The über-successful writer reflects on her longevity as a novelist and previews her seventh book featuring the popular Lucky Santangelo character.
Writer Jackie Collins
Tavis: Jackie Collins has written some 30 books, all of them hitting “The New York Times'” best-seller list, and her latest joins the others in that achievement. It’s titled “Confessions of a Wild Child,” and it deals with the teenage years of one of her most popular heroines, Lucky Santangelo.
The lead character in eight of her novels as well as three television miniseries. There’s also a companion cookbook this time, featuring some wonderful recipes. Jackie, always good to have you on this program.
Jackie Collins: It’s always great to be here, Tavis.
Tavis: Before I jump into this conversation, Jonathan, Mike, can you get – who’s on this? Get this necklace for me. (Laughter) I want to ask you about this. Good Lord.
Tavis: Tell me about this. Is that a turquoise?
Collins: That’s a turquoise, yeah, and I designed it myself.
Tavis: You designed this?
Collins: Yes. I’m a control freak, Tavis. I do everything myself.
Tavis: That’s a beautiful necklace.
Collins: I like to design my clothes; I design my jewelry, yeah. It’s fun.
Tavis: That is a beautiful necklace.
Collins: In my spare time, of course.
Tavis: Wow, yeah, your spare time.
Collins: Yeah. (Laughs)
Tavis: Which I don’t know how you do, because since I last saw you you’ve written three books since you were last here.
Collins: I have. I know. “The Power Trip” and then these two books, yeah.
Tavis: How do you pace yourself? How do you – this is a question I’m asking not to be flippant about it.
Tavis: I think there’s some advice in there for all of us.
Tavis: We all have the same 24 hours in each day. It’s how we use them.
Collins: I know, and I want six more hours a day.
Tavis: So do I.
Collins: I know.
Tavis: But you ain’t going to get it. We got 24.
Tavis: But how do you manage your time to be so prodigious in your work?
Collins: Well, it’s a question of absolutely having to do it, because you know I write in longhand.
Tavis: I know.
Collins: I told you that before. So I have to say to myself I’m cutting myself off from everybody today. I’m going to write from 9:00 in the morning till about 4:00 in the afternoon, and then I’m going to go to my TiVo, because you know I’m a TV addict, and watch some shows.
Then I’m going to go out and do some research, have dinner at friends’ houses, I’ll go to a premiere or something, or a party, and then the same old thing the next day.
Unless I’m promoting a book, which is really fun for me because it gets me away from the desk and it’s a great excuse.
Tavis: Yeah. You’ve described yourself in the past as a sort of anthropologist, studying –
Collins: Crawling, yes, crawling through the jungles of Hollywood.
Collins: Yeah, I went to this great party (laughter) in Malibu on Saturday night, and it was so interesting observing people. I like to sit there and I’ve got my drink and a couple of friends are sitting there, and I’m just watching, watching, watching.
There were a lot of famous people there, so it’s fun to watch them when they’re letting their hair down, so to speak.
Tavis: Yeah. You never would and you never have outed celebrities in your texts. That’s not what you do in your novels.
Collins: No, no, absolutely not.
Tavis: In your novels, you don’t do that. But I wonder whether or not people are on their best behavior when you come around, lest they be a character in one of your books, unbeknownst to them.
Collins: I know. (Laughter) It’s so interesting, because if they don’t know me, if I meet a celebrity and they never met me before, they’re very cautious, and I can see that kind of cautious thing going on.
But my friends, and I know a lot of celebrities are always, “When are you going to put me in the book?” (Laughter) “When am I going to be there?”
Tavis: That’s just like Hollywood. They want to be in the book.
Collins: I don’t know if I told you this before, but the late, great Peter Sellers said to me one day that one of his mother-in-laws had told him that I had written a book about him.
So he said to me, “Is this true?” and I go, “Yeah, here it is, read it.” It was “The Hollywood Zoo.” (Laughter) He read it and he went, “Wow, you’ve really captured me. Better than going to a psychiatrist.”
Tavis: That is funny.
Tavis: So let me – again, you’ve got so much stuff to talk about. Let me jump first to the new book, “Confessions of a Wild Child.” So now we get to go back into Lucky’s early years.
