Rian: Your first book “Wanderlust” was written in emails and correspondence. What is the story behind that novel? What made you decide to write a novel in that format?
Chris: I never set out to be a novelist at all. My background is in film and screenwriting. I had been working as a script development exec for a production company in New York for five years, but I was seriously burnt-out and actually relieved when they decided to move their operations to L.A. I wasn’t out of the job for two weeks when a friend who’d been producing content for a website came to me with an idea for a serial about two travel writers in love. The concept involved delivering episodes of their story directly to subscribers’ email boxes on a daily basis. I really responded to the whole idea of two people trying to balance their attraction to one another with their attachment to their own freedom. It seemed so sophisticated to me and I thought I could have great fun spoofing – and celebrating – the ease of twenty-first century travel too, so I pounced on the opportunity immediately.
Since I had written almost nothing in the five previous years, it was all very heady and liberating. I was given an enormous amount of freedom developing the story, but I chose to write the installments in email form, since that’s how subscribers would be getting the exchanges between the characters. I’m a sucker for a formal challenge, so I actually enjoyed tackling the epistolary device, despite its limitations, and letting the characters speak for themselves.
I also loved the experience of writing something on a weekly deadline. Although I was working from a general outline, I was writing the installments just two weeks ahead of the subscribers, so there was a real sense of pressure along with a good bit of improvisation. Friends, family, and even total strangers, would often send me encouraging emails about the story in progress. It was such a privilege to have people participating in what is usually such a solitary process. It must be how athletes feel when audiences are cheering them on to win.
The serial ran for about six months in 2000. When the start-up company who published it succumbed to the dotcom bust, the rights reverted to me. I whittled the plot down to a more novel-friendly form and sold it to Plume the following year. And that’s how a burnt-out male film development executive pushing middle age becomes a chick lit writer.
Rian: As a guy writing chick lit, I’m curious: how do you manage to get into a woman’s mind so well? What are the methods, if any, that you use?
Chris: I always have to empathize with what my characters are going through, or at least understand it intellectually if it’s really very foreign to me. If I’m not cribbing from my own experiences, I usually rely on friends whose experiences might be closer to my characters’. I might consult them about my characters and what they’re going through, but that’s true whether I’m writing about women, or men. I really don’t think about a character’s gender as much as I do her, or his, emotional state in a certain circumstance.
That’s not to say that I ignore gender differences. Certainly writing for a female audience has made me much more aware of the different ways men and women might approach their experiences emotionally. For instance, in “The Loves of a D-Girl” Lizzie engages in casual sex with two men that she likes, men she has genuine affection for even, but she isn’t in love with them. I don’t know many men who’d feel quite as torn-up and regretful about it as she does. I certainly don’t know any men who would mistake a couple of flings for an out-of-control sexual compulsion, the way Lizzie does, but I do know some women who might conflate the situation that way. So that’s the sort of thing I might run by a few of my women friends before I venture into it.
Writing “Wanderlust” was also a great eye-opener for me because I got to see how differently some readers reacted to the ease with which Kate attracts lovers, especially since she has the nerve to complain about her love luck. To me, that’s comedy, but some readers just didn’t see it that way. The ways in which women compete with each other can fall below men’s radar. It’s much less direct, but no less fierce, and I have to admit, I hadn’t anticipated how much some women might resent Kate when I was writing the book. So there’s been a learning curve for me, too.
Rian: Your latest novel is “The Loves of a D-Girl”. What is a D-girl, and why did you decide to write about one?
Chris: “D-Girl” is a retro term for “Development Girl,” a woman who works in screenplay development. She functions more or less like a script editor. The term comes from the studio era, when women held these jobs almost exclusively. These days, there are lots of men who work in development too, and I happened to be one of them.
When my editor, Trena Keating, suggested that I think about exploring that arena for my second book, I initially balked, largely because I wanted to put my years in script development behind me. It triggered lots of memories, though, and when I recalled some of the crazy things I’d seen and heard in my years in the movie business, a premise was hatched that I could not resist.
Usually people think of development jobs as glamorous and exciting. You get to read for a living, you go to plays and screenings and premieres, you get to meet screenwriters, producers, directors, actors. But it’s also hard, competitive work that can consume your entire life, and the burnout rate can be high. Very often the first casualty of the job is the very passion for movies that got you there in the first place. So I chose to write an unglamorous version of the movie business – the version that I know best.
But I wasn’t really interested in writing a movie business satire, per se. The intrigues, absurdities and excesses of the movie business have been well chronicled and I don’t think the world really needs another one. Instead, I looked around at so many of my friends, women and men, whose youthful inspiration and enthusiasm had been overwhelmed and usurped by their pseudo-creative day jobs and who were all suffering from a sort of post-traumatic dating fatigue. Charting that phase of urban single life, that 30′s slump when you think that your whole life will be like that – and especially the recovery from it – was what really made me want to write the book. It was the story I needed to tell at that point in my life and it was remarkably cathartic.
Rian: What are your feelings on the chick lit genre? Where do you think it is heading now?
