When Danielle Steel was a budding 19-year-old writer, she bought a secondhand German typewriter for 20 dollars. Steel recently completed her 174th book on that same machine. “I think I’m onto a good thing,” Steel told Refinery29 from her home in San Francisco.
This is a very significant understatement. Steel is the bestselling author alive. Her career reads like that once 19-year-old’s fever dream of a writer’s life: Her novels are a constant fixture on the New York Times Bestseller List, and have sold a combined 800 million copies. All of her books are still in print. Lukewarm critical reviews have never, and will never, affect her fans’ devotion. She writes so prolifically that she can barely remember the plot of Beauchamp Hall, released November 20.
When I ask about the newest novel, Steel pauses. “Fortunately, I remember. I write a lot of books. Sometimes I have an interview and it’s about a book I wrote ten months ago and I think, ‘Oh my god! What’s the story?’” This particular story is a fairy tale crafted for the era of binge-watching. In Beauchamp Hall, Winona Farmington, a stalled, modern-day woman in her late thirties, finds purpose watching a soapy period drama that resembles Downton Abbey; when her personal life falls apart in spectacular fashion, she moves to England and gets a job on the set of Beauchamp Hall, finding joy within the show’s thriving ecosystem.
Winona lives her dream. So does Steel. But until recently, the world-famous author has been steadfastly private about actually speaking to the reality of that dream. She declined to give interviews while raising her nine — yes, you read that right – children.
In an interview with Refinery29, Steel candidly opened up about the joys and challenges of raising a brood, the realities of success, her relationships with her much-older husbands (Steel has been married five times, and is now single), and the machinations behind her one-of-a-kind writing career. Essentially: The gruelling 20-hour work-days, the evenings spent writing in the basement while her children were asleep, and the relentless spirit that made her.
Below, excerpts from our conversation.
Refinery29: In Beauchamp Hall, Winona does the 21st century equivalent of running away and joining the circus.
Danielle Steel: “It works! That act of courage changes her entire life. She has a wonderful life from that point on. I love that idea. One of the things that’s very important in my book is hope. Because my characters survive difficult situations, it subliminally tells people that maybe they can too. So often people say to me, ‘I was going through such a bad time. But your books are what kept me going. Unfortunately, that’s a broader thing. I’ve been told Bernie Madoff says the only thing getting him through prison are my books. I’m not sure that’s a tribute that I really am proud of.”
Well, I was inspired by reading about Winona. Your books have had such an enormous impact on people. For many women that I’ve spoken to, they were introductions to life. Are you aware of your legend status as you’re writing?
“No, I’m not aware. I have nine children. I used to write my books at night when they were asleep. My primary function was carpooling, cleaning up after our 400 dogs, and chasing children around. I don’t have any sense of myself as some kind of a legend. It always really touches me when I realise that what I write has had an impact on people. We all have been through hard situations. I write from that experience. If what I write inspires people or gives them strength, courage, or hope, I’m thrilled.”
You must have more time to work, now that your kids aren’t home.
“It’s a vicious cycle. On the one hand, I work too much now. By the end of the day, I’m always writing. I stay up very late at night. Until three, sometimes four. I sleep about four hours a night, on average. But if I don’t work, then I’m sad that they’re not around. So I work more. I don’t have anything else in my life. It keeps me happy and busy. I’m not bored. I’m not depressed. It’s not such a great thing to work all the time. It’s profitable, but still. The one thing I don’t do well is sitting around relaxing.”
You’ve written 174 books. Do you ever experience self doubt?
“Constantly. I schedule everything, so I know pretty much when I’m going to start the next book. The whole time before, I think, ‘Oh god, I'm never going to be able to do this.’ Then when I sit down to do it, I inevitably sit there thinking, ‘What if I can’t do it?’ Only in the last 20 pages do I think, ‘Oh, I guess I'll be able to finish this.’ I’m riddled with self doubt. The good thing about that, I think, is that so that as long as you have doubt, you really strive. I work so hard to improve every time. To do it better. To be smoother about certain things. To be able to speak to the reader better. When you get to a place where you think, ‘Oh I'm so fabulous, I did this so well,’ you're screwed.”
Have you always had such a sense of imagination?
“I think so. I must’ve, to have nine children. My training was not in writing. I studied fashion design and interior design. The writing comes somewhere out of my soul. My previous editor used to say I channel it. There’s a truth in that. I don’t know where it comes from. I’m grateful that it does come. Because I don’t know where it comes from, and it is a kind of ephemeral thing, it’s scary. I always think — what if it stops? It better not stop, because I love it. I love what I do. If you make a difference in one person’s life, what a gift. That is such a cool thing to be able to share.”
After the book is out, what’s your relationship to it?
“It’s gone. It’s gone when I finish. I never read it again. I had such horrible reviews for the early part of my career that I taught myself not to read the reviews. It just upset me. About ten or fifteen years ago someone said to me, ‘Oh, I read a really good review of your book. I was like, ‘You did? I get good reviews?’ I was really startled. Once in a great while I’ll read a review. The rest of the time I don't because a lot of it is just mean.”
What was the hardest book you had to write? Was there ever a time you were scared the faucet wouldn’t work?
“The hardest — but the one I in some ways enjoyed the most — was the one I wrote about my son Nicholas Traina [His Bright Light, published in 1998]. I had a wonderful son. He committed suicide at 19, which is a hard thing to go through. That experience has helped me relate to my readers. People assume if you're successful that life is so easy. ‘Oh, look at her. She has a nice car and has got money. What does she know?’ That’s the premise of my book. We're all vulnerable to really tough stuff.
