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Author Sidney Sheldon talks about his new novel, "The Sky Is Falling"
(CNN) -- Sidney Sheldon is one of the world's bestselling authors -- and the most translated. (You can look it up in the "Guinness Book of World Records.") His 15 novels have sold more than 300 million copies in 51 languages. Sheldon's background is in television and movies. He won an Oscar for his screenplay for "The Bachelor and the Bobbysoxer" and was the creator of "I Dream of Jeannie."
His latest book, "The Sky Is Falling," like his previous novels, went straight to Number One on the bestseller lists.
CNN-Host: Welcome to CNN Book Chat, Sidney Sheldon.
Sidney Sheldon: I'm delighted to be able to greet the chat audience, and I'm looking forward to some interesting questions!
CNN-Host: Please tell us a bit about your new book, "The Sky Is Falling."
Sidney Sheldon: "The Sky Is Falling" is the story of a television anchorwoman in Washington, D.C. She interviews a very charismatic man, who is a member of one of America's most beloved families. Three hours after the interview, the man is murdered, and the anchorwoman, Dana Evans, realizes that he is the fifth member of the family to have died in so-called "accidents" within a year. She gets suspicious, and starts to investigate the deaths in the family. The deeper she gets, the more trouble she realizes she is in. Someone is trying to murder her and her young son, to keep her from revealing the real story. What's terrifying to her is that she has no idea who it is, or how she can escape.
Question from whoami: Mr. Sheldon, why are the ends in your stories always so dramatic?
Sidney Sheldon: I find it very difficult to come across a book that I cannot put down. I'll be reading at night, and I'll look ahead if I get sleepy, to see how many more pages there are to the end of a chapter. Usually, when people get to the end of a chapter, they close the book and go to sleep. I deliberately write my books so when the reader gets to the end of a chapter, he or she must turn one more page. When people tell me I've kept them up all night, I feel like I've succeeded!
Question from soap: Where do your ideas come from?
Sidney Sheldon: No one knows where ideas come from. Any talent is a gift, and we can take no credit for it. I think we're obligated to work as hard as we can at whatever talent we're lucky enough to have been given, whether it's writing or music or painting. We should just be grateful.
CNN-Host: You are such a prolific writer -- do you tend to keep a writing schedule or routine?
Sidney Sheldon: I start work at 9 o'clock in the morning, finish about six. If I can't sleep at night, I will go into my office and work for a few hours. I do this seven days a week.
Question from Susie-CNN: Your books have many intricate plot twists ... do you know the eventual outcome when you begin writing?
Sidney Sheldon: When I start a book, I have no plot. I have no beginning, middle or end. I start with a character. For example, I will say to my publishers, I want to write a story about a female criminal attorney. At that point, those three words are all I know about the book. I dictate my books to a secretary, and as I talk, other characters come into my mind, the story begins to flow, and I finish a first draft. It can be 1000 to 1200 pages.
When the pages are typed, I go to page one and start rewriting. Sometimes I throw out 100 pages at a time. I get rid of characters, and bring in new characters. That rewrite is typed up, and I go to page one and start it all over again. I'll do that for a year to a year and a half, until the book is as good as I know how to make it. And then my publisher sees it for the first time.
Question from Mike: On the average, how long does it take you to complete a book, from original idea to submission?
Sidney Sheldon: It takes about two years. I could easily write two books a year, but I prefer making each book as exciting as possible, or I feel I would be cheating my readers.
Question from wanttoknow: Mr. Sheldon ... you've achieved so much -- why do you continue to work so hard?
Sidney Sheldon: Because it's what I am. I'm a writer.
I'll tell you how deeply ingrained that is in me. Many years ago, I lived in a home near a canyon. The canyon was on fire, and the police came and ordered everyone to evacuate, because if the fire leaped over the canyon, all our homes would be destroyed. My wife ran into the house and took what she needed, and came out. I went inside where I had valuable scripts, mementos, things that could not be replaced, and all I took were half a dozen yellow pads and a handful of pens. I knew that I might be in a motel and I had to be able to keep writing. I left all the valuable things in the house. That's how deeply ingrained this is in me.
CNN-Host: Can you tell us a little about how you got your start as a writer?
Sidney Sheldon: I grew up in the Depression, and we literally had no money. While I was going to school, I worked nights at a hotel in Chicago, hanging hats and coats in the checkroom. I was 17. I wrote a song, and asked the bandleader at the hotel if he would look at it. He liked it, and said he wanted to make an orchestration, and I was thrilled. Every night, while I was hanging hats and coats, from around the corner in the big ballroom, I heard my song being played. Quite naturally, I thought I was Irving Berlin.
