The best-selling novelist discusses her new book Goddess of Vengeance and shares the real-life horror that brought her face-to-face with an Uzi.
Novelist Jackie Collins
Tavis: One of the reasons I love getting out of this studio and traveling around the country and, for that matter, around the world whenever I can is that I never know who I might run into. So I’m in New York City the other day having lunch and I look over in the booth next to me and, bam, Jackie Collins is there [laugh] and here we are back in Los Angeles.
Jackie Collins: Here we are.
Tavis: And she’s on our show because we met at a restaurant in New York City.
Tavis: She is, of course, one of the biggest, one of the best-selling, novelists in the history of the world with so many of her books now serving as the basis for films and miniseries. Her latest is called “Goddess of Vengeance.” Jackie Collins, an honor to have you on this program.
Collins: I’m so happy to be here.
Tavis: That timing was just propitious.
Collins: It was great, wasn’t it?
Tavis: Your book is out, we’re at the same restaurant, and here you are.
Collins: Yeah, I know.
Tavis: I love it, I love it. 400 million books sold?
Collins: I’ve been doing it a long time.
Tavis: But 400 million?
Collins: That’s a lot and in 40 different countries and I’ve never been out of print. That’s why the number keeps on building.
Collins: Right now, I’m very popular in Russia. They just reissued all my books and I went over to Moscow last year which was fascinating. You know, the signings that I did there, all the kids that came out, they were all like 20-somethings. None of the old people came out. It was great because they love to read about, you know, what is going on in America without getting the propaganda of what they read in the newspapers.
Tavis: But you get some credit for that. One of the things that I didn’t know about you until I started researching for our conversation, well, I assume from your stuff that you are in love with pop culture.
Tavis: But pop culture, and you tweet all the time, and the references that you make are so present day. So a lot of this notion of young people coming out in Russia to see you has to do with the fact that you are very good, obviously, at situating yourselves and your narratives in ways that they can relate to.
Collins: Well, absolutely, because I write all colors, all sizes, all nationalities, all sexual orientation. So if you pick up one of my books, there is something for everyone and I make sure that I do that because, you know, we live in a world where – I mean, I live in a world where everybody is like that.
A lot of authors write their own particular narrow world, but I see everybody. I’d like to say that, when I was a kid growing up, I read Charles Dickens and he created so many different characters and so many different levels of society and I love to do that in my books.
So I’ve created everyone from Lucky who is the strongest heroine around and Gino who, of course, came to America at the beginning of the last century when he was 13 years old and I wrote about him from that.
He went through prohibition and Vietnam and early Las Vegas where he built a hotel and finally he had this fabulous daughter, Lucky, and her brother was gay and she said, “I’m gonna take over the family business” and he said, “No, my son is.” She said Dario was gay which, of course, drove him crazy at the time…
Tavis: Stop! [Laugh]
Collins: I’m telling you too much. You know what? That’s because I’m a storyteller.
Tavis: No, I love it, I love it [laugh]. There’s a whole lot in here.
Collins: Yes, there’s a whole lot in there.
Tavis: I’m being funny saying stop, but you are throwing so many facts out. I’m always fascinated by novelists. I’ve said many times on this program that I have great respect for novelists. I’ve written 15 or 16 books, but I’m writing stuff about real stuff. The challenge for you is to create stuff and to invent. How do you create all this stuff?
Collins: It’s so funny that you should say that you’re writing real stuff because, when Kitty Kelley wrote the biography of Frank Sinatra and I had a book out at the time called “Hollywood Husbands,” Frank sent me a note and it said, “Jackie, you are writing fact. Kitty Kelley is writing fiction.” [Laugh]
Tavis: That’s a great story, yeah.
Collins: I saved that.
Tavis: I like that.
Collins: He signed it Francis Albert.
Tavis: He signed it Francis Albert.
Collins: Uh-huh. That’s what he used to call himself, Francis Albert, yeah.
