This story appeared in the December 2014 issue of Naples Illustrated.
It’s 9 a.m. Most people are just starting their workday; Janet Evanovich is already well into hers. Having been up and well caffeinated before the crack of dawn, the famed author takes a rare morning break, emerging from her home office in stretchy pants, a loose-fitting, comfy top and not a stitch of makeup. Her unassuming appearance is a serendipitous juxtaposition with the grandiose setting: a 12,000-square-foot Port Royal home in Naples, which she shares with Pete, her husband of 50 years, and their gentle Havanese, Ollie.
Evanovich is a woman of rare wealth for a writer. Her life reads like a dog-eared paperback novel of a heroine you keep at your bedside table for inspiration. First catapulting to fame with the Stephanie Plum mystery series 20 years ago, Evanovich has penned 45-plus novels and landed numerous times on The New York Times’ best-seller list. She made her first million selling the movie rights to the first title in the Plum series, which was published in 1994; One for the Money finally made it onto the silver screen in 2012, starring Katherine Heigl.
“I believe in hard work and timing,” the author says of her long-standing success. “I consider myself to be a lucky person, but I mostly have made my own luck. I just kind of scratched and clawed my way up once I came out with the Plum series.”
And she is quick to acknowledge the legions of loyal fans that have followed her every step of the way. Walking through her living room, she points to large cardboard boxes lined up against the wall that are packed with thousands of single pages signed for insertion into her latest adventure thriller, The Job. “This joint is totally worn away from signing,” Evanovich says, lifting and bending the finger she uses for autographs.
In this third and latest installment of the Fox and O’Hare series she penned with coauthor Lee Goldberg, feisty FBI agent Kate O’Hare and the charmingly sexy con man Nick Fox embark on another adventure that transports readers across Europe, including jaunts to Spain, France and England. Evanovich continues to take on coauthors to keep up with her fans’ demands for more books, and her work schedule is as rigorous as ever.
“But I don’t work past eight o’clock [at night]. I know that’s a long day because I get up at five,” she says with a laugh, acknowledging that she has no plans of slowing down anytime soon. “The thing about success is you either move forward or backward; there’s no standing still. Success is addictive and you kind of get caught up in it. I hadn’t thought about that until I was deep into it.”
Evanovich, who appears decades younger than her 71 years, grew up in South River, New Jersey, a small blue-collar town that was bustling with a patchwork of Eastern European immigrant families. In peekaboo moments, her bright blue eyes widen with girlish wonder as she recalls the childhood memories that have shaped her.
“It was an amazing community filled with very hardworking people,” she says. “You kept your house clean and your yard tidy. If you made an apple pie you cracked your window so your neighbor could smell it, so she knew you were making your own and not buying it in the store. It was ingrained in me that this is how you live and what you do. The philosophy was, we’re working hard so our children can have a better life. That’s what really drives me.”
Raised by a factory-worker father and homemaker mother, there wasn’t much money for books as a child. But her mom, an avid reader, would take her to the library once a week to check out a book. “That was a big deal,” Evanovich says. “The rest of the time I read comic books. I had boxes and boxes of comic books.”
Her favorites were Little Lulu, the Donald Duck Adventures with Huey, Dewey and Louie, and Uncle Scrooge, which she credits with inspiring her love of a good adventure. “The bad guys would be after them, and Scrooge would take his treasure and put it in a big cement vault in Duckburg and push his coins around with a bulldozer,” Evanovich says. “This is what I aspired to be: Scrooge McDuck, pushing all my gold around with a bulldozer.”
Little did she know she would ultimately pave a path to find her own proverbial pile of gold; it would just take a few decades to get there. First, Evanovich would marry her high school sweetheart, Pete, and set out to start a family.
As her husband was earning a doctorate in mathematics, Evanovich helped put him through school with a slew of part-time jobs, from telephone solicitor to “world’s worst waitress” at the local Howard Johnson’s. “I never made any tips and came home every night smelling like fried clams,” she says with a huge grin. “It was really bad.”
Evanovich had majored in fine arts, and after college became a painter. Ultimately, she realized they couldn’t afford the paint, the pigment made her break out in a rash and, well, she probably wasn’t going to make much money at it anyway. As they were raising their two children, Alexandra and Peter, Evanovich quickly morphed into “Earth mother.”
“We decided that we would do without fancy cars and furniture, and I would stay at home with the kids,” she says. “I made everything from scratch because we couldn’t afford to go out to eat. I made my own bread, sewed my daughter’s dresses. We ate every meal together and it was a good time in my life.”
