Friday, 6 July 2012

‘Beyond Chick Lit’ Part Two: Jane Green at Hebden Bridge Library

Jane Green was one of the calmest latecomers I've ever met. Charming and serene, she apologised profusely for her late arrival before taking the ‘hot seat’.

Novelist Linda Green introduced Jane, explaining she was on a hectic tour of the UK (she now lives in the US) and revealed that she and Jane have the same literary agent. However, despite having the same surname she said they were not related. Linda said she had been a Jane Green fan for years, having read her books from the start, and that when ‘Straight Talking’ came out it heralded a whole new genre within women’s fiction. Linda then led an informal discussion (more of a friendly chat really) including the odd comment and question thrown in by the audience…

Jane has written 12 novels, all of them best sellers. She has sold over 10 million copies worldwide and writes about many of the challenges that women face. Her latest novel, ‘The Patchwork Marriage’ is about a childless woman who marries a man with children. Becoming a wife and mother overnight proves harder than she imagined as the children make her life difficult and it puts a strain on the marriage. Jane is particularly interested in the dynamics of ‘blended families’ as both she and her second husband have children from previous marriages.

Going back to her first novel, Jane explained that ‘Straight Talking’ was very much about her life at the time – it followed themes that she was familiar with (a 20-something woman looking for Mr Right) although the story was not about her. She has since written about marriage, divorce, motherhood, coping with teenagers – the whole gamut of a woman’s life. But when one of her friends died from breast cancer, she completely lost her will to write. It was around the time she married her second husband and she did a lot of ‘lurking’ on internet chat forums. As she had just gained a blended family she was fascinated by the idea of a woman who marries a man and tries to ‘adopt’ his children as her own, only to find out it isn’t the perfect family she’d always dreamed of. During her research she discovered that it was widely recognised that most children of divorced parents have a secret hope that their parents will one day get back together. So, for the children, it is a greater loss rather than a gain when one of their parents remarries someone else.

Jane said she never takes characters straight from life; most of her characters are from her imagination, although she has “messed up” once or twice in the past. She wrote ‘Mr Maybe’ loosely based on an ex-boyfriend, but before she’d written it she told the ‘ex’ she would “write a book about him one day”. She explained the man in her book was only a bit like her ex, but “far more handsome and charming”, although to this day her ex tells people the book is about him. She also joked that ‘Straight Talking’ was “revenge” on all the horrible men she had dated in her 20s.

When asked whether there was a difference between readers in the US and the UK, Jane said there was. One of the differences, she said, is the covers – in the UK, book covers are “patronising” and often “dumb down” books. She said North American writers take themselves very seriously and work hard at being the best they can be.

Jane explained she was recently on Radio Four discussing the ‘Chick Lit’ tag with Adele Parks. Jane and Adele disagreed on the point. Adele called it ‘demeaning’ while Jane said it simply did not apply to what she’s writing now. She said she was in her 20s when she wrote ‘Chick Lit’ but she is older now and writes about different things. Even her book covers are more ‘grown up’ now.

Her next book is likely to be a Young Adult (YA) one. In her current novel, one of the voices is that of a 17-year-old. To get the voice right, she ran a few things past her own teenage daughter, but she says she can also remember vividly what it was like to be a teenager. She can remember feeling ‘on the outside’ during her teenage years and so she identifies with those teenage girls who don’t ‘fit in’.

When asked how she begins a novel, she explained she starts with a theme and then works on the characters. She said the characters tell their own story. She knows the arc of the story, but not every detail and only plots about one third of the arc at a time. The story is very much character led and she said you must stay true to the characters.

Linda asked her what she thought about ebooks and the future of publishing. Jane replied that technology has changed everything; people are more removed and isolated and they’re not reading as many books. She said she doesn’t believe it can carry on like this and at some point people may go back to books (in the conventional sense). She admitted that in the US ebook sales have surpassed hard covers for the first time and that Britain will follow suite before long. But overall she wasn’t worried. She said that women read for two reasons: to escape and to relate.

The discussion led on to the inevitable topic of the moment: what did she think about the ’50 Shades’ phenomenon? Jane said she wasn’t impressed by it and thinks most of its success is down to people wanting to be “part of the discussion”. She joked that her next book was going to be called ‘60 Shades of Green’.

The next topic was the relationship between daughters-in-law and mothers-in-law. Jane admitted she’d had a difficult relationship with her first mother-in-law but grew to love her later (after her first marriage had ended). This provoked a general discussion on daughter-in-laws and mother-in-laws which most of the audience agreed was a tricky relationship.

Linda asked whether Jane’s writing had changed over the years. Jane said that it had, but she wasn’t sure if it was down to living in the US or being a mother. She said her writing had become less edgy and more soft and sentimental.

When asked whether she preferred living in the UK or US, she said she felt at home in both, but that the US was her home now - she’s lived there with her family since 2001 and she’s now a US citizen. She said she’s not often in the UK and misses the London she grew up in, not the London of today.

Living in the US has hugely influenced her story settings and characters, starting with the Beach House which was the first to have only US characters. She said all her characters are US ones and she finds she has to consciously introduce British ones if necessary.

Jane didn’t do a reading from her latest novel but was happy to sign any books before she headed off on the next leg of her UK tour. The whole evening had a nice, intimate feel as if we were friends having a girly chat over a glass of wine. And it was clear the audience enjoyed themselves, throwing in lots of good questions and funny anecdotes of their own (I won’t mention all the details but many eyebrows were raised and much laughter induced!) One of the audience members was a lady approaching 70 who wanted Jane to bear in mind that when she starts to write for the older generation she must cast aside stereotypes. But the question remained: what to call ‘Chick Lit’ for a female readership over 60? (‘Pension-Lit’ just doesn’t have a great ring to it!) It was a fun and informative evening and K and I left feeling we had gained a useful insight into the writing and publishing processes from both of the Green ladies. Now all I need to do is to apply this insight to writing my own best seller! Well, a girl can dream, can’t she?

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