Fellow GCCer, Saralee Rosenberg, has a new book out! Her new book Dear Neighbor, Drop Dead just hit store shelves. She answered some questions about her process as an author as well as questions about her latest book.
What was the inspiration for your new novel?
Of my four novels, DEAR NEIGHBOR, DROP DEAD is the only one that was inspired by, well, me! This story is based on my first novel, ALL IN THE CARDS, which was never published, but did take a very exciting journey to Hollywood. Back in 1997, Bette Midler optioned it for a feature film (she was looking for a follow up comedy to “First Wives Club”). Exactly! Wow! First time out and it’s a homerun. Sadly, the reason you never heard of it is because ultimately, Bette and her partner couldn’t get financing or find the right screenwriter to adapt it. Bye bye Bette… Now fast forward to a few years ago. My novels, A LITTLE HELP FROM ABOVE, CLAIRE VOYANT and FATE & MS. FORTUNE had done very well but were about single women looking for love in all the wrong places. I wanted to write about my “peeps” in the suburbs and pitched my editor on letting me rewrite ALL IN THE CARDS. She was hesitant because she wasn’t sure Avon was the right publisher for a suburban/soccer mom story with bickering neighbors. Then came “Desperate Housewives” and suddenly it was, get me suburban/soccer mom stories with bickering neighbors. Timing is everything…. So although DEAR NEIGHBOR is an incarnation of my earliest novel, it is a much richer, deeper, funnier story and is resonating with readers of all ages.
When you got that first phone call announcing you had sold a novel, how did you react? How did you celebrate?
Phew. You can’t imagine the relief. I had given up a successful career writing non-fiction, which had sent me on two national book tours, including an appearance on Oprah (heaven!!!!), only to have my writing life come to a screeching halt when I switched to working on a novel. It took me three years to write A LITTLE HELP FROM ABOVE, another year to find an agent, and the agent a year and a half to make the sale to Lyssa Keusch at Avon. In theory, the sale should have been one of the greatest events of my life, if not for the timing. I got word that the deal was done exactly two days after 9-11, and because I live in the New York area, the grief and shock was all I or anyone could think about. I let family and friends know, of course, but run out and buy diamonds or book a cruise? Didn’t happen. And interestingly enough, all of my book celebrations since then have been, not subdued as much as put in perspective. I’m sure that my joy and satisfaction will always be tempered with the memory that life is so full of yin and yang. And maybe that’s for the best.
Which scene or scenes in your novel did you love writing?
I am crazy about writing dialogue and would spend days working on a scene between Mindy and Beth to make sure that I got the tone, the phrasing, the timing and the subtle nuances just right. There was so much that they wanted to say to each other after eight years of making each other crazy, I just had to let it out a little at a time, like air coming out of a balloon. But the scene I loved writing the most was the one where they are in a hotel room and Beth confronts the fact that she might be pregnant. It is a funny, poignant moment where both characters reveal their greatest joys and misgivings of motherhood and I remember when I sat at my computer, the words just poured out and I had to sit still to hear every last word coming through. I realized at the end that they had just broadcast my own conflicts and vulnerabilities about being a mom and it was whoa… where did that come from?
Is there a scene you cut from the book that you kind of wish you could put back in?
Funny you should ask. Originally, I wanted to title the book Same S–T, Different Zip because the story was very much about that no matter where you live, you have to put up with so much petty neighbor crap and competition. For obvious reasons, I wasn’t allowed to have a curse in the title but in keeping with the theme, I incorporated a funny blog in the story titled, “You Say You Want A Revelation”. It was “written” by a mom in Georgia and Mindy was so hooked on it, she couldn’t wait for the next post. Unfortunately, the blog, which appeared every few chapters, took up a lot of space and got cut on the editing room floor. Bummer. It had some very funny commentary, but I did get to include one out-take in the back of the book.
When and where do you write? Is it cluttered or minimalist heaven?
I’m a crack-of- dawn morning writer maybe because my muses are busy all night and can’t wait to have me pour out what they sunk in (at least they let me go to the bathroom first). That being said, when I’m in the zone, I write morning, noon and night. I know I’m done, however, when I look up at the computer screen and I see this, “She said, hjkljkl;uiop.” Then it’s time to shut the lights. As for where I write, the majority of my work is written while chained to my computer table which is situated right smack in the middle of my master bedroom… I never thought this would be my workspace. I always fantasized about having the kind of home office that “playwright” Diane Keaton got in “Something’s Gotta Give.” – this huge, white, ocean-facing office that was stocked with floral bouquets and a breathtaking view. Perhaps one day, but for now it’s fine. I look out at my beautiful backyard and at least my commute is a breeze. Not to mention I can make it to the fridge in under thirty seconds.
When deadlines hit, what happens in your house?
Let me put it this way. Please don’t ring my bell unless you’re bringing fresh baked cookies because I don’t want you to see that the dining room looks like a mini landfill. And that’s before you reach the piles on the stairs (I swear there is one that has been there since Clinton was President). The clothes in the dryer go round and round for days because I keep hitting wrinkle remove, we run out of milk, the shows saved on Tivo go unwatched, calls from my kids get answered with, “Make it quick and NO CRISIS’s today”. Also I look like hell and probably need of a touch up. As for dinner? The family is on their own… although they would tell you I say that every day. Basically it’s every man/child for himself and don’t give me a hard time about anything… This is why I write all the time, otherwise I’d lose my privileges, lol.
Do you put friends in books? Have any of them recognized themselves?
