An Interview with Sidney Sheldon
What did you do before you wrote your first novel?
I was busy writing other things. I wrote 28 motion pictures, 250 television scripts and 8 Broadway plays.
Did you expect your first novel, The Naked Face, to be a success?
I was certain that The Naked Face would break all literary records -- that it would not sell one single copy! I was so sure of it that I went into a bookstore and bought a copy. Since then, it has become a superstition. On the day that a new novel of mine comes out, I always go into a bookstore and buy one copy.
Is there much difference between writing a novel and a television series or movie?
There are differences among the various forms of the medium. A motion picture script is a kind of shorthand. You don't describe your leading man in detail because if you write that he is tall, lanky and laconic and Clint Eastwood turns you down and you give the script to Dustin Hoffman, you're in big trouble. So you merely characterize him as handsome or elderly or whatever the story calls for. You don't describe the rooms in details because the best set decorators in Hollywood are going to do those rooms.
The advantage of writing a motion picture is that the studio can afford to get you the biggest stars and directors available, and the budgets are enormous. The disadvantage is that it takes a movie about two years to reach the screen, and after a few weeks it disappears. A few years later, it may be seen occasionally on pay TV.
The advantage of writing for television is that if you create a hit series, you can watch it every week for years. The disadvantage is that television shows have a limited budget, which means that you may not be able to get the actors or directors you would like.
Writing for Broadway is interesting. Playwrights get very small advances, but they own a piece of the play. On opening night, in a white knuckle two hours, you learn that you have either wasted two or three years or that you have become a millionaire.
Of all the mediums I've worked in, I prefer writing novels. The other forms are collaborations. But when you write a novel, there are no actors saying, "Change that line. I can't read it that way" or a director saying, "It's too expensive. Cut some scenes." There is no one to second-guess you. A novelist is the entire cast and creates moods with words instead of music. The characters can own villas and yachts, and armies can be deployed at no cost. A novelist is limited only by his or her imagination. Writing a novel is a heady experience, for a novelist creates worlds and plays God.
Do you have a special formula for writing your books?
I try to write suspense novels about interesting people who are caught in dangerous situations, and I try to keep the reader guessing until the very end. If that is a formula, I am guilty.
The new novel, The Sky Is Falling, is about an anchorwoman in Washington D.C. who gets suspicious about a series of fatal accidents that happen to a prominent family. When she starts to investigate, she becomes the hunted, instead of the hunter.
Besides your "formula," do you have any other special rituals for writing?
Well, I write in a rather unusual way. I dictate to a secretary. When I begin a book, I have no plot, just a character. As I start to talk, the character comes to life and other characters come in and they start to take over. They really write the book for me, and that's exciting.
You are listed in the Guinness Book of Records as "The Most Translated Author in the World," and your books have sold more than 300 million copies. Did you ever expect this kind of success?
I can't conceive of 300 million copies of anything. What makes it real to me are the letters I get from fans around the world telling me how my books have touched them.
How much weight do you give to critics' reviews of your books?
When it comes to my books, critics' opinions vary greatly. One critic wrote, "It is impossible to put down a Sidney Sheldon novel." The publisher used that as a blurb on the cover of my next novel. And another critic wrote, "If it is impossible to put down a Sidney Sheldon novel, it is because the publisher has put glue on the cover."
You used to be an aspiring country songwriter. Have you written anything lately?
Yes. When I was in my teens, I started out to be a songwriter. Now, a country singer and songwriter named Eddie Reasoner and I have written a song called, You Made Me Believe In Angels. It will be published soon.
Do you have any words of encouragement for aspiring young writers?
Yes. Don't listen to people who try to discourage you. No one can stop you but yourself.
Are you involved in the literacy movement in America?
When I was the spokesperson for the National Coalition for Literacy, I learned that there are more than 35 million adults in this country who can't read or write. We are behind Cuba and a dozen other countries in literacy. When someone like J.K. Rowlings comes along with the Harry Potter books and has thousands of children lined up to bookstores, she should be given a medal. If children learn to read in kindergarten, that's too late. They should be taught the love of reading at home.
Interview reproduced by permission of the publisher, 2001.