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  • Written by Ellen Shanman
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  • Everything Nice
  • Written by Ellen Shanman
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Written by Ellen ShanmanAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Ellen Shanman

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On Sale: July 29, 2008
Pages: | ISBN: 978-0-440-33745-4
Published by : Bantam Discovery Bantam Dell
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

In a smart, sexy, wickedly funny new novel, the acclaimed author of Right Before Your Eyes introduces an unforgettable and irresistibly real heroine: Michaela“Mike” Edwards, a woman who is forced to reinvent herself— and discovers that the biggest risk is not taking one at all….

Fiercely independent and seriously lacking in social graces, Mike Edwards doesn’t do sugar and spice. Instead she writes great copy and stays above the fray—until mishandled office politics get her unexpectedly fired. Suddenly the young ad hotshot finds herself doing the unimaginable: moving back in with her widowed father, hiding from her lecherous mentor, rethinking her entire career—and trying to unravel complex feelings for her best guy pal, an Aussie journalist named Gunther.

For Mike, a few wrenching twists of fate are leading to a job she never expected: teaching “life skills” to seventh-grade girls. But sometimes the best makeovers are the ones you never see coming. Because with a classroom full of kids who need her, a best friend who’s fast becoming something more, and a family she’s only just discovering, Mike has a few surprises in store…and she’s about to discover that going places in life doesn’t have to mean going it on your own.

Excerpt

When you got it, flaunt it


They say the truth will set you free. They never explain that with an insouciant thwack, the truth will shove you out into the cold, dark forest of self-awareness, to be pursued by the hungry wolverines of doubt and loathing. They never mention that part. And when it happens, you can only hope that somewhere in the woods you will find a bar that's still open.

Luckily, at six-thirty on a Friday in Manhattan, all the bars are open. Mike sat at one of them with her heels against the brass foot rail and sipped slowly and deliberately at a double Jameson neat. She stared into the glass after every sip and willed the alcohol to seep into her veins. She'd been drinking for too many years to rush foolishly into intoxication as though there weren't a long evening ahead. She had all the time in the world and an open tab.

The Town Drunk was a filthy cesspit in the Meatpacking District with a splintering bar and perpetually sticky floors. The jukebox played Merle Haggard and Bob Dylan and sometimes the Charlie Daniels Band. A few long-forgotten bras were tacked around the mirror behind the bar, mementos of the nights when young professional women got a little too amusing and lived out their sad Coyote Ugly fantasies on the bar top. Mike had never been one of these women; Mike was a regular.

"Guy at the jukebox is tryin' to work up the nerve," the bartender said quietly as he wiped up the bar in front of her.

Mike glanced into the mirror briefly and caught the outline of someone feeding the jukebox and trying to stare at her out of the corner of his eye.

"Good tip, Jimmy," she said.

"Don't worry." He chuckled. "I don't think he's gonna get there." Still smiling to himself, he moved down the bar to take an order.

Mike briefly mustered the energy to hope that Jimmy was right. She didn't have the reserves tonight to turn someone down politely, to make the obligatory six or seven sentences of conversation before excusing herself to pull out her cell phone or go for a smoke. And she didn't even smoke.

She was constantly having to turn men down, as though sometime in her early adolescence an evil fairy had come through Mike's window while she was sleeping and sprayed her down with some irresistible pheromone that she'd never be able to rinse off. Or maybe it was her utterly effortless and stunning beauty. One of the two. She didn't wear makeup. She cut her long, dark hair maybe twice a year. Fingernails, to Mike, were not for painting but for snapping open beer cans and taking off her stainless Swiss Army watch. Except it's hard to cover up a face that screams to be a portrait and legs that go on for miles. It's hard not to be noticed when you're nearly six feet tall and built like Elle Macpherson, but then, to each of us her challenges.

Mike hoped that Gunther would get there soon. They mostly left her alone when Gunther was around.