Tavis: But you do create this stuff.
Collins: I do create it because I read everything. I’m a pop culture junkie. I know what’s going on everywhere and I like to create a kind of what is going on in the world today. For instance, there’s a very bad character in “Goddess of Vengeance,” Armand Jordan.
Tavis: I love that name, Armand Jordan.
Collins: Armand Jordan. I created him because I created this fictitious country and I wanted to show – I just picked up the “New York Times” and read this story about a woman who was going to be buried up to her neck and stoned to death in a Saudi Arabian country for adultery.
Tavis: I read that same story, yeah.
Collins: I was so disgusted by it that I wanted to create a villain that came from a fictitious country that I invented, but had these kinds of opinions about women, that they were just there for baby-making and love-making and that was it, and had no respect for them. You know, he comes to America when he’s eight years old, but he has to go back – he’s a prince – every year for the king’s birthday. So he’s brought up in this kind of atmosphere.
So that’s where the inspiration for that character came from. Even today in Saudi Arabia, they’re just about to lash a woman for being caught driving. Can you believe this?
Tavis: But Lucky Santangelo is not that woman. She’s got beauty and brains and strength.
Collins: Yeah, and women love her because she does say all the things they would really like to say. But she gets away with it and she does all the things they would really like to do and she gets away with it.
Tavis: Yeah. How much – and I mean this sincerely and seriously, how much of writing a character like Lucky Santangelo has to do with your interest to really make a social statement, but to do with a narrative that is entertaining? Am I making sense here?
Collins: Yeah, you’re making absolute sense because I get so many girls – I’ve got a message for women out there and that is girls can do anything and Lucky shows that they can. In fact, I was held up one night. I had an Uzi in my face and a guy saying – I won’t use the language that he used, but he says, “Don’t move, BLANK, or I’ll blow your BLANKING head off.” I’m like writing the Lucky miniseries at the time and she gave me strength.
Tavis: This is in real life?
Collins: Oh, this is in real life, yeah. So she gave me strength to escape from that situation because the guy was all masked and he had so much hate in his voice. She gives women strength, other women, just not me.
You know, they’ll write to me and they’ll go, “I broke up with my boyfriend and I was lying on the floor in the bathroom crying and then I thought, what would Lucky do? I’m gonna get out there and I’m gonna be back in life.” She gives women strength. She really does. So I love creating a character like that. She’s like a James Bond for women.
Tavis: How does Jackie Collins find herself in real life with an Uzi in her face?
Collins: Well, I was at a party in Beverly Hills and I was coming home.
Tavis: They have Uzis in Beverly Hills?
Collins: Yeah, oh, yeah. Well, the guy had it, you know. Actually, I was with – one of my best friends is Joanna Poitier who is married to the fabulous Sidney Poitier. I love him dearly.
Tavis: I love him dearly and love her as well.
Collins: I’m going to his daughter’s wedding on Saturday.
Collins: She was in the car with me and my husband was in the car with me. I was taking Joanna home. At the time, they lived in a house that had a very long driveway and, in Beverly Hills, everybody’s got these like codes you have to kind of dig into them and you can never get anybody’s code in right.
So we’re kind of laughing and I’m trying to put the code in to her house and this guy suddenly – we see the car go by and it’s a quiet street and then we see him turn around and come back. I said, oh, it must be tourists; they’re lost.
The next thing, Joanna is screaming, “Get out of here! Get out of here!” and the guy appears at my window because my window is open because I’m trying to do the code and he’s literally inches from my face.
I did get out of there, but afterwards I was a wreck because everybody said, “Do you know how quick that trigger could have been?” He had a partner with him; they were both masked. So it was in Beverly Hills, yeah, thank you, behind the Beverly Hills Hotel. Nowhere is safe.
Tavis: Have you had experiences like that or others in your life that have found their way into your books?
