Friday, October 28, 2011

Q&A With Michele Gorman

Michele Gorman's book, Single In The City, was launched in the U.S. on October 27th, 2011 and is now available as an ebook on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Michele chose to self-publish in the U.S; Penguin Books published the U.K. version. The book follows Hannah, a 26-year old American who moves to London with no job or social network. Amazon reviewers all praise the book for its sense of humor and its totally believable main character who embarks on the adventure of a lifetime.

Michele and I talked about self-publishing, the advantages of using a literary agent, and her suggestions for mandatory reading. She would love for you to follow her on twitter, like her on facebook, or visit her website for more information.

Stevie: How long have you been writing, and what is Single In The City about?

Michele: I’ve been writing for about 10 years, though I didn’t harbour the desire to write from an early age. My decision was a practical one. Sitting in my office one day I thought, “Why won’t someone pay me for what’s inside my head, without me having to come to an office?” I hit upon writing as an option. But with no practical knowledge or writerly training, it was a rather long road to publication.

Single In The City is about taking a chance and finding your feet in unfamiliar surroundings. 26 year old American Hannah moves to London on a whim, arriving with no job, no friends and no idea how she’s supposed to build the new life she’s dreaming of. Armed with little more than her enthusiasm, she charges headlong into London, baffling the locals in her pursuit of a new life, new love and sense of herself.

Stevie: Does your decision to self-publish in America reflect on how writers are treated here vs. in the UK?

Michele:No, not at all. I’ve had an excellent experience with Penguin (UK) and assume my experience with an American publisher would be just as supportive and professional. But I do think that in the case of Single in the City, some of the American publishers have sold chick lit fans short. My agent and I approached a few last year but they said American women would not identify with a book set in London because relatively few had been there. I disagree. After all you don’t need to live in the American South to appreciate The Help, or have a child who’s done something terrible to identify with the mom in We Need To Talk About Kevin. Trying to make your way in a new environment is an experience we’ve all had, whether it’s a new city, or country, school or circle of friends. I’ve got faith in American chick lit fans and am excited to publish it for them.

Stevie: Would you advise all aspiring writers to get an agent? Are there any distinct advantages or disadvantages to using an agent?

Michele: No. I would advise all aspiring writers to get the right agent. There’s a big difference. The right agent is one who you know you’ll want to work with for the rest of your writing career. She’s there as much to support and guide your writing as she is to sell your books. In fact, the collaborative relationship is probably even more important. I’ve pitched every story idea to my agent and we decide together which ones I’ll write. She is my sounding board, when I’m outlining the book, while I’m writing, and once I’ve finished the draft. We also decide together the direction that my writing career should take. We were giving a talk at a writer’s group once and likened it to a marriage.

Aside from the substantial career support that the right agent provides, there are other advantages. She’ll be able to get your manuscript read by the editors in the publishing houses that are the best fit for your book. She’ll know which editors at which houses are acquiring.

There are probably very few agents who don’t care about their writers, but there are a lot who don’t have the time necessary to devote to new writers, because they already have a very full list of writers. So I’d advise a new writer to look for a newer agent. Though it’s tempting to think a big shot agent will give you a better chance at selling a book, in fact, newer agents tend to have contacts with newer publishing editors. And it is the newer editors, who haven’t got full lists yet, who tend to acquire the newer writers.

Stevie You mention in your Guardian article that you wrote your first chick lit novel after reading one and deciding you could do better. Do you think chick lit itself is a similar collective response- a bunch of women deciding "we can do better" than whatever women writers they've been told to read?

Michele: I don’t think chick lit was a reaction to existing literature, but rather the extension of the relationships we have with our friends. The early chick lit writers captured an important part of our lives in prose, giving us characters we cared about because we “knew” them. They are our sisters, friends, cousins, mothers, daughters and frenemies. They amuse us and frustrate us and show us their flaws and their triumphs. The genre has grown around this kind of character.