The door swung open with a shock of fading daylight, and as he frequently did when she thought of him, Gunther appeared. Like many Australians, Gunther entered a room larger than life, with the carefree warmth and goodwill of an entire continent blowing in behind him. How a ship of minor convicts and British undesirables spawned a nation of the world's most cheerful and gregarious individuals, we may never know. But nowhere is this more evident than in New York City, where the indigenous multitudes hurtle down crowded sidewalks just trying not to touch anyone. Gunther was Mike's equilibrium, a balance for her gruff pessimism, her best friend. And the only man to whom she wasn't related who'd never tried to sleep with her.

Gunther squinted when he saw Mike sitting at the bar, and consulted his watch. "Christ, Mikey, am I late?"

She smiled for a moment at the sight of his enormous, lanky form hoisting itself onto the adjacent barstool and tapping lightly on the bar with a smile at Jimmy to indicate he'd have the usual, which was a Guinness. Gunther always arrived first, as a rule. As the New York bureau chief for an Australian wire service, a title he considered perhaps too lofty as there was no bureau beneath him, Gunther worked from home, and occasionally from the Drunk, filing stories by phone to copy-takers in Sydney who would unfailingly get them somehow wrong. But the hours were terrific.

"No," she said slowly, "no, I'm early."

"Fess up." He smiled and sucked the foam from his beer. "You chuckin' a sickie?"

It had taken years for Mike to comprehend the variety of Gunther's vernacular, but she was now able to understand that he was asking whether she'd played hooky.

"Try again," she said. "Worse. Much worse."

"Hang on," Gunther insisted. He tipped his glass back and within four seconds drained the whole thing, slamming it down on the bar in triumph when he was done. "'Nother one, Jimmy," he requested with a grin and turned back to Mike. "Okay," he said. "Now I'm ready."

"That makes one of us," she returned.

"One's all we need then," he assured her. "Hit me."

Mike took a deep breath and sighed. "Brian Bentley was fired this morning." She listened to the words hanging in the air and felt like she'd tuned in to Lost midseason. Nothing made sense.

"Still waiting for the bad news." Gunther suppressed a smile.

"I was fired this afternoon." It was the first time she'd said so, and it sounded like someone else was talking. Since this morning, everything had felt like a day out of someone else's life. Someone who was vulnerable to things like humiliation and termination of employment. Someone who wasn't a winner like Mike.

It had all happened so fast.

One minute she'd been standing in the slim kitchenette of A. S. Logan Advertising, stirring Splenda into a mug that said "Nancy" in rainbow letters and thinking, nearly simultaneously, that she had no idea who Nancy was and that Splenda sounded like the name of a Vegas stripper. "Splenda's really working the pole tonight." "How does Splenda always bring in the big bucks?" She'd been pitching a paper towel account all morning and her mind was meandering, trying to keep from thinking anymore about toughness and absorbency.

"'Scuse me, Mike." Brenda from Research pushed past her, smelling strongly of something sweet and cheap. Brenda stole perfume samples from the cosmetics accounts and gave unsolicited lectures on the evils of coffee and had no sense of humor.

"Coffee break?" Mike asked her.

"Ha, ha, no," Brenda answered with a pinched expression that was probably intended to be a smile. "I have a peach in the fridge."

The women in her office didn't like Mike, she knew, but she reasoned that was their prerogative since she had next to no use for them. They were mysterious creatures she was obligated to see in the bathroom, and when she did they spoke in code words like "mascara" and "diaphragm" and "kick pleat." They trafficked in frivolous, clubhouse gossip and they pushed up their breasts and tucked hair behind their ears and dared her to pick through the minefield of their conversation. Mike had tried and failed to explain to her female coworkers that if they had to ask, they probably did look fat. That she absolutely did mind their pumping breast milk while discussing copy points. That crying was the lowest, most reprehensible form of game-ending, reprimand-defeating manipulation. They never seemed to take it the right way.

