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The Hardest Working Woman in Trash Fiction : She’s Smart. She’s Sexy. And She Sells. So How Come Judith Krantz Can’t Get No Respect?

<i> Margy Rochlin is a contributing editor of this magazine. </i>

HELEN GURLEY BROWN is talking about Judith Krantz, who used to write for Cosmopolitan magazine and who also is a close friend. In her famous urgent whisper, Brown says, “There are people who say to Judy, ‘Why don’t you write something good ? Something literary ? Something you can be proud of?’ Well, I’d like to put a bullet through those people’s heads.”

Brown stops, carefully weighing the savageness of her statement. “No,” she reconsiders. “First I’d like to pull out their fingernails, one by one, then put a bullet through their heads. Because they’re just"--she searches for the right invective--" pretentious jerks .”

LEAVE IT TO her friends to come up with fantasies of violent retribution. Judith Krantz prefers to be nice. Nice, as in ignoring the greasy lake that forms on her plate when the waiter at Le Dome spills San Pellegrino water onto her veal-and-chicken boudin. Nice, as in accepting what people think about blockbuster novels: that anyone can write one given a string of lunch breaks and low enough standards.

So when she’s quizzed about loftier aspirations--which “happens so often that I don’t even get insulted"--Krantz smiles and replies, “I write the best books that I know how. I can’t write any better than this.”

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Of course, privately, the Wellesley graduate tosses her hands into the air and laughs. “You know, people think that because I had a good education, I’m not writing on the level that I should. They think I’m harboring some slim little intellectual volume, that I am really Isaac Bashevis Singer in disguise.”

Back in her Bel-Air home, 62-year-old Krantz looks around her office. It’s a padded cell, really. The walls are soundproof, cushioned and upholstered in a leaf-green-and-orange floral fabric that sinks in at the poke of a fingertip. This is the room where, when she is composing one of her 500-plus-page sagas full of ka-boom! sex and frenzied consumerism, she spends six and a half hours a day, five days a week, with the exception of Wednesday afternoons. (For the past 19 years, she’s dedicated part of one day every week to getting her beige pouf done at Aida Grey in Beverly Hills.) She works in an old silk blouse and sweat pants, wearing layers of sweaters that she’ll shed throughout the day--when things are going well, Krantz’s body temperature sizzles. For nine solid months, the only other breaks in her workday come when she nibbles on her spartan lunch of iced tea and a chicken salad sandwich, or speaks with her blond assistant, Edwina Lloyd, or accepts phone calls from her husband, television producer Steve Krantz.

Krantz gives the tiniest of sighs and contemplates her brand-new red tennis shoes, so small they should be bronzed. “What all this indicates to me is that people think what I’m writing is fun, that they really don’t understand how hard ‘fun’ is to write,” she says, her voice rising slightly. “It’s hard to entertain people and make a story move just like that.

She knows that her critics have no idea what it takes, how much preparation is required before she taps out a single sentence on her Macintosh Plus computer. They don’t care about how much interviewing and research go into building the novels’ heavily populated worlds. If few of Krantz’s theatrically romantic figures could exist in real life, she nonetheless tries to construct for them an accurate reality. Inside the cabinets of her wood worktable, she’s stored stacks of brown spiral binders, the end result of investigations so thorough that she’ll end up using “only 1% of the information” she’s collected. Just as in the days when she was a journalist, she’ll call up experts out of the blue and pick their brains or set off on a fact-finding mission in her chauffeur-driven limousine. When Red Appleton, a 40ish-but-still-beautiful fashion model, goes to Louis Vuitton at South Coast Plaza to check out an 18-karat-gold Gae Aulenti fountain pen for Mike Kilkullen, her 60ish-but-still-virile fiance, Krantz herself has visited the place and priced the thing.

