I recently had a chance to ask Eileen about New York, the book's origins, and, of course, writing advice.
We have something in common since we both studied writing at Sarah Lawrence College. Tell me a little about your experience in SLC’s The Writing Institute.
I have to admit I was a little intimidated to walk into a novel writing class at The Writing Institute and announce that I was writing a romantic comedy. Especially after I found out one of my classmates was an oncologist who was writing a sociopolitical satire about Pakistan and another was writing a memoir told in poetic prose. I felt a little out of my league. But, my teachers and classmates took my turn to workshop as seriously as my classmate’s historical fiction book about the changing society of Sao Paulo. I learned many things about the writing craft including plot structure, story logic, character development and word choice.
The workshop process taught me to take the emotion out of it and to let go of words, sentences or even pages that don’t work. My instructors, Patricia Dunn and Jimin Han, didn’t just teach us to be better writers, they also focused on the other things that are a part of the business of being a writer, like social media, query letters, and pitching. My classmates and I formed a tight writing group that meets outside of Sarah Lawrence on a regular basis. David Donnelly, the director of The Writing Institute, was kind enough to invite me to do a reading and Q&A with another alumna. My teachers and classmates made it in my acknowledgements because they were an integral part of getting Worth the Weight ready for publication.
You wrote much of Worth the Weight while your daughter trained at the Chelsea Piers gymnastics team. How important to your novel is the Chelsea location and did it take a lot of effort to bring its locations to life?
Chelsea is a vibrant part of Manhattan where you are surrounded by contradictions, you have centuries old brownstones next to brand-new high rises, cars shooting down the West Side Highway that runs alongside the tranquil Hudson River. Then you have this dog park right in the middle of it all with manufactured concrete hills and dogs racing back and forth while cars race by and people run, skate or bike past. The perfect place with just enough commotion for a mistaken identity romance plot to start. My husband and I went out to lunch at The Frying Pan, a floating restaurant on an old vessel and I just knew Jack and Kate needed to have their first date there. I ordered a burger with no bun and a side salad at New York Burger Co. at least twice a week and wrote for hours there, so of course that was Jack’s favorite burger joint.
I was parked on a side street one night waiting till it was actually legal to leave the car there and I looked up and saw a homey looking brownstone with a stoop lined with potted mums and thought this is where Jack lives. The only place I haven’t been to yet that is featured in the book is The New York Trapeze School because like Kate I’m too much of a control freak to voluntarily fly through the air. The rest of these Chelsea hot spots just found their way into the book as I experienced them myself.
You have used examples of real actors and actresses as influences for the physical aspects of your characters. When you wrote your book, how much did movies, specifically romantic comedies, influence you?
I’ll never forget seeing When Harry Met Sally... in the movie theater when I was in middle school. I was glued to my seat, laughing one minute, then tearing up the next. I instantly became a Nora Ephron fan. I loved the way she took the romantic comedy genre to the next level by asking larger questions like can men and women really be friends? I went on to love Sleepless in Seattle and, of course, You’ve Got Mail. It’s funny because I didn’t intend to create a modern take on You’ve Got Mail when I wrote Worth the Weight, but it ended up having two of the same major themes of mistaken identity and career versus love. It goes to show you that the books and movies you adore influence you sometimes when you don’t even realize it. In general, Nora Ephron’s works taught me that it isn’t enough to just have slapstick comedy. A solid rom-com needs to have depth and meaning that the audience can connect with.
Talk a little about your experience finding an agent (Eric Ruben of the Ruben Agency).
Most people want flowers or jewelry for Mother’s Day. I asked my husband and daughter for a writing conference for my present. So I signed up for the Connecticut Romance Writers of America conference and registered for four pitch sessions. I researched the agents and I chose a pitch session with Eric Ruben because he had a background in humor. I also signed up for an American Idol type thing where you submit your first few pages and have them read in front of hundreds of other writers and a panel of agents and editors.
I was sitting in my seat having a panic attack after the panel had torn apart the first few submissions, when they read the first few pages of Worth the Weight aloud. Eric Ruben interrupted the reader and said, “I like this. The author has a funny voice and that isn’t something you can teach. They either have one or they don’t.” An hour later I introduced myself to Eric at my pitch session by saying, “I’m the one who wrote the supersized stroller story.” He said, “You don’t have to say another word. Send me your manuscript.” A month later on Father’s Day, I was relaxing on the beach with my family when Eric called and signed me as his client.
What advice to you have for a budding author who’s eager to be published?
- Treat your writing as a career, not a hobby and the people in your life will too.
- Write like an artist, revise like a business person.
- Don’t be afraid of social media.
- Take a writing class.
- Join a writing group.
- Put yourself out there by sending queries and attending agent pitch sessions.