Today is a holiday so we’re repeating an earlier interview, just in case you missed it.
Interviewed by Katharine Eliska Kimbriel
Rereleased at Book View Cafe this Spring are King of Hearts and Fools Paradise, by Jennifer Stevenson, two romantic comedies set in the blue collar world of union stagehands and all the rest of the folk who get live productions up and running.
Jen will release five books in her Hinky Chicago series on Book View Cafe this year, including The Hinky Brass Bed, The Hinky Velvet Chair , The Hinky Bearskin Rug, The Hinky Genie Lamp, and A Hinky Taste of You. Her literary fantasy Trash Sex Magic is now available in audiobook!
Q.) You’ve been writing for years, and you’re married to a union stagehand. I’ve heard you say: “It’s been one long barrel of laughs.” Finally, all this comes together in King of Hearts and Fools Paradise. How much of the humor in this book comes from real situations you’ve seen or heard about, and how much is from your fertile imagination?
A.) I’ve had to tone down the reality of stagehand hijinks for these books. Da boys are far, far goofier, sexier, and more heroic than I can ever describe in mere fiction.
Q.) Which came first—King Dave and Bobbyjay, or did you see the stagehand world first, and find them somewhere in it?
A.) Oh, I’ve been married to a union stagehand forever. He already had a card from Local 690 when we first met, at the dorm cafeteria dining table. I fell in love with him then, but I fell in love with all stagehands when we moved to Chicago, where real blue-collar stagehands work.
Q.) I think there’s a fine balancing act between blue collar humor and the Darwin Awards. In the first chapter of Fools Paradise, Bobbyjay is desperately trying to head his family off at the pass. They’re already into “Here, hold my beer and watch this!” territory. (After all—their name is Morton and we’re talking a Porsche full of fish….) How will you make your audience love the Mortons and the Ditorellis—laugh with them while laughing at them?
A.) Hey, do I detect a hint of raised eyebrow at the blue collar? If you think what drunk stagehands do is dumb, just watch a jeepful of drunk lawyers. In my opinion blue collar heroes are tons sexier, funnier, more unselfconsciously masculine, more sincerely chivalrous, better family men, and, well, more lovable than white collar heroes. You’ll get to know them.
Q.) King Dave is a pretty alpha guy—not much like his friend Bobbyjay. Which is the more typical stagehand?
A.) That depends. When you have two guys who are best friends, one of ’em is going to have the crazy ideas and one will see to it that they survive the consequences.
Q.) So does Bobbyjay get King Dave into trouble in King of Hearts?
A) No, I fear King Dave gets himself into trouble with that waitress Nadine all by himself. Stagehands and waitresses are ham and eggs, rock and hard place. In this case King Dave’s erratic habits with women put him in the power of two women—his greedy ex-wife and an uptight, do-gooder waitress. She’s a preacher’s kid. She’s Texan. She’s unstoppable. And she wants to reform him. Not the first time a waitress has set out to reform a stagehand.
Q.) No, but it’s got to be the funniest! So King Dave is the alpha?
A.) Yeah, poor guy. I’d never written an alpha before King Dave. You see meek beta women battling alpha men in romance, but I think Nadine was an alpha-in-training. I was looking for a heroine who would make him as miserable as possible—that’s what authors do, you know, torture their characters. Nadine just waitresses it out.
Q.) Is Bobbyjay the unsung genius of the family, or does he simply have a strong streak of responsibility and/or commonsense? How did you design your hero?
A.) Bobbyjay is in a world where your role is defined at birth. It’s actually a bit like the world on which Regency romance novels are based—a small, exclusive group of well-born people who all know each other and are often related to one another, who seldom spend time with anyone who isn’t in their universe. The big difference is that the Upper Ten Thousand of Regency London partied together, while stagehands work together. Instead of “who’s your tailor?” the question is “how many hours didja work last week?” A Regency lord’s first son is his heir; his second son joins the military, his third son joins the clergy, and his fourth son… well… let’s hope it’s a daughter.
Bobbyjay has come into a family where his father, let’s face it, isn’t the brightest bulb in the pack, but his father’s brother is really bright. This makes Bobbyjay’s dad the family dumbell, and nobody likes that role. Dad is even more resentful when his own son is born smart, and he can’t think his way out of the trap the way Bobbyjay does.
Bobbyjay’s struggle is really about his dad, and the stagehand dynamics that mean you stay in your family forever, and you never escape the role assigned you when you were too young to fight back.
Q.) How does a girl with the last name of Ditorelli end up with the name Daisy?
A.) Her mother married an Italian, but she isn’t Italian herself.
Q.) Why do you write fiction? What do you get (or hope to get) from it? Money? Pleasure? Immortality? How important to you is success, for example? Do you know what kind of “success” you are seeking? Is the writing enough justification in itself? Do you hope to be able to write exactly what you want, and still find an audience for it? Or is the writing what it is, and its own reward?
