A few months ago I attended a Jennifer Crusie book signing and talk. Because Jenny is so articulate, hearing her speak about romance, writing, and the publishing business was an eye-opening experience. I asked her to do an interview for All About Romance in hopes of conveying some of that wit and intelligence about the business of writing to a wider audience of readers. With the release of Bet Me in paperback last month, now was the perfect time. I hope you enjoy our talk as much as I did.
With your last few books you’ve made progressively bigger splashes and yet some readers think you came out of nowhere with Welcome to Temptation. Tell us a little about your writing trajectory.
Jennifer Crusie: It’s more of a writing wobble. I began writing romances for Harlequin, then did two for Bantam, then went to St. Martin’s for my first single title, Tell Me Lies, and five more books after that. Basically, I wrote them all the same way, just trying to write the best book I could. I was never conscious of writing category or single title or paperback or hardcover. You just have to tell the truest story you know.
Before being published by Silhouette your academic focus seemed to have been on mystery fiction. How’d you end up writing a romance?
I was studying the differences in the way men and women tell stories And my plan was to read a hundred romances to study the way women write and a hundred adventure novels to study the way men write. And I started with the romances and got so caught up in them that I changed my dissertation to romance fiction and never looked back.
Related to that, you’ve written about the fairy tales we read as kids (I think we’re of the same generation) and how the boys’ stories were “about doing and winning but that girls’ stories were about waiting and being won” and that they, according to one scholar, promise the reader a “just universe”. But in reality this is missing for girls or at least what’s “just” for girls is something altogether different then it is for boys (and this is my interpretation). Is that what you were getting at? And how has that influenced your writing?
That was actually the topic of my dissertation, long unfinished and gathering dust. My theory was that one of the reasons women write romance was to “fix” the toxic fairy tales they’d been told, tales they needed but that had been twisted from their original versions by patriarchal redactors. And then the romance writers came in and revised them again to make them modern and to restore the strong /wp-content/uploads/oldsiteimages of women. It had a huge influence on Bet Me, which is a flat out fairy tale, a modern fairy tale but still a fairy tale.
As for generations, I’m 55. Just had a birthday.
You’ve said Cal and Min’s story is a fairytale. What elements make it so? Did it work the way you intended?
It’s a modern fairy tale, the idea that there’s one true love for you out there, and the universe will make sure you’re together, no matter how hard you try to screw it up. Do I believe that? No. I believe there are a lot of possibilities out there, and that you have to work really hard to make a relationship work, that the universe does not deliver to your door. But I also think that we need fairy tales because they talk about deeper truths, which is that real love does exist and sometimes there really are happily ever afters…
Did it work the way I intended? I didn’t figure out it was a fairy tale until very late in the process, but yes, once I got that, it worked exactly the way I wanted. I think it’s my best book, too.
In your books you specialize in off-beat heroines and clever, charming heros. Which comes to you first – the idea of who the hero/heroine are or the story in which they’re going to play their part?
Character. Character always comes first, always the heroine because the book is the story of her journey.
All of your books incorporate humor to make what could be melodrama into witty and sometimes bittersweet stories. Is this something you do deliberately? Where does the humor come from?
I don’t do it deliberately, but I think having a sense of humor is a great indicator of mental health, so my characters all have one. It’s a good coping mechanism, and my heroines always have to cope with something. Where does humor come from? Pain. Always pain.
Bet Me is your best book to date (IMHO ). How has your writing changed in the last ten years?
You know, it’s really hard for me to tell because I’m standing inside it. That’s a good question to ask readers. I’d like to think I’ve gotten better with each book, but that’s a tough call.
All your characters surround themselves with collections. With Min it’s shoes and snow globes. Is this a facet of your personality coming through? (I know the animals are.) And what’s with the cherries?
I’m not sure when I started doing that, but I can’t stop now. I think a person’s possessions tell you a lot about him or her, not in the sense of “Is it a good enough label?”, more in the sense of “Why does she have that and what does it mean, what meaning has she invested in it?” Min’s snow globes were thrust upon her, the shoes she chooses. Which is why Cal doesn’t buy her a snow globe, he buys shoes. He knows his woman.
The cherries. Well, it was just one of those things that got out of hand. There’s a great cherry on the cover of Welcome To Temptation, and Susan Elizabeth Phillips made a bawdy crack about it in front of a bunch of booksellers once (and you thought she was such a lady) and I told the people on my fan list about it and they took it as their logo, and I started putting cherries in all of my books as a shout-out to them, and now it’s sort of my symbol. SEP is probably still laughing at that one.
