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Books Chat

Sidney Sheldon

A chat with the best-selling author Sidney Sheldon about his book "Tell Me Your Dreams"

July 13, 1999
Web posted at: 5:15 p.m. EDT

(CNN) -- The following is an edited transcript of a chat held July 13, 1999, with best-selling author Sidney Sheldon about his book "Tell Me Your Dreams," recently released in paperback. The winner of an Oscar, a Tony and an Edgar Allan Poe Award, Sheldon has more than 200 television scripts, 25 major motion pictures, six Broadway plays and 15 novels (which have sold over 280 million copies) to his credit, ranking him as one of the world's most prolific writers.

Chat Moderator: Thank you for joining us this evening, Sidney Sheldon. Welcome to Book Chat.

Sidney Sheldon: My pleasure, and thank you!

Chat Moderator: Please tell us a little bit about your background.

Sidney Sheldon: I started in Hollywood as a reader, synopsizing books for busy producers. I worked at Universal for $17 a week. I was then about 19 years old. And I would get up at 3 in the morning to work on my own original stories. The first four did not sell. I sold the fifth one for $500, and I was established as a writer. I went into the Air Force as a pilot when World War II broke out. When I got out, I wrote three Broadway plays that ran simultaneously. Returned to Hollywood, wrote a movie called "The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer." Then I went to MGM, where I was under contract for 12 years as a writer/producer/director. I went into television and created "The Patty Duke Show," "I Dream of Jeannie" and "Hart to Hart." I've done eight Broadway plays, and I've written 16 novels. I am now working on an autobiography.

Chat Moderator: You already had a Tony and an Oscar when you started work on "Patty Duke" and "I Dream of Jeannie." What prompted your work in television?

Sidney Sheldon: They asked me to do "The Patty Duke Show." I said no. They asked me if I would meet with Patty, and I did. I fell in love with her, and she was about 12 or 13 then and had a terrible family life and was hungry for love. And I took her home to my wife. We had dinner, and when we finished, Patty got up, and I found her in the kitchen, washing the dishes. She was a remarkable girl!

Chat Participant <flrdli>: Sidney, didn't you do Damon Runyon characters?

Sidney Sheldon: No, I never worked on anything of Damon Runyon's. He was a brilliant writer.

Chat Moderator: Having had so much success with writing for the screen and stage, what made you decide to write novels?

Sidney Sheldon: The first novel I wrote was purely an accident. It never occurred to me that I could write a novel. What happened was, I got an idea about a psychiatrist whom someone was trying to kill, and what intrigued me was that if he was a capable psychiatrist, he would be able to figure out who it was, even though he had no enemies. The problem with writing it as a movie was that you had to get into his mind to know what he was thinking, and that was difficult to do in the dramatic form. So I decided that it would have to be a novel so that you could explain his thinking to the reader and get into his mind. So I wrote "The Naked Face," and Irving Wallace sent it to his agent. Five publishers turned the book down, and the sixth one took it. That was William Morrow, and they have published all 16 of my novels. "The Naked Face" made no money for me, but it was such a feeling of freedom, not having actors say, "I can't read that line," or directors saying, "We won't play it in the mountains, we'll play it in the valley," that I sat down to write a second novel. That was "The Other Side of Midnight," and that changed my life.

Chat Participant <Rory>: Mr. Sheldon, how many of your novels have become movies?

Sidney Sheldon: Almost all of them. I think all of them except maybe three.

Chat Participant <Rosemary>: Why do you always make your main characters women? They are always these strong independent types who can do it all. It's not realistic. Are you planning on making any future lead characters men?

Sidney Sheldon: Because I'm tired of the cliche of the dumb blonde. I know women who are as capable at what they do as any man would be, and I think women are more sensitive than men. And I just love writing about women.

Chat Moderator: Reading your novel, your writing is very visual. Does this come from your film experience?

Sidney Sheldon: Absolutely! When I was writing television or films or theater, everything was visual. So I was trained to think that way, and it has helped me enormously in writing novels.

Chat Moderator: One of your characters in your new book "Tell Me Your Dreams" is very familiar with the chat room. Do you chat yourself, or is this your first chat?

