle Steel

By Monica Hesse
Friday, March 5, 2010; C01

NEW YORK -- On learning the Dalai Lama has a Twitter account: "What does he write? 'Praying now,' I suppose."

On appearing to have a good relationship with her nine kids: "Well, we lie publicly."

On being the responsible pet owner in the family: "Dog poop is my role in the family. I'm the person they announce to, 'Oh, the dog just went in the dining room.' . . . I always said I shared a dog with my husband. He had the front end, and I had the back end."

Danielle Steel is funny. Not funny like "eccentric," or funny like "We must appease the Celebrity-Industrial Complex by subbing in a euphemism when what we really mean is that the woman is Froot Loops," but actual funny, like a sitcom that would be called "Oh, That Danielle!" about a designer-clad 62-year-old novelist who wisecracks her way through the annoyances of celebrityhood.

Here she is breakfasting at New York's swanky Carlyle hotel, with a sleek ponytail and a black turtleneck and giant purse, joking about doing battle with the plumber at her Paris home. Here she is, picking at her poached egg and talking about the time she recently got trapped on an airplane runway for hours and thought about mugging the small child next to her for his Oreos. She looks a bit older than her airbrushed book jacket photos, but more approachable, too, with a chesty laugh and a wicked eye roll.

This, in itself, is funny (funny-ironic-funny) because no one ever mentions her sense of humor. What gets mentioned is melodrama. Heartache. The interviews Steel grants inevitably result in articles that make her sound like a sad Miss Havisham, wandering forlornly around the Paris house or the San Francisco mansion, lamenting her failed marriages and other tragic events. The pervasive theme? Danielle Steel's life could be one of her novels. Oh my!

No wonder she hates interviews.

Fat chance

There are rules for heroines in romantic fiction. They can be cold, they can be damaged, they can be arrogant or insecure. They cannot be fat. Steel missed that memo when she wrote her new novel, "Big Girl." Released last week, it features a protagonist who is not merely a few pounds chubby, but genuinely heavy at a size 16. Victoria Dawson has brains, heart, friends, career and about 40 extra pounds settling around her midsection. She also has a stunning younger sister and shallow parents whose catty comments only send her galloping more desperately toward the Ben & Jerry's.

"It dawned on me that most books are about beautiful people finding other beautiful people," says Steel, who's written one or 40 of those books herself. "And I just thought it must be sort of discouraging for the normal part of humanity to get left out of that." She's previously discussed other body-image issues in the form of eating disorders and says she prides herself on staying topical.

The petite Steel has never struggled with her weight but knows the self-esteem gremlins that haunt department-store dressing rooms. "I always forget," she sighs deeply, "that I'm a foot shorter than the models and a hundred years older."

Will Victoria find love? Will she overcome adversity? Does the pope know Latin? (Have you read any Danielle Steel?) Plot twists, she's known for -- but they inevitably untwist themselves in time for a happy ending.

If this particular plot doesn't appeal to you, just wait four months. Steel's "Family Ties" will be out in June, about a young woman who unexpectedly gains custody of her sister's children. "Legacy" is out in October, about a woman tracing her genealogy to make sense of her life.

In May, Steel will start writing an untitled project featuring a heroine with health issues, and just a few days ago she got an e-mail from a friend, the deaf actress Marlee Matlin, asking whether she'd ever thought about a novel whose main character was hearing-impaired. "I'm very organized," Steel says of her regimented schedule. "You can't have nine children and not be organized. Otherwise it just looks like Appalachia."

If none of these plots appeals to you, well, phoo on you, because Steel probably doesn't need you anyway. Her readership is astronomical, with nearly 600 million copies of her books in print, and it's a rare bestseller list that doesn't include one or more of her dozens of fiction titles. Back when the Guinness World Records tracked this sort of thing, Steel won a slot for the longest stint of bestsellers in publishing history; she's written more than a hundred volumes -- novels, nonfiction, poetry and children's books -- total.

"Big Girl" aside, her plots are known for chronicling the lifestyles of the rich and troubled. A glamorous socialite falls in love with an ex-con ("Passion's Promise"). A glamorous socialite is torn between her ailing, rich husband and a hot new guy ("A Perfect Stranger"). A glamorous socialite escapes her abusive past and falls in love with a priest ("The Long Road Home").

"If I let her, she would write six books a year," says Morton Janklow, her longtime literary agent, recalling the time he phoned Steel only to hear her weeping on the other end of the phone. Through heaving sobs, she explained the crisis: She didn't know whether one of her own characters would live or die, and the agony was killing her. "She's someone who intuitively has a direct line into the hearts of women. . . . People have tried to mimic that style, but it never works. She's tremendously sincere."

