When word went around the offices at Harlequin that the romance
publishing giant was about to launch a "chick lit" line, many of the company's employees
expressed an immediate interest in working with the new imprint. "I wasn't reading chick lit-
-it seemed kind of redundant to read it when I was living it," recalls Lynda Curnyn, who
works as an editor in Harlequin's New York office, "they knew exactly what the line was
about." But a senior editor told her that she should consider writing a book for the new line,
because she was "single and funny." She had been working on another novel that wasn't
getting anywhere, so she decided to give it a shot; the result was Confessions of an Ex-
Girlfriend. Meanwhile, Sarah Mlynowski was working in the Toronto marketing office,
and reading of the newly popular genre as she could. "At the time, there was still just
Bridget Jones and a few other British writers," she remembers. But she knew that
these were the sort of books she wanted to write, and started working on Milkrun
with Red Dress in mind. I recently met up with Lynda and Sarah at a diner a few blocks
away from Harlequin for a lunchtime chat between the publication of Confessions
and Sarah's second novel, Fishbowl.
RH: Sarah, after transferring to New York, you recently decided to quit your day job
and write full-time.
SM: Yes, at the beginning of the summer. I used to write at night after work and on
the weekends. It was really difficult with the first novel, but I was determined to do it. I just
got completely overwhelmed, trying to write Fishbowl around my job. It's hard when
you can see the end of your book so clearly, but you can't quite get there because you just
can't find the time. I knew that I didn't want to do both anymore, or I'd go insane, so I quit
my job. And it was the right decision at that point. Everybody wants to be able to just write,
but it takes a while to get to the point where you feel comfortable enough and competent
enough to really do it. It's a huge risk.
RH: Have you ever thought about taking that plunge, Lynda?
LC: Not at the moment. My job is fun. I work with all kinds of books, everything
from super sexy to sweet and funny... I've been there ten years now, and I work with a lot of
great writers. I will say that it's hard to juggle the job and the writing. I write in the
mornings, usually, but with the deadline looming, now I'm writing mornings and nights. I
wake up at 5:30, because I'm clearer until that time of day. I write until about 8 and then go
to work. If the writing's going really well, I'll write a little longer and go to work with bad
hair. (smiles) The first book was easy. It just came out of me like a dream I'd been
holding in for a long time. This second one requires so much concentration, which is hard
to maintain when you're working full time.
RH: How autobiographical, if at all, have your books been?
SM: I think a lot of what people write is based on some part of their life which
they then exaggerate, mix it up and turn it into something else entirely. Milkrun was
definitely more directly autobiographical than Fishbowl, and more than the new one,
but there are elements of me in everything I write, in every character.
LC: I'd say that's true of me, too. When I wrote Confessions, I was in a
longterm relationship, so the idea for the story grew out of a fear of what life would be like
if I was suddenly dumped. So I wrote a book from that premise, and I naturally drew on real
life for some of the inspiration for characters and settings. (I broke up with him after I wrote
the book, but for the record, that boyfriend is not the boyfriend in the book.) The second
book is about a single woman who realizes all her ex-boyfriends have gotten married, so
now she's wondering if her current boyfriend is going to marry her or dump her for
somebody else. I've been in situations like that, but never to the extremes she's in. She does
a lot of manipulating, trying to get a proposal out of her boyfriend. So the starting points are
really more like "what ifs?" that start from my real life but then go in totally different
RH: When you're dating now, do you ever find yourself thinking that the date could
make a good scene for one of your stories?
LC: Oh, sure. The guys I date now are always telling me, "Oh, you should write
this down." I just broke up with a guy recently, and during our last long conversation,
apparently I was very witty, because he kept telling me I should write this stuff down, that it
was good material. And I'm thinking, "Wait, this is my real life!" But I don't usually think
about using something at the time. Later, while I'm writing, I might realize that something
fits the story and put it in.
