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The Hemi Q&A: Janet Evanovich

The über-bestselling author who introduced millions of readers to Stephanie Plum, a tough-talking Jersey bounty hunter, has waited 18 years for her creation to be brought to the big screen. This month it finally happens, with some help from Katherine Heigl (and an untold number of Cheetos).

Author DAVID CARR

ILLUSTRATION BY JEFFREY DECOSTER

YOU WOULD THINK THAT, after completing the 18th book in one of the most successful mystery franchises going, Janet Evanovich would take a breather, maybe fly down to Turks and Caicos or spend a month in the south of France. Instead, the 68-year-old got up the next morning before dawn, worked out and then sat down in front of a blank screen to write the second installment in her Wicked series, which is aimed at younger readers. “I get back to work because I want to see what’s going to happen next,” she explains. Evanovich, who lives in Naples, Fla., says that between walks on the beach and a steady flow of Cheetos, she finds all she needs to keep going.

Even though Evanovich has branched out, she and her millions of readers never seem to tire of Stephanie Plum, the lingerie saleswoman turned bounty hunter who powers One for the Money, Explosive Eighteen and all the sequentially numbered books in between. Tough, pretty and Jersey to the core, Plum has always felt cinematic in conception, with a tendency to get into jams that are both hair-raising and funny. Evanovich sold the movie rights to One for the Money back in 1993, but no film ever got off the ground. Then, a few years ago, she watched 27 Dresses and saw Katherine Heigl, a throwback to the screwball comediennes of old; she thought absently that Heigl could do justice to Plum.

Amazingly, when producers finally got serious about making One for the Money, they told Evanovich they planned to build it around Heigl. The author tried hard not to get her hopes up, but when she saw the movie, 18 years after it had been optioned, she loved it. “I can never write Stephanie again without seeing Katherine,” she says.

HEMISPHERES: At last, Stephanie Plum is hitting the big screen.
EVANOVICH: Yeah. How great is that?

HEMISPHERES: What took so long?
EVANOVICH: You aren’t allowed to ask me any hard questions, because I don’t have my notes in front of me and I just worked out — I was smarter before I did that. All the blood is in my feet now, instead of my brain. I don’t know why the film took so long. So many people had tried. I never thought it was going to happen.

HEMISPHERES: When you see Katherine Heigl play Stephanie — her Jersey accent is brutally wonderful — the casting totally makes sense.
EVANOVICH: I think my fans initially couldn’t see her; they couldn’t get past the whole blond thing, which is sort of ironic since probably 80 percent of my fans alter their hair color. What I saw was that Katherine brought the right kind of energy to her roles. She has great comic timing, she can do comedy and she’s very physical, which is important because this is very much an adventure movie. When they brought the film down to Florida for me to screen, I invited a bunch of our friends to watch, and the men loved it because there was so much action.

HEMISPHERES: Give us a little Stephanie Plum 101.
EVANOVICH: Stephanie Plum is a fugitive-apprehension agent, better known as a bounty hunter. She works for a bail bondsman in Trenton, N.J., who happens to be her cousin. It’s not a fabulous job, but it’s the job that she could get, and she does the best that she can with it. She’s learning how to be a be er bounty hunter. She’s single; she has a couple of men in her life that she cares about. She’s not a perfect person.

HEMISPHERES: Would you be OK bringing her home to meet Mom?
EVANOVICH: Yeah, I think Mom would probably like Stephanie Plum. Stephanie appreciates a good pot roast. She might be kind of casual sometimes, in jeans and sneakers and a T-shirt, but she does own a little black suit for when she has to go to a funeral. She doesn’t go to church anymore, but she feels very guilty about it. So yes, she’s a good girl. Good, but not perfect.

HEMISPHERES: What is it that Heigl and millions of other American women see in Stephanie?
EVANOVICH: I’ve never had a good soundbite answer for that. I think it’s that she’s kind of a train wreck of a heroine, and we root for her because we relate to her. She’s normal in many ways, with the exception of her job. That, and she destroys every car she owns, her hair is a mess, she can’t cook and her dietary habits aren’t always the best. In spite of all those things, she has two of the hottest guys on the planet attracted to her, and she’s usually the last man standing in many of the books. Readers love that.

HEMISPHERES: You also use geography as a character, and New Jersey keeps butting its way into the series. I hope the fact that I’m calling from New Jersey gives me a little cred.
EVANOVICH: It does. I’m a Jersey girl, and that place has its own kind of energy, as if energy leaks out of New York and finds its way there. I know these people and I love them. One of the reasons I have so much cussing in the books is because that’s part of Jersey for me. When you’re driving down the street and you do something stupid, you get a lot of Italian hand gestures and people yelling things out of car windows at you. Not nice things. That works for these books. But my readers were always saying they were sad that they couldn’t share the books with their daughters, so I started the Wicked series for younger readers.

HEMISPHERES: Your whole family works on your business, which is amazing to me. I couldn’t paint a room with my family without somebody yelling or ending up in tears.
EVANOVICH: We all live in the same neighborhood. We’re like a little herd. Everybody comes over for lunch and we work very well together.

HEMISPHERES: Really?
EVANOVICH: We have some rules. One is that it’s family first, business second, and we work very hard on not stepping on anybody’s toes. We’re all different people, and we all have our jobs. My daughter went to film and photography school, and she’s a very visual person. She started my website and now she’s in charge of everything digital. Plus, she manages my publicity, along with her staff. My son is very analytical, so he’s our corporate finance officer, and he’s also my agent. He deals with West Coast people and all the foreign agencies. He’s the bad cop to my good cop. My husband used to be much more of a manager, but he’s stepped back. These days he likes to go golfing and play tennis.

HEMISPHERES: So what are you working on right now?
EVANOVICH: Wicked Business, with Lizzy Tucker — that’s the book I have coming out in June.

HEMISPHERES: Is it hard to shift between the different series?
EVANOVICH: I like it a lot. What I’ve found is that when I move between worlds — when I finish a Plum book and then the next day I move into the world of Lizzy Tucker — it gives me fresh insights. I think I understand more about Stephanie after I’ve been in Lizzy Tucker’s head for a while. What I find disconcerting is when I am working on Wicked Business and I have to stop in the middle of my day and talk to somebody about Stephanie Plum. I’ve got Lizzy Tucker up there right now. I’ve crossed out Stephanie Plum — I can’t even remember how old she is!

HEMISPHERES: One last thing. As a fellow writer, I’d like some technical advice. When you take your afternoon snack break, how do you keep the Cheetos from getting into your keyboard?
EVANOVICH: My God, that stuff gets everywhere. It’s like magic dust. And it’s that orange color that you can’t get out. I get it under my fingernails and it’s gummed up in my computer keyboard. It’s really vicious stuff, but when I can’t get an idea, you give me a bag of Cheetos and I’m flying.

DAVID CARR, who covers media and culture for the New York Times, will take Fritos and Mountain Dew over brie and chardonnay any day.

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