Collins: Yes. I definitely have. You know, that was one of the more dangerous ones. But, you know, everybody thinks that I lead a very glamorous life. I’ve written 28 books and they’re all about different kinds of aspects of rags to riches, people who have everything, people who have nothing that get everything.
But in my own life, yeah, my first husband was a drug addict and I had to go through that when I was a teenager and that was a very difficult situation, but it made me very clearly see what drugs can do to people. He eventually killed himself, which was very upsetting. I had a little girl, a little child, and then my husband that I was married to for over 20 years got ill and I had to nurse him through a terminal illness.
So I try to put these things in my books. I mean, I have the carjacking in one of my books. I can’t remember which one. I’ve never faced terminal illness in one of my books, but I will because I know it will help people out there that have gone through the same experience.
Tavis: I want to go back to your youth, if I can. You were married really young, as you just intimated a moment ago.
Tavis: But let’s go back even farther than that. Before you got married really young, you got kicked out of school.
Collins: I loved it.
Tavis: You talked earlier about all the young girls around the world who love to read your works.
Tavis: Tell me about why at 15 years of age, you were expelled from school?
Collins: Oh, I was expelled from school for various reasons [laugh]. One was that I waved at the resident flasher who would flash us little girls when we went to play tennis and I’d go, “Wow, cold day today, isn’t it?” So they thought this was disgusting. Then I played truant all the time and forged notes from my mother, “Oh, Jackie has a really bad strep throat.”
But I had a great imagination. I was always telling everybody that I was really American, that my father was in the CIA and that we were undercover, so I would not come to school a lot. I would get away with that excuse for the other girls.
Tavis: So you were creating stories even then.
Collins: Yeah, and I would sell my stories.
Tavis: You were ahead of your profession.
Collins: I was ahead of it, yeah. I had a friend who came to school when I was 13 and she was 15 and she taught me a lot of stuff. I would go out of my window every night. I was a wild child. I’m lucky it wasn’t today because I probably wouldn’t have survived, but it made me very street smart.
So by the time I came to Los Angeles at 15, I was totally street smart which I loved. I burnt my school uniform, my parents said, “Reform school or Hollywood.” I had an older sister who was making movies with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward and I said, “I think I’ll take Hollywood.” So I arrived here at 15 and it was fantastic.
Tavis: I love how you said, “I had an older sister.”
Collins: I have an older sister.
Tavis: I mean, like we don’t know who she is. It’s so funny how you said that. Joan Collins.
Tavis: So you come here at 15 and you’re staying with Joan? Joan’s taking care of you?
Collins: Well, she met me at the airport. This is a true story. It’s so bizarre. She’s just off to go and do a movie with Harry Belafonte in the Bahamas. She says, “Here’s a list of people that can help you. Here’s the keys to the apartment. Learn to drive. You’re just about to be 16. I’m off on location.”
So here I was in Hollywood by myself, street smart, though, so that was good. I actually wrote about those days because we lived in a kind of an apartment that was like Melrose Place. Everybody was around the pool; everybody was like pumping gas and parking cars and trying to be actors and actresses.
So I lived there and that gave me a great insight and I wrote about it in “Hollywood Wives” which was the book that really put me on the map in America, although “Chances” came before that and that was the 10th best-selling book in America for the year, so that was good.
Tavis: Did you ever attempt to do that? Did you get pulled into that acting world or at least try it?
Collins: I had some adventures in Hollywood. Let’s put it that way. I mean, I wasn’t a bad-looking kid and I would do some like bikini shoots in like Griffith Park and end up with some kind of cheesy photographer. Then I would go to get the pictures and the landlady – this is not a true story.
On Hollywood Boulevard, the landlady said to me, “I’m sorry, dear, he’s not here. He’s been arrested. He’s a serial killer.” I mean, what? I mean, crazy things like that would happen to me.
You know, I went back to England after a year and I was in a few movies as a teenager, but I always considered myself an out-of-work writer who was gaining fabulous experience both sides of the camera because that’s what interesting. That’s what makes a strong woman. You have to have confidence in what you do.