SM: Right, but it has to go with the story. It has to do something for the plot, or
tell you something about the character. I'm always writing down stuff that people say... And
I find that people always ask me to put them in the book. Especially guys. Every guy I
meet--not dating, because I have a boyfriend--will tell me I can use something that happened
and put them in the book.
RH: Do people call you up after the book's out and say, "That's me, isn't it?"
LC: Oh, yeah. Like there was one character in my first book, and every woman I
know thought it was based on her, and then I realized it was because she was a really likable
person. And I think, "Okay, if you want that character to be you, fine." Most of the time,
though, I wasn't even thinking of them.
SM: All of my ex-roommates thought they were the anal roommate in
Milkrun. But I also find that when you really do base a character on someone, they
don't see it.
RH: When the two of you were both at Harlequin, did you know you were each
working on a Red Dress book?
SM: I started mine before Lynda...
LC: ...and I'd heard that she was writing one, and that Melissa Senate (a former
Harlequin editor who wrote the first Red Dress novel, See Jane Date) was writing
one as well, so that really spurred me to ask myself, "Well, why can't I write one as
SM: But we were working in different offices--I was in Toronto then--and I don't
think we'd ever met. It wasn't until we started working on another in-house project together
that we got to know each other, first in email and then over the phone. And now we're
LC: After I sold the book, I went up to Toronto, and the two of us went to this bar
that I call "Orgasm," because it's just like the bar with that name in her book. We sat there
with our drinks, smiling to ourselves and saying, "We're writers!"
RH: You two cover the spectrum in dating experience, in part because of the age
LC: Yeah, yeah, I'm the wise old broad! (laughs)
SM: Yeah, but I'm the one who's settling down while she's single!
LC: She's all ready to get married! I'd read about that somewhere recently, that
women in their twenties are getting married more often now, while women in our thirties are
waiting. Although I've been told that maybe I shouldn't be waiting... (smiles) What's
really bizarre is that despite everything you see in the media now, I felt more pressure five
years ago, when I'd just turned thirty, than I do now. Now I feel like, "What's the hurry?" I
don't want to make a bad choice, so I'll wait for the right guy. It'd be so stupid to wait until
now to make the wrong choice.
SM: Our writing styles are very different, too. Lynda's is almost perfectly geared
towards the women's fiction genre, and mine tends more towards the absurd.
LC: Right, she goes for the laugh-out-loud funny, almost Seinfeldesque humor.
There's a focus on small details that get blown up to absurd levels.
RH: With Fishbowl, Sarah, you raise the bar for yourself, taking on multiple
protagonists and narrators after having written a single first-person narrator.
SM: I couldn't write the same book again. Every book has to be different, or I find
myself bored as a writer. I found I got much more into the plot with this book. In
Milkrun, I was discovering the character, and she sort of fell into the things that
happened to her, but here I felt a much tighter control over what was happening. I let the
funny scenes arrive natrually from the situation that the characters were in. And I'm trying to
get even better control over plot with the next book. I've learned how important plot is to a
story, how it helps make the book more readable.
RH: What's the biggest advice either of you would offer to a potential Red Dress
SM: The hardest part of writing a book is finishing it. I meet at least one person a
day who says they want to write a book, but out of the whole year, maybe ten of those
people will finish it. So that's the main thing: finish the book, and worry about everything
else later. The other problem is that so much of chick lit is the woman gets dumped by her
boyfriend story. Sure, that's exactly what I did in Milkrun, and what Lynda did in
Confessions, but the market is just so saturated with those stories now, it'll be much
harder to get those stories published. You have to go more "high concept." I just read
Jennifer Belle's two books last week, for example, and they're just great, absolutely
hysterical. In one, the protagonist becomes a prostitute, and in the other, she becomes a real
estate agent--and I think it's great to take the chick lit genre and give your book that extra
little twist and then let your voice come through as you tell the story.
LC: Don't be afraid to be true, to write something that's real, even if you're going
"high concept." I've written pages of crazy stuff for my second novel, only to look at it and
say, "Wait, real people don't do that." That's one of the hardest parts of writing fiction, I
think, staying true to what's real.