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This story by Tricia Fagan was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on October 28, 1998. All rights reserved.
Case of the Passionate Plum
by Tricia Fagan
She's a bounty hunter, a Douglass College graduate with big hair -- shapely and smart-mouthed, with a predilection for Spandex and oversized sports tee-shirts. She divides her affections between Joe Morelli, a Trenton cop, and her hamster Rex who shares her Pop-Tarts. She's second-generation American, loving her family as they drive her crazy, despising her uncle's Buick but driving it in a pinch -- a Jersey girl through and through. Stephanie Plum has been hailed a "raucous delight" by Publishers Weekly and thousands of fans agree. But she ain't got nothing on her creator, mystery writer Janet Evanovich.
Evanovich, author of the Stephanie Plum mystery series set in Trenton, is one of ten of America's best-read women mystery writers taking part in a free one-day symposium at Rutgers' Douglass College on Thursday, October 29. The symposium celebrates the donation of the Sisters in Crime archives to the college's Mabel Smith Douglass Library. The daylong event, "Sisters in Crime at Douglass College: Women Mystery Writers Divulge Secrets," is open to the public. Evanovich will participate in the "Women With An Attitude: The Lady Investigates" panel discussion. Other authors include Eleanor Taylor Bland, Joyce Christmas, Camilla Crespi, Lee Harris, Randye Lordon, Stefanie Matteson, Annette Meyers, Medora Sale, and Nicole St. John.
Chapter I: Kitchen Clue
I was calling from my Trenton home when I caught up with Ev at her home on the side of a hill somewhere in New Hampshire. There was a mystery here. Her four popular Stephanie Plum, bounty hunter, mysteries are all believably centered in Trenton's unique Italian enclave, Chambersburg -- home to some of the area's best restaurants and most tempting bakeries. So how does a New Englander know so much about Trenton (she's got our bakeries down!)? How does she capture so exactly the unique rhythms of first, second, third generation ethnic Americans that populate Stephanie's off-beat world? All leads point directly to Evanovich's childhood in South River, New Jersey, and her Aunt Lena's kitchen table.
"When I was growing up in South River in the '50s and '60s, the ethnic mix was quite different from what it is today. Back then it was mostly Eastern European -- Russian, Polish, Hungarian -- and I was in this little pocket of Scandinavians. But the influence was very Eastern European -- the town had a certain look to it and a certain feel to it."
Evanovich grew up second generation Danish in a large extended family (Evanovich is the family name of her husband Pete). Her childhood was spent in a big old house with her parents, Aunt Lena, and three bachelor uncles. In the afternoons and evenings other family members from the neighborhood would join her mother and Aunt Lena in their big country kitchen and talk.
"I got just about everything that I know about life, and certainly my sense of humor, from sitting in my Aunt Lena's kitchen in South River," says Evanovich. "As a kid, as my mother and my aunt cooked in the kitchen all day. I would sit at the kitchen table and draw, and tell myself stories, and listen to the women talk. This is where I get my background from. This is where I get my sense of humor. This is where I get a lot of my characters.
"When I decided to do this mystery series, I knew that there was just no other place for it to happen than Jersey," she adds. "But South River had changed in the interim, and it also felt small for a mystery series."
Her introduction to Trenton came years later. Her parents had moved to Mercerville. Evanovich's dad was quite ill later in life and spent a lot of time in St. Francis Hospital in Trenton. She began to commute from northern Virginia, where she was living at the time, spending weekdays in New Jersey with her father and mother, with her sister coming in from New York on the weekends. She was quickly intrigued with the Chambersburg homes spread below the windows of St. Francis, and was soon exploring. "I got to know the Burg by walking around on breaks over the course of three or four years. I stopped in all the bakeries, and after a while, being a writer -- you know, writers being very snoopy -- I started to look into the windows of Burg homes, walking up and down the streets. I loved the way the Burg felt, like South River had felt to me as a kid. So when it came time to start the mystery series, I had to set it in Trenton."
II: The Stashed Sculptor
Although Evanovich had always entertained herself with writing and story-telling, she started out as a fine arts major, graduating in 1965 from Douglass College. She describes the experience as four years of "honing my ability to wear torn Levis, learning to transfer cerebral excitement to primed canvas. Painting beat the heck out of digging holes in lawns, but it never felt exactly right. It was frustrating at best, excruciating at worst. My audience was too small. Communication was too obscure. I developed a rash from the pigment."
Despite her less than stellar college experience, Evanovich still has a strong loyalty to Douglass. She notes that as a rule she not longer attends writers conferences because of the press of work -- but agreed to participate in this event is because it is at Douglass.
"It felt very good to be invited back to Douglass considering that I barely graduated," she says. "I wasn't the best student. As a matter of fact, I almost didn't graduate at all because I had locked my sculpture teacher in the men's room, and I was up for disciplinary action." Inquiring minds needed to know: what was this all about?
With a laugh, Evanovich explains, "This was back in the '60s, remember. This teacher had been conducting `happenings' at the Cafe-a-Go-Go in Greenwich Village, and I thought this was all a bunch of bull. So I started having my own little exclusive happenings for him. The last one involved padlocking him in a little one-seater men's room. Apparently it was about 104 degrees in there by the time they broke him out, so he didn't take it well -- but I still thought it was funny. I think ultimately they let me graduate because they didn't want to see my face again."
Evanovich sent away for her college transcript to check her standing before returning to Douglass. It arrived at her home while she speaking in Tahoe. Her husband called her saying, "Congratulations, Janet. You were in the top 93 percent of your class."
