I’m honored to introduce Keith Cronin, author of the novel ME AGAIN (September 2011, Five Star/Gale) to Women’s Fiction Writers. ME AGAIN is women’s fiction written by a man and written from a male POV — just like many of us have mentioned, questioned and pondered right here on WFW.
So, how does a guy end up writing women’s fiction? What’s it like to be the only fella in the room? How does this even happen? Can Keith help us define this genre? And…what’s his best advice for all of us?
Read on and find out.
Many thanks to Keith for his thoughtful and thought-provoking answers. His perspective will make you nod in recognition — when you’re not scrambling to take notes!
Q & A with ME AGAIN author Keith Cronin
KC: I’ve been writing “seriously” (does that mean I have to scowl a lot?) since the late 90’s, and ME AGAIN is my second completed novel. My first one, a Mafia comedy, attracted a major agent, but ultimately went unsold. After that I wanted to take a different approach. I found an old unfinished short story that I had put away a couple years prior, and got really excited when I re-read it; I loved the premise, and both the emotional conflict and the voice were much more complex and poignant than my previous book. It really felt like an opportunity to dig far deeper emotionally than I had ever done before, so I developed the story, and sure enough, the two main characters really came to life for me. In a nutshell, ME AGAIN is about two young stroke victims who each have to choose whether to look at brain damage as a handicap, or an opportunity to lead a new life. Neither of these characters are based on real people, but the female’s main problem – that a stroke has radically changed her personality – was something that had happened to a friend’s sister, and ever since she told me about it I’d always found her situation just hauntingly heartbreaking, so I used it as the basis for this character’s journey.
ASN: When you were writing the novel did you know it would be “classified” as women’s fiction? How did you feel about that as a male author?
KC: I didn’t realize it would end up classified this way, but I did consciously set out to write a book that women would want to read. As a musician I travel a lot, and I’ve found that airplanes are a great place to get a sense of who is reading what. In my travels I would consistently see more women than men reading on airplanes – and reading a wider variety of authors. So I decided I needed to try to reach them, by writing a book with a strong and compelling emotional focus. But I’ll confess, when I started writing ME AGAIN, I just thought of it as the male character’s story, although I knew there would be a major female character. It was only as I immersed myself in writing the book that it became clear that the female character’s conflict and ultimate transformation were really key to the overall point of the book. When Five Star expressed interest in the book for their Expressions line, which is their romance and women’s fiction line, I was delighted – it seemed like an excellent fit.
ASN: Were there any unusual or interesting reactions to your book because you’re a guy? Have you been “accepted” into circles of women’s fiction authors?
KC: I’ve been surprised and delighted by how open and welcoming everybody has been thus far. I rather hesitantly joined the Romance Writers of America this year, and recently skulked into my first local chapter meeting, with one eye on the exit just in case it was too weird or uncomfortable. But the people were incredibly friendly, and really embraced me – I wound up spending the entire day hanging out with a core group of them, and now I never miss a meeting. Likewise, I’ve joined a few online groups that focus on romance and women’s fiction, most of which are populated entirely by women, and they’ve been equally open and warm to me. It can be daunting to often be the only male, but nobody has had a problem with it, and if anything they seem to welcome the sheer novelty of having a Y chromosome in the room. And I was thrilled to be asked to be one of the women’s fiction panelists at this year’s Backspace Writers Conference in Manhattan, which is both a huge honor and yet another sign of how well I’m being accepted into the women’s fiction community.
ASN: Do you think men will be more likely to read the book since you’re the author?
KC: I don’t know – I guess I hope so, but it saddens me that anybody would have more or less interest in a book based on the gender of its author. I just don’t think like that. But I know many people do – particularly men. So yeah, I guess maybe between a man having written it, and the book not having a “girly” cover or title, maybe more men will read it. We shall see…
ASN: Did you ever consider using a pseudonym?
KC: No, not really. It’s not an uncommon strategy for men who write romance or women’s fiction to either use a pseudonym or a sexually ambiguous set of initials. But both my parents were journalists, so I’ve been raised with a healthy appetite for the byline. I’ve wanted to see my name on the cover of a book for a long, long time, so I wasn’t inclined to give that up just because of how my book is being marketed. And frankly, a woman who wouldn’t read my book just because I’m a man is not a reader I’m likely to connect with anyway.
ASN: How do you define women’s fiction? What makes it different from “general” fiction or what some call a family drama?
KC: I really like your own definition of women’s fiction, in which the woman is responsible for solving her own problems. Another one I like a lot is that women’s fiction is storytelling that takes the issues women care about seriously. A much more succinct definition – and one that I fear is probably more true than I’d like to admit – is that women’s fiction is fiction that men won’t read. Ouch. In my own attempt to cobble together a definition, I came up with this: In men’s fiction we want the reader to care about what the characters do, but in women’s fiction we also want the readers to care about what the characters feel. But I think the Women’s Fiction chapter of the Romance Writers of America does one of the best jobs of capturing it. They have a detailed definition posted on their website, and although they are defining it within the parameters of a romance-reading audience, they identify what I think is the essential component of women’s fiction: that it needs to focus on the personal growth and transformation of the main female character.