Tavis: When did you know that this was your vocation, that writing really was your calling and your gift?
Collins: Well, I kept on telling my family this ever since I was eight years old. They kept on saying to me, “Oh, forget about it. We’re a show business family.” My father was a theatrical agent. Then when I was 15 and thrown out of school, I said, well, that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to write. They said, “You can’t. You’ve got to go to college; you’ve got to get degrees. Nobody in our family has ever written. Forget about it.” So I was never encouraged.
But then when I met my second husband – the first one was the drug addict – the second husband said, “What do you do?” By that time, I was in my early 20s and I said I’m a writer. He said, “Well, what have you written?” I’d written, oh, my gosh, like 50 books, but I would get like to 20 pages and then go on to another book because I knew I would never get published and I had no confidence in the fact that I would get published.
So I gave him the first manuscript that I had at that time, which was “The World is Full of Married Men,” and he said, “That’s a really great story. You’ve got to finish it.” He was 20 years older than me and very smart, so he encouraged me.
He was American and he really encouraged me and was the first person that said, “You can do it.” So I did it. I finished the book and it was published and, within two weeks, somebody in one of the English papers said, “This is the most shocking book I have ever read” and it was number one within two weeks. Yeah, so that was a cool start.
Tavis: There’s so much you’ve just said now. I want to go back and unpack two or three things you’ve just said.
Collins: I talk too much, don’t I?
Tavis: No, no. For a talk show host, this is my dream [laugh].
Collins: Oh, good [laugh].
Tavis: You can never talk too much on my show. I love this. So why were you married so young and how young were you when you got married?
Collins: I was 18 when I married my first husband because I’d been around. I mean, I’d been this wild child in Hollywood; I’d been this wild child in London. I lived in Rome, I lived in Italy, I lived in the south of France. You know, I met this guy and he was fantastic.
My first husband was ten years older than me, fantastic guy. On our second date, he said, “Pack a toothbrush. We’re going to the south of France.” That’s what we did. He would just like hire planes and we’d go off and it was all very glamorous, but he was a big gambler and he was also – today it would be called bipolar. But he was a manic depressive.
So what would happen, he’d be pausing and having a fantastic time and it would be great and then he would go into a depression and he went to a psychiatrist who put him on tomethedrine, which is today called speed, and became addicted. The psychiatrist was addicted, he was addicted and it was something that he could never get over. I mean, he would be in and out of psychiatric hospitals. There was no rehab then, you know, it was way back in the 60s.
Tavis: Did the experiences that you had early on ever threaten to turn you off to marriage? You write so much about relationships. Were your own experiences experiences that turned you on or turned you off to those kinds of male-female relationships?
Collins: That’s such an interesting question. I think I believe in marriage, but I believe in doing everything you want to do before you get married so you are never looking out there and saying, “Oh, I wish I’d done that” because you’ve done it, right?
I believe in being faithful. The late Louie Malle who was married to Candy Bergen was making a miniseries of one of my books. He came up to me on the set one day and he said, “You know, Jackie, you are a raunchy moralist.”
Tavis: A raunchy moralist.
Collins: A raunchy moralist, and that’s exactly what I am. My books are very raunchy, but you’ll see in the books that, if somebody’s married and they’re cheating, they’re gonna get their comeuppance because I do believe in being faithful in a marriage. I think it’s important. Otherwise, why get married?
Tavis: Right. What do you make of the fact or why in fact did your books become hits in Europe first and then the U.S. later?
Collins: It’s very difficult to have a hit in America if you don’t come over and spend time in America. In that time, I was living in London. I was married to my second husband. I had three little girls, three children, and I was very happy there because my books were big hits in Europe and England.
But then one day I woke up – and my husband was American; he was from Philadelphia – and I said, “You know what?” He said, “What?” We had this great house, dogs, kids, school, everything. I said, “I want America. It’s not enough that I go over there and, you know, do the Johnny Carson Show and a couple of shows and come home to London.” I guess he said, “Okay, if that’s what you want, we’ll do it.”