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Red and Mike are central characters in “Dazzle,” Krantz’s just-published book, which, if all things go as anticipated, will rise dreamily to the top of the bestseller lists. That’s what “Scruples,” “Princess Daisy,” “Mistral’s Daughter” and “I’ll Take Manhattan” did in 1978, 1980, 1983 and 1986, respectively. Only one Krantz book in 12 years--"Till We Meet Again,” in 1988--stuck at No. 2. All told, 60 million copies of her books (paperback and hardcover) have sold worldwide, in 30 languages.

Over the years, Krantz has displayed a knack for ensuring such sales. Perhaps this is because, as she is fond of saying, she is “an advertising man’s daughter.” She has extremely strict ideas regarding the promotion and marketing of her books. In fact, says Crown Publishing Group executive vice president Michelle Sidrane: “We consider her a partner in that process.”

Krantz know s her readers’ turn-offs and turn-ons. When it comes time to approve the dust-jacket copy, Krantz will rewrite it herself if it doesn’t suit her. She altered the “Dazzle” blurb, for example, so that it focused on the leading lady, Jazz Kilkullen: “a captivating, compelling, complex creature who could only exist in the 1990s . . . an electric hussy” who “is potent, determined and fierce as she fights for those she loves.” Even the retouching of Krantz’s publicity photographs falls within her domain: She makes sure that not too many age lines are airbrushed out because “that way, you look real but not plastic.”

These extra-credit activities perhaps inspired “The Packaging of Judith Krantz,” which appeared in the New York Times Magazine in 1980. It was this article, Krantz contends, that helped establish her reputation as nothing more than a cleverly hyped commodity: “Publishing’s answer to, I don’t know . . . Debbie Reynolds or something.”

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Much of the lengthy treatise covered Krantz’s participation in the marketing of her novels. The rest fastidiously documented the effect that her record-breaking $3,208,875 fee for the paperback rights to “Princess Daisy” had within the publishing industry.

One of the most incendiary quotations in the New York Times piece came from Roger W. Straus Jr., president of the prestigious publishing house Farrar, Straus & Giroux, who called Krantz’s giant paycheck “bad for publishers and bad for writers; bad for the whole publishing environment.”

Straus was one of many who were critical of Krantz and her windfall. “It was unbelievable,” says Krantz. “People acted as if I had actually put a gun to someone’s head, like Bonnie and Clyde, and said, ‘Your money or your life.’ ” So vitriolic was the response that she began to theorize about the other forces that might have caused such a reaction. “Maybe,” went one hypothesis, “the idea of a woman making that much money was too outrageous.” Or was it her subject matter? “I had written about the fashion industry,” Krantz postulated, “and even though it is one of the biggest industries in the United States, everyone takes it for granted.” Two years passed before she stopped feeling guilty about her landmark deal, stopped feeling as if she’d been “run over by a truck.”

In Krantz’s tales, one is always assured of both a happy ending and villains who, in coming to appreciate the heroine’s finer qualities, apologize for the wickedness of their words and deeds. A decade later, Roger Straus, in his own way, almost follows this character arc. Almost. Krantz’s writing, he concludes, “may be crap, which from a literary standpoint it certainly is,” but now he feels she has evolved into a supportive component of the publishing industry. “Somebody who walks in to buy a Judith Krantz,” he explains, “might stumble across a good book that they might buy for their aging uncle or for their bright son.”

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But when Krantz is asked to envision a chance encounter with Straus, her script includes long-awaited, if subtle, revenge. “I would be really nice to him,” she says, clapping her hands together merrily. “I would be so warm and friendly that it’d make him worry that he’d been so mean to me.”

ON A HOT AFTERNOON in July, the only thing troubling Krantz is finishing the final corrections on the “Dazzle” galleys. The proofs bear her spidery red-ink notations, evidence of Krantz’s ability to pick up on typos and grammatical errors as well as anything that is not perfectly Krantzian. “Look here,” she says, pointing to a line. “They wanted to lower-case ‘traffic school,’ but I insisted on capital letters. I told them, ‘You don’t lowercase anything so horrendous.’ ”

And this is just one of the editorial battles in which, as she says, she will always be “an absolute guaranteed winner.” Before Krantz, Crown Publishers Inc. was a house almost totally bereft of authors who appealed to the female demographic. Small wonder that Crown now places a certain trust in Krantz’s intuition about her own writing.

