The Long Pastel Shadow

Women's Fiction

I, like many authors whose marketing category is ‘women’s fiction’ have deeply ambivalent feelings about this term, and so when Jeanette Winterson posted a picture of a bonfire of her own books, unhappy with the new edition, I took notice. “Absolutely hated the cosy little domestic blurbs on my new covers,” Winterson wrote. “Turned me into wimmins fiction of the worst kind!”

I’m not treading new ground when I note the term women’s fiction irks me. Jennifer Weiner is a long-time critic of the way that “chick lit” and “women’s fiction” (which are two distinct marketing categories, but are used interchangeably by some outlets). In a 2019 interview with Salon, she noted that the term makes cover decisions even more weighty:

You have to package it so carefully. In my reading last night, this topic came up and I was talking about Meg Wolitzer's books and how carefully those covers are designed to make sure that there's not a woman, there's not a beach, there's not a flower, there's no Eiffel Tower with a beautifully dressed woman photographed from behind in the mist. The subtexts of those covers is, "Men, you can read this and be OK. You will not get your period. It will all be fine. "


I’m a member of the WFWA— the Women’s Fiction Writers Association, an organization that by and large saved my creativity in the pandemic with its zoom write-ins. I joined in March of last year and only wrote during the hell hole that was 2020 because I had those people by my (virtual) side.

But I have to ask myself, whenever I see “women’s fiction”, do they mean on the writing side? On the reading side? Who is the woman, and why is she probably facing away from the camera on the cover?

I write stories about women’s lives, but not only about women or only about experiences which are defined by gender or sex characteristics. Many of my readers identify as women, but not all. I also think the term feels unwelcoming to readers or writers who are nonbinary. I identify as a woman, but honestly if my books were to fit into a marketing category to help them find readership, there are a number of options that would make more sense: upmarket commercial fiction, book club fiction, Midwestern fiction— those ring more true to me. Just like calling something “American fiction” is likely to not really help define who the category for a book is, “women’s fiction” also doesn’t have any specific language to define it’s content beyond “it has women in it.”

I wouldn’t be out of bounds to call much of Fredrick Backman’s work “women’s fiction"— especially his novels Britt-Marie was Here and My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell Me She’s Sorry, but his publisher puts his work under Fiction: Literary and Fiction: Humorous. Two-time National Book Award finalist Lauren Groff took to Twitter a few months ago to note that her forthcoming novel Matrix was being categorized as women’s fiction on Netgalley when her ARCs were released. [note: currently it is listed on her publisher’s website as women’s fiction and literary fiction].

The books I read which are categorized as women’s fiction run the gambit from lighter novels set in beach towns with happy endings, to sweeping, multigenerational family dramas, to historical fiction from typically underrepresented groups. Speaking to my fellow WFWA members, many of us have little in common, genre wise, beyond that most of us identify as women while writing about women. Below is a screenshot from the marketing category of “Women’s Fiction” from Simon and Schuster. Mixed in the top titles are classics, thrillers, commercial fiction, historical fiction, upmarket fiction, and mysteries.

Liv Stratman’s Cheat Day is a particular example, where the main character is slowly starving herself— literally and by depriving herself of meaningful relationships— while working at her family’s bakery. It’s an darkly funny and richly-wrought novel about fidelity and friendships, and the fucked-up notion of body that so many of us drag around with ourselves. The cake on the cover is lovely, but also many of its Goodreads reviews state blatently “this is not light-hearted chicklit,” sometimes removing stars when it fails to live up to the cake’s sweet premise. No matter the honesty in the back copy, covers speak.

Elena Ferrante’s covers have gotten much backlash from broader audiences. In The Atlantic, Emily Hartnett writes about the coercion in their design.

[Ferrante’s] covers… have earned comparisons to  “$4 romance book[s] found in an American gas station. ” The complaints are so numerous that Ferrante’s publisher even expressed concern to Slate that “many people didn’t understand the game we we’re playing, that of, let’s say, dressing an extremely refined story with a touch of vulgarity.”

Hartnett calls these covers “the long pastel shadow” over Ferrante’s readers.