Sidney Sheldon: I go to experts, and I research everything I write about. And no, it is not. I've done it a few times.

Chat Moderator: You have written plays, films, novels and for television. Which form is your favorite? And why?

Sidney Sheldon: I like writing novels. When you write a screenplay, it is really a form of shorthand. For example, if you describe a character as tall and lean and rangy, and Clint Eastwood turns you down and you give the script to Dustin Hoffman, you’re in trouble. You don't describe a room, because the best set decorators in Hollywood are going to do that room. On the other hand, when you write a novel, you not only have to describe the character, but what he or she is wearing, what the room looks like that they are in, and what they are thinking.

Chat Participant <mouse>: Who has been your favorite person to work with filmwise?

Sidney Sheldon: There have been so many. I would have to list Cary Grant, Judy Garland, Barbara Eden and Fred Astaire. And many more.

Chat Participant <AnnD>: When you are writing a novel, do you ever change the characters, or do you know exactly who they are at the beginning?

Sidney Sheldon: I work in an unusual way. I don't start with a plot; I start with a character. I dictate my books to a secretary, and as I start to talk, the story comes to life, and other characters come in. In a sense, I am the reader as well as the writer, because I don't know what is going to happen next. When I finish the novel, I go back to Page 1, and I will do a complete rewrite. Then I take that version and polish it. I will spend up to a year rewriting each book before my publisher ever sees it.

Chat Participant <sasha>: Who were your greatest literary influences?

Sidney Sheldon: I grew up with writers who may not be read today: George Bernard Shaw, Thomas Wolfe, James Thurber, Booth Tarkington. I don't know if their books are still in libraries. And we mustn’t forget Charles Dickens, one of the greats.

Chat Participant <Ace>: Mr. Sheldon, what college did you attend? Were you an English lit. major?

Sidney Sheldon: I went to Northwestern University on a scholarship, and I had to leave after six months because it was at the height of the Depression, and I had to go to work to help support my family.

Chat Participant <dolly>: What are some of Thurber's stories that you enjoyed?

Sidney Sheldon: I can't give you the titles now, but anything he wrote was wonderful.

Chat Participant <Ace>: Mr. Sheldon, these authors are still on my daughter's reading list for summer school reading.

Sidney Sheldon: I am delighted. I think they should be read. The problem is that 60,000 books a year are published in the country, and that means there is no room on the library bookshelves for books that should be there, so it is a problem for some of our great classical authors.

Chat Participant <Ace>: I bet you have a dedicated secretary!!

Sidney Sheldon: Yes. I dictate up to 50 pages a day. My secretary was a court reporter, and she is very skillful and fast.

Chat Participant <Tyleet>: Mr. Sheldon, how long (on average) does it take for you to write one of your books?

Sidney Sheldon: I spend a year and a half to two years on each book. I could write two or three books a year, but I prefer rewriting each book until it is as good as I know how to make it. Otherwise I feel I would be cheating my readers.

Chat Participant <dolly>: Who encouraged you the most to start publishing your work? Were you afraid of rejection?

Sidney Sheldon: When I was in my teens, I wrote short stories, and all of them were rejected. But I knew that I wanted to be a writer, so I kept at it.

Chat Participant <Ace>: Mr. Sheldon, have you read any of Nelson DeMille's books?

Sidney Sheldon: Nelson DeMille is a very good writer. "The General's Daughter" is a very good example of his work, and "Spencerville."

Chat Participant <Ace>: I enjoyed "Plum Island" and "The Gold Coast."

Sidney Sheldon: I have not read them.

Chat Participant <dolly>: I am a teacher, and I am constantly encouraging my students to write. What would be one piece of advice that I could give them?

Sidney Sheldon: My advice is that if someone wants to be a writer, he or she must not let anyone discourage them. If you want to write, you must work at it and keep writing. I also suggest that it is a good idea to read what other people write, so that you get a taste of what's professional.

Chat Participant <Tyleet>: Mr. Sheldon, I finished reading "Tell Me Your Dreams" yesterday. It's been one of the best modern books I've read in the past year. How do you go about developing characters for your books? Do you have them in mind before you start, or do they develop just as you begin writing?