Krantz’s story proposals have shrunk from 40 pages to a brief two-sheet outline, no longer than an interoffice memo. And because she prefers that only her assistant and her husband view her works-in-progress, her weighty opuses arrive (usually before schedule, usually on a Friday) at her current co-publishers, Crown and Bantam Books, “as a happy surprise,” says Betty Prashker, Krantz’s Crown editor since 1981. And because “Judy is a self-editor and very much a perfectionist,” her books appear in print almost exactly as she first submits them.

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This arrangement may be unusual, but it is hardly risky. In whatever way Krantz’s latest manuscript might diverge from its predecessors, there is always the great certainty that the reader will find the kind of post-feminist, have-it-all heroine who has intense career ambitions, a shopping disorder, an unquenchable libido and a rather convoluted existence. In the ripe world of Jazz Kilkullen, the top celebrity photographer of “Dazzle,” for example, there are two sinister half sisters, three dashing suitors and the potential for her to single-handedly save a portion of the Orange County coastline from Hong Kong developers.

Krantz’s style is characterized by its remarkable specificity. Krantz isn’t one to accept any conventional notions about what does or does not warrant physical description. To picture Jazz’s movie-star boyfriend, Sam Butler, for example, one is first alerted to the fact that he can’t “disguise the absolute masculinity of his features, the strong, square jaw, the straight nose, the thick, almost flaxen blond hair, the resolute blue-beyond-blue eyes, the wide, determined mouth, all arranged in a way that would have left a crowd of Victorian maidens in a mass swoon. . . .”

And then there is her flair for soft-core aerobisex. When Krantz’s characters make love, the action seems to downshift into slow-motion. “If you’re going to write a good erotic scene,” Krantz says, “you have to go into details. I don’t believe in thunder and lightning and fireworks exploding. I think people what to know what’s happening.”

So when Jazz kisses Sam, for example, she doesn’t just pucker up. She brings “her mouth down on him like a gift, gently, tenderly, with a steadily increasing pressure until she couldn’t wait any longer to learn his mouth with the firm tip of her tongue.”

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Few literary critics have taken to Krantz’s rococo writing style. In “Till We Meet Again,” “there is not an insight, a clever line, a hint of humor, a neat turn of phrase, a felicitous description,” one of Krantz’s typical notices goes. Not surprisingly, Krantz doesn’t read her reviews (“What you don’t know can’t hurt you”) and thinks that critics review her books unfairly. “They don’t judge them for what they are--a weekend read, entertainment,” she says. Then she makes a joke: “My books are sent to that Japanese woman at the New York Times whose name I can never pronounce.” Michiko Kakutani? “Right. Can you imagine? That’s like sending an animal to the slaughterhouse.”

Yet the critical mudwash has hardly affected her book sales. She’s not beyond invoking the rallying cry of the commercial novelist: “My fans don’t care about reviews.” But there is a more ironic explanation, too. British critic Clive James once wrote that Krantz has “the opposite of pictorial talent. The more details she piles on, the less clear things become.” But crisp, lucid turns of phrase aren’t what a trashy-book junkie is after. “We live in a culture where lots of women feel very empty,” says feminist Madonne Minor, author of “Insatiable Appetites,” which considers the phenomena of American bestsellers. “They feel that they haven’t been nurtured, that they haven’t been fed. And what they love is talk of material culture. They love talk of shopping sprees. They love detail. Repetitive romance novel reading is what fills up those empty fantasy spaces.”

