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June 14, 2005

Me and Janet E.: A Cautionary Tale

Going to Janet Evanovich for advice on how to write a book was like going to the mountain – literally.

Her modern house in Etna, New Hampshire, could only be found after following several lefts and rights up winding dirt roads in an area I’d assumed – wrongly – I knew well. This was how the magnificently rich and creative lived, I concluded, hidden and yet above us all.Barbieunbound

At the time I had only one book under my belt. Barbie Unbound: A Parody of the Barbie Obsession, written in the haze of post-partum depression as a response to the politically correct zombie housewives who surrounded my Vermont home, mandating with their freaky smiles that I withhold TV, Oreos and above all – Barbies – from my young daughter’s friends.

I was also desperate.

My life was sinking into a morass of laundry and family and a day job dominated by a petty newspaper editor who took perverse pleasure in scheduling me to work weekends and holidays and, later, the day after my brother died. (It was a Saturday in July, did I think I was getting off?)

How, in the midst of two kids – including a toddler who tended to barf on cue – could I ever manage to write a book? Did I have to wait (as a prominent male author told me I had to do) until my children were grown? (Like Annie Proulx, he said. She put her kids first, as I should do.)

Instinct told me that Evanovich had the answer. “She loves to talk about herself,” a Dartmouthprofessor told me. “Interview her for an article.”

I did. We chatted for an hour about her career, about how she’d come up with Stephanie Plum while sitting in a Trenton, NJ hospital as a relative lay dying. She showed me her room of knickknacks – floor to ceiling, custom-made shelves of plastic key rings, bumper stickers, and foam soda coolers all featuring Rex the hamster.

Evanovich “Gotta have a mascot,” she said.

Janet E. looked nothing like her picture. She wore a simple gray sweatshirt and wire-rimmed glasses and jeans. Her husband made us herbal tea. She reminded me of the women I knew in the blue-collar town of South River, N.J., where we both had lived. We’d also lived in Pennsylvania's LehighValley, I in Bethlehem(where I’d grown up) and she in Easton(where her husband taught at Lafayette.) We had a lot in common. We were ice skaters. We were of Eastern European descent and, therefore, appreciated a clean house.

“I want to write a mystery,” I said. “I just don’t know where to start.” I pulled out my Barbie book and told her about my idea for a mystery set in Vermont, about people who go “off the grid” and end up driven so insane by the lack of utilities that they embark on a murdering spree.

“Nuh, uh.” She stabbed at the picture of a naked Barbie flying over Ken on the cover of Barbie Unbound. “Her. Use her. Call her Bubbles and set her in Bethlehem."

Really? That seemed, well, bizarre.

“The way I did it,” she said simply, “was I went to my husband’s office after he came home from work and wrote there.” She ended up writing a book about a fairy who had lots of sex, a book that sits in a drawer still (and, therefore, is probably worth a cool million), but the point was she got it done.

Finally, someone in the flesh who could answer my basic question – how?

“Knock off fifteen thousand words and send it to an agent. This idea is so good that if you don’t do it, I will.”

It was a magic threat.

I’ll never forget how I felt leaving Janet E.’s house that snowy afternoon. Energized. Alive. Hopeful.

“Call me sometime,” she said, waving goodbye. “We’ll go ice skating.”

“I know what to do!” I told my husband, who’d suffered through years of listening to my whacky plot ideas. (Just the beginning for him, hah!). “I’m going to write in my office as soon as you get home from work to take care of the kids!”

Was there enthusiasm in his response? I don’t remember. The truth is that I recall us struggling during this period but, like labor pains, memories of the trauma have faded.

I stuck with the Evanovich Plan, as I called it. As soon as my husband walked through the door, I gave the kids hot dogs, hopped in the car, plunked in Jump by Van Halen and drove through the snow to my tiny Montpelier office, my Mac laptop in tow. Evanovich was my St. Christopher on the dashboard of my life, a mother who’d sketched characters while doing dishes just like I did. A real, live role model.

The Book Tarts know how it is. One page turns into ten. Ten into twenty. Twenty into fifty. I sent fifty off to Dutton, to an editor I’d met through the Barbie fiasco. He called back in two weeks. The new publisher loved it. Did I have more? Did I have an agent?