Collins: We do, and I wrote this as a young adult book. I thought, this will be fun. I gave it to my publishers, I delivered it, and they go, “Oh, no, no, no, this is for everybody. Everybody loves Lucky, so we’re going to put this out as a book for everyone.”
I said, “But it’s for teenagers.” It’s really how does Lucky become the strong woman she is today. How does she do it? How does she get over the fact that her mother was murdered when she was five years old and she finds the mother’s body floating in the family swimming pool?
Gino the Ram locks her away for 15 years and then sends her off to boarding school. How did she become the strong Lucky Santangelo?
Tavis: What is the thread?
Collins: The thread is she’s discovering boys, sex, rock and roll, drugs, all those things in life that we have to go through when we’re teenagers.
Tavis: That thread always works, doesn’t it?
Collins: It does. (Laughter) You bet it does, yeah.
Tavis: That’s the way it always works. In short, without giving it away, in short, how does all of those, how do all those experiences help make her who she is, this strong person?
Collins: Because she sees in her father a very chauvinistic man. He’s Gino the Ram, he’s this fabulous character that I created in “Chances,” and he goes on to become a big gangster, and then he becomes legitimate, he builds hotels in Vegas.
She watches him when she’s a kid, and she says, “I want to be just like Daddy. That’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to build hotels; I’m going to be powerful.” But he has a son, Dario, who happens to be gay, and in “Confessions” reveals this to Lucky, and she says to him, “Whatever you do, you cannot tell Gino,” because he’s the kind of man that would never accept it.
But she accepts it totally, but she still says, “I want to take over the family business. I want to be the one,” and Gino says, “No, no, no, you’re a girl, you’re a woman. You’ve got to have kids, get married. That’s what you’re going to do.”
She says, “Oh no, I’m not.” You see her strength emerge as she starts to learn about life.
Tavis: Since you mentioned her gay brother in this new book, “Confessions of a Wild Child,” it made me think, and so I’ll ask, as you look back over your 30 novels, how have they tracked the changes – you know where I’m going with this, don’t you?
Tavis: The changes in our society and the issues that are in play at that particular moment. It ain’t like gay people just got here.
Collins: No, exactly.
Tavis: Yeah. But I wonder, when you look back over your 30 books, whether or not they have tracked, in the books themselves, what was happening in society at that time.
Collins: I think they have tracked that very much. In fact, a gay man wrote me a letter the other day, and he had listed all the gay characters I’ve written about. He says, “You’re the only writer I know that has had gay characters in her books ever since you started writing.”
Of course they’ve had more freedom as we change the laws in this country and gays are getting, being able to get married and things like that. Yeah, I’ve tracked that in my books.
When I wrote “Chances,” for instance, I had two running families. There was the Santangelo family, who were Italian Americans, and there was the other family, Cary, who was a Black family, and Steven is still around.
In fact he’s coming back in the new book that I’m writing now called “The Santangelos,” (laughter) which is kind of a wild book to write, yeah.
Tavis: Have there been occasions where you have wanted to, and have, even though you fooled us in the process, wanted to cause us to wrestle in your reading with certain social causes and social issues, and you’ve done that, but you’ve done it in a way that we are entertained by so that we don’t feel like you’re proselytizing or preaching to us. Do you know what I’m getting at?
Collins: Yeah, I feel that very much, I feel that very much. I got a letter from a woman the other day, and across the envelope she’d written, “You saved my life.” Then I read this letter, and it was typed and it was really beautiful.
She said, she lived in a country where genital mutilation took place on girls, and she said she had a very powerful father, and the father said, “You’re going to do this,” and she said, “No, I’m not,” and she said, “The reason I said no I’m not was because I had just read your book ‘Lucky,’ and she said I felt that a woman could be strong and could stand up to her father.”
Now she has an organization in America which is trying to stop this going on. I thought, oh my gosh, that’s fantastic. I really felt proud of that.
Tavis: What brought on, as I mentioned earlier, this is now book eight that deals with the Santangelos in one way, shape, or form. But you’ve written 30. How did they enter into the Jackie Collins matrix?
Collins: I don’t know if I told you this before, but when I came to America I was very young, I was like 15. I was expelled from school; I know I told you that.
Tavis: I know that story very well. (Laughter)
Collins: Yes. But did I ever tell you about my godfather?
