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