In the beginning there was little reason to believe that Janet Evanovich, a middle-aged housewife from New Jersey, had what it took to become a bestselling novelist. But through 10 years of pounding out manuscripts that went nowhere she continued to believe in herself, she says, because her loved ones did too.
Thirty-five years later, she has more than 20 New York Times bestsellers to her name and 200 million books in print.
Last month her franchise character, Stephanie Plum — a lingerie buyer turned bounty hunter — bowed in her 26th installment, “Twisted Twenty-Six” (published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons), which hit the top of not only the New York Times hardcover fiction list but USA Today and Apple Books lists as well.
And Evanovich, 76, will soon make a wider splash with two TV series in the works, one based on a new character, Gabrielle, who’ll be featured in the 27th Plum book and will play a prominent role in the 28th.
“She’s going to give Stephanie a real run for her money,” Evanovich says of Gabrielle — the polar opposite of Plum, whom the author describes as truly average yet heroic when necessary. “By the time we get to the third book [No. 28] and they’re actually forced to work together, it’s going to be like the odd couple. Gabrielle has a military background. She’s good at hand-to-hand combat. She’s a gun nut. She doesn’t keep her gun in the brown bear cookie jar like Stephanie.”
The other series in development centers on the characters Fox and O’Hare — an L.A.-based con man and a female FBI agent, respectively — drawn from five books Evanovich wrote with author-screenwriter Lee Goldberg beginning in 2013. The sixth, “The Big Kahuna,” also published by Putnam, became a New York Times No. 1 bestseller in May. Evanovich co-wrote this one with her son, Peter, who seems to have it out for the Beverly Wilshire: The iconic Beverly Hills hotel’s lobby was decimated in “Kahuna” and will be hit again by a herd of cattle in a seventh Fox/O’Hare book, which mother and son are currently writing.
Formerly his mother’s agent, Peter this year handed those duties to Shane Salerno at the Story Factory, an L.A.-based production and management boutique.
“We’ll be looking back on all of the series that Janet’s done, trying to see about film and television opportunities there, and doing what we do with Don Winslow — which is partnering her books with extraordinary filmmakers,” says Salerno, whose stable also includes Jane Green and director Michael Mann, who has his own publishing imprint at HarperCollins.
Salerno’s most recent deal placed Marcus Sakey’s “Brilliance” at Paramount with writer-producer Akiva Goldsman and Will Smith starring. Client Don Winslow’s “Cartel” has been adapted into a series for FX; his “Savages” became a 2012 film directed by Oliver Stone. The filmmaker behind 2013’s documentary “Salinger,” Salerno has writing credits on 1998’s “Armageddon” and the four upcoming sequels to James Cameron’s “Avatar.”
A film based on 1994’s “One for the Money,” the first of the Plum series, was released by Lionsgate in 2012. Starring Katherine Heigl and Debbie Reynolds, it earned about $37 million worldwide at the box office and was ravaged by critics.
“When Shane came aboard he really encouraged me to ratchet it up a bit,” Evanovich says of the Plum series. “We wanted to have more action. We wanted to know a bit more about characters. He thought it would be important that the reader really got a chance to see the dynamics in the family.”
Evanovich started her own family in the 1970s after graduating from Rutgers University, where she studied art. Settling with her mathematician husband in South River, N.J., she worked odd jobs to help pay the bills while raising their two children — scribbling her free hours away on novels.
Then one day in the mid-1980s, after compiling a crate full of rejection letters (including one written in lipstick on a cocktail napkin), she ceremoniously burned them and took a job at a temp agency.
“I was a claims adjuster for an insurance company, which required going out on lunches and drinking many martinis before I could come back and screw people,” she recalls of one temp role.
But mere months after she joined the workforce, Penguin’s Second Chance Love imprint published Evanovich’s first novel, “Hero at Large,” under the pseudonym Steffie Hall in 1987. The author was paid $2,000, a figure she considered extravagant. A year later she was writing romances for Bantam’s Loveswept imprint under her own name.
“I was fortunate because I found Romance Writers [of America],” she says of the nonprofit authors association. “We were not respected in the industry. We had to become smarter. We had to become businesswomen, we had to learn how to self-promote, how to deal with our publishers, how to respect the audience and sell our own books and become better writers.”
Through 11 novels she bristled at the parameters of the romance genre, adding humor and occasional mystery only to have these flourishes struck out by editors. “You were supposed to use a certain kind of language. We talked about the throbbing manhood,” she says with a laugh. “I’m from Jersey. We didn’t call it that.”
Evanovich took a year off and, inspired by the 1988 comedy “Midnight Run,” in which Robert De Niro plays a bounty hunter, arrived at a character who straddles genres: Stephanie Plum.
“There were a lot of women in mystery then but they were hard-boiled. They were men in skirts,” Evanovich recalls. “I needed to create a Jersey girl, a heroine that was real to me and still could function in crime fiction.”
“One for the Money” took off, landing on USA Today’s list of 150 bestselling novels, topping out at No. 13, followed by 19 New York Times bestsellers in the series.
Evanovich also developed other series (“Lizzy and Diesel,” “Knight & Moon”), including one with daughter Alex: Their 2010 graphic novel “Troublemaker” became yet another bestseller.
“The truth is the most creative job I’ve ever had is being a mom,” Evanovich says. “Writing is important to me but family is my priority.”
Looking back on those piles of rejection letters, she adds that they were no match for the support she felt from her clan. “The people that counted in my life never told me I couldn’t. They always said you can do it. They always said keep going.”
Riefe is a Los Angeles-based film and culture writer whose work has appeared in the Hollywood Reporter, the Guardian and Cultured Magazine.