|A Moment of Jen|
posted by Jen at 8/31/2010 12:41:00 PM
I can remember – I bet lots of fans can – the day I discovered Jenny Crusie.
I was a single girl at the time, a working reporter and wannabe novelist with a manuscript languishing under my bed. One night, I was browsing in the bookstore, when a candy-colored cover caught my eye, along with the title TELL ME LIES.
I think it took me about a page and a half of reading about Maddie Faraday’s perfect life fall apart (she finds strange panties underneath her husband’s driver’s seat, and things go downhill from there) before deciding that this was a book for me. I added it to my stack and brought it back to my single-girl lair in Philadelphia.
Let me tell you: that book was Hot with a capital H. It was steamy. It was sexy. It was funny! It was feminist. It was, in a word, wonderful…but, beyond just keeping me entertained and laughing, that book made me believe that there might be a place in the world for the kind of story I’d started thinking about telling.
If a smart cookie like Jenny Crusie could write brilliantly entertaining books starring sassy, spunky heroines who lived out their girl-power beliefs instead of being cardboard cutouts upon which their creator could scribble her views, maybe there was a place in the world for the characters whose voices had starting filling my head.
Fast-forward to 2001, I was a newbie author, on book tour with the story that had become GOOD IN BED. The tour had been predictably disheartening. There were bookstore visits where nobody showed up, and bookstore visits where the audience consisted of two whey-faced, terrified-looking women who trembled their way to the podium and whispered, “Your mother said she’d kill us if we didn’t come, so can you please tell her we were here?” I lost my luggage, missed deadlines on the columns I was still trying to write for my day job, heard my name mispronounced more times and more ways than I could count. Once, I showed up to a bookstore to sign stock, and was met with blank looks and a twenty-minute wait, after which the too-cool-for-school clerk heaved a weary sigh and handed me a stack of copies of WHEN BAD THINGS HAPPEN TO GOOD PEOPLE (which, ironically, I could have used at that point, but felt reluctant to sign). I was homesick and road-weary…and I was terrified of teaming up with an established author of Jenny Crusie’s caliber.
What if she’s awful? (some authors are). What if she doesn’t want to be bothered with a first-time writer nobody’s heard of (a completely understandable response?) What if…what if…?
Well. Jenny was lovely. Beyond lovely. She was generous, welcoming, full of encouragement and great advice. She showed me how to laugh at the indignities of book tour, told me stories about her own life as a writing and became, for that day, my new BFF (I think she had to actually pry my nails out of her flesh when it was time for us to go).
At one point during the day, we did a radio interview together. The host asked us each to describe our books, then said something to the effect of, “Isn’t it strange to be sitting down with your competition?”
Jenny and I said almost the exact same thing at the exact same time: we aren’t each other’s competition. Women writers are never each other’s competition. If someone loves my books, she’ll probably love Jenny’s, and vice versa…and probably each of us would happily tell you about ten other women whose work we love.
Along those lines, I am so excited to be spreading the word about Jenny’s first solo effort in six years, the brilliant, warm, funny, completely engrossing MAYBE THIS TIME.
MAYBE THIS TIME is classic Crusie. There’s the heroine, Andromeda “Andie” Miller, a strong-willed, singular, brainy babe who lives and breathes on the page. There’s North, her guy not taken, a hot, handsome attorney who was briefly her husband, and who never stopped loving her. When North convinces Andie to move out to the middle of nowhere, Ohio, and care for his orphaned niece and nephew, Andie quickly realizes that there’s strange doings in Archer House.
The housekeeper, with her aggressive attitude and persistent smell of peppermint schnapps, is an underminer. The little boy might be a pyromaniac. Andie’s engaged to a great guy who’s not the right guy for her, and her wifty New-Age mom keeps trying to talk tarot . Meanwhile, she’s tormented by strange, arousing dreams about her ex-husband of ten years. And that’s even before she starts seeing ghosts…
MAYBE THIS TIME has a colorful cast of supporting characters (just wait until you meet Isolde Hammersmith, potty-mouthed medium, and Kelly O’Keefe, a TV reporter who’s too ambitious, and too toothy, for her own good ). There’s two prickly, heartsore little kids, and a deceased young woman who might not be as dead as she should be.
