Danielle Steel in Conversation with her Editor, Betty Kelly Sargent

Danielle Steel Interview with Editor

Already a New York Times Bestseller days after it was published, Danielle Steel‘s gripping new novel Neighbors is about a reclusive woman who opens up her home to her neighbors in the wake of a devastating earthquake, setting off events that reveal secrets, break relationships apart, and bring strangers together to forge powerful new bonds.

Danielle Steel has been hailed as one of the world’s bestselling authors, with almost a billion copies of her novels sold. Her many international bestsellers include All That Glitters, Royal, Daddy’s Girls, The Wedding Dress, The Numbers Game, Moral Compass, and other highly acclaimed novels. She is also the author of His Bright Light, the story of her son Nick Traina’s life and death; A Gift of Hope, a memoir of her work with the homeless; Pure Joy, about the dogs she and her family have loved; and the children’s books Pretty Minnie in Paris and Pretty Minnie in Hollywood.

Betty Kelly Sargent is a veteran editor in the NY trade book publishing business.  She has been the Editor-in-Chief of William Morrow, Executive Editor at large for Harper Collins, Fiction and Books Editor for Cosmopolitan Magazine, and Senior Editor for Delacorte Press. She was a regular book reviewer for CNN Sunday Morning Live, and until recently wrote a monthly column for Publisher’s Weekly called Ask The Editor. For the last five years she has worked exclusively with Danielle Steel.

Betty recently had the pleasure of interviewing Danielle about her recent works, what it’s like to write in the midst of a pandemic, her classic 1940s typewriters, and much more.

BETTY SARGENT: Today I’m talking with the remarkable Danielle Steel about her new novel Neighbors. I’m Betty Sargent and I’ve had the great pleasure for the last five years of working with Danielle as her editor. Danielle Steel has written over 180 novels, and over 800 million copies of her books have been sold. Pretty unprecedented. Danielle, how are you doing?

DANIELLE STEEL: I’m fine Betty, and I’m the one who’s had the great privilege of working with you. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have you and the faithful readers.

BETTY: Well, it’s a joy to be able to talk with you today. Can you tell us a little bit about what things are like in Paris right now with this pandemic going on?

DANIELLE: Personally, I think the French have handled it really well, but you know it’s been hard. We had two-and-a-half months of lockdown in the Spring where we didn’t leave home. And now we have curfews so that you can’t be out at night, to squelch the young people from going out and getting crazy. I think what has been the hardest for everyone in every country is the uncertainty. When will this be over? When will it be behind us? When will we be free? Paris is Paris. So it’s beautiful at any time. But I do find that since the holidays there’s a droopiness to everybody. I’m grateful to be in Paris. It’s been, I think, safer than the US, but it’s it’s a hard time for everyone

BETTY: No question about that. Well let’s get to your novel now. Can you tell me a bit about what inspired you to write Neighbors?

DANIELLE: I very rarely know what inspires me. The one thing I do notice in the last few years is that I’ve been much more inspired and influenced by things in the world around me. Sometimes it’s very clear. It’s a news item or a conversation that sparks me. But other times I wake up one morning and I just have an idea and I start doodling on it, I’m not sure where it came from. I’m just happy it arrived.

Danielle Steel 1
Danielle Steel

BETTY: It just springs from who knows where, but thank goodness the well is so deep.

DANIELLE: Then I call you and I tell you what the idea is, to see if you tell me that I’m out of my mind.

BETTY: Which has never happened, actually.

DANIELLE: No, it hasn’t. But if you tell me “Oh that’s a good idea,” I get all happy. Fabulous.

BETTY: It’s a joy to work with you, as you well know. So can you tell us what parallels do you see between the events in Neighbors, which is about the impact of an earthquake in San Francisco, and what’s happening right now because of this pandemic?

DANIELLE: I guess there are parallels, in that one of the things that always interests me is: what happens in a crisis? When you put people together, sometimes very different people.

I love writing about wars, because those are unusual circumstances that bring out the best in some people and in other people, it kind of magnifies if they’re bad people. I like the circumstance of the earthquake in Neighbors because people tend to live kind of separate lives, and suddenly this puts people together who didn’t know each other. We see the interaction between them and what they discover about each other. The people that are so attractive are not as attractive as they think. The ones who are very withdrawn suddenly come into their own.

BETTY: Excellent. I love how the drama is created from this sudden change in circumstance. So Danielle, each one of your novels launches near the top of the New York Times bestseller list. Is there a theme that tends to run through all of them?