Men made sense. Men went after what they wanted and said what they meant, and usually what they meant was work or sex. Either way she always knew how to answer. But the women were impenetrable. So Mike always dried her hands and tightened her ponytail and fled as quickly as possible. Behind her back, she knew, they called her names. But everyone, everyone, acknowledged that she was one of the best copywriters around. It was the reason she'd been promoted so fast. It was the reason Brian Bentley had taken notice of her during her first year at the agency, and the reason he'd seen her up through the ranks at lightning speed. She'd landed her first television campaign at twenty-eight. She was a superstar.

All that was to be respected in Mike only seemed to make Brenda resent her more. It was Brenda who had started rumors about Mike sleeping with Brian, long before it had actually happened. And it was Brenda who now took immeasurable delight in delivering the bad news. From behind the refrigerator door where she rummaged for her produce, Brenda asked, "Are you hiding?"

"Clearly not well enough," Mike muttered. There was no reason to bother with false courtesy. There had been an unfortunate incident at an office birthday party during which Mike had failed to mention the lipstick on Brenda's teeth and she'd never been forgiven. They both knew where they stood.

"Oh-ho, as if I were your biggest worry. I don't blame you," Brenda answered and she suppressed a giggle behind the egg tray. "I think I would hide too."

"Yeah, well . . . have a day, Brenda." Mike turned to go.

"Did you wear denim to your pitch?"

Mike looked down at her badly beaten jeans and engineer boots. Creatives at A. S. Logan could generally wear whatever they liked, a fact that was probably deeply disturbing to Brenda.

"Turns out, the client wasn't there for a fashion show," Mike returned. "And by the way, I think it's great how you get all dressed up to sit in the cafeteria and read The Rules on your lunch break."

"Just seems like a shame that you'll be leaving such a disheveled impression. Today of all days."

"Maybe it's this dangerous, mind-altering coffee I'm drinking, Brenda, but I have no idea what you're talking about." Mike was going to give her thirty seconds, and then she was going to walk away.

Brenda gripped her cold peach tightly and stood up to say, "Oh, my goodness, do you not know yet?"

Mike had no time for this. She had twelve hours of work to get done in the next six. "Brenda," Mike said, "you're killing me."

Brenda carefully shut the fridge door. "Oh, that's right, you were in your pitch. Oliver just canned Brian."

Brenda smiled, because Mike looked like she'd been hit with a shovel.

"What are you talking about?" Mike managed.

"Mm-hmm. I guess he went to present to the Toreador distributors and they didn't like the campaign and Brian lost it. Word is he said some terrible things. It was lose the Toreador or lose Brian so . . .  Tough break, I guess."

Mike stared with her mouth open.

Brenda moved past her toward the hallway. "P.S. Nancy really doesn't like other people using her mug."

Mike said nothing.

"And Mike?"

"Yeah?" Mike asked, without turning.

"Oliver's looking for you."

Mike listened to Brenda's heels clacking down the hallway. She wasn't going to take the word of the office gossip, knowing firsthand how often Brenda made things up just to amuse herself. She made her way quickly toward Brian's office, praying that she'd see his spiky gray head poking up above the back of his chair, see his expensive shoes up on the windowsill, and hear the familiar south London meter as he brayed into the phone. But there were two security guards in the office, cleaning out his desk, tossing Brian's Clio Awards into a cardboard box with framed photos of his wife and his beach house in Sag Harbor, acting as if there was no sacrilege in toppling an advertising legend in a single afternoon, all because a bunch of narrow-minded car distributors didn't know how to think outside the box.

It was then that Oliver found her, staring into Brian's office with a sort of conflicted fondness Mike didn't know she could muster for him. But she followed dutifully when Oliver motioned down the hall toward the corner office.

Oliver sank heavily into his chair before she was even in the room. "Shut the door," he told her and massaged his right temple. "Sit."

