The Woman On Top

A few thing in life are certain—turkeys will be carved every fall, taxes will be due every spring, and Sandra Brown will publish a new best-seller every summer. With more than 70 million books in print, she is the most successful author in Texas. And (pant, pant, moan, sigh) the steamiest.

August 2007By Comments

Photograph by Darren Braun

As I walked into her office, she rose elegantly from behind her desk. In heels, she was nearly six feet tall, her body slender but curvy. Her reddish hair with blond highlights was perfectly tousled, and her lean face contained both well-defined cheekbones and soft, full lips. She was wearing a silky beige top that was cut just low enough for me to catch a tantalizing glimpse of a bra strap, and her spectacularly long legs were covered in form-fitting linen slacks that accentuated her pert posterior.

“Hello,” I said softly, my breath making a hissing sound as I inhaled through my teeth. For a moment, she stared back at me, her brown eyes unblinking, and I could not help but wonder if she too felt something stirring deep inside. Was she, perhaps, already fantasizing about me pushing my way hungrily toward her and pinning her to the desk with my bulging biceps?

But then Sandra Brown, the world-famous author whose blockbuster novels are filled with murder, deceit, suspense, and one steamy sex scene after another—in fact, most of the lines in the preceding two paragraphs could have been taken straight from her books—sighed and turned her attention to a couple of sentences she’d scribbled on a legal pad.

“I’ve got only ten months before my next book is due and I don’t have a clue who my characters are going to be,” she said. “I don’t even have a plot.”

I blinked a few times, trying to snap out of my reverie. “What do you have so far?” I asked.

“I want the book to begin with my heroine waking up in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

“That’s it? You have no idea what’s going to happen next?”

She shook her head. “I have absolutely no idea, no idea at all.” Then, after a pause, she gave me a cheerful smile. “But at some point, I’m sure I’ll come up with something.”

She always does. Since 1981, the 59-year-old Brown has published 67 novels, 55 of which have made the New York Times’ best-seller list for fiction either in hardback or paperback—an incredible statistic that only a handful of authors, like Stephen King and Danielle Steel, have been able to match. Play Dirty, Brown’s sixty-eighth novel, will hit bookstores this month and undoubtedly make the Times’ best-seller list as well. Her publisher, Simon & Schuster, which pays her approximately $5 million for each of her novels, is so convinced Play Dirty will be a runaway success that it is publishing 650,000 copies—the largest first printing ever for a Brown novel.

Like all of Brown’s work, Play Dirty centers on a handsome but slightly flawed hero and a gorgeous but somewhat unfulfilled heroine. Its leading man is the muscle-rippling Griff Burkett, a former Dallas Cowboys quarterback who has just spent five years in federal prison for throwing a game. When Griff returns to Dallas, he is offered a small fortune by the wheelchair-bound owner of Dallas-based SunSouth Airlines to impregnate his new wife, Laura, a stewardess-turned-SunSouth-Airlines-executive. Initially, Griff and Laura have little chemistry. But Laura’s long-repressed sexual desire finally awakens after she gets a look at Griff
in his underwear. They kiss “wildly, recklessly, with abandon and without finesse.” Meanwhile, Griff is being stalked by his nemesis, the cruel Stanley Rodarte, who is willing to try just about anything to bring him down.

Needless to say, critics have always been unimpressed by Brown (for an example of how unimpressed, go to texasmonthly.com and read writer-at-large Mike Shea’s review of her 2001 thriller, Envy). They find her books to be chock-full of literary no-no’s: over-the-top characters, implausible (if not impossible) plot twists, lurid set pieces, redundant descriptions, mixed metaphors, and clichéd happy endings.

But none of this matters to Brown’s fans. Though she currently writes one novel per year (they come out in late summer, in time for beach vacation season), demand is great enough that publishers have started to re-release the bodice rippers she penned (often under a pseudonym) during her early years as a romance novelist. Brown is now one of a handful of authors who are regarded as masters of escapist American pop fiction. As Play Dirty is released in hardcover, Ricochet, her 2006 best-seller about a murder investigation involving the glamorous wife of a famous Georgia judge, is coming out in paperback with an initial printing of 1.5 million copies. Meanwhile, her number one best-seller, from 2005, Chill Factor, about a woman trapped in a mountain cabin with a dashing man who could be a serial killer, has, like many of her previous novels, been translated into at least thirty languages and shipped to bookstores around the world.

Was she, perhaps, already fantasizing about me pushing my way hungrily toward her and pinning her to the desk with my bulging biceps?

With more than 70 million copies of her books in print, Brown is quite possibly the most successful writer in Texas history. She’s a huge star in Japan and, for some reason, in Eastern Europe. Whenever she gives a speech or appears at a writers’ conference, hundreds of fans show up, clamoring for her autograph. Recently, she was on a cruise ship—the Queen Mary 2, of course—and a man from Romania called out her name and fell to his knees before her. “I’ve never been so embarrassed,” Brown told me.