It’s a story about love and obligation; about how your family isn’t just who you birth, but what you build. It’s about the way the past tugs at us and ties us down, and how passion and courage can set us free. There is, of course, a species of happy endings, but Jenny Crusie’s happy endings are never trite or predictable. Instead, they feel as real as the women who populate her books.
And now, without further ado, Jennifer Crusie on MAYBE THIS TIME!
* * * * *Stephen King once wrote that every horror writer is obligated to write his or her own version of the haunted-house story (or haunted apartment building, in Rosemary’s Baby, or haunted hotel, in The Shining). But you’re more known for your hilarious romances than the supernatural. What made you decide to write a ghost story?
It was Henry James’s fault. I loved The Turn of the Screw, taught it over and over again, but I always wanted to give his governess a name and a second chance. So in the back of my mind, there was this nagging idea that I should do my version of the story, not because James’s version isn’t wonderful, but because I wanted a crack at it. I was fixated on the governess, but you get the ghosts as a package deal so about a quarter of the way through, I thought, Oh, damn, now I have to write ghosts, and went for it.
Andie struck me as a classic Crusie heroine – smart, hard-headed, good-hearted, outwardly sensible with the secret, yearning heart of a romantic inside. Is she the kind of character you would have written ten years ago? How is she different than Maddie in TELL ME LIES or Sophie in WELCOME TO TEMPTATION? How is she the same?
I think all my heroines share the same value system, but after that, they all get to where they’re going for different reasons. Maddie wanted to preserve her way of life, Sophie wanted to avoid rejection, Andie wants to run away every time she gets close to emotional involvement. None of them says, “Oh, goody, change, just what I wanted,” none of them wants the conflict or goes into willingly. What makes them go into battle is a threat to somebody they love which, I have just realized typing this, is a child or children in all three cases. Huh. I am so not a kid-writer. But Maddie’s going to protect her daughter, Sophie goes to the wall for her sister Amy (who, let’s face it, is emotionally about twelve), and Andie can’t walk away from Carter and Alice. That’s pretty much a staple in Gothics, the isolated child who needs protected, so it’s no surprise it showed up in Maybe This Time, but I am surprised about the others. Kids. Who knew?
MAYBE THIS TIME is your first solo outing in six years. I’m curious as to how you wound up co-writing books, and what made you decide to write by yourself again.
Menopause. It knocked out that part of my brain that told stories, or at least the part that let me hear the voices talking in my head. They just weren’t THERE any more, and that really threw me for a loop. It’s not like I make this stuff up. Then I was teaching at the Maui Writers Conference and seriously considering leaping into the Pacific, when Bob Mayer handed me a glass of white wine and said, “We should collaborate.” I thought, He’s written thirty books, he can probably get me to the end of one, and I said, “You bet.” The big surprise was that I loved collaborating and I want to do more. It pushes me in different directions and I learn so much. But after five years, I wanted a book of my own again, and the my-version-of-The-Turn-of-the-Screw idea was still at the back of my mind, and then one day I could hear Andie’s voice in my head, and I wrote the first scene as a parallel to the governess’s scene with the guardian, and I was off again. I have six solo books I want to do, but there are also two more collaborations I want to do. They’re just different options at the buffet that is fiction.
Readers always want to hear the story of how I got started. Tell us how you wrote, and published, your first book.
