Sidney Sheldon, the happily married, 87-year-old novelist, has a thing for younger women. Especially strong-willed, independent, dazzlingly beautiful women with brilliant minds and extraordinary skills in the bedroom. Among his favorites over the years have been Noelle Paige, a ruthlessly conniving French temptress; Elizabeth Roffe, a tough-talking heiress to a billion-dollar fortune; and most recently, a statuesque young widow named Kelly Harris, who overcame an abusive childhood to become a top model.
Granted, none of these women exist in real life; they're among the characters created by Sheldon for The Other Side of Midnight and his 17 other best-selling novels. But few authors develop as close a bond with their protagonists as Sheldon, who has been known to cry while writing scenes that bring any of them to untimely deaths. Readers, too, have found plenty to relate to in Sheldon's work; he has sold more than 300 million books so far and is, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, the world's most widely translated author, with editions in 51 languages. (The books have also spawned multiple TV miniseries, more than one starring Jaclyn Smith.)
“People say to me, ‘You know, I never read novels before—but someone gave me one of yours, and I read it, and now I've read them all,’” Sheldon says.
His latest, Are You Afraid of the Dark? (William Morrow), his first novel in four years, is spiked with the same addictive ingredients that have always kept his readers hooked: sex, suspense, money, murder and high-concept intercontinental intrigue (in this case, the head of a gigantic think tank is using its top-secret research to adhere to his own evil agenda). As with his previous efforts, Sheldon arose early every morning to dictate the novel—straight from his head, chapter by chapter—to an assistant, then spent months tweaking the manuscript.
These days, Sheldon's name is so synonymous with bedside-table thrillers that it's easy to forget that he didn't publish a book until he was 52. By then he'd already won a screenwriting Oscar in 1948 for The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (starring Cary Grant and Shirley Temple) and a Tony in 1959 for the Broadway musical Redhead (starring Gwen Verdon), and he'd created and produced several hit TV series, including The Patty Duke Show and I Dream of Jeannie. Sitting in the office of his hilltop Sunset Boulevard manse, dressed in dark wool slacks and a red cashmere sweater despite the 75-degree heat, Sheldon is sprightly and swift, tossing off one-liners with the impish zeal of a Catskills comic. His next book? A memoir, he says, “about my sex life. It's one page long.” His opinion of the current crop of Hollywood films? “I think most of the movies that came out last year should have been put on television—and canceled!”