Romance Writers, Fiction & Nonfiction

Romance writers have, or have had, a myriad of jobs. One of my favorite things about romance writer bios is how one snapshot of a writer’s career history could include everything from taxonomy to tax preparation. And, surprise, surprise, romance writers often write… other stuff.

Jenny Gardiner, whose book Sleeping with Ward Cleaver was the American Title III winner, has a new book out – but it’s non fiction. And it’s a memoir. About her psychotic parrot. No lie.

Alyssa Day, whose newest book, Atlantis Redeemed, just come out last week, also wrote a nonfiction memoir several years ago about her husband’s deployment and her correspondence with him. I got all nosy and asked them both about writing stuff that’s outside of romance.

Which came easier to you: romance novel writing or nonfiction memoir?

Jenny:

I came to the table trained as a journalist, so I can easily transition from genre to genre, which is handy ;-). I also have a column in our local paper, and have been writing creative non-fiction for years. I really was writing that before I wrote fiction even.

Book CoverI joke that my memoir, Winging It: A Memoir of Caring for a Vengeful Parrot Who’s Determined to Kill Me, is sort of like David Sedaris meets Marley & Me, with a deadly beak. It’s about our bad-to-the-bone African gray parrot, who was a gift to us from my brother-in-law, who was living in Africa in the 80’s. He showed up one year for Christmas with parrots for the family. At first ours ended up sort of being the “dud” of the group, as, unlike the others, she was very disinclined to make nice and be friendly, which was particularly inconvenient since we had a newborn and life was already trying enough without a belligerent bird on our hands (have you seen a parrot’s beak? It can snap a walnut in one bite; imagine what it can do to fingers!).

But over the years, we sort of settled into a detente with our curmudgeonly pet, whose vocabulary grew exponentially and who took to conversing so regularly that we hardly noticed it. She puts my kids in time-outs (and at the appropriate time!), she often yells at the dogs to not eat and to stop barking. She says “dammit” in my voice. She sings happy birthday, but oddly only on people’s birthdays. She conducts entire phone conversations in my husband’s voice. She’s very entertaining and so darned smart.

And we have regaled many with tales of my parrots shenanigans over the years, and everyone has always been so fascinated with her. I’d written about her in my newspaper column before, and people were interested in reading more. Hence a memoir was born!

Alyssa:

One isn’t really easier than the other, just different.  And I never thought of EMAIL TO THE FRONT as a memoir because I think of a memoir as writing about something that happened in the past, and ETTF was definitely in progress as we were still going through it.  Judd’s Navy squadron (he flies P-3 Orions) was one of the first sent to Afghanistan after 9/11 and I was at home, working full time as a trial lawyer, taking care of 2 kids under the age of 5.  It was shockingly hard, and I thought—somebody should write a book about how hard it is to be a military family when one spouse/parent is at war.  That turned into, “I should write a book about it.” 

I wanted to share the truth about the pain and emotion and terror that we, as military spouses, had to find a way to deal with in our ordinary days.  You can’t watch CNN 24/7, praying for a sign of your husband’s plane, when you have to make the Cheerios and toast.  Life has to retain at least some semblance of normalcy, for yourself and for your children, even while you’re wondering who is shooting missiles at your husband.

 

Has writing one informed or affected the other?

Jenny:

In my novel Sleeping with Ward Cleaver, I had to include a crazy parrot—to me she epitomizes the sort of insanity one is thrown into in the midst of parenthood. My protagonist, Claire Doolittle, was up to her eyeballs in insanity. So I gave her a parrot named RePete to just add to her stress levels—I was trying to portray her as out of control and needing to regain control of her life.
Having a parrot is much like having a clever and destructive two year old for the next 80 years. So certainly my reality informed my fiction.

Alyssa:

Writing an autobiographical non-fiction book first, and the way my readers responded to it, made me very aware of being truthful in my fiction.  Truthful in terms of real emotion and honest reactions.  I believe writing ETTF and opening myself up in that very personal way made my novels better.

Which story is your favorite from your nonfiction?