I got divorced. We should do a survey of how many romance writers got started writing because their own love lives pancaked. I started to keep a journal where I wrote down a lot of bitter, vile things, and that wasn’t very satisfying, so I tried to make it more interesting and it began to turn into a murder mystery—I spent a long time on the husband’s body rotting in a closed car in the dead of August—and then I added another a love interest—at that point, it was all fiction—and then real life intervened because I had this little girl to raise on my own, so I put it aside because I was never going to write a book, who was I kidding? Two years later, I was diagnosed with Stage 3 cancer and given six months to live and among the other things, I thought, “And I’ll never write a book.” It wasn’t that I’d had a huge yearning to write a book, it was that now I wasn’t ever going to. The cancer worked out all right, and then a friend wanted to go to the Antioch Writer’s Workshop and talked me into it because she wanted company. Sue Grafton was the headliner, and she looked at my work and said, “Write a romance, they’re easier.” I thought, I don’t even read romance, and wandered off again because I was a single mother in grad school working two jobs and the whole writer thing was never going to happen anyway. But when I was working on my PhD. dissertation, I started reading romance novels as research (the thesis topic was the impact of gender on storytelling) and thought, “I want to write this. I LIKE this.” So I entered a Harlequin novella contest and won (there were 12 winners so it wasn’t that great an accomplishment) and wrote nine romances for HQ and Bantam, and then one day an editor from New York said, “I’d like to publish you in single title,” and I said, “Wait a minute,” and found a fabulous agent and showed her the pieces of my divorce book and she said, “That one,” and after many rejections and revisions, we sold it to Jennifer Enderlin. So when somebody says, “How long does it take you to write a book?” I say, “Tell Me Lies took seventeen years.”
I love your stories about your editor, Jennifer Enderlin – I’ve never met her, but I feel like I know her. Can you tell us a little more about the two of you? How did you meet? How long have you been working together?
Jen Enderlin is a goddess. We met because my agent, Meg Ruley, said, “You know who’d work well with you? Jennifer Enderlin.” I think that’s an aspect of agenting that’s overlooked, that ability to matchmake editor and writer. We’d sent Tell Me Lies out (it was titled Frog Point Wallow then) to nine editors and seven turned it down. The other two offers were really low, but one was from Jen at St. Martin’s. We turned both offers down, but I read all the rejections and went back and looked at the book again and did a major revision. While I was doing that, Jen wrote a note to Meg—handwritten note—that said, “I can’t stop thinking about Jennifer Crusie. Will I ever get the chance to work with her?” Meg showed me the note and I said, “Her. I want to work with an editor who would do that.” We sent her the rewritten book as a pre-empt and she met the price, which was huge for me at the time, and I began to work with her—first change: the title, thank God—and I was captivated by how smart she was. She’s a good reader, she intuitively knows where things aren’t working, but she never says, “Put a dog in here.” She says, “This part drags, I’m not emotionally involved here, I don’t like it when she does this, this scene goes too far and squicks me out.” And then we talk about it. I tell her why I made the moves in the book that I did, she tells me why she felt the way that she did, the discussion opens up the story for me in new ways, and we work together to get what the book needs. It’s such a great partnership. We’ve been working together for fourteen years, but that trust and understanding have been there from the beginning. It makes a huge difference that I’m writing with somebody I know will always be honest with me even when the feedback is discouraging, somebody who works so hard to make our books together better. And when the book is done, she sells the hell out of it; she’s a genius at positioning, marketing, the whole publishing game. Jen Enderlin really is the perfect editor.
Do you have a favorite character in MAYBE THIS TIME? A favorite scene? What was the hardest part of the book to write? Are there any stories behind the story – an unexpected inspiration; a line of dialogue you actually said?
The hardest part was the ghosts. I didn’t want to write a ghost story, but there they were and since I’m firmly in the of-course-the-ghosts-were-real school of Turn of the Screw critics, I had to have ghosts. It wasn’t until I stopped thinking of them as things that went bump in the bedrooms and started thinking of them as people that I finally found my way in. I did a lot of ghost research, but at the end of the day, ghosts are just people who can’t let go. I can sympathize with that; you should see all the stuff in my garage. But my favorite character turned out to be Alice, the little girl. I am so not a kid writer; I’m not even a kid person. I was a public school teacher for fifteen years, I know what evil lurks in those little hearts. But about the time I started to write this, my best friend moved in with me and brought her two little girls, and I remembered why I’d been a teacher: kids are fascinating, little ids running around, staking their claim to the future. I love Alice because nothing ever defeats her; she’s eight years old, she’s lost everybody she’s ever loved, she’s eating a lot of cold cereal in a haunted house, and she’s fighting back with everything she has. She isn’t a pleasant child, but she’s a heroine.
