Sidney Sheldon and His Novelist Daughter Mary Explore Their Literary Bloodlines
What inspires your work?
Sidney: I start with a character. Period. I have no plot. I don't know what's going to happen next. The character takes over. When I was ready to write Rage of Angels, for example, I told my publishers only one line: "Imagine F. Lee Bailey, Melvin Belli, Louis Nizer and a dozen other top criminal lawyers, wrap them into one and make it a beautiful girl." They said: "Go!"
Mary: I began my book after hearing about all the violence surrounding rock stars...the deaths of Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, the kids who got trampled at concerts. It haunted me. I wanted to write about it.
Is rock very important to you?
Mary: I don't really follow hard rock. But it interests me how we idolize rock stars. I suppose it's because they're doing what everyone wants to do—showing off, singing, being free.
Sidney: I, for one, don't understand rock. I think the music is atonal and the lyrics are illiterate.
You both seem interested in violence. Sidney, your novels, especially, are filled with blood and gore. Why?
Sidney: There is a core of violence within me. I feel I'm capable of killing. My ancestors are Russian. I see the drama in things. Writing about it gets rid of the hostility. You know, I have a theory that if there were no writers in the world, there would be a lot more murderers, rapists and arsonists.
Mary: I don't write about violence. I write about despair. Violence upsets me greatly. Sadat's death nearly destroyed me.
Do you prefer writing about men or women?
Sidney: Women, and I like them to be beautiful. Why should they be ugly? There's a cliché that if you're beautiful, you're dumb. I hate that. My women are achievers. They are not sitting home having babies and cleaning the stove.
Mary: I think there's a lot to be said for sitting home having babies and cleaning the stove.
Sidney: All right, there's nothing wrong with being a housewife. But if I wrote about women cooking corned beef and cabbage on a farm, I think I'd bore the reader to death.
Mary: I like writing about children the best. I think they're the most sensitive and intelligent ones.
How do you write?
Sidney: I start out dictating my first draft to a secretary. Then I do as many as 12 to 15 rewrites. I work a full eight hours a day and keep to a close schedule. I will say, "Monday: pages 1 to 40. From 10 to 11 a.m., pages 1 to 5. From 11 to noon, pages 5 to 10" and so on.
Mary: I start out typing, then rework it in pen on the couch. I do about five pages a day and redo it constantly. I'm tortured by self-doubt. I worry that my muses, Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield, would be ashamed of me. But when it goes well, I feel this sense of power. It's like riding a surfboard. You're carried along and it's spectacular. But you also spend a lot of time underwater with the board hitting you on the head.
Does your father ever give you advice about your work?
Mary: Oh yes. He starts with "Darling, Baby, it's your best. Just a few minor, minor things wrong."
Sidney: Yeah! Make the girl a boy. Make the house a boat.
Mary: And I die. I burst into tears.
Sidney: I put my arms around her, but I stick to my guns. It's the only way to be helpful.
Do you empathize with your, characters?
Sidney: I'm consumed by my characters. If one of my characters has a toothache, my tooth hurts. If a character is hungry, then I'm starved too. Mary: I use what I call the Stanislavsky approach to my writing. I'm an actress. I say the dialogue in my head as I go along and try and get inside the character's mind and motivation before I write.
Is it easy or hard to write sex scenes?
Sidney: Remember, I'm the guy who created The Patty Duke Show and I Dream of Jeannie for TV, where you couldn't even say "darn." Suddenly I was writing steamy sex scenes. I was embarrassed dictating them to my secretary, but I got over that.
Mary: Sex is not very important to my writing. I'm a prude.
Sidney: She's a lady!
If you had to write a sex scene, Mary, would you ask your father for advice?
Sidney: I would hope she would ask her husband.
Do you write for the money?
Sidney: Money hasn't mattered to me for 15 or 20 years. I own pieces of my movies, pieces of my TV shows. I've made a great deal of money. But of course, I want to be paid because I feel one should be paid for what one does. My five-book deal with William Morrow guarantees me more than $1 million per book.
Mary: I don't care about having a commercial success. I care that people close to me like my book.
Have you ever had writer's block?
Sidney: Twice. The first time was about 20 years ago, and a psychologist helped me out of it. The last time, fairly recently, I went to Palm Springs when it was 120 degrees. It was too hot to go outside, so I was forced to sit in my air-conditioned room and write.
Mary: I've never had a total block. But sometimes I have written the words "she" and "room," but couldn't seem to get out "She walked across the room."
What writers do you admire?
Sidney: I love the people I grew up with: G.B. Shaw, John Steinbeck, Somerset Maugham, Thomas Wolfe.
Mary: Louisa May Alcott, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Katherine Mansfield and Cecil Beaton.
If you didn't write, what would you do?
Sidney: If I weren't a successful writer, I'd be an unsuccessful writer. I really love what I do.
Mary: A painter, because I love color. A publisher, because I think it would be fun to see a book assembled from beginning to end. Or perhaps even a nun (if I hadn't met my husband). I admire spiritual dedication.
Sidney: A nun? I'd be horrified!
Mary: I'd be a creative nun.
What are you working on now?
Sidney: I'm working on a new novel called Master of the Games. It starts 100 years ago in South Africa and is about three generations of one family. I'm also going to be executive producer of an NBC miniseries based on Rage of Angels, which goes into production early next year.
Mary: I'm doing a novel called The Success Story of Rosemary, about a girl who loses her soul and gets it back. It's nearly finished.
What do you think of Hollywood?
Sidney: I've seen too many people destroyed by show business. It's the cruelest city in the world—and the most exciting.
Mary: As you see, I moved to New York. It seems older somehow. There are secrets left in it.
Did you enjoy growing up in Hollywood?
Mary: It was very low-key, really.
Sidney: What do you mean? We had an orgy every Saturday night.
Mary: Hardly. But Uncle Groucho would come over and maybe Marvin Hamlisch would play the piano. Larry Hagman bought my painting of a rose for $8 when I was 11. When I was 14,1 had a crush on Rod McKuen and my parents took me to his concert for my birthday. He had some presents for me in his dressing room.
Was it a happy childhood?
Mary: My school life was pretty awful. I wanted so hard to do well.
Sidney: She's an overachiever.
Mary: It was a great agony for me. I got sick a lot.
Were you aware of her agony?
Sidney: A parent is never aware of what is going on in a child's mind. You think a kid is saying white and he or she is saying black. Mary never really communicated her inner struggles to us.
Now that you're both authors, do you ever compete with one another?
Sidney: Mary's works are tender and intimate. I don't know how I'd feel if she wrote a big, sweeping novel. I guess I'd feel that it wasn't Mary.
Mary: Yes, we're doing two completely different things.
Sidney: The truth is, I think Mary is a better writer than I am. Her words and images and phrases are marvelous. I can't do that.
When a reader puts down your books, what do you want him to say or think?
Sidney: He's a good storyteller.
Mary: This is a book I'll keep.