I can’t stop thinking about that phrase.


Can I rage about a marketing category when I’m new to it? My debut novel published in 2020. The premise: Gus is an entomologist. While researching abroad for his dissertation, Gus’s twin brother has an anyerysm. Gus returns home to pick up the pieces of his family ripped apart years earlier. Except, my main character is Greta, not Gus. My cover is bright, though not every part of the novel is. Like Stratman’s novel, (before I wised up and stopped reading reviews on Goodreads) I noticed low ratings from readers that expected something different. (Goodreads also does “have a woman” problem in general— loved this piece.)

In Lithub, Stacey D’Erasmo wrote about writing without a woman’s name for a year. Her piece is worth reading, especially for women-identifying writers of literary fiction. She notes,

To wit: if you’re a woman who writes, and you want to be taken seriously in America, your female characters better be significantly damaged, mutilated, self-mutilating, self-hating, and/or anorexic either literally or psychically. Do not, under any circumstances, have a body that gives you anything but trouble, suffering, and humiliation. Alternatively, retreat up to the innermost recesses of your mind, like a nun in a bare attic.

I do not plan to make my career in literary fiction— it’s not my genre— and I’m not ashamed to write books which book clubs read. Personally, I’m in four book clubs (yes, only with other women), and meeting with book clubs (yes, they only included women) on Zoom has been the highlight of my year so far. I want to continue to sell books, I promise, and the projects I have finished all do revolve around women’s stories. Will they be labeled as women’s fiction? Most likely, because publishing takes a long time to change, but I am hopeful for evolution in the future. The truth is that women buy most books; by most surveys, that means 80% of all book sales. Doesn’t that also make the broadness of the “women’s fiction” category less useful for buyers and readers?

I don’t have a neat bow to tie up all of this musing, except that Women’s Fiction Day is June 8. I am taking part in a day of conversation with other authors who write in this marketing category and invite you to participate if you’d like. Also, I’ll be doing an ebook giveaway to people who subscribed to this newsletter, so I guess do that, too?

Healing through Horror

An Ode to 'Bad' Horror Movies

When I was in high school, I was accepted into a summer program at the Pennsylvania Governor’s School for the Arts. Govie school was a five-week, free, live-in experience for sixteen- and seventeen-year-old artsy kids. After reading and discussing modern short stories for the first time in my life, I and the other nine fiction writers huddled down in our computer lab to build a daily writing practice. We also workshopped, a new experience for us. Away from home for my first extended period, I felt free to explore things I had never written before. My first workshop contribution was a five-page, god-awful story about a high school girl who has a fling. gets pregnant, and considers abortion. This was as not-me as I could get--virgin that I was in a Catholic high school. While writing the story, I felt invincible and imaginative, but workshop was brutal. I remember my fellow govies digging into the awful come-on line that the guy had whispered in the heroine’s ear in the booth of a pizza parlor, “I wish I could be what you needed.”

My fellow writers repeated it to each other. “I wish I could be what you needed.” Laughed. Repeated it again.

That didn’t work, I thought. With four weeks remaining, I was determined to do better. Looking out hadn’t worked, and so I turned inward to pick at my scars. I had been eight years old when my brother died. His leukemia diagnosis came a few days after the Super Bowl, and by early March, his body had shut down from the chemotherapy. There’s a picture of me from that period celebrating my February birthday at the hospital, a new Winnie the Pooh baseball cap atop my head and my sixteen-year-old brother smiling beside me in a hospital gown. Less than a month later, a priest gave him the sacrament of last rites in our living room.

Passing his age, becoming bigger than my big brother, unsettled tectonic plates I didn’t know had separated in me, and so for my second story, I experimented with autofiction. I hid behind the child-narrator’s voice, changing the names and keeping everything else largely the same. Grief is hard to workshop. My story-not-story met with no workshop teasing, and I read it on stage to the other hundred govies to wide applause. This story-not-story won me college scholarships and a trip to the White House as a Presidential Scholar of the Arts. I excelled in the interviews when the subject of the story came up for additional scholarships. One interviewer patted my hand and told me she was sorry. Grief as a personality substitute felt convenient and potent, but grief had a brother, too, in my latent and persistent fear of death.