Tavis: Tell me about this.
Collins: Yeah, so I had this girlfriend, and she was a couple of years older than me and she had this boyfriend called Slim, and nobody knew who he was. We lived in this kind of Melrose Place type apartment complex, and everybody was trying to do something.
They wanted to be writers, directors, actors, but they were parking cars and pumping gas. So she broke up with this boyfriend and she said he was older than her and from New York, and she said, “Come with me. I just bought a car from two guys that I was dating,” and it was great, it was a Buick.
I’ll never forget it. She said, “You can drive. Drive me to Bel Air. He’s got a house there. He’s got my television. I want my television back. We can get in through the window, get the television, we’ll get out, and this’ll be great.”
So off we go to Bel Air. Little did I know, when we opened the window dogs come running, guards appear, (laughter) all this stuff goes on, and it turned out she was living with the son of a really powerful guy from New York, you know what I mean.
The son was good-looking, he’d been sent out to Hollywood because he wanted to be a movie star, which never happened. But he was a really great guy, and because I was so young, he got rid of her and took me under his wing in a platonic way, and he became my godfather.
I based Gino Santangelo on him. I knew him for very many years, and we would go to New York sometimes, he would take me to New York, and I would meet all these guys.
You’d be straight out of “The Sopranos.” (Laughter) I’d be sitting at a table and I’d say to this one guy, “What do you do?” and he’d go, “I’m in the waste disposal business.” I’d like, “Oh.” (Laughter)
So I was finding out all this information. So when I wrote about Gino, he really was based on this guy, and I really knew these characters very well. So I kind of write about Hollywood movie stars because I know them very well, and the mafia kind of guys, gangsters, and women, like cliché characters which you see in Hollywood all the time. You see them all the time. Yeah.
Tavis: Yeah. If you were teaching a class and you were asked to just list the three or four things – or not the three, but three or four things that you have to have to make a novel work, what would you put on that list?
Collins: Well I would say first of all, you have to write about what you know. Don’t write about Hollywood if you’ve never been there. Even if you work in a little town and you work in the department store there, there’s always something going on.
There’s always things that you know about that nobody else, because everybody’s life is different. So you write about what you know. That’s number one.
You write. That’s number two, because so many people talk about it and do not do it. What I say to them to encourage them, and especially women, because girls can do anything, I say, “If you wrote a page a day, at the end of the year you would have a book.
“Whether it’s any good or not is beside the point, but you would have a book, instead of just talking about it all the time.”
Then the third thing, you have to have a passion for what you do. You have to have a passion. I don’t plan my books. I don’t know what’s going to happen. That’s why I could pick up any one of my 30 books and I could continue the story on.
Because I just get to a certain amount of words, and then I say I’d better wind this up, otherwise this is going to be “War and Peace.” (Laughter) So I would say that, and have this passion.
I wake up in the morning and I still have a passion for what I do, and I’ll be doing it when I’m 105, I’ll be scribbling away. If it was 100 years ago I’d be sitting by the campfire, saying, “Have I got a story to tell you.”
Tavis: Does this stuff just come to you?
Collins: The characters?
Tavis: I have such great respect, I’ve written a number of books, but my stuff is all nonfiction.
Tavis: I have such great respect for fiction writers because when I start to write something, I have a subject that I’m writing about, and I want to dissect it and deconstruct it and get you to re-examine your assumptions about it, expand your inventory of ideas about it. But I’m starting with something. You start with nothing, and you build –
Collins: Start with nothing.
Tavis: – a story around it. So does this stuff just come to you?
Collins: It does, because right now with “The Santangelos,” and I’ve left it at a pivotal point because I’ve been on tour with both these books, but right now Max is like the new “It” Girl in Europe, she’s like a Cara Delevingne, and she’s 18.
That is Lucky’s daughter, and her son has just been arrested in Chicago for a murder he did not commit, but he’s set up. It’s so interesting to me to get back to it, because I don’t know what’s going to happen next.
Is he going to get bail? Is he going to get out of it? I don’t know. I don’t know until I write it. So I sit down, the characters take me on the trip, they really do. I become that character.
Tavis: When you’ve written 30 “New York Times” best sellers, obviously you’ve done some good work. Obviously you have a huge fan base and people love what you have done.
