"It is so appropriate to color hope yellow, like that sun we seldom saw. And as I begin to copy from the old memorandum journals that I kept for so long, a title comes as if inspired. "Open the Window and Stand in the Sunshine." Yet, I hesitate to name our story that. For I think of us more as flowers in the attic. Paper flowers. Born so brightly colored, and fading duller through all those long, grim, dreary, nightmarish days when we were held prisoners of hope, and kept captives by greed. But, we were never to color even one of our paper blossoms yellow. Prologue to "Flowers in the Attic"
SOMETIMES VIRGINIA Andrews allows her lasciviously fertile imagination to explore forbidden territory and S wonders what she herself would be like if she weren't existing in a fairy tale. "I feel like I'm living the role of a person who's been shut up, so I'm making a sort of character out of myself," she muses, "and I don't know if that's the real me. I don't know what the real me would be like under other circumstances. I'd like to find out." So would millions of her fans.
Deep into an inviting wooded area of a burgeoning new development in otherwise tacky Virginia Beach, Va., sits the fairy tale castle -- an imposing, 11-room contemporary white brick ranch, complete with attic. Two women alone, Andrews and her mother, Lillian, live in the sprawling residence overlooking Lynnhaven Bay. Inside, the decor is a stage set -- middle America on company manners: the colors soft, pastelly, beigey and very feminine, the flowers and plants plastic, the hundreds of coordinating throw pillows plumped and propped to perfection.
The atmosphere is dust-free, unused, impersonal, and the woman responsible for the antiseptic milieu comes direct from central casting. Lillian Andrews is a miniature, less ebullient Spring Byington, an adorable little old lady, up to her not-a-hair-out-of-place gray head. She's a fusspot all right, and worries out loud about the tracks Andrews' wheelchair makes on the sea of wall-to-wall carpeting as she expertly maneuvers her carefully made-up, coquettish daughter from room to room, careful not to nick the spanking new furniture. Andrews is in a soft green, two-piece dress, her hair a soft blond hanging in loose ringlets, her smile soft and measured.
No one has been able to pin Andrews down on her age. "Say I'm 37," she finally blurts out after hemming and hawing about it. She is no more 37 than she is in her late 50s, as one magazine reported. The best guess is that she is in her late 40s.
Mother, in the company of strangers, defers to her middle-aged child, but not with any zest. Obeisance is a pose she has only recently undertaken. In the old days, Andrews spent her life anonymously as a commercial artist. Fruits of her former calling, watercolors, oils and velvet paintings of flowers and still life subjects are the sole adornments on the castle walls. They too are unobtrusive.
But within the last two years, Andrews, now known to loyal readers everywhere as V.C. Andrews, has become a celebrity and best-selling author. The older woman appears perplexed by the rapidly invading notoriety and keeps a huge distance between herself and Andrews' fecund output. "My mother never reads books," she says over a lunch of southern fried chicken and macaroni salad, a perverse pleasure creeping into her voice with the admission that the "never" includes Andrews' three published novels. Mother bobs her head in agreement, hardly embarrassed by the oddity of the situation. Then again, maybe it's not odd at all; maybe she knows exactly what's in store for her and simply is not inclined to partake.
V.C. Andrews, for better or for worse, writes fiction that falls into no currently existing genre. Her first book, "Flowers in the Attic," published in 1979, is about four blond and beautiful children named Dollanganger who are locked in an attic for years by their mother so that she can inherit money that wouldn't be forthcoming if her ferociously fundamentalist father knew of their existence. The kids are the progeny of their mother and her half-uncle, a union no religious man can approve of. The story -- horrible but not horror -- is ripe with greed, unspeakable cruelty, violence, obsession and a succeeding generation of incest, this time between brother and sister. The incest theme has contributed to both the popularity and outrage directed at her books. Thus far there are 3,354,978 copies of "Flowers" in print.
Andrews' second book, "Petals on the Wind," continues the tale of the now-vengeful Dollanganger children, Chris, Cathy and Carrie, Cory having died in the attic, and it has outsold its precedessor. There are 3,669,253 copies of "Petals" in print. It was not hyperbole to report that the most eagerly awaited read of the summer was installment No. 3 in the continuing saga, aptly titled "If There Be Thorns." The first printing, on June 1, was 2 1/2 million, the largest initial run in the history of Pocket See ANDREWS, H4, Col. 1 ANDREWS, From H1 Books, its publisher, and a hefty number by any standard: The first printing, in paperback, of John Jakes' "The Americans" was 3 million; "Princess Daisy" by Judith Krantz and "Rage of Angels" by Sidney Sheldon each had 2 1/2 million initial runs.In fact, all three of Andrews' books have been record breakers for Pocket Books. Booksellers from all across the country have reported that the Dollanganger books have the fastest rate of sale of any of the books coming into their stores. The publisher reports that surprisingly, teen-age girls apparently account for a significant percentage of the sales. The Wisconsin Library Association, in a 1980 survey of young adults, found that "Flowers" and "Petals" were first and second on the list of favorite books.
