When I read Occasional Soulmates last month, I became so excited that I wanted to call up the author and invite her out to lunch. I imagined drinking tea and talking about men and, you know, having a good ol’ girl talk.
Except that Occasional Soulmates is actually written by a man named Kevin Brennan (Kevin, I think you’re a man, right?).
Of course I knew that. I know the author, or at least I know him through blogs and email. I’ve been
stalking following him for quite some time. I read Our Children Are Not Our Children a few years ago (has it been that long?) and immediately became hooked. About a year later was Yesterday Road, which I loved due to its funniness and quirkiness, and because in the end what comes through is not only Brennan’s love for words but for people and the uncanny, wildly irritating yet still endearing things we say and do.
So when I had a chance to nab a copy of Occasional Soulmates I grabbed without apology and began reading. And I didn’t stop. I read in bed at night, the quilt pulled over my head so that I wouldn’t wake up my partner. I still woke him up, though, when I laughed so hard that the mattress shook.
Occasional Soulmates is what I call a literary chick lit novel. The prose reads smooth as chocolate, the pacing teases the readers just enough to keep us going and the insights and humor are intelligently female-orientated (are you sure you’re not really a woman, Kevin?)
The premise: A love story (kind of), that revolves around the structure of a relationship novel. It’s a clever idea, no? But that’s not what makes Occasional Soulmates such a great read. It’s the writing, which is funny and warm and honest and real. And the characters, all of whom are so likable you wish they could walk out of the pages. (P.S. I cried at the end, the way one should always cry at the end of a good book.)
Occasional Soulmates is currently #18 for Women’s Fiction on the Kindle list. Best yet, it’s on sale for only 99 cents this week at Amazon. Hurry and order, though: price goes back up to $3.99 by the end of the week.
I caught up with Kevin (or he caught up with me) last week and we chatted about books and writing and why in the hell we choose to torture ourselves by laboring over words.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for Occasional Soulmates? Did it pop inside your head suddenly or was it a slow tease?
A: It was a pretty simple “light bulb” idea. I thought it would be interesting to take the conventions of chick lit and do something kind of meta with it. My very first notes for the book say something like, “My heroine will self-consciously examine her experiences with love as if she were reading or writing a chick lit novel.” Basically, I just ran with it.
Q: You accomplished something rare for a man: You successfully capture a woman’s voice. Was it easy to see the world from a woman’s eye or did you struggle?
A: Once I had a clear idea of who the character was, I had no trouble with the voice. I’ve written in first-person female voices before, as well as third-person, and I always approach them on a character level — their inner life, their back story, and what the plot is going to be asking of them. But my wife and I say all the time, Hey, men and women aren’t all that different, really. And she actually came across a Japanese saying recently that nails the whole thing perfectly: daidō shōi — “Big similarity, small difference.” Our similarities outweigh our differences.
Q: I love the idea of viewing/following a relationship from the ideals of a relationship novel, which it indeed parallels. How or when did this idea visit you?
A: It felt like a practical solution to my main problem, which was, How is a man going to get away with writing a chick lit novel? I knew I probably wasn’t going to be able to pull it off if I approached it in a straightforward way, so I decided to be a little self-reflexive about it and give Sarah, my protagonist, a peculiar feeling that she was actually in a chick lit novel. That seemed to beg for acknowledgment of the conventions of chick lit, and to show how they might work and how they’re almost required.
Q: What do you think of chick lit and, more importantly, how chick lit is regarded in the literary world?
A: Well, I have to confess that I haven’t read all that much in the genre, and a lot of what I have read is more chick lit with a literary bent. I think there’s a place for all kinds of writing, but probably chick lit gets something of a bad name because it was overdone and got too repetitive. But this happens in all genres. Publishers see a successful formula and want to replicate it as often as possible, but that doesn’t mean that fresh things can’t be done in the context of a particular genre.
I guess the big difference between chick lit and literary fiction is that literary fiction tends to attempt something new, wants to be one-of-a-kind if it can. And that makes it hard to sell because publishers and booksellers don’t know how to classify it other than “literary,” which is a turnoff to a lot of readers. So one thing a writer can do is take a genre like chick lit and try something new with it.
