When her customers talk, Sylvie F. Sommerfield listens.
She runs the Westgate Beauty Salon, where the gossip often turns to faltering marriages, agonizing affairs, or the travails of raising children.
From that chitchat while cutting and curling hair, Sommerfield fashions historical romance novels.
"As a beautician, believe me, you hear all the stories," said Sommerfield, a 54-year-old grandmother. "People tell their doctor, their psychologist and their beautician everything."
'Little Side Money'
Since 1979 Sommerfield has turned out 13 romance novels, creating characters out of her customers. More than 4 million copies of her books are in print, boosting her income to six figures a year. Currently she is under contract with Zebra Books to write another 13 novels, heady stuff for a beautician who hoped only "to make a little side money."
"Isn't it wonderful?" she said in her new office at Sommerfield Enterprises Inc., a few doors from her beauty salon. "Could you ask for a better thing than this? To get paid and learn to do better what you really enjoy doing in the first place.
"Once in a while, somebody will laugh and say, 'Please don't put that in a book.' However nobody has really said anything about it. They've been pretty good."
Encouraged by her father, an avid reader and self-taught historian, Sommerfield developed an early fondness for literature while growing up on a western Pennsylvania farm. She went to work for an insurance agency after graduating from high school in 1949 because "money was very, very tight in our family."
During her spare time, she "played around" writing short stories and poetry. However, all her literary efforts were set aside when she married John Fusco in 1953 and had two children. "I just devoted myself to being a wife and mother," she said.
Twenty years ago, the bored homemaker took over Westgate Beauty Salon from her brother-in-law. She obtained a hairdresser's license a few years later and soon was managing a staff of up to five stylists and a clientele of more than 100 customers a day.
"However, always in the back of my mind was the fact that I wanted to be a writer," she said.
It was in mid-1979, at age 47, that she decided to write a book at her husband's urging.
By the end of 1979, Sommerfield had produced three 600-page novels in her spare time. The manuscripts were rejected by several publishers before being accepted by New York's Zebra Books, which publishes romances, adventures, Westerns and Gothics, as well as mainstream novels.
Leslie Gelbman, Zebra's editorial director, recalls thinking: "This woman has talent, and I think we can develop her into a best-selling author."
Before the paperback books could be released, however, Sommerfield was forced to undergo surgery in March, 1980, because of a cranial aneurysm. Despite a long, painful recovery, she managed to write two more novels by the end of the year.
Her first book, "Erin's Ecstasy," was released by Zebra in October, 1980. "Tazia's Torment" appeared in November, followed by "Rebel Pride" in December.
Sommerfield was "in total shock" when she got a multibook contract offer from Zebra. Her next two novels fared well, with sales averaging 70,000 copies on each of the books' first printings.
Her 12th novel, "Savage Kiss," was released this fall. The 13th, "Captive Embrace," is due out in April.
A main theme in all of Sommerfield's books is commitment, according to Kathe Robin, a reviewer for Romantic Times, a bimonthly trade publication in Brooklyn Heights, N.Y.
"She's able to pair up more characters happily ever after than any other author in the genre," said Robin, who estimates that there are 600 to 700 romance novelists in the United States.
"When you read Sommerfield's books, you feel a deep sense of commitment that the characters have for each other . . . the commitment that we all make in our lives every single day."
Sommerfield gets 10 to 15 letters a day from readers around the world who "love her endings," said her husband, a financial investor who retired in 1980 to manage his wife's career.
Sommerfield said a few people have commented: "Oh, you write THOSE books." However, she said: "I don't write anything I'm ashamed of. I keep it as clean as possible . . . the context is love, honor, respect and marriage."
Because of her increasingly busy writing career, Sommerfield is spending less time these days at the beauty salon. She's whittled her workload to about a dozen longtime customers and plans to turn the business over to an employee at the end of the year.