Writers Corner for August, 2004
Michelle Cunah: Chick Lit Crossover?
Michelle Cunnah captured the imaginations of many a reader with the title of her debut novel, 32AA, and while the title and cover were catchy, the book delivered a fun read. She believes her Chick Lit novels are romance hybrids, which I think broadens their appeal and perhaps takes the “scare” out of them for some readers. I enjoyed getting to know Michelle ever-so-slightly at the recent RWA conference, but it was Robin who conducted this Q&A.
I imagine that this author’s living arrangements – she has lived in the U.S. for a number of years but is soon heading back to the U.K. – may help her in reaching American audiences, many of whom at times find the modern English voice perhaps more foreign than the historical English voice. And, ironically enough, as you’ll read below, her books are not yet published in England. Regardless, Michelle’s answers are delightful and honest and fun. Enjoy!
–Laurie Likes Books
32AA was your first book. How did you come to write it? Did you set out to write a Chick Lit novel or was this a case where you wrote a novel and it just happened to fit into the Chick Lit genre?
Hands up, yes, I deliberately set out to write a Chick Lit novel.
I sat down to write 32AA, my first Chick Lit attempt, after many years and many rejection letters for my romance manuscripts (more on that in a bit). At the end of 2001 I was at my most dejected with rejected and had been thinking for a while that it might be a good plan to re-energize my love of writing romantic comedy by taking a different approach.
I absolutely love Chick Lit and romance, and I thought that what I’d really like to try was a crossover story – a Chick Lit romantic comedy, if you like. I wanted to try a humorous, first person voice but still with a strong, romantic feel to the story.
My ultimate guru writing goddess (like for so many other romance and chick lit writers, I know, sigh) is Jane Austen, and I really think that she makes this same crossover. To me her stories are, in brief: a slice of life of a young woman, trouble with quirky, sometimes cranky, sometimes odd family and friends; trouble with her love interest; how she makes her way in her real world and deals with the deck Life dealt her; trouble at work (although in Jane Austen’s case, trouble with difficult relatives of the love interest, or with interfering family members trying to map out the heroine’s life against her will).
And if it was good enough for Goddess Jane, then it was good enough for me
It sounds like you’ve put in your dues…how did you start out and how eventually was 32AA the result?
I began to write as soon as I learned how to put pencil to paper. During my early school years I would create pastiche scripts from favorite movies or stories, and then rope in my friends to take part. My crowning glory, age eleven, was a hybrid of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang meets The Wizard of Oz, with a little Mary Poppins thrown in for good measure (and okay, my little troupe and I sometimes managed to escape math lessons on the pretext of performing our plays for different classes – one of the fringe benefits was escaping math, although don’t tell my kids or try this at home, everyone).
And then, when I was around thirteen or fourteen, I discovered that my grandmother was a secret Mills & Boon (now Harlequin Mills & Boon) addict, and she got me hooked! I ate up her stash very quickly.
Shortly thereafter, I discovered that my high school library had, joy of joys, a Mills & Boon section so I began to eat up their stash, too. One day, as I was leaving, the school librarian stopped me and took away my books. She told me that I had to read some proper ones (I was studying English, French and German literature, for goodness’ sake, so I don’t know why she was so worried about me adding romance to my reading diet).
Also shortly thereafter, inspired by the librarian because although I was a quiet kind of gal, I was also a quietly stubborn one, too, I wrote my first ever short romance story for an English project. It was, I thought, the best thing I’d written to date. My teacher awarded it a B and told me that although it was well written, it was too “women’s magazine.” I smiled, nodded, and quietly promised myself that I would write an improper novel.
But the kernel of the idea that I might possibly, maybe, perhaps, one day become a “real” writer myself hit me after my gran and I went to see a movie adaptation of one of our favorite Mills & Boon writers’ books. It was Leopard in the Snow by Ann Mather. I told my gran there and then that one day I would write a romance for her. (She is still one of my staunchest supporters.)
But then Life happened, as Life is want to do, and I got immersed in studies and work, moved to London, had fun as a broke London singleton, worked in a gay bar, developed other peoples’ vacation snaps, met my future husband, married him, had babies, generally got distracted by Other Stuff, and before I knew it, it was over a decade later!
It wasn’t until my kids were toddlers and had actual bedtimes that I found myself with some freedom in the evenings. I had more time to read (romances, of course) and found myself thinking of my earlier desire to write. And so I began writing my first-ever short series romance – a truly horrible, self-indulgent coming-of-age story based entirely on…me, of course, and my imagined coming-of-age story (with history rewritten to depict me as a gorgeous, popular, zit-free model, instead of a nerd ).
