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Stephanie Lessing

by Susan Henderson on October 7, 2006

Lauren Baratz-Logsted and Stephanie Lessing discuss Chick-Lit.

Lauren Baratz-Logsted: Your new book, MISS UNDERSTANDING, is a sequel to your first novel, SHE’S GOT ISSUES. Did you originally plan to write a sequel? If not, how did that come about?

Stephanie Lessing: Oddly enough, I wrote MISS UNDERSTANDING first, but I didn’t originally write it as a novel. I had written a series of essays called, “A Girl’s Guide To Girls.” Both novels evolved from those essays. The narrative voice of the essays was very much Zoe’s voice, but I felt she was too abrasive and wanted to try my hand at something a little less caustic, so along came Chloe, the main character of SHE’S GOT ISSUES.

LB-L: Tell us more about MISS UNDERSTANDING. In what ways is it different than SHE’S GOT ISSUES?

SL: I’d say SHE’S GOT ISSUES is a walk in the park and MISS UNDERSTANDING is more along the lines of, say, a kick in the shins.

LB-L: As authors, we dream of getting starred reviews from the big pre-pub trade magazines – Kirkus, etc – or at least not getting panned, but sometimes that doesn’t work out. Maybe the reviewer doesn’t share our vision, maybe the reviewer is having a bad day. Who knows why the universe suddenly tilts so far antagonistic to us? Such was the case when MISS UNDERSTANDING was eviscerated by Publishers Weekly. How do you as an author deal with something like that?

SL: I wrote a piece called, “The Unlovable Heroine” which got picked up by a number of literary websites including thewritersbuzz.com which explains what I believe is the reason writers write. Something to do with wanting to be loved at all costs, but also wanting the world to know what you know. Not everything I know about women and their relationships is pretty and in MISS UNDERSTANDING I called it as I saw it. Not everyone can handle getting kicked in the shins. Especially unsuspecting reviewers. When I read those reviews, I knew I’d kicked a live one. But that’s the risk we take. You can’t please everyone so you might as well have fun and write the stuff you feel like writing.

LB-L: I recently wrote a really bad poem called “Dear Reader/Reviewer” that opens with the lines:

I wish I could sit on your shoulder
and tell you what to think.
I’d tell you how wonderful I am;
you’d never tell me I stink.

If you could sit on the shoulders of readers and reviewers, how would you tell them to regard your work?

SL: My work is my own
but I’m willing to share it.
Read it if you dare;
but only if you can bare it.
I’d like to make you happy;
honestly I would.
But sometimes my thoughts
just aren’t what they should. . .be.

There, now you can feel much better about your poem, which I happen to think was very sweet.

LB-L: Your work is marketed as Chick-Lit. How do you feel about that designation? Do you embrace it, or do you want me to kneecap someone for you?

SL: I can’t deny the fact that Chick-Lit has sort of a derogatory connotation because the market sort of got carried away with itself for a while there. But I’m not really sure why very popular ideas are so often punished for being popular. It’s sort of like prom-queen bashing. If it looks good, and everyone likes it, and it’s not us, it must be bad.

As far as my books are concerned, SHE’S GOT ISSUES was intended to be somewhat of an affectionate satire. Chloe is so over- the- top “Girl,” she was supposed to be a caricature of the chick-lit prototype and yet she was taken at face value, so I guess I’m the only one who got the joke.

MISS UNDERSTANDING on the other hand is clearly satirical. And although I still think it falls into the category of Chick-Lit on many levels, Zoe, the main character in that novel, would choke me for admitting that.

LB-L: How do you feel about Chick-Lit?

SL: I feel the same way about Chick-Lit as I do any other genre. If it’s good, I love it. If it’s bad, I don’t love it. The truth is even if someone was dead set against Chick-Lit, simply on principle, she’d have to have a heart of stone not to love Sophie Kinsella‘s Becky Bloomwood. The woman was a genius as far as I’m concerned. The problem with loving Chick-Lit too much is that it gets addicting and you have to sort of force yourself to read other things – or at least pretend you’re reading other things.

LB-L: What’s next for you?

SL: I just finished the first chapter of my next novel. It’s a psychological thriller, a far cry from anything else I’ve ever written. I have no idea what possessed me to write such a thing. I nearly scared myself half to death. I outlined the whole thing while sitting up in bed with the flu. If worse comes to worse, and I ruffle up a reviewer or two, this time around I’ll just blame it on the fever.