So, I wrote a dozen more songs, and took a bus to New York where all the music publishers were. I got a room at the YMCA and a job as an usher at a theatre on 14th Street. I wasn't getting anywhere with the music publishers, but what was happening was that I saw these movies every day, with all these glamorous people on screen: Cary Grant, Judy Garland, Fred Astaire, (Clark) Gable ... and they lived such exciting, glamorous lives, that I wanted to be a part of that. So I gave up songwriting, and went to California. ... to work in motion pictures. I got a job as a reader at $17 a week. I would get up at 4 o'clock every morning and work on original stories. I started selling them, and I became established as a screenwriter.
Question from whoami: What are the important elements to creating a character for a novel?
Sidney Sheldon: The character should be real to the author. I feel everything that my characters feel when I'm writing a scene. If he's angry in the scene, I feel angry. If the character is sad, I feel sad.
Recently, my wife and I were on a plane, and she came over to me and said, "Why are you crying?" I had not realized I was crying, but I was writing a scene where the character was in terrible trouble.
Question from anas: Do your wife or children play roles in your stories?
Sidney Sheldon: I'd say the only influence is that I like to write about very strong, capable feminine women who retain their femininity. My background in that is that my mother was a woman like that. My former wife, who died, was like that. My present wife, Alexandra, is beautiful, and as capable in anything she does as any man would be. And she's very caring and feminine. I love woman and respect them. I'm tired of the cliché of a dumb blonde.
Question from Susie-CNN: Who are your favorite authors?
Sidney Sheldon: The authors who inspired me are no longer with us. They're great storytellers. Sinclair Lewis, Thomas Wolfe, Charles Dickens ... these were great writers, and I grew up with these writers.
Question from soap: A silly question, but how do you derive a name for a character?
Sidney Sheldon: I try to find a name that's appropriate for the characters. If it's someone who is poor, I probably wouldn't give them a name of J.P. Morgan. There are appropriate names, and I go through a lot before I select one for each character. A little trick in writing a novel is not to have character's names begin with the same letter. I read a book once where on one page, four different character's names began with M. It was hard to keep them apart. That's a little writer's trick.
CNN-Host: What were some of your experiences as producer of the "I Dream of Jeannie" series?
Sidney Sheldon: A couple of interesting things happened. When we did the pilot, we tested it, and it went through the roof. People loved it. So I planned a trip to Europe. Then the head of the studio called me in, said they'd made new tests of further shows, and the audience didn't like it much. So I cancelled my trip to Europe, and sat down to figure out what went wrong.
What happened was that in the scripts I wrote, I had let Jeannie become bossy, rather than feminine and sweet and helpful. So, I sat down and rewrote those scenes, and shot Barbara Eden in close up with a new dialogue and cut it into the films. The ratings went through the roof again. The other thing I remember is that one day, Barbara came to me, to tell me she was pregnant. She was afraid I would replace her. Instead, I speeded up her schedule, and did a lot of close ups of her, above the waist. So, we made it before her son was born.
CNN-Host: What kinds of projects are you working on now?
Sidney Sheldon: I'm back to music. I'm writing lyrics to country songs. So, I'm right back where I started. I'm going to Nashville next month to meet with some musicians. I'm also working on my autobiography.
Question from Susie-CNN: Which of your books is your own personal favorite?
Sidney Sheldon: That's like asking "Which is your favorite child." It's hard to say. "The Other Side of Midnight" was certainly a turning point in my life. I had fun writing "If Tomorrow Comes," because the research involved talking to the FBI, Interpol, and con men. In "The Sky is Falling," the book takes place in more than half a dozen countries, and I went to all those countries to research the book. We're talking about Russia and Germany and Italy and a few other places. So that was exciting to write.
Question from Tony: How do you feel when film producers change key parts of your books?
Sidney Sheldon: I began writing in films, and I've written about 28 pictures, so I understand the process well. I've also produced and directed. When I sell a story, I know that changes will have to be made to make it work as a picture. They discuss those changes with me, so there are no surprises. We try to make it conform to the book as much as possible.
CNN-Host: Do you have any final thoughts for us today, Mr. Sheldon?
Sidney Sheldon: I appreciate the loyalty of my readers, and I will try to never let them down. If you want to know any more about me, I have a website. It's http://www.sidneysheldon.com. I want to thank you all for your loyalty.
CNN-Host: Thank you so much for joining us today, Sidney Sheldon.
Sidney Sheldon: It's been my pleasure! I've enjoyed it very much!
Sidney Sheldon joined the chat via telephone from Los Angeles, California. CNN provided a typist for him. The above is an edited version of the chat, which took place on Friday, October 13, 2000.
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