"Thorns" follows brother and sister Chris and Cathy, living as husband and wife, in their ranch redwood house north of San Francisco, where one day their child's evil grandmother, who had imprisoned her own children in the first novel, reappears. She hasn't been seen since the end of "Petals," and was believed to have been committed for life in a mental institution.
There will be other Dollanganger books, but before opus four appears, Pocket Books will publish this spring "My Sweet Audrina," Andrews' first novel away from the Dollanganger family. It will be part of a new hard-cover line from Pocket Books. The author, who is given to hyperbole, reports that she has 63 brief synopses of future novels tucked away. "I never allow an idea for a book to go unfinished," she says. If her publisher succeeds in broadening her appeal and her readership, or even in sustaining it, all the principals stand to receive a windfall. Andrews estimates that, thus far, she has earned in the vicinity of a million dollars.
"I think Andrews created her own genre," says Ann Patty, the clever young woman who is Andrews' editor. "You take a very romantic woman schooled on fairy tales and soap operas who has a little hint of Bette Davis lurking around and the combination is lethal. It's like the Brothers Grimm and 'Whatever Happened to Baby Jane' -- both sides of the coin, the angel and the cynic, but they're compatible. Andrews, while romantic, is also realistic. As is always the case, a person who has experienced a certain amount of pain has a lot more depth than a person who's always been happy."
Andrews' suffering has been both physical and emotional. As her own biographer, she tends toward dramatic excess, and it is often difficult to swallow what sounds like a first-draft plot tryout for a future novel. She is mildly flirtatious and has a good sense of humor, and one gets the impression that if asked to repeat incidents in her life, the embellishments might change depending on who's asking the questions, but the basic structure would remain the same.
"As a child, I really felt in my bones that I was not going to lead an ordinary life," she says. "I had psychic moments which showed me I was going to have trouble, and that eventually I was going to end up using crutches. I was very angry at the time. 'This can't be, this can't be,' I said. I used to watch movie actresses, how they walked and sat and backed up to a chair. I practiced it. Nobody was going to tell me I was going to end up on crutches. Yet I had visions where I would just see it. I also saw myself at an easel. I remembered seeing it as a kid. These visions occurred often, like fate preparing me so that I'd be able to cope, a sort of kindness to get me ready."
Too Good to Hurt
The saga of her disability has the heightened reality of a scene from a V.C. Andrews novel. It all began in her late teens. "I had a bout of growing bone which threw my body out of alignment," she says. "But the doctors would not believe me when I said my hip hurt. They said, 'You walk too gracefully, you can't possibly hurt, you look too good.' I found out that looking too good is a terrible way to go into a doctor's office: They don't take you seriously. They think women are vain anyway.
"When it finally became obvious that the bone spur had thrown my spine out of alignment, it led me into a bout with arthritis, which I needn't have had if they had taken the bone spur off immediately. This went on for four years, starting when I was about 18. Then they began to correct the damage with operations. I had four major ones and have one more coming up. I can have corrective surgery, but I'm a little leery of doctors because they made mistakes with me. One doctor had a small stroke while he was operating. The saw slipped and he cut off the socket of my right hip.
"I have to have a new replacement. But the operation is very serious for me, life-threatening. I'm not in pain now. I walk with crutches. I have adjusted to my way of living. I really don't think I'm missing out on too much. I think I'm happier than a lot of people who walk perfectly normal."
In anticipation of a rare caller, both she and her mother have obviously invested a great effort on their toilette. There's no denying that, in their time, both women managed to turn quite a few heads. These days, though, Andrews only receives visitors in a wheelchair, which places her at a disadvantage.
Andrews was one of three children born to William and Lillian Andrews in Portsmouth, Va. Her father was an introverted man who wanted a Navy career, but settled instead and supported his family as a tool and dye maker. They lived decently and contentedly.
