Ladies With Options

  The Interviews
Meet Author
Cynthia Hartwick
by Cathy Sova
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Let's meet Cynthia Hartwick, author of the sassy, funny, and slightly irreverent Ladies With Options. (If you haven't read it yet, you're missing out on a lot of laughs.) She also has the best idea for a travel company we've ever heard! Read on...

Cynthia, welcome to The Romance Reader! Tell us about yourself.

You're probably going to hate this answer, but I promised my publisher to keep my background a mystery during the publication of LADIES. That agreement's likely coming to an end shortly, but for now, I feel I have to honor it. Meanwhile-

Maybe the easiest way to describe myself is by negatives. Unlike Sophia Peters, the narrator of LADIES, I'm not a lawyer, and I'm not (usually!) likely to find myself in the midst of chaotic situations.

Nor do I have Sophia's adventuresome streak. Like a hobbit, I favor "peace and quiet and good tilled earth." Given my druthers, I'll almost always disappear into a book.

In fact, one of my fantasy business ideas is for a travel company for obsessive readers. We'd promise to, like, go to famous places and sit there and just read books. ("Read Atop The Eiffel Tower! Sail The Nile and Never See A Thing!") And of course, the payoff of the joke is that we'd never really go anywhere. We just load everybody on a 747, keep it parked on the runway and supplied with great books, and then, 8 days and 7 nights later, we let them off and ask them how they liked Paris and Beijing. If they're like me, they'd never notice the plane didn't take off. Just think about the profit margins! But nobody tell the SEC!

What else? As the back cover of LADIES says, I work as a consultant to small businesses, and (my one big self-indulgence!) some years ago, I got a Ph.D. in English lit.

Oh, and Sophia says all the snappy things I can never think of in time-or would never have the nerve to say out loud. I'm much more the quiet type.

Gad! I just realized. I'm REALLY boring!

Are you coming to writing from another job? Are you still working at another job?

Oh, absolutely-I'm a long way from being able to give up my day job.

I've had all the usual "writer's jobs," especially while I was a starving college student: everything from working in a restaurant, to sorting mail for the post office, to (very briefly) picking fruit. I also taught a bit of college English.

But my main job has been helping small business owners and entrepreneurs buy and sell businesses. I really do love the work: some clients have gone on to remarkable success, and they're all great people. You can see their go-getter spirit in the characters of the Ladies.

Ladies With Options is your first book, and it's loosely based on an actual group of investors, isn't it?

It's funny you would say that. A lot of people have assumed it was based on a certain famous group of investors from a few years back; but really there are 10's of thousands of women investors' groups in the USA, and I was primarily just interested in what would happen if one of them hit the absolute jackpot and made all its members rich. It seemed to me to be a great idea for a light comedy-something like the great Frank Capra comedies of the '30s, only with women as the main characters. And that was what led to LADIES WITH OPTIONS.

I was aware of those famous investors but, being married to an intellectual property attorney, I was very careful to learn absolutely nothing about their story-which is, in a very real way, their property.

Still, I'd certainly agree that, when I FIRST tried selling the book, the fame of that group of women seemed a huge plus, since publishers and film studios love novels to have tie-ins to real life events. Not only did my agent (Jane Browne,one of the hardest-working agents ever) jump at the prospect-but Creative Artists Agency, the Hollywood powerhouse that represents people like Steven Spielberg, signed on to sell the movie rights. Everything looked great and, getting ahead of myself as usual, I was pretty much trying to decide whether to go for the Ferrari, or the Lamborghini!

Unfortunately, in my case, it was "live by the tie-in, die by the tie-in."

Getting the Ladies published was not easy. Tell us how that came about.

"Not easy" is putting it very nicely, and thank you. Actually, if I'd had a less heroically dedicated agent, the poor Ladies would never have seen the light of day.

It's a long, sad story, but what happened is this:

When I first wrote the proposal for LADIES, that famous group of real women investors was gathering so much great press, that both Jane and CAA got tons of positive responses to the idea. Lots of publishers and film companies wanted to see the project.

But-this is pretty much the story of my life-just as the agents started sending out the actual packets to potential buyers, a major business magazine announced that the real group of investors weren't making nearly as much money as they claimed. I never looked into the details of the story-again, I was fanatical about keeping my distance-but almost overnight, the real-life women went from extremely hot, to ice cold, as a pop phenomenon. And with them, went the enthusiasm in Hollywood and New York for LADIES.

Jane was a real tiger: even after CAA (which certainly tried hard) dropped out, she kept on sending out the book again and again. But even well over a year later, publishers were saying that, much as they loved the story, they couldn't see how to sell a book about a group of women investors who get rich.

We were pretty much down to our last shot when a wonderful romance editor at Berkley named Judy Palais decided to gamble, and bring out LADIES-even though it's not really a romance novel.

It was a very modest launch-no PR tour, or anything like that. The traditional media ignored it because it came out as a paperback. Things looked pretty hopeless; Judy actually told me the typical result in that situation was that a book stopped selling within a week or so.

But thanks to reviews in TRR and one or two other places, the exact opposite happened: after a few weeks, LADIES found its first readers-and after, that, I guess, word-of-mouth did the rest: instead of dropping, those silly Ladies just kept climbing in the ratings.

So, when I say I'm fond of TRR, I'm not just talking about your many literary merits-I really owe you a LOT!