III: The Heaving Bosom
It was long after graduation before Evanovich decided to try her hand at writing. She married while still a student at Douglass, and spent many years following her husband's career around the country. Those travels brought the family to Easton, Pennsylvania, Fairbanks, Alaska, and northern Virginia. "I started writing quite late in life. When I finally decided to write, I realized that I had no writing skills. In fact, I was practically totally non-verbal after the Douglass art department and 10 years of motherhood. I realized that one of my real weak points was dialogue -- it was very wooden, and I didn't know how to go about it."
After unsuccessfully trying a number of writers groups, Evanovich took a different approach. A friend was involved with the Rodale Playhouse, and Evanovich signed up for acting classes. "I did a lot of improv because I realized that you do on stage exactly what you do as an author. You get up there and show your audience a character -- what is inside your character by the way you talk and you move and the props that you bring and the mannerisms that you give your character. And so, you're up there forced to create dialogue. And that's really how I learned how to write."
Beginning in 1987, Evanovich started writing romance novels. She published 12 books, mostly for the Bantam Loveswept line, and won the Romance Writer's Golden Leaf Award. Six years later, she says she "ran out of sexual positions" and began looking for another outlet for her creative writing. "Romance was very good to me, but I wanted more action, and I also wanted more freedom! Being a Jersey girl, and an art department graduate, I kind of have a trash mouth. And so, the romance felt restrictive. You have a heroine stamping her foot saying, `Oh, peas and carrots!' That's not my idea of adventure. And then you're always saying `his manhood.' And I was frothing at the mouth to put the word `dick' in a novel."
IV: The Silver Dagger
Mystery writing opened the way for Evanovich to incorporate more of her humor -- and more of her sensibilities -- into her work. "I think of myself as being more of an entertainer than a writer. I have an agenda, just as any other writer -- there things that you want to slide in as you're writing. It's one of the good things about being a writer. You can help direct public opinion for whatever your causes may be. But my primary purpose was to entertain."
Evanovich developed her "formula" for the Stephanie Plum series before she began writing. "I wanted something that would be popular, and that I would enjoy writing. I want happy endings and I always have a moral heroine."
Evanovich researched the series while living in Virginia by handling a lot of guns in a gun shop to decide what kind of gun Stephanie would use. She also looked up bail bondsmen in the Yellow Pages and they who put her in touch with bounty hunters. It wasn't difficult to find bounty hunters. "Some bounty hunters are excellent, some are not so good, and some downright sleazy -- but they all make a living by charging for services. So, for the most part, as long as I was buying them lunch, they thought that this was OK. You can definitely buy a bounty hunter."
While much of the series is written with a generous sense of slapstick, the people in her mysteries, particularly Stephanie Plum, have a touching depth of character. Evanovich admits that this is not accidental. "Stephanie has a lot of my history. She has the ethnic background. She graduated from Douglass. She was a twirler. I've given Stephanie all of my bad moments. She drives that awful blue Buick. I learned to drive on that Buick. My dad had that car for years and years. I hated that car.
"Stephanie has my reactions. That's how I keep her honest. When she gets in a bind, I always ask myself what I would do. In `One for the Money,' when Stephanie is attacked by a professional boxer, she hits him over the head with her handbag rather than using the gun in the bag. I'm not a gun person. I'd be much more afraid of the gun than I would be of the boxer -- and so is Stephanie."
Clearly the formula is a successful one. Her mysteries have won legions of fans. She finds that she and the Stephanie Plum books are extremely popular over in the United Kingdom, because they are so totally American. "They love the American humor and they love the exaggerated Jersey girl lifestyle."
When she goes on tour for her U.K. publisher, they hold little ceremonies during which they present her with the ceremonial dagger that always accompanies U.K. mystery awards. "These are beautiful, gorgeous daggers, but I need to go over there to receive them because they can't be shipped through the mail. I've won a Silver Dagger, and a Last Laugh Dagger -- and then I can't get through customs, because I have a dagger. Every time they drag me out of that line and go through every piece of underwear I own! I know enough to leave myself several hours at the London airport now."
V: The Biggest Ham
The success of the Stephanie Plum series has given Evanovich and her husband the freedom to decide what they wanted to do with their lives. They chose to move to New Hampshire. "Some writer's love the stimulation of having lots of things swirling around them," she says, "but I'm just the opposite. I found I got over-stimulated, and I need to isolate myself a little bit. Our house is on the side of a hill surrounded by some acres, and there's an office at the far end of the house where I work."
A family cottage industry has grown up around Stephanie. Evanovich's daughter Alex, a film school graduate, is now her mother's full time webmaster (www.evanovich.com), and her son, Peter, a Dartmouth graduate, takes care of the finances. She says she's always working on the next Stephanie mystery. Her most recent is "Four to Score" from St. Martin's Press. Evanovich recently started a new series, with a woman poet from Greenwich Village as the protagonist. The first volume is due out next year.
So for "sisters in crime," Evanovich is a sure bet, a riotous raconteur and entertainer, both in person and on paper, who shamelessly describes herself as the "biggest ham who ever graduated from Douglass." Mystery fans will want to pick up Stephanie Plum at the nearest bookstore. But no one will want to miss Janet Evanovich's Douglass College homecoming.
At 7:30 p.m., "Women with an Attitude: The Lady Investigates," a panel discussion featuring all 10 authors, moderated by Joyce Christmas.
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