“She has a Midas touch,” says Michael Korda, the former editor in chief of Simon & Schuster who wooed Brown away from Warner Books in 2002. “And unlike, say, a Danielle Steel, she’s got enough edge in her writing to appeal to men. Believe me, she still has bigger books to come.”

Brown’s office is a converted two-story home with a sign out front that reads “SBM Ltd.” (the abbreviation stands for Sandra Brown Management). It’s located on a busy commercial thoroughfare in Arlington not far from the mansion she shares with her husband, Michael, a documentary producer. She cranks out her books in an upstairs room filled with potted plants, family photos, and mementos of her career, among them a photo of Ken Jennings, the all-time Jeopardy! champion, right at the moment that he correctly identified Hello, Darkness as the title of a Sandra Brown novel. Throughout the building, almost every room contains floor-to-ceiling bookshelves filled exclusively with Brown’s books. She has three employees: a personal assistant, a computer technician, and a controller who takes care of all her money. Like her leading ladies, Brown is a striking woman; she looks at least a decade younger than her age (my reverie in her office had not been entirely the product of having read too many of her books). On the morning I went to see her, she was dressed to the nines, though she assured me that the outfit was just for my benefit. “Usually,” she said, “I show up in Juicy sweats and tennis shoes.”

Brown’s remarkable ability to produce one book every year is largely due to the diligence of her writing schedule. She gets to the office by nine-thirty, meets with her staff, and then heads upstairs to write on her computer. She doesn’t eat any breakfast or lunch. At two-thirty, when she stops writing to read her mail, she might have a cup of tea and an apple or perhaps a handful of walnuts. Then it’s back to writing until six. Every year, by the middle of June, she tries to finish a ten- to fifteen-page outline laying out her next book. She finishes a first draft of the book by the middle of September and a second draft by the end of January. Then she turns in her final draft to Simon & Schuster on March 1. “Not a day later,” she says. She does some polishing on the book through the rest of that spring. Come May, when the book is finished, ready to be released by August, she starts working on the outline for the next one.

“What the critics don’t understand is just how difficult it is to write that kind of fiction,” Korda said. “Trust me, it’s not easy writing the big, crowd-pleasing page-turners. If they were easy to do, a lot of authors would be doing them, because they pay so well. But only a handful are able to produce the way Sandra can, knocking out one after another, year after year after year. And even that handful can’t match her success. Think about it: Every single one of her books becomes a Times best-seller. Every single one. That’s simply amazing.”

Brown’s success is simple: You can’t put her books down. You don’t read a Sandra Brown novel with a pencil in hand, waiting to write “So true!” in the margins beside a meaningful, well-crafted sentence. There are no meaningful, well-crafted sentences; there is just pure, unimpeded action. When I set out to read Play Dirty, the first Brown novel I’d ever cracked, I intended to stop after a few chapters. Three hours later, I’d reached the last page. She is certainly no Cormac McCarthy (nor even, really, Dan Brown or John Grisham), but who cares? I liked the nonstop thrills; I liked the brisk dialogue; I even liked the sex scenes (describing Griff standing aroused before Laura in his underwear, Brown writes that his boxers are “tented”). But what really kept me going were the constant plot twists, even if many of them were completely unrealistic. Two characters I was certain were good guys turned out to be villains, and on at least three occasions, when I thought I knew exactly where Play Dirty was going to go, Brown sent it in a direction unimaginably different from what I had expected.

Interestingly enough, it is probably just this outlandishness that has kept Hollywood away from Brown’s books. Only one, French Silk, has been adapted into a screenplay (becoming the 1994 television movie of the same name). Perhaps producers have concluded that the people who devour Brown’s tales of love and intrigue on the beach would scoff at those same tales at the multiplex. Or it may be that escapist, female-driven story lines don’t produce particularly impressive box office numbers with mostly male audiences. (Few of Brown’s female peers—Nora Roberts and Janet Dailey, just to name a couple—have had much success in Hollywood.) Whatever the reason, it doesn’t keep Brown up at night. After all, she’s got to be back at her desk every morning, spinning another hugely profitable yarn.

For such a racy writer, Brown has led what she describes as “a disgustingly pure life.” She was born in Waco and grew up in Fort Worth, where her father worked as an editorial writer for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. She went to Texas Christian University in the late sixties, figuring she would major in English and become a schoolteacher. She was a conservative student and a devout Christian. As a scholarship recipient who had to keep her grades up, she opted not to join a sorority so she could devote more attention to her studies.