A POLTERGEISThas taken up residence in Krantz’s brown plastic beeper, the one she keeps by her plate to summon the maid. Sometimes she presses the button and nothing happens. On other occasions, it goes off by itself, calling upon the maid to serve no one in particular. Happily, on this afternoon, there is mechanical triumph: Krantz aims the device toward the kitchen and out comes the maid with lunch, a large china platter of cold-roasted chicken, slim green asparagus and a delicate white-rice salad.

It’s easy to see how studiously Krantz choreographs a life full of elegance. Everything seems precisely thought out. Even her country garden, planted just outside her wide dining-room windows, is one that she collaborated on with landscape architect James Yoch to give the illusion of being in Provence. The occasional soaring golf ball, followed by enraged cursing, is, of course, a little out of place. But there is only so much choreography can do: Her two-story mansion sits directly behind the 17th hole of the links at the Bel-Air Country Club.

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The style in which Krantz lives, of course, is a lot like the style her characters at least aspire to. Footed crystal schnapps glasses and topiary are the mise en scene of Krantz’ s oeuvre. One can’t help but wonder about her behavior as well. Take her female characters’ frequent habit of tearing apart their closets for the outfit that will have a precise effect upon a particular person. How could one not speculate about how much time Krantz put into selecting her clothing today, in achieving that just-so jauntiness conveyed by her blue Chanel blazer, blue-and-white striped blouse and loosely knotted red dotted-swiss necktie?

And given her early childhood, it’s impossible not to understand why the poor-little-rich-girl theme is so common in her work. She was born in Manhattan on Jan. 9, 1928, on Christmas break during her mother’s senior year in college. After having emigrated from Lithuania to the United States at the age of 4, Mary Brager spent her teen-age years working at a chocolate factory to support her family. It wasn’t until after she married that she found time for education and, finally, a profession as a civil-rights lawyer. By then, she and her husband, Jack Tarcher, owner of a booming advertising agency, had taken up residence in a vast apartment on Central Park West, staffed by five servants, including a laundress.

So wedded were her parents to their careers and to the night-life demands of their liberal political activism that perhaps in another era the Tarchers would have forgone a family. Instead, they relinquished much of the responsibility for their children’s upbringing--Krantz’s sister, Mimi Brien, is a financial adviser, and her brother, Jeremy Tarcher, is a publisher--to a succession of nannies and to their independent older daughter, Judith. “Judy would help me with my homework. She gave me tips for how to look best,” Brien says. “She would intercede between me and my mother. It was less sisters. To me, Judy was Mommy.”

Their parents’ legacy, according to Krantz, consists of a love of the written word, bestowed upon her by her self-educated father, and a fierce work ethic, the product of her mother’s fears that her daughters would turn into “spoiled Marjorie Morningstar types.”

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As a student at the exclusive Birch Wathen School in Manhattan, Krantz was the brightest, the scrawniest and the first to raise her hand. And, after skipping two grades, she would always be the youngest. Her classmates could have exiled her for any of those reasons, but she sealed her fate by being “the biggest, most impossible teacher’s pet.”

“I was horrendously unpopular,” she says. “I was always left out of the other girls’ cabals. I was not invited to all the birthday parties. I was never part of the in group.” Her mother, solely interested in her daughter’s triumphs, never noticed that mention of friends was absent from little Judith’s stories about school.

Few things get an audience behind a character quicker than the struggle of personal transformation; Krantz frequently deploys this time-tested plot device, devoting long passages to her heroines’ attempts to better themselves through low-calorie diets and sheer force of will. She attempted a similar transformation in high school, resolving to change her social status by taking summer jobs to pay for extra clothes. “I thought if I had the right kind of argyle sweater, the right kind of plaid skirt, that would make them like me. Nothing worked.” Finally, her own metamorphosis, less a matter of will than circumstance, occurred just before her 17th birthday.