What kind of research was involved for Ladies? Are you an investor yourself?

Oh, I'm an investor in a very modest way-but I'm not 1/10th as smart as they are. If I'd done half as well as they did, I probably wouldn't be writing novels; I'd be living summers on a private island in Puget Sound, and winters in, I don't know, the South of France or something. Anyway, it's lovely to think so, eh?

Other than checking some business details, I did only enough research to make sure I put the market crash of '87 in the right month, and things like that. Mostly, I was very lucky in having some extremely kind early readers who caught one or two technical goofs (like mentioning the Mall of America the year before it opened!) which we were able to correct before the book actually appeared. They saved me a LOT of embarrassment!

Ladies is set in Minnesota, and you certainly seem familiar with the vagaries of the weather in the upper Midwest. Are you a native of the area?

As noted, part of my promise to my publishers is to keep a certain amount of mystery about my (really not very exciting!) life. But I will say that I grew up far from snow or sleet: in San Diego. In my part of the country, when the temperatures plunge into the '70s, people start thinking about hot chocolate and fireplaces, and telling each other to "bundle up!" Seriously, when I was in junior high school, we actually had a snow flurry one day-and they let us all out of school to look at it. Of course, it all melted before it hit the ground, but I was fascinated. Until then, I thought "snow" and "winter" were literary myths-like unicorns, or something.

You have to go back to my paternal grandfather's generation to find any true Midwesterners. Most of the weather stuff in LADIES comes from listening to family legends. My mother was a school teacher in rural Maine, and she (and my upstate-New-York-raised spouse) have all the good stories about crawling out second story windows of blizzard-beset houses, and things like that.

What really struck me about Minnesota (and the Midwest generally) during the time I've spent there is the genuine kindness, modesty and good humor of the people. That "Minnesota nice," at least in my experience, is absolutely for real. So I put all that in the book with great pleasure and enthusiasm. The stuff about blizzards, and sleet, and thunderstorms is mostly just my runaway imagination. It probably takes a Southern Californian to make blizzards sound fun. People who've actually SEEN a blizzard probably know better.

Who are your influences as a writer? Or other authors whose works you admire?

Well, this may not explain very much about LADIES, but my favorite writers are the classic ones. I loved adventure novels like THE THREE Musketeers-but also comic novels, like Fielding's TOM JONES. I never understood why there were so few great comic novels-although, having now tried writing comedy, I'm beginning to get the idea! It's awfully hard!

Also, like Deborah in LADIES, I'm constantly disappointed to learn that Jane Austen hasn't written a new book in ages. I'd put PRIDE AND PREJUDICE up near the top of my all-time favorites list, along with EMMA and PERSUASION.

Finally, I'm a huge fan of the writers and directors of the great screwball and romantic comedies: Frank Capra, Preston Sturges, people like that.

How has being a published author changed your life so far?

It would probably have changed it a lot more if I weren't so confoundedly shy. Almost nobody knows I've written anything. (And, of course, there's that whole secrecy pledge to my publisher.)

Besides, I live in LA, where the status of writers is just about zero. Maybe if I'd written GODZILLA 3, or the latest James Cameron movie, that would get attention. But the idea of trying to get special treatment in LA on the basis of being a novelist is almost wacky enough to belong in a movie. I can just imagine trying to get into some fancy restaurant or club on the basis of being a writer. I step up to the guy behind the velvet rope, and say-with a nudge, nudge, wink, wink-"You know . . . . I write novels."

It would be, "Exit Cynthia, sent airborne by two huge bouncers."

Also, because of this whole "Cynthia, creature of mystery" thing, there weren't any press junkets or even local book signings. You might say somebody owes me some bad airline food and room service. (Only kidding!)

So, I guess the honest answer is that it's done wonders for my self-esteem--which never was much to write home about-- but hasn't really changed anything else. But believe me, I'm not complaining!

While Sophia certainly deserved her happy ending, I felt that Deb Cohen's story wasn't quite finished. Any plans for future books about the Ladies?

I'm definitely thinking sequel-and thank you for asking!

Right now, I'm taking two approaches. For funny little stories about the Ladies (and Larksdale generally), it's hard to beat the Internet, so my website is where people can catch up with the ongoing story. It doesn't give away much about the main characters, but does provide some (I hope!) amusing snippets about Larksdale happenings. It's meant to become a kind of running serial or soap opera-while also introducing some new characters who weren't part of the first book. Plus, of course, there are Larksdale recipes, biz tips from the Ladies, stuff like that.

The real sequel will take longer, but I've already written the proposal package. It should start going out to publishers sometime this week.

Of course, I want to keep the new plot a big secret, but I can tell you this much: where LADIES ended with the end of the 1980s, the sequel picks up in 2001. It also introduces some characters who are younger and hipper than the originals, but still very "Larksdale." And yes, the original characters will definitely fit into the new adventure. In coming months, the website will feature some hints about the new book, for sharp-eyed readers to catch.

Of course, if a publisher actually buys the sequel, I'll let TRR know right away. Meanwhile, please keep your fingers crossed for it, eh?

How can readers get in touch with you?

Thank you for asking-I'd love to hear from them! Since my e-mail address is probably changing in the next few weeks, the easiest way to reach me is via the website, www.cynthiahartwick.com. The e-mail links there will always connect visitors to my latest e-mail address.

Please do visit, everyone! And thank you, TRR for the chance to chat!

August 4, 2001


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