My parents did all the right things after my brother’s death: they sent me to a class for grieving children, where I got a bubble chart with pictures of faces on it with emotions I had never heard of before. Anxious. Aggravated. Glum. Despite the help, I struggled. I had been an imaginative child, but my imagination attacked me. I sat on my closet floor and thought, on an endless loop, this moment I could die. Or this moment. Or this moment.

My next-door neighbor growing up had an endless cycle of fascinations, cycling through Star Wars, Pokémon, pogs, and marbles. I followed him dutifully into each new craze, and spent a lot of time at his house—he had cable TV and a video game system, where I did not. After my brother died, my neighbor’s new hobby became connecting with the dead. My neighbor bought a Ouiji board. He lent me Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, which I did not read, in the dark or otherwise. A month or so after my brother was buried, my neighbor conjured Bloody Mary in the mirror in his upstairs bathroom. Words already felt imbued with so much meaning—after all , what had last rites been to my brother in my eyes but words and water, which somehow brought God there. Here we were, with words and water again, staring into the dark mirror. You were, my neighbor instructed, supposed to say Bloody Mary three times.

Bloody Mary.

Bloody Mary.

I left before the third time, whacking against the counter in the dark, afraid of what I would see in the mirror. Afraid of what would see me.


On Saturday nights during college, my friends and I would physically go to Blockbuster-- this dates me-- and choose low-budget campy horror films to hate-watch together. Sipping vodka and juice, we’d cackle as we watched Death Bed and the entire Final Destination franchise. I had never been able to watch horror movies before, but sitting in that dark felt different than the dark I experienced in my closet alone thinking I could die this moment. This moment. This moment. Different than the bathroom dark. In Final Destination, death was inescapable-- logs through windshields and elevator shafts disasters and tanning beds locking like clam shells-- but it could be mocked. Death Bed, subtitled The Bed that Eats, is divided into segments around eating times: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, and at the end, Just Desserts. It eats people, and mostly, it eats women, and specifically, women who just had sex. My favorite horror movie is Chopping Mall, where coeds throw a party at a mall after-hours and get hunted down by the security robots run amok. It’s ridiculous in the way that bad horror can be, as unbelievable as my early writing about romance in a pizza parlor. Bad horror movies always have a way to get the heroine out of her bra just before she dies.

Write what you know, writers are taught, but don’t write yourself. Most people I know who write novels have an obsessive streak, like picking at a scab every day until it scars. Some novels are bloodletting, active and conscious, about the trauma of our pasts through the gaze of another character. In an interview with PEN America, Brandon Taylor discusses this process for writing his main character in Real Life: “ [He is]... similar to me, but not me. And then I let the story work on him. To me, you can take situations and scenarios from life, and run them as a kind of simulation in fiction. Fiction is this virtual space where you can revisit things and view them from other angles.” Twisting reality, replaying past relationships through concave mirrors, can cause you to actively question the past and wish to remaster it, or perhaps, master it for the first time. Add the lasers, remove the strings.

In writing what became The Butterfly Effect, I tried to examine the complications and comfort that siblings can bring when offering care to one another. In the plot of my novel, Greta’s brother has a health emergency. In my case, my brother’s cancer came when I was too young to truly understand, let alone offer support. While publicizing a book, authors often write essays about intention, and many authors—especially female-presenting authors—are asked, “Did your real life inspire this?” or “Are you the main character?” I didn’t write this novel just because my brother died, but writing this novel did help exorcise part of my latent survivor’s guilt. I first found a not-me to hide behind, but her threat and mine were similar. Writing Greta and Danny’s relationship felt like telling my brother’s memory over and over again, “I wish I could have been what you needed.”


My father died ten days after the release of my novel. Because of pandemic shipping delays, he never got to hold my novel in his hands or find out that I had dedicated it to him. I have been hit with a second wave of grief, this time, as an adult. I am trying to swim in it, not drown. I try to tread water as the detritus of the relationship with him that can never change floats around me. But I am not scared of death because of his death, as I was as a child.  

