Inspired by Real Life… Or Not…

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When my novel, Goddess of Suburbia, was published in August, I had the honor of hosting a book launch party at Book Revue in Huntington, NY. Book Revue hosts all sorts of literary luminaries, sports figures and pop culture phenoms – from Hillary Clinton to J.K. Rowling to Dennis Rodman to Snooki. I spoke about my book and read a selection to a packed house. I was touched and amazed that the line waiting for me to sign copies of Goddess of Suburbia wrapped around the bookshelves. There were eighty-five chairs set up and it was still standing room only. Since a lot of people told me they wished they could make it, but couldn’t, I’ve shared my book talk from that night below…

“In case you’re wondering – this book is not autobiographical. Even my editor asked if I had endured the same things as Max – and she said that she was sorry for me if I had. She said that it seemed so real, she had to think that maybe it was. She offered sympathy, saying that she felt terrible for me, before I assured her that it was not true at all.

I couldn’t really ask for a better compliment as a writer than that I created a world on the page that feels so real, readers feel bad for me. Although, I’m not sure my husband is too happy about it! He doesn’t want to be associated with the husband in this story, Nick, that’s for sure! What husband would? And, of course I’m not pining away for my college boyfriend. This is a world completely sprung from my imagination.

There are some things inspired by reality. People might recognize the neighborhood of postage stamp sized lots as pretty similar to my neighborhood of postage stamp sized lots. Town of Oyster Bay residents will probably recognize the beach Max goes to as Centre Island Beach on the North Shore and the amazing ices shack she talks about as Bonanza’s in Oyster Bay. And East Hollow may seem just a bit like Plainview. Though, East Hollow is populated with people who are far meaner. In fact, at the eighth grade dance I sought out my son’s very kind principal to specifically tell him that the principal in the book is absolutely nothing like him. I also stood up at the end of a PTA meeting to make sure that everyone in attendance knew that the vicious PTA president in Goddess of Suburbia was not based on any past or present PTA presidents (or even members for that matter!).

So, what is inspired by real life? The feeling that you don’t quite always measure up or belong. Like everyone else has some secret key to keeping their lives running smoothly and their houses neat and their laundry under control. Max’s worry about what other people think of her is probably my way of working out the very same flaw that I have. I think a lot of readers have related to that.

A blogger who interviewed me told me that she saw a lot of herself in Max. She then asked me if Max is a lot like me, as well. I had to answer that yes – Max is indeed like me in many respects (one big way in which she was not like me when I wrote this book has changed – I gave her blonde hair, thinking that I’d never be a blonde and therefore, no one would think I was describing myself – who knew I’d become allergic to my espresso hair color and have to go blonde?). So, now we have one more thing in common.

So, how else are Max and I alike? Well, we share a love of Target. We both don’t get our hair cut often enough. We both prefer skinny jeans and flowy tanks for going out, fleece lounge pants for staying in and sweats of any kind the rest of the time. And as I alluded to earlier – we’re both always behind on laundry. We both put our kids before anything. We both love animals. We both have hyperventilation syndrome – though I don’t need to carry around a bag with me (I do, however carry a rescue inhaler for my asthma). I was diagnosed with hyperventilation syndrome in college and breathe too shallow when I’m stressed or nervous or speaking for a long time (like tonight – I was abit nervous about fainting up here on the podium). I took that feeling of not getting enough oxygen and spun it out with Max. And that’s a lot of what writing fiction is – taking a familiar feeling and spinning it out to a more intense scenario. I’ve always loved books that were about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances or conversely, extraordinary people in ordinary circumstances. Max is more the former – she’s your typical running around ragged, living on fumes, mom – she feels a bit restless and always has this slight nagging suspicion in the back of her mind as she’s shuttling her kids around in the minivan that perhaps there’s something more. And then she’s thrown into this situation where her life is just out there. Her stuck in a rut, boring life is suddenly anything but.The video was really just my vehicle for that to happen.

People become famous so easily now – I was really struck by how someone could put up a video on YouTube and it can go viral and suddenly, that person is on the Today show. Or a Facebook post goes viral and suddenly this person who never asked for attention is hurled all sorts of vitriol. Like the woman who posted the photo of her baby with an orange face after she nursed him too soon after a spray tan. I’m not saying she was right or wrong – I’m just using that as an example. Though, she did put that photo out there, unlike Max. A better example would be the courtroom artist who drew Tom Brady. All of the sudden, she’s on the receiving end of such hate – she was just doing her job. Max was just trying to save her marriage.

As an aside – it’s been very interesting to me that some women reviewing the book are angry that Max made the video – “How could she be so stupid?” they ask. In kind of a meta moment, that just confirms to me many of the insults hurled at Max from behind the anonymity of a computer screen are completely accurate. She would be subject to that kind of abuse, because people are angry at her for doing it and she’s only a fictional character. That was another thing I wanted to explore – how it’s so easy to fling hate, when one isn’t face to face.

In the version before the one you hold in your hands, Max’s life was much more tumultuous. She was framed for murder and the whole media circus was even bigger. She had to race to find the killer, before losing everything important to her. I loved that story, but an agent asked me to rewrite it. She said too many bad things happen to Max and the reader takes the hits right along with her. She told me that the situation was too “larger than life.” It wasn’t believable to her. The agent asked me to rewrite the book without the murder and with a bigger emphasis on her relationship with her ex, Ben. She wanted it to be happier, lighter, more hopeful. She wanted more Ben – a lot more. I took her four pages of notes and spent three months rewriting it. It didn’t work out between me and the agent (after eight months with no response to my rewrite on her part, I politely let her know that I was no longer seeking representation), but I think that happened for a reason. Beta readers really embraced the feel-good story. And now, you have it in your hands.

I have to think that all of the rewrites, all of the bumps along the road led to this moment. One reviewer wrote, “I couldn’t love Max more if she were my own real-life best friend.” And one blogger tweeted that the book was her favorite book this year. It all worked out in the end. I have a great publisher, Booktrope, who didn’t worry about whether a book about a tired everywoman PTA mom was marketable – they only looked at whether it was good or not and figured it would find an audience who loves it. I’m forever grateful for that.

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