Interviews

A Conversation with Danielle Steel

On discipline, writer’s block, and falling in love with her characters

Danielle Steel Interview

Brigitte Lacombe

Brigitte Lacombe

One of the world’s most popular and prolific authors, Danielle Steel, answers our questions from Paris. Get a glimpse at her famed writing regimen, her experience throughout the pandemic, and why she chose to write about the royal family during WWII. Her newest book, Royal, is out now! 

Amy Brinker:  You’re a legendarily hard worker- for you, has work changed during quarantine? 

Danielle Steel:  Work changed enormously during Quarantine. The alarm bells of the pandemic sounded when I was at home in France, and all my children in the States. It was a fairly traumatic decision whether to stay in France, far from my family, (I live in both places), or whether to make a run for it and go back to the States. Travel was already thought to be dangerous, and my kids and I decided it was safer to stay where I was, in Paris. The whole situation was sudden, stressful, and surreal. One of my lifelong fears, dividing my life between two countries, has always been ‘what if there is ever a war?’, and being separated from my children, unlikely as that seemed. And instead, I’ve been separated by 3,000 and 6,000 miles from my children, on the East and West Coast of the US, and I’ve been in Paris since the pandemic began, although we talk on the phone many times a day.

AB:  Are you writing as usual? 

DS:  After I made the decision to stay in France, the solid lockdown confinement took hold, and I spent 76 days alone without leaving my apartment. It was an elegant jail sentence in a very comfortable apartment, but solitude is nonetheless what it is, and a huge challenge. I thought it would be a wonderful opportunity to write, and much to my surprise, for the first time in my life, with all that time on my hands, I was too anxious to write. My mind was blank, I was constantly distracted by my fear of getting sick, my fears for my children, and the world. It took me about three weeks to settle down. But what changed during confinement: I had trouble concentrating, my mind felt blank, I felt as though I was working and thinking in slow motion. Discipline is an enormous factor in my work, and I would force myself to sit with a yellow pad, or at my typewriter all day, for 12 hours at a time sometimes, and just couldn’t work. I knew what I wanted to write, but at first it wouldn’t come, and when it finally did, I found I was writing so much more slowly than usual. I had the time and the space, but not the focus for those first few weeks. Too much scary stuff was going on. I would watch the terrifying reports on the news, and was panicked for hours afterward. 

Infuriated by my own distraction, I wrestled with it, and within a few weeks, I was writing, not quite at full speed, but close enough. And now, 3 months after we were ‘De-confined’ in France, my writing speed is back to normal. But what I discovered during confinement was how much more than I ever realized, I rely on outside stimuli to fuel me, conversations, exchanges I see and hear between people, things I see on the street, or in a restaurant, items that interest me in the news. I absorb all the things around me, pick them up, and build a book with them, like a bird making a nest. In the silence of my own company, and a world that had come to a dead halt, there were none of the elements I use to add to a book, sometimes without even knowing it. Once I was back in the world again, it all came back in a rush. But during the confinement, I had to work MUCH harder than normally.

AB:  I know you like to stay busy, so how have you been filling the extra time? 

DS:  Despite how distracting it was during the confinement, I wrote an enormous amount eventually, and as I always do, I was working on five different books, in different stages, just as I do normally. In fact, when we got ‘De-Confined’, I actually stayed in for 2 more days, to finish what I was working on. And then I finally got out, to get some air, go for walks, see people, see friends. It was sheer Heaven to be back out!!

AB:  I’ve read that you schedule your work very stringently- can you tell me more about that? 

DS:  I am always working, writing something, it’s very rare that I’m not writing. My tolerance for not writing is about two weeks, and then I HAVE to get back to work. I’m extremely disciplined about it. I write every day, in some form or other. Work comes first before fun!! I’ve been that way all my life. And when I’m writing a book, during the first draft, I work 20 to 22 hour days so I keep the story tight. (and then sleep for 3 or 4 hours, and go back to the book.)

