Rian: First off, what made you decide to start writing in the chick lit genre? Did you set out to join it or did you just sort of fall into it?
Stephanie: When I was looking for an agent for my first novel, I’d never heard the term chick lit and I don’t think people were using it yet. But the agent who took me on knew publishers were looking for BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY type books, so she pitched it along those lines.
Rian: I absolutely love your writing style. How did you develop it? When did you decide you wanted to be a full-time writer?
Stephanie: Thank you! Well, let’s see. Do you want the long version? I can remember deciding to be a writer when I was twelve. I had to be published in American Girl or Seventeen. (Never happened.) My mother always said I preferred to tell her important things (like when I was angry with her) in a note. I also modeled myself after my father, who was very quiet. Like him, I was a listener and observer. In other words, I was pathologically shy.
At U.C. Berkeley (to continue the long version) I got into a class with Leonard Michaels, a New York writer who was known for his novel THE MEN’S CLUB. He was a really inspiring teacher. He taught me a lot about not wasting words and crafting sentences. I started my first novel after taking that class. I used that novel to apply to the NYU graduate writing program and wrote my second novel after finishing there. (Those two novels never got published.) But my real education took place in the following ten or so years I spent playwriting. I’d always loved theater and my husband, who I met at NYU, was writing plays. I loved that Off Off Broadway world. I joined a theater group where I’d bring scenes and hear actors read the parts. That’s where I learned about dramatic structure and conflict. I learned from having my scenes critiqued, but I also learned by listening to other people’s scenes being critiqued, and feeling more and more confidence in the way I was reacting to other people’s work. After awhile I realized that my opinion was just as “legitimate” a response as everyone else’s. Eventually this led to me getting better at critiquing my own work. Though, I might add, I’m still incredibly dependent on other readers to give me feedback.
My first two “practice” novels were very autobiographical. I couldn’t transform my own material into fictional stories yet. I was too bound by “what had really happened.” It wasn’t until after years of writing plays and thinking about how to bring everything to a climax that I was able to fictionalize. In plays, you constantly have to have your eye on conflict and rising action. That definitely influenced my novel writing. In real life, most of us like to avoid confrontation if possible. But we turn to stories to experience it, so it’s important, as a writer, not to avoid the conflict but to go for it.
After getting disgusted with the theater world (it’s too hard to get a production!) I decided to write a novel again. By then, I’d gotten into writing dialogue so much, I wasn’t sure if I could do the prose part again. I told myself it was okay if I just wrote dialogue and filled in the rest later. I still wonder if I’m too dependent on dialogue, and I still think very much in terms of scenes and confrontation, but I try to tell myself, well, that’s my style!
Rian: I found your book THOUGHTS WHILE HAVING SEX to be very touching. It’s about 25-year old Jennifer Ward who is afraid to open up because of her sister’s suicide. Where did you get the idea for that story line and those character(s)?
Stephanie: The seed of Jennifer’s story is my relationship with my sister. My sister had Hodgkin’s disease when she was 13 and the doctors had told my parents that she had no chance to live. She had an intense course of full-body chemo and radiation that was experimental at the time, and she did survive. But that year was incredibly traumatic for the whole family. My sister died in her 30s when cancer returned. (They say as a result of all that radiation.)
In the novel (and the play) I changed it from cancer to suicide because at the heart of that story is Jennifer’s “survival guilt” and also her need to punish herself. Jennifer felt the sister’s death was partially her fault. And it’s easier to understand that in terms of suicide rather than cancer.
I got the idea for THOUGHTS WHILE HAVING SEX after having been obsessed, for years, with writing about my relationship with my sister. I had written a play about two sisters and it did have a small production, but I was feeling frustrated with the theater world by then. Couldn’t get past the Off Off Broadway level. That’s when my thoughts turned to novel writing again, and I figured, why not write a novel about the production of a play about two sisters? Then I got the idea of the playwright getting emotionally involved with the actress playing the sister. And of course the playwright had to fall in love with the director. Added bonus: I could use the play I already had, so “half” of it was written already, so it would be “easy!” It ended up taking three years to write and hardly any of the original play ended up in the novel.
Rian: When you are writing your novels, are your plots pretty much all set from the beginning and then you write it, or does the story kind of take on a life of its own after you introduce the characters and their situations?
Stephanie: For THOUGHTS WHILE HAVING SEX I had no outline, but I had that general structure in place because I knew the story would center around the production of the play, and I basically knew how I wanted the relationship triangle to operate. But I had more time to write that novel (infinity) and had the luxury of being able to (obsessively) rewrite over and over. Now my publishers ask for an outline and there’s pressure to write one book a year. I used to scoff at the idea of an outline, but I wrote a fairly detailed one for ARE YOU IN THE MOOD?, and I’m actually pretty amazed at how much I used it, and how that helped me write the book without spending a lot of time rewriting scenes that ended up in the garbage. For my third novel, THE ART OF UNDRESSING, I had an extremely and perhaps excessively detailed outline. I ended up adding some key characters and subplots that weren’t in the excessively detailed outline, and they vastly improved the book, so you never know.
Rian: I find it fascinating that your books are so touching and meaningful, yet the covers of the books lend the illusion that they are anything but. What are your feelings on that?
Stephanie: Thank you for the compliment! Yeah, I have mixed feelings about the covers. On the one hand, I feel grateful that “chicklit” gives the publishing industry a way to market the books, and the candy covers are a big part of that. I’m told the chains really want these covers, and, well, hey, this is a business, and authors are not necessarily the best judge of “what will sell.” Plus, in general, I do like the cute covers!
