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Chic Lit

Novelist Jody Gehrman, the pin-up girl for smart chick-lit?

By Hannah Strom-Martin

Critics--some who write for this very paper--are often quick to dismiss genre literature, be it fantasy, science fiction or the dreaded romance novel. In recent years, with the emergence of the chick-lit novel, the claws have come out big time. If literary minds scoff at books with dragons on the cover, you can imagine what must be said about the row upon row of short, pink books in the chick-lit section of every bookstore, whose covers are apparently required to picture either shoes, telephones or martini glasses. Artists as a demographic are doomed to live on the fringe of respectability. One can only wonder what sort of private hell Lauren Weisberger, author of The Devil Wears Prada, must have gone through.

Enter former Healdsburg resident Jody Gehrman. Among her accomplishments are the founding of an all-female theater ensemble at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash., a new tenure as professor of literature and writing at Mendocino College and--oh, yeah--a six-figure, three-book deal with Red Dress Ink to write chick-lit. Her first novel, Summer in the Land of Skin, concerned a young woman forced to deal with her father's suicide. Her second novel, the newly published Tart, is a slightly less angsty tale, chronicling the exploits of the soon-to-be-30 Claudia Bloom, a former party girl who has just taken a job as a professor of theater.

The story is not unlike the life of its author, who, while confessing to her share of parties, also possesses an academic background in everything from the study of Japanese literature to the production of a one-woman show in which she played three different sisters. She is just as much at home making small talk over a double latte in a Healdsburg cafe as she is in a serious discussion of classics like another renowned chick-lit author: Jane Austen. She's also damn funny, as evidenced in Tart, which includes not only a juicy bad-boy romance, but some hysterical stuff involving an ex-boyfriend and a stolen SUV that's in desperate need of an oil change.

So how does the newly minted Professor Gehrman feel about her work being classified as "chick lit"?

"No one wants to be 'Ooh! I'm chick lit!'" Gehrman laughs, affecting a bubble-headed persona. "I meet a lot of 'chick-lit' writers, and none of them have ever fully embraced it." She was surprised when her first novel was suddenly stamped with the label. "It has more to do with marketing," she says. "You write what you love, and the spin doctors do what they want with it. In some ways, I think it's really sad that the media has been so dismissive of [chick lit]. I think [this genre is] about a whole generation of women coming of age and writing about it and connecting with women who are going through the same thing. What I do," she confesses, "is write coming-of-age stories for late bloomers."

These late bloomers aren't necessarily made up of only twenty- and thirty-something women, either. Gehrman was flattered to find that many of her older friends and relatives had connected with Summer in the Land of Skin, a number of men among them. A tale of such audience diversity is an encouraging anecdote for the embattled genre, which is often passed over as a succession of recycled Bridget Jones tripe.

Gehrman doesn't deny her own love of Helen Fielding's bumbling heroine; she cites Brits Fielding and Nick Hornby as two major influences on her own work. Yet where many Yank authors have tried and failed to clear the bar set by such authors, Gehrman may have triumphed.

Gehrman herself has perhaps a more meaningful take on why chick-lit continues to appeal to readers--particularly readers of her own age and gender. Contrary to the image painted by the media, the appeal of chick-lit is not necessarily the hanky-panky (though it might have something to do with that oil change).

"It's very natural for women readers to be primarily interested in the relationship and the dynamics between characters," Gehrman says, "and not just the romantic relationship. I think many chick-lit authors really put the friendships between women at the forefront and the romantic plot becomes something that [merely] pulls the story along. The guy only makes a cameo appearance. The real heart of the story is the relationship between women. I think women are kind of built that way."

It seems condescending to try and turn Gehrman--a woman who asks for no validation--into the pin-up girl for "intelligent" chick-lit. Yet her observations of the genre do seem to offer it some hope in the face of skepticism. Indeed, with the sort of forethought one would expect from a professor of literature, Gehrman has already taken a stab at predicting the future of the genre.

"I think already it's becoming passé," she says. "The market has kind of lost its sheen [and] I think it's natural that it's going to morph into something else." She cites the current batch of paranormal and noir-flavored efforts like Kyra Davis' Sex, Murder and a Double Latte as the sort of chick-centric stories that are about to take over from their Bridget-esque kin. There is also, she says with a grin, another alternative.

"I heard someone on the radio mistakenly refer to it as chic-lit the other day," she says.

"I thought, 'Hmmm . . .'"

Gehrman's obvious joy for the genre makes one eager to adopt such hopes. Then again, other forces might be stacked against her. Gehrman recently returned from New York where Tart enjoyed a combination "book and cosmetics giveaway" courtesy of an agreement between Tarte Cosmetics (not a coincidence) and Red Dress Ink (sample product: Tickled Peach Cheek Shimmer).

Gehrman takes it all in stride. As she relates this curious turn of events, she slips into chick-lit author mode for the first time, unconcerned with respectability and simply living for the moment. Cupping her cappuccino in her hands, she giggles with all the girlish charm one could hope for--proving that, like the best the genre has to offer, there's a little tart in every girl.

Jody Gehrman reads from and discusses 'Tart' at a Toyon Books event held at the Hotel Healdsburg on Sunday, Sept. 11. 25 Matheson St., Healdsburg. 4pm. Free. 707.433.9270.

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From the September 7-13, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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