Upon entering Wellesley College in 1944, Krantz found herself surrounded by equally sharp students who were unaware that she should be treated as an outcast. At Wellesley, she was “Torchy.” The suggestive nickname was a derivation of her maiden name, and maybe had something to do with her dorm record: 13 dates with 13 different boys on 13 consecutive nights. “I had every football weekend already spoken for up and down the Princeton-Harvard-Yale-Dartmouth circuit,” she says, in the manner of one who still finds great reassurance in this achievement.

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Shortly after graduation, she found herself on the outside again. On a family vacation in Europe, her parents consented to leave her in France, in the care of a Parisian family, on the condition that she return home fluent in French. This time, if she felt apart from things, she had the language barrier to blame. But when she finally began to translate the household post-dinner table talk, Krantz discovered that the gossip was almost exclusively about sex. When she tried to join in, her landlady silenced her with a laugh. “They’d say, ‘You have no right to an opinion; you’re a virgin.’ ”

It was the first time in her life that Krantz found the idea of chastity unsophisticated. One can envision the 5-foot-2-inch American in Paris absorbing all this frank talk of seduction and technique. Before leaving France, she saw to it that she obtained the experience necessary to be included in the coffee klatch.

When she describes her return to Manhattan, it’s easy to imagine Krantz as the madcap ‘50s bachelorette, throwing wild but inexpensive cocktail parties, making ends meet on her salary as an accessories editor at Good Housekeeping. But all that ended when former high school classmate Barbara Walters--then producer of a public affairs show for the local NBC-TV station--introduced her to the rangy, good-looking head of programming, Steve Krantz. “I fell in love with him the minute I saw him,” she says.

Anyone questioning the Krantzes’ closeness--the pair married in 1954--has only to watch them in action. After almost four decades of marriage, deeply tanned Steve Krantz can shuffle into a room and his wife will clasp both his hands in hers then send him an air kiss and a positively kittenish love-look. In other words, the Krantzes still carry on flirtatiously:

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SHE: I was just saying that there wasn’t any man in the world who could have tempted me out of the comfortable tradition of virginity . . . until I met you. (Pause.) And if you believe that, you’ll believe anything.

HE: I think Bruno Hauptmann could have tempted you out of your virginity.

This is where the real-life story seems to diverge from the plot. It is not uncommon for people to find it difficult to connect her books’ explicit passages with the reality of the diminutive and happily married Judith Krantz. “It’s always been, ‘Gee, you look so small and helpless. You look like a lady. Where did this sexual imagination come from? " says Krantz with an exasperated look. “And I don’t see what my height or my having two kids or my being married for 36 years has to do with it. It’s there .”

KRANTZ IS IN HER SPACIOUS master bathroom while a makeup artist in black leggings and a leopard-print shirt glues individual false eyelashes onto her eyelids. With an old Harry Langdon publicity shot as reference, Krantz bubbles over with exacting instructions about what it takes to make her camera-ready. Despite an occasional flash of self-consciousness, Krantz loves controlling her own press encounters. When the photographer peeks his head in the door, she directs him to a wall of five framed book jackets, where the words JUDITH KRANTZ grow larger and larger chronologically, until the titles start to seem like a vague afterthought. “It’s like my ‘Pilgrim’s Progress,’ ” she says, then suggests he snap her photograph there. And though she comes across as unguarded, it occasionally appears that she is anything but. She ended one long interview with a review of her own performance: “I think I came off . . . very open.”

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If Krantz has always fixated on the most microscopic of matters, it is because she believed that “the sale of every copy” hinges on her input. It was she who insisted, for example, that Francesco Scavullo take a $14,000 back-jacket photograph for “Scruples” because “I thought women should be able to turn the book over and see that Scavullo took the picture, that I really knew what (was glamorous).” The author remembers finding herself in the back room of a bookstore forlornly surrounded by towering stacks of books by Sidney Sheldon and Colleen McCullough. “Then, I thought to myself, ‘Well, I’m here and they’re not.’ I knew that the store couldn’t return the copies if they were signed,” she says. “So I took off my shoes and signed all 350 copies of ‘Scruples.’ ”

