Heather Harlen talks about the value of women’s stories.
I’ve always envied women who have sisters. My siblings are two younger brothers, who were really fun to grow up with, and it’s still not the same. One way I’ve created sisterhood is through friendship. I’ve surrounded myself with strong, smart girlfriends. My go-to gals include teachers, writers, a transformational coach, managers, moms, and an engineer. They keep me inspired and on my game.
The other way I’ve created sisterhood is through reading. Tough Laura Ingalls Wilder and the earnest characters of Judy Blume books were my companions when I was young. Celie, Shug and the other female characters in The Color Purple ushered me into adult sisterhood. Now, I credit characters like Stephanie Plum, Emma Bovary (wow…I doubt those two have ever been in the same sentence), Kay Scarpetta, Bridget Jones and other memorable fictional women for helping me shape my understanding of the world around me. It’s no surprise that my first novel is a chick-lit-y thriller, but having been immersed in the western literary (a.k.a. dead white men) canon through high school and college, I was made to feel that some of the books I love and the series I am writing are simple.
But you know what? Whatever. We all know women’s fiction and chick-lit have this reputation of being too fluffy. Here’s the deal – I’m a huge fan of fluffy places to rest. Daily life can be so real, so gritty that I want to be taken away to a world where problems are less urgent. Please note: I did not say less important. Love, loss, questioning your life’s goals, making career choices, wondering about your place in the world, these are all essential parts of the human experience.
Marina Konyeshna, the heroine in my trilogy, in all of her shoe-losing, bad decision-making and adventure-loving glory, is experiencing the catharsis of a quarter-life crisis. Not that I’m comparing her to Holden Caulfield, but she’s looking for her voice, too. Not that I’m comparing my book to The Great Gatsby, but there is a thread of dangerously hollow consumerism through my trilogy. Not that I’m comparing my writing style to Roddy Doyle’s, but the conversations in Marina’s world add texture and conflict.
Women’s stories are real. It doesn’t matter how many shopping bags your character carries or how much chocolate icing she scrapes out of the container after a bad break-up, these women help us navigate our way through this messy life. Sometimes they inspire us; other times the characters help us understand what we don’t want. Either way, it’s an entertaining win/win.
During my graduate school program in creative writing, I was dizzingly obsessed with this question: would my book pass muster with such a literary crowd? It started to darken my attitude and I wrote with an unsteady vision. I carried with me that heavy, nagging feeling of when you plan a party and pray that people show up. I was concentrating on the people who would never read my book, thinking I had to convince them to pick it up. It was only when I started wondering, “How can I get my book into the hands of those who would enjoy it?” that everything changed.
Focusing on the people who would read my book was an important shift. The party was officially on and I made sure to invite people I knew would have a ￼￼good time. If someone didn’t want to read my book, there were plenty of others they could.
As Hope You Guess My Name neared publication, I started to feel insecure again, and I found affirmation in these dueling essays by authors Michele Gorman and DJ Connell. Both writers make valid points, but Gorman’s essay sticks with me more. She writes, “But saying that chick-lit can’t be well-written is a little like saying that pretty girls can’t be smart.” I constantly tell my students they can be cute and intelligent at the same time. Why hadn’t I been following my own advice?
Readers cannot exist on literary fiction alone; anyone who says they do should carry a fire extinguisher because their pants are going to burst into flames any second. I just read the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri and loved it. My current read is Don Juan in Hankey, PA by Gale Martin, a smart, fun and campy mystery. There’s a lid for every pot and a book for every reader. Write what you love and the rest will come.
Here’s all I ask: write the best book you can and price it appropriately. The market is already glutted with poorly written, free or minimally-priced books. You worked hard to write your book, so make sure you charge for it. If we don’t value our voices and our hard work, no one else will, either. Jennifer Weiner said it best: “Money is the last taboo. But I do think it’s really important, for women especially, to talk about it…you have to believe that you’re worth it.” We are worth it, ladies.
So, my fellow chick-lit writers, women’s fiction writers, fiction writers, story tellers, let’s raise a glass to our voices, to our stories. Keep writing and ask a fair price. Our sisters need us.
There’s no place like home … especially when it’s the center of a horrific criminal enterprise.
Event planner Marina Konyeshna is a tomboy in peep toe pumps who can plan both elegant soirees and adrenaline-pumping skydiving birthday parties. Unfortunately, her quarter-life crisis is in full swing: she’s crashing on the sofa bed in her mom’s basement, her career at Prestige Events is veering toward disaster and her Adderall prescription needs to be refilled but she’s low on cash. To make matters worse, Marina witnesses a terrifying assault and discovers the body of a young girl on the banks of the Susquehanna River. It’s soon clear the two events are related, but she’s forced into silence by the thugs responsible.
Enter a mysterious and gorgeous client from Turkey. Arman Ocalan, a wealthy construction company owner, takes Marina out on a date and sparks fly; but Marina’s boss’ boyfriend warns her to stay away from Arman and his “connections,” leaving her confused. When Arman invites Marina to form a team for an elite geocaching event, she can’t pass up the prize money. As their team’s adventures in Northeastern Pennsylvania unfold, neither Arman or the competition are what they seem and the fates of six strangers depend on Marina, her two best friends and Arman coming in first.
If plucky heroines had their own secret society, Marina Konyeshna, Stephanie Plum and Bridget Jones would all know the handshake.
Heather Harlen is the author of Hope You Guess My Name: A Thriller (Northampton House Press, 2015). She grew up in Northeastern Pennsylvania on a steady diet of Three Investigators, Choose Your Own Adventure and Little House on the Prairie books. Her own adventures in a dozen countries, including studying in Spain and living in Moscow, Russia as a Peace Corps volunteer, are endless sources of inspiration. She earned degrees in English and creative writing, and has an English teaching certification. She is also proud to be a National Writing Project Fellow. Her current obsessions include zombies, Mad Men and trying foods made on Top Chef. Heather and her husband live near Allentown, PA where she teaches English and is working on the second book in the Marina Konyeshna thrillogy.