We took the kids out of school, the dogs, we packed up our house and we traveled across America to Los Angeles. We lived in the Beverly Hills Hotel until the money ran out. Then we rented a house and then I hit it with “Chances” which was great. But you have to be in the country that you want to be successful in. That’s just my opinion.
Tavis: Okay. So if you have to be in the country to be successful in that country, then what happens in your career later on, Jackie Collins, where you can write a story that is universally accepted, that sells around the world at the same time?
Collins: Because America is the world.
Tavis: Oh, okay.
Collins: Yeah, America is number one. I love America. I think it’s the most wonderful country in the world and I think that, if you are number one in America, then the rest of the world accepts that. When you look at all these people who complain about America, what are they doing? They’re reading American books, they’re watching American movies, they love Brad Pitt, they love George Clooney, American music.
Tavis: Jackie Collins.
Collins: Yeah, thank you. Jay-Z, Beyoncé, Drake, you know, that’s what they love and they’re all complaining about America and bitching about America, but they love everything American.
Tavis: How important, though, is it for you to be sure that in your storytelling that all the characters aren’t American? That might turn people off, I would think.
Collins: Oh, no, because I write so many different characters.
Tavis: Exactly, yeah.
Collins: I mean, you know, he’s a Middle Eastern man in this book and then, in the previous book, I put a little bitch girl. I had various nationalities and, in “Lovers and Players,” there was this girl from the Ukraine. I love writing about different countries.
Tavis: That’s my point, though. You could not write a book successful around the world if all the characters were just Americans. You couldn’t do that consistently.
Collins: No, but I wouldn’t want to do that.
Tavis: Precisely, yeah.
Collins: Because that’s not the world that I live in. I mean, I know everybody and see everybody. I never write a place that I haven’t been to or things that I haven’t really experienced or know about firsthand.
Tavis: So to your point now, do you ever get the notion to say, “I think I want to write about this place” so you pack up your bags and you head off to that place to spend some time?
Collins: That’s a good thing about being single. You can do that [laugh] and I do. I kind of live my life like a single guy, you know, when I was growing up.
Tavis: That’s funny [laugh].
Collins: Yeah, but it’s good. When I was growing up, my father would have Playboy beside his bed and I would take this Playboy and I would go, “Hey, great apartment, great car, great sound system. All these guys have got it going on.” So now I have it going on [laugh].
Tavis: I read this somewhere and I want to be sure that I’m right about this. This is a somewhat dense novel here. You still write old school longhand?
Collins: Old school longhand, and I love every second of it. I love creating the characters. I have no idea what they’re going to do, where they’re going to go in the book. So every time I sit down and I pick up my pen – I have a black felt pen, yellow legal pad. Then after I finish the book, I will have it leather-bound which is so much fun. But this book was 2,000 longhand pages, yeah.
Tavis: How many legal pads would you guess?
Collins: Oh, I don’t know.
Tavis: You have no idea?
Collins: No, no idea, but I do a lot of stuff on the computer. As you said, I’m Jackie K. Collins on Twitter and I’ve got my website and I’ve got over 100,000 fans on a Facebook page. I love being on the computer, but for writing, no, no. A real writer, I think, writes by hand. You probably write on the computer, so I’ve insulted you [laugh].
Tavis: No, you have not. I asked that question because I still write longhand.
Collins: Oh, you do?
Tavis: I can’t do it on computer.
Collins: I know. Nor can I.
Tavis: I can’t do it, yeah. Of course, I’m not writing stuff this thick either, but still I can’t do it on computer.
Collins: There’s something about it. You’ve probably got nice handwriting?
Tavis: I have horrible handwriting, but I write longhand because for me it just feels organic.
Tavis: It doesn’t feel, you know…
Collins: No, no. It doesn’t feel processed.
