There's a sign in Danielle Steel's office that reads, "There are no miracles. There is only discipline." It's a dutiful message, and yet the sheer amount that Steel has accomplished in her five-decade career does seem like the stuff of dreams.
Let's look at the numbers, shall we? The author has written 179 books, which have been translated into 43 languages. Twenty-two of them have been adapted for television, and two of those adaptations have received Golden Globe nominations. Steel releases seven new novels a year—her latest, Blessing in Disguise, is out this week—and she's at work on five to six new titles at all times. In 1989 Steel was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records for having a book on the New York Times best-seller list for the most consecutive weeks of any author—381, to be exact. To pull it off, she works 20 to 22 hours a day. (A few times a month, when she feels the crunch, she spends a full 24 hours at her desk.)
Steel writes in her home office. Most of the time, that's San Francisco, but sometimes she's at her house in Paris. Wherever she is, she writes on her 1946 Olympia standard typewriter, which she's nicknamed Olly. "Olly's a big, heavy machine and it's older than I am," Steel tells Glamour. "It has a very smooth flow to it and I can't write on anything else. I have anywhere between 12 to 15 of them that I've bought over the years, but they're not good enough to work on. I keep them for parts in case there's ever a problem, because this is a very endangered species!" Steel is a creature of habit. She gets to her office—down the hall from her bedroom—by 8:00 A.M., where she can often be found in her cashmere nightgown. In the morning she'll have one piece of toast and an iced decaf coffee (she gave up full-throated caffeine 25 years ago). As the day wears on, she'll nibble on miniature bittersweet chocolate bars. "Dead or alive, rain or shine, I get to my desk and I do my work. Sometimes I'll finish a book in the morning, and by the end of the day, I've started another project," Steel says.
She credits her boundless energy for her productivity and also her drive to push through moments when she's stuck. "I keep working. The more you shy away from the material, the worse it gets. You're better off pushing through and ending up with 30 dead pages you can correct later than just sitting there with nothing," she advises. Her output is also the result of a near superhuman ability to run on little sleep. "I don't get to bed until I'm so tired I could sleep on the floor. If I have four hours, it's really a good night for me," Steel says. She's always been like this, even as a kid growing up in France. Instead of playing with friends after school, she'd come home, immediately devour her homework, then set to work on her own stories. By 19, Steel had written her first book. But it took a while—and many false starts—to get a book published. She promised herself that if she got just one to sell, she'd be content, prepared to give up writing and focus on starting a family. One hundred and seventy-nine books later, she still hasn't been able to quit.
Steel never set out to be a best-seller. In fact, she was made to feel ashamed of her success. "I grew up in Europe, where it was not considered polite for a woman to be working, and I was married to two different men who did not like that I worked," she says. "But I was lucky because I could work at home when my kids were asleep." (Steel has nine children.) "It was kind of this invisible thing that I did," she adds. "I never had success as a goal. I had this drive to to write the stories that came to me—and to conquer them. It came from the gut, not from the cash register." Even now Steel still encounters people who are put off by her illustrious career. "About 10 years ago someone asked me, 'Oh, do you have an agent?' I mean, do they think I stand on the street corner and try to sell this shit?" she says. Or another time at a party, "Someone said to me, 'Are you still writing?' And I wanted to say, 'I guess you don't read The New York Times.'"
With time Steel has been able to own her accomplishments. Her (enviable) motto is "It's better to be rich and miserable than poor and miserable." (For the record, Steel does not seem miserable.) But she is uncomfortable talking about money—particularly in terms of business deals and negotiations. "I'm a writer, not a banker. I'm very responsible with [my money], but it's very awkward and I prefer to be discreet," she says. (According to Forbes, Steel's net worth is $350 million.) It's not the money that keeps Steel chained to her desk; it's a real love for the craft. "When a book just flows, I love it. Some of my ideas will start off as mundane, but as I write them they become magical—and I can never predict it. Other times it can feel like dragging an elephant across the table, but I get through it."
Steel struggles with the idea of burnout culture, the "millennial affliction" of being completely exhausted by work and the world. She recounts a conversation with her son and his partner; both are in their twenties. Her son told her that he never works past a certain time at the office, a model of that elusive work-life balance. Steel balks. "They expect to have a nice time," she says. "And pardon me, but I think your twenties and a good part of your thirties are about working hard so that you have a better quality of life later on. I mean, I never expected that quality of life at 25. I had three jobs at the same time, and after work I wrote. Now it's a promise that it's all going to be fun." Once, Steel was invited to visit Amazon headquarters. (Jeff Bezos led the tour himself.) Inside, she was scandalized. The beer! The video games! The free food! All the usual "perks" of a modern workplace. "There's a flood of bright young people there," she says. "But they're telling them, 'This is a family, this is fun, you can bring your dog to work.' I mean, how do you focus with a dog there? I left with flea bites on my leg!"
For all her exhortations, Steels does sometimes fear that she's overemphasized work, wishing she'd "had a little more fun." So she tries to compensate now—modestly. In the summer she takes a full week off in the South of France to be with her family. She'll go boating with her grandchildren, hang out on the beach, and catch up on her reading. (Steel can't read other books while working on her own, which means she can basically never read other books.) On the rare nights that she finishes work earlier than expected, she'll fit in about an hour or so of British television on Netflix—The Bodyguard is a new favorite, and she calls its star Richard Madden "so cute." And then there's the shopping.
No one on her team or in her family will teach her how to online-shop—far too dangerous, because her brick-and-mortar habit is formidable. It's been reported that Steel has 6,000 pairs of Christian Louboutin heels, though she says this was a rumor and is untrue. "I like to wait until I'm in Paris to go shopping, but put me in a hardware store and I'll come out with arms full of bags," she concedes.
Her single-handed support for the retail marketplace aside, Steel is clear about her purpose: "My work has always been sort of a saving grace. It's where I take refuge. Even when bad things have happened in my personal life, it's a constant. It's something solid I can escape into," she says. When asked if she plans to retire, give it all up, shop in Paris, sail in the South of France, even just take a nap—her answer is swift and serious. "When I was first starting out, I had the same agent as Agatha Christie. I was about 19 years old and she was in her nineties. I met her once, and I remember she said, 'I want to die face-first in my typewriter.' And I feel that way. I mean, I want to go on forever, just writing."
Samantha Leach is an assistant editor at Glamour. Follow her on Twitter @_sleach.
Originally Appeared on Glamour