There is something in Steel's work that readers cling to -- that makes them identify with characters even when the plots are outlandish. "I always try to write about believable people," Steel says. "I'm always getting letters from people saying, 'That's the situation I was in,' or 'That's the story of my life.' . . . I did a book about a woman in the clutches of a sociopath, and that got a tremendous amount of response."

Suddenly you realize that Danielle Steel's fans -- or maybe Steel herself -- may live much more dramatic lives than you or I.

Truth is stranger . . . ?

The stories about Steel that squeeze her into the Havisham box sound scandalous, but they're not untrue -- based on biographical information that has been trailing Steel for years.

There was a 1970s wedding to an inmate she'd met while either visiting another prisoner or researching a magazine article, depending on which account you read. There was another marriage to the drug addict who fathered her son Nicholas. Tragically, Nicholas committed suicide at 19, prompting Steel to write "His Bright Light," a memoir of his brief life. There were other relationships -- stable, long-term ones with prominent businessmen -- and eight more children, both biological and step.

Plus, her own glamorous socialite childhood: born to a beer scion and a diplomat's daughter, and raised in a life of New York privilege and European dinner parties. Observing the dramatic lives of the adults around her, she has said, would later inspire her to become a writer.

After studying fashion at Parsons and New York University, Steel took a job with a women-owned public relations firm called Supergirls. She began writing during her off-hours. Her first novel, the well-received "Going Home," was published when she was in her 20s; the five she wrote after it were rejected. She persevered, eventually finding success with "Passion's Promise."

As she married and had children -- five are with vintner John Traina; she also adopted his two sons from a previous marriage and has a daughter older than Nicholas -- her writing occurred in the wee hours. She feared carving out space for her own career, even as her books began to sell and her success began to grow. "I was still someone's mom; I was still someone's wife," she says. "My generation has been careful about not ruffling anyone's feathers. My career always had to fit into the family thing."

Her daughter Samantha Traina describes her glowingly as a hands-on mom who never missed a ballet performance. "She [had] a taco night," Traina says, and she and her siblings were required to be present at family dinners.

"I try to be very real and honest with my readers," says Steel, but she grew wary of the endless rehashing that's followed her personal mistakes, as if she is everybody's favorite morality play. "We've all had stuff in our lives that we've done or we regret. There comes a point where it's too difficult, and too painful, and you don't want to embarrass yourself."

Steel long ago decided to limit her exposure to the press. In the past 10 years, every interview she grants is touted as "rare!" as if she's a collectible gold coin. She agreed to some publicity for "Big Girl" only because her children are now grown, and because the publishing industry is floundering, and selling books now requires extra effort -- even for her.

Still, she shies away from discussions that get too personal. The great irony of her life and the ensuing coverage is that "I didn't even make a lot of mistakes!" she groans at the perceived injustice. "I didn't have a hell of a lot of fun."

Before she elaborates, Steel's personal assistant, who has been mostly silent through breakfast, shoots her boss a concerned glance.

"Are you sure you want to talk about this?" the assistant says. "This is a backdoor way of talking about something you said you didn't want to talk about."

"You're right, you're right," Steel says.

She's done adding fuel to her own burning in effigy. For Pete's sake, can't everyone move on? Would you want anyone rummaging around through your early relationships?

Ask Steel if she's currently seeing anyone, and she immediately cracks back, "Are you asking me on a date?"

'But I'm Danielle Steel'

On beauty: "I once looked like Norman Mailer in a picture with bad lighting."

On being famous: "You always have to be polite at the pantyhose counter" in case someone recognizes you.

On manipulating fame: "It's very humiliating when you try [pulling] 'But I'm Danielle Steel,' and you get, 'What was that? Fields?' Then you know you're screwed."

A few months ago, Steel was inducted into the California Hall of Fame -- in the same class as George Lucas and Carol Burnett. "I told myself it was a really bad sign," she says, "because only very old people get these awards." She's founded two foundations, one helping mentally ill youths, the other assisting the homeless; she's written about both issues, and has testified in Washington before the Senate in support of mental health legislation. She's been happily unmarried for more than a decade.

She'd love to write a feature film screenplay one day, something like "Love Actually" or "The Holiday," and several of her books have already been adapted for television. She says she's close with all of her children -- after the Carlyle breakfast, she was heading off to scope out apartments with a daughter who lives in New York.

She seems to be in a good place now -- but then again, don't celebrities always say they're in good places? In truth, the witty, fun version of Danielle Steel might not be a much more accurate a portrayal of Steel than the tragic romantic heroine narrative. But at least it's a start. What more does she want?

"World peace," she says, then starts giggling. "No, I'm kidding. I want to be Miss Universe when I grow up."

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