Stephanie Gertler, author of Jimmy's Girl, first released by Penguin's Dutton imprint in 2001, sat down with Istoria to discuss that first critically-acclaimed book, her writing journey, and how she felt as her characters practically dictated the end of their tale to her! Jimmy's Girl is now available in print and digitally from Istoria Books.
IB: Jimmy's Girl has an almost dreamlike quality to it, as you switch back and forth between characters and between the summer of 1967 and the later time in which the story is set. How did you create that mood -- was it a conscious choice as you wrote the story or did it flow from the story?
SG: Switching back and forth was simply part of my thought process as I reflected on the summer of 1967. In my mind, “I was there and I am here.” The juxtaposition of then and now just flowed out of me and came naturally. It was like daydreaming. Defined, daydreaming is fantasy often based upon the mundane – taking real events and, in the case of Jimmy's Girl, looking back and wondering “what if.”
I wrote Jimmy's Girl while I worked as a lifestyles editor and weekly columnist for a newspaper and freelancer for several magazines. I also had three teenagers at home – 13, 15 and 17. No one tells you that you’ll have three teenagers at once when you have three babies in slightly less than four years! The only time for me was in the middle of the night, and so, I wrote Jimmy's Girl (yet to be titled). For fifteen months, I wrote nightly until around three in the morning and then caught a few hours of sleep before the day began. I was running on sheer adrenaline.
Really, I felt as though I was having a love affair as I wrote while the house was silent and everyone slept.
Writing in the voices of both Jimmy and Emily felt essential. This was a conscious choice.
IB: The summer of 1967-- when Jimmy and Emily's love was young--is evoked so well in the story. What are your personal memories of that summer, that year?
SG: To this day, the summer of 1967 remains vivid. It was the Summer of Love, and although I was too young to “participate,” I fancied myself a flower child. I wore a metal peace sign around my neck, granny glasses, a poncho and a button that said “Make Love, Not War.” It was also a summer of tremendous unrest as we watched the Vietnam War and race riots on the nightly news, and it felt as though the world was coming to an end. And yet amidst all the chaos, there was a boy who was my first love that summer, and he did enlist in the Marine Corps. He went to Parris Island and ultimately to Vietnam. My parents rented a house that summer, and I recall my room with the adjacent sun porch and the pink canopy bed. At night, I watched the thunderstorms (they came with such frequency that summer) as I wrote letters to my “Jimmy” and read his letters to me over and over again. There are several songs that bring me back to that summer: "Wouldn’t It Be Nice" (The Beach Boys), "My Girl" (The Temptations), "Coming Back to Me" (Jefferson Airplane). Perhaps the most palpable memory from that summer is one of being so purely in love, untainted and innocent, and believing that “Jimmy” and I would be forever.
IB: When you were writing the book, did you have a fixed idea of how Jimmy and Emily's relationship would resolve--whether they'd get back together or not--or did that grow from the story as you wrote it?
SG: This is always my favorite question about Jimmy's Girl. I had absolutely no idea how the book would end until it was in front of me on the screen. As I sat down at my desk to write what I knew would be the last phase of the story, I felt as though Emily and Jimmy were sitting next to me. It was as though they both said, “OK, so now let us tell you what ultimately happened with us,” and I could hear the back and forth in their dialogue as they spoke to me and my fingers flew on the keyboard. As the ending began to unfold on the page, I was choked up. When the ending appeared with finality, I cried.
IB: When the novel was originally released in 2001 by Penguin's Dutton imprint, it was very well received by critics. What did that feel like, to receive this praise for your "baby"?
SG: It’s so interesting that you use the term “baby.” I’ve often said that writing a book is an experience similar to giving birth. The book is conceived and then comes the gestational period as I write and then the book is complete and I want to show it to the world. And hopefully, everyone will think it’s a beautiful baby! I was on the edge of my seat as I waited for industry reviews, and it was surreal when Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist and Kirkus came in with raves. You know that expression about “pinching yourself?” Well, I did. What had been written from my heart and soul, as both a catharsis and retreat, became a book. I must say that the consumer reviews, and letters and emails that I received from readers were the most moving and compelling for me. Jimmy's Girl, although fiction, is a deeply personal story. For strangers to open up to me with accounts of their own first loves and confessions of their own “what if’s” warmed my heart.
IB: Jimmy's Girl was your debut. Could you tell us a little about your writing journey before this novel--had you tried to get anything else published, for example, how long it took to get Jimmy's Girl to an editor and accepted.
SG: From the time I was a little girl, I wrote and made up stories in my head. I had a collection of “foreign dolls,” and when I was around ten, I set up a house for them (a sheet over two chairs) and created a series: All of the girls were in boarding school and they got into all kinds of antics and situations. Jump to college at New York University where I majored in Journalism and minored in English and about a year after I graduated, I landed a job with the Miami bureau of Newsweek Magazine and freelancer for Miami-based publications. A few years later, I came back to New York City and worked as a medical editor. Then came marriage and three babies one after the other – but I always wrote – even if it was just in a journal or stories for my children.
Once my youngest was ensconced in kindergarten, I went back to work at a Connecticut newspaper – starting over again as an editorial assistant which was rather sobering. My kids were in after-school day care until I got home from work, and they were not happy. I promised myself that if I wasn’t promoted to reporter within six months, I’d just throw in the towel and go back to being a stay-at-home mother. I was promoted! And then I was promoted to lifestyles editor and then there was a snow day. Schools were closed and I couldn’t get to work because there was no one with whom I could leave the kids, the oldest of whom was 13. It was 1996 and I was stuck at home with just a phone and a fax. No email back then. And I had an empty front page for my lifestyles section. So, I sat down at the computer (we did have one of those) and wrote a piece called “Pizza Wars” which was about the snow day with the kids. The piece ran full on the front page and was a huge hit with the readership who wanted more of the same. Subsequently, my weekly column “These Days” was born and it won a lot of awards from the Society of Professional Journalists.