But as her kids went off to school and her husband was out in the workforce (as a university professor and later working in a think tank as a civilian for the U.S. Navy), Evanovich decided to put her free time and creativity to use by writing books. The more she wrote, the more she loved it. She thought it would be easy. She would be rich and famous in no time. After about a decade, though, the aspiring writer still had published nothing. She felt discouraged but not deflated.
“By then, my kids and Pete were all saying, ‘I know you’ve been trying this for 10 years and we can’t afford sneakers but you can do it, Mom! You keep doing it. You’ll do it,’” says Evanovich, who warms up instantly when speaking about family.
She began writing short romance novels—positive, happy pieces. Finally, pay dirt. The young author sold her first little book for $2,000, and a few more book contracts followed. The deals were sporadic, though. She came to the realization that she was on the right road—just stuck in the wrong lane. The publishers would put out a certain number of books, and when they were gone, that was it. There was no backlist.
“I had a good audience but I couldn’t really grow,” Evanovich says. “I decided that it wasn’t enough to be an artistic person, that if you really wanted success as a writer you also had to be a businessperson.”
She marveled at the popularity of Tom Clancy’s military thrillers. With the instincts of an entrepreneur, Evanovich recognized it was because he found a hole in the marketplace that no one was filling. And if he could do it, then she could, too.
“I saw women moving into mysteries with female protagonists, but they were really men in women’s clothing,” Evanovich says. “I thought, I can make a hybrid; take what women love about romance and squash it into a mystery-adventure format. So while they were writing hard-boiled women detectives, I came out with my soft-boiled. It was an instant success. It had a little sex, a little romance, a lot of action and funny characters. I found my own little hole in the marketplace.”
The Stephanie Plum series was born in 1994. One for the Money, the first in what has become a 21-book series, attracted a million-dollar movie deal. The determined author was finally well on her way to fame.
“The movie deal allowed us to really change our life,” Evanovich says. “My husband had accomplished a lot of what he wanted in his career and my kids were out of college.”
They established a family business, Evanovich Inc., with Pete managing it. Their son, Peter, is now his mom’s agent and he handles all the financials and foreign sales. Alexandra (who goes by Alex) serves as liaison to all of the publishers and oversees advertising copy, television scripts, the author’s website and social-media presence. Evanovich has more than 600,000 fans on Facebook alone.
When the family decided it was time (and they had enough money) for a vacation home, they began taking trips to Florida to find the perfect winter escape.
“We drive into the town of Naples and I see big-box stores, like Target, Costco and Wal-Mart, and I’m getting excited,” Evanovich says. “Then we pass Waterside Shops and there’s stuff here and it’s beautiful with palm trees and white sand beaches. That was it. We rolled into town and got a realtor.”
It would take two more annual trips before they decided on a home in Port Royal. They made the move in 2004, and Naples went from a vacation home to a permanent residence. “The Port Royal Club gave us an instant community,” says Evanovich, whose children also bought homes in the neighborhood. “Pete started playing tennis, and he got a lot of guy friends who invited him to play golf. It was an easy existence for us and allowed me to take on more writing.”
Her rapid-fire pace came to a sobering halt two years ago, though, when her newly married son was diagnosed with leukemia at age 40. Earth mother resurfaced with steel will. There was no question she would double down on what was most important: her family. Evanovich searched for the best specialists she could find and checked her son right into Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
“We loaded Peter onto a plane that October, and I didn’t come home until December,” she says. “We rented an apartment right across from the hospital and stayed with him 24 hours a day. This is why you work hard and make this kind of money. We were able to fly him back and forth only because I could afford to charter him a private plane when he couldn’t fly commercial.”
She even had her personal chef prepare special meals that were loaded into coolers and flown to him. After a bone-marrow transplant in March the following year, Peter made a complete recovery and went back to work. “He’s healthier than I am now,” she says, shifting her shoulders up with pride. “We’re a very competitive family; we compare platelets.”
Today, even when the phone starts ringing and deadlines are looming, at least twice a day she sits down at the table across from Pete to share a meal that her chef prepares in their home. Often her children will drop by to join them. “When you have a chef, you see your kids a lot,” she says with a chuckle. And then there’s date night with Pete on the weekends. It is this connection to family that fuels her.
Even with all the fame and fortune, Evanovich says it took many years to see herself as a writer, much less a businessperson. “I think today I still struggle with it,” she says. “At heart, I’m still that very traditional blue-collar housewife. My grandparents came here from Denmark without a penny and worked very hard. My parents were the first to graduate high school, and I was the first to graduate from college, which was a big deal. And here I am, living in Port Royal. I am the American dream.”
