Writing “Happy Thrillers” a Family Affair
By Dawn Ius
New York Times bestselling author Janet Evanovich has built a successful career writing happy thrillers—an infusion of steady and over-the-top characters, page-turning mystery and adventure plots, and trademark tongue-in-cheek humor.
So it might be tempting to assume that when she admits that it takes a child—or two—to nurture her “publishing village,” she’s having fun at the expense of an old cliché. But this is no joke.
Evanovich—author of more than 30 novels, including a staggering 25 in her popular Stephanie Plum series—says her kids have been an integral part of her journey as a novelist, serving as first and last readers pre-publication, professional advocates post publication, plot whisperers, webmasters, and in a myriad of other behind-the-scenes roles.
But with this latest release, Evanovich’s son, Peter, shares a starring role with his mom as the new co-author in the Fox and O’Hare adventure series. In BIG KAHUNA, Peter picks up where former co-writer Lee Goldberg left off—and though Evanovich admits her son had some big shoes to fill, she’s thrilled with the series’s new direction.
“The truth is, my son has been part of the writing process for years,” she says. “I suck at plotting, and so he’s been doing a lot of that, as well as editing some of the co-authored books from other series that have needed huge rewrites. Lee and I had written the characters into a corner, so when Peter came on board, we made some decisions.”
The most notable, perhaps, is a slight switch in tone, bringing the Fox and O’Hare books more in line with the Stephanie Plum novels, and getting back to stories that are more character-driven.
It’s not that Goldberg and Evanovich parted on bad terms or that there’s anything wrong with the previous five books in the series—to the contrary, Evanovich says that the two had an excellent working relationship and she’s proud of the books they did together. But now with his busy TV career and a handful of personal writing projects on the go, Goldberg simply ran out of time—a shift that has some fans nervous about what will happen to their favorite characters.
Evanovich isn’t concerned. She says not only did her son do an excellent job—under weighty expectations—but over the years, she’s learned not to pay too much attention to reviews, especially when a book first comes out.
“In the beginning, you always tend to get some haters,” she says. “But the longer a book is out, the more you find readers with valuable critiques. There were so many things about the series that would have had to change, even if Lee had continued. Readers don’t think about these things—some just have an ax to grind. It’s not productive.”
No, but Evanovich sure is.
A 2010 article in Forbes magazine compares Evanovich’s selling power to a Ken Follett or James Patterson, noting that at the time, she was ranked among one of the top 10 highest paid authors in the world. There are more than 200 million of her books in print, and her novels have been translated into more than 40 languages.
Talent plays a part—for sure—but Evanovich guides the conversation about her success back to her children, who she says are instrumental in keeping the cogwheels turning. On the marketing front, her daughter Alex becomes a publicity machine whenever there’s a new release, working tirelessly to spread the word about each new novel.
“My Amazon sales are up 82 percent on this book,” Evanovich says, crediting her daughter’s hard work for the sharp increase in sales, and acknowledging that despite being a household genre name, Evanovich understands that in today’s publishing climate, she and her team can’t rest on publisher efforts and word of mouth alone. “It’s like pushing an elephant uphill all by yourself.”
While THE BIG KAHUNA continues to make waves with booksellers, fans, and critics, Evanovich is polishing up Stephanie Plum #26—which comes out in November 2019—and Peter is hard at work on the next Fox and O’Hare adventure. After years as a kind of behind-the-scenes editor, Evanovich says he’s more than earned the freedom to do what he wants with the plot—and has already been contracted for two more books in the series.
In THE BIG KAHUNA, Fox and O’Hare’s search for a Silicon Valley billionaire lead them to Hawaii, where the missing man’s son spends his days looking for the perfect Maui wave and high-end weed. After taking down drug cartels and thwarting terrorists, going undercover as a married couple should be a breeze, but Fox and O’Hare can’t seem to catch an easy break.
Evanovich loves the plot of her son’s debut in the limelight, and concedes that Peter did most of the heavy lifting here, turning in a solid first draft that needed little more than a sprinkle of her “fairy dust.” It’s not intended to be a weighty read—though none of her books are.
“I’m a happy writer,” she says. “I see myself as an entertainer. I was raised with kindness and common sense—and now we try to restrict that. We’re afraid to be funny. I think trying to be politically correct all the time has ruined the world because we’re scared of offending someone. My books aren’t going to change lives—but, if I’m lucky, they might make someone smile.”
Photo credit (home): Roland Scarpa