Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Q&A with author Melissa Senate

Today is a big day for author Melissa Senate. Her latest book, The Secret of Joy, is finally available! I've long been a fan of Melissa's work and am very pleased to share this inspiring interview with you here on the blog. Please join me in welcoming Melissa Senate!

Hi Melissa. Can you tell us about The Secret of Joy?
28-year-old New Yorker Rebecca Strand is shocked to discover, via her father’s deathbed confession, that she has a 26-year old half-sister he turned his back on at birth. Determined to make up for her father’s actions, Rebecca takes the cache of letters he wrote every year on her birthday—but never sent—and knocks on Joy Jayhawk’s door in a small Maine town. She doesn’t receive the warmest welcome, but is determined to forge some kind of family relationship. With the help of the Divorced Ladies Club of Wiscasset, a hot carpenter named Theo, and one cute little black dog, Rebecca just may end up unlocking the secret of joy for herself and several other characters.

Okay. But what’s it really about?
At its core, The Secret of Joy is about what family really means. Let’s say you’ve never met your biological father and then his other daughter, the one who grew up with him, comes knocking on your door saying you’re sisters. Are you? Does sister just mean you share DNA? This is a very personal question for me, and one that I wanted to explore in my fiction to help me figure out my own life. Several years ago, I received an email out of the blue with the subject header: I think you might be my half sister. I was. Am. This raised so many questions for me, and I did what writers do: flipped everything on its head in a fictional scenario and sent my characters off to explore my burning questions.

Let’s hear more about your next book, The Mosts. What propelled you to write a novel for teens?
The Mosts is about Most Popular, Madeline Echols, whose standing at her high school is suddenly threatened by her best friend, her boyfriend—and a group of “misfits” who hire her to help them make the Not List. Just as there’s a “Most Popular” and a “Most Hot” at their school, there’s a “Least Popular” and a “Least Hot.” And the Meanies make that underground list. Madeline’s entire life, entire perspective, changes when a “Not” asks her help in keeping off that list.

My teen years were such a time of confusion and angst (yeah, I know it’s like that for everyone!) that I wanted to write a novel about the struggle for identity, finding out who you are, what you think, what you want. I also wanted to explore what it’s like to be on both sides: are the glittering, popular girls really leading such charmed lives, or does it just appear that way? Are the supposed misfits really misfits? Or are they just happily themselves and others can’t deal with their lack of conformity? The Mosts will be published June 2010 by Random House’s Delacorte imprint.

What are some of your favorite YA titles?
Anything by Susan Juby, Carolyn Mackler, Melissa Kantor, and the wonderful Meg Cabot. I’ve also been re-reading some gems that I loved from my generation, like Paula Danziger’s The Cat Ate My Gymsuit.

You’re very prolific. Tell us about your current work-in-progress.
I’m staring down a January 1st deadline for my next women’s fiction novel for Simon & Schuster. It’s tentatively titled The Love Goddess’s Cooking School and is about five people taking an Italian cooking course. It involves delicious Italian cooking, the teensiest bit of magic, a little romance, and the exploration of many types of relationships (my favorite subject).

What sort of research have you been eating? Oops, I mean discovering!
One talent I wished I had (aside from being able to sing and play an instrument) is to cook. I stink. Everything I make comes out either awful or passable. So I just don’t cook and I feel bad about it. The protagonist of the novel I’m writing now is leading an Italian cooking course, but she can’t cook either (and luckily for her, her students, like her, are seeking something other than making a good risotto). She discovers there’s a secret to cooking and it turns her into a pretty good cook. I tried out my secret-theory on many recipes for Italian dishes—involving lots of cheese, lots of cream sauces, and lots of stuffed pasta, and of course, tiramisu.

Tell us a bit about your journey as an author.
I didn’t mean to become a writer. In the year 2000, I was a fiction editor on my way to graduate school to study urban education and teach English in the New York City public school system. The summer before school started, I received a call from a former colleague who told me about a new imprint Harlequin was creating for chick lit books, and since I was a walking, breathing chick lit cliché (editor, serial dater, life contemplator), if I wanted to work on a proposal, she’d love to see it. Well, I’d pretty much given up on the idea of writing (even though I’d been a creative writing major in college) because I’d been so discouraged by fancy writing workshops that made me feel my chick lit voice wasn’t good enough.

So that summer, I sat down and wrote the book that had been in my heart, mind and soul for years. I sent it off (See Jane Date) and Harlequin launched the Red Dress Ink imprint with it. (P.S. I did do a year of graduate school, but got so lucky with the writing career at that point that I dropped out to become a full time writer. One day, I want to finish and teach high school English.) I wrote six novels for Red Dress Ink, which folded last year, and one YA for Random House, one young adult novel for Random House, and I’m now writing women’s fiction for Simon & Schuster, with two novels in the hopper (another YA and another women’s fiction). The novel I’m writing now, The Love Goddess’s Cooking School will be my tenth. I almost can’t believe it.

