I met today’s interviewee while doing the fun reading series Witty Women Writers at the Book Cellar. She’s is a former investor relations firm vice president turned insanely popular New York Times bestselling author who lives in the Chicagoland area. She’s beloved for her witty memoirs Bitter is the New Black; Bright Lights, Big Ass; Such A Pretty Fat; Pretty in Plaid; My Fair Lazy and her most recent book, a foray into fiction, If You Were Here. You can read much more from and about her here on her blog, Jennsylvania. (P.S.: In case you can't tell, we conducted this interview before the holidays, but I wanted to save it for when everyone was back and paying full attention to their computers.)
I know you love coming up with the titles for your books (and others.) What are some that haven’t gotten used that are personal favorites?
Bitter Is the New Black will always hold a special place in my heart since it took me six months to come up with it. Editors have since told me they’d have bought Bitter based on title alone.
Lately, I’m over the moon about the title of my next memoir Jeneration X. My friend Karyn Bosnak (author and screenwriter) came up with that one and it’s so perfect that I dedicated the book to her. My weight loss memoir was supposed to be Pretty Fat but far too late I found out that the dot com domain was a big girl fetish site. Um… no. We switched it to Such a Pretty Fat which never resonated as much with me. I wanted something with a more obvious pun, like A Farewell to Fat Arms or The Pizza Man Always Rings Twice, but we were too far into the production schedule to make that kind of change. Now before I decide on a name, I check domain registries.
What’s funny is recently a friend asked for help titling her book. She said her editor “wanted a Jen Lancaster title.” So I came up with a bunch and my friend presented them to her editor without saying I’d written them. As it turns out, her editor hated all of them. Maybe she meant a different Jen Lancaster?
How do you procrastinate writing (and how do you make yourself stop procrastinating?)
You can tell how much I’ve procrastinated by how tan I am. My manuscripts are generally due in the late fall and I’ve spent every deadline summer browning myself into a shoe leather instead of writing. Most often, the change in the weather is what ends my procrastination. Fortunately, I work well under pressure so when I’m about two months out, something switches on inside of me and I know it’s time to get to work.
What’s something you’ve read lately that you’ve adored?
Girls in White Dresses by Jennifer Close was spectacular and I loved how she set the stories against the backdrop against the never-ending barrage of weddings we all attended in our twenties. Of particular note is how perfectly Close captured the nostalgia of being that age and living in Chicago; she was so spot on that I can’t believe she doesn’t live here. I’m such a fan of her work now and can’t wait to read whatever she does next.
Who are some of your favorite famous (non-politician) Republicans?
Well, I’m certainly proud to have Jessica Simpson and Britney Spears on my team. Everything about their thought processes screams “good decisions!” to me.
Seriously, though, I consider myself more of a conservative than a Republican and I really connect with people like Andrew Wilkow, Andrew Breitbart, Steve Forbes, Mark Levin, Megyn Kelly, Monica Crowley, and Charles Krauthammer. However, you’ll rarely see me express political opinion in my work because I’m a humor writer and it’s not my place to proselytize.
What do you want for Christmas that you probably won’t get?
I want every piece of carpet in my house ripped up, set on fire, and replaced by cherry stained bamboo flooring. Between our swampy woods (freeze already, damn it!) and our pit bull Libby’s cavalier attitude toward potty training there’s not an inch of rug in this house that hasn’t been ruined. Of course, I’d settle for a new Miele vacuum, but I’m likely not getting that, either.
What are some of your favorite presents that you’ve ever given?
I trend more “generous” than “thoughtful.” Given the choice between spending a whole day shopping for the One Perfect Item or simply buying everything on the recipient’s Amazon wish list, I opt for the latter. No one’s complained yet. (Also, I’m a pathological check-grabber. I feel that must be stated so I sound like less of a thoughtless jerk.)
If You Were Here is a departure from your nonfiction books: what’s another genre or form you’d like to explore someday?
The thing about memoir is there’s only so much content I can mine from my own life. I mean, at this point I’ve written six books about myself. Six! And it’s not like I was the POTUS or anything. Mostly I just get drunk and bitch about stupid people. Because of this, I’ve worked to branch out as an author, starting with If You Were Here. I hope to write young adult novels as well as adapt some of my work to screenplay. It’s such a privilege to write for an audience/for a living that I want to keep growing and evolving to stay fresh.
Which of your books was the most difficult to write and edit?
Pretty in Plaid was a bitch because while I was trying to finish it, my roof cracked in a big storm and my office walls filled with mold. I’d sit at my desk thinking I was writing really brilliant stuff, telling everyone the mold spores were like penicillin for my brain. But really that was just my immune system was shutting down. The editing on that one took forever, too, again because of the brain penicillin.
You have a fiercely loyal fanbase which is composed of a lot of readers who either feel like they already are or want to be your homegirl: what’s one way that you suspect you’re a little bit different from the Jen Lancaster your readers know and love?
I have the best fans, right? I feel really lucky to have built this kind of audience and they make me strive to always do my best. That being said, I’m more of a marshmallow than people realize and guilt is my kryptonite. Yeah, I say a lot of sh*t off the cuff, but what I don’t always document is feeling kind of awful about my scathing remarks afterward. Readers always tell me I say what they’re thinking but are too afraid to vocalize. Trust me as someone who’s dealt with the consequences of having a big, fat mouth – sometimes not saying it is a good thing.
How do you know when it’s time to step away from the computer and do other things?
I equate sitting at the computer with being at work, so it’s not at all hard for me to step aside. (I’m pathologically lazy.)
Has there been any personal information in your blogs or memoirs that you’ve shared with readers that you maybe wouldn’t if you were writing that book/post now?