Q: Your humor is so subtle yet so laugh-out-loud on target. How do you achieve this balance? Do you rewrite a lot? Read passages out loud?
A: Thanks for saying that! Personally I prefer dry humor, so it’s not surprising that I’d lean that way in my own writing. Broad humor tends to be visual, but in novels the reader can’t see the action in the same way a movie viewer sees it on the screen. That means the humor in novels has to be mainly verbal. I just try to give my characters funny things to say or observe, and to exploit humorous situations if they present themselves without straining the plot. A lot of it is improvisation as I write, and then I’ll go back and cut things that don’t seem to work. Again, though, it all seems to come from the characters, in that what they say and think has to be consistent with who they are.
Q: Every relationship novel has to have a best friend. Did the character of Jules develop organically or was it intentional?
A: I definitely did that intentionally. I remembered an interview I saw with Sarah Silverman, who said that the only scripts she was being sent were for the Best Friend, whose name was always “Suze” or something like that. I thought it’d be fun to tip my hat to her plight. Jules even looks a little like Sarah Silverman, we’re told.
Q: Did you outline Occasional Soulmates before you wrote or did you allow the book and characters to take you where you needed to go?
A: It went according to my usual process which is sort of a hybrid approach. I’ll start by going as far as I can on impulse and instinct, letting the characters stretch their legs. Then there comes a point where I’ll have to work out some plot points, correct wrong turns, look ahead to the ending and figure out how to get there. For this book I didn’t have to do a great deal of detailed outlining.
Q: Why did you decide upon a doctor as the occupation for your main character, Sarah?
I used to work with doctors, so I felt comfortable with the idea. I remember the great novelist, Stanley Elkin, saying that the first decision he’d make for a character was his profession, since so much flows from that. In this case, too, I knew someone very much like Sarah who’s a doctor. I won’t name names.
Q: Okay, let’s talk about Dylan Cakebread. Did anyone in real life influence his character? And why did you choose him to look like Jude Law (and why is that funny)?
A: He’s not based on anyone I know of. It’s just one of those crazy things about inspiration — you don’t have any idea where something comes from. It just hits you and you take it. You know how it is. Why does Carla make genitally accurate Barbie dolls in your book? Brilliant!
I don’t know if making Dylan look like Jude Law is inherently funny, but I thought it would make casting the movie a lot easier.
Q: You allow the reader to see Dylan’s vulnerabilities, an unusual move. As a male writing a female influenced novel, did you put forth extra effort to show his viewpoint/side?
A: What I really wanted to do with Dylan is set up an unseen narrative that’s playing alongside the one Sarah is going through. It’s apparent that something’s going on in Dylan’s life beyond what we can see, but from Sarah’s point of view it’s perfectly believable that he has professional stresses, a family history that’s troubled, and possibly mixed feelings about love. That was a technical choice I made, which you can do with first-person because only one angle of the story can be witnessed.
But setting Dylan up as a vulnerable man made sense to me, if only for realism. By the time we get into our mid- to late-thirties, we’ve seen some things, had some problems and regrets, and have been hurt or have hurt someone else. We can be a little skittish, and we certainly don’t want to talk about all of that stuff right up front. This builds some tension into a character like Dylan too.
Q: The ending—ah, the ending! It was bittersweet enough that I cried a bit (the best compliment I can give) yet it doesn’t end like the “typical” chick lit novel. Why did you choose to end the book the way you did?
A: I’ve always believed the most satisfying endings are the ones you didn’t see coming, yet they seem like they had to happen. Sarah calls this her “relationship novel” all along the way, but it’s actually filled with lots of different relationships, and like I say in the blurb, It’s starting to look like this isn’t her relationship novel at all: it’s Dylan’s.
Most genre novels are formulaic, and that’s one of the reasons readers love them. They know exactly what they’re going to get. I wanted to fly in the face of that and give them something different but just as satisfying. (I hope!)
Q: What’s next? Are you working on another novel? If so, may we have a little peek, please?
A: I’m aiming to publish another novel in 2015, but I’m not sure which one will go from drawing board to realization yet. I have a couple of manuscripts I’m revising, but it’ll depend on which one I’m feeling more confident about from a marketing point of view.
You can grab a copy of Occasional Soulmates at the following locations or visit with Kevin at his Website, What the Hell