Janet Evanovich and the plot twist of success

Author Janet Evanovich's sits on her latest book "Twisted Twenty Six."

NEW YORK — More than 30 years and many millions of sales later, the story of her first book deal still makes Janet Evanovich cry.

“I collected rejections for 10 years,” recalls Evanovich, best known for her Stephanie Plum crime novels. “At the end they were in a big cardboard packing crate. It was full of rejections. I had a rejection that was on a bar napkin, written in lipstick.”

With her children nearing college age, and her husband’s salary as a college professor not enough to support them, she found a job as a secretary, burned all the rejection notices and resigned herself to a traditional working life.

Then came the tearful plot twist.

“My daughter was taking ice skating lessons and I was standing there after school, watching. And my husband and my son came and they put their arms around me and they said, ‘Your editor just called.’ And my life changed,” she says. “I was in my 40s and thought my dream was done, and it wasn’t.”

The 76-year-old author was in Manhattan recently to promote her 26th Stephanie Plum novel, “Twisted Twenty-Six,” which features New Jersey’s most famous bounty hunter. The story heightens the role of Stephanie’s beloved Grandma Mazur, who has the bad fortune to marry a gangster.

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“Twisted Twenty-Six” debuted at No. 1 on The New York Times’ hardcover fiction bestseller list, practically a second home for Evanovich. The Naples, Florida, resident has more than 20 No. 1 bestsellers overall and worldwide sales topping 75 million copies.

“It seems that Janet was ahead of her time with Stephanie, who is a foul-mouthed hilarious figure who doesn’t take, ah, stuff from anyone,” says Otto Penzler, an editor and publisher of crime fiction and owner of the Mysterious Bookshop, in New York City. “And because most people with a brain like a woman who is no one’s whipping post or toy doll, she appeals to men as much as she does to women.”

Evanovich started out as a romance writer and received $2,000 for the book that was unexpectedly accepted back in the 1980s, “Hero at Large.”

Speaking in the restaurant of an upscale mid-Manhattan hotel, the kind of fancy place that would make Plum long for the plainer confines of Trenton, the auburn-haired Evanovich has a cheerful, witty style that readers know well from her books. “The funny stuff is easy for me,” she explains. “The serious is hard.”

In her early years as a writer, she worked on books whenever parenthood permitted. Now, she has a steady, uninterrupted routine: She wakes around 5 in the morning, makes herself coffee, and, joined by her dog, a Havanese named Ollie, steps into her home office and “enters that little world,” building upon a set of notes she wrote the night before.

Her books are a family project, Evanovich Inc., with son Peter and daughter Alexandra pitching in on everything from marketing to web design. Her extended family of readers stays in close touch, through emails and traditional mail, and at the readings she gives around the country.

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