Jenny:

Once, when we were all seated at the dinner table, Graycie was atop her cage (which opens at the top into a perch) when she started flapping her wings. You can imagine the power of their wings—they are meant to catch the wind and pull them up into the atmosphere, so it’s no quiet moment when they do this. Her wings were beating hard against her body and she slipped (as she is known to do, hence the tongue-in-cheek name, Graycie) and landed on the ground. Well, the commotion aroused the attention of my dog Bridget (who’s got dingo blood in her and has always been a fan of a moving target) who was dozing in another room. She came charging into the dining room and skidded into the cage as the parrot yelled out to her (in my voice), “BRIDGET, STOP IT! NO! YOU’RE A BAD, BAD GIRL!”

At which point we all dissolved into laughter (after making sure the dog didn’t eat the bird)

Alyssa:

Book Cover There are so many!  I used our actual e-mails back and forth from two different deployments.  So there was the time I had to teach my son how to pee standing up (I used “aim at the floating Cheerios”) and the time the raccoon got in the house and the time Judd told Lauren he was on the moon (she was 18 months old or so, then) so we had to go outside every night and wave night-night to Daddy on the moon and blow kisses. 

There was the time CNN breaking news reported a plane down in the area Judd had been flying, and I had to wait for hours to find out it wasn’t his plane (and the crew of the plane that went down all got out safe).  Every deployment is composed of a million stories – some ordinary, some extraordinary, all painfully poignant because of the razor-sharp edge of awareness that he might never come home.  So many didn’t.  We were so very grateful that Judd did.


Thank you to Jenny and Alyssa for answering my nosy questions. Have you read another work by a favorite author way outside their original genre? What nonfiction books by romance authors have you seen or read?

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Lyssa says:

    OMG I had to send the link to “Winging it” on to my college roomie. She had a parrot for years until her the demands of her job made keeping a high maintance pet impossible. Once again You guys HABO without knowing it.

    Spamword: Lived 57 (Not yet…but hopefully in the future!)

  2. 2

    I’ve got to get my mother a copy of Winging It. She and my dad inherited a psychotic Caligula of a cockatiel from a relative, a six-inch feathered dictator who thinks he’s eight feet tall, runs the household (except when he’s accidentally shut in the silverware drawer, which is fairly often), bites anyone who doesn’t rub his head just-so, tries to get romantic with unsuspecting people’s hands, and will surely riddle my mom’s future copy of Winging It with bird-bites. Why are the handsome ones always such assholes?

    Thanks for sharing with the Bitchery, ladies.

  3. 3
    Laurel says:

    Really cool concepts on both books!

    I’ve been interested in African Grays for years but I didn’t want one before I had kids since they are so smart and can be jealous. Now I figure I’m too old; the bird could well outlive me and they get so attached to their people it seems unfair. I read somewhere that they have an IQ similar to a five year old. They are absolutely fascinating.

  4. 4
    Judi Fennell says:

    My copy of Winging It arrived yesterday and it’s killing me that I can’t read it yet. But I did get to read a very early version of the first few chapters (pre-sale, actually even before the proposal was finished) and have to tell you – it’s a laugh riot!! Everyone will enjoy this book! And it’ll be interesting to see what it does for parrot sales. I’m sure some people will say “I’ve got to get one of those” and others will stay far, far away!

  5. 5

    Parrots = the only animal I’ve met to date that uniformly and unequivocally despises me on sight. You show me a parrot that ‘loves everyone, wouldn’t hurt a fly!’ and I’ll show you how I bleed. Love the concept here (and the write-up!).

    For those of you who haven’t checked out Emails From the Front, do so! Suz Brockmann put me onto it, and it’s a thumbs up from this corner.

  6. 6

    I’m totally going to send Winging It to my Auntie for her birthday.  They had an African Grey for years—until she died of a weird avian virus—and a Yellow Cheeked Amazon who was a real sweet heart and passed away from old age a couple of years ago.  The African Grey could be a real terror but was incredibly smart.  The Amazon was a darling… usually… and loved opera. 

