"The one thing you should know about me is this: I'm the consummate good girl..."
Ellie Winters is dependable and loyal and has a near-phobic aversion to conflict. But as her thirtieth birthday looms ever closer, she starts to feel like she's lost the instruction manual to her life. She has just broken up with her boring boyfriend, despises her job, and is the last of her high school friends to remain single. Worse, her dysfunctional family is driving her nuts, and she's somehow become enslaved to her demanding pet pug Sally, who she suspects is the reincarnation of Pol Pot.
One night, after a botched attempt to color her hair at home, Ellie rushes to the drugstore for emergency bleach, Sally in tow. Sally is accosted by a smitten canine admirer... but it's the dog's owner who captures Ellie's attention. Television news anchor Ted Langston is witty, intriguing, and sexy. The only catch? He's twice her age-- and the only man on the planet who isn't interested in dating a younger woman. And no one, from Ellie's best friends to Ted's ex-wife, wants to see them get together.
Pushing 30 asks the question whether a Good Girl can find her happily-ever-after with the one man who's so wrong for her, he's perfect...
"It was an amazing first date. A perfect first date. But then, just as I was having a dirty, non-good Girl fantasy about what would happen later on that night, the date took a very sharp, downward-plunging turn into nightmare dating hell.
'You're... you're thirty?' Ted asked, his voice strained and incredulous.
"Well, not quite. I'm turning thirty in January. The first. I was a New Year's baby,' I gabbled, the way I tend to when uncomfortable.
And then, unbelieveably, he said, 'I thought you were older.'
I thought you were older than that.'
Oh. My. God. 'How old did you think I was?' I asked, incredulous, and yet panicked at the same time. I knew I was prematurely wrinkling. It must be worse than I'd originally thought. I must have skin like beef jerky.
'Mid-thirties,' he said.
Thirty-two? Thirty-three? I hoped fervently.
'Thirty-eight or thirty-nine,' Ted continued.
I was silent. This was terrible. Horrible. Unbearably bad. I knew it. My crow's-feet were worse than I'd thought- My date had actually judged me to be nearly a decade older than I actually was."
-Ellie Winters in Pushing 30, written by Whitney Gaskell
Exploring Womanhood Interviews Whitney Gaskell
Author of Pushing 30
Whitney Gaskell was approaching her own thirtieth birthday when she put pen to page and began her comic and heartfelt debut novel, PUSHING 30. StorkNet message board members read PUSHING 30 together during the month of November, 2003. Whitney graciously agreed to take questions from all of us, as we were very curious to know how she, a new mom, finds time to write, where she gets her creative and funny ideas, and of course, what's coming up next. Below is the resulting interview. Thank you, Whitney!
January: Can I ask you how you got published? I would love to hear your story!
Whitney: For most writers -- and I';m certainly no exception -- getting your first book published is really hard. Publishers like to sign up authors who have already proven themselves in the past, and so you really face a Catch-22 trying to break in. And actually, I didn't get my first book published -- PUSHING 30 was the fourth book I wrote (the first three were so awful that I've banished them to a dark place, never to be read by anyone ever again). And I faced so much rejection along the way. One of the agents I submitted my first book to wrote me a letter that went something like, "I tried reading your book several times, and it was so incredibly awful, I couldn't bring myself to get past the first ten pages." OK, it wasn';t quite that harsh, but close.
After I completed PUSHING 30, and edited it about a hundred different times, I bought a directory of literary agents (available at bookstores), picked out a list of 20 or so who met the requirements I was looking for -- an established agency, located in Manhattan (since that's where the industry is located), that specialized in selling commercial fiction, and were open to first time authors. I sent a query letter and the first three chapters of the book to those agencies. Of the 20 literary agencies, 3 were interested in reading the complete manuscript, and the agency that I eventually signed with was the one that was the most enthusiastic about my work. Interestingly, even after I'd signed with my agent, and he was starting to field offers from publishers, I continued to get rejection letters from agents who didn't think that my book was marketable, which just goes to show you how incredibly subjective the industry is.
My agent had me do some edits on the book, and then sent my manuscript out to various publishers. Five were interested in buying it, so he set up an auction for the interested bidders. However, the auction ended before it even started when my publisher -- Bantam, a division of Random House -- met our 'Buy it Now' price.
