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    Tuesday, June 18, 2024

    OMG! It’s ‘Happy Hour’: Beachside romance novel with a local connection

    Stonington resident Elissa Bass has recently self-published her first novel, “Happy Hour,” which is largely inspired by events that took place on the beach at Stonington Point. She poses for a portrait on the breakwater at the point Monday, June 3, 2024. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Stonington resident Elissa Bass has recently self-published her first novel, “Happy Hour,” which is largely inspired by events that took place on the beach at Stonington Point. She poses for a portrait on the breakwater at the point Monday, June 3, 2024. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
    Buy Photo Reprints

    Readers of romance novels are a loyal and devoted bunch who rely on and celebrate certain formulaic plot structures. To the uninitiated, that seems reductive and overly simplistic — indeed, non-literary! — and a situation about which, most importantly, romance fans are blithely impervious.

    In fact, the subgenres within the form are complex and multifaceted, and readers, who are reliably active with one another on message boards and forums, have come to rely on a sort of acronymic shorthand and insider glossary to convey the precise sort of romantic elements found in any given book.

    F2L means “friends to lovers.” Grumpy / Sunshine is a plot where one character has a happy personality, and the other character is gruff. HEA is “happy ever after” (and good luck finding any titles that don’t adhere to THAT one). OWD lets you know there’s “other woman drama.” RS indicates “romantic suspense.”

    There are dozens of these signifiers — all of which have evolved over time through a sense of community and a need for convenience.

    It’s impressive, then, that Stonington’s Elissa Bass, who in April published her debut romance novel, “Happy Hour,” has already and spontaneously generated a brand-new romance acronym:

    “OMG! Page 96!”

    That was a text sent to Bass late one night from a reader who had, yes, just read page 96 in “Happy Hour” and had her mind blown by what happens there. Flattered and amused, Bass shared the tag with friends and other readers, and “OMG! Page 96!” has started to generate its own momentum as the author works to publicize the book.

    Bass will discuss “Happy Hour” Wednesday in Bank Square Books and, as the event moderator, I promise to delicately but with no spoilers explore just what the hell happens on page 96.

    A familiar but different approach

    Besides, to focus on that one scene is to take away from the overall enjoyment of “Happy Hour.” It’s a delightful, sad, funny and poignant first novel, one that provides all the requisite elements for a successful romantic read while, at the same time, supplying backstories and fully developed characterizations that push the story into a deeper emotional investment.

    Fifty-five-year-old KK Rhinehart is the heroine of “Happy Hour.” She’s emotionally and physically beaten down by menopause, and what she learns on finding an unfamiliar iPhone in her husband’s car ends their quarter-century marriage. Devastated, KK undergoes a self-imposed and off-season exile in her family’s Cape Cod summer beach house.

    There, her two closest childhood friends, Chickie, who owns Dockside, a year-round beach restaurant, and Matty, a gay hairdresser, and her siblings Bitty and Harley rally around KK with all sorts of therapeutic activities from hot yoga and makeovers to just spending time catching up.

    Oh, and there are KK’s regular Happy Hours, which is where she meets and develops a crush on Jay, a much younger bartender. To her surprise, Jay returns the affection, and a relationship develops through his persistence and in spite of KK’s self-worth anxiety and just being older. The pair settle into a wonderful period of mutual exploration.

    But just as KK begins surfacing towards Life again, a series of traumatic events, within her family and circle of friends, and involving everything from breakdowns to vicious social media attacks, threaten her newfound hope for happiness.

    Though “Happy Hour” is self-published, Bass said the response and sales have been very encouraging and she’s prepared to explore every avenue in generating interest. To that end, Old Lyme’s Luanne Rice, a serial bestselling author of woman’s fiction, crime novels and YA, was very impressed by “Happy Hour,” saying in a blurb, “(It’s) a sparkling novel with one of the bravest, most fascinating heroines you'll ever meet. Elissa Bass has created indelible characters, psychologically rich and true. She writes with wit and irony, with an open heart, and with the ability to make this poignant story in a seductive seaside setting read like a thriller.”

    Bass, a former editor/columnist/reporter at The Day who recently turned 61, grew up in a family of writers and journalists in Richmond, Mass. Working now as a freelance digital content strategist, Bass lives in Stonington with her husband Joe Wojtas, the night city editor of The Day. Their two adult children, Summer and Max, have both read page 96.

    Last week, Bass sat down to talk about “Happy Hour.” Responses have been edited for space and clarity.

    Q: How and why did you decide to write a romance novel?

    A: My father was such a prolific author, and my mother and sister are published authors as well, so I think it’s always been in the back of my head I should write a novel. Thirty years ago, I wrote three-quarters of a novel and a lot of it’s terrible. Some of it was good, though, and there was a small section about a woman making a horrible discovery about her husband that survived and made it into “Happy Hour.”

