Each year, RWA recognizes excellence in romance writing through the RITAs, considered the top honor in the genre. Though awards are presented in a dozen categories, a writer has just one shot in her career to win the Best First Book award. This interview series focuses on the debut authors nominated in that category. Alyson H undertook to bring this idea to Dear Author and completed all the interviews. This is our last interview. The winner of the Best First Book award will be announced this Saturday.
(U.K. title: The Wrong Sort of Wife?)
[Time: mid-spring. Place: a bench at a noisy playground.]
Boon Companion: What’s your book?
Alyson H.: Your Roots Are Showing by this new author, Elise Chidley. Get this-‘this woman-‘she’s a mom with toddlers, and she writes an e-mail to her sister, complaining about how boring her life is, and how her husband just doesn’t do it for her anymore, even though he’s gorgeous and rich and most of all, British, and then-‘and then! She accidentally sends it to her husband! Instead of her sister! And he leaves her!
BC: Because of that? Must have been some e-mail.
AH: Oh, yeah. (Sound of electronic pages flipping.) Look.
BC: (Reads. Sucks in breath.) Okay. My husband would leave me too, if I said that. So, what-‘it’s like sad and angsty?
AH: No. I mean, it’s touching-‘poignant, you know, but soooo funny. And inspiring. I unfolded my elliptical thingy last week and started using it, and it’s all because Lizzie takes up running as one way to put her life back together.
BC: Wow. You’re exercising. I wanna read it.
AH: I’d lend you my copy after I finish, but- (Holds up ebook reader.)
BC: Lousy DRM.
About Your Roots Are Showing–
First, a six-word memoir for your protagonist Lizzie:
Cinderella can’t shake the baby blues.
What were the original "triggers" or inspiration points for this story?
The original trigger was a house we rented briefly while living in England. It became the inspiration for the awkward, stripped-down house Lizzie finds herself in after her husband, James, walks out on her. I remember standing in the lobby of that house under the bare light bulb and thanking my lucky stars I didn’t have to deal with it alone. And yet there was something weirdly attractive about the place-‘what it lacked in "good bones’ it made up for in potential, if you just had a little imagination. So, rather than dealing physically with the house (which was temporary) I dealt with it at a fantasy level, making it the place where my heroine reinvents herself.
I would have guessed the misdirected e-mail scenario started things off. When did that aspect become part of the story?
The misdirected e-mail bit is based on various electronic mishaps that have befallen members of my family (and that’s all I’m going to say about that). Once I knew I wanted to write a story about a suddenly-single mum in a house so bare that it was a complete clean slate, I then had to come up with a reason why she was in this house without her husband. That’s when I developed the e-mail angle.
Your favorite line, moment, or scene in the book:
I love the moment when Lizzie’s estranged husband finds her out in the garden in a bikini, trying to stem the flow of a burst water pipe with her well-muscled new friend, Bruno, a landscape gardener. I really relish the thought of how James must be squirming-‘as well he might!
In your author’s note, you said one of your goals for the book was to “write something uplifting about a topic [postpartum depression] that’s not covered very much.” Did anyone warn you it was kind of risky to have a depressed protagonist? What did you do to make sure Lizzie wasn’t too passive and-‘ah-‘depressing a lead character?
Because the novel is romantic comedy, I tried to get around the ‘depressing’ aspects of Lizzie’s situation by showing the funny side of things. In my first draft, I think Lizzie was probably too introspective and bogged down in her situation. She spent a lot of time in her mind, rather than doing things. On the advice of my agent and editor(s), I made Lizzie more active-‘even so, most of the drama is in Lizzie’s own head. I always find stories of transformation uplifting, so I’m hoping my readers will too.
Among the projects Lizzie pursues in an effort to rebuild her life is the book of children’s nonsense verses she writes. The bits you include in the novel are delightful! Are there more where those came from?
I’m afraid I don’t have any more about the girl who would only wear pink, but one of these days I intend to write an epic nonsense poem about pirates for my son.
