Shanna Swendson

Photograph by Julian Noel

Rian: First let me tell you that I loved your book Enchanted Inc. What made you decide to choose NYC as the setting for this book?

Shanna: I’m so glad you enjoyed the book! This one has been really special to me, so the positive response to it has been quite heartwarming.

It’s funny, when I first started trying to write chick lit, I wanted to write about places other than New York. New York chicks seem to me to have it easy when it comes to dating and meeting men because there are all those opportunities to run into new people every day. But in a place like Dallas, where you drive everywhere and can go for days or even weeks without ever encountering someone new, there are an entirely different set of challenges that should be explored in fiction.

When I came up with the idea for “Enchanted, Inc.,” though, I couldn’t imagine setting it anywhere other than New York. New York seems like the kind of place where you might be able to believe in magic. There’s something different or unusual around every corner, and there’s a certain energy in the air. Dallas, on the other hand, has to be one of the least magical places in the world. It’s also not a place where weird things could just slide by without anyone paying attention. Southerners are all up in everyone else’s business. If we saw someone wearing wings, we’d ask what the deal was. I’m always amazed at the things I see in New York that everyone else acts like they don’t even notice.

I still want to deal with the issues of living in a city unlike New York in a book, but it will have to be a book without magic in it.

Rian: You managed to keep the story realistic while filling it with magical characters and situations. How on earth did you do that?

Shanna: I’ve always felt that the appeal of chick lit was the blend of reality and fantasy (in the wish-fulfillment sense). The view of dating and romance is, for the most part, far more realistic than you’d find in a romance novel. Chick lit acknowledges how difficult it can be to meet Mr. Right in the first place, how painful and awkward dating can be. But at the same time, there’s enough fantasy in there to make it fun to live vicariously through the characters. I’m not brave enough to ditch my whole life and move to New York or London, but when I’m reading a chick lit book, I can temporarily experience life as a New York or London career girl (who’s probably living a somewhat better and more interesting life than I would if I did move there).

When I started writing “Enchanted, Inc.,” there had been no chick lit with any kinds of paranormal elements published. I wasn’t sure how well the idea would be accepted (in fact, I was planning at the time to market it as a fantasy novel). I figured that my only chance of having this book accepted as a chick lit was to keep that balance of realism and fantasy. If my fantasy was going to go so far as to have actual magic in it, my realism had to be that much more realistic in order to ground the story. I couldn’t have my heroine living a fabulously unrealistic “Friends” or “Sex and the City” New York life and throw magic into the mix.

I did a fair amount of research and drew upon personal experiences. I guess I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of being a young career woman in New York and have been absorbing this information over the years. When I was in college, there was a group of four girls I knew who were planning to take the big leap of moving to New York after graduation. They were talking about whether they could afford a two-bedroom apartment, or if they’d have to get a one-bedroom and a sofa bed. They were looking for any and all jobs they could find, just to get their feet in the door. While I was writing for Silhouette, I was always listening to my editor’s stories about what it was like to live in New York — things like how she went grocery shopping, how she walked to and from work unless the weather was really nasty. I used to work for a major public relations agency that had an office in New York, and when I worked on multi-office teams I was always hearing war stories about life in New York from the New York staff. They’d talk about sharing a tiny apartment with several other people, how they went out all the time because their apartments were so small, crowded and depressing that they used the city as their living rooms. Once when I was in New York for a trade show, I got dragged out on the town by some of the New York office people, which gave me a non-tourist perspective on the city. That same trip, I also got together with some friends from college who were in the city, and I got a sense of their lives. I had all this information in the back of my head long before I started writing the book, and it all came back to me once I started plotting this book.

Then when I was seriously preparing to write the book, I took a trip to New York just to do research. I walked around all the places where my characters might go, rode those specific subway routes at rush hour, ate in the kinds of restaurants I thought they’d go to — and the whole time I was trying to see everything through my heroine’s eyes. The hotel where I stay in New York is in an old tenement building, where the buildings on either side are apartments. That gives me a sense of what it’s like to live in one of those buildings (and depending on which way my room faces, I can usually look across the air shaft and straight into someone’s apartment). I researched apartments and rents and worked out a theoretical budget for my heroine, based on the salary she would likely have, the rent she’d be paying, and her other likely expenses. For little questions that came up along the way as I wrote, I have a good friend, romance author Barbara Daly, who lives in Greenwich Village, and she was great about checking things out for me to verify details while she was out walking her dog.

As for the work stuff, well, I’ve done my time in corporate America! I also read a lot of books about office politics.

I threw in a number of pop-culture references to ground the story in our reality. I wanted to give people the sense that these things might really be happening right under their noses in our world, not in some alternate reality.

Rian: When coming up with your characters, did you base any of them on people you know at all? Why or why not?

