SheKnows Chick Lit was lucky enough to sit down with Italian for Beginners author Kristin Harmel. Harmel shares her insights on her sixth novel, writing, Chubby Checker and reveals her take on the Chick Lit genre.
SheKnows: You’ve been writing professionally since you were 16 years old. Could you explain how you landed your first writing gig?
Kristin Harmel: Sure! I’d known for years that I wanted to be a writer, so when I was 15 or 16, I started buying books about how to write for magazines. I was an avid reader and figured I could teach myself to write in the style that would be required to sell magazine stories. The books I read about magazine writing said that the way to land an assignment was to send a query letter to a magazine, outlining your idea for a story and explaining why you were the correct person to write it. I began doing so, and one of the very first pitches I sent was to Tampa Bay AllSports magazine. I used to want to be a sportswriter, and this pitch was about the St. Louis Cardinals Instructional League, the annual fall training camp run in St. Petersburg, Florida, where the Major League stars of tomorrow were trained. The editor of the magazine, Al Martino, accepted the pitch, and I went on to write a few more articles for him before we finally met face to face and he realized I was just a kid! I was 16 at the time, but with my height (I’m only five feet tall) and tiny build, I must have looked 12! He stared at me for a long time and said, ”How old are you?” I told him I was 16 and then asked timidly, ”Is that a problem?” He thought for a moment, shrugged and said, ”I guess not. You can write.” That was the beginning of my career!
SheKnows: As a longtime reporter for People Magazine, who is your favorite celebrity to interview? Who was the biggest surprise and why?
Kristin Harmel: I’ve interviewed Patrick Dempsey several times and find him to be incredibly kind, friendly and thoughtful. The warmth he exudes in television interviews is quite real! As for the biggest surprise…hmm. I’m not sure! Perhaps one of the big, pleasant surprises was spending some time with Josh Duhamel and Fergie before they got married and realizing just what a pleasant pair they were, and how genuinely well-suited they seemed for each other. But the best interviews I’ve had for People have been the non-celebrities — people like Holocaust survivor Henri Landwirth, who founded a dream village for terminally ill children, and Kate Atwood, who turned her grief over her own mother’s death into an organization that helps other kids heal.
SheKnows: Italian for Beginners includes a really great first date, but an omission that separates Cat from her crush, Michael — what are deal breakers for you on a first date?
Kristin Harmel: I think that if I catch someone in a lie, or if the conversation is completely flat with lots of uncomfortable silences (not the kind of discomfort associated with butterflies and first date nerves, but the kind of discomfort you feel when you simply don’t have anything in common with someone), there won’t be a second date! But usually first dates go fairly well for me, as I’m a fairly conversational person. I did recently have a very, very nice first date that felt just about perfect; I went home with that butterflies-in-my-stomach feeling that most of us are only lucky enough to get once in a while.
SheKnows: Both Emma and Cat, the main characters of The Art of French Kissing and Italian for Beginners realize what makes them happy after spending time in European countries. What makes France and Italy the perfect backdrops for self-discovery?
Kristin Harmel: I think there’s something about traveling far away from your comfort zone that helps you to find yourself. Sometimes, we get comfortable in our routines at home — and those routines include our ways of thinking and responding to the world. When we’re forced out of our comfort zone, and when we’re not around people who expect certain things from us based on past habits, we’re free to reinvent ourselves and wind up closer to being who we truly are. I found this to be true when I spent a summer in France; I felt that it was the first time I truly became me after a lifetime of being who I thought everyone else expected me to be. It was a pleasure to give my characters that experience too.
SheKnows: Could you describe Italian for Beginners in five words?
Kristin Harmel: Wow, that’s a tough challenge! How about ”Bridget Jones-meets-Roman Holiday?”
SheKnows: In Italian for Beginners, Cat Connelly has to face her past before she can truly learn who she is — why do you think miscommunications with family members can turn into life long grudges?