Three years later, I took a book-load of These Days columns to an agent, Marcy Posner, thinking the columns could become a book. Marcy called a few days later and said she absolutely loved the columns, but a book wouldn’t work because no one really knew who I was. I was disappointed. Marcy said to write a novel. I told her that I couldn’t – when would I have the time between work and kids and domestic chores? But in September 2000, I sent the manuscript for Jimmy's Girl to Marcy. A week later, she called and said she loved it. In October, she sent it out to several publishers. I decided not to think about the fact that Jimmy's Girl was “out there.” There was a snowstorm in November, and I was driving when Marcy called my cell. Her voice rang out with her usual, “Hi, Honey! Where are you?” I explained that I was driving and the snow was blinding. She said to pull over. I said that I had all-wheel drive. She insisted that I pull over and I obeyed. That’s when Marcy told me that Jimmy’s Girl was accepted for publication by Dutton in a two-book deal – meaning that I now had to write another novel. I kept slapping my leg and screaming “Get out! Unreal!” She was right to make me pull over before giving me the news! I might have driven off the road otherwise. My editor at Dutton was Carol Baron – the editor for best-selling authors like Maeve Binchy, Judy Blume, Tracy Chevalier, Harlen Coben, Nicholas Evans, Al Franken, John Grisham, Thomas Harris, John Lescroart, Elmore Leonard, Robert B. Parker, Amy Tan, and Danielle Steel. And me? Amazing. Working with Carol was fantastic.
IB: What happened after the publication of Jimmy's Girl--tell us a bit about your writing life after this beautiful debut.
SG: I completed all pending assignments at the magazines and left my post at the newspaper – only continuing to write These Days. I had to address Novel Number Two. My contract said that it was due within 18 months. Now, Jimmy's Girl took 15 months to complete, and that was while I had a “day job.” Still, I was somewhat daunted by the deadline. I had a vague idea of the plot for the second novel, but I was struggling. I think it was also a case of nerves: Was Jimmy's Girl just a fluke, or was I really a novelist now? I went with a friend to one of my favorite places on the planet – The Adirondacks. I knew that would be the setting for the novel. But still, I was grappling with the “twist” in the plot. And then one night, it came to me – literally in a dream. I woke up with a start at four in the morning, and there was the “twist.” For whatever reason, I had no pad of paper with me (no laptops in those days!), but I did have two large brown paper bags from the local supermarket. I opened them so they were poster size and wrote the synopsis for The Puzzle Bark Tree. When I got home and typed up my script, the synopsis was 42 typed pages. My third and fourth novels, Drifting and The Windmill, were also written on a deadline but, by then, I knew that 18 months was more than enough time to give birth to a book.
IB: Are you still writing? If so, what are you working on?
SG: Oh, yes! When I am not writing, I feel empty. I have been doing quite a bit of ghostwriting which is quite different from writing a novel, but I enjoy it enormously. It is not dissimilar to being in the newsroom, and I often miss those deadlines and the bustling interaction. My last ghostwriting project was Silent No More: Victim 1's Fight for Justice Against Jerry Sandusky (Ballantine) and I am proud to say that it was a New York Times Bestseller. I am also working on my fifth novel. It seems that just when I’m in the thick throes of this fifth novel, another ghostwriting job comes along and I can’t turn down the opportunity!
IB: The book market has changed a great deal in the dozen years since this novel was first published. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?
SG: It has changed – with the biggest change being the advent of the e-book. At first, I was adamantly opposed to electronic readers and carried as many as five books with me when I traveled. Then I caved and got a Kindle because if I carried that many books, I had to leave too many pairs of shoes at home. I never thought I’d be able to “curl up” with a Kindle as I could with a book – but I can! However, I always have pen and paper handy so I can take notes as I read since I miss folding the pages over and underlining. I know there’s a way to do that (sort of) on a Kindle, but it’s not the same for me as the touch of paper.
As for advice to aspiring writers: Write what you know and write how you speak. Never fall in love with your words: sometimes a passage might read well, but it simply doesn’t work – so save it for later. And above all, write fearlessly! Most, if not all, fiction has a strong element of truth. Go with the truth and know that fiction can take you to a safe place as you tell your story – and then some.
Stephanie Gertler's moving tale of lost and found love, Jimmy's Girl, is available in both print and digitally through Istoria Books. It is free today, July 15, 2013 at the Kindle store! If you take advantage of this free offer, please consider penning a review!
During the Summer of 1967, sixteen-year-old Emily Hudson falls in love for the first time with Jimmy Moran just before he enlists in the Marine Corps and heads off to war. When he returns, both Emily and Jimmy have changed, and they go their separate ways. Now, thirty years later, Emily can’t stop thinking about Jimmy and wonders “what if?” Her question is answered when she finds him online. Although they are both married to other people, Emily and Jimmy meet again in Washington, DC, visiting the Vietnam War Memorial together and revisiting their lost love, ultimately having to decide if they deserve a second chance. Told in the alternating voices of Jimmy and Emily, this tender story explores misunderstanding and reconciliation in thought-provoking and poignant ways.
"A tender evocation of lost love, and what it means to find it again." (Kirkus Reviews)
"Sharp-eyed [and] impeccably detailed." (Marie Claire)
"A sweet response to one of life's constant what-if questions." (Booklist, starred review)
Stephanie Gertler is the author of four novels and one nonfiction book. She lives in New York City with her husband.