Alice and Carter, the children are remarkable – instead of being two-dimensional cuties, or baddies, there to move the plot along or provide comic relief, they are fully realized, prickly and in pain. How did you get them so right? Are there children in literature you used as models, or look to as great examples of grown-ups writing completely believable kids?
When my best friend showed up on my doorstep with Sweetness and Light, a deeply thoughtful, introspective ten-year-old and a red-rubber-ball extroverted eight-year-old, Alice was born. Sweetness writes and illustrates her own books in the quiet of her bedroom; Light never has an unexpressed thought or a moment when she’s not moving. The two of them together gave me everything I needed for Alice. Carter was harder because boys tend to be even less verbal than Sweetness, but I remembered my brother at that age, quiet and serious and just trying to do what was right without ever talking about it, and I built a lot of Carter on him and drew on Sweetness, too, for the love of comic books, the constant concern about the people he loves. I think it made a huge difference that Sweetness and Light aren’t my kids because I could observe them so clearly. Light set the microwave on fire the other day--she was trying to make soup and put a metal can in there instead of one of the microwavable plastic ones—and her exasperation with us all was so Alice that I almost laughed. Okay, I did laugh. Alice would have had that same the-microwave-betrayed-me look of outrage.
You’re famous for your spicy sex scenes. How do you do it? Whenever I write about sex I literally have to squeeze my eyes shut and imagine a universe in which my mother or my siblings will never ever ever read a copy of my book, and that the books will have ceased to exist by the time my daughters are old enough to read them. Are you similarly inhibited?
Oh, god, sex scenes. I’m writing a first person book right now and I just want to kill myself every time I get to one. It does help that my mother doesn’t read my books. She says she does, but when I was going to give a speech in my home town, and one of the people in the host organization objected because there was oral sex in my books, and my mother found out (my mother who swears she reads every word and loves them all) and said, “You have oral sex in your books?” So yeah, not too worried about my mother reading them. Back to sex scenes. The only way to write them is to remember that they’re like every other scene in the book. There’s a protagonist and an antagonist and they’re in conflict over something and at the end of the scene, the struggle has changed them both and one of them has won. If everything goes beautifully and there’s no conflict, you just write “And then they had great sex,” and move on to the next scene. But the first time people have sex, it changes them and the relationship and they leave that scene different because of the emotional impact of all that risk and nakedness. So you write the characters, not the stereo instructions. And I still would rather write almost anything else. I have noticed that, as I get older, I’m writing more about food than sex. I sent Jen the first half of my current book and it has a sex scene in it, but the thing she mentioned was my protagonist’s lunch: “That was the best description of a cheeseburger I have ever. Read. In. My. Life.” I love my editor.
Tell me a little about your process. Are you an outliner or a seat-of-your-pantser? Do you write in the mornings or the afternoons? Longhand or computer? Do you keep a notebook by your bed to scribble down inspiration when it strikes? How has your process changed as your life has progressed? Any words of encouragement for writers trying to balance novels with toddlers and young children? (It does get easier, right?)
I don’t know how you write with little kids, I really don’t. My daughter has a two-year-old and a one-month old and works full time from home; she’s doing a great job but I know she’s holding on by her fingernails. I started writing when she was sixteen when she could get her own juice and socks, so I have no words of advice at all, just a lot of sympathy and admiration. As for my process, ha. Twenty years doing this and I’m still lurching around. I write all night because I like the night, everything is quieter then. I think I was a vampire in a previous life. A dour vampire, no sparkling. A vampire who sat at the back of the room and made smart remarks. Where was I? Right, my process. It’s completely random and intuitive. A idea wanders in, and one of my neurons looks at it and says, “Maybe if we turned it upside down,” and then the frontal lobe says, “I have other stuff in the attic that might work with that,” and then some music comes on the radio and that gets sucked in, and I’m writing a story about the vampire in the back of the room only by tomorrow it’ll be a witch because vampires are so yesterday and then a dog will show up. I’m pathetic. The real left-brain work goes on in the revision. I revise forever. Well, I have to, otherwise I’d have a vampire, a witch, and a dog making smart remarks at the back of the room and never getting anywhere.
