BUSTLING AROUND HER SUNLIT apartment, Judy Collins, the 56-year-old folksinger who has held forth for more than 30 years with her crystal-toned soprano, is still giddy after a book-signing in Atlanta for her first novel, Shameless. "I'm having a great time," she says. "I do my whole dog-and-pony show. I read, I talk, I sing." With that she breaks into a melody. "Shameless," she sings, belting out the refrain of the CD single tucked into the sleeve of the novel, "baby, you're shameless."

That's the word some longtime fans may apply to Collins's steamy rock-and-roll-flavored whodunit, written in prose that is often more breathless than deathless. (Example: "I feel him flow into my center as our voices call together, the sea pounding beneath us, our bliss a total and fulfilling ecstasy.") Shameless, with an initial printing of 50,000, chronicles the adventures of a successful photojournalist who is raped by her shrink, seduced by a lesbian and betrayed by her boyfriend. It also features cameos by Cher, Sting, Bob Dylan and—yes—Judy Collins. "The plot...really doesn't make much sense," wrote an Atlanta Journal-Constitution critic. "But let's be honest...we were enjoying the dishy gossip...along with some dream sequences erotic enough to make Nancy Friday sit up and take notice."

Writing the novel—and the songs on the recently released full-length CD of the same name—helped Collins cope with an almost unbearable personal tragedy. She began working on the manuscript in 1987, shortly after the publication of her autobiography, Trust Your Heart, in which she described her own suicide attempt, at age 14, and a bitter, losing 1965 custody battle for her only child, Clark Taylor, who was 6 at the time. But she put the novel away in January 1992 when her son, then 33 and estranged from his wife of five years, killed himself by carbon monoxide asphixiation in the garage of her St. Paul, Minn., home. "He was such a wonderful person," says Judy, as Clark's only child, Hollis, 7, who is visiting during her school vacation, romps through the apartment. "He was sensitive and gorgeous—I mean, just look at his daughter."

Actually, Hollis, with her wavy, shoulder-length hair and startling blue eyes, resembles her grandmother, especially around the time Collins was making her debut as a classical piano prodigy on her father's Denver radio show. Eventually, Judy—the eldest child of Charles Collins, a blind musician and singer who died in 1968, and Marjorie, a homemaker—grew frustrated with her strict classical training and turned to folk music. When she was 18, she married former Navy pilot Peter Taylor and gave birth to Clark a year later.

But after they moved to Storrs, Conn., where Peter took a teaching fellowship at the University of Connecticut, Judy started pursuing her music career in New York City and left much of the child-rearing to her husband. The couple separated in 1963 and divorced the next year. In 1965 Taylor won sole custody of Clark. In 1968, the boy, then 9, returned to live with Collins just as she was enjoying the success of her biggest hit, "Both Sides Now."

By then, Collins, a major folk star and a leading figure in the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movement, was also having problems with vodka and prescription drugs. "It was hard living with a person who was going through so much," Clark told PEOPLE in 1987. "I could never be sure whether she was going to be pleasant or inexplicably angry or aloof." Over the next 10 years, Collins began conquering her demons with intensive therapy and drug-treatment programs. Clark, who settled in Minnesota, where he repaired computers for the St. Paul school system, battled his own drug-and-alcohol addictions. The suicide, Collins says, was "like a holocaust in your life. It's total devastation, something you don't ever get over."

Fortunately, the man Collins calls her life partner and companion, dating back from 1978, designer Louis Nelson, 59, helped her weather the tragedy. "It was a terrible time for both of us," says Nelson, whose own father underwent heart surgery around the time of Clark's suicide. "She's held me up too." With Nelson, Collins turned for support to the American Suicide Foundation, an 11-city-based survivors' network. "There are many people who have suffered this terrible, terrible loss," says Collins. "The only thing to do is to try to help someone else. There's great power in being able to say, 'I lived through this, and I didn't take a pill and I didn't drink and I didn't blow my brains out.' "

Instead, Collins threw herself into her work, completing Shameless, which she dedicated, "For Clark, forever," last spring. At the same time, she put the finishing touches on another multimedia project, Voices, a just released book and CD set of autobiographical songs and essays in which she expresses the anguish she felt after her son's death. By contrast, Collins found welcome respite from the pain in the steamy, guilty pleasures of Shameless. "It's just," she says, "a whole lot of fun."

  • Contributors:
  • Steve Dougherty.