Sure, I said, hanging up the phone and realizing I had neither. Four months passed. An agent to whom I’d sent the fifty pages forgot about me. Then, after I pestered him, told me it was crap. His assistant called back and whispered into the phone.

“I loved it. Keep going.”

I braced myself and called Janet, who, much to my relief, gave me the low down on how to find another agent. A big agent. She read my query letter and suggested names. I gushed gratitude.

I found the agent. The big agent. Change this, the agent said. Change that. What the hell are you doing here? Where’s the love interest? Can you have 80,000 words by April? I emailed Janet the good news. She emailed me back. You're on your way.

No more dinner for me. My husband became my cheerleader, pushing me out the door.

When the contract came through and Bubbles Unbound was in ARC form, I called Janet Even_better_unbound and asked if she could blurb the book. I could treat her to coffee. Maybe we could finally do that ice skating.

No, she said. By the way … who are you again?


That night I lay on the floor and stared at the ceiling, trying to figure out what I had done wrong. Had I not sent her a thank-you note? Had I been a pest? I’d tried not to be a pest.

I decided I would be big about it. I would thank her anyway in my acknowledgements because Janet, to me, had been my mentor. She had steered me to Bubbles, shown me the way. If it hadn’t been for her, I’d have floundered and failed.

And when she saw the acknowledgements, then she would know how much I appreciated her. How much her simple words of encouragement had changed my life.

“We have a problem,” my editor called, a month after Bubbles Unbound was published. “Janet Evanovich wants the word ‘mentor’ removed from the acknowledgements. Her lawyer called your agent. Apparently, she’s pretty ticked.”

It was stunning. Five years later, I’m stunned still. Plus, I felt like an idiot, a fool. I was embarrassed, especially in regard to my editors at Penguin who probably thought I was crazy. Either that or they assumed I’d invented the whole Evanovich story to help sell my book. The only solace I took was in knowing she had no problem with the rest of the acknowledgements in which I thanked her for birthing Bubbles on her kitchen table.

But it got worse. For months, years, afterward, I heard stories about her daughter angrily denouncing me, about Evanovich insisting to a Los Angeles bookseller that my books not be displayed near hers. Evanovich fans wrote me nasty emails, who the heck did I think I was, ripping off Janet E.’s good name?

I’ve thought of writing her and explaining, but every time I start – I stop. She’s so big now. A mega author. She has people. She has a shrink-wrapped bus!

I suppose it doesn’t matter because I was the one who was richer from our meetings. But, still, should I say something? Should I write? Or should I do what women who want to write are supposed to do?

Sarah_3 Wait. And hope that someday it all just falls into place.



Move on. She helped you get where you are, which is a pretty damn good place, too. But you did do it on your own. She didn't pull strings, she didn't find you an agent or a publisher. She just gave you a nudge, which was all you needed. So move on and revel in your own success.

She sounds like a child throwing a temper tantrum because she isn't getting her way, and maybe, just maybe, she is peeved that you got to write the Bubbles story, and she didn't!!!

Enjoy your success, you deserve it!

I tried to read "To The Nines" recently because I had heard so much about Janet E. but found it unreadable. It was flat, by the numbers, and that character Ranger should be renamed "Deus X." So, I don't get it.

Bubbles is a different story. After reading your post I surfed over to Amazon as I always do and read the sample pages. You've got a great character with a natural voice there.

I'm really looking forward to reading it.

She may have been your mentor in the sense of getting you moving, but stylistically I can tell from just what I've read so far that you've eclipsed her.

You would think Janet would be pleased to have mentored such a great writer as yourself.

Something stinks.

I think it's a lawyer.

Polly - you know, I hadn't thought of it before, but you may be right. (Gotta protect your name, toots, I can hear said lawyer saying. Makes me feel a bit better.) By the way, I love the fact that you took your kids on a stakeout. Now THAT's a book.
And thanks to Karen, Hannah and JJ for the nice words. Yes, I'll move on. Can, too, now that I've got the story off my chest.

Everything I can or want to say has been said.

Think of it as a chapter in your life that is over. It has it's great parts and it's bad. Keep the good ones and forget the bad.

Now don't you feel better, Sarah? Like you've taken a deep cleansing breath?

After all this time, the truth is out: you made it all up. I'm ashamed to have all of those autographed books.

