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?
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.
I 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!
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?
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.
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?
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)
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?