“Writing that book about his life was like bringing him back to life. It was like he was alive again. It was wonderful. But the book did not have a happy ending. I once wrote one about the Titanic [No Greater Love, 1996] and my husband at the time said, ‘I get a feeling something happens to the boat.’ So, it was a given that something would happen to the boat in the book I wrote about my son. Life is complicated.”
Do your kids read your books?
“In a word, no. Most of them have never read them. Two — and a half — have read some. The others have zero idea of what I write. I never wanted to play ‘star’ when they were younger. Once I became successful, I didn’t want that to affect them. It was never discussed. It was something Mommy did at night. My main job was making tacos and driving carpools. It was never a subject.”
So your kids didn’t know who you were.
“No. Once, I said to somebody when they were semi grown, 'They have no idea that I’m successful.’ They said, ‘ That is complete bullshit.’ I said, ‘I promise you.’ My kids all tell me now that none of them had any idea I was successful until they went to college and suddenly their friends were reading me. Isn’t that funny?”
What did your then-husband, John Traina, think of your career?
“He didn’t like it. I’ve been married to much older men who have been European, in most cases. The whole idea that their wife worked, they thought, was in very poor taste. My family didn’t think it was cool. I spent most of my career feeling guilty. It was like, ‘I do this terrible thing, we don’t talk about it.’”
But you were so successful! It seems so jarring.
“It is so jarring. It’s very contradictory. I was married. I got married [to my first husband, Claude-Eric Lazard] at 17. I had all these children. I was married to authoritarian older men. It annoyed people — like, ’She does this thing at night.’ It was inconvenient.
“But the truth is, they were never inconvenienced. I never did interviews. I never did a book tour. I’ve only done three book signings, which were notoriously hysterical. It was this discreet thing that I did. It was like building the QE2 in your basement. Holy shit, how do I get this outta the garage?”
Work was your secret life.
“It’s always been my escape and freedom and sense of independence. I don’t drink! I don’t have an escape except my writing. I have to say, I loved those years. I loved my marriages. I loved my kids. I loved having them around when they were little. It was a wonderful time in my life. This is a much more grown up, solitary time. But I have to admit. I do enjoy the independence which I never had in my entire life until now.”
Is this a phase you looked forward to?
“No, and I don’t recommend it. If you have a choice between being your age and my age, pick yours. Let’s not be confused here. There are blessings to it. Since other people were telling me what to do my whole life. I can eat what I want, go where I want. It’s very exciting. I can eat my dessert first and no one yells at me. That’s the only advantage. If I want to, I can go to Paris tomorrow and no one tells me, ‘You were just in Paris! Why do you have to go back?’ Or, ‘You already have black shoes!’ That defines my marriages: ‘But you have black shoes.’ But I’d rather have someone bitching about my black shoes and not wanting me to go to Paris, because it’s a more whole life.
“There has to be an advantage at every age and that's the advantage I have now. I have freedom. Which has blessings. A lot of times, in relationships today, women have more freedom than I had in my marriages. I’m always astonished when my daughters go on vacation with their girlfriends. I couldn’t go to a dinner by myself.”
Would you get married again?
“To the right person, in a hot second. Not to the wrong one. If you could have the self confidence of my age at your age, you'd have such a good time. We all would. I see the compromises that I made, that others made, in relationships. The things people put up with! If you could have a relationship without those things with somebody nice, that would be great. I miss having a relationship, but not a hard one.
“At the end of my day, after I’ve spoken to my children around the world, I have no one to say, ‘You won’t believe what I saw today.’ or ‘Oh, this is so funny.’ I can work until four in the morning without anyone bitching at me, but I miss out.”
Now that you’re not married to an "authoritarian" man, do you find your relationship to your work has changed in this phase of your life?
“Not really, to be honest. The world is a complicated place. It’s a habit of my being very discreet. There’s a lot of jealousy in the world. A lot of people will make nasty comments. It makes a lot of men uncomfortable, that I’m very successful. You get snide remarks. It’s not easy to be a successful woman. Also, my children would find it strange if I said, ‘I’m a big star! Someone bring me breakfast.’ Instead, they give me directions of where the dog peed in the dining room to clean it up. I like the fact that I’m not a star at home. I’m a shy person. I’d be very uncomfortable if people made a big fuss over me. And yet, I go out into the world now and find that people do know who I am and they make more fuss than maybe I’m comfortable with. I want to be a real person. I find that my children keep me humble.
“Do you have children?”
“Don’t have children yet. Your life will change radically. Don’t you come across professional jealousy?”
“Yeah. Because friends say, ‘Why should she have all that? Why her?’ There used to be this whole thing about the American dream, everybody can be successful. Now, you get successful and they start being shitty to you. People start threatening you or saying nasty things to you. It’s hard.”
Especially as a woman. We feel like we have to apologise.
“Thank you. I have spent my entire lifetime apologising for my success. Every now and then I get really pissed and say, ‘Wait a minute here. Why do I have to apologise for this?’ If you are successful, they’re going to assume you’re a bitch. It’s going to come to a huge shock if you’re not a bitch. If you’re not a bitch, then they roll over you.”
Are you ready to stop apologising?
“I make a point of not apologising anymore. But I don’t like the fact that the nasty things people say do hurt my feelings. I read all the fan mail I get. Most of the time I get wonderful, long letters, but a couple of times I’ve had incredibly vicious letters. You’re not supposed to answer that stuff. You’re supposed to leave it alone. But in some instances I wrote back. In both cases, they wrote back very quickly and said, ‘Oh my god, I didn’t think you’d see the letter.’ They apologised. Marilyn Monroe said it better than anyone. She said when you’re successful, it’s life as an object. That’s absolutely true. I’ve had kidnapping threats, death threats, hate mail. It’s because you’re not a real person to them. The people who say those terrible, critical things. That’s another hard part of being successful. They say shit about you and to you that they would never say to a normal person."