I was barely a teenager when Jackie Collins ruined me for life. It happened the day I discovered Chances in my sister's college apartment. The novel belonged to her roommate, who was away on vacation with a married man, and I stole it with the rationalization that the home wrecker would be better served reading Smart Women, Foolish Choices.

Prior to ripping into Chances, I had existed on coming-of-age stories by Judy Blume, comic books and entertainment magazines, so Jackie Collins's seductive brand of high-glam, raunchy pulp fiction was like crossing over to a forbidden zone. It was Dallas and Dynasty on acid—exhilarating and, for me, transformative. I knew then that I wanted to do what Jackie did: write guilty-pleasure escapist fiction that shocked, titillated and held readers captive from first page to last.

What also drew me in was Jackie's author/celebrity profile. She was as beautiful and as take-no-prisoners as her ball-busting heroines. I remember being dazzled by her publicity junket for Hollywood Wives. Rather than fight me on the issue, it was easier for my parents to just give in to my insistence on being late for school in order to watch Jackie make the rounds on Good Morning America and TheMerv Griffin Show. This was 1983. Young teens didn't have the spending power to wipe out the national debt of Chile yet, and I purchased the hardcover of Hollywood Wives on a layaway plan, then worked odd jobs and rode my bike back and forth to the bookstore, paying down the balance three or four dollars at a time. When the 500-page opus was mine to take home, my excitement was total. I can still recall the novel's cool lavender cover, the glamorous white font... and the clerk's disapproving inquiry, “Do your parents know you're reading this?”

This was a constant refrain from teachers, too. Jackie had a rich backlist, and I shuffled between classes with at least one of her earlier novels—The Stud, The Bitch, The World Is Full of Divorced Women—scorching the top of my textbook stack. At 15, I crafted a short story called “Tempt Me” for an English assignment. The plot focused on a promiscuous party girl who ends up murdered by a psychopath obsessed with a provocative perfume. Confidentially, my teacher informed me that the effort was a knockout story worthy of the statewide student writing contest, but the adult content precluded her from submitting it. Being barred from entry was thrilling. It made me feel like a Jackie Collins in training.

My passion for Jackie's work stayed with me through high school, college and graduate school. I admired her prolific work ethic and the fact that she wrote for herself first, then for readers, giving little thought to critics. Her influence on me was profound. On the first day of my senior seminar in management at the University of Alabama School of Business, the professor asked each student in the class to stand up and reveal the book that had impacted our lives the most. The Bible and To Kill a Mockingbird were among the more popular titles cited. I rose up to declare Hollywood Wives. Everybody laughed. I shrugged off the reaction with good humor. But I was serious.

I spent several years honing my craft in genre fiction, publishing everything from suspense, romance, teen fiction and chick-lit to ghostwriting for Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen. I was polishing my first real attempt at a Jackie Collins—type novel when I met her for the first time at a book signing in Atlanta. The encounter was sublime. Jackie was warm, gracious, funny and even encouraged me to seek out her new publisher, St. Martin's Press, as a possible home.

That's where I landed 18 months later—at the same publishing house, and with the same editor, too. A blurb from Jackie Collins even graces the cover of Tan Lines, my first all-out bid to claim the literary voice I knew was inside me when I got lost in Chances so many years ago. In pure career idolatry terms, it's a gorgeous full circle.

And it makes me believe that therapists and life coaches have it right when they ask this question of clients who are uninspired, unfulfilled or ambivalent about their work: What did you want to be when you were 12?

Author Information
St. Martin's published J.J.Salem's novel Tan Lines lastweek.