"I was happy until I became an adolescent," Andrews reports. "Then life comes at you too fast. People think that when you mature physically, you mature mentally as well, but you don't. Then you get confused. I was very pretty, and some fathers of my little girlfriends made advances. This threw me. But I was always wise enough to get out, to run away. I did a lot of running away, disappearing suddenly."
Andrews graduated from high school and completed a four-year art course. After her father's death, when she was 20, the family moved to St. Louis and then to Arizona, mother and daughter returning to their native state in the early '70s. During this period Andrews supported herself respectably as an artist and portrait painter. But deep down she was restless, fueled by the instinctive knowledge that she was capable of a far greater degree of artistic expression. Thus in a girlish romantic gesture, presaging things to come, Andrews became a closet writer, secretly scribbling away at night, free from the scorn of her mother, who made jest of her idealistic ambitions.
For a novelist who has only been in print since 1979, V.C. Andrews' life is engulfed in fantasy. It is clear that she cannot contain her rampaging imagination within the confines of two covers. As best as one can discern, Andrews purchased a writer's handbook, because she found transitions difficult, and them plunged in, churning out page after page of handwritten prose. "After I mastered transitions, I bought an electric typewriter," she says. "I have never yet experienced writer's block."
The first unsolicited manuscript she sent out was her autobiography, veiled as fiction, titled "One Under a Parasol." It was consistently rejected. "Over the transom takes so long," Andrews moans. In a moment of frustration and pique, "Parasol" was torn up by its creator. "I really regret that," she says. But she kept on writing, which she does standing up -- often for stretches of eight hours -- because it's far more comfortable for her than working in the wheelchair, and along came another book, still on the closet shelf. "It could be a best seller if I rewrote it. It has a strong theme. But I wasn't a good writer then. It takes a lot of writing to become good, and it's hard work."
A breakthrough of sorts was achieved with a novel called "The Obsessed." This time Andrews tried to interest an agent in representing her, and one of them advised her that 290,000 words -- two boxes full of manuscript pages -- was too long and that she should try a briefer work. Motivated by even the faintest encouragement, she came up with a novel that was only 98 pages called "Flowers in the Attic."
At this point in Andrews' literary history fancy began to rear its head. Most everybody who saw the first skeletal version of "Flowers" seems to have responded to its primal charms, but there was little agreement on how to properly fashion it into a pop novel.
Some early readers suggested that Andrews get "more gutsy,"giving the fledgling author an official green light to "deal with all those unspeakable things my mother didn't want me to write about, which was exactly what I wanted to do in the first place." Andrews rewrote "Flowers," throwing in all the primary emotions and incestuous doings she originally envisioned and dedicated the work to -- that's right -- Mama. Ann Patty of Pocket Books scooped it up in June 1978 for $7,500. "I knew there was something special about it," the editor recalls.
The literary rumor mill, always envious and ready to swing into action when a nothing becomes a something, has it that "Flowers" began as one huge, sprawling mess that eventually was carved into the first three Dollanganger novels. While any number of innovative techniques have been employed in the making of V.C. Andrews, this is not one of them. "I told Anne there was a sequel to 'Flowers,' " Andrews says, "and that I had handwritten it. What was the point of typing it up until I had sold 'Flowers'?"
It was good business for Pocket Books to release Andrews' maiden effort as an original paperback novel. Soft-cover publishing is becoming the dominant format of the '80s, and mass market publishers have come to revel in and flaunt their marketing prowess and their increasingly savvy editorial hunches.
When hard-cover publishers bring out a first novel by an author no one has ever heard of, they are almost completely dependent on review attention to get the book rolling. Paperback houses bypass the critics. First, any major review space is rarely granted them by prominent publications; second, review space, particularly for popular fiction, is the last thing they seek. Pop paperbacks are written for readers, not critics. Andrews, for example, has received few good reviews on any of her books. Most have been of the tone used by a reviewer of "Flowers in the Attic" who wrote: "It may be the worst book I ever read."
The feeling among mass market houses is that their books are bought impulsively, and that the idle browser must literally be arrested either by an irresistible cover or by a name-brand author. Pocket Books had to come up with exactly the right kind of package for Andrews.
Milton Charles, the house's art director, eventually arrived at a look that has succeeded beyond anyone's dreams, with flashy cover designs by Myles Sprinzen and the eerie, haunting second-cover paintings of Jillian Hills. The front cover of "Flowers" shows a stark, red and gray house and has silver embossing. Employing the process known as die-cutting with a step-back painting, a child's face is pictured in a small attic window. The covers of "Petals" and "Thorns" are even more garish, and in the parlance of the trade, "jump off the racks."