ASN: ME AGAIN has a male main character. Why does it work well as women’s fiction?
KC: ME AGAIN is written from the first-person viewpoint of a male character, a young stroke victim who awakens from a six-year coma with no memory of who he is. The blank slate that he begins the book with creates a vulnerability that I’m hoping both female and male readers will find compelling. Early in the book he meets the main female character, a young woman who is trying to cope with how a stroke has changed her own personality, making her a stranger to her husband. The two are drawn together by the strangeness of their respective situations, and ultimately begin to understand each other better than anybody else – including her husband and his family. As the book progresses, the male character and (I hope) the reader will begin to see that the female character’s problems are in many ways more pressing, creating a more urgent need for some sort of transformation or resolution. I think that’s why Five Star chose the book for their women’s fiction line, but I’m aware this is atypical for a women’s fiction book, and I suspect there may be some women who will pass this book by because it doesn’t follow the typical format of setting the female as the main POV character. But my hope is that if they take a deeper look and try to consider just what the female character is facing, they may find the story compelling and satisfying. This is a woman constantly reminded by her husband that she isn’t the woman he married, with the implicit message that he wishes she were somebody else – and it’s someone she can never be.
ASN: Do you compare your writing to anyone in particular?
KC: With ME AGAIN I’m shooting for sort of an “American Nick Hornby” vibe. Although many people categorize Hornby as writing humor or even “lad lit,” I think if you take a closer look you’ll find he’s often writing about very serious topics, and the humor in his writing comes from the clever and/or quirky viewpoints of his characters, and from the ironies that real life so often injects into our existence. Plus he does wonderful female characters, such as the protagonist in How to Be Good, and two of the four first-person narrators in A Long Way Down, and the main female character in Juliet, Naked. He frequently uses an approach that I would summarize as “serious things happening to witty people,” which is definitely a model that resonates with me.
ASN: Do you read women’s fiction in addition to writing it? What are some of your favorite books/authors and why? And what are some of your other favorite books?
KC: I never really consider genre when I read, but I certainly read plenty of what is considered women’s fiction. I tend to like stories with a humorous angle, so I particularly enjoy writers like Jennifer Crusie, Lani Diane Rich, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Helen Fielding and of course Jane Austen. Crusie is a particular favorite: I loved her modern-day fairy tale Bet Me, as well as Tell Me Lies and her most recent novel Maybe This Time, which is a reimagining of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. Plus she is an amazingly generous writer who blogs, hosts online forums, and does weekly podcasts analyzing a series of popular movies along with her friend Lani Diane Rich. The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler is one of my “desert island books,” which I think still qualifies as women’s fiction, although both the male and female characters make important emotional journeys. I’m also a big fan of some emerging women’s fiction writers who write in a more serious vein, like Susan Henderson, author of Up from the Blue; Jael McHenry, whose excellent debut The Kitchen Daughter just came out; and Danielle Younge-Ullman, whose first novel Falling Under was just jaw-droppingly good. Other writers I really enjoy include Nick Hornby, James Ellroy, Sara Gruen, Ed McBain, Annie Proulx, Jon Clinch, Elmore Leonard, Donald Westlake, and I’ve just recently – and quite belatedly – discovered Elizabeth Peters. I know I’m forgetting about a million others, and my stack of to-be-read books is reaching a life-endangering height!
ASN: What’s your best advice for aspiring women’s fiction authors?
KC: Two things. First, make sure your protagonist is a driver, not a passenger. In women’s fiction in particular, you’ll often see inexperienced writers working on novels where the protagonist’s group of friends – often portrayed as a “sisterhood” – is really what carries her through the book. Or she gets into a scrape and a Big Strong Man ultimately saves the day. In both cases, the story is happening to the protagonist, which can make it difficult to connect with her or care about her. Second, make sure your conflict is big enough. Often women’s fiction focuses on fairly down-to-earth things that are a part of most people’s lives, like divorce, illness, grief, infidelity and so on. So your challenge is to find the extraordinary within the ordinary, the special thing that makes your story unique. Donald Maass gives some great insights about this in his book Writing the Breakout Novel, in which he really emphasizes the importance of inner conflict and escalating personal stakes. It’s one thing to be realistic; it’s another to be mundane. In this incredibly challenging fiction market, you need to ensure there’s something really distinctive about your story that makes people think, “Wow, I gotta read that!”
Keith Cronin is the author of the novel ME AGAIN, coming in September 2011 from Five Star/Gale, Keith Cronin is a corporate speechwriter and professional rock drummer who has performed and recorded with artists including Bruce Springsteen, Clarence Clemons, and Pat Travers. Keith’s fiction has appeared in Carve Magazine, Amarillo Bay, The Scruffy Dog Review, Zinos, and a University of Phoenix management course. A native of South Florida, Keith spends his free time serenading local ducks and squirrels with his ukulele. Visit him online at www.keithcronin.com or www.facebook.com/keithcronin.