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With race car mechanic, Evanovich heads in new direction

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Her best-known character goes through a couple of cars a book. They have a bad habit of blowing up.

But Janet Evanovich has a little more respect for cars and drivers than her bumbling bounty hunter, Stephanie Plum.

You could call Evanovich a car nut. Especially a NASCAR nut.

When she was getting a little antsy after 10 best-selling Plum novels, Evanovich decided to invent a new character. Alex Barnaby, who would be competent where Stephanie Plum was clumsy, driven where Stephanie was rudderless.

"Stephanie Plum kind of floats through life. She has small aspirations," Evanovich says. "She's like almost everyone else in this country, trying to pay her rent on time, to have enough money to take a vacation, to buy a pair of shoes, to be able to go to McDonald's for lunch."

So Evanovich wanted a heroine who'd be the opposite, with a passion that wasn't necessarily expected for a woman. Alex would be a driven woman who could drive - and fix cars.

In the first Alex Barnaby mystery, "Metro Girl," Evanovich sent Alex to Florida to follow her brother, who's disappeared.

And there she meets Sam Hooker, a wise-cracking, good-looking NASCAR driver who's trying to find his super-fancy fishing boat, which Alex's brother "borrowed." Expect the kind of romantic crackling that makes the Plum novels so fun, but also expect the cars - if not the boats - in the "Metro Girl" books to stay more or less intact.

Evanovich had always loved cars, but she hadn't witnessed a stock-car race until she and her daughter, Alex, found themselves bored one weekend at Evanovich's main house in New Hampshire. The two went to the local track, and Evanovich fell hard.

"Both of us, we sat there with our mouths open," Evanovich says. "I just loved it. I loved the cars, the noise, the smell, the people. And at these little tracks, you have daughters racing against their dads, and they work on their cars all week and bring them and race them on the weekend."

But it wasn't until after she'd finished "Metro Girl" that she set out to see a real NASCAR race. She discovered that the races tend to sell out two years in advance, but it turns out that being the creator of Stephanie Plum does land you some fans in the pits - who will be glad to get you an all-areas pass.

Now she sits in on drivers' meetings, haunts the pits and knows many drivers on a first-name basis.

"I am so hooked it's embarrassing. I am sitting here every Sunday watching NASCAR. I plan my week around watching NASCAR. How bizarre is that?"

Not much more bizarre than Evanovich's life from Jersey girl to best-seller stardom. She'd majored in art in college, but that hadn't worked out. Then she started writing stories, but by the late 1980s, she'd collected a husband, two children and a cardboard box full of rejection slips.

Then a now-defunct romance label decided to buy her novel "Full House" in 1989. It was published under a pen name, Steffie Hall, and brought Evanovich a whopping $2,000. (The book was re-released this spring under Evanovich's name.) Evanovich wrote 11 more romance novels in the next five years.

But standard-issue romance didn't seem to be exactly the right thing, so Evanovich came up with sassy Stephanie Plum, who would solve mysteries while bouncing between two sexy, bad-boy heroes, Trenton cop Joe Morelli and bounty hunter Ranger.

Evanovich didn't make much more money with Stephanie Plum, at first, but then Columbia TriStar bought the rights to "One for the Money."

"I made almost a million dollars on that," she says. "That's what pushed me forward. It was still hard - I really scratched and clawed to get my readership, and every book did a little bit better. But the movie sale allowed us to pay off our credit cards."

The movie has yet to be made, though Evanovich says she's been told it's still in "active pre-production." She's holding on to the rights to her new series, "Metro Girl," for now.

"I think it would be a fun movie," she says. "I blow up a boat. How good can it get?"

But Alex Barnaby, brilliant mechanic, needed a foil, and for that Evanovich turned to Charlie Sheen. That is, to Charlie Sheen as the womanizing jingle writer in the CBS series, "Two and a Half Men." The bad boy character appealed to her.

"He's a jerk, but you like him. You can't help it," she says.

Evanovich asked herself: What would that character be doing, if he weren't a jingle writer? And the answer came: driving NASCAR!

That's how Sam Hooker, NASCAR Guy, came into Alex Barnaby's series.

"In the Plum books, I have two guys who are superheroes. And I wanted to do a series with a guy who was a hero on a much more human scale," she says.

The next Alex Barnaby book, "Motor Mouth," is set to come out in hardcover in April. Evanovich has been holed up in her Boston condo writing to meet her deadline.

"It's set in Florida again and it takes place at the last race of the season at Homestead," she says. "I don't want to give too much away, but actually they end up stealing a NASCAR hauler with the cars in it. They have good reason to do so, but nevertheless, you're looking at major grand theft auto here."

And then it will be back to Stephanie Plum and book 12 of that series.

"I discovered that I really love doing the two of them, because they help each other. I was done writing `Metro,' and I went back to writing Stephanie and I was glad to be back there," she says.

Alexandra Barnaby's drive even rubbed off a little on "Eleven on Top," in which Stephanie puts down the beer and TastyKakes and decides to get serious about bounty hunting. She takes a job working for Ranger, the Cuban-American man of mystery that sends Evanovich's readers swooning.

"Ranger and Joe really came from my romance writer background. They're just the classic bad-boy hero. But no, they have no real-life counterparts," she says. "You were hoping for a phone number, right?"

What about Hooker? Is he based on anybody real? Does she have a favorite NASCAR driver?

"I guess if I had to admit to it, I'd have to say I'm a Junior fan," Evanovich says. That would be Dale Earnhardt Jr., for NASCAR newbies.

"Junior is the personification of how I like to act as a writer," she says. "He's accessible to the fans - Junior is emotionally accessible. Other drivers are very good on the mike, they play their role, but they're a little closed.

"But Junior - whatever is in his head is out there. For me as a writer, this is a gold mine. Because you see, you see what he's feeling."

Pause. "And he looks pretty darn nice in that race suit, too."

Evanovich still has a few months to go on "Motor Mouth," which means she can call her weekends with daughter Alex at the NASCAR tracks research.

"It's an intensely American experience," she says. "And when they start their engines, I'm done. The first time, when they go by, and the pace car goes off, they put their foot to the floor? My pants are wet. It's a rush. It's a total rush.

"And anybody who doesn't feel that way isn't worth anything at all."



Claim to fame : Author of two best-selling series of comic mysteries. Stephanie Plum, hapless bounty hunter from Trenton, N.J., stars in 11 novels, from "One for the Money" to "Eleven on Top." Alex Barnaby, ace mechanic, had her first adventure in "Metro Girl," now out in paperback. "Motor Mouth" is due in April.

Age: 62

Homes: New Hampshire, Naples, Fla., Boston. Jersey girl at heart.

Family: Husband Peter, son Peter and daughter Alex are in the family business, editing Mom's books and managing Evanovich Inc.

First car: Dad's '53 Buick, powder blue, just like Stephanie's Big Blue.

Current wheels: Black Lexus SC430.

Quote: "I have always loved cars. When I was a little kid, Jimmy Herrel and I used to build Soap Box racers and race them down the Beryl Street hill."

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(c) 2005, Detroit Free Press. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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