Since the publication of her first novel, “Going Home” in 1972, Danielle Steel has become a staple of the beach bag, as indispensable and reliable as a bottle of Coppertone. Her glamorous tales of love and heartbreak have captivated legions of book buyers — an estimated 800 million worldwide.
Some of this, of course, has to do with how many books she has written — 142 and counting — and how quickly she produces them. Her latest book, “Country,” is one of four she plans to publish this year. Over the course of her long, bountiful career, Steel also has written poetry, children’s books and lyrics — all while mothering nine children.
In an interview by e-mail from her home in Paris, Steel talked about her rise to popularity and why people shouldn’t call her books “beach reads” — or ask her for relationship advice.
Why do you think your books are so appealing to so many people?
I write about the struggles, defeats and victories we all experience in a wide variety of situations, and I think people get caught up in the stories and identify with them and the characters because they see themselves in them. And often, readers find hope in what I write, that they, too, will survive whatever they’re going through.
Did you always want to be a writer?
I started writing by accident. I have always been involved in the visual arts, and my dream throughout my childhood was to be a fashion designer. I have always been involved in fashion design and interior design; I went to Parsons School of Design [and New York University]. And now three of my daughters work in fashion — as stylists, consultants and designers. But my first job was as a translator, because I’m bilingual in English and French. My second job was in a small boutique ad agency, Supergirls, in New York. I had always written poetry as a child and young girl, and I was a voracious reader. At the ad agency, I began writing for our clients, one of whom was the publisher of Ladies’ Home Journal, and he encouraged me to try writing seriously and write a book. I took him at his word and wrote my first book [at 19], and that’s how it all started. And contrary to my early dreams, the art work became my hobby, and writing became my passion and life’s work. Which shows that you never know where life will take you, and what path will turn out to be the right one.
Your latest book, “Country,” tells the story of a woman who finds new love with a country star. How did you come up with this idea? Are you a country music fan?
The idea for “Country” just happened, which is how most of my books are conceived. Something just snags my interest and haunts me for a while. The ideas come out of the atmosphere, something I see or hear or a news event. I’ve never written about country music before, but I researched it very carefully, as I do all my books.
Can you tell us a bit about your own work as a lyricist?
I was asked to write lyrics by three French composers in France. I liked their music, and they liked my writing, and they thought a collaboration would be exciting, with each song telling a story. We made an album together [“Love Notes,” by Danielle Steel]. It was enormously challenging to learn something so new, but great fun to do it. I wrote the songs both in English and in French, and it took two years to produce the album and was a huge amount of work. It was also a new experience for me to work as part of a team, in collaboration with others [several arrangers, the three composers, three singers, seven musicians]. It was fascinating and very exciting, and I learned a lot from them.
What’s your favorite song?
My current favorite song, in a light vein, is “Happy,” by Pharrell Williams, because it really is so happy and makes everyone feel good.
You now write about four novels a year. How do you get it all done?
I take very little time off and work long, long hours, almost all the time. My family comes first and then my work. I never go out and “play” or see friends or go to social events if I have work to do. Work always comes before play for me. I’m very disciplined. I write in the daytime, but prefer to write at night, when all is peaceful, and often write for 20- to 22-hour stretches at a time. It’s physically brutal, but good for the books when you stay with it as long as you can, without interruption.
Of your books, which is your favorite?
My favorite book is always the one I am currently writing at the time, or just finished.
Is it true you don’t write on a computer?
I still write on my 1946 Olympia typewriter. I actually have several Olympias: my favorite and original in San Francisco, my No. 2 at my home in Paris and a room full of battered ones that I find in case I ever need them for spare parts. As typewriters go, Olympias are remarkable machines, and each one was partly handmade, so each is different and has a personality of its own.
Many of your books star successful women. Most of your readers are women. Have you considered writing a book that is about — and for — men?
Most of my readers are women, but many are men. And I have written some books that are more geared to men than women. “Daddy,” for instance, is about a man whose wife left him with three young children, and he has to cope with being a single father. I write about people and try to write about subjects that will interest men as well — wars, industries, the challenges men face in relationships. “Winners” was about a widowed man, bringing up his daughter alone and facing it with her when she has an accident that changes her life and his. It always touches me when men like my books, too.
Do people often ask you for relationship advice, and if so, what do you tell them?
When people ask me for relationship advice, I remind them that I am much better at solving relationship problems in books than in real life. As the writer, I have an overview that is a much easier perspective than when facing one’s own problems, or those of friends.
People often say that Danielle Steel is the ultimate beach read. What makes your books so great for a summer day?
I’d like to think that my books are more than a “beach read,” since I put my heart and soul into them and work so hard to give them depth and meaning to my readers.
What do you read on the beach?
Most of the time, I read my own books in some form, because I am always editing, correcting, polishing, re-writing, re-reading. I never get enough time to read other people’s work, but I enjoy it when I do. Reading someone else’s work is a real holiday for me.
Nora Krug is a contributing editor at Book World.