It was my dream come true, but it happened at about the worst time possible -- I found out about the sale three days after I delivered my stillborn son, George Henry. My agent actually called to give me the final details while my husband and I were driving to the funeral home to pick up my son's ashes. So it was a long time before I could really absorb the fact that I was going to be published, and even longer before I started to get excited about it. In fact, I don't think it really hit me until about six months later, when I first got a copy of the book cover, which is now framed above my desk.
Alison: Hi, Whitney. I read the book and really liked it! My question is how do you write? Do you have a set schedule or do you write whenever the mood strikes? Also, do have any more books planned?
Whitney: Thanks, Alison. I'm so glad you liked it! It still feels a little weird to know that people -- other than those that are related to me, and thus obligated to buy a copy or ten -- are reading it.
Before Sam came along, I pretty much wrote whenever I felt like it. Usually, I'd run errands and work out in the morning, shower, eat lunch, check my Email and putter around StorkNet and the Internet for a while, and then settle down to work at about two to three pm. I'd normally put in three to four hours a day of writing and editing. And I think about my work all the time -- an idea will often come to me while I'm running, or in the shower, or about to fall asleep, and I'll have to stop what I'm doing and start taking notes.
Now that I'm a mom (!), I'm still working out the kinks in my schedule. I'm currently editing my second book TRUE LOVE (AND OTHER LIES), due out in September 2004--and trying to get started on my third book. I try to work when Sam naps in the afternoon, or when my husband can take over childcare. I can usually count on Sam going down for 2-3 hours, and as long as he does that, I'll just work around him, but I've also been considering hiring a part-time Nanny or mommy's helper at some point in the future.
Jennifer: How did your editor help you shape your book, especially the last 100 pages, which were so tense (and effective)? How much of the main character is autobiographical? Which authors have inspired you? What do you think of the term chicklit?
My husband gave me a copy of this book for my birthday. His assessment, after reading the back cover copy of every book on a chicklit display, was that Pushing 30 sounded like the best (and perhaps the least threatening to a man in his 30s) in print at the moment. It was funny and smart and utterly entertaining. Thanks!
Whitney: Awwww, I'm blushing! Thanks for the kinds words. Writers love getting good feedback from actual readers (it lessens the sting when a critic really lays in to you). OK, let me take your questions one at a time...
How did your editor help you shape your book, especially the last 100 pages, which were so tense (and effective)? I've been incredibly lucky in my editors! My editor for PUSHING 30 was amazing to work with, but sadly she recently moved to another publishing house. I'm really happy with my new editor, though, who is also very talented and enthusiastic about my work. Both women have been supportive and quite intuitive in their suggestions for improvements in my books. I don't always notice plot inconsistencies or weaknesses with the characters, and it's invaluable to have someone I trust help point those out.
For example, in the last 100 pages of PUSHING 30, I originally had Ellie being quite ugly to her ex-boyfriend during the New Year's Eve party -- which I originally intended to be a catalyst for her final conflict with Ted -- and my editor suggested that it made her unlikable just at the point where the reader really wants to root for her.
How much of the main character is autobiographical? The story is not at all autobiographical (with the exception of Ellie's pug, Sally, who was completely based on my diva-ish pug). With that being said, it's hard to resist speaking through your characters, and I'm sure a little Whitney leaked into Ellie.
Which authors have inspired you? Oh, too many to name! I've been a book lover all of my life -- when I was a young child, I adored the Pooh books, anything written by E.B. White and the Wind and the Willows. As I got older, I was enraptured by Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, The Secret Garden . . . I could go on and on! And I now read anything and everything, from commercial mysteries to more literary fiction. A sampling of my favorite authors currently publishing: Anne Rivers Siddons, Helen Fielding, Pat Conroy, Maeve Binchy, Elinor Lipman, J.K. Rowling, Chris Bohjalian, Nick Hornby, Rebecca Wells, and Anna Quindlen.
If I had to pick just one, I'd say that P.G. Wodehouse is brilliant, and perfected the art of comedic fiction. Okay, I can't keep myself to just one -- I'm also going to add John Steinbeck, who was, I think, the single best writer of modern fiction. Ever.
What do you think of the term "chick lit?" I'm not a big fan of the term, since it lumps together every book written by a woman about women between the ages of 25 and 40. Isn't it interesting that when a man writes a book about men in the same age group, that it isn't immediately lumped into a cutesy and somewhat derogatorily named subgroup? But I am a fan of the genre. Admittedly there is some junk out there -- I can think of one publisher who tends to churn out really below par books -- but there are also some fantastic books in the 'chick lit' genre. There's a misconception that it's all lipstick and cocktails, but I've read books addressing everything from sexual assaults to divorce to eating disorders to grief -- serious, relevant material. I'm a big fan of Jennifer Weiner, Jill Davis, Lynn Messina, Sophie Kinsella, Marian Keyes, Jane Green, Allison Pearson and Suzanne Finnamore.