In a way I didn’t understand until my late-twenties, the act of watching horror rewired my assumptions about myself. I could meet the thing that scared me on my terms. I could watch Bloody Mary without her watching me back. I could understand and grapple with my fear, which held me back. I could disconnect from death by mocking it. An anti-memento mori.

I don’t watch much horror these days, but I read it-- actively search it out and read it past dark. I skim other people’s nightmares even though, I am always conscious of terrible possibilities. As a woman, I still fear the dark and noises outside my window. Sometimes when I stare into the mirror after a year of pandemic and new grief, I think that things that could look back at me couldn’t be scarier than what looks in at them. Sometimes my anger feels like fuel, something possessing and hot, and I think I could break this mirror this moment. Or this moment. Or this moment. And my action, my ability to stare at shadows, feels like escaping.

First [Everything] Without

How I lied but maybe it was for the best

Let me tell you a quick story. First, if you are a child, DO NOT READ THIS. It’s about taxes and what hemaroids are and you don’t want to know.

——

—-

Okay, no kids? Perfect. So when I was five, I found out that Santa didn’t exist. I found a huge present in my mom’s closet— a horse barn with plastic horses. [lazy present hiding is a family trait and I am sure I will be found out by the same manner]. But, I was the youngest kid and it was kind of ‘a thing’ that everyone still let me believe, so I pretended to. That holiday season, I won a phone call with Santa that would be recorded and played ON TV {!!} during a commercial break for Babes in Toyland.

Pro: I got to be on TV in voice form. I was basically famous.

Cons: I had to talk to a strange man who I knew wasn’t bringing me something and also pretend to believe he was.

Anyway, on the call, I pretended that I wanted that toy I saw in the closet (it was just a meh fit for me, honestly) and I pretended that this rando dude who I’m sure was very nice was Santa because I knew my parents would be sitting there and listening and totally psyched that I believed and that they chose right.

I pretended to believe for two more years. When some of my other classmates finally copped to knowing Santa wasn’t real, it felt like letting out a breath. I didn’t have to be that guy, so I told my parents I didn’t believe either.


It’s been a rough few weeks for me. My dad went into the hospital on December 13th and died on December 18th. Because it wasn’t COVID, my mom was able to hold his hand at the end. We had a ten-person funeral on December 21st, and the planets aligned in the sky for his send-off. Jupiter just saying, “Hey dude, welcome.”

Because of life and 2020 and just whatever, I happened to record a conversation on December 17th with Iowa Public Radio about my debut novel. Despite looking like a rom-com, THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT focuses on family and forgiveness (and bugs, duh). The interviewer, Charity Nebbe, asked how I balanced humor and grief in this book, and I told her that even in our darkest moments, it resonnates with me, at least, when we can find humor.

So, I’ve been laughing and crying with a healthy dose of numb dissociation since he went into the hospital. In some ways, it feels like that first no-Santa Christmas times a zillion, mostly because of the pretense. I had made it to the end of 2020 with a tenuous hope— in the continued safety of my family, in my debut novel, in the coming changes in our country. Now, at the finish line, my mask (the emotional one) is falling. Don’t worry, I’m still wearing the fabric one.

I’m not alone in feeling more alone this Christmas. I’m blessed to have my mom and husband and kids with me, but I am mostly pretending to be here. My kids are all-in on Santa this Christmas, and on joy. Listening to them talk, I’m grateful that I at least pretended to want what my parents bought me all those years ago. That was one more time I got to check off the good daughter box, and we never know how many of those boxes we actually were given.

I’m not alone in having lost someone very close to me in 2020, and if you did, too, know that I’m thinking of you.

Don't let the door hit you

Imagining ourselves into 2021

My friends, we are so close to making it to the other side of this horror year—- but let’s stay far apart until we do. And a bit after. Despite the good vaccine news lately, it will not be a normal holiday season.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the children’s book Frederick by Leo Lionni. A little dreamer mouse spends his time soaking up memories and stories, and ends up sharing them with the other mice during a long cold winter. I’m storing up my coziest blankets and books to get me through the next few months.