AB:  How do you attack a new project? 

DS:  When I have an idea for a new book, I jot down notes of the ideas I have, it may be about an industry, or a person, or a theme or an issue of some kind, some thought that comes to me, or something I see in the news. I make notes for a while, and eventually I handwrite an outline, and work on that for quite some time. I also write about the individual characters, getting to know their histories and personalities. And I make notes about the research I’ll need. When all of that comes together and I feel ready, I type an outline, and then work on that for a while, honing it and editing it. I discuss it at length with my editor, and when I think I’m ready to jump, I start the book. Developing it to that point can take many months. And then I write the first draft, and edit and correct that. I do about 4 drafts of a book, over a 2 or even 3 year time span, before it’s ready to be published, adding the research along the way. It’s a long very minute, meticulous process.

AB: Do you always have a few novel ideas in your back pocket for future books? 

DS: I don’t have ideas ‘in my back pocket’, after those first initial notes, either I develop an idea and start working on it, or I don’t. Sometimes I have an idea, and by the next day, I don’t like it, so I don’t pursue it. I know when it clicks for me, and then I start working on it, in the long development process.

AB:  I was surprised to read that you still have self-doubt, considering your long-standing success and popularity. I think that’s actually really helpful for newer writers to hear. What helps you get through that and guides you despite doubt?

DS:  I’ve always worked very hard (and love what I do) and push myself very hard. I try to be better, write better, learn more, improve things, dig deeper about the character studies in the book and to tighten the plot. I think success is to challenge you to try harder and harder, and write better and better, not rest on your laurels and congratulate yourself on how great you are.  I think self-doubt is very important, it keeps you trying harder, striving for something more to give to your readers. I think in almost anything, the day you congratulate yourself on how ‘good’ you are is the day you become less ‘good’ and you lose something important. Being self-satisfied dulls something, and takes away that drive that makes you strive to do and be better each time.

AB:  Your new book, Royal, begins during the Blitz in WWII- did you learn anything especially interesting or surprising?   

DS:  I always learn something new in every book, usually through the research, about an industry, an illness, a phenomenon of some kind,  a war , a place or location, or something more about the interactions between people. There is so much to learn about World War II, that I always learn something new about it that I didn’t know before, and can share with my readers. It’s a fascinating time in history, and with the leeway of fiction, I loved the idea of adding a third princess to the British Royal family, who came to a mysterious end, with unexpected startling secrets that surfaced twenty years later. I loved that idea. And it’s always a huge challenge to make the twists in a plot work and have them both feasible and believable. I fall in love with my characters when I write, and they become real and dear to me. I care deeply about them, which is why my readers care about them. And I think people see themselves in my books, and in my characters—-often living the same challenges and experiences that we all wrestle with, so we can really identify with them, especially if we’ve had a similar experience. And I think we’re all a little fascinated with royalty and royal families, the advantages and disadvantages they live with, so it was both fun and fascinating to write about that. And the research in my books is always as accurate as I can make it. I love discovering details about my characters that make them all the more real.

AB: Royal focuses on secrets, family, and station. Are there any real-life stories that helped inspire this novel or historical figures you wanted to channel?

DS:  No real life characters inspired the book, other than the Royals themselves, both real and fictional. I’m a great admirer of Queen Elizabeth the II of England. In fact, she made two extraordinarily touching, noble, gracious and encouraging speeches during our Confinement in France. Her speeches really encouraged me and boosted my spirits. She was like a wonderful strong, noble courageous grandmother giving us good advice during the pandemic and confinement, and I felt uplifted and hopeful after hearing her speak. There is something special about some Royals, though not all. I tried to capture that in the book. And I hope I’ve provided a story that people will love, remember and cherish.  

I’m always deeply grateful to my readers!!!  And also touched when people tell me they loved the books, as I do when I write them.  

Thank you so much, love, D.S.

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Hardcover $28.99
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