Novelist Sheldon Still Writing at 86
Wed Feb 26, 2:35 PM ET
By BOB THOMAS, Associated Press Writer
PALM SPRINGS, Calif. - He quit college after one semester, can barely hunt-and-peck on a typewriter and has never touched a computer keyboard. Yet 86-year-old Sidney Sheldon has written 16 novels and is spending most of his waking time writing three more books.
Well, "writing" is a misnomer. Sheldon talks books. He dictates to his secretary, Mary Langford, who happens to be a court reporter. She runs the machine's tape through a computer and it emerges as a portion of the manuscript.
"Isn't science amazing," Sheldon marvels.
The dictating technique stems from Sheldon's early struggle to gain a foothold in Hollywood, in the mid-1930s. As a young hopeful from the Midwest, he was unable to get inside the studios. At the time, studios employed young people to outline new books for busy executives to consider and Sheldon decided to try out for a job as a reader. He compressed John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men" into a few pages and sent them to every studio.
The only reply came from David O. Selznick, who wanted a book synthesized for the screen by 6 p.m. Sheldon took two streetcars and a bus to get to the MGM studio, where a relative worked as a secretary. He persuaded her to take his dictation as he skimmed through the book. He delivered the manuscript to Selznick's office shortly before 6 and won his first movie job.
Today, Sheldon is working on three projects: a novel, "Are You Afraid of the Dark?"; a memoir, "The Other Side of Me"; and a collection of short stories, "Sidney Sheldon's Miracles and Other Mysteries."
"I've finished the first draft of the autobiography, and I'll be turning the novel in by June," he reports. "Then I'll go to work on a rewrite of the autobiography. Meanwhile, I'm doing research for the 'Miracles' book."
Sheldon holds up two folders half-filled with sheets of paper, the novel so far. "When I'm finished, I'll have seven of these folders totally filled," he says. The first draft will go through a dozen rewrites. Some writers hate rewrites, not Sheldon, "because every time I rewrite, the book gets better," he says.
He works all day, seven days a week. "I have no hobbies," he explains. "I could do two books a year easily. But I won't. I'd rather have (a book) as good as I can make it."
Sheldon lives in a white stucco compound with a red-tile roof beneath the rocky peaks behind Palm Springs. It started as a single house, then he added another house on one side of the original. When Kirk Douglas (news) decided to sell his house on the other side, Sheldon bought it.
The result is a cluster of houses, two swimming pools and several guest cottages, including one where Sheldon and his secretary work. The grounds are handsomely designed with palms, flowers and velvety lawns. There's a house where his wife, Alexandra, does her arts and crafts. The Sheldons also retain their West Los Angeles home, which they use for refuge from the punishing desert summer.
Sheldon didn't try novels until he was 52, but he's been writing words — and even some music — most of his life. His first sale came when he was a boy of 10 in Chicago: a poem to a children's magazine, Wee Wisdom. Emboldened, he sent short stories to other magazines but was rejected.
Awarded a one-year scholarship to Northwestern University, he had to drop out after a semester to help support his family during the Depression. He worked as a theater usher, shoe salesman and checkroom attendant at a night club. The club's band leader played one of the boy's songs, and he set off to find his music-writing fortune in New York's Tin Pan Alley.
No luck. But he found his calling when he ushered at a Manhattan movie house.
"Day after day I saw movies with glamorous sets and beautiful people, and I was living in one room at the YMCA and making less than $17 a week," he recalls. "Finally I said, `That's what I want to do: I want to write for Hollywood.'"
While reading at Universal Studios, he and another writing hopeful, Ben Roberts, sold several B-picture scripts to Republic Pictures.
The pair served together in the Army Air Corps during World War II, yet found time to turn out scripts for such Broadway shows as "The Merry Widow," "Jackpot" and "Dream With Music." Sheldon later won a Tony for the Gwen Verdon hit "Redhead."
After the war, he submitted a movie script to Selznick titled "Suddenly It's Spring." The producer bought it and gave it a new title, which Sheldon thought was terrible. "The Bachelor and the Bobbysoxer" — starring Cary Grant, Myrna Loy (news) and Shirley Temple (news) — was a big hit and won Sheldon an Academy Award.
His other screenplays included the musicals "Annie Get Your Gun," "Easter Parade," "Anything Goes" and "Jumbo." Sheldon turned to television in 1963, producing and writing many of the scripts for "The Patty Duke (news) Show" (1963-1970) and "I Dream of Jeanie" (1965-1970).
"It never once occurred to me that I could write a novel," he says. "I was doing Broadway, screenplays, television. But a novel? No.
"I got an idea that was so introspective, it entered the character's mind. I didn't know how to do that in a dramatic form. So I gave up. But it was so strong in my mind that I came back to it. That was my first book, 'The Naked Face,' about a psychiatrist whom someone was going to murder."
"The Naked Face" wasn't a big seller, but it won an Edgar, the mystery writers' equivalent of the Oscar, and became a feature motion picture starring Roger Moore (news). The next book, "The Other Side of Midnight," went through the roof_ 52 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list. It was made into a not-so-successful movie starring Susan Sarandon (news).
The string of best sellers continued. Because of Sheldon's background as a screenwriter, the books are fashioned in dramatic scenes, making them highly readable and easily converted to theatrical or TV movies (11 have been). The story lines vary, but a recurrent theme is the strong-willed woman who finds herself in jeopardy.
A major asset of Sheldon's novels is authenticity.
"I never write about any restaurant in the world unless I have had a cup of coffee in that restaurant," he declares. "I have been to 90 countries, and everywhere Alexandra and I go, we do research. I take notes and she takes photographs."