I’ve been reading a lot this year. As of today, I’ve read 139 books for the year. I have cried a lot over books and I have fallen asleep with them open on my chest for the first time since I was a child. Thank you, writers, whose work is letting me pretend to exist somewhere beyond my own walls while I’m in your pages. I am indebted.

Some reading recs, if you’re stuck:

GODSHOT (cults, coming of age story!) ; WINTER COUNTS (mystery! amazing narrator! series forthcoming!); WELL PLAYED (swoony, escapist, huzzah!)—- and a lot more. Reading recommendations are my love language, so let me know if you’re stuck/what you like, and I’ll get back to you.

Speaking of books, mine is out in less than three weeks. Yikes/yay/phew/all of the above and more. THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT is a book about family and forgiveness, about bugs and Star Trek, about the Midwest and love. On December 6th, I’ll be ‘hosting a potluck’ at Prairie Lights with some other fantastic Midwestern authors, and on December 7th, I’ll be chatting with Premee Mohamed about scifi, science, and writing online for Mysterious Galaxy. On my launch day— December 8th— I have a live event with Ripped Bodice (link forthcoming) with Jen DeLuca and Jesse Sutanto, two long-time friends from our querying days. If you’re planning on buying the book and would like a signed bookplate, those bookstores would be great ways to get them! Otherwise, shoot me a DM on Twitter and I’d be happy to send you one.

I’ve had a chance to write a bit this year, while parenting and teaching. I was in the Washington Post talking about how I miss the simple days of lice infestations as my biggest fear, and in Electric Lit recommending books about Midwesterners who aren’t trying to be nice. For Catapult, I wrote about misconceptions about caterpillars and the crisises of parenting. I’m honored by the people who’ve emailed me about the last piece, especially, talking about their own struggles. Much love to all of you during this ridiculous year.

It’s hard not to wish time away when we can’t spend that time as we want. I miss teaching in person. I miss seeing my friends and having in person book clubs. I miss my family.

But I can miss it a bit more. I’m staying home to keep you safe. I hope you’ll do the same.

Summer Update

Dude, Where's Your Book?

Forgive the obscure movie reference, but lately I’ve been getting more questions of "How's the book going?"

Great!


My debut novel is out December 8th. There are a lot more steps to book publishing than meets the eye. Before I pursued a traditional publishing route, I kind of assumed you printed your book and sent it a la Jo March to an editor with bated breath until they sent a check and a copy of your book in return. Yep, not really how it happens. I’m happy to have my book out with Alcove Press, distributed by Penguin Random House and I can’t wait to see it on shelves soon.

Here’s a general timeline of how I got from writing to publishing The Butterfly Effect:

September 2016: Started writing TBE

December 2016: Finished first draft of TBE

January 2016 - December 2018: Revised—- and revised and revised. I majorly rewrote portions of this book.

December 2018- March 2019: Queried TBE (this meant sending a letter, along with selected pages from the novel to agents. Agents represent your book to publishing houses, and it can be hard to get your foot in the door— or rather, your pages in the inbox— without one).

March 2019: Signed with my incredible agent, Veronica Park at Fuse

June 2019: Went on sub with TBE

October 2019: Exciting phone call with my editor at Alcove! We clicked right away. Still had some other editors to check in with, but I had a feeling we’d found ‘the one.’

January 2020: Signed papers, changed the title, and celebrated

April 2020: Got my first round edits (the major things)— right as the pandemic hit and our lives went into upheaval.

June 2020: Cover! Starting to think about blurbs! Redoing my website!

July 2020: Edits finalized, advanced copies released for reviewers, and publicity gearing up.

Still to come: Final proof edits and introducing it to readers and a whole lot of other things I’m excited and terrified about.

This timeline is considered pretty quick in the publishing world. When fellow author friends talk about “giving birth to a book baby”, they’re usually “pregnant” with that “baby” for a year+.

So, if you’re interested in finding out the fruit of this past few years’ work, think about adding it on Goodreads, or pre-ordering from your local bookstore (or other favorite distributer. Here’s a link to possible retailers.

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