Romancing the reader

Published April 27, 1997|Updated Oct. 1, 2005

Janet Dailey began life, surrounded by love and lousy luck, like one of the heroines in her wildly popular romance novels.

Born poor, got rich. Did the work of 10 strong writers. Ninety-two novels, and not a cash register clinker among them.

Sooner or later, it all hangs out in a Janet Dailey book. So much passion, so many betrayals. So many slow-talking men with long, muscular thighs.

Fortunes found, fortunes squandered. Bad guys met, thoroughly enjoyed, thoroughly regretted. Honor and deceit and a punch in the nose _ not infrequently it's the male nose bludgeoned by a righteous female fist.

"I couldn't stand writing about weak women," Dailey says. But art does not imitate life in her books. They are not autobiographical; the author grew up unbattered and forever feisty.

"My heroines say no to men _ when they want to." Which, fortunately for readers, isn't all that often.

"In a romance novel, the man is the sex object," Dailey declares. "The heroine spends a lot of time thinking about him, so he's observed and described more carefully than the woman."

Dailey heroines choose the rough road. You won't find them looking anxiously over the counter of their own interesting little boutique. If they bake a cake it's not something Viennese with spun sugar; it's honest American chocolate.

In Illusions, her new heroine, Delaney Westcott, runs a bodyguard service. Her assistant is a male hunk. Her new client is a super hunk, Lucas Wayne, "rock star turned movie star."

Illusions costs 24 smackeroos. Dailey's publisher, HarperCollins, proclaims her "the No. 1 best-selling female author in the U.S. and the third best-selling female author in the world."

"You must have made millions," an interviewer from an Ohio newspaper gushed.

"Multimillions," Dailey said softly.

Dailey, 53, puts out a new hardback novel every spring. At the same time, a paperback of last year's novel comes out. This year's hardback is Illusions, and the author will sign copies in Tampa Monday evening. (See the box on page 1F for details.)

Earlier this month she was interviewed on the phone from Belle Rive, the 25-acre estate with a 12,000 square-foot mansion she built on Lake Taneycomo River, near the new Country Music center in Branson, Mo.

She modeled the 12,000 square-foot house on Belle Rive on a Louisiana plantation. "It looks a lot like Tara," Dailey allows.

There's more than a little Scarlett in the proprietor of the cropless new Missouri plantation. Her Civil War ordeal was with Harlequin Books, the British-based romance novel house where Dailey and many other best-selling authors learned their craft. Her first Harlequin took her six months to write. Soon she was doing one in a month, finally in a week.

When they get together at writers' conferences, many romance writers turn into good ol' girls. Once they're sure you're not one of their more staid readers, they begin to sound like Bette Midler.

"Harlequin Books had a ridiculous rule that the heroine had to be a virgin," Dailey says. "Passionate kisses were allowed but we couldn't go below the neck. Finally the writers started pushing the rules, and in about seven years we'd worked below the belt and lower. We started saying, "Let's be realistic. In this day and age if we love a guy, we'll go to bed with him.' "

Dailey wrote more than 50 Harlequins and another 20 or 30 Silhouettes and started to get rich _ and bored with the form. In the '80s she made the jump to romance hardbacks, and even more money. The writing is slower, more carefully done, but not so different.

"Readers want to be titillated, but subtly," she says. "To keep the sexual tension going, you must be sensual, not graphic. But that kind of writing can get old."

Dailey doesn't read sex passages in other novels. Too much like a day in the office. "I thumb past them," she says.

"You use a word like "caress" or "stroke" without being too specific. You say "his roaming hand' without saying where it's roaming. How many ways can you put a hand on a breast? How many words can you use: nipples, rosebuds, peaks and crests."

"I don't get detailed. I get sensuous. I call it hard-core decency."

Some of the passages above came from the phone interview with this writer. Others are from The Janet Dailey Companion _ A Comprehensive Guide to Her Life and Her Novels by Sonja Massie and Martin H. Greenberg. It is a $7 paperback and will be released next month by Dailey's publisher; she shares the copyright. The book contains about 200 pages of an interview with the author, followed by mostly full-page summaries of each of the first 90 novels. Only a Dailey-loon could love it.

Another bone tossed to the more fervent, tail-wagging Dailey fans is The Dailey Report, a quarterly newsletter mailed to 55,000 people, the author says, and devoted to Dailey family news, travels and literary plans.

Fans are international. Her books have been translated into 19 languages. They are collected like baseball cards. At Paperback Palace in St. Petersburg, customers come looking to round out their collections of early Janet Dailey Harlequins. Many ask for them by number instead of title.

Dailey was born on an Iowa farm in 1944. When she was 5, her father died. Her mother moved to nearby Storm River, got a job in a "mercantile" store, and supported her four girls for the next eight years. Then her mother married "a nice man." according to Janet, "a ward supervisor at a mental home."

