Do you have a restless urge to write?
So does Sidney Sheldon.
"It really hit me during that terrible Bel Air fire a few years ago, when we were told we had to evacuate the house," he says, his voice turning dramatic. "I had an Oscar, a Tony, scripts and memorabila that couldn't be replaced, but I just took a handful of yellow pads and a pen, ran to the car and said, 'I'm ready.' This is what I grabbed, this is when I realized how deep my need wo write was. I'm happiest when I'm actually creating. I'd write if no one paid me."
Sidney Sheldon is saying this, making special point of it in fact, because not only does he get paid to write, he gets paid like nobody's business. The figures mentioned in connection with his novels have more of the ring of Pentagon budgets than literary efforts, and Sidney Sheldon does not want you to misunderstand.
His best-known work, "The other Side of Midnight," set the longevity record on The New York Times paper-back best-seller list, contributing nicely to his grand total of 30 million books sold. And his new novel, "Bloodline," already has more hard-back copies in print - 140,000 - than most authors see in a lifetime, and it hasn't even been officially published yet.
So when he tells you he's on a 22 cities-in-four-weeks tour, to be followed by a week in England and a week in Australia, Sidney Sheldon emphasizes that the worst part, aside from the fatigue - he once, no kidding, confused Pittsburg with Detroit - is that "it keeps me from writing. I'm not a performes, I'm a writer." Later he will say "Writing is what I'm all about" and later still "Writing is my work and my avocation." A bit obsessive, perhaps, but you get the idea.
The new book, inevitable described in the publicity as "a sweeping novel of love, murder, suspense, and high financial intrigue on three continents," turns on the problems of one Elizabeth Roffe.
At first glance, you wouldn't think Elizabeth has many problems. Since the death of her father, Sam, who thoughtlessly dropped into a creavasse on Mt. Blanc, she has taken over the family pharmaceutical company, which just happens to have an income larger than that of three-quarters of the countries of the world.
She is very rich, she is oh-so beautiful, she is a woman "intelligent and warm and completely unself-conscious about her beauty," but she is also - gasp! - the target for murder, and who has better motives than her four, scheming, Roffe cousins? Unless it was that handsome up-from-the-gutter Welshman Rhys Williams. And so on.
If this sounds like it might make a helluva movie, be aware that a $10-million all-star epic is in the works, with Sheldon, who didn't like what he heard about "The Other Side Midnight," a film he had nothing to do with and hasn't even seen, retaining consulation rights.
He also retains, though he doesn't like to mention it, all kinds of money: A million dollars even if a camera never turns, and once the film is finished, "I have the same deal Robert Redford and Paul Newman make, 10 perfect of te gross from the first dollar going to 15 percent. No other writer has a deal like that."
Though Sheldon has an interesting way of saying, he doesn't like to talk about money while at the same time telling you "the deals I make are the highest ever made for novels," his cherry, almost hearty manner make him believable, as does the simple fact that he doesn't write for money because he doesn't have to.
He's already got lots.
"I have been very successful for 15 or 20 years, I'm used to making a top salary, to having a lot of money," he says. "I have five houses in California, five cable TV stations in Tennessee, a wax museum in Tokyo. I'm not writing for that reason."
Sheldon's money comes from the staggering amount of creative work he did before he ever thought of novels: 23 screenplays, (including "Easter Parade" and his Academy-Award winning "The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer," seven Broadway shows and close to 250 scripts, including almost all the episodes for "The Patty Duke Show," which he created, and "I Dream of Jeannie," which he created and produced.)
"Even as I say it all, I get exhausted," he says. "Ideas come, I couldn't tell you how. I believe there is a supernatural force, an intelligence, and I tune into that."
As big as the figures are now for Sheldon, that 's how small they were when he started writing. His first creative success was a song called "My Silent Self" he wrote at 17 while making $3 a night hanging hats and coats at the Bismark Hotel in Chicago. HIs first Hollywood job was a reader for Universal at $22 a week, a job he got by sending an unsolicited synopsis of "Of Mice and Men" to every studio in town after he couldn't get past the gate at any one of them.
"You have to find a way to get in, a Trojan horse," he says. "I believe you can do anything you want to do. You are the only one who can stop you."
Certainly no one can stop people from reading Sheldon's books, which he says are popular because he is primarily a storyteller and because he knows how to produce suspense. "I love it when people tell me my books kept them up to 4 or 5 in the morning," he says. "The suspense element is tremendous, I never let the reader go."
Critics, being nasty sorts, tend to see things differently, looking ever so askance at books that capture the public. Sheldon is free of delusions about the transcendent importance of his work, but he has his pride and simply wants to be given his due.
"I rewrite and rewrite and rewrite, I make it as good as I can," he says. "I don't pretend to enormous literary asporations, I'm an entertainer. I'm somewhere in between, and critics don't know how to handle me."
Sheldon, however, knows how to handle the critics. Writing to one, of whom he said "I'd like to see him running a bus in a small town," he concluded, "If you bring as much entertainment to people as Jacqueline Suzanne and Irving Wallace, you die happy."
"I am not suggesting that you wait."