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SIDNEY SHELDON talks about reading, writing and how he dreamed of 'Jeannie'

September 28, 1997|Ed Leibowitz

From the cheerful chastity of his screenplays for "The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer" (for which he won a screenwriting Oscar in 1947) and "Easter Parade," to the innocent titillation of his TV confections "I Dream of Jeannie" and "Hart to Hart," to stupendously best-selling popular fiction such as "The Other Side of Midnight," Sidney Sheldon has made a career of pulling plums out of whatever pop cultural pies he's plunged his thumb into. We talked to the 80-year-old writer at his Holmby Hills home just before the release of his 15th novel, "The Best Laid Plans," which chronicles the affairs--romantic and otherwise--of a newspaper publisher and an American president.

Q: According to the Guinness Book of World Records, you're the most translated author in the world.

A: They checked it out, and I'm in 51 languages in 180 countries. And the sales now--they gave me a party in New York to celebrate the sale of my 275 millionth book.

Q: How do you manage to appeal to such a wide audience?

A: If you sit down and say, "How am I going to please a truck driver and a schoolteacher?" you'd go crazy. That won't make it a bestseller. What makes a bestseller is the reader caring about the characters. I'm read by the royal family, I'm read by truck drivers in India and schoolteachers in Norway.

Q: Tell us, please, about "I Dream of Jeannie."

A: I knew there had been pictures about genies before, but it was always Burl Ives--some big man saying, "What can I do for you?" And I thought it would be fun to have a beautiful, nubile young woman saying, "What can I do for you?"

Q: And there will be a "Jeannie" movie?

A: They're preparing a screenplay for it at Columbia right now.

Q: It is, of course, complete coincidence that your latest protagonist, Oliver Russell, happens to be a charismatic and youthful Southern governor with a reputation for philandering who ascends to the presidency, right?

A: The characters are fictional. All fictional.

Q: As prolific as you've been, how do you actually write?

A: I dictate everything to a secretary and she transcribes it. I'll do up to 50 pages a day, but when I get those pages, I'll do a dozen to 15 total rewrites before I ever let my publisher see them.

Q: So you essentially talk your story first, in the oral tradition.

A: I was in Morocco a couple of years ago, and I went to the souk--the big outdoor market--and in one area there was a fire-eater with a crowd around him. But in another there was a circle of people sitting and a man just talking. I asked my guide what was going on, and he said, "the man is a storyteller, they pay him to tell them stories." I felt I was related to that man.

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