Over the 14 years since she introduced readers to her fictional alter-ego, bounty-hunter Stephanie Plum, Janet Evanovich has gone from obscure romance novelist to international superstar, a writer whose professional concerns include the logistics of keeping 5,000 snapshot-hungry fans moving through a line and preventing her hand from swelling up during marathon autograph signings.

Meanwhile, Stephanie's life, it is fair to say, has changed less dramatically. "She's a little bit better bounty hunter and I think she has a better idea of who she is," says Evanovich, speaking by phone from her winter home in Naples, Florida (she migrates north to New Hampshire in the late spring). "She knows that she's indecisive. She knows she's in love with two men. She knows that she doesn't have the world's best job and she isn't really great at it."

Out this month, the latest in the series of Plum mysteries, Fearless Fourteen, finds Stephanie still working for her cousin Vinnie, this time in a case involving a $9 million bank robbery committed by a relative of her sometimes-boyfriend Morelli. Working hard to survive in a world filled with gun-toting criminals and eccentric losers, she seems to have little in common with her famous creator. Still, former Jersey girl Evanovich insists, "There is a lot of me in Stephanie." 

Take, for instance, their shared weakness for birthday cake. As Fearless opens, Stephanie confesses, "I used to have a birthday cake in the freezer for emergencies, but I ate it. Truth is, I would dearly love to be a domestic goddess, but the birthday cake keeps getting eaten."

On the day of our interview, Evanovich has just celebrated her 65th birthday, an occasion that was to have included a champagne cruise with her family on their 22-foot Grady-White boat. But by the time they hit the water, Evanovich was too nauseous from an over-consumption of cake to face the bubbly. And she wasn't using her big day as an excuse. "I've been known to go to the supermarket and kind of cruise for abandoned birthday cakes," she says, noting that you can get them for half-off.

Evanovich says she's found that career success has had surprisingly little to do with her personal life. "I'm still the wife and the mother," says Evanovich, whose husband, son, daughter and son-in-law all play various roles in her career. "I'm still the creative person that I always was. On the outside, what that money has done is made it easier for me to be that person, because I can have someone come into my house to clean twice a week. Or because I can live anywhere I want."

She adds that celebrity didn't help her avoid gaining 30 pounds while writing Fearless. She ate her way through the novel and has her heroine do the same. Though, despite the many references to junk food spread throughout the book, Stephanie doesn't gain weight. She doesn't age either, another advantage of fiction over real life.

With the book behind her, Evanovich says, "I am now in full weight-loss mode. I'm on Atkins. The birthday cake just finished me off." She's about to embark on a book tour that will include media appearances and meeting thousands of readers in person. But she says that's not why she wants to shed the pounds. "If I went on the 'Today' show and I weighed 170, I don't think anybody would really care," she says. "For myself personally I don't feel good at that weight."

Like Stephanie, Evanovich can be refreshingly frank about her vulnerabilities. "Five years ago, I had a facelift. I didn't have that facelift because I wanted to look good on the 'Today' show," she says. "I had it because every time I looked in the mirror, I had no relationship with that woman. I wake up every morning and I think I'm 32."

Evanovich's work goes beyond the Plum mysteries, of course. There are the Alex Barnaby NASCAR novels, the co-authored romantic suspense novels and the nonfiction book, How I Write. In addition, romances she wrote years ago are in the process of being re-released.

Still, the sexy, struggling bounty hunter remains her signature character. And Evanovich plans to keep her on the job for a long time. "I really have no intention of stopping. And I don't have to. Why? Because I'm only 32."

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