I sent it off to Mills & Boon and eagerly awaited their call. Naturally, they would be breaking down my door to get their hands on my masterpiece work of genius! Weeks passed, they didn’t call, they didn’t write, and I was due to go on vacation. I panicked. What if M&B tried to call me and, gasp, I Wasn’t There? So I called and spoke to a very nice yet bemused editorial assistant and explained my predicament. She assured me I hadn’t been forgotten…and a few days later I received my first rejection letter.
Years of submissions to Mills & Boon, years of rejection letters ensued (eighteen or nineteen – or was it twenty stories – I forget) and this is where I have to confess that I was writing for ten years before I wrote and sold 32AA.
As to how I came to write 32AA, I explained a little of that in my earlier answer. I was truly at my lowest ebb in the fall of 2001 and was toying with the idea of trying something different. Although I’d been writing, I hadn’t submitted anything for a few years. As a New Year’s challenge my husband (also one of my staunchest supporters) threw down the gauntlet and dared me to have one last attempt before throwing in the towel. And, to be honest, I’d been writing for so long that it was really a case of either (a) pursue a completely different career as a laundry specialist (I have teenagers therefore am a laundry expert), or (b) keep going. I kind of had to keep going at that stage – it would be just too embarrassing to admit failure after ten years.
At around the same time, while watching a shopping channel in the wee hours of the morning when everything is “must have” and your life will not be complete without it (especially those laundry products that promise to remove every stain known to teenagers), I saw this amazing infomercial for breast-enhancing pills. I was completely entranced. It was just like Rogaine, except boob-inducing rather than hair-inducing. And so the idea for 32AA was born!
I got to work on the first draft, and in July 2002 I signed with my agent. She gave me some great revisions advice, and in October 2002 we had two interested publishers. On Halloween of that year (good job I’m not superstitious) 32AA went to auction, and by the next day I had a three-book deal with Avon.
One thing I liked about the book is the way you manage to show what is happening objectively in spite of the story being told in the first person. We hear Emma’s voice and her opinions but sometimes the reader can see where she may be misjudging things, as her assessment of her disastrous boyfriend Adam. How do you do that?
Aw, thank you, Robin.
Initially I thought that I would have a hard time switching from third person, multiple points of view where I could show the thoughts of the other characters in relation to the main protagonist. But writing in present tense, diary format, which lends itself to a chatty, personal style also means that I have the advantage of really living in the head of my main protagonist, and writing her thought processes onto the page as if they are just occurring to her at that precise moment. And one thing that I think we all do on occasion is to have that small, niggling doubt, and then we dismiss it, because we want to believe the contrary.
Emma, my heroine in 32AA and Call Waiting [which went on sale earlier this summer], is an eternal optimist but I can also sneak in little one-liners of self doubt to show that she is wrong, and kind of knows it but isn’t ready to think it through objectively.
To “show rather than tell” what I mean, here’s a short example from 32AA.
Set up: it’s Emma’s thirtieth birthday and she is expecting all wonderful things, including an engagement ring from Adam, her live-in boyfriend. She wakes up alone. She’s assuming that the lack of Adam’s presence means that he’s preparing her favorite breakfast, and will be back any minute now.
I’ll eat strawberries straight from his hand, and take bites of croissant in between kisses…One thing will lead to another and we’ll have lovely, romantic sex. Adam, bathed in the afterglow of love, will magically produce a small jeweler’s box from Tiffany’s and beg me to marry him…
Oh. Perfect! The radio station’s playing doubles. More Led Zeppelin. Bob is now telling me that I will be his!
Hope Adam doesn’t mind that I switched the radio to classic rock, instead of the classic classical he prefers…
That one telling thought at the end of the section gives the reader the feeling (at least I hope it does) that Adam is not the perfect guy Emma wants him to be. He’s selfish about what station plays on the radio, therefore might be selfish in other areas of his relationship with Emma, too. Another example would be where I tried to show that Emma’s friends don’t like Adam, and that Emma is deluding herself but just doesn’t know it yet. Here’s the small excerpt: where her friends meet him for the first time.
I don’t think Rachel likes him much, but then she’s hard to please.
“So what do you think of him?” I ask her.
“I hope he’s great in bed,” she says.
Typical Rachel. She’ll warm to him in time.
But Tish thinks he’s a nice guy, because I ask her, repeatedly, if she thinks he’s a nice guy.
“Will you stop obsessing?” she says. “It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks of him – you’re the one who loves him, and that’s all that’s important.” Adam does seem a little threatened by Sylvester and David. But I think that’s because he’s not used to gay men. Plus, David flirting with him does not help. But Katy and Tom really enjoyed discussing opposing politics with him, so that’s encouraging, isn’t it?