Shanna: There are two characters based on people I actually know. I have worked for “Gregor” and “Mimi” in the past. Gregor is very specifically based on an actual person (well, except for the turning green and growing fangs part) who shall remain nameless because I don’t want him to sue me. Mimi is a composite of all the bad qualities of all the really obnoxious bosses, clients and co-workers I’ve had. I have had former co-workers e-mail me and ask if she’s based on a certain person we worked with.

I got the idea for the group of girls from Texas who decided to move to New York right out of school because if they didn’t do it then, they probably never would from those girls I knew in school, but I didn’t base any of the characters on them specifically (I don’t even remember enough about them as individuals to base characters on them).

Katie tends to see the world the way I see it, but I don’t think she’s really based on me. There are too many fundamental differences.

All the other characters are totally made up. I may have drawn bits and pieces from people I know, but I wasn’t consciously basing characters on anyone. With this book, most of the characters just sprang to life in my head, practically fully formed. I knew them as well as I know some of my friends, right from the beginning. It was almost scary! Most of the time when I write, I do all this detailed character development trying to figure out who my characters are, but my initial notes for this book had maybe one or two sentences written for each character, yet they’re some of the most vivid characters I’ve ever created. They continue living in my head between books, and sometimes they drive me nuts. Owen may be the nicest, most shy guy in the world in the books, but he’s got a bad habit of waking me up in the middle of the night to tell me yet another aspect of his life story. (And if that character was based on someone I knew in real life, I doubt I’d still be single!)

Rian: Do you have any sequels planned, or any other upcoming books?

Shanna: The sequel, “Once Upon Stilettos,” is already written and scheduled for release May 30, 2006. I just wrote a proposal for a third book, so keep your fingers crossed! Right now, I have a total of five books mentally mapped out, but I keep coming up with ideas, so it’s possible I could extend the series even longer if it keeps selling.

I’m starting to put together some proposals for other books because as much as I love this series, I don’t want it to be the only thing I do, but there’s nothing definite yet.

Rian: What is your favorite genres and books to read?

Shanna: These days, most of what I read is chick lit. That genre has just what I want, with humor and a dash of romance. I tend to gravitate toward British chick lit — authors like Wendy Holden, Jenny Colgan and Elizabeth Young. The British authors have a way of writing underdog heroines I can really identify with. Those were the authors I was reading before chick lit really hit the US, back when I bought books as “souvenirs” when I visited England. I still love that basic, traditional, frothy, fun chick lit style.

I used to be a big fantasy reader, but so much of fantasy can be pretty grim and dark, and that’s not what I want to read right now (one reason I wrote a light, fun fantasy). I’d like to see more contemporary fantasy, things more along the lines of the Harry Potter series, but perhaps more adult in nature. I read a fair amount of science fiction and mystery. I’ll generally read just about everything except horror (I’m a wimp), but I usually reach for chick lit first, unless I’m in a specific mood for something else. I just spent the holiday weekend wallowing in chick lit, and it was divine! Now, the first cool, rainy day of fall, I’ll probably have to do a mystery fest.

Rian: Where do you think that the chick lit fantasy sub-genre is headed, and why?

Shanna: I honestly have no idea! I’m not really seeing any patterns. Most of what seems to be coming out is more on the paranormal side than on the pure fantasy side, but I don’t know if that’s because of what’s being bought or because of what’s being written. The sub-genre is so new, it’s hard to tell where it’s going. I almost didn’t write “Enchanted, Inc.” because I was afraid there would be no room in the genre for fantasy, but now chick lit with paranormal elements does seem to be pretty hot, and it’s still new enough that there seems to be plenty of room for expansion. These things always seem to go in cycles, though. As a paranoid, insecure writer, I live in fear that it will tank and I’ll be left behind.

Rian: Do you ever honestly wonder if magic, perhaps like the kind in your novel, exists? Why or why not?

Shanna: I’m probably going to totally shatter the illusion here by saying that I don’t think it’s possible. It violates all the laws of physics and conservation of matter and energy and all that. I do think that a gift kind of like what Katie has exists, though. There are people who have the ability to see past illusion, hype and artifice to figure out the truth, and they’ve got a strong enough internal compass to be willing to point out that truth, regardless of what other people think. They’ve got the kind of common sense that isn’t swayed by trends or popularity. It’s a gift that probably isn’t appreciated enough in our culture. Those people are seen as stubborn or negative or insensitive. We’re almost afraid of the idea of truth.

Rian: What would be your advice for someone who wants to write a chick lit fantasy novel?

Shanna: Let your imagination run wild! There are so many opportunities for story ideas. But ground it in reality. I think it’s the reality part that makes a fantasy a chick lit instead of just a contemporary fantasy. It’s important to be able to identify with a chick lit heroine, even if she does have superpowers. You’ve also got to have characters readers can believe in, regardless of what powers or features those characters have. A character with wings has to be just as real as any other character.

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