*

Bios:

Prior to publishing her first novel, SHE’S GOT ISSUES, Stephanie Lessing designed promotional campaigns for Conde Nast publications, and often writes about her New York City experiences working at Vogue, Glamour, Self, Vanity Fair and Mademoiselle on her blog: www.stephanielessing.com. Stephanie lives in New Jersey with her husband and their two children. Her second novel, MISS UNDERSTANDING will be published in October 2006 (HarperCollins/Avon Trade).

Lauren Baratz-Logsted, in addition to being the editor of THIS IS CHICK-LIT, has written four Chick-Lit novels: THE THIN PINK LINE, CROSSING THE LINE, A LITTLE CHANGE OF FACE, and HOW NANCY DREW SAVED MY LIFE. She is also the author of the literary suspense novel VERTIGO and the forthcoming serious Young Adult novel ANGEL’S CHOICE. You can read more about her work at www.laurenbaratzlogsted.com.

{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

Ellen Meister October 7, 2006 at 1:59 pm

Despite my delicate shins, I’m running out today to get a copy of Miss Understanding. I’m also going to pore over Lauren’s books to see which one I want to read first. Great interview between two very smart chicks. Thanks for posting it, Sue!

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Megan October 7, 2006 at 2:24 pm

Great interview, I love the poems, sweet and silly. It’s always nice to hear others perspectives while learning about new (to me) authors and their works.

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Myfanwy Collins October 7, 2006 at 3:04 pm

I’m trying to think of something intelligent to say to go along with this great interview, but I can’t come up with anything other than I enjoyed reading it.

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LaurenBaratz-Logsted October 7, 2006 at 3:21 pm

Myfawny, I’ll take it!

And, Sue, if you’re listening, I saw in the comments on yesterday’s post where Jordan commented about LitPark being the place on the Web writers want to be seen hanging out. I don’t know about “wanting to be seen” – I look awful right now – but I do know you’re in my top handful of daily visits because of the intelligence and kindness of the place. You’ve proven people don’t need to resort to snark to be smart and interesting.

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Carolyn Burns Bass October 7, 2006 at 3:38 pm

Humans have a category for everything. If something is new and different it’s often misunderstood because it doesn’t settle into one of the pre-existing categorical shelves. It’s really quite sad that many good books are never read because they’re shelved in a section of the bookstore where we would never wander.

Now more books to add to my reading list.

Thanks Lauren and Stephanie. (And Susan.)

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Julie Ann Shapiro October 7, 2006 at 3:41 pm

This whole chick lit thing used to bug me. Ok, maybe on some level it still does. Originally, it bugged me because I’m a literary writer and many authors I knew got deals for chick lit books.

Time has healed my jealousy. Thank goodness! Now chicklit bugs me for the disservice it does to authors. I see it as a way of low-browing a book and that’s not necessary. People are more than capable of being smart or dumb on their own.

My local librarian sees chick lit as being marketed stereotypically at the MTV generation, the dating crowd, the shoppers i.e. people that she says would not normally be reading. From her standpoint, it’s actually brought in readers, which is good. It is what we want as authors. We need to know that people that are reading, really reding.

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Susan Henderson October 7, 2006 at 4:03 pm

Ellen – That was a great post about chick-lit on your blog today:

http://ellenmeister.blogspot.com/2006/10/collingswood-and-other-weekend-updates.html

Megan – I’m so glad you’re here! I love the playfulness in today’s interview, too.

Myfanwy – Thank you!

Lauren – That’s so kind of you. And an honor!

Carolyn – Great point! In today’s market, D.H. Lawrence would be shelved romance/erotica. Kafka might get sci fi, depending on the book. And Ellen Gilchrist and Harper Lee would be in juvenile fiction. Hemingway would have sparked a truth in memoir controversey. And James Joyce, if he could even get published, would have had to do a major rewrite of Ulysses, making it all uniform to match the Calypso chapter; and Penelope would have needed punctuation.

Julie – It’s sad when there’s jealousy between writers and I think it comes from so many feeling like they’re fighting for a cut of a small pie–that one person’s book deal took a spot that might have been yours.

My anger (if anger’s the right word for it) doesn’t take aim at writers or publishers. It’s at the millions of people who don’t read. Why don’t the majority of adults read anymore? I keep hoping J.K. Rowling changed that for the generations to come. Kids read big fat books these days and stay up till midnight to grab the first available copies on the launch date. That gives me hope that there will be enough readers for all our books one day.

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Julie Ann Shapiro October 7, 2006 at 4:47 pm

I agree with you Susan. I had a wonderful chat with my librarian. I’m mentoring some of the teens in a program in November. The kids that at least go to the library love reading. They’re drawn to books the librarian says that are not typical, despite what the publishers are churning out these days. That gives me hope. Our future readers will in an ideal world be clamoring for all kinds of books.