Once Pocket Books decided to throw its entire weight behind "Flowers" -- a move in itself that must not be underestimated and can be credited in part to editor Patty -- they made it a lead title and moved with a feverish combination of in-house enthusiasm and an aggressive hard-sell marketing campaign. How, first, do you attract bookseller attention for a shocking, psychological thriller by an unknown writer? You hand out 25,000 free preview editions and 250,000 free chapter booklets and let word of mouth do the rest. Booksellers responded the same way readers did -- they couldn't wait for more.
"Flowers" was on the New York Times best-seller list for 14 weeks, and when word leaked out that there would be a sequel, the demand for it was ferocious enough to cause Pocket Books to advance the publication date by months. "Petals" became an immediate best seller, rose to the No. 1 position, and remained on the list for 19 weeks. Its popularity even caused "Flowers" to return to the charts for a brief stint. And then when "Thorns" was published in June, it was No. 2 on the New York Times best-seller list within two weeks and is still on the list. It also had enough power to pull "Flowers" back onto the list for a week.
Because of Andrews' disability, instead of relying on author interviews to publicize the book -- the publisher even neutered Andrews by dubbing her V.C., one of many valuable Ann Patty suggestions -- the house directed its attention to advertising and promotion.One radio spot proved so chillingly effective that it had to be temporarily withdrawn.
The commercialhad a cold, impersonal voice-over telling about a mother who locked her children in an attic, while in the background a terrified crying child was sobbing, "Mama, where are you?" over and over.
Out of the Attic
Now, with all the success of her books and all the expensive advertising and publicity, Andrews is coming out of the attic. She admits that she likes to live well. She boasts that for the first time in her life, she visited a furniture store and, without asking prices, racked up a $25,000 bill. She refers to the Virginia Beach ranch as "my starter house," her new mink wrap as "my starter fur," and makes all sorts of allusions to future luxuries, including "a nice Cadillac." Sensing an aura of nouveau richery, she quickly says, "nothing ostentatious, but I do like being comfortable."
In her office, a room rather ugly, underdecorated and out of sync with the doll-house quality of the rest of the place, there is a spiffy red electric typewriter and the proudest toy of all, her own Xerox machine. Coming next is a word processor.
But Andrews is no spendthrift. All the heavy-duty writing paraphernalia is tax deductible, and the author takes a great interest in such matters, despite having engaged three legal/financial advisers. She talks about stocks, bonds, tax shelters and incorporating with the kind of enthusiasm she usually reserves for describing her novels. She also boasts that contractually she is not going to "let Hollywood ruin my book." ("Flowers" has recently been optioned for six figures.) And she reports with glee that her works have been translated into Norwegian, Swedish, Portuguese, Dutch, Hebrew, Turkish, Italian and German.
Finally, like all authors, she complains about her publisher. Not that they aren't doing a terrific job, just that they aren't paying her enough money. "I'll never sell a book so cheap again," she wails, referring to the $75,000 advance she received for "Thorns." "I feel they've been niggardly with me so far."
She also resents the fact that her books were released first in paperback. While there are hard-cover editions of all her novels available now, published by Simon and Schuster, Pocket Books' parent, mostly for library sales, she yearns to be published first in hard-cover, the accepted rather than backward route.
When asked about the type of novel she writes, full of greed and incest and horror, Andrews laughs self-consciously and then asks, "Why do I write about such oddball situations? Why have an imagination if you don't go that way? I guess I'm just drawn to that sort of thing. I don't like everything to be explained by scientists who say there are no little green men from Mars. I don't like that, I want them to be there.
"I like things out of the ordinary. As a child when I was reading, I looked for different books that took me out of reality a little bit, that made something fantastic seem like it could happen. I loved Jules Verne and Edgar Allan Poe. I never had the conscious thought of wanting to escape into another world; it's just that I didn't see fairies dancing on the lawn, I didn't see giants and witches, and I wanted to."
As an adult, the fantastic creatures have been replaced by fantastic situations, by good counterbalanced by evil, the mundane in battle with the grotesque. Ann Patty, who Andrews believes "eggs me on to be my worst self" (which she loves), claims that the author's preoccupations, no matter how perverse, are what make her special and give her something of a Weltanschauung. "Look, I'm not pretending this woman is Tolstoy," Patty declares. "But she's a fantastic storyteller with a world view. What separates the writers who really hit is a world view. Plot is not ultimately enough. 'Flowers' is not really a plot novel; it is a novel of sensibility, perception and, in a funny way, introspection."