SusanH: First, I'd like to say how much I enjoyed your book! It was lots of fun to read, and I felt myself identifying with the heroine even though our lives are fairly different. I also thought you did a great job with the sexual tension. I was rooting for her to get the guy from the first meeting!
My first question is a lighthearted one. My daughter was fascinated by the cover art. She was very distressed that the lady was being crushed by a cake, and equally distressed that there was no way for the lady to eat the cake in that position. So my question is, did you have any say in the cover design or did your publisher handle that exclusively?
I noticed in your biography that you spent time unhappily working in a law firm. Were some of the law firm scenes and characters based on your experiences there? I can only hope no one set out to destroy your career!
And my third question - are you writing anything now? Are you planning a sequel or would you prefer to move on to a new set of characters?
Whitney: LOL! I believe in Ellie ... I think she would somehow find a way to eat her way out from under the cake! Yes, I do have quite a bit of say in the choice of cover art. My editor and I came up with the idea of Ellie being squashed by a cake. I originally thought of the idea of the cake falling from above, with Ellie straining to hold it up over her head, and my editor thought it would be even funnier to have her squashed under the cake. I'm really happy with how the cover came out -- it still cracks me up when I see it (and, I think, it makes it clear that the book inside is a romantic comedy . . . so when a few critics have dismissed the book as being too fluffy, it makes me wonder what the were expecting. Does War and Peace have a cake-squashed woman on the front cover, after all?).
No, no one set out to destroy my legal career, but I truly have found many lawyers -- especially those I've worked under -- to be as obnoxious as Ellie's bosses were. The legal profession is still a very misogynistic field, and is especially unfriendly to working moms. When I interviewed for my last -- and hopefully final -- position at a law firm, my interviewer said, 'I hope you're not planning on getting pregnant, because we don't really want to deal with all of that.'
I am working right now -- I'm in the process of making final edits on my second book, TRUE LOVE (AND OTHER LIES), which is due out in September 2004. Once that's done, I'm going to start writing my third book, which follows the story of three sisters, all at very different places in their lives. I don't have any plans for an Ellie-Ted sequel right now (although I've gotten quite a few Emails from people wanting to know what happens next in Ellie's life).
Aliboo: I have so many books in me! How many times have all of us thought, or maybe even dared to say that! Thank you for writing this book. I'm in the UK and haven't seen it, but I am so glad that you wrote it and it was published and by all accounts is doing so well. I do have a book in me somewhere! I love writing and maybe I should 'get down to it'! So, how do you 'get down to it? I'd love to know how you fit everything in....writing, home, kids, hubby, etc...sounds like enough to stop creativity? But obviously not in your case.
Whitney: Hi Aliboo! Ah, but the book IS available in the UK! I've never really had a problem motivating myself to write -- in fact, I have a much harder time taking a break from my work. That being said, I think it's a great idea to keep a writing journal, where you write down all of your various story ideas. It gets the creative juices flowing. Every time I start a new book, I buy a narrow lined composition book (I prefer them over spiral bound notebooks), and use it to jot down every idea I have.
As for the balancing act that is my life . . . that I'm still trying to work out. This is the first time I've had a baby to take care of, while also working at home. Right now, I just try to work around Sam's naps. I love spending time with both my husband and son, so most of my energy goes to my family and work. I tend to let the housework slide.
InsomniaMom: As a lawyer who finds herself scribbling bits of imagined dialogue and poetry during tedious meetings, I'm wondering -- what made you take the leap from law to writing? Did you leave your job to devote your time to writing, or did you juggle the two for a while? I guess what I really want to know is (a) how did you work up the courage to leave the profession (knowing, as I do, how hard it is to go back) and (b) did you ever have second thoughts about doing so?
I loved Pushing 30, by the way. I thought Ellie was engaging and funny, and though I am, as my husband says "dragging 30 kicking and screaming" I could still relate to her. I look forward to your next book.
Whitney: Thank you for your kind words! I'm so glad you enjoyed the book.