Collins: And a lot of writers, you know, they map out their story. I don’t do that.
Tavis: Hold on, hold on. You don’t map out the story?
Collins: No. I have no idea.
Tavis: So you just start.
Collins: Yeah, I just start.
Tavis: And you just go with it?
Collins: I have the title of the book and the character.
Tavis: In other words, you write like you live.
Collins: Yes, a little bit on the edge.
Tavis: You just go for it, yeah.
Collins: Yeah. But, you know, my books are like life. I never wind the book up unless it’s a murder, unless somebody gets killed. I don’t really wind it up. I could pick any one of my 28 books up and I could continue the story because that’s life, isn’t it? Relationships?
I call them relationship books, yeah, and Lucky, of course, will go on forever. Now she has her daughter, Max, and her handsome son and, you know, she has a half African American brother, yeah.
Tavis: I have been on planes many times, in hotels, on vacation at resorts and I see – I want to be kind about this – I see the elite of our country and the elite of our world and they’re sitting there with a Jackie Collins book doing like this. Does that tickle you?
Collins: Yeah, I love it, I love it. Although I’ll sometimes be on a plane and somebody will be reading one of my books and they don’t know it’s me there and they’ll put it down and I’ll think, “Why are they putting it down?” They’ve got to pick that book up again, yeah [laugh].
Tavis: I got caught reading this Jackie Collins book, yeah.
Collins: Well, my biggest critics are the people who’ve never read me. It’s so amusing because sometimes a reporter will be sent to interview me and they’ll arrive and they’ll plump down the book, maybe it’s “Goddess of Vengeance,” and they’ll go, “This was a really good story.”
I can hear the note of surprise in their voice and I know that they were like a Jackie Collins virgin and then suddenly they’re converted [laugh]. Then they want to read other things, you see.
I’ve got kids reading. They read me at 15 and they say, “I’ve never read a book before and I picked up “Chances” or I picked up Lucky and it took me on such a trip that I’m now gonna read all your books.”
Tavis: You know what’s funny about that, and it’s really not funny, I just did a special for PBS a few weeks ago called “Too Important to Fail” just like the banks were too big to fail. The special was called “Too Important to Fail” and it was a special specifically about the crisis of Black boys in our education system, how left behind they are being. They’re being so left behind.
The thing I heard over and over and over again in these conversations, Jackie, is that these boys fall out of love or never fall into love with reading around the third or fourth grade and the primary reason was is that they don’t see themselves in the narrative. You get this, don’t you?
Collins: I do get this.
Tavis: If you don’t see yourself in the story, you don’t develop a love of reading. So your fans can find themselves oftentimes in the narrative.
Collins: I have a huge African American audience. I do signings all the time and 50% of the people who come to the signings are African American, which is great for me because, in “Chances,” I created the family of Carrie who I really based on an early Billie Holiday because Billie Holiday had such a terrible life and she was in Riker’s Island and she was a prostitute for a while and all of that.
So I kind of based Carrie on her and then I created the family of Carrie and then she became one of the biggest society women in New York society. But she had the son, Steven, who turns out to be like his half brother. So I’ve always created people of color or any kind of…
Tavis: Any race, yeah.
Collins: Yeah, any race in my books because that’s the world that I live in. I know I keep on saying that, but it’s so true because so many writers have this narrow kind of vision. So I’m happy that, yeah, a lot of young people, Black and white, start reading me at a very early age and I get them into reading because my books are exciting and fun and strong women and interesting men.
Tavis: And 400 million books later, there’s the evidence [laugh] that a whole lot of folk are reading this stuff. Her name, of course, Jackie Collins. The new novel is called “Goddess of Vengeance.” Lucky is back. Jackie Collins, I have so enjoyed this conversation.
Collins: Well, so have I. I really loved it. It was great.
Tavis: Thanks for coming on. Good to see you.
Collins: My pleasure. Good to see you too.
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