You included a lot of pairs in the book, it seems: Lizzie has twins, and two close friends. Two possible love interests for her, and two for her estranged husband James. Two gardens, two houses. Two important swimming pool scenes. Is this craft or subconscious at work?
Wow, there are lots of pairs, aren’t there? That was subconscious, but I think all these pairs underline one very important pairing: the two versions of Lizzie (depressed/run-down Lizzie versus reconstructed/’renovated’ Lizzie). The bottom line is, Lizzie has to make herself strong enough to survive alone before she has a decent shot at sharing her life. She has to reclaim the woman she was before sleep deprivation, pregnancy hormones, and the company of toddlers turned her into someone she probably would have found a bit of a bore, back in her single days.
What’s the best or most unusual fan mail you received about Your Roots Are Showing?
A group of women in South Carolina tracked me down through my web site and asked me to send them some questions for their book club meeting. They found the book at Target and loved it! Better still, somebody wrote a note to me today with the subject heading: Your Roots Are Ripping Out My Guts!
Your Roots Are Showing is your first published book, but was it really your first book?
No. My first book was a Regency romance written when I was sixteen, about a girl who dresses up as a boy to win a horse race. It stayed in a drawer for ages but eventually I fed it to a shredder.
From the decision to write for publication to the "sold" call: How long?
About three years. I wrote in a very "part time’ way because I had three children under the age of four when I started the book.
How did you find your agent?
I made an email approach to someone who had just left a big agency to start his own operation. I figured he would need new writers, and I was right.
Your biggest surprise, pleasant or otherwise, about being a published author:
The biggest surprise is that, when your book is finally in print, you still haven’t achieved your goal. You’re only at the beginning of the journey. I had no idea writers had to work so hard on the publicity aspects of publishing.
What’s coming up next from you?
I have a novel coming out in the UK, in November, called Married with Baggage.
Your weirdest or most reliable writing ritual/habit:
My most reliable habit is going back a few pages and editing-‘it makes breaking out onto the blank page easier, somehow. Perhaps my weirdest habit is taking a bath when I need inspiration. Lying with my head in a cloud of steam seems to stimulate deep areas in my brain.
Writing advice you’re glad you followed or ignored:
People always tell you to write what you know. I think you should start out from that premise, but in the end you always have to write what you don’t know.
Three items within arm’s reach when you write:
A cup of tea, paper and a pen.
Biggest distraction and how you deal with it:
The biggest distraction for me is the Internet. Whenever I have an "off’ moment, the siren song of the virtual world grows very loud. So far, I haven’t dealt with this issue very well, but I’m thinking about making a rule that I can only check email messages three times a day.
As a RITA Nominee-
How did you celebrate the nomination?
Champagne and lots of phone calls; oh, and cyber cocktails with the Chick Lit Writers of the World.
Wearing or carrying any lucky charms to the awards ceremony?
Hmmm. Hadn’t thought of that. Is it too late to become superstitious?
The author who, despite your usual poise and eloquence, would reduce you to a blathering fangirl if you found yourself sitting next to her/him at the ceremony:
First person you’ll hug/text/call if you win:
A Little More Personal-
Your paying job(s) pre- and post-publication:
I’ve worked in journalism, publicity and as a college lecturer in English. Right now, I’m a "home executive’ -there’s no pay, but the perks are fabulous.
An author or book you recommend again and again:
I love Catherine Alliott, an English romantic comedy writer who can make me laugh out loud in public places. I’m always recommending I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith.
A favorite guilty pleasure:
Chocolate. Always chocolate.
Your own "best first":
My own best first: my first positive pregnancy test. I should have kept that little stick with its weedy pink line, framed it, and made it the focal point of the living room decor! I’ve seldom felt prouder of anything in my life.
Your Roots Are Showing (published in the UK as The Wrong Sort of Wife?) is also up for the award for Contemporary Single Title Romance. Winners will be announced at the RWA national conference in July. Elise’s website is www.elisechidley.com.