Q&A with Jane Heller
My novels are about ordinary women in extraordinary circumstances who come out of their dilemma feeling better about themselves. The stories are romantic comedies in that they’ve got plenty of romance and lots of laughs, but they’re not about how to get a guy. They’re about a woman who’s trying to lead her life in the throes of career troubles or marital troubles or even troubles with her mother or sister. In other words, they’re about relatable women who, in the course of solving their problem, find true love and an inner strength they didn’t know they had.
2. Did you draw inspiration from your personal life?
My first novel, CLEAN SWEEP, is about a woman who loses her money in the bad economy, gets dumped by her husband and is about to lose her big house to foreclosure. She swallows her pride and becomes a maid – only to find that her employer has been murdered and she’s the prime suspect. I wrote the book after the stock market crash in the late ’80s and it’s just as timely now as it was then. I drew from my own experience in that everybody around me was going through the downturn, losing their money, their homes, their marriages. I decided to have the heroine become a maid because, like her, I’m obsessively neat and if I had to earn money in a hurry I’d probably clean other people’s houses too. My novel NAME DROPPING, about two NYC women who live in the same apartment building and have the same name and discover that their identities get switched, was based on the fact that I lived in the same NYC building as a woman named Paula Heller. We kept getting each other’s mail and phone calls and it was crazy. Then my agent, whose name is Ellen Levine, told me she and the Ellen Levine from Good Housekeeping magazine were always getting each other’s mail and phone calls and party invitations. I figured the idea was the perfect setup for a romantic comedy. THE SECRET INGREDIENT is about a wife who wishes her husband would go back to being the sensitive, communicative guy he was when they were dating, so she secretly gives him an herbal potion – with disastrous results. That idea was triggered by a conversation I had with a friend. We were complaining about all the ways our husbands had stopped being as attentive to us and how the everyday-ness of “real” marriage is very different from the adrenaline rush of dating. So there are some specifics from my own life in the novels. But mostly, the heroines all have my voice. My friends tell me that reading the books is like talking to me.
3. When did you know writing was for you?
I never dreamed of becoming a writer – not even during the 10 years I worked in book publishing in NY as a publicist for authors like Stephen King, Danielle Steel and Judy Blume. I was perfectly happy being behind the scenes and could see up close what a tough job writing was. But then I got an idea for a story. Just like that. I started writing a few pages each night, without telling anybody, and before I knew it I’d written 200 pages. I said to myself, “Hello, you’re writing a novel!” I realized I enjoyed the process of creating characters and coming up with funny situations and dialogue. I found an agent, who sold that first effort (which became CLEAN SWEEP) and suddenly I had a three-book contract. I’m still going, 15 books later.
4. How would you describe your books?
When my first couple of novels came out, the term “chick lit” hadn’t really hit the lexicon. The books were called “women’s fiction,” although there were some publications that labeled them “romance” or even “mystery” because I try to include some suspense in the plots. But now I’d say they’re definitely “chick lit” because they’re about women told from the female point of view – and because they’re meant to be breezy, lighthearted, entertaining, funny. I once got an email from a therapist who said she prescribed my novels to her depressed patients; that they were better than Prozac. I love that!
The hardest part is figuring out what to write next. My problem isn’t that I don’t have ideas. It’s that I have too many. I go back and forth so many times trying to decide which one to focus on. I have files and files of aborted novels because I’ll start something and then realize there isn’t enough plot, enough twists and turns, enough forward-moving energy to sustain a whole book. The other thing I’m terrible at is coming up with names for characters. After so many books, I don’t want to repeat a name – even one that I’ve used for a minor character, so it’s a challenge. And unless I hit on the right name for my main characters, I just can’t get a handle on them.
6. What are your favorite genres to read?
I’ll read anything, but I gravitate mostly toward fiction either by or about women. Some of my friends write mysteries, so I’ll dip into that genre from time to time. And there are some amazing period novels out right now (I’m reading THECHAPERONE at the moment), but I tend to read contemporary novels with strong female characters and if they’re funny, so much the better.
7. What do you want readers to take away from your stories?
I want readers to laugh, to have a great time, to say when they finish one of my novels, “Now that was fun.” I’m not trying to change the world. I want to entertain. That said, I do think there’s something inspiring about a heroine who goes through hard times and comes out on the other side with a stronger sense of herself. So I’d be thrilled if readers felt better about their own situations and their ability to cope with problems after finishing my books. I’ve gotten mail, for example, from many readers who are going through an illness and read my books to escape. They write to me and say, “Thank you for getting me through a terrible time in my life. I’m very grateful.” I’m the one who’s grateful.
That I love hearing from readers. Writing is such an isolating job. You sit alone at the computer staring at a screen all day, hoping for some feedback. It’s so much fun to get an email at janeheller.com and I appreciate it when people take the time to share their feelings and thoughts about the books as well as their own stories.
9. How important do you think social media is for authors these days?
I have a Facebook page. I have boards on Pinterest. I’m active on Twitter. I have an author page on Amazon and Goodreads. I also write two blogs that are accessed from janeheller.com. So I guess you could say I’m all in when it comes to social media. As I said above, it’s great to be able to connect with readers in whichever way is comfortable for them.
10. What would be your advice to aspiring writers?
My best advice is to write. Sounds silly, I know, but with all the temptations out there, social media included, it’s harder than ever to be disciplined and put in the hours at the computer. But it’s essential to be disciplined. I rarely make lunch dates because they kill my work day. I get up in the morning and write. Period. When aspiring writers say, “I don’t have time,” I tell them about the woman with whom I was on a panel several years ago. She has just written her first novel and it was getting wide critical acclaim. She was the single mother of 10 children AND she had a full time job. She’d get up at 4 a.m. and write until it was time to take the kids to school and then write more after they went to sleep at night. If she could manage to write a novel, so can I and so can you!
My next book is nonfiction. It’s called YOU’D BETTER NOT DIE OR I’LL KILL YOU: A Caregiver’s Survival Guide to Keeping You in Good Health and Good Spirits. Chronicle is publishing it in November, to coincide with National Caregivers Month. It’s not chick lit, obviously, but it’s my slightly irreverent, hopefully inspirational take on be married to a man with a chronic illness. Along with my essays on everything from how to get on a nurse’s good side to why friendships slip away when there’s a medical problem in the family, it also includes interviews with other caregivers (some famous, some not; some dealing with a sick child or spouse, many coping with aging parents) and advice from experts. My goal is for the book to be a cheerful companion to the over 65 million caregivers in this country.