A.) I write stories because if I don’t, I don’t like myself. As for success, I measure that in two ways. 1) I’d like my reader to come to the bookstore or library, having read one book, and see another 99 titles lined up, and heave that big sigh of thankfulness that you get when you discover an author you love and then realize that you’ll be spending a lot more time in their universe. 2) The highest compliment an artist can receive is to be paid for her work.
Q.) Why writing to communicate your vision, and not art, drama, etc?
A.) Family again. Everyone in my family wanted to write novels and none of ’em had the nerve. I’m standing here at the bottom of the pyramid with the lot of ’em at the back of my neck. Fat chance I’d have of becoming a dancer. (Well, look at my ankles.) But seriously, I love fiction. Barry Hughart says, in his fantasy of ancient China, Bridge of Birds, “Fable has strong shoulders that carry far more truth than fact can.” So I guess fiction is my mode for telling the truth. And I should also add “telling the truth” to my “success” list.
Q.) Do you think your “voice”, the thing that stamps your writing as uniquely yours, changes from book to book, story to story—or can you already see themes that reoccur in your work?
A.) I do a workshop called “Finding Your Voice: Fan mail from the future” in which I explain that the elements of an author’s voice are inherent in the very first things they ever write. I promise that in two or three hours I can help you find four or five things about your voice that make what you will write for the next twenty years unique and marketable. Shoot, that sounds like an advertisement. You can do it on your own, with your friends.
Put a pile of pictures clipped out of magazines on the table between yourself and two or three writer friends (or want-to-write friends). Each of you choose two pictures. Put the rest of the pix aside. Now someone mans the timer and you each write about your first picture for two minutes. Cheating is allowed—if you find you actually hate the first picture, take a different picture off the pile. If the picture isn’t inspiring but you have something else you want to write, write something else for two minutes. The goal is to get lots of words. When you’ve written about your pair of pix, swap with the person to your left, and then swap again, until each of you has written about everyone’s pix.
Now you read aloud all your pieces, one after another. Your comrades make only positive comments about what they heard. Write down what they say! This is what will be printed on the back of your first novel—and your tenth—and your fiftieth. Remember, only positive comments. Nobody ever saw “‘Will be a great writer once she masters point-of-view’—Kansas City Star” in a book blurb.
This teaches you two things: 1) what the most prominent elements of your voice are, and 2) that no one can “steal your ideas.” What you have to sell, the only thing you have to sell, is your voice. Ideas are cheap. Voice is priceless.
Oh, wait. Were you asking me about my themes? Uh, I guess, self-discovery, and loving where you’re from without losing who you are, and class issues, and how magic is about self-mastery and not a lazy-minded imitation of technology. There’s no magic in the stagehands, besides the magic of love, but just wait til my Hinky Chicago series comes out! Or you can try my Slacker Demons from Musa Publishing.
Q.) Has writing fiction taught you anything you didn’t expect?
A.) Yes. If I keep working at it, the book always gets done. Also, I may hate it now, but I have no idea if it’s any good until it’s sat around long enough to go stone cold.
Q.) How did you become involved with Book View Café?
A.) I was in it from the egg. We all got together on a women’s writers list.
Q.) What do you love about the BVC approach?
A.) Why I’m taking the BVC approach—well, everyone has been saying for years that the internet will change traditional publishing until the industry croaks or gets fixed, either of which being life-challenging to authors. (“May you live in interesting times.”) Most of us have or have had solid print publishing careers, but have been around long enough to feel the bumps in the road. Me, I’m trying to smooth that road out, get a foot in the door on Internet publishing, but do it smart.
The smart way is not to tackle it all by yourself. And have a platform—a gang—a posse—a place to stand that’s bigger than you are, to improve your eyeball footprint and your credibility. Early on, authors went the group blog route, and some succeeded—but they were mostly best-selling authors who already had a platform.
BVC’s approach is to build on the credibility of already-published authors of reputation and create a platform that’s bigger than that. Give away some stuff. Be noisy about what we do! Be new and productive and always, always serve fresh content.
Q.) Do you like or dislike the Brave New World of Internet promotion?
A.) I like internet promo about the same as I liked doing promo before the internet. I like doing the parts I like, and I ignore the rest. A person can go crazy otherwise.
Q.) What are you working on now?
A.) I’m working on two projects: one is book four in the Hinky Chicago universe, called The Hinky Genie Lamp; and a new series set in the same universe, which is also the universe of my Slacker Demons series, called Coed Demon Sluts.
Q.) What should we watch for next from you?
A.) The last Slacker Demons book, Walking on Sunshine, is scheduled for 2015. But around the same time, the entire Hinky Chicago series will release, including an all-new Jewel-Randy-Clay adventure, The Hinky Genie Lamp. All the books have been edited a bit, so if you have copies of the old Random House releases, you may be amused to see some changes!