The Cultural Gutter

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And Now For Someone Completely Different…

Chris Szego
Posted November 1, 2007

agnes.jpgI worked in my local library all through junior high and high school.  One of the lingering benefits was that for years I knew where all the brand new books were kept:  after they were entered into the system, but before they were put on the shelf.  It was like being an explorer.  Not only were the books pristine and untouched, but there was also the chance that I might make some fabulous discovery before anyone else.

Then one day in 1993, I did.

It was utterly unprepossessing at first sight: a slim category romance from the Harlequin Temptation line with a startlingly bad cover.  Its sheer unattractiveness of it caught my eye.  Up till then Harlequin and Silhouette had used drawings in their cover art, and had never aimed for photo-realism.  This one had an actual photo, and a cheesey one at that.  Idly I opened the book, wondering about the poor author stuck with such an unfortunate cover… and after just a few pages, realized it didn’t matter.  Because any book written by Jennifer Crusie was going to find its way into the hands of hordes of readers.

Jenny_Crusie_color_webThat particular book was Manhunting, and it was Jennifer Crusie’s first novel.  She had come to the attention of Harlequin when she won a novella contest the previous year.  Her entry ‘Sizzle’, was published by Harlequin as a chapbook, and was given out as a little bonus to subscribers.  It’s one of the few pieces from Crusie’s time with Harlequin that hasn’t been reissued in one form or another, for which she says she’s very grateful.

What made Crusie such a welcome addition to the genre?  Well, for one thing, her characters always feel like real people instead of cardboard cutouts.  They own pets; they love their jobs (or hate them); they try and sometime fail, and feel foolish, and try again anyway.  She’s written about divorces, funerals, political ambition, and legalizing marijuana – all within the particular confines of the category romance.  And secondly, she’s funny.  Not pretending to be, or trying to be: funny.

Humour is subjective.  What’s funny to A might be unfunny to B and incomprehensible to C.  It is also, as any comedian will tell you, darned hard.  Crusie’s pitch perfect ear for dialogue makes it seem easy.  And it works because it’s delivered by real people.  They talk fast, they insult each other, they’re funny not because they’re trying to make jokes, or deliver one-liners, but because sometime people are just plain funny.

After writing six very successful books, Crusie left Harlequin over a ‘moral rights’ clause the company wanted to insert into all contracts.  She wrote two more category-length books, for the now-defunct Bantam Loveswept line.  Then she turned her hand to writing longer romances for St. Martin’s.  Once again, she challenged everyone’s idea of what a romance could be.

Her first single title, Tell Me Lies begins with a woman discovering that her husband is having an affair, again.  Then she finds out he’s planning to take their daughter out of the country.  Then he’s murdered.  And then a case full of stolen cash appears in her car.  Doesn’t sound terribly funny – but in Crusie’s hands it is.  Not all the time, of course, that would be tedious.  But Crusie proves that just because something is serious doesn’t mean it has to be full of angst or depression.

Crusie herself knows a bit about depression.  It put her through a period of total block: she was unable to write, and unable to care.  During that time, she attended the Maui Writer’s retreat where she met Bob Mayer, who said, “We should write a book together”.

Mayer, a former Green Beret, writes straight-up action suspense novels, as well as military SF under the name, Robert Doherty.  They have very different writing routines, techniques and audiences (not to mention lives).  But their writing voices are not dissimilar.  Don’t Look Down, the first novel they wrote together, hit the NYT list.  The second, the recently released Agnes And The Hitman is even better.

The other thing Crusie and Mayer do together extremely well is teach.  They’ve given writing workshops all around the US, explaining plot structure, characterization, point-of-view – the ‘Bob and Jenny’ show, as they call it, touches all aspects of the writing process.  You can see the workshop for yourself at their joint website, and reap the benefits of a most original, and highly welcome, partnership.

~~~

Chris Szego wants to be Crusie when she grows up.

Comments

5 Responses to “And Now For Someone Completely Different…”

  1. Evil Roy Slade
    November 3rd, 2007 @ 9:48 am

    That was a good article, but I was interested in this bit right here that’s really just a side comment:
    “After writing six very successful books, Crusie left Harlequin over a ‘moral rights’ clause the company wanted to insert into all contracts.”
    Just what the heck is a moral rights clause?

  2. Chris Szego
    November 3rd, 2007 @ 11:26 am

    It’s a frighteningly evil little clause that would have allowed the publisher to make changes to the text on moral grounds.
    Jenny said, “Define ‘moral grounds’ exactly”, but of course, no one could. It’s a clause that would pander to the worst, more fearful, repressed reader possible. You know, the kind of person who would want a book banned because it contained something she found objectionable. So Jenny said “No thanks” and walked.

  3. Carol Borden
    November 3rd, 2007 @ 7:32 pm

    so are moral rights clauses common in romance books?
    also, i’m curious about how crusie and meyer work the romance and the action-suspense in their books together. assuming that their novels together have these elements. of course, maybe meyer leaves that aside. just seems like a title with hitman in it might have action and suspense. and hitmen.
    and is the moral clause related to the sex or the violence, if there’s violence in her books?

  4. Chris Szego
    November 3rd, 2007 @ 10:02 pm

    It’s not necessarily a common clause. The problem with it, of course, is that it could be used to alter anything. Someone from the heartlands doesn’t like a gay character? Presto, the character is now straight (that’s NOT an actual example, just a bad-case-scenario).
    As for Bob and Jenny together, the orignal aim was that they’d write a book from two points of view: Bob would write the male POV and Jenny the female. And that’s still how they start, though by the end of a novel, they’ve both examined, commented on, edited, and revised each other’s work so much they’re not always sure who wrote which words.
    And yes, there’s a fair amount of violence in their co-written books. Bob makes sure all the ordinance is properly identified.

  5. weed
    November 22nd, 2007 @ 7:34 pm

    Hi Chris,
    I enjoyed the article. It cries out for some examples, though: “Crusie’s pitch perfect ear for dialogue makes it seem easy. And it works because it’s delivered by real people.” Cool, give us a sample!
    Also, I’m as interested in the “morals clause” as everyone else. Would you consider doing an article on that in the near future?

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