Emma’s friends don’t like Adam but imply so rather than say so. Emma could choose to decide that they either like him or not, so in her optimism she opts for the former.
Your heroine is English and American meaning her mother is British and her father is American. I could not help but be intrigued by that. How did you come to make that choice? Is that your own heritage? Will the book be marketed in the UK as well as America?
Hands up, again J. I’m a Brit but have lived in the States for the past six years. I’m originally from Sheffield in the north of England (home to The Full Monty).
With Emma I really wanted to write a character who had experiences in both cultures. It’s been a long time since I lived in England, but at the same time I wasn’t sure if I could sound completely American in first person point of view. Also, the idea of a crossover heroine really appealed to me – the best of both worlds!
As to whether or not an English publisher will pick up the books – I live in eternal hope!
In the meantime, foreign rights to 32AA have just sold to China, Taiwan and Bulgaria. I am really intrigued that these countries chose my book, and can’t wait to see it printed in Chinese characters, especially.
Tell us about what you see as the difference between American and English Chick Lit.
I’m not sure that there is much difference because at the end of the day all Chick Lit in whatever guise is about women at various stages of their lives, and their common experiences. And women in Britain and America have the same experiences, worry about the same things, interact with their friends and families. In fact, it’s true for women around the world, isn’t it? Although in England we’d tend to chat with friends over a cup of tea rather than a coffee.
Obviously a Chick Lit set in India, for example, would have a different cultural background and tone, but then so would an African American Chick Lit based in L.A. as opposed to a Latina Chick Lit based in Manhattan. We all have bad hair days for whatever reasons.
Specifically about American and British Chick Lit, I really hate to generalize because then I will immediately think of millions of examples that prove me wrong. The only real differences I perceive (sometimes) are use of language, and that English writers tend to use a more self-deprecating tone as form of humor. Think Bridget, her “um” pauses in conversation when she’s not sure how to react, and all her cigarettes and glasses of wine. Her American counterpart, Carrie Bradshaw, also struggled with smoking but in a less self-deprecating kind of way. She’s more kick-assy than Bridget, and never at a loss for words. But we love them both, root for them both, and they both get their men in the end.
How did you come to decide to write a sequel? Did your editor or agent suggest it?
This question is making me chuckle because when I was writing 32AA I never imagined that I would write a sequel. It was intended to be a one off. But I’m awfully glad that I got the opportunity to do so because it was a lot of fun revisiting Emma and her friends. (If the first two books do well, and I’m crossing my fingers, and, in fact, all body parts that they do, I am secretly hoping that I might get the opportunity sometime in the future, if Lady Luck shines down on me, to write two more stories in the series – I already have them plotted – Emma and Jack get married, Emma and Jack move to Stepford – but we’ll just have to see…)
After Avon bought 32AA, and it was a three-book deal rather than a one-book deal (which is what I expected), I pitched my new book to them. It was a little older—still fun, but not quite a right fit for the Avon Trade Paperback line. So after a brainstorming session with my husband where I kept saying, “Maybe I could bring a bring a British cousin of Emma’s over to America–I could write a story about her and peek in on what Emma and Jack are up to, too.” And then he said, “Oh, just write a sequel to 32AA. You know you want to.” And so, with a lot of help from him because he, too, is a writer and a generally fabulous all-round kind of guy, we spent two days blasting through plot points. Fortunately, my editors at Avon loved the idea of Call Waiting and were terrifically supportive about the book and the story line.
Call Waiting is a sequel to 32AA. What’s next?
Next is Confessions of a Serial Dater, which is about Rosie and Dr. Love, and will be published in August 2005.
The premise, in brief: take a sensible, organized woman and throw her into chaos . It’s based in London and features a heroine who runs an odd job agency in Notting Hill (includes finding jobs for ex-porn stars who are sick of sex), also features a wacky grandma who is embroiled in a love triangle, additionally features superglue, garden gnomes and garden gnome theft, and, of course, falling head-over-heels in love with a totally inappropriate, nonsensible man who literally sweeps her off her too-large, too-wide feet…oh, I’ll stop now. Let’s just say that it was a lot of fun to write, too.
Why do you think Chick Lit has become so popular in the UK, Ireland and in America?
The same reason, hopefully, that it is about to become popular in China, Taiwan and Bulgaria . Because it’s about real women and their sometimes wacky, crazy lives.
Do you read a lot of Chick Lit? What are your favorite books and authors?