Do you have any favorite characters or scenes?
Only in the books I’m working on now. They’re always more immediate.
Do you have an all-time favorite book? Favorite romance or mystery? Or perhaps a better question, what are your comfort reads?
Comfort read: Terry Pratchett. Just love him. I’m a huge romance and mystery reader, too.
At the talk I attended here in Madison you were very eloquent about contemporary literary fiction and how it has become much like any other genre with conventions and requirements all its own. Can you expand on the idea for us?
I think there’s a lot of great literary fiction being written, just as there’s a lot of great romance fiction being written. But there’s a human tendency to codify, I think, to make up rules and restrictions, to say, “This is acceptable” and “This isn’t.” It’s never the truly creative minds who do that, it’s people like me, who struggle along trying to understand things that are not understandable, like “Where do your stories come from?”
Truthfully? Haven’t the foggiest idea. Out of the nowhere into the here. So we make artificial parameters because we’re trying to control and identify the intangible. And that happens in lit fiction, too, because, for example, they’ll prefer irony to melodrama, which is perfectly fine, and then say “Irony is better, more intelligent, more creative than melodrama” which is not fine. Fiction is magic. Let it be.
The ‘must have an unhappy or bittersweet ending to be realistic’ convention of literary fiction is the stick most critics use on romances and their readers. Has that attitude changed at all in the time you’ve been writing? Is it even worth talking about any more?
I’m actually pretty bored with the whole academic literary establishment. They’ve pretty much marginalized themselves so they’re not hurting us anymore because they’ve become essentially toothless. And I’m finding more and more that what turns me on creatively defies genre. Which does not mean I’m abandoning romance.
I love romance fiction. I just like writing undefined stories better. And they usually have a romance in them because that’s fun for me, it’s what I’m interested in. They don’t have a romance because romance sells or because I have a political agenda or because that’s the label I’ve been given. I just like writing that kind of story, but now it’s usually in conjunction with other stories.
I think Bet Me was my last classic romance, and that from now on it’ll be more women’s journey and romance stories, or suspense and romance, or caper and romance, or supernatural and romance. A marriage of romance with other genres. I’m very interested in exploring some supernatural things, in working with mixed genres and media, in seeing what happens to romance when you add something alien into the mix like men’s adventure fiction.
It’s not that I don’t love romance, it’s that I want to merge it with other things to see what happens for my process, my stories. I think Bet Me is the best romance novel, straight classic romance, that I’ll ever write. So I’ve done that. No need to do it again. Time to move on to something I don’t know how to do.
You’ve been a fanatic (and I mean that in the very best sense!) about Buffy the Vampire Slayer – are any new shows tripping your trigger?
Good question. I like Cold Case because of the female protagonist and because it’s just a good show. I like Law and Order and CSI because of the outstanding ensemble casts. I loved Touching Evil and Keen Eddie, but they seem to have gone someplace on Bravo that I can’t find. I think Coupling is terrific. But mostly, I don’t have time to watch TV. I’m always so far behind, and I’m working on two books at once right now, so the stuff in my head is more fun than the stuff on TV.
I’m finishing up the grossly overdue You Again, a romance/murder mystery set in an old house on the banks of the Ohio River, that’s probably the hardest book I’ve written, mainly because I’m not really good at plotting and a mystery needs a very tight plot, but I really love it because it’s got such a great collection of characters in it. Some of whom die, but only the ones we can spare.
Finally, since we’re doing this electronically – what impact has the Internet had on the romance industry and on you?
Huge, huge impact. The single most important factor in the growth of romance fiction. Romance readers are very communal, and romance communities sprang up all over the net almost immediately. And romance writers are very savvy about promotion, especially using websites. So the impact has just been phenomenal in the way it’s gotten a genre that was ignored by traditional publishing media directly to its readers.
On me, personally, also huge. It’s how I met many of my close friends now, romance writers who lived in other parts of the country like Barbara Samuel, Judy Ivory, Pat Gaffney, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Jennifer Greene, Cathy Maxwell, Anne Stuart, Jo Beverly, Jill Barnett . . . really there are dozens of people I can e-mail in the middle of the night and say, “Argh!” and they’re there, such wonderful people. So I rely on it absolutely.
And then there are the Cherries, the group that began as a fan list but has gone on to be just a really great community, wonderful people talking about truly strange things because, let’s face it, the Cherries are not your run of the mill fruitcakes. I also swap mss. with my critique buddies in e-mail. And I’m writing a book right now with somebody who’s six hundred miles away, also in e-mail. I don’t know what I’d do without the net. It’s my lifeline.