    As for writing romance, I was literally motivated to try it because it’s a genre that’s so structured and I thought, I can check these boxes (as I write). No disrespect to romance, because I love the genre and there are some brilliant romance novels and writers out there. I belong to a lot of romance book groups on Facebook and I felt comfortable with it and I think that gave me the impetus to sit down and actually write.

    Q: Admittedly, I haven’t read widely in the romance genre. But it seems you go beyond just checking the boxes. For one thing, your plot hinges on an older woman/younger man plot. Is that unusual?

    A: I wanted a different dynamic. Typically, in romance that subgenre is called Age Gap. But it’s ALWAYS an older guy/younger woman. Always, always. And the difference is usually about 10 years and he’ll be about 35 and she’ll be 25. That’s a very common romance trope.

    I wanted to do the opposite. I wanted the older woman and the younger guy. And I wanted my FMC — my female main character —

    Q: (interrupting) You’re pretty fluent in those romance acronyms.

    A: (Laughs). Yes! You have to be! Anyway, I wanted my FMC to be a menopausal woman because nobody pays any attention to women in their 50s in this culture. They’re largely invisible in society and I wanted to have KK to have that as part of her struggle.

    Q: If you’re indeed going against the grain a bit, how has the response been?

    A: I have to tell you, based on the messages and texts I’m getting and the reviews on Amazon, the chord has struck with women in their 40s, 50s and older. They’re relating 100 percent to KK and what she goes through emotionally, mentally and physically. I spent a lot of my 50s trying to … step back, feeling like I was being pushed back but also NOT wanting anyone to pay particular attention to me. I didn’t feel well. It’s a very challenging time.

    I think it’s very accurate in the book when I describe menopause as puberty in reverse. So I wanted my character to have to deal with all that because … the meanest mean girl that any woman knows is herself. We play the worst criticisms of ourselves in our heads all day long for our whole lives. Jay helps KK with this, as well as her friends.

    Q: Part of the magic of “Happy Hour” is the extent to which we learn about the characters. They’re fully fleshed out and it adds a lot of complexity to the story – and makes us understand and care beyond whether Jay and KK live happily ever after.

    A: HEA, you mean.

    Q: Yes!

    A: What happened was that I wrote the romance novel according to plan — and discovered Jay and KK’s story wasn’t long enough. I still needed 35,000 more words. But by the end of the first draft, I was so invested in all the major characters that I wanted to fill them out and make them more than just stock romance characters. I wanted Jay to have more depth, but also Chickie and Matty and others.

    So I went back and wrote all those flashback/memory scenes. It was almost like writing a second book, but it flowed naturally. It made it long enough, but I also felt like it made the whole novel more complete. Particularly Jay. I wanted there to be a huge age difference between him and KK, which seems convenient for the story, but then you find out Jay’s deeply damaged by how he grew up, and he’s also looking for salvation.

    Q: Another intriguing aspect is that, at 55, KK experiences the dark side of social media.

    A: I’m fascinated by social media and TikTok, which I got into during COVID when there was nothing to do. The idea that some random person, out of the blue, suddenly becomes THE thing everyone’s talking about – at least for 10 minutes.

    But it’s a brutal 10 minutes. It can be great, it can be amazing and it can turn really quickly. All of a sudden it’s not fun anymore. It happens every day in our culture now and I knew when I was writing that I wanted a viral social media event because the negativity that can happen can be really devastating.

    Q: Did you pursue the traditional avenue of searching for an agent and aiming for a major publishing house?

    A: I tried very hard to get an agent. I hired a guy who marketed himself as “I will help you get an agent.” And he was fine, he made my query letter better, then I spent a lot of time figuring out who to query, crafting each submission to fit each agent’s specifications — and they’re ALL different.

    I ended up querying 50 agents who specialize in women’s fiction and I got four automated “No, thank you” responses and 46 … nothing. I thought, well, I’m not getting any younger, and I want people to read my story. So I researched self-publishing and did a lot of homework and I found Archway, which is owned by Simon & Schuster — and I love what they did with it. It looks like a real book, not something that I’d mimeographed in the principal’s office. And Archway has a full distribution system and sets you up with an Amazon page.

    Regionally, the support has been amazing. The self-publishing challenge is always, well, once all your friends buy it, then what? It’s literally one book at a time, but I’m 100 percent invested. I’m doing as many appearances in as many places as I can. I’ll also be at the Thames Club in New London on June 26 as part of a benefit for the Always Home and New London Homeless Hospitality charities.

    A warning: I only read the dirty parts at house parties.

    If you go

    Who: Elissa Bass

    What: Discusses her novel “Happy Hour” with The Day’s Rick Koster

    When and where: 6 p.m. Wednesday, Bank Square Books, 53 W. Main St., Mystic

    How much: free, copies available for purchase and signing, RSVP requested

    For more information: banksquarebooks.com

    What: “Happy Hour Benefit for Always Home and NL Homeless Hospitality Center”

    When and where:: 4:30-6:30 p.m. June 26, Thames Club, 290 State St New London.

    How much: $28.52

    For more information: https://bit.ly/3xeaUM6

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