The Unglamorous life: I’m not as social as most people in the community because I’m a working girl and I have my family … that’s my world. I don’t have time for a pedicure, so I almost never wear sandals. I don’t fuss with my hair and never wear makeup. When service people come to the house, they always think I’m the maid.
Hard-earned lesson: Financial success and personal success are two entirely different places of happy. I’ve always had a certain amount of personal success because I was fortunate to find a man I love, who has always stayed my best friend. I have great kids. I always thought life would be perfect if I were rich and famous, then I became rich and famous and realized it was more difficult to have personal happiness because I was always working.
On coauthors: I couldn’t keep writing as many books as my fans wanted. I had no life. Working with coauthors lets me have a little more life and more books, so fans are happy and my husband’s happy.
Book tours: My publisher pays for part of it, but doesn’t pay for all the private-plane expense; that’s something I pick up. I can’t have 2,000 people waiting in a bookstore when an airline decides not to fly. It’s a crummy thing to do to people who drive for hours or take days off from work to be there.
Fans rule: When I go on tour, the rule is if you can’t afford to buy a book, bring one from home or bring a bar napkin, I don’t care. If you want to come say hello, you can come say hello. I’ve had signings go from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. I don’t leave until the last person leaves.
Writer’s tip: Write every day and find a time of the day when it’s your job. Even if you already have a full-time job, if you took a part-time job you’d show up for two hours even if it was inconvenient or you would be fired—so why is writing any different?
How she gets unstuck: I drink a lot. (Laughs.) Two glasses of wine and a bag of chips and I am just so creative. I am happy.
Favorite book: I don’t have one, but if I did it would be Uncle Scrooge comic books. I write adventure stories and I think I’m writing Scrooge McDuck. That was my most important literary experience.
Secret sauce: People buy my books because I make them laugh. I write about good people who are flawed, but they’re there for each other. They have a sense of community and family, whether it’s one they create or have been born into. There’s an element of sexual adventure, a chase. And they end well. I try not to make people cry.
On political correctness: I don’t buy into it. I don’t get it. I was raised with common sense and kindness, and when you try to replace those two with political correctness, it just doesn’t work.
Where ideas come from: What I find is if you put your ass in the chair, something will happen. Sometimes I get four sentences on the screen and sometimes I get 10 pages, but I always get something. I start with a germ of an idea and use my white board like a storyboard. I know what the crime is and how it will begin and end. Then, I start writing.
For the love of giraffes: My grandson, Maxwell, loves the giraffes at the Naples Zoo. As soon as he could hold a lettuce leaf, he started feeding them. So giraffes have become an important part of my life and so has the Naples Zoo. I have two giraffe pictures now; they inspire me.
Naples in novels: In Takedown Twenty, a giraffe escapes while en route to the Naples Zoo and is running around Trenton, New Jersey. In the second book from the Barnaby and Hooker series about a NASCAR driver and his female mechanic, they go to Naples. And my coauthor Lee Goldberg wrote Naples into our first book, but Naples wasn’t looking so good. It was filled with crime and the people were a little snooty, so I changed it from Naples to West Palm Beach. I decided I’d stick it to the East Coast.
Guilty pleasure: A good glass of wine. I like New Zealand whites and California reds. I’m always on the hunt for a bargain in a red. I like to top off at about $18. When you can knock off half a bottle in a night because you’re not feeling expired, you don’t want to spend $80. My go-to red right now is Conundrum, an inexpensive blend.
Proudest moment: My son’s illness because when Peter was diagnosed with leukemia, everybody just instantly came together. I watched what it took to stay positive when you had a life-threatening disease. That’s when you understand the kind of strength you’ve helped your family to have. I’m very proud of my family.
Next chapter: Our publication schedule is four books a year, one I write myself and the rest are with coauthors. We also have two television shows in pre-production based on the Plum series and the Fox and O’Hare series, but no timelines.
Feeling lucky: I was very lucky to find something I was good at that other people wanted, and that I loved to do. I could have easily ended up working the box machine at the Tampax factory, but by the grace of God, I decided I could write books.
Words to live by: If you have a dream, don’t give up. It’s hard work; keep working at it.
FAVORITE RESTAURANTS IN NAPLES:
Date night: Bleu Provence, Café Lurcat, and then Truluck’s, because it has Bollinger by the glass, my favorite Champagne. We used to go to Barbatella, but there is live music there now and it’s loud. Pete loves the food, but we have to be able to talk. If they would just tone down the music a little bit, we could have date night there again.
Breakfast: Jane’s Café is our favorite weekend place.
Best burgers: I love sitting outside on the porch at Ridgway Bar & Grill for a burger and watching the world go by. I also love Avenue5’s burger, because it’s got all this junk on top of it, like mushrooms, cheese and sauce.