Chris: To me chick lit is just romantic comedy with a hipper, post-modern name. That’s how I approach it. It probably won’t come as a surprise, given my background, that my points of reference and inspiration come from old movies and the theater as much as they come from other chick lit books. Noel Coward, Philip Barry, and Billy Wilder are as important to me as Helen Fielding and Marian Keyes.
But I also think that chick lit reflects a huge change in the way women are living their lives and the way they see themselves. Frankly, I’m surprised that it took so long for publishers to address it. For decades now, women have been getting married later and having children later. They have more sexual freedom, more power, more social mobility and they devote much more energy to their careers than their mothers or grandmothers ever did, or could. I think that chick lit addresses this state of things – and all of its complications – in a way that’s totally contemporary.
Chick lit also seems to provide the same sense of optimism that the traditional romance novel has given women in the past, but with a healthy dose of humor and sexual frankness in place of all the tortured bodice-ripping. That’s no small difference, and it will be interesting to see if it ever overtakes the romance market, which does seem terribly quaint and antiquated by comparison. It’s also interesting the way that the genre is splintering to address more specific demographics and their particular issues. That seems to be a sign that it isn’t just a passing fancy, but something that’s definitely here to stay.
Rian: What would you answer to someone who is putting the chick lit genre down?
Chris: Well, I come from the movie business, so for me, any kind of “lit” is a step up! But because I worked in movies I am all too familiar with people who have contempt for writing as entertainment. I just don’t have much patience for that sort of snobbery.
Part of what feeds this disdain, I think, is a general prejudice against stories that follow “formulas”. Boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl kind of stuff, but I’ve always maintained that storytelling forms like these are totally neutral in and of themselves. They’re just vessels. It’s what a writer puts into that vessel that makes it different, that makes it fresh, that makes it effective, and it takes a great control of craft in order to do so. The same is true of mysteries, crime novels, romance novels, horror stories, all the so-called “escapist” forms of literature. They demand an enormous amount of craft, as well as imagination, and I have nothing but respect for craft.
Chick lit is pure pop culture, and there’s always more to pop culture than meets the eye. The entire genre functions as a sort of literary forum for the joys and burdens of all the freedom that women have earned in the last few decades. That doesn’t seem all that slight or superficial to me, though those who miss it, or dismiss it, might be.
Rian: What other books do you have in the works?
Chris: I always have a stockpile of ideas to work on. Luckily, I’ve never experienced that kind of writer’s block. Right now, I am working on a book with a high concept, a mock memoir of a fictional, chameleonic, self-aggrandizing Hollywood actor. It’s an idea I’ve been playing with for a couple of years, and I have finally found the time to flesh it out. It’s great fun, but it comes with some daunting formal challenges, too, since it’s a few hundred pages of an unreliable narrator’s view of Hollywood history since the collapse of the studios.
I’ve also started a screenplay this summer with my friend and screenwriting partner, Alexa Junge, a very funny and gifted writer who worked on Friends and Sex in the City. So I am a very busy writer these days.
Rian: What did you find to be the most difficult thing about writing either of your books, and why?
Chris: “Wanderlust” was tricky because the epistolary form limits your power as a narrator so much. You really have to trust your audience to read between the lines of what the characters are reporting and grasp the subtext of a situation. That the contemporary form of epistolary writing is the brief, quasi-conversational email, and not the formal, extended, literary style of conventional letter writing, made it all the more difficult. As much fun as it was, I don’t know if I’d ever try it again.
Plotting a story always causes me the most amount of anguish, so I am an outline freak, the kind of writer who outlines the outlines for his outline. Searching for the tone and style of a story can also trigger a mild to wild state of panic for me. Once that has been determined, however, and a beginning, middle and end have been charted, and each chapter has been outlined, the rest is just playtime.
Rian: If you had one very important piece of advice to give to potential chick lit writers, what would it be?
Chris: Sorry, I can’t give just one.
There’s a whole world of advice for writers out there: join a workshop, write what you know, write in the same place every day, write at the same time every day, etc, etc. My first piece of advice would be to listen to all of it, take what you need, and discard the rest. Use what works best for you – not other writers. If I tried to write in the same place every day at the same time, it would feel like I’d been sent back to Catholic school. Strict regimens depress me, so I like to mix it up. In fact, I wrote “The Loves of a D-Girl” over a single year in six different cities.
My second bit of advice would be to read “The Loves of a D-Girl.” I know it’s not very modest of me, but I think that the story contains a simple, cautionary lesson for writers and creative people of all stripes. In the book, Lizzie tries to get around paying her dues, but she ends up selling herself out instead, and she pays a much higher price in the long run. Like every creative endeavor, writing demands sacrifice (unless of course you are fortunate enough to be blessed with a trust fund). So learn to go without those creature comforts for a while. Forego the perks and benefits of the nine-to-five life for as long as you can. If that means that you must wait tables, then wait tables you must, but at least you’ll know that you’re doing it in the service of something greater.
Most importantly, don’t ever listen to the people who tell you to find something to “fall back on.” If you dedicate yourself to falling back, you have only one place to go – backwards.
I’m afraid that my final bit of advice is as unoriginal and uninspiring as it is absolutely essential: Get an agent.
Books by Chris Dyer