Two years later, she would discover an even more effective promotional tool--the television miniseries. A three-part, six-hour CBS version of “Scruples” was the second-highest-rated miniseries of 1980 (“Guyana: the Jim Jones Story,” based on the Jonestown Massacre, held the top spot, but, as Krantz jokes, “that’s only because it was four hours long and everybody was waiting to see them drink the Kool-Aid”). Like clockwork, about 24 months after each book was published, it has shown up as a TV extravaganza. In fact, the small-screen dramas have been so perfect an arena for Krantz’s overblown characters and plots that they have become an integral part of the book sales process. They show up on television, which resuscitates the paperback, back on the stands with a new tie-in cover.

The miniseries form also allows Krantz and her husband a chance to work together. Steve Krantz, who has developed such TV series as “Hazel” and produced feature films, among them “Fritz the Cat,” served as producer on four televised translations of his wife’s work (he was otherwise employed during “Scruples”). That Steve Krantz takes pride in this partnership’s impeccable track record is clear. When asked, he will provide a list detailing not just titles and airdates but a precise breakdown of rating and share percentages. “Judith,” he adds, “is the only author who has had all of her novels dramatized.”

In the middle of Krantz’s bathroom is a chaise longue where she has deposited her publisher’s missive outlining the upcoming promotional plans for “Dazzle"--consumer contests, a billboard on Sunset Boulevard, an attempt to “dazzle” members of the trade and key reviewers (even Michiko Kakutani)--with bound galleys wrapped in “dazzling” paper. Later, according to Wendy Klemick, Crown’s former vice president of marketing, promotions and advertising will place back-lit “Dazzle” mini-billboards in malls throughout the country, assuring “65 million gross impressions.”

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Krantz no longer has to crisscross the globe to flack her latest novel. Now technology has rendered the exhausting book tours unnecessary; here in Los Angeles, she’ll beam off 45 different interviews via satellite.

On television and radio, she’s always been a natural. She comes off much as she does in real life--energetic, quick-witted, self-deprecating. Nice. But this public persona is not entirely without calculation. “What I’ve learned is that it’s a better idea to smile than not. When you’re smiling, you don’t seem disturbed by what the person’s asking you. When people watch television, they react to about 80% of what they see and 20% of what they hear. So if you smile, you will be perceived as a fairly agreeable person.” If one brings up such self-promotional savvy one time too often, though, a genuine look of misery crosses her face.

“I’m probably a little oversensitive,” Krantz admits. She pauses for a moment. “No one ever bothers to ask me, ‘What is the work that goes into your writing?’ ” she says finally. “All they want to know about is the promotion. Like ‘How do you manipulate people into reading your books?’ Well, you don’t manipulate people; you let them know. If people were a bit more thoughtful, they’d realize that you cannot gain a faithful, steady, growing audience unless you have a book worth reading.”

IT’S POSSIBLE THAT Krantz has such a firm handle on the duties of both subject and profiler because she spent 27 years in journalism. Her articles appeared in magazines such as McCall’s, Ladies Home Journal and Good Housekeeping, where she was on staff. But the editorial experience that truly seemed to prep her for success in her second career was her nine years with Cosmopolitan.

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By then, she was married with two sons, Nick, now 33, and Tony, now 30, and living in Los Angeles, where her husband’s career had brought the family. And if her financial security allowed her to keep a luxuriously slow pace for a free-lancer--filing four to six stories a year--she had significantly more occupational focus than many of the Beverly Hills lunch ladies she associated with.

To understand Krantz’s writing style, you need only listen to her speak. This way, you can hear her comic timing and the real warmth she puts behind “magnificent” and “fabulous,” those indicators of her perennially optimistic outlook. In print, it was this same chattiness, this breathless point of view, that made Krantz so well-suited for Cosmo.

