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Best-selling author prefers stories others have to tell

Helen Anders
Sandra Brown has written 58 New York Times best-sellers. Her latest book is 'Rainwater,' set during the Depression.

Sandra Brown's moussed red hair reaches for the sky like flames. She's model-thin in an emerald green and black lace Phillip Lim dress, and it's impossible not to notice that at 61, she's the most gorgeous woman in the Four Seasons Lobby Lounge. She's also the author of 58 New York Times best-sellers.

You might expect her to reek of celebrity attitude. You'd be wrong.

After briefly entertaining my compliments on her latest book, "Rainwater," and ordering a Bombay Sapphire and tonic, she leans in and asks, "How are your grandchildren?"

This is not celebrity behavior, but it is vintage Sandra Brown. It's hard to interview her, because she keeps steering the conversation away from herself. That's just the way Brown — and it feels strange calling her that; she's been Sandra to me since I first interviewed her 20 years ago — was raised. She's Waco-born and Fort Worth-reared. She and her husband, documentarian Michael Brown, still choose to live in Arlington. She's one of us.

"How 'bout those Frogs?" she trills, talking about the undefeated Texas Christian University Horned Frogs. She's a big football fan, so we talk about TCU, the University of Texas Longhorns and, of course, the Dallas Cowboys, whose new stadium is just minutes from her home.

"Oh, I looooove it," she says. She loves it so much that she's an honorary co-chairwoman of opening festivities for Super Bowl XLV, which will be held at the stadium in 2011.

I steer her back to the topic of "Rainwater," a book that's a departure from her usual fast-paced thrillers. "Rainwater," set during the Great Depression, focuses on emotional struggles more than on a single villain — although it has one of those, too, as well as a signature Sandra Brown surprise at the end.

"I was inspired by a story my grandfather told me," she says. Brown's grandfather had a dairy farm in Lorena, just outside Waco. An agricultural subsidy program in 1934 paid farmers for their excess produce but also made them destroy it. Brown's grandfather was told to pour out milk that he wanted to give to hungry people. "There was an armed standoff," Brown says, and that inspired the book.

"Rainwater" takes the viewpoint of a fairly conservative single mother who runs a boarding house, and the tale is told in a restrained style that speaks to its times. So, what I wondered as I started reading was: How on earth is she going to handle the sex (because it's obvious that two people in the book are going to get around to that)?

And here's the shocking (for Brown) answer: It's subtle. Brown hopes her fans can handle that.

"I didn't even tell my agent I was writing this," says Brown, who worked "Rainwater" in while she was writing her yearly contract thriller, "Smash Cut," which debuted at No. 2 on The New York Times list in August. "I didn't know if my publisher would like it." She was worried about whether Simon & Schuster would want her to risk breaking out from her consistently bankable thriller genre. She needn't have fretted; her publisher embraced "Rainwater."

She gets distracted at this point, because her husband is fiddling with his tuxedo studs. They're too small for the button holes. He finally gives up on the studs and just buttons the buttons on the tuxedo shirt itself. I grab the chance to catch up with Michael Brown, who says he's been working on a Dorito's commercial, as well as a cable TV pilot on a show about Corvettes. He collects them.

"I have 12," he says, "but I know people who have 30 or 40."

The conversation takes another leap — to the Browns' son, Ryan, a former soap opera actor whose first novel, "Play Dead," a rollicking story about a zombie football team, will be published in May by Pocket Books.

"I read the first draft and I gave him some notes," Sandra Brown says. "Some pretty extensive notes." She says she's proud of the final result.

The topic shifts to the Internet. She blogs these days, at the behest of her publisher, who now would also like her to join Twitter.

"They want me to tweet. I said, 'Tweet? What's tweet?' Honestly, the Internet is the Antichrist," she says. "It's just a blue whale of consumption of time." Then her head swivels toward the window.

"Oh, the bats!" she squeals as a thick ribbon of bats streams out from under the Ann W. Richards Congress Avenue bridge, a perfect bit of choreography to cap the cocktail hour. "I looooove the bats." Of course she does. She's one of us.

handers@statesman.com; 912-2590