BOOKS / Lives of the rich and famous: Judith Krantz doesn't at all resemble the characters in her novels. As Giles Smith found when he was invited into her lovely Bel Air home

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Judith Krantz lives in a large house in Bel Air, Los Angeles, at the top of a thickly hedged cul-de-sac off Sunset Boulevard. Brenda, the novelist's assistant, admits you through the glass doors with their elegant iron handles and shows you across the stone-flagged hall floor into the library to wait. Carmen, the novelist's cook, brings coffee in a china cup and saucer with a small white linen napkin.

On the shelves above you while you drink and wait are bound manuscripts of the novels which have brought Judith Krantz to this refined opulence - Scruples, Princess Daisy, Dazzle, Scruples II - hulking lumps of pulp, in which baffling dynasties of the ruthless run major business concerns, buy things and have astonishing sex with one another.

The output, surely, of a Jackie Collins-style, flare-haired LA dame in a pair of tiger-skin leggings and a leather singlet. But the woman who enters is elegant, in her sixties, tiny, wearing black trousers and an emerald jacket, soft-voiced, immediately open and friendly. True, the night before she had flung John Grisham across the bedroom, but it was only an act of literary criticism. 'God, I just had to throw that book away last night - The Chamber? After about 127 pages about some lawyer and his bigot grandfather. Boring] I can't get through Grisham.'

The author of racey fictions in which people seek 'the splendid fruit of satisfaction' more often than is strictly good for them is keen to show you the garden (the earthquake cracks in the swimming-pool, the 18th-century English weather-vane) and the office where she writes, with its Victorian shell picture of two Venetians fishing and its table-load of silver picture frames, displaying her bestseller lists from around the world, snipped from the papers, some of them yellowing now.

'These are old needlework bits,' she says pointing to some embroidery hanging over her computer screen. 'I keep them there because they are all what women have done with their hands. I get a good feeling from them. They're like my sewing circle.'

A reviewer in USA Today referred to her as 'Judy' as in: 'Judy's back and a heatwave has hit bookstores'. The familiarity seems all wrong. 'Judy' and her husband, to whom she has been married for 40 years, take holidays on cruise ships.

'I have no dramatic private life. I haven't been divorced. I'm no Erica Jong, no way. People often say, 'How could anybody who looks so innocent write these books?' They forget the imagination part.'

Lovers, Mrs Krantz's eighth novel, is published in Britain this week. It has already been in the American bestseller lists and will go the same way here, like each of the seven novels which preceded it. It centres on - or rather runs riot around - sex, money and advertising and features some of the cast of Scruples, including Billy Winthrop Ikehorn Orsini Elliott, in whose name you glimpse a larger tendency in Mrs Krantz's writing - abundant provision.

And among the things most abundantly provided are scenes in which heterosexual couples perform what, in a rare moment of primness, Mrs Krantz refers to as 'the most ancient of dances'. As early as page 118, for instance, Angus Caldwell is having 'the most severely exquisite orgasm of his life' and is, as a result, 'almost unconscious with relief'.

Mrs Krantz fingers the pearls at her neck and says firmly: 'If you get to the point in a book where there's going to be a sex scene, you can either have a fade-out, or you can write it. And I just don't believe in fading out. I'm right there in the bed with them, the invisible spectator. Somebody asked me if it wasn't voyeuristic. I said: 'Of course it's voyeuristic, that's the whole point.' '

Still, she says that averaging at least six sex scenes per book has left her ingenuity 'severely taxed'. In any case, the books she tends to read have a lower orgasm count. Occasionally, as with Grisham, she will check out the opposition, but she's more interested in 'people who are dead'. Recently, she says, she got round to Henry James's late ones - Wings of a Dove, The Golden Bowl. But: 'I read things that I couldn't possibly write, not in a million years, because I don't have the ability. You have a voice. My voice is what it is.'

For 27 years before she became a bestselling novelist, Mrs Krantz wrote features for magazines - Good Housekeeping through the 1950s and then Cosmoplitan. She was on the fashion desk when her patience ran out.

'Every year in July we did 'children in bathrobes', for Christmas. There was no air-conditioning in the studios and there were these hot children in big, fuzzy robes and their mothers sitting around being horrible. The third year I got around to that, I thought I'd better start doing something else.'

This was in the mid-1970s. She had been married for 24 years (to Steve Krantz, a producer of television mini-series) and her children were about to leave home. 'They get a driver's licence here at 16, and it's, 'Goodbye mom.' ' So she took a leave of absence and, without really telling anyone, quietly began a novel. She had not written a word of fiction since she fouled up a college term paper through 'atrocious' spelling. ('Actually, I never met a writer who could spell. None of us can do grammar either. Writers write. That's why copy- editors exist - to pick up those mistakes.') What she came up with was Scruples, nearly 600 pages of sex and shopping for clothes in Beverly Hills.

Mort Janklow, a friend and agent, showed it to Michael Korda at Simon & Schuster, who wrote a letter to Janklow explaining, in the nicest possible way, that while you could probably get away with a novel without plot, and you could even perhaps get away with a novel without character, you couldn't really get away with a novel without plot or character. 'Michael Korda has,' says Mrs Krantz, 'through intermediaries, begged me not to tell that story. But it's too good a story not to tell. Why not tell that story?'

Scruples went to the second publisher who saw it, Crown Inc, who didn't really have a fiction department. The bucks started here. The paperback rights were bought by Warners within a couple of weeks for an advance of dollars 500,000, 'which was major money'. After 15 weeks the book was No 1 on the New York Times list and a high profile auction began for the next Krantz, Princess Daisy. 'This was tough to take at the time, because everyone reacted as if I'd killed the book business. I'd created a much higher level of expectation among authors. It was on the front of the New York Times. If I hadn't been a woman, the fuss wouldn't have been so great. But a woman with a book called Princess Daisy - it was like the barbarians were storming the gates. I got really hit over the head by journalists. How can any novel be worth dollars 3.2 million? And I had to argue, it will make money. It earned out about three years after it was published. These days, James Clavell gets dollars 5m for paperback rights, no one says anything.'

There are 75 million copies of Judith Krantz novels in print in 27 languages. And copies of each of her paperbacks sit beside Mrs Krantz's computer, glued together in a stocky tower. 'They're to make me feel: if I wrote all that, I can write more.' Perhaps novelists are more generally prone to fear the opposite - that the more they write, the more they exhaust a limited supply. It is typical of Mrs Krantz that abundance would be an entirely benign signal of further possible abundance.

Sure enough, on the day we meet, her assistant Brenda has packaged up and Fed Ex'd to New York the synopsis for Mrs Krantz's next novel. Mrs Krantz will tell me nothing about the idea contained in the synopsis, largely in obedience to the superstitions which attach to unwritten books and also because she is afraid I will steal it. Instead, she offers me, as I leave, a tip on how to handle my domestic staff.

'Couldn't live without Hello] I get it by air, dollars 450-worth every year. Love it, all those great photographs. It's one way to be sure you will never lose a cook: subscribe to Hello] and give her the issue the minute you've finished with it. They will never leave you.'

'Lovers', Bantam Press

(Photographs omitted)