DANIELLE: I try to keep my books very much not related because I like writing about different subjects, for my readers. But I think there’s a definite integrity in what I write— I like to write about people who have integrity. I mean, there are definitely villains in my books, but they’re very clearly defined. I also like to give people hope. Very often people have said to me “I got through this terrible experience because I read your book,” and if the heroine or the hero can get through that hard circumstance, it makes them feel that so can they. And I like that. I don’t like books where at the end of it I feel like I want to throw myself out of a window. I like giving people the hope and strength and courage to go on with their lives.

BETTY: Hope seems to me to be the major theme that runs through everything of yours that I have read. There’s light at the end of the tunnel for almost everybody, and it all depends on how you look at what is going on.

DANIELLE: You can take the same event and look at it in a very dark way. It’s the old thing of “Is the glass half-empty or is the glass half-full?” I think that is true, there’s an underlying hope in my books.

BETTY: That is one of the things you do so well. Neighbors is about how people react to crisis. Are there echoes between how the people in your neighborhood in Paris have reacted versus the characters in the plot of NEIGHBORS?

DANIELLE: I have sort of a double life in that I’ve lived in Paris, but I also have a home in San Francisco. So in Paris it’s a big city, but what I’ve been struck by——which probably has happened to a lot of people——some people who you might not know so well have been extremely helpful, and compassionate, and sympathetic. Yet other people that you assumed you could count on, they sort of vanished in mid-air. I do think that happens in crises. Some people really come through for others and some people don’t. One difference between Neighbors and our current situation is that in the book the earthquake is this common enemy, but with the pandemic the danger is kind of lurking everywhere and is unending.

BETTY: That’s a very good distinction. So where do you get your plot ideas in general, but especially during a lockdown?

DANIELLE: During a lockdown it’s really hard. Normally it’s something very direct. I’ll read something in the newspaper that strikes me as really interesting. Or I’ll go to dinner with friends and somebody says something and I think “That’s a really interesting phenomenon.” I’m very in love with the human condition and human reactions and human relationships, whether it’s in a family, in a business, in an airplane. I love the interaction between people. As a child I was very shy and I was always hiding in corners. I watched the grown-ups and became an observer, more than a participant. And I think that has stayed with me. But I say this because I was living in such a vacuum during the lockdown, there was just nothing coming into the machine. It was really very hard to write.

BETTY: I could imagine, yes.

DANIELLE: And we’ve also got an underlying anxiety, it’s so distracting.

BETTY: Exactly. Absolutely right. So in general, can you tell us a little bit about your writing habits?

DANIELLE: I don’t sleep.

BETTY: I’m not surprised. I don’t see how you ever have time to sleep.

DANIELLE: Well, when my children were small I took care of them in the daytime, and I was with them all the time. And then I would go to work when they went to sleep. So I’ve always been a night owl—I would be with the characters at night. Then once the children were all in school I had more time in the daytime, but I’ve always gotten by on fairly little sleep.

Betty Kelly Sargent 1
Betty Kelly Sargent

BETTY: Can you tell us about your 1946 manual typewriter?

DANIELLE: Well, I actually have two of them, one in San Francisco, and one in Paris. The original is in San Francisco. And I love my typewriters. Lord knows I am a mess on a computer! Always push the wrong button. I just do emails on computers. I’m so terrified about accidentally erasing a book that I don’t write on a computer. I work on my big ol’ clompy typewriters.

BETTY: So that is your secret. How do you get ribbons for these typewriters? Nobody makes these ribbons anymore.

DANIELLE: Well, a few people do, but not a lot. And it’s very hard to find repair people, but knock on wood I’ve only twice needed to repair my typewriters. Also the ribbons now are not as inky as they used to be, they’re very dry. 

BETTY: Oh boy.

DANIELLE: You would know better than anybody, that I tend to get so wrapped up in the story that I don’t change the ribbons, and the next thing I know you can barely read what I’ve written. I feel really guilty.

BETTY: I have noticed that.

DANIELLE: I know I’m so sorry!

BETTY: No it’s okay because what’s there is so brilliant, but it must be an added challenge that I just think is interesting.

DANIELLE: Well you’re such a good sport. And anytime I’m writing something I reread it many times, and each time I cross this out and I add something else. By the time I’m finished on a page there are asterisks all over, and you have to turn the page completely around to read anything, and read this addition over here and that addition over there.

BETTY: It’s like a work of art, that’s how I look at it. So I want to ask you a sort of out of left field question. Danielle, what, what has made you laugh recently?

