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Riding the Chick-lit Waveby Laura Caldwell
I'm riding the chick-lit wave, crouching low over the board, my eyes on the horizon. Helen Fielding was the only writer on the sea when she started it all with Bridget Jones's Diary, but now there are a thousand other surfers alongside me. The strange thing is that I've been practicing on shore for a long time. I actually wrote my novel, Burning the Map, before Bridget Jones came out. Only problem was, I couldn't get it published.
I'd gotten the idea for Burning the Map after I took a post bar-exam trip to Rome and Greece with two girlfriends. The trip was filled with too much sun, way too much beer, and just enough hot guys with cool accents. When it was over, I came home and started my job at a big law firm, just like I was supposed to. Nothing particularly earth-shattering had happened. But I became obsessed with the 'what if' scenario. What if my life had somehow changed during the vacation? What if a woman went on a trip and her entire existence was altered ? everything from her family to her friends to her relationship to her job? Despite the fact that I had no prose experience (I'd attended University of Iowa and idiotically left with only one writing class under my belt), I decided to write that story. Casey Evers, my narrator, was born. She took a trip with her girlfriends, and her world got rocked.
Yet no one much cared about Casey. She was sent out to agents and editors aplenty. I had to purchase a larger mailbox to handle all the rejection letters. Right around this time, Bridget Jones's Diary was released in the US. It didn't help.
I decided to move on. I went next to The Other Rebecca, a suspense novel that garnered about as many rejections as Burning the Map. As a last ditch effort, I flew to California for the San Diego State Writer's Conference, where I basically mulled around, pitching The Other Rebecca to anyone who would listen. One editor shook her head almost as soon as I started talking. She didn't publish suspense, she said. She was starting a new imprint, and they would put out chick-lit. It was the first time I'd heard that term. Like the phrase 'chick flick,' chick-lit is supposed to connote a work that appeals mostly to women and has, as its primary objective, the desire to entertain. I may not have been familiar with the term, but as the editor and I talked, I became more and more excited. Suddenly Casey had a second shot at the big game. Ultimately, she was drafted.
That editor was Margaret O'Neill Marbury, the force behind Red Dress Ink, an imprint of Harlequin devoted entirely to fun, edgy women's fiction, more specifically chick-lit. They saw an opportunity for a new genre created in the wake of Bridget Jones, and they've been doing their job well. Their first title, See Jane Date, had an impressive first print run of 30,000. By the time Burning the Map came out a year later, my print run was closer to 70,000. And bestselling authors have been signing on with Red Dress, including Isabel Wolff (author of The Trials of Tiffany Trott) and Carole Matthews, whose novel, For Better, for Worsewas a recent "Reading with Ripa" pick. It might be said that Red Dress Ink created their own wave in the publishing world, because other houses have developed copycat imprints, like Pocket Books' Downtown Press.
So while my book is riding that wave, I can't say that Bridget Jones influenced the writing of Burning the Map. I'm not even sure that any particular work influenced this particular novel. In fact, I've been told that Burning is more a coming-of-age story than true chick-lit. Sure, it's got the guys and the shopping and bar scenes, but it's also got life-choices and musings on the nature of love. It is, at times, morose and, at other times, hopefully thought-provoking.
Although no individual novel influenced me, I can say that I read consistently in three different areas: chick-lit, suspense, and literary fiction. My most favorite chick-lit novels seem to come from English authors ? Honeymoon by Amy Jenkins, Losing Gemma by Katy Gardner and Playing Away by Adele Parks. Whatever people might say about chick-lit, one thing is always true. Namely, you tend to see yourselves in these characters. Maybe it's a sliver here or maybe you feel like you are in some ways the character you're reading about. Either way, it's tremendously comforting. You are not the only fuck-up on the planet.
In terms of suspense, I adore Thomas H. Cook (author of The Chatham School Affair, Mortal Memory and many others) because each novel is so individual, each character so distinct. I also have to plug Line of Vision, an amazing suspense novel by fellow Chicagoan, David Ellis, which won the Edgar Award in 2002 for Best First Novel. He redefines the term 'unreliable narrator' and keeps you hanging until the last few sentences.
Finally with literary fiction (I actually despise the literary/commercial distinction, but that's a topic for another essay), there are so many wonderful choices. Kathryn Davis's quirky and engaging Versailles led me into a Marie Antoinette fascination. The elegant Bel Canto by Ann Patchett is my new personal favorite.
Ultimately, I'd love to write fiction that is a combination of these three types of writing. I want to write chick-lit or women's fiction that's suspenseful and keeps you guessing until the end, but I want the novel to be literary, too, a dance with words. I'm not there yet, I'll be the first to tell you. But I've got a few more books coming up (like A Clean Slate, due out by Red Dress Ink in November 2003), so keep checking back with me, and maybe someday I'll be leading a pack of surfers in a new direction.