Kristin Harmel: I think that when relationships are loaded with love — as they are in the case of family relationships – they’re also fraught with the potential for misunderstanding. And when misunderstanding is wrapped up with love, it has the power to wound you to the core. In Cat’s case, she misunderstood her mother’s reasons for leaving — partially because her mother never understood how to tell her correctly — and left unexplained, that wound festered for decades. It’s why I always try to be as honest as possible with the people I love; the damage that can be done by short-term honesty is far outweighed by the damage that can be done by keeping hurt feelings and misconstrued intentions inside.
SheKnows: Did you learn anything from Cat’s journey into her past?
Kristin Harmel: Sure. It was a very good lesson for me to realize that I had to confront some issues from my own past. There are some things that have happened in my family — particularly between my father and myself — that I think I need to understand better and begin to deal with more constructively before it’s too late. Nothing serious or awful – just typical family misunderstandings that have probably bubbled beneath the surface for too long.
ON CHICK LIT
SheKnows: Italian for Beginners recently got stocked at Target. Where do you stand in the debate of discount retail and e-books, are Kindles going to be the end of the book business?
Kristin Harmel: To be honest, I’m just happy that people are reading. As far as I’m concerned, the availability of books in stores such as Target and WalMart, as well as the convenience of ebooks, simply opens up more reading possibilities to more people. And that’s a good thing!
SheKnows: Why do you think the literati give the term ”chick lit” such a bad time?
Kristin Harmel: I think that when the chick lit genre first exploded, there was a fair amount of poorly written chick lit. It’s the same with nearly every literary craze. Vampires are a recent big thing, and in the wake of Twilight’s success, publishers rushed to get vampire books on the shelves. Because of the rush and the desperation to strike while the iron was still hot, there wound up being a fair number of crummy vampire books. When Bridget Jones’s Diary sold like crazy, publishers rushed to capitalize on that trend too. That meant rushing to get books on the shelves, focusing on quantity over quality. Unfortunately, critics of the genre seized on the handful of poorly written books to condemn the genre, whereas in reality, the majority of the books in the genre were actually relatively high-quality. Now, chick lit has completely cleared itself out; the vast majority of books being put out these days are of a very high quality. Regardless, I do feel that this is a genre whose aim isn’t to be lofty or high-brow, but to provide readers with interesting, compelling, enjoyable stories they can identify with. If, at the end of the day, we’ve gotten a person who wouldn’t ordinarily be reading to pick up a book instead of turning on a Friends rerun they’ve already seen ten times, well, then, I feel like we’ve done something good for literature in general. There’s a lot of pride in that.
SheKnows: Have you found writing novels has become easier the more you do it? What is the most challenging part of the process for you?
Kristin Harmel: Yes, it has become easier. I’ve now written six novels and am working on a seventh. I think a lot of the difficulty of writing a first or second novel is learning the basic mechanics of the process. Now that I have that down, it’s easier to concentrate on crafting compelling characters and an enjoyable story. The most challenging part of the process is probably either simply finding a saleable idea, or getting through the first few chapters when I know there are 90,000 unwritten words ahead of me. It feels daunting sometimes!
SheKnows: Your first teen novel, When You Wish came out this year about a young girl dealing with being famous. What are the differences between writing for a teen audience and an adult female reader?
Kristin Harmel: Yes, my first teen novel, When You Wish, came out in February 2008 in hardcover and in June 2009 in paperback, from Random House. I think that the writing isn’t all that different, actually. Teen books tend to be a little shorter, and of course the subjects are a little different, but in general, I tend to write about women finding themselves, and I think that for a 16-year-old character, the parameters of the search for oneself are simply a little different…but the journey itself is often very similar.
ON HER SHELVES
SheKnows: What books are you reading now? Who inspires you?
