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A drive as strong as Steel

The bestselling author, who just published her 75th book, says she just wants to work forever.

July 22, 2008|Mark Kennedy | Associated Press

NEW YORK -- It's only 9:33 a.m., but already Danielle Steel is having a lousy morning.

She's in a Rockefeller Plaza dressing room, having her hair tugged and her makeup tweaked. She's endured questioning from Matt Lauer on the "Today" show and soon faces a second round with Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb.

Crowding around are fashionably dressed publicists, agents with noisy cellphones, burly camera operators and various preening hangers-on. The plaza outside vibrates with throngs of screaming fans, aching to rub shoulders with the famous -- anyone famous.

Steel hates it.

From her pained expression, it's clear she'd rather be anywhere but here, her zone of privacy now no bigger than Al Roker himself.

"This is so not me," she says. "I hate having the spotlight on me. I hate being the focus of attention. I like being the invisible observer. So this is very painful."

Steel, who turns 61 in August, doesn't need fame: Her name is virtually synonymous with the romance novel. She doesn't need cash: About 570 million of her books are in print. What she wants is a Garbo moment: to be left alone, to write more.

So why would she agree to an interview sandwiched between TV appearances? "Occasionally, I have to stick my nose out the door," she says, warily. "Otherwise, people are going to think I'm 100 years old and dead."

Any visit to a bookstore would disprove that -- an ever-lengthening list of such Steel titles as "The Wedding," "Sisters" and "Second Chance" that crowd multiple shelves. She knocks out about three books a year.

What brings her to New York and the media glare is her 75th book, "Rogue," the tale of a sober-minded psychologist and her playboy ex-husband "whose kisses were as intoxicating as everything else about him." When one of the two considers remarriage, their lives take a turn.

The novel, which Publishers Weekly called "a familiar formula with fresh results," debuted at No. 4 on the New York Times list of bestsellers, No. 8 on USA Today's list and No. 6 on the Wall Street Journal's.

Atop such lists is a familiar Steel perch. Between 1996 and 2003, Publishers Weekly reports that 16 of her novels were bestsellers, and the Guinness World Records once cited her for having at least one book on the New York Times list for 390 consecutive weeks.

All that strangely doesn't calm her. She may have been writing novels since she was 19, but there's an insecurity that remains untouched, no matter the plaudits.

"I still never finish a book without being terrified I can't write another one. I never start one without being terrified I can't finish it," she says. "It's sort of a torturous process."

While it's hard to generalize, Steel's books are usually populated by smart, attractive heroines juggling work, love and family. About one in five are historical, set in, say, pre-World War II Europe or the Russian Revolution. Some tackle larger issues, such as homelessness in "Safe Harbour," domestic violence in "Journey," infertility in "Mixed Blessings" and even cloning in "The Klone and I."

"I think the one recurring theme that I didn't used to be aware of is that I try to give people hope," she says. "I think that's so important. Love is wonderful, but hope is more important. Without hope you can't live."

Critics haven't always appreciated the effort, often recoiling from her shallower characters, brand-name dropping and the sugary aftertaste her books leave behind.

No matter -- the woman is critic-proof, a Teflon one-woman publishing phenomenon. Steel is a leader of a genre that generated $1.37 billion in book sales in 2006.

How does Steel handle critics? "It's very simple. I haven't read them in years," she says. "My feelings get very hurt when people say mean things about me. The trouble I find is that they don't just criticize the book -- they then get nasty personally."

Her mini-empire also includes 15 children's books, multiple adaptations for TV or DVDs, a volume of poetry and even a perfume from Elizabeth Arden.

The latest book came out of her head the way most of the others did, with a mixture of happenstance, a keen eye for potential drama and a dose of mystery.

"They just happen. I can't tell you how they come. I hear about an issue that I like or something comes to mind -- they always kind of drop out of the sky," she says. "I mean, I was in a closet some years ago putting stuff away and I heard a noise and I suddenly thought, 'A book about a ghost!' So I wrote a book about a ghost and I had to construct this whole elaborate thing to get there."

That book, naturally, became "The Ghost." Another time, inspiration came during a dinner party: Steel was seated next to a friend who confessed that his wife had left him with three young children. It led to the book, "Daddy."

She pounds out all her novels in a tiny office in her San Francisco home, where she lives half the year. (The other half is spent in Paris, where she refuses to work.)

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