There should be room for chick lit and literary fiction. Sadly, it’s the chick lit books that most of us get mad at when it’s the publishing industry, the TV and the non-reading public that should be the brunt of our anger.

I hate TV and look fondly at the eight years my husband and I went without it. We used the TV only for renting movies. It was great. We had so much more time for life and in my case reading and writing. Since the bad fires near hear two years ago we got cable TV. I watch maybe an hour or two of news on TV a month and that’s it. The sound drawns out thoughts. Until you go without it for a long time I don’t think you notice this. I think it’s a numbing machine like so many sci-fi writers have talked about. I think it’s what’s turning people off reading.

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Susan Henderson October 7, 2006 at 6:50 pm

Julie – I haven’t watched TV since the O.J. Simpson trial (minus Steelers games).

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Robin Slick October 7, 2006 at 6:53 pm

I ignore genre labels because I think any really good book is subject to all kinds of interpretation depending on how intelligent you are and your level of reading comprehension. I happen to like good chick lit (and seriously, I see nothing wrong with the term, either) — if it’s written well, it’s really womens’ literature so yeah, I enjoy reading about intelligent, interesting women in an intelligent, interesting setting…and most importantly, with an intelligent, interesting story line. And think about it. Isn’t lit short for literature? Chick Lit = Womens Literature.

Then again, what some people call literature I call utter nonsensical crap.

Anyway, great interviews as usual, Sue, and I can’t wait to pick up these books.

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Susan Henderson October 7, 2006 at 6:58 pm

Robin – I agree 100%.

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LaurenBaratz-Logsted October 7, 2006 at 7:13 pm

I read all kinds of books, have done so all my life, and I think my six-year-old will be the same. I have nothing against TV, so long as it’s used properly, and my girl is extremely active/popular, but she loves to read. The other day, I figured between reading time at school, homework reading, and what she read after getting into bed, she read two hours in one day. May she represent the wave of the future.

As for the bitter feelings that arise from not being able to sell one’s books, it took me nearly eight years to get a publishing contract so I know where those feelings come from. That said, I’ve tried, as much as possible, to be a positive force. That’s why in the appendix to THIS IS CHICK-LIT, I had each Chick author recommend one Lit author she’s sure her readership will enjoy. I think when we work together, we achieve so much more than when we work apart, which brings me back to the wonders of LitPark: this place is democratically inclusive as opposed to so much of the lit-world nonsense on the Web.

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Susan Henderson October 8, 2006 at 2:32 am

Lauren – I have nothing against TV either. It just isn’t the medium that captures me. But if I DID like TV, I have no idea how I’d make time for it.

You are a positive and powerful force, and it means so much to me that you’re here!

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Gail October 8, 2006 at 3:42 am

Thanks for this interview Susan. I have nothing of intelligence to add. Just my thanks for doing all of this work.

Of course you have no time for TV. I can’t figure out when you eat or sleep!

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Lance Reynald October 8, 2006 at 5:34 am

am I the first guy to weigh in today??

(sheeesh! they really need to grow some.)

ok, I’ll admit, I’m a bit more Fightclub than Bridget Jones.

But, I think that whole “chick-lit” label is but another one of those instances of the business going awry.
I don’t think any genuine writer (I know, I just stepped on some toes, but we’re all adults.) aspires or limits to a genre to begin with. I live in that fantasy world where we all aspire to write what we see as some kind of truth in the moment. That genre thing is just laziness…some careless editorial formulaic. That ping of a dim lightbulb in a meeting that says “well they all loved X book with the pink cover so if we make this one fit that we’ll sell at least X copies on the first run”
and then they wonder how they lost almost two generations of readers??

but the sudoko is insanely popular? people are just dying to use their otherwise atrophied minds and there is nothing to read.
(did I just get lost?)

kudos for writing what may actually be a cultural study of the fairer sex and getting it published as genre fiction!! and screw the pre-pub reviews. Sure I hope I resonate with kirkus someday but then again they love a bunch of what I most affectionately call…..well, crap.

In the end, if you resonate with your readers then you have done what we all aspire to; and a genre, a reviewer, even the industry can never promise you that. You have to find that on your own.

so I’ve taken up a ton of space with the most insane of tangients and don’t even get me started on the TV pandering to the lowest common denominator since no one understood what the hell was going on in “twin peaks”…..

keep writing, to hell with genres…..

xo-LR

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LaurenBaratz-Logsted October 8, 2006 at 11:48 am

Lance, that’s a great post. A lot of writers I know never originally set out to write Chick-Lit – Stephanie Lessing, Ellen Meister, and myself among them – but the publishers package them that way so there you go. I, like many writers, simply write the books I’m moved to write; once that part’s finished, others decide how they’ll designate it/package it. That said, I have seen many writers, trying to break in, try to write a certain kind of novel – Chick-Lit, literary – because they think it will be easy or bring them respect. It’s a mug’s game, but people do it all the time.