DANIELLE: That’s a really interesting question. It’s been very stressful. I have to say, Paris is—compared to what I hear from friends in American cities—it’s been way easier here. But I haven’t seen my family in almost a year because I wound up over here and it was too dangerous to go back. So that’s been really hard, because I’m very attached to my children. There’s just an intensity to just get through everyday. And so I was thinking I can’t remember the last time I’ve laughed. I’m sure I’ve smiled, but I can’t remember the last time I really laughed.

BETTY: Oh, that makes me want to cry.

DANIELLE: I haven’t seen a lot of funny stuff. It’s a very serious time in one’s life. When will I see the people I love again? When will I go home again? When will this be over?

BETTY: I hope we can get a different answer to this question the next time we do this.

DANIELLE: But I’ve heard from some doctors that we might be turning the corner, so I have to take that as good news.

BETTY: Indeed. Can you tell us just a little bit about your next novel The Affair?

DANIELLE: That was a very fun book to write. It’s about an American woman married to a French man, and he’s a very famous writer. One of his books  is made into a movie and he then falls madly in love with the star of the movie, and is having this very flagrant affair. It’s, again, what happens to people in this tough situation? This woman loves her husband, he’s in love with someone else. He loves both women. Something else I enjoyed is that she has three sisters. One of whom is a TV chef who just hates the whole idea of marriage. Another sister is a very uptight federal judge and a very rigid person who of course tells her to get divorced immediately.

Then the third sister is kind of wild and eccentric and she’s a fashion designer, very happily married. And it’s very interesting to see these women and the different advice they give her. I loved all the points of view, and the woman has to make her own decisions about it all.

BETTY: That sounds great.

DANIELLE: It’s one of those life situations that can happen to anybody. Maybe in slightly less glamorous circumstances, but it doesn’t matter who you are if your husband is cheating on you. It doesn’t matter if he works in a gas station or is a bank president.

BETTY: Exactly.

DANIELLE: You know, French men are not the most famous for their fidelity.

BETTY: That’s what I’ve heard.

DANIELLE: If they no longer like their wives they feel that they’re free. It’s just a little detail, the fact that they’re still married.

BETTY: Well we certainly have The Affair to look forward to. So one last thing Danielle. If you could offer one piece of advice to a young writer, what would that be?

DANIELLE: Work, work, work, work. I am a great believer that whatever your profession or chosen field, you just have to keep working. Writing is a hard field to break into. Like any creative endeavor it can be very discouraging. But there’s, you know, there’s no secret. If you study your ass off in school, you’re going to get good grades. If you work really hard, you’re likely to succeed whether it’s writing or anything else.

BETTY: Right.

DANIELLE: I wrote five books that were not published when I was starting out. It was 11 years before I could live off my writing. It’s a hard job. But I think it’s worth it, you just absolutely have to work hard.

BETTY: That’s marvelous, and so true. Is there anything else you’d like to add before we end?

DANIELLE: I want to say that I’m grateful to my readers for reading the books. I’m thrilled that they love these stories and I will work as hard as I can, forever and ever, and I hope they keep reading them. And I hope you keep editing them!

BETTY: I will forever.

DANIELLE: Maybe we should tell people what you do, which is so interesting. When I write a book and send it to you, what happens next?

BETTY: Well, that’s such a wonderful question. My philosophy about editing is that a good editor’s job is to bring out the best in the author, whether they’re writing about Paris in the springtime or astrophysics. A good editor tunes into that author’s sensibility and tries to bring out the best in him or her. It is so easy with you because everything is so extraordinary to begin with. But just a little tweak, a little polishing, and a little questioning here and there can improve most people’s work. The editor’s job is not to rewrite anything, but it’s like a psychiatrist, to coax the writer to be the best they can be.

DANIELLE: Which is exactly what you do for me and it is so interesting because I’ve had other editors in my career. And they always try to interject themselves. “I think you should do a scene that does X,” but if it doesn’t come out of my gut I can’t really do it right. It’s very interesting because looking at your notes on a manuscript, there are questions on every page. “What is she thinking? Where did she go to school? How did she grow up?” You give me questions that give the book depth, but you’re not telling me what to say. You’re making me come up with the answers myself. We do a great dance together.

BETTY: Well there’s nobody I’d rather dance with my dear.

DANIELLE: This has been a wonderful, wonderful experience. I’m lucky to have you as an editor and my fans to read the books. I’m super grateful and I never lose sight of that.

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Neighbors by Danielle Steel
By Danielle Steel
Hardcover $28.99
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