Children on a stakeout sounded like a plot, or maybe running character, to me, too. I served process with my then-six-week-old son asleep in his carrier one Saturday in November 1990.

Yikes! While this might be a upsetting/confusing chapter in your life, wouldn't it make the first of many really cool ones having Bubbles stumble across the murder of a successful famous person who snubbed a fan/colleague as that person was getting into thier own groove...say, an author maybe? :) A spoken reminder of good behavior can last only as long as the tone of voice still rings in the ear--a printed one lasts forever...

Um, Sarah?
Just so you know - I've read you and read the Red Menace... you're a better writer. No kiss-ass suck-up make-you-feel-better BS. You honestly are better.

Just because someone sells tons of books or gets seven figure deals doesn't mean they know what the hell they're doing. Remember - "Walker, Texas Ranger" was a hit show for nearly a decade. There's no accounting for taste or lack-of-talent.

Everything I've heard from people that know her say she is an unhappy, paranoid woman who is grossly aware that her success is Emperor's clothing... and writers with real talent piss her off.

I'm sure her earlier helpful self was purely self-inflation; "Look at me dropping science on the little wanna-be." If she had known you were going to be a success in your own right, I bet she never would have given you the time of day.

Move on. Life is too short and you're too good.

I'd heard rumors and whispers about this story, but it's nice to heard the other side.

I'll just let anyone know right now. If you want to put me in acknowledgements or thank me, I'll always take it. :)

Seriously, move on. It's probably done more to help your sales then if she'd just left it alone. So in the end, she helped you again.

In defense of authors everywhere, can I just say that I'm nearly blind and very bad with names and I'm swamped with requests to blurb books by people I've never heard of(self-pubbed, subsidy press, even books that aren't written yet!) and I'm always forgetting who somebody is--even a people I've communicated with a couple of times. If you've changed your hair since I saw you last, I'm sunk.

On the other hand, legally pursuing a person who's mentioned me in their thanks sure is .....pause while Nancy searches for a non-litigious word... ungracious.

Hold your head high, Sarah. We love Bubbles!


Ach! Heard rumors? Omg - it's like being back in high school - no, wait, junior high school and Evanovich is head cheerleader. I swear I did not do that with Josh Simon behind the Liberty High stadium no matter what's written on the bathroom stall, by the way. Then again, who said the only thing worse than being talked about was not being talked about? Tell me it wasn't Oscar Wilde.

Which bathroom? Which stall?

I think it was Oscar Madison...

I always think of a mentor as someone who kicks you in the ass repeatedly, not just gives you a small nudge one time. Granted,the nudge she gave you was significant, sort of like the one in the Bullwinkle skit that starts a little snowball rolling down the hill till it becomes a huge avalanche. Still, "mentor" does seem to be overstating the case.

But I must say, that's quite an impressive bit of overreaction on her part.

What a story! I have no advice because the very idea of meeting The Janet is fogging my brain! Meltdown imminent...

Ouch! How ungracious of her. While I don't understand why someone wouldn't want their generosity Ack-ed - unless they're worried they'll now be deluged with requests from people thinking they're a pushover - there are certainly more tactful and gracious ways she could have handled it. Why couldn't she have just said, "Thank you so much, but I'd rather you didn't. Like the Righteous Jew, I believe that the generous act that is performed anonymously is the most righteous of all"?

Wow. And just when I thought I was the only one in the world who had been pinched back to reality with a plier, here is your story. Yours was four years ago, mine was two months ago and I am still digging out from under. The book had to be pulled 3 days before shipping to the stores, cover destroyed and redone, signings cancelled, advertising pulled... the list goes on. The ugly words "lawyers" and "sue" were also used. After the shock, came anger, then disappointment (because this is someone I considered a friend). Ultimately the emotion that stuck with me is get up off your ass, do whatever you need to do to make sure that this book is a success and move on. Which is what I have done. There are still moments of fury, but it passes--especially when the reviews started coming in and they were all Good!! I didn't need her blurb anyway.

What? What's this, Donna? Surely you are not talking about Janet? Can you tell us more. SO far it sounds like my ultimate nightmare.

How ungracious indeed. It's one thing to ask not to be mentioned as a mentor, it's quite another to do it with a sledgehammer.