I do read a lot of Chick Lit and many other genres of fiction and non fiction, but not as much in recent times as I would have liked. Here is a list of just a few of my favorite Chick Lit authors, in no particular order, because I love them all (I’ve sneaked in a couple of non Chick Lit authors, because their books have directly influenced how I write):
- Anything by Goddess Jane, obviously, but especially Emma, Persuasion, and Pride and Prejudice
- Anything by Jennifer Crusie because she is also a goddess. For me she is the ultimate modern women’s humor writer, and my God does she understand how to write women and relationships
- Both Bridget Jones books because Helen Fielding, too, is a goddess
- Currently reading Alesia Holliday’s American Idle, which has me rolling on the floor, and I strongly suspect that she will also presently achieve deity status Hens Dancing and Summertime by Raffaella Barker Things my Girlfriend and I have Argued About by Mil Millington – okay, so Lad Lit, but I’m an equal-opportunities kind of Chick Lit reader About a Boy by Nick Hornby. Sigh. If only I’d written that book
- Everything by Marian Keyes (another goddess)
- Everything by Sophie Kinsella (goddess…)
- Diary of a Mad Bride and Diary of a Mad Mom-To-Be by Laura Wolf
- The Nanny Diaries by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus
- Anything at all by Terry Pratchett but especially Witches Abroad and Lords and Ladies because although Terry writes satirical parody’s of science fantasy, this man also writes fabulous humor and fabulous leading women characters
- On my To Be Acquired list, Time Out for Good Behavior by Lani Diane Rich because I read the first chapter on her website, and I’m hooked, and I can’t wait for October! (Possibly another goddess-in-the-making.)
People have commented about Emma’s weight in the book. She is thin and has to eat just to keep her weight up. What gave you that idea? Have you received any feedback on it? How are British women likely to feel about it? Have you ever had that problem?
You know, we’re constantly bombarded by society’s stereotypical image of the perfect woman: model-skinny, long legs, beautiful, with boobs, etc. On TV, in magazines, in the movies. And all I did with Emma was to use the same weight/body image topic to try to emphasize (forgive the pun) the size issue, and how women worry about it, but from the opposite angle. At the end of the day, I tried to reinforce the idea that we don’t have to conform to this ideal woman image. Whether we’re too tall, too short, too skinny, too fat, whatever. We have to learn to love ourselves for who we are. But at the same time I didn’t want to get all preachy – whether we chose to have breast implants, or have liposuction, or facelifts, or not, it’s all about personal choice and why we do the things that we do. Part of Emma’s journey is to realize that she doesn’t have to please everyone, she has to decide what’s right for her.
And yes, I have received some very great feedback about the size issue. At one end of the spectrum from a teenager whose mother gave her the book to read to help her feel better about her lack of size – she did! At the other end from a larger fan who at first couldn’t bring herself to open the book, because she wasn’t sure she’d like to read about someone who was actively trying to gain weight – she did!
And if 32AA ever gets published in England I think that English women will relate in exactly the same way as American women (and some men) have related. Let’s hope the Chinese, Taiwanese and Bulgarian women feel the same way, too.
Do you see yourself sticking with “traditional Chick Lit” i.e.. a story about a young single woman, living in a big city with a so-so career – or have you thought about branching out to Hen Lit, Mommy Lit, etc.?
I love writing quirky romantic comedy with a cast of diverse characters. I’m not sure yet where my writing will take me, but I’m positive that it will be about women, romance and fun, regardless of what age they happen to be.
When I wrote an At the Back Fence column on Chick Lit we got quite a few posts from readers who were concerned that Chick Lit is a kind of “anti-romance,” and that it might take the place of romance. What would you say to them?
No, I disagree. I think it’s more a case of cross pollination rather than either Chick Lit or romance. And as with all genres, I do understand that Chick Lit isn’t for everyone.
Speaking as someone who embraces and loves both, I don’t think that Chick Lit is anti-romance at all. Chick Lit, just like romance, has multiple, diverse sub genres (Mommy Lit, Lad Lit, Chick Noir, Cozy Chic Mystery, Hen Lit, the list is endless), and as I’ve said before, it’s about women (or men, or vampires) and their lives.
Something that I’ve heard industry professionals say is that Chick Lit is bringing new readers into the bookstores.
Bear in mind, too, that a lot of books that get the Chick Lit “cover” treatment (you know what I mean – all those fun, bright covers on the table at the front of the store) don’t necessarily fall into (in my opinion) the Chick Lit genre. I’ve picked up some that are women’s fiction, and some that are romances, and I’ve found some great new authors that way. I strongly suspect that some new readers are picking up Chick Lit, then moving into romance. And vice versa.
Like a lot of people, I don’t just read romance or Chick Lit. And I’m always thrilled to discover new writers in new genres.
Thank you, Robin, for having me along to chat.
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