Tavis: When you look back from book one to book 30, can you see, can you tell whether or not you’ve become a better writer?
Collins: Oh, yeah, definitely. I’m definitely –
Tavis: You can see it?
Collins: I can spell now. (Laughter)
Tavis: Ha, I can spell now. I’m asking because if the first one’s on the best-seller list and the 10th one’s on the list, and the 15th is on the list, and the 20th and on and on, and the 30th is on the list, how do you know that you’ve gotten to be better?
Collins: Because my writing is better. I’m a storyteller, I’m not a literary writer, and I don’t want to be a literary writer. People say to me, “Oh, when are you going to write something different?”
What? I don’t want to write anything different. I’m writing relationships between people, all different colors, all different sizes, all different sexual orientations, and that’s what I want to do.
So I think that when I read my books – and I don’t have time to do it; once I’ve finished a book, it’s there – but when I read back, I can see, like, little improvements. Stupid things, like not repeating words, which a lot of writers do, even good writers.
Things like that. But I do think it flows. My books flow. People say they pick them up and they can’t put them down. It’s because when I’m writing them I pick my pen up and I cannot put my pen down.
Tavis: I’m going to clean this up for television, but the great writer Maya Angelou once said that easy reading is darn hard writing.
Collins: Absolutely. This is absolutely right. The easier you make it look, the more difficult it is. Creating characters, as you said, out of nothing, and making them interesting – and that’s another advice I would give to writers.
You’ve got to make your characters interesting, because if you think you’re going to write a sexy book and it’s just going to be about sex, well, if you don’t care about the characters, what do you care about their sex life? Put on your Internet and watch some porn if that’s what you want. (Laughter)
Tavis: I know you’re going to live to be 800 years old, (laughter) because your energy never wanes every time I see you. You’re always cranking out two or three books at a time. I haven’t gotten to the cookbook yet, which I will in a moment.
Collins: Oh, okay.
Tavis: We’ll get to that. But if in your obit, if in your obit years from now they said that Jackie Collins wrote about relationships, would that be accurate?
Collins: That would be accurate. Because –
Tavis: That’s what I see your stuff as. In a nutshell, it’s about relationships.
Collins: Yeah, it is about relationships, because it’s not chick lit, it’s not romance, it’s not thrillers, but it’s all of those things mixed up, and it’s about people. It’s really about people and how they react to what is going on in the world around them.
That’s Gino. For instance, I’ve taken Gino from a 13-year-old boy who comes to America at the beginning of the last century, and now he’s a 90-something year old man. I’ve followed his whole path, and it was so interesting for me to write that.
I have so many friends that I can talk to – well, one of your great friends, Sidney Poitier, his wife, his beautiful wife, Joanna, is my best friend, so we often will – Sidney and I have wonderful discussions, because he’s – (laughter) you know Sidney’s discussions, when he’s on a roll.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah.
Collins: And incidentally, on “Confessions of a Wild Child,” his daughter, Little Sidney, we call her Little Sidney, although she’s six foot tall, she read it for the audio, she read the book for the audio.
Tavis: Oh, I didn’t realize that.
Collins: Yeah, I have to send you the audio.
Tavis: I would love to hear it, yeah
Collins: She’s fantastic, and she does all the voices. As you know, she’s a terrific actress.
Tavis: She’s a wonderful actress, yeah.
Collins: And completely beautiful.
Tavis: Yeah, that, well –
Collins: So I was thrilled that she did it.
Tavis: – hard not to be when Joanna and Sidney are your parents.
Collins: I know, yes. (Laughter)
Tavis: Hard not to be.
Tavis: I was about to ask a question, and I’ll put it out there, although I suspect you don’t even know the answer, given what you said earlier.
Collins: Okay, yes.
Tavis: Because you don’t know where your books are going to go. But how does it change things when Gino finally dies? He’s in his nineties now.
Collins: Well you’re going to have to read “The Santangelos” to find out. (Laughter)
Tavis: See, I’m into the next book already.
Collins: I feel that I’m heading in that direction, and I know that the fans are going to be furious if anything happens to him, because they love him.
Tavis: You’ve got to die at some point.
Collins: He’s Gino the Ram.
Tavis: Yeah, but he can’t live forever, though.