It doesn't matter how big you are, you're never too big to be polite and gracious. After the 9th Plum novel I stopped buying, and haven't picked up any of her stuff since. Yours on the other hand have a proud place on my already crammed bookshelf.

Time to move on, and move up sister - your work stands for itself.

Sorry to hear this story Sarah but you did the right thing in trying to thank Janet E.
However, some folks can't accept or don't know how to accept any kindness or thanks.
I have always been greatful to those who helped me start a career in journalism. All those reporters at the old Globe-Times who encouraged me as well as two- guys community college professors and Lehigh professors.
If this thing really bugs you, be patient, someday you two will meet again.
Then you will have a choice to make--dredge up all this stuff or ignore it and move forward.
In this journey through life, Janet E's brush-off although unkind, is toooo small of an event to be upset about.
There is nothing wrong with being greatful for her early encouragement and it worked. You got your ass out of the sling and moved forward.
Perhaps Janet E. was being kind because you were a reporter interviewing her and she wanted you to write a nice story about her. One never knows.
In this reporting world, using reporters to benefit oneself is common, just look at the politicals, they do it every day.

I was so loving this story until the heroine turned nasty. Or turned out not to be the heroine at all. The real heroine, indeed, the real mentor, was you. Your own inner voice.

Congratulations on your success, but use your story as a cautionary tale. Don't ever take yourself that seriously.

Amen, sister.

Wow! Talk about a story with a surprise ending! As the oh so articulate Coco Chanel said: "The best revenge is living well." Not that you want revenge, but....

Amazing story. I was also loving it until it turned on a dime. Just like people can sometimes. Think of it this way...Janet (whom I've never read, so I won't comment on her works) may have been in a good place when she gave you that first, very important encouragement. Maybe something's going on in her life now that's making her insecure or unhappy. It happens to all of us.

You should turn this story into a novel though! With a happy or sad ending. Either way, it's a good one.

I was so suprised to read this! I know I've read before that she helped you with the idea and always figured you guys were friends. Interesting to read though. Thanks for sharing.

What it shows me is that you are a much better person than she is.
When I first wrote you on YaHoo, I said that I had written her and never was acknowledged, then she had the book names and never acknowledged. So now I read you books first and hers when I get to the end of the pile. You are a wonderful person and for someone to do that to you must be nuts. You are great because you never forget us.

Sarah -

First, it was a true joy to meet you and hear you speak in Houston this weekend! :)

Second, always remember: what goes around, comes around and when it comes, it's usually a 100-fold more than you gave. So, she'll get hers and you are already reaping the success of your kindness.

May you have much continued goodness in your life always!

Robin :)

After all these years and the success you've achieved it seems vendictive and rude to tell this story. Maybe janet e. meets a lot ofpeople and a lot of them are aspiring writers and she didn't remmeberr you. Lots of other writers seem to have given you "blurbs." Move on.

After all these years and the success you've achieved it seems vendictive and rude to tell this story. Maybe janet e. meets a lot of people and a lot of them are aspiring writers and she didn't remmeberr you. Lots of other writers seem to have given you "blurbs." Move on.

I learn maybe two important new things per decade. The one I learned in my early 30s was:

When I get that am-I-crazy feeling, it means the other guy's crazy.

Haven't learned anything in my late 30s yet.

Hi Sarah -

I just posted on Nancy's current thread - hadn't read this one first.

We have a name for this woman. It's a lot like her regular name, but it has a b in it.

Count yourself among the many she's dissed for no reason. Ask Mary Alice about it. And don't blame it all on the lawyers, man - most of them are jerks, but they don't get out the sledgehammers without the client's consent. Plus, the lawyers didn't tell her daughter to bash you. Those people need to spend a little more time on character development. heh.

By the by - I've met both you and Miss Forget-the-title-just-keep-making-the-font-carrying-my-name-bigger (try getting that monogrammed on a Bermuda bag) and if she has any more work done, she's going to start resembling Jacko.

So you got that going for you, which is nice.


I thought Bubbles was great fun, and I'm sorry for the static from the woman who inspired you.

BTW, I was your copy editor for Bubbles Unbound. : )


Brattleboro, Vermont

You poor child, Eliani. I had a lot to learn back then. Well, thank you for all your work...


My pleasure!

So interesting it is, I like it !

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