Author Interview: Stephanie Lessing

by Lisa Yanaky

stephanielessingpic2.jpgStephanie Lessing is the author of She’s Got Issues (reviewed here), a book about Chloe, a shoe-crazy, happy-go-lucky girl trying to make it in the magazine business. Recently, Stephanie Lessing was fantastic enough to answer some questions from Book Brothel about her novel, the publishing world, and the personalities of shoes.

Was writing about a hilarious character like Chloe as much fun as it was reading about her?
I can’t begin to tell you how many times I cracked up while writing this book. I was in my office for so many hours, day in and day out and every now and then I’d hear one of my kids saying, ‘Oh no, she’s in there laughing her ass off again.’

When you were working on She’s Got Issues, did you have a set storyline in your mind, or did Chloe have a mind of her own, taking your writing in the direction she desired?
No outline, nothing. I just let her do her thing and went along for the ride. Consequently, I spent a lot of time undoing a lot of the ridiculous things Chloe did so I don’t really recommend that method of writing. But, in this case, there was no other way.

I have to ask, of course – were your experiences working on magazines like Mademoiselle, Vogue, and Glamour similar to Chloe’s?
Not really, but I did witness some pretty gruesome scenes. I was lucky for the most part. My bosses were usually quirky, fun people but some of the editors were pretty scary.

The ‘chick-lit’ genre has exploded since Helen Fielding’s novel, Bridget Jones’s Diary, resulting both in die-hard fans and in critics denouncing the portrayal of women as shallow, self-centered, and willing to do anything to find a man. Was the criticism something that influenced your choice to focus on Chloe’s career rather than on man-hunting? Or to make Zoe, Chloe’s renegade sister, a driving force in the novel?
My intention from the start was to focus on Chloe’s career but I don’t think my decision was
based on fear of being ‘stereotyped.’ I think chick-lit, like all things that make us feel good, makes people feel guilty for liking it – It’s that whole, ‘if it didn’t hurt, it must not be good for me,’ mentality – but the truth is if we didn’t love it so much, it would go away. And I don’t see that happening anytime soon. Chloe’s rise to the top of the masthead was the story I wanted to tell and the fact that she winds up with a prince was my way of rewarding her for not trying too hard. I gave her Zoe because I think there’s a little Zoe in all of us (not to coin a phrase). I doubt any of us would get very far in the workplace if we didn’t carry around a little alter ego with a pair of boxing gloves on hand.

Chloe tends to think the best of everyone, even as her boss is stealing her ideas and her co-workers are writing nasty articles about her. What inspired you to make Chloe’s character so endlessly optimistic?
As ridiculous as this sounds, my mom tried very hard to bring me up to only see the good in people but unfortunately I had a tendency to veer toward the dark side. In a funny way, I think I was trying to tell her something by writing this book. I’m not sure what though. Maybe just to let her know I was listening even if I never took her advice.

Chloe’s boss, Ruth, is a total misery – underhanded and suspicious to the point where it almost seems like Chloe has a second job trying to figure out how to placate her on a daily basis. Do you have any boss-related horror stories of your own?
I had some amazing bosses and I had some really insecure bosses. The insecure ones are the ones who cause problems because they’re afraid of EVERYTHING – especially their assistants – who they fear will pass them. That being said, I can’t honestly say I’ve never had a boss that came even remotely close to Ruth. But. . .before I started working in magazines, I did a short stint at an advertising agency, where my boss’s life was falling apart right before my eyes. Her love life was a mess and the agency had just hired someone who my boss believed was there to learn her job and then replace her. I essentially became her psychiatrist and spent most of my time doing errands for her that she was too emotionally distraught to handle. For some reason, she always needed new pantyhose and she kept sending me out for them in the middle of the day. If I got the wrong type, she’d send me right back out (that’s why Zoe advises Chloe to always keep an extra pair in her desk). I became very good at picking out just the right amount of tummy control for a woman of her size and shape. I also became very good at understanding that bosses who undermine their assistants are usually suffering somehow and trying desperately to control something. As much as I wanted Ruth to be a villain, I pitied her, and wanted the audience to find a way to see her through Chloe’s rose-colored glasses.

Previously, you worked on Mademoiselle magazine as the Promotion Copy Chief. Does this kind of background make it any easier to objectively judge your own work and to pick out things that could use improvement?
In some ways, yes. I think my background taught me to look at my work as though I’m listening to it as opposed to telling it.

What was it like switching from the ‘short and snappy’ philosophy of many women’s magazines to writing a full-length novel? Was there a big change in your daily writing routine?
Absolutely. I had to retrain my voice and learn to tell the truth in my writing as opposed to selling ‘perfection.’ I’m so accustomed to trying to be convincing, I had to learn how to speak from my heart.

Your heroine has so many clothes and shoes packed into her closet that she can’t even remember what she owns. What’s tucked away in your closet?
My closet situation is much better than Chloe’s. I routinely give things away so I don’t have that much stuff. I’m always waiting to lose a few pounds before I go shopping so I mostly have a closet full of outfits that I bought in a panic for a specific occasion the day before – but I never have anything to wear every day. I get very attached to certain things though and tend to wear them until someone in my house hides them. The one thing Chloe and I have in common is that I tend to pair certain bags and shoes together as though they’re having a little conversation or that I’m merchandising them somehow. I’m not sure why I do this.

What are some of your favourite books?
Well, I’m a big David Sedaris fan and I loved Running with Scissors and Bastard Out of Carolina and Corrections but truth be told, I’m a huge chick lit reader. I can never get enough and it all started with, of course, Bridget the inimitable Jones and Confessions of a Shopaholic.

What have you been reading lately?
1776, okay, that’s a lie, The Starter Wife.

What’s up next for you?
I just finished my second book Miss Understanding and am working on a third, You Can’t Always Get What You Want, but I actually haven’t told anyone that yet. So, you’re the first to know.

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