Have you been following the controversy over the praise and attention lavished on Jonathan Franzen for his new novel, FREEDOM? Are you planning on reading the book? Do you think there’s a difference between the way women’s stories and men’s stories are perceived, and reviewed? Do you think things are getting better?
I’ve had my knife out for Franzen ever since he dissed Oprah viewers as Not His Kind, so no, I won’t be reading his book since he made it very clear he didn’t want me (“Hi, I’m from the Midwest, I’m female, and I wear a lot of knits!”). I haven’t read the reviews, but didn’t somebody call it the best book of the twenty-first century? Making the next ninety years irrelevant? That’s fanboy stuff—“BEST BOOK EVAH!”—so I’m not paying much attention, but it appears to be part and parcel of the whole Literary Group Think, something I got more than my share of doing an MFA in fiction. One of my profs said, “Jenny, you write so well. Have you ever thought about writing literature?” I said, “No,” because it was easier than explaining that literary fiction is just another genre, not God’s Library. The people who say, “I write for the canon” have forgotten or never knew that the canon doesn’t read. People read. Fiction is not beautiful writing although that’s wonderful; fiction is storytelling. It’s putting narrative on the page that moves and transforms people, and because there are many, many different kinds of people in the world, there are many, many different kinds of fiction. There’s nothing wrong with The Literary Group—they know what they like when they read it—until they start insisting that what they like is what everybody should like, and refusing to teach anything but literary fiction in creative writing programs and refusing to review anything but their definition of literary fiction in their publications. That’s a mistake: I think they’ve marginalized themselves and are becoming more and more irrelevant. Jon Stewart sells more books than a rave review in the NYT. Nora Roberts and Stephen King reach more people than Franzen ever will. There’s the real world full of a multitude of readers with a multiplicity of reading tastes, and it’s thriving and alive and interacting on the net, changing and growing and exciting because of its fluidity and passion, and then there’s the New York Times Book Review which is born ceaselessly back into the past by the literary version of the Tea Party who keep moaning that they want their America back, oblivious to the fact that their exclusive white, male America died with Gatsby. I’m much happier being part of the “All right then, I’ll go to hell” bunch. That’s where the party is.
Finally, what’s up next?
Liz Danger. I was working on a fun, secret project with a pal and my character was a mystery writer, so I mocked up her sixteen book backlist complete with covers and blurbs: the Liz Danger Mysteries. My daughter who is also my business partner said, “You have to write the Liz Danger mysteries,” and I said, “Uh huh,” and went back to writing Andie and the ghosts. But the thought stayed with me, and I’d never written a first person novel, and I was intrigued by the idea of a short (four-book) mystery series in which each book was a complete mystery but the four books together made a complete romance novel. And then the voices started and I talked Jen into it (Jen suffers a lot, working with me) and I’m finishing up the first book now. It’s called Lavender’s Blue, to be followed by Rest in Pink, Peaches and Screams, and Yellow Brick Roadkill. They were supposed to be light, frothy romps, but they took a turn for depth and now I don’t know what they are. Crusies, I guess. After that, I want to do two novels set in the same world at the same time that intersect, so that scenes show up in both books, but they read differently because the point of view character is different. One is called Haunting Alice and it’s about Alice at thirty, and the other is called Stealing Nadine, which is about a teenager from Faking It at thirty. And two friends and I are working on a collaboration called Fairy Tale Lies, about what happens after the Happily Ever After. Anne Stuart is writing Cinderella, Lucy March is writing Rapunzel, and I’m taking Red Riding Hood. I think there’s a lot of unexplored rage in Red Riding Hood and I want to explore it. Plus, wolves. Wolves are always good. So nothing but good times ahead.
* * * * *
Regular readers, you know the drill. Pick up a copy of Jennifer Crusie's MAYBE THIS TIME today. Send your receipt to firstname.lastname@example.org. Twenty lucky winners, drawn randomly out of a hat, will get their choice of any one of my books, signed however you want it.
Good luck, and happy reading! | #