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The Savage Heart

Diana Palmer's The Savage Heart wraps up Ballantine's launch of their petite hardcovers, and the entire industry will watch the little books' successes, perhaps making decisions on whether to follow Ballantine's lead. Is this pressure getting to Diana? On the contrary. "It is the biggest thrill of my life!" she laughs.

This year holds special meaning for Diana (aka Susan Kyle). While seeing her first hardcover published is exciting for her, in fact it's her 25th wedding anniversary that makes 1997 perhaps the best one yet.

"Jimmy almost died last year," Diana reveals. "He has artificial heart valves, and one failed. The doctors told me he probably wouldn't make it.

"While I was waiting in the hospital, one of the doors to the emergency room opened, then the other, then both closed slowly. No one was near them. My sister-in-law turned and said, 'There goes Jimmy's guardian angel on the way to him. He's going to make it.' She was right. He made it."

Another source of joy for Diana is the beginning of her master's studies in history at California State University.

When Diana turned 44, she decided to go to college. "I felt inferior," she discloses. "Everyone I knew who wrote historicals was more educated than me."

She need not feel inferior any more. She recently graduated with a Bachelors in history, Summa Cum Laude, from Piedmont College in Georgia and is now continuing her higher education at CSU.

Diana's career began not long after her marriage. She and good friend Jayne Ann Krentz both wrote for the old McFadden line in the late '70s, before both moved on to successful stints at Harlequin/Silhouette. Her style of writing has always been emotional, with the background research so seamlessly woven into the plot that many readers assume she lives in the West or Texas, where many of her books are set.

Actually, she's thoroughly Southern in the way a fellow Southerner immediately recognizes: eccentric but cultured, passionate and intelligent. Imagine Louisa from "Steel Magnolias" with her floppy gardening hat, Southern flair and inflexible independence managing Babe's (the title pig of movie-fame) farm, and you might have a handle on what Diana Palmer is like.

She's also a great story teller. To make a point she tells a story about someone she knew to get her argument understood, yet another Southern tradition. The characters are larger than life, warm and funny mavericks changing the world around her-like her mother, who outranked her father in the Navy during World War II and once worked as a photojournalist. Or her mentor, Amilee Graves, who was the mayor of Clarkesville, Georgia, three times, the last time without running. She won with an overwhelming write-in vote, and also ran a mostly female-staffed weekly newspaper.

In keeping with her colorful persona, Diana's pets resemble the identity-challenged critters in "Babe." She is the proud den mother of four iguanas, three dogs, four cats and an emu named George. After spending his puppyhood with cats, the chow thinks he's a cat, twining around Diana's legs, his growls mimicking purring. The poodle has a crush on the duck, convinced he is a cute, cuddly, fluffy dog. Donald the Duck had to be isolated for his own protection. And the 3H-month-old, four-foot-tall George (the emu) is convinced he's a dog. "Unfortunately, the oldest dog, Moose, has taught George how to

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