Excerpted from Everything Nice by Ellen Shanman. Copyright © 2008 by Ellen Shanman. Excerpted by permission of Bantam Discovery, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Many writing experts advise “write about what you know.” Do you agree with this? And what practical advice would you give an aspiring author?
I think there’s a well-intentioned truth in that advice, as long as you don’t take it too literally. I don’t, for example, believe a person should only write from his or her own biographical experience. But you certainly have to know your characters and the world in which you place them. I’m a big fan of research, both in terms of factual information and for inspiration.
My advice to an aspiring writer is to learn to take feedback. You’ll get a lot of it, from your editor, your agent, the friends you ask to read your stuff. Learn to incorporate notes without losing your way, and try not to fall so in love with the sound of your own voice that you forget you’re writing for the reader, which can be tough when you spend all day listening to yourself.
Which came first: the characters, or the storyline?
Characters always come first for me, but the plot is never far behind. The characters are always tied to the situations I’d like to see them in. I’ve been told I write incredibly awkward scenarios, that my humor comes from making the characters uncomfortable, which is probably right on the money. When I’m plotting, I do tend to try to place my characters in the predicaments that would challenge them most, personally, socially, etc. Everything Nice is about a woman who has no connection to femininity, to what it means to be a daughter, a mother, a wife, a girlfriend, a friend to other women. So I stuck her in a girls’ school, gave her a whole new family of women, and sent her to a spa.
Is there something in your Bantam Discovery Novel that you are particularly proud, or happy, about?
I’m pleased that I think Everything Nice is the kind of story that’s frequently written about male characters and not as often about women. Mike Edwards is tough as nails, incredibly competitive, and doesn’t know how to connect. We’ve seen this character as a man more often—drinks too much, sleeps with the wrong people, doesn’t let anyone in, gets knocked down about thirty-seven times before she starts to figure it all out. But I think she’s hilarious in her bumbling and really endearing anyway.
Author Essay for Everything Nice by Ellen Shanman
The funny thing is, I wanted to write a book about a guy.
Everything Nice began, curiously enough, as a book about a man who was messing up all the important relationships in his life by closing off from the world, even as his ex-girlfriend was discovering a career in stand-up comedy and humiliating him in the name of shtick. I had all sorts of ideas for telling the story: multiple narrators, from the guy’s mother to his female dog, who for some reason had to be a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. I tend to hatch concepts like this at the beginning—complicated, maybe a little gimmicky, and either I start to write them and they don’t work or I realize I can’t stand them.
In this case I never got that far. I pitched the story to a few people I trust, and across the board the response was, “We’ve seen it before. Not fresh enough. Love the dog, though.” Initially I was crushed—I adored this character! I was all set to screw up his life and bite my fingernails anticipating his questionable redemption. Except my trusted sources were probably right. We have seen that guy before. What we haven’t seen quite as much is that girl.
The guideposts of the story are all very much the same as I originally intended, including the character’s name—Mike. Okay, so it’s short for Michaela, but the point is that this is a woman who doesn’t have much to do with femininity. Raised by a guarded, widowed father, she’s totally uncomfortable around other women, doesn’t want to be vulnerable, doesn’t want to need anybody too much. And it’s probably fair to say she’s lost sight of the line that separates basic human consideration from girlyness. But writing the anti-girl comes with its own set of snafus to navigate. For one thing, I’m awfully tired of the tale of the tomboy who finally learns how to look pretty, as if she’s spent her whole story just waiting for the right makeup tips, as if her troubles could have been easily remedied had someone just slipped her a tear sheet from a women’s magazine in the first chapter. Mike’s problems aren’t about hair and makeup. When she puts a dress on it doesn’t end up all hilariously wrong with her legs through the arm holes and she doesn’t upset an ice sculpture every time she tries to walk in heels. Her issues are all about a sad inability to trust herself and anyone else enough to get close. I’d call it fear of intimacy, if the phrase weren’t already bandied about so much on morning talk shows.
But when you’re looking at the way that women—well, men and women—relate to each other, especially in a place like New York, it’s hard not to address the subject of appearance. Far more interesting to me than a female character who would be gorgeous if only she had some eyeliner, is a woman with effortless, inescapable beauty who has no idea what to do with it. Mike rolls out of bed looking hot, but she’s consistently uneasy with the interest she attracts as a result. If most of us chase beauty, she’s on the run from it, and for the women around her there’s something profoundly strange about her failure to own the power it buys her.
I wrote this book fast, probably too fast for my own sanity, but the characters had lived in my head long enough to spill out whole when I sat down to write it. I think I enjoyed spending time with girl Mike as much or more than I did guy Mike, and I might even dig her take on the world just a little bit more than I did his. She cracks me up. That someone so smart can be such an idiot delights me, and I share with her, for good or bad, a longstanding reflex to take refuge in a quip, even when it’s not the best idea. I still love what remains from that original idea, but I hope the book as a whole is a little fresher, a little more surprising. I hope it gives you a good chuckle, and I hope that someday I find a place for that narrating dog.
1. What does Mike demonstrate about strong women? Do you think an interest in fashion and grooming makes a woman less strong? Or does female strength mean something else entirely?
2. What healthy traits did Gerry encourage in his daughter? What lessons could only a mother provide? What role models does she eventually have for learning about womanhood?
3. Would Mike’s headstrong style have been acceptable in a male employee, or in a boyfriend? Was she subjected to a double standard, or does society expect men to also avoid being too blunt or too assertive?
4. How did your opinion of Jay and his comedy routine shift throughout the novel? Did you sympathize with him?
5. Why does Cheryl take an interest in Mike, challenging her to try yoga and encouraging her to follow the example of runway models? Would you rather have had Cheryl or Gunther as a best friend?
6. What is the effect of the chapter titles, echoing famous slogans? What draws Mike to the advertising world? Why was it easy for her to sell products but difficult to sell herself?
7. What do Mike’s students tell us about parenting in the twenty-first century? What is reflected in their varied households, their need for permission slips to prevent lawsuits, and their beliefs about the adult world? How is being a child today different from when you were growing up?
8. Mike is shocked by a course that teaches girls how to crochet and make granola. What is the best way to really empower girls? What did you think of Mike’s curriculum? What life skills would you have added to the list? Are certain skills more important for girls than for boys, and vice versa?
9. What is Brian’s role in Mike’s life? What is the essential problem in his relationship with Mike? What do you predict for the future of Brian’s marriage?
10. What traits do Grace and Mike share? Was Grace correct in her assessment of Mike’s skills as a teacher? Is there much difference between the skills required to be a teacher and the skills required for marketing?
11. How does Deja change Mike’s life? What does she bring out in Gerry that Mike had not noticed before? What is it like for Mike to watch sisters Kimmy and Kristen become part of her family?
12. How was Mike affected by finally visiting Caroline’s grave? What missing piece of her life, and her sense of self, was completed in that moment?
13. In the closing scene, Gunther says, “I guess you can only give a guy the flick so many times.” What kept Mike and Gunther from becoming more than friends sooner?
14. What hallmarks of Ellen Shanman’s storytelling appear in both this novel and in Right Before Your Eyes? What would Liza Weiler and Mike Edwards think of each other?