While working one summer at Six Flags Over Texas in Arlington as a singer and dancer in one of those squeaky-clean variety shows, she met Michael Brown, who was performing in the show as a stand-up comic. They were married within a year, and a few years later she was pregnant with the first of their two children. He became an anchorman and a producer for two local television stations in Texas. She did part-time work at both of those stations, reading the weather at the station in Tyler and then becoming an on-air contributor for the Dallas edition of PM Magazine. But when she lost her job as part of a mass firing, Michael suggested she write.

“I had always said it might be fun to write a book someday, but that was about it, an idle dream,” she told me. “Suddenly I had some time on my hands, so I said, ‘I’ll give it a shot.’ ”

She set up a wobbly card table in their small house and tapped out short stories on a typewriter while the children took naps. After failing to sell any of those stories, she went to a writers’ conference, where she learned about the burgeoning market for romance novels. She read a dozen of the novels and decided to write one herself. Fingers crossed, she sent it to an editor for the Candlelight Ecstasy Romance novel line at Dell Publishing. The editor gave her a $3,000 advance for the book, and in 1981 it was published under the title Love’s Encore.

Although Brown was hardly a polished writer, she had a knack for the genre. Within the first eight pages of Love’s Encore, the heroine, Camille, a Mississippi interior decorator, comes across Zack, the man who had seduced her two years earlier during a chance encounter at a ski lodge in Utah. When she sees him again, her heart is “pounding so hard she knew he must be able to see it stirring the fabric across her breasts.” Then, for the next 240 pages, Brown draws out their relationship, tantalizing her readers with kissing, breast touching, various fondling, and such titillating lines as “Her body was beyond the limits of restraint” and “Hot, fervent kisses traveled over her face and neck and she never knew how he managed to divest her of her sweater.” Finally, in the last pages of the book, Camille and Zack confess their love to each other and prepare to have wild, passionate sex.

Brown also had a skill for churning out copy. In 1982, just one year into her career, she published five romance novels under three pseudo-nyms: Rachel Ryan, Erin St. Claire, and Laura Jordan. The following year, she published ten more. (This number continues to amaze me: Even in the most productive of my 27 years as a professional writer, I could manage only ten magazine stories.)

In those early novels, Brown’s heroines faced difficult choices between two men (a department store heir and a talented videographer, in one instance) or shattering divorces or the tragic deaths of their husbands, but they always managed to find love in the end with mysterious strangers. In Demon Rumm, her heroine falls in love with an actor who has been hired to star in a biographical movie based on her dead husband, an aeronautical daredevil. In Tempest in Eden, a beautiful artist’s model falls in love with a Protestant minister whom she accidentally sees stepping naked from a shower. Laugh if you want, but romance readers ate it up, as did publishing houses, which began to offer her six-figure contracts.

As the eighties rolled on, Brown’s pace never slowed. She had women meeting men at high school reunions, in stuck elevators, and in war-torn jungles. The conventions of the romance genre forbid certain language—such as the words used to describe the male appendage or the particular biological reaction that occurs within that appendage at the climax of the sex act—so she became adept at describing lovemaking with various euphemisms. (An example from Eloquent Silence: “She sighed his name in wonderment when she knew all of him . . . He uttered her name in an exultant cry when his passion was made manifest.”)

By the late eighties, however, Brown had begun to tire of what she called “bosoms-and-biceps paperbacks” and wanted to get into mainstream fiction. “I wanted to add more crime plots with great villains who committed murder,” she said.

The result was 1990’s Mirror Image, a novel wilder than anything she had yet attempted. The book’s heroine is an ambitious San Antonio television reporter who survives a fiery plane crash in Dallas. While she is recuperating in the hospital, her face wrapped in bandages, a mysterious man mistakes her for another woman who was on the plane, the corrupt wife of a famous Texas politician. The mysterious man whispers into her ear that the plan is still on to assassinate her husband. The reporter comprehends the dastardly scheme, and after her face is reconstructed through plastic surgery to look exactly like the dead wife’s, she foils the assassination attempt and in the process falls in love with the famous politician, who never much liked the original wife anyway.

Mirror Image landed on the Times’ paperback best-seller list for five weeks, and Brown never looked back. By 1992, she was releasing her novels in hardcover, the first one being French Silk, about a beautiful owner of a lingerie mail-order business in New Orleans who is suspected of having murdered a television evangelist. Complications ensue when the district attorney who is supposed to bring her down falls in love with her. French Silk spent seven weeks on the Times’ hardcover best-seller list, and every book she wrote afterward also made the list. She knocked out a best-seller about a doctor who takes on a corrupt oil company, one in which a television personality gets a new heart right as fatal “accidents” begin killing other heart recipients, one in which a young public defender stumbles upon a town’s chilling secret, one about a young reporter investigating the potential murder of the baby of the president of the United States, one about a young deaf widow confronting an escaped inmate from an Arkansas prison—and on and on and on, ad infinitum and, to a large extent, absurdum.