Stevie: Was there one experience or moment when you knew you would be a writer, or was it more of a growth process?

Michele: It was a process punctuated by ‘aha’ moments. I remember when I wrote "The End" on the last page of my first book (I wrote 3 books, all literary fiction, before Single In The City). That’s when I knew I could do it, so that’s when I knew I could be a writer. It wasn’t till I finished my second book that I knew I would be a writer. That’s when I knew that I’d chosen writing as a career.

Stevie: If you could wave a magic wand and make every man in the world read any three books, which books would you choose?

Michele: The Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama, because becoming happier is a wonderful process.

Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus by John Gray because we can all use a little help understanding the opposite sex (and if I had a second pass of my magic wand I’d make all women go see Defending the Caveman).

And Single in the City, because if every man on the planet bought it then I could quit my day job and write full-time.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Book Review: Midsummer Night In The Workhouse

by Diana Athill.

House of Anansi Press. 2011. Paperback, 196 pages.

Diana Athill, former editor for Andre Deutsch and Costa Biography Award-winning memoirist, has penned a collection of genreless short stories held together by themes of conflicted love, moral ambiguity, and nonconsensual power sharing. This is her first collection; the stories here first appeared "between the 1950's and 1970's," according to the book's front flap. Of the twelve stories, only one, "An Afternoon Off", features a male protagonist.

What unites nearly all Athill's women are their ill-fated, awkward, or visibly doomed relationships with men. In "No Laughing Matter," Jane's boyfriend ends their relationship, refuses to sleep with her, and patronizingly offers to keep seeing her- "but less. Not alone so much." It is a slap in the face, and college-aged Jane is devastated. In "The Return," Englishwomen Jan and Sarah visit Greece. There they must outwit an old man and his nephew who proposition them on a remote island. Athill turns this awkward situation into an ominous one by making the old man the only available boat driver. This is a stark shift in power, since Jan and Sarah can afford a Greek vacation while the old man only has three teeth.

It is the kind of dynamic one comes to expect from Athill by the book's end. The stories are kept interesting by their variety. Sometimes the woman is complicit in her own downfall; at other times she only imagines she is. And the losses, of power, companionship, identity or status, are not always bad outcomes. In the last story, "Buried," Enid Klein reconnects with her brother after he wrecks their car and they must hike through the farmland of their childhood to get back home.

Not all women like literary books. But every woman has had a relationship, a family, a growing up experience. Every woman has, at some time or another, been wounded in love. For these reasons, Athill's book has something to offer every woman. Midsummer Night In The Workhouse is a revealing and surprisingly quick read. It is literary without being stuffy, universally true without being hackneyed. Athill's voice rarely offers comfort, but I left her book feeling more comfortable about gendered relationships and my role in them.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Contest Results and 2012 Reading List

I have a winner! It's Michelle Haimoff. Thank you to everyone who participated. I hope you will follow our conversation here and on twitter. Feel free to send me your reading suggestions- I'm pretty sure Michelle will let me add to her list as long as I stay on track.

Staying on track won't be hard, because Michelle has already sent her list broken down by month. I am sharing it here to mark the official start of our project. Maybe you, reader, can finish at least one of these books in 2012 and join the discussion? Michelle has great taste:

January - The God Of Small Things - Arundhati Roy

February - These Days Are Ours - Michelle

March - Wingshooters - Nina Revoyr

April - Play It As It Lays - Joan Didion

May - The Age Of Innocence - Edith Wharton

June - Bad Behavior: Stories - Mary Gaitskill

July - People Are Unappealing: Even Me - Sara Barron

August - It Chooses You - Miranda July

September - The History Of Love - Nicole Krauss

October - Zami: A New Spelling Of My Name - Audrey Lorde

November - Sarah's Key - Tatiana de Rosnay

December - The Hunger Games - Suzanne Collins

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Five Things I Learned...

From Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

1. It is harder to read classics now that I am focusing on modern and postmodern writers. The language is burdensome, and there is way more narrative exposition. Today I caught myself sneaking glances at The Devil Wears Prada, which I will probably read in place of Bridget Jones' Diary.

