Melissa Senate

Rian: Your first book, “See Jane Date” was both the first book in the RDI series, and also one of my all-time favorite chick lit books. How did you come to write the first RDI novel? What’s the story behind that novel?

Melissa: I’m so happy that See Jane Date is one of your all-time favorites! That’s some compliment. The story behind the story is this: I was minding by own business, not writing a word, and thinking I should do something fun with the summer of 2000 before A) turning 35 in August and B) starting a full-time graduate school program in English Education in September. Just before that Memorial Day weekend, I received a call from Joan Marlow Golan at Harlequin Books, where I’d worked for ten years as an editor. Harlequin was developing an imprint of trade paperbacks dedicated to “chick lit” and was (then) looking to acquire novels with the voice and tone and sensibility of Ally McBeal meets Bridget Jones Diary meets Sex and the City meets The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing, etc., etc.

Lynda Curnyn, former coworker and (current RDI author), had suggested to Joan that I probably had a novel in me since I was pretty much the stereotypical Red Dress Ink protagonist (a serial dater, an editor, living in the cramped studio apartment in dumpy building in New York City, lots of relatives wondering why I wasn’t married) AND because I was considered a good creative writer. So, I decided to spend the summer of 2000 trying my hand at writing a novel, something I’d never attempted before, despite my degree in creative writing and countless post-college writing courses. I’d always been too chicken, basically. But being free to write in my own voice on a subject so close to my heart? The fear of whatever–failure? Not finishing? Not being able to sustain the length, create a structure . . . I let go of all those worries and just started writing.

I knew I wanted to write very honestly about a young woman struggling to find her place in her world, and with a bit of my own life as a starting point (the bad dates, the broken hearts, the bridesmaid dress collection, the job in publishing, the relatives insisting I was too picky), plus an interesting tidbit I’d read about celebrities such as Bruce Springsteen and Oprah making their employees/friends/relatives sign legal documents forbidding them from ever discussing them in any medium (that’s how Natasha Nutley’s past was born), I wrote and wrote and wrote, crumpling pages here, being proud of pages there, revising, editing, and writing more. By the end of the summer, I had a novel, and I sent it off to Joan, who has been an absolute dream editor since that first phone call. That See Jane Date was the launch book of Red Dress Ink was a combination of timing and luck. It was the right book at the right time.

Rian: You’ve now written 3 published books for RDI. What is it like to work with them and be published by them?

Melissa: Red Dress Ink is the perfect publisher for me. They ask for “women’s fiction with attitude” and whatever that means to me is what I can explore in my work. There are no parameters, no guidelines, no restrictions. The freedom in that is exhilarating and challenging.

As I mentioned above, I love my editor. She understands me as a writer, and her bedside manner is extraordinary. A little picture of executive editor Joan Marlow Golan should appear in the dictionary under NURTURING.

Rian: How did you come up with the idea for “The Solomon Sisters Wise Up”?

Melissa: I wanted (and was encouraged) to write a novel based very loosely on my own experience of getting pregnant two months into a brand-new relationship.

So I created Sarah Solomon and worried with every word that my friends and family would think it was autobiographical when it wasn’t! Anyway, Sarah’s older sister, Ally, developed into a character with too much to say to be sidelined by Sarah’s point of view, as did their half-sister Zoe. So I decided to reshape the novel and give each sister’s story equal weight and then I wrote the book alternating their points of view chapter by chapter. I loved writing multi points of view.

Rian: Why did you choose to continue Eloise’s story from “See Jane Date” into “Whose Wedding is it Anyway?” instead of Jane’s story? Also, do you plan to continue any of the other characters’ stories in a new book? (Like Natasha, for example?)

Melissa: I chose to continue Eloise’s story because I loved her. In chick lit, there’s always the best friend, and the role is sort of pooh-poohed as a standard (like everything else, unfortunately), but without my own best friends, I doubt I would have survived my twenties. Eloise was a great friend to Jane in See Jane Date, and in a few scenes, Eloise’s own story touched me very deeply and I knew I’d want to come back to her one day when the time was right. I don’t plan to give any of the other characters their own books, but I do like the idea of a sequel to See Jane Date that offers all the major players’ points of view, Jane, Amanda, Natasha, Eloise, and even Princess Dana and Aunt Ina!

Rian: Of all the characters in your books, which one are you most like, and why?

Melissa: All of my characters–and I’ll even include the less likeable ones–have pieces of me inside them. I most identify with Jane from See Jane Date because her struggles were very much my own at one stage of my life–right down to the very premise of the novel: When I was twenty-one, my parents pressured me into going on a blind date with the guy who lived next door to my ancient great-aunt in the Bronx so that she wouldn’t kick me out of her will. I went on this date kicking and screaming and ended up having a good time. If only Jane had said yes to going on a blind date with her aunt’s next-door neighbor . . .

Rian: I hear you have a YA novel in the works. What is that about? Do you have any other RDI’s coming out in the future?

Melissa: I’m so excited about my first novel for teens! No title yet, but I do have a publication date of May 2006. It’s about a sixteen-year-old who goes from invisible to It girl at her school. A second young adult novel will follow in 2007. And yes, my fourth novel for Red Dress Ink, The Breakup Club, will be published in January 2006. I’ll also have Red Dress Ink novels out in 2007 and 2008.

Rian: Of your three novels, which was the easiest to write, and which was the hardest, and why?

Melissa: See Jane Date was the easiest because there was absolutely no pressure. I wrote it for me and me alone. I wasn’t under contract when I wrote it. I wasn’t under any pressure to produce. I didn’t have an agent. Nothing was at stake.

The hardest one is the one I’m writing now (and that would have applied to my second and third books if you’d asked the question while I was writing those). Now the pressure comes from everywhere, but it’s mostly in my head.

Rian: You live in Maine but your books are set in New York City. How come? Which do you like better?

Melissa: After I graduated from college I moved to New York City (in 1989) and stayed put for fifteen years. I love New York, love the glittering lights, the amazing sense of opportunity, the ability to walk down the street and suddenly realize that Harrison Ford is about to pass me, the crowds, the sudden quiet and beauty of Central Park, the everything. And I love Maine–I live ten minutes from the city, the ocean, the mountains, a state park, and steps away from hiking trails, grazing horses, and really friendly neighbors. I wish I could live in New York half the week and Maine the other half. But for my two-year-old’s sake, Maine wins full-time.

I set all my books in NYC because I was living there while I conceived and wrote them and because New York is in my blood; my characters are New Yorkers because that’s what I know best. Once Maine creeps its way into my heart (it’s working on it), I’m sure I’ll set a book here too! Before I moved here, my only associations for Maine were L.L. Bean duck boots and Stephen King.

Rian: What is your opinion on the chick lit genre in general and the people who continually put it down?

Melissa: I love chick lit. When I check out the New or Upcoming chick lit book on your terrific website, I’m always struck by what a wide range there is: Pure fun. Serious fun. Edgy. Literary. Deep. Young characters. Not so young. Romantic relationships. Family issues. Friendship. Singlehood. Motherhood. Work. Everything and anything that centers on the experience of being a woman right now. I’ve been brought to tears while reading chick lit, and I’ve laughed my ass off. I’ve smiled with recognition and I’ve been challenged by a new point of view.

As for the naysayers: I could go on and on and on about what’s at the heart of the negativity, but I’d rather just say “to each her own.”

Rian: In closing, if someone asked you for advice on how to publish a chick lit novel they had just written, what would you tell them?

Melissa: First I’d say a big congratulations. Then I’d say: Get that baby out to agents!

View Melissa’s Website