Janet graduated from high school where, she says, she "got good grades and dated too much. Some teachers wanted to get me a college scholarship, but I didn't understand what college could do for me. So I did what every red-blooded country girl wants to do. I went to the big city _ Omaha."

She enrolled in a secretarial school, and almost immediately something wonderful happened. She met a Janet Dailey hero.

"Bill was strong and gruff, older and wealthy _ the only man I ever met who was smarter than me. Also, the kind of man who wouldn't say, "Let's have lunch sometime,' unless he meant to have lunch with you sometime."

He told her, why go to secretary school when he would give her a secretary job right now in his construction company. "Made sense," Janet said and quit school.

Bill traveled a lot to check on his out-of-state construction projects. Though Janet was only 19, she began throwing her 5-foot-4, 115-pound frame around.

"There was another secretary who just lazed around when Bill wasn't there. I fired her.

" "You can't fire me,' she said. "I just did,' I said and paid her severence out of my own money. When Bill got back, and I told him, he grinned and reimbursed me. I started moving up in the company.

They probably married in 1965, when Janet was 21 and Bill 36. "Maybe it was a year or two later," Janet says. "The preacher sealed the marriage certificate, said don't open it and our marriage would last. We never have opened it, now we've forgotten the year, but we're still together."

Janet never had children, says she never "needed" them. "Bill was divorced with two wonderful kids, 4 and 6, when we married. They visited every other weekend and other times, too, and I love them so much and they love me and we all get along so beautifully, there's never been a feeling of need to have my own."

The boy, Jim, married now, with children of his own, lives in a house on the Dailey estate. The family owns country theaters, real estate, etc. Daughter Linda and her family live nearby and visit often.

Janet and Bill also built a house on the estate for Bill's former wife and former mother-in-law. An unusual arrangement, Janet supposes, "but they're part of the family, and my good friends," Janet says.

Bill made Janet a partner in his construction business, and now gives her much credit for its success. When she was 30 and he 45, they sold the business, bought a new 31-foot Airstream and a new Lincoln to tow it and set out to see the country.

During that trip, Janet began her first romance novel. She had wanted to be a writer since she was 5 or so and made up her first story "about a little bear who was lost from her mother and had to do good deeds till Mother Bear came and found her again."

The first book, No Quarter Asked, was about a city girl who, by working outdoors, alongside western men, and asking no help, won the respect and love of the rugged, arrogant but handsome ranch owner. It took six months to write but sold immediately to Harlequin, In the next year, 1966, Harlequin published five of her novels.

Bill encouraged her and handled the business end while she wrote. Though Janet doesn't admit it, Bill may have inspired some of her brusque heroes. Interview with Bill Dailey, as recorded in the Janet Dailey Companion:

Q. Has Janet changed over the years?

A. Oh no. No. Hell no. Gotten older.

Q. What about your ex-wife living on the estate with you. Do people talk?

A. Some don't understand. They think I've got the best of both worlds . . . That's not true, but I don't give a damn what they're thinking.

Q. What's it like being a grandpa?

A. I don't know.

Q. You don't?

A. No.

Q. Er . . . okay, well, do you have any part in Janet's writing?

A. Only when she asks me, would a man do this. I can only answer based on my lifestyle, which has been a little different from some sonofabitch growing up going to church every Sunday and all that kind of thing.

One of the mutual decisions made on that first cross-country trip was that Janet would write a novel set in each of the 50 states. Over the years, she did it. Now collectors search book stores for "Dailey's Alaska" or maybe "Dailey's South Dakota."

"Aren't some of the plots kind of interchangeable?" a man asked at a safe (telephone) distance. "No," she said, annoyed.

Dailey's books are largely ignored or dismissed by well-known critics. "A bloated 716 pages of leaden prose and overwrought images," said Washington Post critic Stephanie Mansfield of The Great Alone. "It's like sleeping with a sea otter. It won't kill you, but I wouldn't recommend it."

That's about as bad as it gets. About as good as it gets is a Chicago Tribune book reviewer admitting that Dailey's success speaks for itself. "Can 120-million readers be wrong?" she asks. Another critic speaks of the later books as the author's "longer, better-written romantic novels."

"I never read reviews, good or bad," Dailey says.

Criticism from the old-fashioned moral side doesn't seem to bother her either. "I don't think a sexually explicit scene is immoral," she says. "God put us on Earth to mate, to multiply _ and gave us the enjoyment of the act of life to make sure we do."

Her mother, 88, has an answer to this. Dailey notes what the older woman, who lives with her second husband in a little house on the estate, recently said of the sexual passages in her daughter's latest book: "I just can't wait till Janet gets all that out of her system."

The author laughs. "Yet if you don't write some of those scenes, some people get upset. They say, "I waited and waited and when they finally did it they were in the other room, and we weren't there to enjoy it."


Janet Dailey will be signing copies of her new book, Illusions, at 7 p.m. Monday at Waldenbooks, 13101 N Dale Mabry Highway in Tampa.