I’ve had some amazing luck since that fateful call from my colleague. I’ve had a novel turned into a TV movie. I’ve been sent on a book tour of Italy. A segment Oprah’s producers taped of me almost made into onto her show, but I ended up the cutting room floor (even just being interviewed was a highlight). It’s been an amazing journey, but the best part is what I’m doing now: writing a novel, sweating through it, happy one paragraph, tearing my hair out the next. Learning.

What advice do you have for writers starting out?
Believe in yourself. Trust your gut because it knows. This is the best advice I can give.

You’ve been at this business for some time. How do you explain your staying power? Any tips for struggling authors?
Because I worked as an editor for a publishing house for so long before I became an author, I know that first and foremost, publishing is a business. And yes, I’ll say it: So is writing. I feel bad saying that because writing is so personal, so meaningful, something that comes from the heart, mind, soul, and marrow. But the part about the staying power—I think that comes from looking at writing as a business as much as looking at publishing as a business. As far as what that means, I’d say it’s just an awareness that if you want to sell your book to a publishing house, you must remember at all times that the editor you submit to has to sell your manuscript to her boss, the sales department, and the marketing department.

Tips: Be true to yourself, listen to your gut, but be AWARE. What’s going on in the world of publishing right now? What is everyone talking about? What are the big books? Why? Why are the NY Times bestsellers, in trade, mass market paperback and hardcover, on the list? What about those books gripped a zillion people? Why is the Twilight saga so special? And: doing your homework about submission procedures: how do you construct a query letter and a synopsis that will make an agent take note? There are some great books on craft and submission procedures. Study up! Enjoy the entire process.

How would you say the industry has changed since you debuted with See Jane Date?
For one, the words chick lit are not to be said aloud. Ssshhh. Someone might hear! Someone might think your novel is about a woman figuring out her place in the world! Nooooooo! Okay, can someone tell me why that’s bad? Annoying? Stupid? Shallow? Unworthy? There are light, frothy chick lit novels and there are more complex, deeply thoughtful chick lit novels. There is everything in between. I love chick lit in all its voices and variations. I wrote See Jane Date when I was a single, serial dater in NYC who was working in publishing. I wrote The Secret of Joy as single mother living in Maine. Boy is my life different than it was eight years ago. You can bet my fiction is different.

In terms of the industry, it’s changed because there were a gazillion chick lit books being published to meet demand, and then the happy bubble burst. Too much chick lit. Too many pink covers. What was special and unique and “Yes, someone is writing about life and how I feel!” became sort of dime-a-dozeny. So the pink covers went away. The I AM A CHICK LIT BOOK EVEN IF I’M NOT went away, much to many people’s joy. But books about a woman figuring out her life? There will always be a market.

How has this impacted your role as a working writer?
I think I’m lucky in that my life has naturally evolved right along with the change in the industry. Just when the chick lit market boomed, there I was, living a kind of chick lit life and burning to write that book. When it waned, my own life was in the middle of changing—I was getting married, having a baby. And when it burst, my life started to burst too—divorce, single motherhood. City to . . . Maine. My publisher calls my work contemporary women’s fiction. Perhaps the names, categories, labels will always change along with covers, with the market. But I do believe entertaining novels about the female experience will always be in demand.

How has social media and technology changed the way you connect with readers?
I love social media! I am an extroverted introvert, and I was made for Facebook and Twitter. Yes, I realize that’s a bit sad. But I love how easily I can connect with readers, writers, book bloggers/reviewers, industry professionals, and, yes, my best friend from third grade. I love that a reader who’s enjoyed my book can follow me on Twitter, which leads me to follow her, which leads me to learn about her life in short little tweetie bursts. That’s an amazing connection. I learn about why someone enjoyed my book by getting those short bursts about her life. And Facebook, with its access to pictures and friend lists and updates and links, etc., really lets you share yourself in a special way with readers. I, for instance, love knowing that Jennifer Weiner likes whoopie pies (a Maine favorite) or who Emily Giffen wants cast in the movie version of her book. Every time Margaret Atwood tweets, I’m in awe. Margaret Atwood! Suddenly there’s access in ways there never was.

We’ve talked about three of your upcoming releases. What else can readers expect from you in the near future?
Well, in June 2010 comes The Mosts, my second teen novel about a group of misfits who hire Most Popular to help them change their images (guess who changes the most?), and then in November 2010 my next women’s fiction novel, The Love Goddess’s Cooking School. I have my idea for my next novel and can’t wait to get started on it. It involves a bit of mystery.

How can readers learn more about you and your books?
By visiting my website: http://www.melissasenate.com/ and by friending me on Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/MelissaSenate) and following me on Twitter (http://twitter.com/MelissaSenate). I love hearing from readers and fellow writers, so drop me a line anytime at MelissaSenate at yahoo.com

Thanks, Melissa! I appreciate you taking the time to talk about your latest news and upcoming releases.
Thanks, Lori!


Be sure to visit your local bookshop to pick up a copy of The Secret of Joy. Or, you can always click here to buy from amazon.com.

Thanks for visiting the blog today. I hope you've enjoyed the Q&A with Melissa Senate.

See you next time!

1 comment :

  1. that was wonderful! thanks lori and melissa. smart advice, interesting writer. (i'm an introverted extrovert. god bless social media indeed!)