Andrews herself says rather simply: "I don't think anything that appears wonderful and shiny on its surface doesn't have a dark side to it. I never write a scene with a sunny day that there isn't a little cloud up there. I think that's realism." Andrews believes what she writes to the point that if a character has difficulty eating or sleeping, she can't eat or sleep. During the birth of "Flowers," she shed 20 of her usual 110 pounds. "It's like traumatizing myself deliberately," she says pridefully.
Because she is the recipient of a steady flow of fan mail, Andrews has proof that her message is coming across loud and clear. The letters reflect a broad range of readers, encompassing adolescents -- the obvious audience -- and their mothers as well. "Most everything the letters have in common," Andrews says, "is that the people relate to me, that I understand them. The children tell me things they could not tell their parents. One 57-year-old man wrote, 'I cried the whole way through, it was like my childhood when my stepfather punished me brutally and locked me in the attic. It was like you'd gotten ahold of my thought waves.' "
William Belk, one of the American hostages kept in captivity for 444 days in Iran, has reported that he read "Flowers" four times and recommends it to anyone who wants to experience the emotional aspect of solitary confinement. "If you read that you can understand our plight a little better and what we felt like in Iran," Belk has said, much to the pleasure of the author. One needn't possess a degree in psychology to glean that V.C. Andrews is a hostage of sorts herself, a prisoner living vicariously through her writing. Andrews will tell you a similar story. "It's not that I'm a hostage. That would mean that someone is deliberately holding me a prisoner. I can go out. I don't feel like a hostage. In fact, sometimes I rather like it." Andrews laughs, almost embarrassed by what she's about to say. "I always have a wonderful excuse not to see people I don't want to see. I find my characters much more interesting than the ones I meet.
"I've even gotten to the point that I don't like anyone's books but my own. I can play recluse if I want to, although I think every writer to a certain extent has to be a recluse or you can't think. I cannot lead a full social life and at the same time write novels because I'm very attuned to doing my hair and polishing my nails when I go out and I'd spend too much time with myself."
Andrews' forthrightness ceases when it comes to discussing her love life. "I have been in love, yes." Then, after some prodding, "I would hate to have the world without men. I had six chances to marry after my disability. I turned them all down because I didn't think I'd make a good wife. Before my disability I had chances too, but I thought I was too young, that I hadn't achieved anything.
"I never wanted to be an ordinary housewife in the kitchen. I used to look at my mother and her sisters and all the pretty young girl who got married. All of a sudden, they were drudges. 'I'm not going to let this happen to me!' I said. I had no intention of getting married till after 30, but life kinda threw me a little curve."
Andrews reports that even now she is not lacking suitors. "But are they after me or my money?" she giggles. "I don't know. Most men are put off by the wheelchair and crutches, yet once in a while I meet one who doesn't seem to notice them."
It is Andrews herself who reminds visitors about her physical impairment. Being with her for a long stretch, and warming to her strange blend of fancy intermingled with dagger-like shreds of reality, one tends to forget about her disability. She is attractive in the way a hybrid bloom can be pretty. Yet it is she herself who always returns to the subjects that seem to preoccupy her most -- her wheelchair and her mother. The former represents prison, the latter her prison guard. She reports that she and her mother are often locked in verbal battle, but in public the darts are sent only one way -- daughter to mama.
"Mothers wear two faces like most people," Andrews explains of Lillian's seeming docility. And, "little people aren't necessarily small in stature." She also chides her mother for placing an iced tea glass on the left rather than the right position at lunch. When she speaks about her books, particularly about the shocking, incestuous aspect of "Flowers," an underlying resentment toward motherhood comes through. "I don't see why people find the incest so shocking. I felt it would have happened naturally. It's the mother who is shocking. It's her fault they're in the attic in the first place."
While Andrews claims that, basically, she and her own mother get along, particularly when she is not treated like a child, she owns up to the fact that part of her self-consciousness about her disability can be laid at her mother's door. "In my family," she says, "everybody's very attractive, perfect. My mother doesn't deal well with my handicap. She makes me feel more uncomfortable than I would. She's embarrassed with it and that, in turn, embarrasses me, although I'm getting over it."
And other resentments too. "I used to be very bitter. I think if I had failed at writing, maybe I would be bitter now. I always wanted to be somebody exceptional, somebody different, who did something on her own, some creative thing. If I couldn't create, I think I might wanna die."