Thursday, February 10, 2011

Matters of the Heart

EMILY GIFFIN’s novels are marketed as chick lit, but they are really more than that—they dissect complex human emotions and relationships

Photography by Deborah Feingold

EVERYTHING seems to be coming up roses for chick-lit novelist Emily Giffin, best-selling author of such novels as Something Borrowed, Something Blue, Baby Proof, Love the One You’re With and Heart of the Matter. All her novels have been commercial successes. And what’s more, her first novel, Something Borrowed, has been made into a movie starring Kate Hudson, John Krasinski, Ginnifer Goodwin and Colin Egglesfield.

When the Chicago native began working on her first novel in 2004, she had no idea she was writing chick lit. However, she has no hangups about being labelled a chick-lit writer: “Although somewhere deep down I believed in myself, I don’t think I fully imagined my novel would one day be published. So I wasn’t thinking in terms of genre or marketing or the hue of the cover as I wrote Something Borrowed. I was simply telling a story of love and friendship and how complicated both can be.” In fact, the original title of Something Borrowed was ‘Rolling the Dice,’ which her editor felt sounded like a book about gambling. “Since then, my work has often been described as ‘chick lit’ and for the most part the term doesn’t bother me. I think it simply signals to readers that the book is about women, written for women (although many men enjoy my books), about issues that concern women (relationships, careers, etc.).” However, the only thing that bothers her is when the label is used disparagingly to imply that all chick lit is, by definition, superficial fluff because “this is akin to saying that all women are devoid of substance and the issues that concern us are fundamentally trivial. I try not to get too hung up on labels as I think they can be very limiting.”

Giffin, who read law at the University of Virginia and worked as a litigation lawyer for a Manhattan legal firm, has always yearned to be a writer. “Some of my fondest childhood memories involve reading books and writing my own stories. Perhaps because we moved around a lot, characters in books became my constant companions, and keeping a journal provided me comfort.”

So what made her decide to study law? “I’m not sure exactly what happened during college, as I never lost my desire to become a writer. But looking back, I think I had the sense that I had to get a ‘real’ job first—that I couldn’t graduate and promptly sit down to write a novel. I took a lot of history and political science classes—so law school became a logical next stop. I also think I went to school because it felt safer—a more certain path to measurable success. I think it always feels riskier and scarier to go after something you really love and want because the rejection and failure hurt more.” However, she does not regret taking up and practising law: “I don’t think you can ever regret an education—even one that comes with a heavy loan burden. I learned so much—skills and knowledge that I still apply today in a very practical sense. I also feel that I gained real world experience. I learned about office politics and was forced to develop a thick skin while working at a large law firm. Most important, I’m not sure I would have moved to New York City without the safety of my law degree and job offer—and living there was certainly one of the most enriching experiences of my life. And finally, I made so many close friends at law school and my firm, relationships I wouldn’t trade for anything.”

Giffin, who was miserable practising law, decided to quit the profession in 2001 to pursue writing. “Although I enjoyed law school, I loathed the actual practice of law—at least the big firm culture. And I discovered that misery can be quite motivating.” So very early on, she devised a plan to pay off her law school loans so that she could write full-time. Meanwhile, she began writing a young adult novel in her free time—and sometimes while at work! Four years later, in 2001, her loans were paid off and her book was completed. She managed to secure an agent, but over the next several months, she received a dozen rejection letters from publishers. At that juncture, she seriously contemplated throwing in the towel and keeping her nose to the legal grindstone, but instead, she quit her job, moved to London and decided to start all over again. It was then and there that she began writing Something Borrowed, got hitched, landed a two-book deal with St. Martin’s Press, and the rest, as they say, is history.

The modern-day Jane Austen is especially adept at exploring and capturing the complexities of love, relationships and human emotions in her novels. Much of her inspiration comes from her relationships and the issues and concerns that arise among her family and friends. “It’s amazing how universal certain themes are, such as whether there are deal breakers when it comes to true love; the idealization of a past relationship and a fixation on the ‘the one who got away’; or complicated, if not downright toxic, female friendships.” She finds it gratifying to write books that resonate with readers of all ages the world over. Also, her characters are often people who are not perfect. She finds flawed characters especially interesting, and enjoys the challenge of making the reader root for them despite their shortcomings and the dumb choices they make in their lives. “Life is about the grey areas. Things are seldom black and white, even when we wish they were and think they should be, and I like exploring this nuanced terrain.” She believes most people are basically good and sincerely try to do the right thing. “Yet we are all capable of missteps and of hurting the people we love, and we all have had to grapple with the guilt and regret that come from these mistakes and weaknesses.”

And like all writers, Giffin, who now lives in Atlanta with her husband and their three children, constantly grapples with the frustration of not writing her best. “Pretty much every day is filled with at least a few moments of frustration in which I’m staring at a blank screen—or a screen filled with sentences I loathe. To me, writing is about overcoming those moments, fighting through them, getting to the other side. More than anything, I write for that feeling of accomplishment and relief.” Her publicist once said to her about another writer: ‘She only had one book in her.’ “That is always my fear—that I’ve reached my limit. But I’ve discovered that nearly every author—no matter how accomplished—has this feeling on occasion. And ultimately, I believe that writing is mostly about hard work, perseverance, and keeping faith in yourself—which is true of most things in life worth pursuing.”

Reproduced from the January-March 2011 issue of Quill magazine


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