For a successful author--and she is a very successful author--Janet Evanovich, 59, has many unfashionable tastes. She loved her years as a stay-at-home mom, in an era when feminist, have-it-all ideals reigned. She adores romance novels, though many women read them only with the curtains drawn. She is addicted to junk food, never mind that tofu is de rigeur.
Remnants of her blue-collar childhood? Maybe. But Evanovich can well afford to be out of the loop, since her eight crime novels--the first of which she published when she was 51--have made her a top national seller in the genre. In its first week of publication, her latest, Hard Eight, jumped to No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list.
Evanovich grew up in South River, N.J., where her father was a machinist and her mother a housewife. She met her husband Pete in high school and married him in college. She then had a daughter and son and followed Pete, who has a Ph.D. in mathematics, as he changed postings in the Navy. "I loved being a housewife," she recalls. "I thought it was very creative. You got to make things--cooking, baking, sewing. I got to color in coloring books with the kids and build forts out of blocks." But she couldn't shake a nagging desire to write.
Evanovich, by then in her 30s, worked on the typewriter in Pete's office after the kids went to bed. She knew no writers or agents. She began racking up rejection letters. Years went by; her career went nowhere. Advised by someone to try romance novels--which she had never read--she studied up and wrote a few. But when she crossed the 10-year mark in trying to get published, she burned all her papers and sat on a curb and cried. A few months later, an editor called to buy one of her books. Even now, Evanovich gets teary at the memory.
After publishing a dozen romance novels, Evanovich switched to a crime series. "I decided that if I was going to stay with something for a long time, it would have to go back to New Jersey," she says. Not wanting to make her heroine, Stephanie Plum, a private eye or a cop, Evanovich made her a bounty hunter who tracks down suspects who jump bail. "It had such cachet, the Wild West thing," she says. "It was something with a lot of personal freedom to it. Then I had to find out what bounty hunters do." She also had to learn to shoot a gun so Stephanie could.
She plunked Stephanie and a cast of oddball characters--Lula, the plump ex-hooker; Grandma Mazur, who hangs out at Stiva's Funeral Home because it's "the nerve center of the news network"--in an area known as the Burb, near Trenton (also near Evanovich's hometown). "If the Burb was a food, it would be pasta," writes Evanovich. "Penne rigate, ziti, fettuccine, spaghetti and elbow macaroni."
It has been a winning recipe. Hard Eight carries on the antic tradition. Stephanie is stalked by a man in a bunny suit, a dead body shows up on her couch, and her car is blown up. She boomerangs randily between her two love interests, a bond enforcer named Ranger and a cop called Joe Morelli, written by Evanovich with the flair of a former romance writer. Evanovich also knows how to keep the laughs coming: "Fortunately, the flow on the Turnpike was steady. Good Jersey traffic. Bumper to bumper at 80 miles an hour."