I get asked all the time by family and friends to be in one of my novels, but I tend not to go there unless they’re willing to buy several dozen books in appreciation for being immortalized (if Girl Scout Moms can bribe, so can I). Once I did give in and named a character after a friend, only to describe the character as a philandering shoplifter. She was horrified and wanted to know how I knew? I didn’t know, I made it up, but boy did that make things interesting afterwards… Also, my husband’s business partner had been prodding me for years, to which I would say that a character who sold insurance, played golf and visited his grandkids in Florida would not exactly be memorable. But finally, in Dear Neighbor, to get him to stop bugging me, I did name a minor character Steven Hoffman. I made him a lawyer in Portland, and it really made Steve’s day… then he asked why he wasn’t a major character and could I feature him again in the next book? Men!!!!
What comes first? The title or the idea?
For DEAR NEIGHBOR, DROP DEAD, the title came to me only a few months before publication and trust me, by then I was in a total panic. The original title, based on the very earliest draft, was ALL IN THE CARDS, but everyone agreed that was kind of boring. Then I submitted a list of twenty titles, some interesting, some wacky, some that would never fly because they involved curse words. Here is a sampling: Hot, Hungry and Hormonal; Ask Your Doctor if Stress Is Right for You; Same SH-T, Different Zip; If Lucy Hated Ethel; and one of my personal favorites, The Bitch Next Door. No, no, no, my editor said to all of those. Then I came up with Dear Neighbor, Drop Dead and she smiled. We have a winner!!! And I must admit, it’s a beauty. Everyone gets it. No need for an explanation. As for my novel, CLAIRE VOYANT, that title came to me years ago and it took me a while to create an entire story based on the premise that a girl named Claire would have super natural abilities.
What is one of your strangest/most quirky author experiences?
My first three novels are a trilogy in that they all deal with the super natural. All of my main characters have funny and intriguing encounters with the other side, the after life, and/or a ghost. But never did I expect that I would personally have a strange encounter with the spirit world while I was hard at work. And yet… I had been writing my debut novel, A LITTLE HELP FROM ABOVE over a three year period, and as you can imagine, was very very tired. All I wanted to do was cross the finish line, have a good cry and eat a box of Mallomars… One night, I was working on the final pages and was so bleary eyed I convinced myself that the ending was terrible but maybe my editor wouldn’t notice, or would say to me, no, this is great, don’t change a word. But just as I was fixing the last page, we had a power outage and the whole house went dark. It was so strange. There was no storm, no reason to lose power. But when the lights came back on a minute later, I had lost the latest version of the ending. It literally disappeared and I freaked out and cried. How could this happen? On a whim I called my neighbors to see if their power had gone out but it turned out ours was the only house that did… Clearly it was a sign from above. The next morning I started over on the ending, and when I finished, it was so much better, so much more rewarding. This time I cried from joy. I had finished and it was great.
Tell us about your writing process. Do you outline or are you more organic?
I know that every author has a different approach and there is no right or wrong way to go about writing a novel. For me, the most important thing is to have a steady handle on my protagonist because I believe that the question readers should ask is not what is your book about but who? If the main character is multi-dimensional and in a serious bind, that is the recipe for a great story. The way that I develop a compelling character is to write their back story- pages and pages of how their life unfolded, what frustrates them, the things they desire that have eluded them, etc. Then I put on my Katie Couric hat and interview them and out of that, comes tons of possible story lines. In the end, I liken the process of writing a novel to driving with a man. I know where I want to go but damned if I’m going to stop for directions. Sure I’ll get lost but eventually I’ll arrive at my destination and tell everyone I knew where I was going from the get go. And one other thing. I do not outline because I find it too confining. No surprise for the writer? None for the reader, either.
What is your writer fantasy?
I can only have one? I have several. I want to make it to the New York Times Best Seller List and stay there for at least a year. No wait. I want to have two books on the list at the same time, just like Jodi Piccoult. I also want to have Oprah tell me that she couldn’t put my book down and why am I wasting time talking to her, I should be busy writing the next one. I also want a feature film or TV show to be developed based on my book and it should star Jennifer Aniston and John Mayer (and their maybe babies). Finally, I would like my kids to say to me, “Mom. You Rock!”
If you could ask one author for one piece of advice, who would you ask and what would you want to know?
I’m very lucky because I actually had that opportunity. One of my favorite authors in the world is the novelist, Sol Stein, who wrote THE MAGICIAN and THE LIVING ROOM, among many others. I discovered him in college and feel in some ways, he was an influence in my secretly aspiring to be a writer. Recently, I was curious to see if he was still writing (or even still alive) and discovered he had a website and an email address. I wrote him this long, flowery message, never expecting a response. But the next day he sent me a lovely note back and we exchanged several emails. In one of them I asked his advice on whether I should change my name and use a pseudonym for my next book. This is something that my editor and agent had been discussing and I was torn. He wrote back and said, don’t you dare. Saralee Rosenberg is a wonderful name and quite memorable…. now you know why I loved this guy, and so far, I’ve followed his advice.
What is up next for you?
I am very excited about my next novel because the focus is about a child leaving for college and this is hitting very close to home fas our youngest is now a senior in high school. But in this story, Jackie, a twice-divorced mom, has one son, 17-year old Daniel and she is in a panic thinking that when he leaves for college in the fall, she’ll be left alone with her ornery, widowed father. Thus, when she sets off on the campus tour circuit, she decides to throw caution and her underwear to the wind and boy does she have one hell of a good time. It’s worse senioritis than even Daniel has and their adventures visiting the Ivies is one for the books. In the end, she rediscovers the smart, ambitious girl she left behind at Yale Law and pledges to get her life back on track. The title of the book is EARLY DECISION and I think it’s going to be my best yet. No publication date as of yet.