In 2008, my first middle grade novel was published: “Ghost Girls Book One, The Haunting on Devil’s Den Road” by Karen Chilton. I was psyched. My family and friends were psyched. The two or three other people who read it during that first month were psyched. It led, however, to a funny conversation with my Gramps, aka “Doc.”
By way of backstory, Doc was one of those people with no filter between brain and mouth. And oh, the places his brain went! Once, when I was in high school, he scared off a boy who was planning to take me to a dance at the local yacht club. “Listen, kid,” he told the boy. “Don’t think you can fool me. I was your age once, and I know where your mind’s at. A guy your age’ll screw a hole in the ground...”
Ah, yes. That was my Gramps. A surgeon so skilled he could remove my entire social life without even lifting his scalpel.
And so it was no surprise that, after reading my first novel, he had a few words of wisdom to offer me.
“You’re a hell of a writer, kid,” he began.
I waited for the, “But…”
“Trouble is, this world works on money.” He sighed and shook his head, rubbed his thumb and forefinger together. “It’s a tough game, making money in writing. That J.K. Rowling, she’s an anomaly. You know what you need to make it to the top of the New York Times [Bestsellers] list? Really? You want to know?”
I indulged him. “What?”
“Sex,” he said, jabbing two fingers into the air alarmingly.
“Sex,” he affirmed. “Sex sells.”
I bit my tongue for a moment.
“But Gramps,” I said at last. “I write for middle graders.”
He looked momentarily stunned.
“Oh,” he said, crestfallen. Then he lifted his head, nodded at me, and decisively said, “Well stop doing that, then.”
End of conversation.
Still, I wrote and published two more books in the “Ghost Girls” series: “The Ghost at Widower’s Pond,” and “The Phantom Ship at Castle Hill.” They did well enough, and I had a blast making the rounds to schools, talking with kids about the historical threads in my fiction, guiding creative writing groups, and just generally being thrilled to learn that kids really do still love to read and write. I wasn’t anywhere near inhabiting the bestselling stratosphere J.K.Rowling inhabits, of course, but I was happy.
Well, happy and tired, what with the financial necessity of muddling through my day job only to stay up ‘til all hours tackling the business of being a writer. I had to give myself the kind of pep talks which with working mothers everywhere are all too familiar. My life was good, and I was glad my books were out there in the world. I was especially grateful for those days when I would come home to email or good old-fashioned snail mail from young readers appreciative enough to let me know. And trust me, there is no better feeling in the world than coming home to a handwritten letter from a sixth-grader you’ve never met who tells you that your books made her feel there was someone in the world who understands her.
I was on the right track, I decided. I was telling stories and connecting with people. Still, I’d never forgotten that conversation with my Gramps. If writing was what I best loved to do, I needed to make a living at it. Sex sells, right?
There was a manuscript, tucked away in some long-neglected folder on my computer, that indeed involved sex, but for the longest time I wasn’t sure what to do with it. Was it chick lit? Erotica? Romance? Could I figure out to which genre it belonged, and then, could I make it work?
I decided to take a stab at it.
That manuscript evolved into “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Husband,” my chick lit novel released in August. The story follows Rhode Island socialite Eve Wolcott as she upends her life on the cusp of her 40th birthday, and it was a blast to write. I loved taking Eve from her gilded cage, where her needs and ambitions were always second to those of everyone around her, and watching her grow into a strong, self-sufficient person with nerve, humor, and of course, a very healthy sex life.
Sadly, my Gramps will not have the chance to read it. This past February, at age 90, he passed away. I told him I was working on it, though, and even in the haze of his final illness, he was able to say, “Atta girl. Show ‘em how it’s done.”
And as so often turned out to be the case with my Gramps’ unsolicited advice, he was right. In just the few weeks “Fifty Ways” has been on the market, it’s already surpassed the 2012 sales of all three of my middle-grade novels. The reviews and feedback from readers have been wonderful, and it’s led to a number of other opportunities. I’m now working on a sequel, “Fifty Ways to Make a Family,” which will be out in 2014. “Haunted,” the first in a saucy spinoff series based on my “Ghost Girls” novels but aimed at a more mature young adult audience, made its debut on Oct. 15. My short story “The Mermaid Promise” will appear alongside the work of six fantastic chick lit authors in the compilation “Merry Chick Lit: Sassy Seasonal Shorts,” an Amazon Kindle exclusive, this holiday season.
So while it may seem odd to credit one’s grandfather with inspiring a career writing chick lit chock full of sex scenes, there it is.
Thank you, Doc. I’m still no J.K. Rowling, but this kid’s doing all right.