Collins: Exactly, I know, I know. So it’s going to be interesting if I get to that point in the story.
Tavis: So if that were to happen in “The Santangelos” because that’s where the story ends up taking you, and that’s why I said you don’t even know where the story is going to go, you’re working on it, I get that.
How scary is it for a writer to be looking at something where you know the character is dancing with mortality?
Collins: It’s very scary as a writer, because you know that the people who read you, and because they – I have so many young fans that start reading the books about the Santangelo family, and they’re just, they’re going through the seven, eight books, and so I don’t want to disappoint them when a character does.
I’ve tried for three books to kill off Lucky’s husband, Lennie. Can’t do it. (Laughter) The fans won’t let me do it. They write to me, “Don’t you dare do anything to Lennie.”
I wanted to give Lucky some freedom, not that she hasn’t had plenty of freedom in her life.
Tavis: Oh, she’s had that, and taken advantage of it.
Collins: Yeah, she’s had three husbands, she’s got a revenge kill in there for her murder of her mother and her brother and her fiancé, and she’s done amazing things. She really has.
Tavis: Now Lucky has a cookbook.
Collins: She has a cookbook. (Laughter) I was sitting at my desk one day and I thought, why not? This would be something to give back to the people who love this character.
This will be something, instead of being a book that goes from hardcover to paperback and goes back on the shelf, this will be something they can put in their kitchen and have fun with.
I’ve written little scenes between Lennie and Lucky in the book. There’s illustrations –
Tavis: I saw that, yeah.
Collins: – of Lucky which I think are fun.
Tavis: And some good drinks.
Collins: And some fabulous drinks. (Laughter) There’s the Jackie Collins, created for me by Wolfgang Puck, who you know very well, yes.
Tavis: Yeah. This – it’s a gorgeous cover, and the photos on the cover of the food are making me hungry even as we sit for this conversation right now.
Collins: Oh right, yes.
Tavis: By the way, another nice necklace. I love that. (Laughter) You design that one too?
Collins: I did.
Tavis: Good Lord. I’ve got to come hang out with you and get a discount.
Collins: I love necklaces. Yeah. The illustrations of Lucky are fun too. She wears some of my jewelry.
Tavis: These pictures are great.
Collins: Yeah, lots of fun. Sidney’s in there, and Joanna.
Tavis: How would you describe, because every time we talk you’re always at some event, whether you’re being honored or just hanging out. You’re at some event, you’re at some party, you’re doing this, you’re doing that. What role has food and drink played in your life and in your work?
Collins: Well a lot, really, because my husband, when he was alive, owned nightclubs. He owned the Ad Lib in London and the Tramp Club in London, Tramp in L.A.
So food was very much part of our lives. So they would make these incredible hamburgers at Tramp. Then I was engaged to an Italian, so along came the pasta and the meatballs and the delicious meatballs. In fact, I was making them this week at the L.A. Fair, which was so funny.
Food is very important. My mother used to make fabulous roast potatoes, English roast potatoes. They’re in the book. The Santangelo salmon is absolutely delicious. Am I making you hungry?
Tavis: Yes, you are. (Laughter) Stop it.
Collins: There’s desserts.
Collins: This is not your ordinary cookbook. This is a fun cookbook. If you’re on a diet, don’t even bother.
Tavis: Don’t even bother, yeah.
Collins: Because it’s got ingredients that you can actually find. You know when you read a cookbook and you go, “What the hell is that? I’ve never heard of that,” and you’ve got to go to the supermarket and search for it?
Tavis: I was about to say –
Tavis: – one of the great compliments to you, as I flipped through and went through the book, that it’s one of those books where it seems at least that you can actually find these ingredients.
Collins: You can, exactly.
Tavis: It’s the worst thing, and I won’t call any names –
Collins: I know, I know.
Tavis: – but I’ve talked to folk, they come on with a cookbook, and I’m like, who in the world –
Collins: Is going to do that?
Tavis: – is going to find that or do that?
Collins: Yeah. You’ve got to go to a Japanese market and scour through everything to find the ingredients. No, this is very simple, they’re easy to do, they’re fun.
If you want to have a decadent, fun evening, and I have, like, suggestions for music you might want to play. A little Usher, a little Drake, a little old school Marvin Gaye.
