Rian: First off, I absolutely LOVED The Next Big Thing. Why did you choose to do a book based on a TV Reality show?
Johanna: Thanks, Rian! You know, your review was the first one I got for my book and it really boosted my confidence.
The reality TV theme came pretty naturally to me. I’m a huge fan of the genre (my favorite show is “The Amazing Race” but I watch a ton of them). I think reality shows are so over-the-top and dramatic, which gave me lots of material to work with. I actually “invented” the reality show in my book, “From Fat to Fabulous.” It’s VERY similar to NBC’s “The Biggest Loser,” though to my credit I came up with the idea first My book sold in December 2003 and NBC didn’t announce plans for their show until May 2004.
Rian: I read in your blog about how fast you had to write your novel. (Which I find amazing since it was sooo good!) What is the story behind how you got published, and why you had to write your novel in such a short time?
Johanna: Well, I basically did something really stupid. I decided to start querying agents before I’d finished the book. I’d heard that agents take forever to read your manuscript and get back to you so I thought I’d get a head start. Big mistake. As soon as I sent out queries (I started with about six) I had agents interested. Once I had agents calling, I decided to write the book as quickly as possible. I did it in just a few weeks which was exhilarating, but tough. In a way, though, I’ve always sort of been a “binge writer.” I’m either churning out 5,000+ words a day or I’m not writing at all. And I write much, much better when I’m on a deadline. Querying the agents before the book was finished effectively gave me a deadline. So while it was a risky move, it paid off in my case.
My road to publication was very Cinderella-like. I landed a major agent, who sold my book in less than a week. I always say I was at the right place, at the right time, with the right idea.
Rian: Kat Larson was such a strong character, which I really admire in a main chick lit heroine. Who, if anyone, is she based on? How did you develop her character?
Johanna: To be totally honest, Kat is based loosely on me, which made her very easy to develop. I’ve struggled with my weight all my life, so I had a lot of first-hand experience with the subject. I fictionalized all of the events – the reality show, the zany parents, the Internet man – but I put my real thoughts and feelings in the book. And it was very freeing, very therapeutic to get all of that out of my system! Kat is a bolder, sassier version of me. She says the things I think, but would never have the nerve to say.
Rian: What, if anything, did you find the hardest about writing The Next Big Thing? (Besides the time frame!)
Johanna: The hardest part was to let go of my inhibitions. I kept trying to censor myself as I wrote. At first I didn’t want to delve into personal topics, or discuss anything too embarrassing (like sex or weight) because I was afraid of what my friends and family would think. Nailing the characters was also really tough. I’m a big believer in starting small, and in limiting how many characters you put in a book. I think there’s a real tendency (at least I found this on my first novel) to want to keep adding characters and side plots. I had to make a conscious effort to kind of “reel the story in” and keep it from getting out of control.
Rian: Do you have any other chick lit novels in the works? If so, what are they about?
Johanna: I’ve got a second novel under contract with Berkley, which will be published in early 2006. I can’t say anything about the plot; they’ve put me under a gag order! But it’s very, very high-concept and I can honestly say it’s the most clever idea I’ve ever come up with. I hate that I can’t talk about this book because I absolutely love it! (God, I hope that doesn’t sound conceited
Rian: What do you think of the chick lit genre? What about the people the bash it?
Johanna: What I love most about chick lit is that it’s so REAL. Finally, we have lead characters who we can relate to! It’s great to read these books and realize that you’re not the only one who has lousy dates, or bad break-ups, or self-confidence issues. Plus, the genre is really evolving and growing, which is great!
I don’t really get why people are so anti-chick lit. Unfortunately, I think it’s a gender thing. When men like Nick Hornby or Tom Perrotta write clever, funny “single guy in the city” novels nobody bashes them. On the contrary, they garner praise from The New York Times and Newsweek. But for some reason a lot of reviewers write chick lit off as being shallow and pointless. Take the new Debra Messing movie, “The Wedding Date.” Tons of film critics blasted Elizabeth Young’s chick lit novel, which was the source material for the film. Yet you didn’t hear anyone blaming Carl Hiaasen when “Striptease” tanked.
Rian: Regarding the other characters in your novel, how did you create them, and get into their heads well enough to make them so believable?
Johanna: I had so much fun with these characters! They truly became like real people as I wrote! With Nick, I knew I wanted to have a British guy in the novel because a.) I’m a total Anglophile and b.) I have a major thing for British men. From there, I added Donna, Kat’s best friend. Figuring out the reality show cast was trickier and I tinkered around a lot before I found the right mix. Maggie started off with a huge part and I wound up cutting her in favor of other characters. For example: I originally intended Regan to be a really minor character but I had so much fun writing her that she kept winding up in additional scenes.
Rian: Who are your absolute favorite authors and books, and why?
Johanna: There are so many! I love Jennifer Weiner’s novels, especially “Good in Bed,” which had a huge impact on me personally. I love Lisa Tucker’s books; they always make me cry. Laurie Halse Anderson’s “Speak,” is an incredibly powerful novel for young adults (which I read as an adult and loved). Tom Perrotta’s “Election” is also amazing. A few of my other faves: Sarah Mlynowski, Adriana Trigiani, Nick Hornby, Laurie Notaro, Andrea Seigel, Jennifer Paddock, Sophie Kinsella, and Megan McCafferty.
Rian: What, if anything, have you found to be the most rewarding thing about writing a novel and getting it published? The least rewarding?
Johanna: The most rewarding part is getting paid – and getting paid well – to do something I LOVE. I mean, I probably would have sold my book for a dollar; I just wanted to be published. (But shhh, don’t tell my agent!) The least rewarding thing. Hmm, that’s hard to say. It’s all been incredibly rewarding. I guess the biggest downside is the jealousy. A lot of people will bash your book – even before they’ve read it – because they hate chick lit, or because they’re jealous that you got a publishing deal and they didn’t.
Rian: If someone asked you for advice on how to write a chick lit novel, what would your reply to them be?
Johanna: If you want to do it, I say go for it! My best advice is to finish your book. No matter what happens, finish the book! Don’t try to self-edit as you go along. You can always go back and make it better later. Remember, you can’t revise a blank page.