No, I wouldn’t say so. Before my words ever see a printing press, they’re reviewed a minimum of ten times, so I’m comfortable with whatever material I’m presenting come publication time. Writing a book is way different than how I started, which was blogging. Online, I post stuff in a very heat-of-the-moment fashion and sometimes I regret it later, like when my fans rallied to bring down a Ford dealership this fall.
The back story to that is I was mad about an illegal practice (we bought an old truck with a rolled back odometer) and the dealership’s lack of response. It wasn’t their fault, but we felt like it was their responsibility. After weeks of trying to pursue an amicable settlement, they would only offer a compromise that would double their profits and cost us over $4000. I had no choice but to declare shenanigans. I complained in a very public forum and within minutes, fans had crashed the dealer’s website and Facebook page. They were getting calls from other countries. Ultimately we received a full refund but I learned an important lesson about not being a social media bully. (And readers learned why you should always, always, always run your own Carfax report.)
What’s ironic is that this dealership assured us the situation was a fluke and would never happen again and yet when it was all said and done, they reposted our old truck online at full price and with a mileage we all knew to be untrue. Now I feel like less of a dick.
I know you don’t write about sex: are there any other topics you don’t typically like to cover?
Like I mentioned, I steer clear of politics because they’re so divisive. I’d rather write about what brings us together, you know? I don’t cover many current events because it’s really hard for me to not interpret them through the scrim of conservatism. I also never discuss books or authors that I dislike because that’s just not cool. This is a rough business in a terrible economy and we authors should do more to support each other.
How much do you read about yourself online? (I confess I have a Google alert).
Almost zero. I haven’t looked at an Amazon review of my work since Bright Lights, Big Ass came out in 2007. It’s not that I don’t value feedback – I do and it’s important because I only have a career as long as the fans are happy. That’s why I pay attention to what people tell me directly and I’m very active on forums like Twitter and Facebook. But to intentionally seek out what others have to say about me in anonymous? And given my predilection for Googlestalking? No, thank you.
Before you seriously developed your fanbase, how did you know whether what you were writing would resonate with your readers?
Short answer? I didn’t. I’ve always followed the rule of thumb that I write the kind of stuff that I’d want to read. That being said, I’m always reading other people’s Twitter feeds, blogs, and Facebook posts to see what they’re into. Most likely, if they love it, I also love it, so I try to tell the stories where we have the most common ground. I don’t always hit the mark, though. Sometimes I’ll work on a piece for hours, yet I’ll receive five tepid comments on it. Other times, I’ll toss up something silly, like quoting the Tide commercial where the lady says she wears yoga pants because she’s too lazy for regular pants, and I’ll get 1,500 “likes.”
Pretend I’m someone who just sent you an email asking you to tell me how I can write and publish a book just like yours (I’ve never written a book but I think I can do it if I just find the time!) Now tell me what you really want to say without being polite. PS will you read my manuscript?
My polite advice is if you want to be a writer, you have to be a reader.
My uncensored advice is I won’t waste my time on anyone who hasn’t put in a modicum of effort first. If you email about how you find the time to be a writer, I’ll likely just ignore you. I’m not going to provide a pep talk or primer on time management and discipline because clearly you’re not serious. When you’re ready to write your book, nothing will stop you, not a full time job, not kids, not marriage, etc. The need to write will consume you. If you’re not actively rearranging your life to accommodate your hunger for writing, then you’re not ready.
To be clear, it’s not that I don’t want to help writers; in fact, I’m actively mentoring a couple of aspiring authors right now. When they sell their books – and I believe they will – I’ll be the one throwing their book launch parties.
Who are some dream blurbers whose words you’d love to see on the front of a future Jen Lancaster book?
I’ve been very fortunate in my career to have been endorsed by so many authors I love. For example, Jane Green gave me a blurb on If You Were Here. I remember living in my tiny apartment a decade ago, falling madly in love with her work, never imagining I’d have my own books someday. To have her as a peer now? It’s surreal. That being said, dream blurbers include Sophie Kinsella, Helen Fielding, Marian Keyes, David Sedaris, Paul Feig, P.J. O’Rourke, Christopher Buckley, Cameron Crowe, and Nora Ephron.
What typically spurs you to start writing, or, if you’re halfway through a project, what pumps you up to keep going (aside from a contractual obligation?)
You can’t discount my propensity for being a kiss-ass-cheese-dog in terms of contractual obligations. Also, I’m such a nerd that I really like to challenge myself in the process, e.g. how many words can I write today? How many times can I make myself laugh? But ultimately, I love what I do. I used to write as a hobby because I enjoyed it so much. Now that I get paid for it? Even better.
What’s new with the dogs?
Our pit puppy Libby recently ate my Kindle. I have to applaud her efficiency – it’s like she ate 197 books at the same time. Loki recently got to see his brother and even after four years of being apart, they knew exactly who one another was. (It was very sweet!) And Maisy just had surgery to remove a couple of ugly cysts. Turns out one of the cysts was skin cancer. My husband was all, “Congratulations, the dog beat you to melanoma.” She’s completely fine, but next summer she has to wear a sun shirt. It’s possible that I will follow suit.
What are you most looking forward to in 2012?
Not having skin cancer? Or maybe 2012 being over as next year I have a paperback release in March, a memoir coming out in May, a YA anthology chapter in the fall, and a new novel in the winter. On top of all that, I’ll be working on yet another memoir. Maybe I’ll call it Seriously, Seven Is Enough, because… damn.
How does it feel to be the 300th person interviewed for Zulkey.com?
Disconcerting. I worry that if I were more interesting, I’d have been interviewed sooner.
Also: I reviewed two very different shows yesterday for The A.V. Club: American Stuffers, a show about a taxidermy company that also preserves dead pets, and 24 Hour Catwalk, a sloppy spinoff of Project Runway. I preferred the dead pet one.