Sidney Sheldon: As I said earlier, when I begin a book I have no plot. I start with a character, and the characters take over, and they guide me through the plot. I do a lot of research, as I did in "Tell Me Your Dreams." I will not write about a meal in any restaurant in the world unless I have had that meal at that restaurant. I think that makes a big difference to the reader, knowing that the background is authentic.

Chat Participant <Blobette>: Mr. Sheldon, where do you get your inspiration from? All the books, movies, years…

Sidney Sheldon: No one knows where inspiration comes from. I think that any talent is God-given, and that we can take no credit for it, whether it is a talent as a painter, as a singer or a writer. I think that what we must do is to work as hard as we can at whatever talent we are given.

Chat Participant <Ace>: Mr. Sheldon, do you have a personal favorite of all your books?

Sidney Sheldon: That's very difficult. I think I would have to list "If Tomorrow Comes" and "Tell Me Your Dreams." But it is very difficult. It is like asking which is your favorite child.

Sidney Sheldon: <COnnie> Mr. Sheldon, any possibility to read your works on Internet?

Sidney Sheldon: I don't think so. Maybe in the future sometime.

Chat Participant <Ace>: I really enjoy all of the books you have written. "Nothing Lasts Forever" is one of my favorites. I do work in the medical field.

Sidney Sheldon: It was exciting doing the research on that book. I tried to make it as authentic as possible, and I enjoyed writing it. It was made into a miniseries that I thought was very well done.

Chat Participant <dolly>: Have you ever written a book about a character being a writer?

Sidney Sheldon: No, I don't think I have. I have had a lot of occupations in my 16 novels, but I don't think that I have ever written about a writer.

Chat Participant <kiki>: Do you plan on writing any books in a much different field than the books that you have already written?

Sidney Sheldon: I am working on an autobiography. I have never done that before. Also, every book I have written is in a field that is different from my other books in terms of its background

Chat Participant <Ace>: Mr. Sheldon, are there any other writers in your family?

Sidney Sheldon: Yes. My daughter is a wonderful writer. She writes under the name of Mary Sheldon.

Chat Participant <John>: Sidney, when you were first published, did you use an agent?

Sidney Sheldon: Yes. It's very difficult to get a book published without an agent. Irving Wallace sent me to his agent. Since then I have used Mort Janklow, who is one of the best agents in the literary field. I would say he's the best agent in the literary field.

Chat Participant <kass>: I read "Master of the Game" several years ago and loved it.

Sidney Sheldon: It was very exciting to write. I took a flat in London and used it as a base to travel to all the different countries that I wrote about so that I could make the book authentic in terms of research.

Chat Participant <JC>: When I was in Sweden I saw "The Best Laid Plans" on the bookshelf. How many languages are you published in? And is it true you are in the Guinness Book of World Records?

Sidney Sheldon: I'm in 52 languages in over 100 countries, and I am in the Guinness Book of World Records as the most translated author in the world.

Chat Participant <BigAl>: Mr. Sheldon, as the creator of "I Dream of Jeannie," an excellent sitcom, I would like your opinion on the state of the sitcom today.

Sidney Sheldon: Well, I don't watch much television, but I do watch "Frasier" regularly as a sitcom. I think it is brilliantly done. I thought "Cheers" was a wonderful show. But I don't know much about the shows that are on today.

Chat Participant <kass>: Did you like "Seinfeld"?

Sidney Sheldon: Yes. I thought it was a very good show, very clever.

Chat Participant <Ace>: It gives me great joy to read a wonderful book; and yours have all been just that!

Sidney Sheldon: Thank you very much. I enjoy writing, and I think what gives me the greatest pleasure is some of the letters I get from fans. That really makes it personal for me. I have sold 280 million books around the world, but those are just numbers. What makes it real is when I hear from my readers who tell me how my books have affected them or changed their lives in some way. I would like to express my appreciation to all the people who have read my books and enjoyed them, and I hope to continue writing as long as I am able to.

Chat Moderator: Mr. Sheldon, thanks for joining us tonight.

Sidney Sheldon: My pleasure.

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