I wrote the first half of the book while I was still working as a litigation associate. I wrote whenever I could -- during my lunch hour, in the evening, on weekends. At the time, I was working in a field that I particularly hated -- Oil and Gas litigation -- and the partner I worked for was horrible. I had no client contact, no training, and was basically treated like a legal secretary. The firm and I parted ways in January 2002, when I -- much like Ellie, actually -- was laid off.
Unlike Ellie, I had been planning to quit, so when the jerk I worked for fired me (telling me that they'd made a mistake in hiring a woman, and had decided to bring on a male litigator to replace me . . . and no, I'm not kidding), and gave me a severance package to keep me from suing the firm for discrimination, I used the paid time off to finish my book and search for an agent. In order to make some extra money, I was appointed to some criminal appellate cases (which were actually sort of fun to work on). I had planned on practicing appellate law indefinitely, but once I got my book deal, I decided to give up the law for good and devote myself to writing full-time.
To answer your second question, I don't regret giving up the law at all. It was a very bad fit for me, and I hope to never go back! Also, now that my son has arrived, I'm looking forward to staying home with him. I know it will be difficult to fit everything into my day, but so far, I love it. I know a lot of women who are trying to balance motherhood with a legal career, and very few of them are happy doing it. In my experience -- and my friends' experience -- the profession is especially hostile to working moms. Hopefully, that will change some day, but I'm glad it's not something I'll have to tackle.
LauraAshley: I just finished it today and I wanted to say that I loved it! I found myself talking out loud at some points. I loved ALL the characters...especially the mother. Is she based on anyone you know?
Whitney: No, she really wasn't! I wanted Gloria to be especially annoying in order to be a catalyst for Ellie's change and so that she could provide comic relief. Ellie's parents are nothing like my parents (and I truly hope my parents don't think that's how I see them).
Mama2rzl: Oh my goodness, Whitney, the book was wonderful!! I adored the messed up family... the mother reminded me of mine, in some ways (ugh), but made me laugh HARD. I can't wait til your next book comes out!
Whitney: Thank you. I'm so glad you liked it!
Ronna: Whitney, I am not an avid reader. I read, maybe, 4 or 5 books a year. But, of course I couldn't wait to dig into Pushing 30. I had backordered off Amazon before it was even published. Once I picked it up, I could not put it down. I loved Ellie. In fact, I loved her more than Bridget. So that leads me to my question...Throughout the whole book, I could really visualize the characters and the situations so well. Great job on your part making it so descriptive. I kept thinking, "this would be a great movie." If approached, would you ever consider turning the book into a movie? And if it was made into a movie, who would you pick to play Ellie? Ted?
Whitney: Hi Ronna! I'm so glad you liked the book. I would be over the moon if it got optioned for a movie! More and more romatic comedies are getting optioned, so it's not beyond the realm of possibility. Let's see . . . I think my dream Ellie would probaby be either Reese Witherspoon or Kate Hudson. And as for Ted, I'd go with my all time favorite romantic comedy leading man -- Hugh Grant. I know he's technically too young to play Ted, but he'd still be my first choice.
Ursula: I was quite slow in learning that you were the author of this book, and now, with so many positive reviews, I must pick up a copy myself. I will phrase my question in a more general way, as I cannot ask you to personally answer it, but how much of an advance can the average first time author expect for a novel?
Whitney: I can't really speak for the publishing industry as a whole, since the only experience I have with this is my own, but I did ask my agent a similar question before my book sold. He told me it really depends on a whole host of factors -- how many houses are interested in the book, how commercially viable the book is, whether it has any "buzz." In general, commercial fiction pays better than literary fiction.
Seb&NiksMommy: I noticed you mentioned you went to a bookstore and picked up a book regarding literary agents. Was the list directed towards the NY area or all over the US?
Also when you did a synopsis, how long did you make it? I know some people have suggested roughly five to six pages maybe more depending on the editor. Are you/will you be going all over the country on a tour to promote the book?
I guess I am asking all those questions because I have also been writing all my life but haven't really received any kind of writing degree (I do wish to accomplish that one day)...
One last question, when you began the first chapter how did you direct it to grab the attention of the reader? Did you just begin with a description of the character or scenery or open it up with dialogue? I find writing dialogue tedious myself, but I know it should be done. Thanks for answering all these questions!
Whitney: The Guide to Literary Agents includes agents from all over the country (and maybe from Canada too, I'm not sure). Personally, I wanted my agent based in NYC, because that's where the heart of the publishing industry is. Some people say it's not necessary to have a New York based agent, though.