Kristin Harmel: I’m currently reading Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, a 2006 YA (young adult) novel that is simply incredible. The narrator of the book is Death, which is such a fascinating concept, and it deals with a young girl in World War II Nazi Germany. It’s probably the best book I’ve read in a year; I can’t put it down. The most inspiring book I’ve ever read is The Diary of Anne Frank. Other authors whose work inspires me include: Emily Giffin, Sarah Dessen, Anita Shreve, Jodi Piccoult, Alison Pace, Brenda Janowitz, Sarah Mlynowski, Liza Palmer, Megan Crane, Jane Porter, Melissa Senate, Lynda Curnyn, Cecelia Ahern, Jane Green, James Patterson, Meg Cabot, Patricia Cornwell, and many, many more.
SheKnows: You have a deep love of music, could you describe the project you are on working on for the legendary Chubby Checker?
Kristin Harmel: Sure! I’m 30, but my mom raised me on her generation’s music — from the ’60s. I’ve always been a great fan of early rock’n’roll, so it was a tremendous honor to be approached by the legendary Chubby Checker, whose The Twist changed the face of music forever, to help write his autobiography. As we work together, I’m fascinated by his story, but the greatest gift in working with him is the friendship we’ve developed. He has truly become one of my favorite people in the world; I love him like a member of my family!
SheKnows: How did ‘Kristin on a Stick’ come to life and where is she now? Does she send you post cards?
Kristin Harmel: Ha! I can’t believe you asked me about Kristin-on-a-Stick! My friend Krista and Christina, both of whom live in the New York area, met through me, so on the few occasions they’ve gotten together without me, they’ve brought along Kristin-on-a-Stick – a cardboard cutout of me on a popsicle stick that Krista made – so that I’m not left out. It’s become a really fun joke among the three of us, and when we went to Chubby Checker’s concert at Lincoln Center this summer, we took Kristin-on-a-Stick along for fun, so that we could photograph her at her first concert. We brought her backstage afterwards to ”meet” Chubby, and he got such a kick out of her that he asked if she could come live on his tour bus. Now, Kristin-on-a-Stick travels the country on Chubby Checker’s bus! I get occasional updates on her whereabouts from Chubby!
SheKnows: What are you working on next?
Kristin Harmel: I’m focusing on Chubby’s autobiography, teaching classes on Mediabistro.com, writing two new book proposals for novels and preparing to promote my next novel, After, my second teen book, due out in February.
SheKnows: Any advice for aspiring writers?
Kristin Harmel: Just write! The number one thing that defeats aspiring writers is themselves — self-doubt will kill you! I would never recommend writing without an outline, so try coming up for an outline before you begin writing, and then simply dive in and do your best to finish a first draft. You can’t edit what you don’t have!
SheKnows: What would readers be surprised to know about you?
Kristin Harmel: Perhaps that I’m only five feet tall or that I played the drums all through middle and high school! Or maybe that I’ve had an annual pass to Disney World for 20 years and still delight in visiting the parks!
SheKnows: How has connecting with your fans digitally on Facebook and Twitter changed your relationship with them?
Kristin Harmel: It’s been wonderful to get to know people I wouldn’t otherwise have the chance to speak to. I have a surprising number of readers in places as far-flung as Malaysia and Russia; without the internet, I wouldn’t have the privilege of conversing with them. And the interaction with fans/readers is one of my very favorite parts of this job!
SheKnows: In addition to writing novels, you write for magazines and review books for the nationally syndicated morning show, The Daily Buzz. Do you think it’s necessary to diversify in order for writers to make a living? Do you have a strict schedule to balance all of your projects?
Kristin Harmel: I think it’s important to diversify simply to keep things interesting! I can’t imagine being holed up inside all day with no human interaction and nothing to do but write! I’d go insane. So I love doing magazine work — primarily for People — because it allows me to travel and meet all sorts of different people from so many walks of life. And the TV thing – which I do only occasionally now – is just loads of fun! I do try to stick to a schedule; I tend to write creatively in the mornings and do magazine work (as well as reply to emails) in the afternoons. I try to work at least nine hours a day; since I work at home, if I allow myself to get lazy, I get nothing done! I guess I’m a pretty mean boss!