But I do worry that readers will feel misled and then hold it against me. Or that people who might have been interested don’t pick it up. ARE YOU IN THE MOOD? is not just about an actress who has a baby and then tries to escape her marriage with a fantasy affair. It’s about a very ambitious woman who faces failure in her career and is really depressed about it. It’s about a woman who idolizes her dead father so much, she has trouble having real intimacy with the man who becomes her husband. But maybe if all that was clear on the cover, it would drive away people who are looking for a fun beach read. (Hmmm, am I driving people away right now?)
I’ve always worried that people might have bought THOUGHTS WHILE HAVING SEX thinking it was erotica — and been sadly disappointed. The original title was STAGESTRUCK, but I was told that was too Young Adult. I really don’t want to sound ungrateful to Kensington, because I will always be thankful to them for publishing my first novel. But I really didn’t like the blurb they put on it, which is: Sometimes finding great sex in the city is a no-brainer. This is completely antithetical to the book, which is about a character who is anxious about sex, avoids it, and thinks morbid thoughts about her sister while she’s trying to have it. (Yes, I’m afraid those are the “thoughts” referred to in the title This bothers me particularly because I really wanted the book to reach people who find sex a challenge and feel distressed because it seems to be a “no-brainer” for everyone else! I think these key readers might’ve looked at that cover and just felt distressed.
I’m sure it’s also true that readers who wouldn’t have noticed my book did find me, and with luck they liked the book enough to forgive me for the cover. I wish readers knew that authors have little or no say in the cover copy and cover art for their books.
Rian: Now for the question that I ask everyone: What are your thoughts on people that put chick lit down as a genre? Any particular feelings on it?
Stephanie: It’s frustrating when people put down an entire “category” of books. Each novel should stand on its own. Unfortunately, the fact that chicklits are all written by women makes them an easy target. That’s why it distresses me most when other women put them down. But really, it’s a marketing term and shouldn’t be thought of as anything other than that. It’s a way for agents to position a book for publishers and for publishers to get bookstores to want to stock it. Many editors would love to publish more “literary fiction” but they can’t because the chains don’t see enough demand for them, so they don’t want to give up the shelf space. Maybe they should just start putting pink covers on literary books. Maybe every book in the store should have a pink cover.
I might add one great thing about chick lit is it’s very democratic. You don’t need to have gone to Harvard or Yale. You don’t have to be famous or be the child of a famous person to get published. You can be rich, poor, live in the city or the country or the suburbs. You could be absolutely anyone. (Except a guy!)
Rian: What is your absolute favorite book(s) of all time, and why? (Chick lit or otherwise).
Stephanie: Well, this could be a very long list. Hmmm. You know what’s coming to mind? One of my very favorite books is SEVENTEENTH SUMMER by Maureen Daly. A totally wonderful story about first love. Reading this book is actually better than being in love. It’s a classic young adult novel. I think it was published in the early 40s, and it takes place in Wisconsin. I have a thing for vintage young adult novels by authors like Rosamund Du Jardin, Amelia Elizabeth Walden, and Betty Cavanna. I went through an ebay addiction and bought every one I could find. Also, there was a series called “Career Romances for Young Moderns” and each one featured a woman in her 20s pursuing a different career. Current chick lit novels have a definite similarity. And these books — which are from the late 50s, early 60s — have the original cute “chick lit” covers by the way!
Rian: I see from the short author biography on the back of ARE YOU IN THE MOOD that you have written some Off-Broadway plays yourself. What kind of plays have you written, and do you still write them?
Stephanie: My plays are a lot like my novels. Humorous but with serious underpinnings. I’ve had to give up my playwrighting now that I’m under deadline stress all the time, but I miss it! Going to my theater group was half my social life. Novel writing is lonely. I may have to go back to it just to get away from myself for awhile.
Rian: Your first book was about a woman dealing with intimacy issues and guilt, and your second book about a new mother who is unsure that she made the right life decision. I hear you have a third book coming out next year. Tell us what it’s about.
Stephanie: My third book THE ART OF UNDRESSING is about the 25-year-old daughter of an ex-stripper. She feels overwhelmed by her mother’s sexuality and unable to compete. Writing that book gave me another way to think about sex and intimacy issues. I find it fascinating how the sexual confidence we’re all expected to have nowadays can be so empowering, yet it can also be another way to fail. There’s so much pressure to come off like we’re having great sex all the time. But humans are, after all, emotional beings, and for some people it’s not easy. And I really feel the need to give voice to that.
Rian: What kind of advice, if any, would you give to someone who wants to become a full-time writer?
Stephanie: Don’t give up! It took me forever to get published. I always felt like I was “the one who nothing good would ever happen to.” That’s part of what I wanted to explore in ARE YOU IN THE MOOD? Camille, an actress, is struggling with frustrated ambition and disappointment. She doesn’t know whether to give up or not. After she thinks she can give up, she finds out that makes her even more unhappy. In the end, it’s the process that’s important. The learning how. The interaction with other people. Having “success” really doesn’t make you “happy.” Life is so imperfect, and there’s always something to complain about – like having a cover that misrepresents your book! But the important thing is to keep doing it and saying what you want to say.
Oh, I have to say one other important thing. Always let your first draft be really, really bad. Don’t show it to anyone. Don’t censor yourself. Just get it out. And let it be bad. Because then it exists. And then you can make it better.