“You are a positive and powerful force, and it means so much to me that you’re here!” – Susan, does this mean you’ll invite me to interview Franzen next time? (Kidding. Kidding!)

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Susan Henderson October 8, 2006 at 1:35 pm

Gail – Thanks! I’m not posting again until tomorrow morning, so get to work on that collection. I’m excited to read it.

Lance – Amen to Lance! “In the end, if you resonate with your readers then you have done what we all aspire to.”

Lauren – Oh, and let us have an amen for Lauren! “I, like many writers, simply write the books I’m moved to write.” Culture and marketers will dictate the rest. All we can stay focussed on is writing what we’re compelled to write and hoping it resonates.

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Joe October 8, 2006 at 2:33 pm

From a readers perspective, genre categories have limited use other than comparing a book to prototypical books within the category. How does a mystery writer stack up to Chandler or Poe or example. But even there, who cares? If it’s a good book it’s a good book and vice versa. I remember reading an interview with Dan Simmons about genre from the marketing side. His complaint was that he could sell 600,000 copies of one of his Science Fiction books yet, when he writes a mystery or general fiction book he doesn’t exist as far as the computers at Barnes & Noble are concerned. He’s starting from scratch or worse, his publisher and agent tell him he risks alienating his audience.

Genres and categorization: Jorge Luis Borges wrote a piece on taxonomy. In it, he created a mythical Chinese encyclopedia that organized animals into into categories such as -belonging to the Emperor, embalmed, stray dogs, animals included in this list, animals that from a long way off look like flies etc. Classification doesn’t necessarily further understanding if you accept the categories a priori. Questioning authority is healthy (except under the current administration).

From this readers perspective, I hate having to look in four or five different sections of the book store to find the works of one author. How about fiction & non-fiction as categories? But then where would we put the memoir of G. Gordon Liddy?

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LaurenBaratz-Logsted October 8, 2006 at 2:51 pm

“How about fiction & non-fiction as categories? But then where would we put the memoir of G. Gordon Liddy?” – Perhaps next to the one from James Frey?

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mikel k October 8, 2006 at 8:01 pm

is there guy lit?

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Lance Reynald October 8, 2006 at 10:09 pm

yeah Mike-
the beats, Chuck P., Houellebecq, Camille Paglia and Elizabeth Berg. 😉

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Stephanie Lessing October 9, 2006 at 3:01 pm

I feel like I suddenly know all of these incredibly intelligent, fair-minded people where there once was none. Who are you people? And where do you live? I love reading these comments and I now have a new place to park myself every morning when I’m supposed to be writing. Thank you, all of you, for coming together and giving me a legitimate reason to procrastinate.

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mikel k October 9, 2006 at 6:33 pm

lan:

my name is not “mike” it s mikel. thanks..

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Susan Henderson October 9, 2006 at 7:35 pm

Joe – Sometimes I think I’d like all the books to be together and alphabetical, but I kind of like my little nook, where all my favorites seem to be clumped.

If you find that Borges article, pass me a link, okay?

Lauren – Speaking of Frey, I have a piece going up on Huffington any moment. Hopefully the shit won’t hit the fan, as they say.

Mikel K – Don’t worry, I just punched Lance in the arm for calling you Mike.

Lance – Great list. Um, actually, I think if you do a Google on “dick lit,” you’ll find a genre there. You may find some other things, too, so don’t do that Google search at work, maybe.

Stephanie – I’m so glad you’re here! And yeah, isn’t it good company?

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Lance Reynald October 9, 2006 at 9:00 pm

OW! Susan punches like a guy!!

Sorry Mikel, I often drop, omit or misplace letters when typing fast….good thing I don’t charge by the keystroke. :)

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mikel k October 9, 2006 at 9:49 pm

thanks lance…pet peeve, maybe i ll get into it in the aliases arena…i m sorry susan hit you!

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LaurenBaratz-Logsted October 9, 2006 at 10:10 pm

Uh-oh, Susan. “Shit”? “Fan”? Thaat’s supposed to be *my* job.

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n.l. belardes October 11, 2006 at 11:32 pm

I admit I’m a late chick lit reader bloomer. I think the name ‘chick lit’ is silly. I think it’s just good fiction when done well… As a guy reading chick lit, I want to associate with any strong character who overcomes odds as the underdog. That’s the competitor in me… I hope to read some of the above mentioned books, and to learn from them…

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