Tavis: Ooh. (Laughter) I’m going to put you on the spot. I got a minute and 30 seconds to go, put you on the spot.
Tavis: Somebody asked me a question similar to this the other day. So you’re having dinner. Set the stage for me. Give me what you want on the table; what do you want to eat?
Take me appetizer through to dessert. Give me a good meal that you like, give me a wine choice, and give me what music you want playing.
Collins: Okay. I don’t drink wine, I drink vodka.
Tavis: Oh, excuse me.
Collins: So I would have –
Tavis: All right, nix that.
Collins: I’m going to have the Jackie Collins, which is fantastic. It is raspberries and vodka.
Tavis: This is Wolfgang Puck.
Collins: This is the Wolfgang Puck drink.
Collins: Raspberries, vodka, lemonade, a little pinch of lime, and then club soda, and you shake it all up with a ton of ice, and then more vodka, and then you’re ready to go.
Tavis: We got your drink. All right, what are you eating?
Collins: Then I would start off with shrimps, fabulous shrimps with a fabulous, creamy sauce. Then for a main course it would be the best mashed potatoes in the world, which are in the book, which are whipped up with sour cream and butter and milk.
As you can see, it’s to for dieters. Then probably a fabulous – maybe the Santangelo salmon, which has a miso sauce, a red miso sauce, which takes seven or eight minutes to make and is fantastic.
Tavis: Something green, something green, you need your vegetable.
Collins: Something green – oh, vegetables.
Tavis: Oh, see – (laughter) you’re like me. Vegetables? Ugh.
Collins: I have, there’s cauliflower in there.
Tavis: Yeah, good, okay.
Collins: There’s fabulous cauliflower. In fact I was having lunch at Neiman-Marcus with Joanna Poitier, and the chef came out and he said, “I’ve made your cauliflower dish for you,” and he had, and it was great. It’s cauliflower with a lot of cheese on it, cauliflower and cheese.
Tavis: What do you have for dessert?
Collins: For dessert, Cointreau with peaches.
Collins: So they’d be soaked in Cointreau, and they are delicious. They’re also in the book. That would be my perfect meal with maybe “What’s Going On” playing, Marvin Gaye.
Tavis: Some Marvin Gaye playing.
Collins: I’m just such a Marvin Gaye fan.
Tavis: You and I got to hang out.
Collins: Yeah, absolutely. (Laughter) We’ll have that meal.
Tavis: We have got to hang out.
Tavis: Jackie Collins is always busy. As I said earlier, since I last saw her on this set she’s written three books, but there are two out now that you can pick up. It’s the latest in the Lucky Santangelo series.
It’s called “Confessions of a Wild Child: Lucky, the Early Years,” and we have a new cookbook, Lucky does, “The Lucky Santangelo Cookbook,” with all the good stuff in it that we just talked about.
Who knows when I will see you next and how many books you will have written between now and then?
Collins: Exactly. I know.
Tavis: But I’m anxious to see what the Santangelos encounter in the next –
Collins: It’s going to be epic.
Tavis: You going to be a memoir one day?
Collins: I am.
Tavis: You need to.
Collins: “Reform School or Hollywood.”
Tavis: Ooh, I love it. (Laughter) “Reform School or Hollywood.” Great title.
Tavis: I love it. So you’ll definitely be on for that.
Collins: Oh, definitely, yeah.
Tavis: We’ll see you soon.
Collins: Okay, see you soon. Thank you, Tavis.
Tavis: Thanks, Jackie. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.
Jamie Lee Curtis: Tavis, you walk the walk, you talk the talk, and now you get to be on the Walk of Fame. I am thrilled for you.
Rhea Perlman: Tavis, it is so cool. You’re getting a star on the Walk of Fame. You deserve it.
Bruce Dern: Tavis Smiley, well, here’s a guy who should have been on the Walk of Fame a long time ago. He has one thing that I’ve only heard maybe once in all the time I’ve been listening, and in 60 years here to L.A., television and radio. He sees it all.
Julius Erving: Hey, Tavis – 20 years of broadcasting and now your star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame? Whew, that’s doing it. You have finally arrived, but you had arrived a long time before that. That’s coming from the Doc. Tavis, well done.
“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.
[Walmart sponsor ad]
“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.