An English Ph.D. Turns Novelist

August 12, 2008

Most English Ph.D.'s are drawn to graduate study by a love of literature. Some of us harbor a secret desire to write novels instead of just reading them, but the gap between analyzing a novel and actually creating one from scratch is wide.

Joanne Rendell has bridged that gap. Born and raised in Britain, she earned a Ph.D. in English literature from the University of Sheffield. Initially it was love and family that unexpectedly diverted Rendell from academic life, but after several years in New York with her husband, a professor at New York University, and her young son, she realized that writing novels was her passion.

Her first novel, The Professors' Wives' Club, will be published by Penguin this September, and her second book is due out a year later. Her story is an intriguing example of how high and low culture can be bridged in practice, as well as in theory. Following is a discussion of her career shift.

Why did you decide to go to graduate school?

In my final semester as an undergraduate, I read Thom Gunn's The Man With Night Sweats, a collection of poems which deals with HIV/AIDS. The poems fascinated me, and I wrote a long and lovingly researched paper on the collection. But then my classes ended, and I left university feeling like I was graduating just at the moment when I'd gotten into my groove and found a topic that intrigued me.

Grad school seemed the logical next step, especially when I met a professor who wrote and taught classes on cultural responses to HIV/AIDS and who encouraged me to apply.

How did you end up in New York?

I initially came to New York just for the Modern Language Association convention. I'd finished my Ph.D. and had recently started in a postdoctoral position. I wasn't looking for a job at the time, but I had come to network, check out the job circuit, and try to talk to some editors about turning my dissertation into a book.

I also came to see Brad, the NYU professor I had been dating trans-Atlantically.

I really should have known then that academe wasn't for me because the MLA scared me silly. It was so vast and crowded. The vibe seemed fraught, and after one uncomfortable exchange with a colleague on a panel, I spent the rest of the conference hiding out at Brad's apartment.

I came away from the MLA with no new contacts, no links to academic editors, and no idea of how the job circuit worked. But I did come away unquestionably pregnant! And that is what finally brought me to New York to live.

How did parenthood change your original plans for an academic career?

I assumed I would start applying for academic jobs after the baby was born. But the longer I was out of academe, the more content I felt. No meetings, no teaching prep, no never-ending reading lists, no hours fretting over a lost citation. I watched as my husband went through all this, and it didn't make me yearn for the academic life. Also, I just couldn't imagine being able to juggle my newborn with all of the demands of a tenure-track job.

When my son was just a few months old, I saw an ad for a creative-writing class and it suddenly occurred to me that here was something I missed: writing and the writing life I had back in grad school.

But creative writing? I wasn't sure if that was really me. After all, I had years of literature-student baggage weighing me down. How would I ever write fiction without thinking about the grad students who might one day pull my writing apart? How would I choose what to write? Would I be postmodern, feminist, queer, or deconstructive? In the end, though, I got over my fears and signed up for my very first creative-writing class. There was no looking back after that.

You now write novels, set in academe, that you describe as "chick lit." Isn't that an oxymoron?

I call my book "chick lit" as a political, feminist, and ultimately playful gesture. I'm reappropriating the term (I studied queer and crip theory in grad school and thus learned much about the possibilities of reappropriating pejorative terms).

In many circles, chick lit is synonymous with trashy, badly written, neon-pink books about women searching for Mr. Right and shopping for Jimmy Choos. There are a few books out there that hold to that stereotype, but not many. A lot of the books that have been given the chick-lit moniker are much more interesting, nuanced, and self-consciously ironic than detractors allow. I find it sad, yet predictable, that a group of books that are by women, for women, and about women have become demeaned in such a way.

I don't feel I'm wasting my academic background writing chick lit — or "commercial women's fiction," as the publishing industry now calls books like mine. Those books aren't fluff. They are novels that deal with real women's lives, real issues, and they also have a big audience.

Furthermore, I'm incorporating all kinds of academic ideas and literary themes in my writing. The Professors' Wives' Club includes a subplot about Edgar Allan Poe and "The Raven." My second novel, which comes out next year, explores the high/low-culture debate through a standoff between two female protagonists: one a Sylvia Plath scholar, the other a scholar of popular fiction. Through commercial women's fiction, I hope to get such ideas out of the ivory tower and into book groups and living rooms.

How did your academic training help you in writing novels? How did it hinder you?

It taught me how to read books with a keen, loving, and studious eye. It schooled me in the power of words and the tools of research. It gave me a great training for executing projects and working for hours on my own with only my laptop for company. It gave me a training in literary theory, which taught me to see the patriarchal and elitist logics at work behind notions of "good" and "bad" literature.

Last but not least, academe has given me a complex, intriguing, and gossip-ridden world from which I can draw for my fiction.

How did you get your novels published?

I am lucky to live in New York, where it is not uncommon to meet literary agents and editors, or to have friends in the publishing world. A little while after starting out on my fiction-writing path, I met my (now) agent through a friend. My half-baked idea for a book called The Professors' Wives' Club came up in conversation and my agent looked me dead in the eye and said, "Write it, it will sell." I did write it, my agent sent it out to editors, two publishers were interested, and after an auction, the book sold.

What advice would you give graduate students who long to write novels but aren't sure how to begin?

First, join a writer's group, either on or offline. Other writers are fonts of infinite wisdom, not just about the craft but also about the publishing industry.

Second, take a writing class. Academics are writers, but it doesn't mean they necessarily know how to write novels. I wrote a dissertation and published a number of articles at grad school, yet when I attended my first writing class I quickly realized I was as much a novice as the bus driver, accountant, and other writer-wannabes who were sitting in the classroom with me.

Third, read, read, read. Whichever genre you intend to write in, whether it's literary fiction or mystery or chick lit, make sure you read that genre inside and out.

Susan Basalla May is an author, with Maggie Debelius, of "So What Are You Going to Do With That?: Finding Careers Outside Academia," recently released in a revised and updated edition by the University of Chicago Press.