2. The monster in the book is completely different from the Hollywood version. Shelley's version is a brute and a killer, but he is an extremely articulate, intelligent, self-aware brutish killer.

3. Shelley's theme of guilt that one cannot share shows up in modern texts. Victor Frankenstein knows his monster killed a child, and he knows the person who hangs for the murder is innocent. But saving that person's life would mean telling the world that he (Dr. Frankenstein) created a monster from purloined body parts. That reminds me an awful lot of Walter White's multiple secrets in Breaking Bad. Plus, meth lab = mad scientist lab.

4. This did not actually come from the text, but here's a neat article about scientists pinpointing the exact moment when Shelley dreamed up the bones of her novel: Guardian UK. There's an old legend that Shelley wrote this book in a single night. I knew that wasn't true beforehand, but now I don't see how anyone could seriously believe that. It is too complex and has too much depth.

5. There is no reason for me to read men's books ever again. I am not going to lie- I miss them a little already. I guess what I miss most is the autonomy, being able to read whatever I want. I have lost that, even though my year of assigned reading doesn't start until January. But I don't have to go back. There are enough complex, beautiful, rewarding texts by women to keep me engaged and occupied. Frankenstein was both fun and challenging- my favorite kind of book.

Thursday, October 6, 2011


I wanted to read a nonfiction book before the year ends. I usually like self-help books as long as they don't have a religious slant. So I put it to my twitter community, and Valerie Parv gave me this assignment:

I Could Do Anything If I Only Knew What It Was, by Barbara Sher and Barbara Smith. Thanks Valerie!

I got a chance to read the preface, introduction, and first chapter. Sher says the book grew from her experience as a career counselor. She gave her clients the motivation to go and do almost anything they wanted. But they kept telling her they didn't know what they wanted to do. So she and Smith wrote this book in 1994. There are exercises to help you decide what you are supposed to be doing. This is what your family, society, and peer group expect you to do. Then Sher gives directions- lifted from her therapeutic practice- for finding out what you were meant to do, and matching your external life to that ideal.

I relate to an idea in the first chapter. Sher says that if you tell your friends, family, or peer group what your wildest career goals are, they will immediately tell you to stop. But if you share some of these ideas with strangers, or folks you just met, they will usually encourage you. Some will even offer to help.

That has definitely been my experience as the Chick Lit Guy. Nearly everyone I reach out to on twitter is supportive. I look forward to reading the rest of Barbara's book; she takes a light, conversational tone as if you were in a room with her.

What about you? Are you doing what you're supposed to? What would you rather be doing?

Sunday, October 2, 2011


I once tried to write a story about a woman who marries her former college professor. All I know about him is that he quit teaching to tend bar, moved like a gorilla, and proposed to Female Lead on a gondola in Venice.

I never finished it. My wife tore it apart for me:

"You really need to stop writing from a woman's point of view. Because you don't write like a woman. You write like a man who thinks like a woman."

That's probably the best writing advice I have ever heard. But yesterday, walking to class, I saw some construction workers walking on the opposite sidewalk. They are part of the project going on. As far as I can tell, this project involves driving huge trucks all over a dirt field. Sometimes they spray water.

I have been listening to the book on CD of Can You Keep A Secret, by Sophie Kinsella. I actually examined the construction guys and wondered which of them Emma, the heroine, would want to date!

"Hmmm, no, those two guys are big fatties, and besides, they wouldn't make her feel special which is what she needs. That guy in the front is the supervisor... she does date her boss in the book... maybe... what about the shy, nerdy one with glasses and a polo shirt? Probably doesn't do much actual construction... Emma would appreciate that..."

In the end I decided Emma would go for Supervisor Man, and she would help him not to be such a demanding workaholic, and he would help her get promoted at work by making her see her own talent.

All this in a ten minute walk. I don't know what's happening to me.