Helen Gurley Brown found Krantz “a simply magic writer. I can’t think of anything wrong with Judy except she is, jeez, an almost nonstop talker.” Her gift of gab must have come in handy during those labor-intensive pieces--from “The Myth of the Multiple Orgasm” to “Anatomy of a Compulsive"--that required interviewing scores of sources. Although she would question them on a specific issue, Krantz also must have been taking note of their personal tastes, their private daydreams. These women, not coincidentally, would become her target audience later.

When Krantz was 48, she decided to drag her Smith-Corona portable into the guest bedroom to take her first crack at fiction writing. “I’d been harassed for 15 years by my husband to write fiction. And Steve finally made me feel so--I guess the word is defensive--about it that I decided that I would try to write a novel to show him that I couldn’t write a novel. Halfway through the first chapter, it felt like I was flying without wings.”

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The “Scruples” manuscript sold quickly, for $50,000, to Crown, and Cosmopolitan printed a bonus excerpt, one that Brown admits to selecting because “it was romantic and wildly sexy” and described the miracle-come-true of every Cosmo girl: “to be stranded on a beach with a multibillionaire and have a sexual happening.”

It took only four months for “Scruples” to leap to the top of the New York Times bestseller list. But it didn’t dawn on Krantz until her second novel, “Princess Daisy,” that she had abandoned journalism for good. “I’m much happier now, too,” she says. “There is literally nothing that can compare to finding the work that you were meant to do.” Fiction writing brings Krantz so much pleasure, in fact, that she can conjure up a fresh concept for each subsequent novel as she is putting the finishing touches on her preceding one. “I don’t sit around and think about it,” she says. “Usually a new idea just floats into my mind.”

KRANTZ IS sitting in her office, knees girlishly pulled toward her chest. “I think my real theme is that I’m creating the daughters I never had,” she says, looking dwarfed by the pink plaid overstuffed chair she is resting in. She is recalling how on a recent Wednesday afternoon trip to the hairdresser, she had a $40-a-session clairvoyant give her a reading. Krantz had her hair in curlers and was wearing a beauty-shop smock, so the woman “had really no way of knowing anything about me.”

The psychic came forth with many accuracies, including the fact that Krantz is a perfectionist and that all of her tension is expressed “right here,” says Krantz, tapping her stomach. So when the psychic asked if she had a fully grown daughter, Krantz began to add up the female characters she had written who were in their late 20s. By the time she tallied up 18 of them, she concluded that “the internal theme of all my books is the creation of fully grown women for my own satisfaction.”

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That’s about all Krantz cares to reveal about her sure-fire formula. Leave it to the book critics to analyze the repetitive threads in her work, to make fun of her plots and the cartoony names like Spider and Bunny and Fernanda. In breaking down her approach, they somehow obliterate the fact that she still works hard, considers every novel a challenge.

“People keep saying to me, ‘Why are you going to write another book? You don’t need the money.’ ” she says. “It’s not about money. I need to throw myself into that situation where I grow and change because I am writing something new, trying to create different characters who’ve never existed before.”

The hour is getting late. Krantz walks with her guest past her 10 silver-framed New York Times bestseller lists clustered on a table, past a shelf containing leather-bound copies of her books. Just before she walks out the office door, she pauses at a small, mounted note. In the faintest, wobbliest script possible, it says: Do not disturb unless absolutely necessary. The note was written during her first tentative attempts at “Scruples.” She keeps it as a souvenir of how far she has come. “It looks so timid, so unsure,” she says, clucking over the penmanship. “If I had to do it now, believe me, it would say, Stay out.

A week later, Krantz is talking into the telephone, coming up with another theory about her fiction. “One thing about writing a book,” she says, “is that everything is under your control. You can’t be unpopular with your characters because you are their God. You decide if they live or die. You decide if they get married or don’t. You decide if they are attractive or not attractive. And it would be an oversimplification to say that this is my vindication for my years of being unpopular. But it certainly helps a little.”

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