Sheldon, an imposing man with a round, ruddy face and slightly thinning white hair, seems to possess unlimited enthusiasm for his craft. "Writing novels is the most fun I've ever had," he insists.
"It gets harder. When you acquire a certain reputation, people expect to enjoy your books, and you don't want to disappoint them. Yes, I worry about repeating myself. But each character is so distinctive that I don't think that will happen."
Is it really only Thursday? Big news day for sure. Where to start...at the beginning, of course.
Last night ATONEMENT by Ian McEwan won the National Book Critics Circle award for best fiction of 2002.
Oprah Winfrey announced the rebirth of her bookclub. For now she's calling it, "Traveling with the Classics." Her plan is to read and discuss 3-5 classics a year, and to visit the location of each book. If anyone can put classics on the bestseller list, it's Ms. Oprah. Not that the NY Times would allow that anyway...should be interesting though.
The American Booksellers Association announced their shortlist for the 2003 Book Sense Book of the Year Awards. The nominees for adult books are -
Atonement by Ian McEwan (Nan Talese/Doubleday)
The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber (Harcourt)
Life of Pi by Yann Martel (Harcourt)
The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold (Little, Brown)
The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd (Viking)
Blue Latitudes by Tony Horwitz (Holt)
Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller (Random House)
My Losing Season by Pat Conroy (Doubleday)
Population, 485 by Michael Perry (HarperCollins)
Running With Scissors by Augusten Burroughs (St. Martin's)
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Sijie Dai (Anchor)
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett (Perennial)
The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint by Brady Udall (Vintage)
The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith (Anchor)
Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks (Penguin)
All I can say is I'm glad I don't have to vote. I couldn't even come up with a top ten for 2002, never mind choosing the one best book. On the other hand, I have read almost all of the fiction books nominated, which was really surprising for some reason.
On the road again: Ian Rankin and George Pellecanos are going on tour together. RESURRECTION MEN is my give-away this month, and keep an eye out for the next contest....
Finally, a very sad day with the passing of Fred Rogers. His legacy of love should live on for years to come. I'm posting this from John Lee of Suburban Tribe
because he said what I feel and said it eloquently:
...and one Goodbye.
Posted on February 27, 2003
I'm sure that more than a few Internet message boards and office water coolers are brimming with jokes about the death of Fred Rogers today. However, I'm man enough to admit that it makes me a little sad to see this humanitarian leave us. Mr. Rogers never tried to sell children a new toy or distract them for half an hour with violent, mediocre animation. He spoke to children on an adult level, while imparting to them the importance of treating yourself and others with love and respect. He was a big advocate of introducing children to the arts, and he was also a masterful storyteller who encouraged the use of imagination.
I hope PBS continues to rerun Mr. Roger's Neighborhood for a very long time. Even better, I hope at some point someone sees fit to release Mr. Roger's Neighborhood in a DVD archive for a very low price so that Fred Roger's legacy can be passed on within and between families for as long as possible.
JK Rowling to feature in The Simpsons
JK Rowling is to make a one-off appearance in The Simpsons.
Homer and his family meet up with the Harry Potter author in a special episode set in London.
Lisa Simpson turns out to be a Potter fan and questions the millionaire.
Sir Ian McKellen also appears in the episode - and is first hit by falling scaffolding, then struck by lightning.
The Simpsons go to see him perform on stage in Macbeth, but bring him bad luck by saying the play's name aloud - a theatrical superstition.
A spokesman for the cult US cartoon told The Sun: "The Simpsons bump into JK Rowling outside a bookshop and they talk all about Harry Potter.
"We're very excited about the episode and rest assured every British cliche will be trotted out to get a laugh."
Read any good books lately?
By David Sexton, literary editor, Evening Standard
Book reviewers always have one question, at the point of accepting a commission: "How long is it?" They are not hoping, as buyers of mass-market fiction usually are, that it's a really good substantial read. They are praying that the book is not too long.
Reviewing books is not a particularly well-paid form of journalism and it takes time. A book of any more ambition than a thriller can't be read for review at a rate of more than 40, or at most 60, pages an hour. Some books are only 120-pages long and can comfortably be digested in a couple of hours. Others, though, are 400, or 600 pages, or, in some dreadful instances, even more, and they can easily take days to get through.
The reviewer's fee, however, usually remains the same. So, shocking as it may seem, the truth is that some reviewers skip some books. And there are a few who skip through all the books.
They have to be good to get away with it. The more conscientious reviewers enjoy a privileged position. They are able to see the book before anybody else. So they can perform a useful task by simply describing it to a readership which has not had that advantage. What's more, while it is not so easy as you may think to have complete and certain knowledge of a longish text, it's a doddle compared to acquiring complete and certain knowledge of the outside world, which most other journalists have to attempt. The whole thing is right there, on your desk. You can check your facts until you are sure. Some books even have an index.
Yet, believe it or not, there are reviewers who just throw away such a head start. In the States, one such has just come to grief. In the New York Times Book Review, a professor of creative writing, Beverly Lowry, reviewed a book by one of the people involved in the Whitewater affair, The Woman Who Wouldn't Talk by Susan McDougal. An Arkansas newspaper columnist, Gene Lyons, soon spotted that Lowry's review contained a basic error about whether or not the author eventually testified in court (she did).
"Yo, Beverly. Next time, read the damned book," he urged, arguing that "assuming minimal competence, Lowry simply cannot have done so".
Read the complete article at the London Evening Standard