"I'd rather stand," she told him.

"Sit, Edwards."

She wanted to resist for the sake of resistance, but she wanted information more. She sat across the desk from him and stared hard.

"I appreciate the death ray, but he brought this on himself," Oliver began.

"That's a matter of perspective," Mike said.

"No, Edwards," he continued wearily, "when you call the advertising manager of one of the nation's largest auto manufacturers a 'filthy cocksucking motherfucker' in front of a meeting of his distributors, it is no longer a matter of perspective."

She wasn't entirely surprised. Brian had said worse.

"He nearly cost this agency millions of dollars, Edwards, and you don't want to know how many jobs. There wasn't much of a choice to make."

"The campaign he gave them was perfect—"

"Edwards," he interrupted her. "It's over. He's gone. Quit fighting for him."

She wasn't fighting for him, she wanted to explain. She was fighting alongside him. You could give Brian twenty-four hours and a dry-erase board and he could come up with a way to sell kitten-fur tea cozies to every member of PETA. He had plucked Mike from career infancy and built his own beautiful advertising monster and in return she gave him loyalty and utter confidence. And yes, one time, one, single time she'd drunk enough to forget her better judgment and she'd slept with him. Just one time. Every day since she'd wished she hadn't.

"Look, Edwards," Oliver said, "we have a problem." She knew what the problem was. "We've had this conversation before. You're a damn good writer." She knew. "Which makes it all the more difficult for me to do what I have to do now." He sighed and Mike waited. "I've been reassigning Bentley's accounts . . . Nobody wants you on their team, Edwards. You don't play well with others."

"What others?"

"I'm not going into it—"

"Is this about the tampons? Because—"

"It's about a lot of things, although while we're on the subject it was probably inappropriate to refer to the consumers as 'bleeders' in front of the client."

"It slipped out."

"Edwards. You're icy with your coworkers and you argue with everyone. And unfortunately, you no longer have a champion in this office."

"I didn't realize I needed one." It was a lie, but she said it anyway.

"There's no room here anymore for the way Bentley did business. The reign of terror is coming to a close." He shook his head. "I've gotta let you go, Edwards." Oliver looked almost embarrassed. Almost. "You backed the wrong horse. I'm sorry."

"Believe me," she said slowly, "I bet I'm sorrier."

"Can I give you a piece of advice, Mike? Wherever you land next, try to act more like a . . . person."
Ellen Shanman|Author Q&A|Author Desktop

About Ellen Shanman

Ellen Shanman - Everything Nice
Ellen Shanman is a graduate of Northwestern University. She lives and writes in Brooklyn, New York.

Author Q&A

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 Q&A

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.

Praise

Praise

“A chick lit heroine with beauty and brains—and a bad-ass attitude that lands her in trouble…. Everything Nice is a gem of razor-sharp wit and impeccable timing.”—Publishers Weekly


From the Paperback edition.
Reader's Guide|Discussion Questions

About the Book

She’s lost her job, her apartment, and her boyfriend (who turned their breakup into a stand-up comedy routine). But Michaela “Mike” Edwards is about to stage a comeback, thanks to a class of wide-eyed young girls who have become her biggest fans. A fresh take, Everything Nice is the story of a tough-as-nails woman whose father taught her to steer clear of sugar and spice. Mike thought she was at the top of her game, sprinting up the career ladder at an ad agency without employing a single feminine wile. But guts and savvy weren’t enough to save her from office politics. Unemployed and running low on stamina, she finds herself coerced into taking on a daunting new job: teaching Life Skills at a Manhattan charter school. Before long, Mike and the students are giving each other real-world lessons that will change their lives—while Mike’s best guy friend, an Aussie journalist, is about to give her a crash course in love.

The questions and discussion topics that follow are intended to enhance your reading of Ellen Shanman’s Everything Nice. We hope they will enrich your experience of this sexy, wickedly funny novel.

Discussion Guides

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?


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