Yes, a synopsis is generally five to six pages. However, only authors that have previously been published will be able to sell a book based on a synopsis alone, so you'll want to have your book completely written before you approach either agents or editors.
I have no plans for a book tour. I just had a baby two months ago, and have been devoting all of my time and attention to him. I may do some author appearances around the release of my next book.
You certainly don't need a writing degree in order to be an author! My undergrad degree was in history, and my post-grad work was in law. The best advice I could give an aspiring writer is to write as much as you can, as often as you can, and read everything you can get your hands on. As for opening a book, I do think you should grab the reader's attention right away --you really want to suck the reader into the story within the first couple of pages, if not the first paragraph. Good luck!
amykw33: Whitney, I just finished the book today. It was very entertaining! Do you ever get writers' block, and if so, how do you handle it? How extensive is your revision process? I also envisioned Reese Witherspoon as Ellie, though I imagined Ted as more of a Richard Gere type.
Whitney: Hi Amy! I don't often get writer's block. Sometimes I do get stuck now and again, as I try to flesh out a scene, but when that happens, I'll just turn my attention to editing. Normally I'm so eager to get back to writing, that it starts to flow smoothly again.
My revision process for "30" was quite extensive -- I edited, and re-edited so many times I've lost count. And then I went through revisions with my agent, and then again with my editor. The book I'm working on now has been going much more smoothly -- I have mainly been tweaking it here and there, and am now going over it again with the editorial comments.
Nancy: Whitney, As you wrote Pushing 30, did you have ideas that you scrapped with the plan to use them in another book? Tell us honestly, do you laugh out loud as you write? I have a vision of you sitting back and chuckling here and there. And I vote for Richard Gere too.
Whitney: No, I didn't come up with any ideas while I was writing Pushing 30 that I plan to use in another book, but I do get little snippets of story ideas all of the time. I have so many unwritten books in my head (and the aggravating part is that I'll then see a book out on a topic similar to one that I was contemplating). I have a pile of writing journals, where I write down ideas that occur to me. It's part of what fends off writer's block for me, since when I do feel blocked I can start combing through all of my old ideas.
I do laugh out loud sometimes when I work!
I don't know why I didn't think of Richard Gere... I guess because he did that truly horrible May-December romance movie with Winona Ryder a few years back. But he does have that sexy older guy thing going for him. So does Michael Douglas, although he always comes off a little sleazy (in a GOOD way, I mean!).
Caryl: Did you have an outline of the story in your head before you started drafting the novel? Did any events/ideas you had come up with at first change as you wrote Ellie's story? Did you run into any surprises as you wrote?
You said you keep notebooks of ideas, so I know you handwrite some of your work. Do you use the computer when composing drafts, or do you prefer freehand?
Do you have any writing routines or rituals? (Examples: a favorite pen you use, a favorite place to write, etc.)
Have you ever lived in D.C.? (I've been there once, just visiting, but I could picture Ellie's neighborhood and the places she went very well. You must have spent some time there!)
Whitney: I did have an outline of the story in my head, and a rough one in my writing journal. I don't follow outlines strictly, but I find them useful for keeping on track. Oh, yes, many ideas popped up while I wrote, and Ellie was constantly surprising me! I think that's something that most surprises people about the writing process (at least for me, although I know other writers say the same thing)--I don't "make" my characters do anything . . . I try and get out of their way, and follow their lead as I write.
I mostly write on the computer. However, I do use my notebooks to take notes, and write out snippets of scenes or dialogue long hand.
My office is currently set up in our bedroom (it used to be in the room that is now Sam's nursery). We're looking to buy a bigger house soon, and once we do, I'll have my own space again. Sometimes I like to edit out of the house--I've done a lot of work at our local Starbucks. I don't think I have any other rituals . . . right now, I just work when I can find the time (and I'm currently on a deadline, which I'm finding very, very hard with an infant in the house).
I've never lived in D.C., but I did travel there while I was writing the book. My second book is set in NYC, and I'd wanted to travel there as well--to take notes on the neighborhoods, check out restaurants and other places mentioned in the book--but then I got pregnant with Sam, and was on travel restriction for most of the pregnancy. Part of my second book is set in London, and I did spend a week there right before I started writing.
Caryl: Thanks to everyone who participated in this interview! You all had such marvelous questions. And a big thank to Whitney for all of her wonderful replies. We enjoyed this interview immensely.
Pushing 30, A smart, funny novel about finding Mr. Right -- when everything is going wrong.