    Honestly, I hope that people do not go on a parrot spree after reading this book.  I mean they can be really interesting pets but they are not simple to have around and make the major responsibility of a dog look minor.  We all used to joke about who was going to inherit which bird.  The African Grey was held out occasionally as a threat by inheritance. Beyond that, I have done house-sitting duty for other parrot owners and had the lovely experience of being chased and cornerd by an angry Macaw and had my finger bitten through by a Cockatoo.  It is the only time I have fainted from seeing my own blood and I swear it was because of the spirting fountain affect.

    Sorry for the tangent.  I love parrots but I hate the thought of more ending up abandoned in urban environments because people have no idea what they are getting into.

  7. 7
    Kalen Hughes says:

    Must buy Winging It! !!! So many friends with so many birds over the years (including my own little evil Meyers who’s only vocab as the dog’s name and “Fuck You!” with a heavy Jersey accent).

  8. 8

    Alyssa’s portion of the interview brought tears to my eyes.  I’ve often felt alone and overwhelmed as a stay at home mom—and my husband comes home every night!  I can’t imagine how much more difficult it is (for the entire family) when one parent is off at war. 

    So glad her husband came back safe.  I’ll be checking out EMAILS for sure.

    Thanks!!

  9. 9
    militaryspouse says:

    My husband and son are in different branches of the service.  They both deploy to A’stan this year.  My son’s Godfather will also be there at the same time.

    I will not be watching the news.

    spamword:  window23.  A window onto my world.

  10. 10
    Randi says:

    I just ordered a copy of ‘Winging it’. My mom has a Green Amazon and he detests me. He totally loves my mom but I seem to put him into an absolute rage. I’m always sending her funny bird horror stories, so she’ll get this one, too.

    We once bird-sat an African Gray. Pretty smart birds, those Afrian Grays. Totally hilarious, too. Luckily, he didn’t hate me. ;)

  11. 11
    SonomaLass says:

    Alyssa’s book is wonderful—oh the non-fiction one, I mean, although I love the Atlantis books too!  So glad you featured her here.

    My sister has a psychotic African gray. He imitates every electronic device in the house; he loves to make people answer the phone by imitating the ringtone.  One night quite a few years ago, he kept me up VERY late looking for the dripping faucet I could hear but not find—a real practical joker.

  12. 12

    Thank you so much for having us here to visit—I’m so thrilled to be featured on Smart Bitches—one of my fave sites!
    And thank you all for stopping by—sorry I’m a day late but I was on the road all day yesterday doing promo for my book.
    Alyssa, your piece did bring tears to my eyes—amazing what military families deal with, no questions asked. Heartbreaking.
    I LOVE these parrot stories—and can SO relate. You guys are spot-on about parrots and not to worry, I’m sure no one will hasten out to get a parrot of they read this LOL
    But I really urge anyone who still thinks they want one to adopt—Laurel, this might be a great solution to you, as there are SO many parrots that are abandoned and need good homes. My book refers readers to http://www.projectperry.com but there are other parrot rescue organizations—really the only way to get a parrot, IMO.

  13. 13
    Kelli Jo says:

    Lovely interview! I may have to run out and buy both books!

  14. 14
    Randi says:

    SonomaLass,

    yeah, the African Gray we bird-sat would yell my name in my mother’s voice. So I would respond, over and over, “What!?” I would get sooo mad because she would never tell me what the hell she wanted, just kept yelling my name. It wouldn’t be until I would stomp downstairs to yell at her that I would realize it was the bird.

    Occasionally, we would let a neighborhood cat come in. The Aftican Gray would hunker down at the bottom of his cage and whisper, “Here, kitty kitty kitty”. He would do this over and over until the cat would go over to the cage, put his paws up and peek into the cage. Then the bird would snap at the cat and it would run away. It’s response to the runaway cat: “heheheheheheheh” while metaphorically rubbing it’s hands. What’s weirder, he would do this over and over and the cat kept falling for it.

  15. 15

    LOL Grays are SO darned smartl Wily little devils (emphasis on devil) aren’t they?

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