When Brown begins to get a solid idea for her next book, she sits down with her legal pad and writes the phrase “Essential Elements” on the top of one of the pages. Even though her settings and stories are very different, she makes sure that every one of her novels contains particular conflicts. First, her hero and heroine must be, in her word, “codependent.” “What I mean by that is that they are bound together by a common problem,” she explained. “The heroine, for instance, is accused of murder, and the hero is a police detective trying to decide whether she did the murder. ”

Her second essential element is that the hero and heroine must “share space.” As she put it, “they must be in each other’s company, sometimes reluctantly, to solve their common problem,” as in Play Dirty, when Griff must share space with Laura, the airline owner’s wife, in order to get her pregnant.

Third, the hero and heroine must develop a “mutual desire,” but that desire always has to be forbidden. In Chill Factor, for instance, the drop-dead-beautiful woman who finds herself trapped in the mountain cabin with the man who could be an infamous serial killer spends much of the book haunted by a truly thorny question: Should she or should she not take him to bed?

These aren’t all of Brown’s rules. Her hero or heroine also has to be “in very hot water within the first hundred pages.” For Brown, being in hot water doesn’t just mean that bad guys are after you. “You are in hot water with your soul. You not only face physical danger, but you must face a major psychological, moral dilemma within yourself that will change your life forever.” By the middle of the book, the hero or heroine has to be in even more severe jeopardy, “facing almost impossible odds.”

Finally, Brown never permits the really mind-blowing sex to occur until the latter part of the book. “Anticipation,” she said, “is everything.” I can personally testify to the wisdom of this last rule. One of the reasons I raced through Play Dirty was because I wanted to get to the juicy bedroom scene between Griff and Laura (for those of you who like to skip ahead, it comes toward the end of chapter seventeen).

Still, a formula is only as good as what you feed into it, and Brown’s longevity is at least as much a product of her bottomless wellspring of ideas as of her rigorous compositional policies. “I don’t know exactly where the ideas come from,” Brown said. “One day, a sentence just popped into my head—‘There was going to be trouble, and hell, he just wasn’t in the mood for it’—and I knew I had a novel” (the novel turned out to be Texas! Lucky, about a rough but noble young heir to a faltering East Texas oil company). “Another time, I was having lunch in New York with Chuck Adams and Michael [Korda], and he said, ‘So, what’s next?’ and I said, ‘Well, all I can tell you is that I see swamps and oak trees dripping moss. I see this ugly company town where everyone works for one rotten person.’ And that became White Hot” (her 2004 best-seller about a woman who returns to her sweltering Louisiana hometown, Destiny, to confront her corrupt father and her older brother, who run the town’s iron foundry). “Rarely does a complete idea come to me. I basically start with just a small scene or a snatch of dialogue and force myself to write and to keep writing. Sometimes it becomes a book.”

As Brown grew more famous, various publishers who owned the rights to her earlier romance novels rereleased them, and they too made their way up the best-seller lists. Even her first novel, Love’s Encore, hit the paperback best-seller list when it was rereleased, in 1997. In the process, the Browns became very rich. For many years, they had lived on a 22-acre ranchette in Fort Worth, where they raised three Longhorns named Boudreaux, Bubba, and Bowie. They later sold the property (the reported buyer was the evangelist T. D. Jakes) and bought their Arlington mansion. They also have homes in Hilton Head, South Carolina, and the mountains of western North Carolina and an apartment in New York City.

But the trappings of wealth have done little to dampen the tenacity with which Brown goes after each new idea. The day I visited her at her office, I asked if she ever thought about retiring, never again having to worry about what the next book would be.

Brown just looked at me. “And what fun would that be? Yes, I love my homes, I love to travel, I love my family, and I love doting on my new grandchildren. But you can only do so much of that. I don’t go to lunch with friends, I don’t join clubs, I don’t have any big hobbies. I work. I come up with stories. I can’t even imagine a life where I’m not sitting around, worried about my next book.”

She glanced down at her legal pad, where so far she only had her heroine waking up in the wrong place at the wrong time. According to her schedule, she had just three more weeks to come up with a story line in which her career-minded heroine gets into some very hot water, faces impossible odds, and shares space with a codependent hero for whom her desires are forbidden, a dark and handsome man who will rip off her clothes, throw her onto a bed, and cause her to make some serious moaning sounds.

“I know I’m not creating transcendent works that will someday be taught in college,” she said, leaning back in her chair and smiling cheerfully. “All I do is entertain. I try to entertain others by sending them into another world for a few hours. When I see my books read on the beach, the pages dabbed with suntan lotion, then I feel as if I’ve done my job.”

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