Don’t Let the Pink Cover Faze You

By Neal Comment

smartgirls-cover.JPGDuring last week’s debate over whether “trick lit” exists, I was reminded of a conversation I’d had a few weeks ago with Diane Vadino about her debut novel, Smart Girls Like Me. It seemed, I thought, to be a perfect illustration of the opposite of Seth Godin‘s made-up term. After all, it’s a first-person narrative starring a young, single girl in New York entering into a relationship with a dreamy coworker while sorting out her feelings about her best friend’s wedding, and it’s even being sold with a pink cover depicting a rack of clothes. On the other hand, John Hodgman and Nicholas Christopher probably aren’t in the habit of blurbing generic fluff, and in fact the novel turns out to be an astutely observed snapshot of the last few months before the dotcom bubble burst. And yet it’s so… pink. (A light pink that looks more like off-white in this JPG, I know, but work with me here.)

“I don’t want to be too serenity prayer about it, but there are things I can control, and things I can’t,” Vadino said as we sat down to lunch in Brooklyn Heights, shortly after she had returned to New York City from an extended stay in London. “I just don’t care anymore. I hate to be reducitve about it, but I can choose to be obsessive or I can choose to just let it go.” I observed that there are plenty of other strong social comedies that have been sent out to bookstores as chick lit, but, as she pointed out, in the public’s mind, “it’s not a descriptive term. It’s already a perjorative term.” (See, in that context, my June conversation with Anna David.)

Because Smart Girls Like Me takes place at a fashion dotcom, some people might try to write it off as a Lauren Weisberger knockoff, but keep in mind that Vadino had been working on the novel since…well, pretty much since the late 1990s. “I’ve never read The Devil Wears Prada, although I know what happens in it,” she said. “I think you get those kinds of blinkered, daft people in every office in the world. In fashion, they’re just wearing better clothes.” (That’s not to say she wasn’t worried about other chick lit writers as she was discovering her story; she recalled being told she had to read “this Bridget Jones book” by an excited fellow student in Columbia’s writing program. “And I was like, ‘Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuck!'” she laughed.)

diane-vadino.jpgBefore she began writing the novel in earnest, though, Vadino was the first staffer hired at McSweeney’s, a job she described as a profound influence. “I took a lot of—I don’t know if the right word is ‘inspiration’ or ‘solace’—but a lot of the people there were writing with their hearts on their sleeves,” she said. “They were incredibly kind to me. It was the best community of people I’ve met, bar none.”

It was a colleague’s advice to ditch the second-person narration that she had been using in her early drafts and begin again that led to the novel’s final appearance. In other ways, though, the McSweeney’s gig held her back. “As a writer, you need to hate your day job,” she explained. “The reason I wasn’t writing when I was at McSweeney’s was that I loved that job, and I wanted to give it everything I had. Finally, I got to the point where Dave told me, ‘It’s time for you to go write a book.'”