I had the pleasure of meeting debut author Joanne Rendell at a conference this summer and hearing all about her new book The Professors’ Wives Club, which is coming out today. Not only is she a lovely person with a fantastic blog and a great accent (she’s originally from the U.K.) but from the reviews and the premise of both this book and her next it appears she’s also a terrific novelist with a promising career ahead of her. I already ordered a copy for myself and can’t wait until it arrives. Please help me in welcoming her to the blog and to congratulating her on her well-deserved success!

Hi Joanne. Thanks for coming. I know I’ve already put my copy of The Professors’ Wives Club on order, but for those who don’t know anything about it yet, what is it about? What inspired it?

The Professors’ Wives’ Club tells the story of four women doing battle with a ruthless dean at Manhattan U – a university in downtown New York which looks a lot like NYU, where my husband teaches. The power hungry dean is set to bulldoze a beloved faculty garden. What he hasn’t bargained for, however, is the guts and will of the four professors’ wives who are determined to halt the demolition plans. In their fight to save the garden, the women expose the dark underbelly of academia – and find the courage to stand up for their own dreams, passions, and lives.

That sounds like an interesting premise. You just don’t read that much about university life, even though so many readers have been to college or are there now so they can relate. What inspired you to delve into this subject and write The Professors’ Wives’ Club?

I actually came up with the idea for the book when out with a friend, another professor’s wife like me. We were gossiping about other professors’ wives who we both knew and it struck me then what interesting characters professors’ wives would make.

These women – and, of course, there are professors’ husbands and partners too – are in an interesting position. They are often deeply connected to the university world. They live in faculty housing, take their kids to university childcare, and work out at the university gym. However, when it comes to university decisions, they have little power.

I liked the idea of pitting these seemingly powerless women against a dean who, in his little kingdom of the university, has so much power.

In addition to being the wife of a professor, you yourself have a very strong academic background, including a Ph.D. in English,  yet you write (and, I presume, read) commercial women’s fiction. Some might see that as a difficult leap, especially with the focus so many English departments put on high-brow literature. Was it hard for you to break out of your academic shell and just write and read for the fun of it?

Not at all. I’ve always been a big reader of commercial women’s fiction. Even when I was at grad school, I always had a stack of such books by my bed. Some of my peers and professors might have frowned on my well-thumbed copies of Bridget Jones’ Diary or Weiner’s Good in Bed but I didn’t care. I ate them up!

Popular fiction by women, for women, and about women has always gotten a bad rap. Romance novels continually get stereotyped as “soft porn for desperate housewives.” Chick lit has been dismissed by the literati as throwaway “fluff” obsessed with shopping and shoes. And even women writers like Jodi Picoult, ones who tackle more serious issues, are often labeled “hysterical” and “melodramatic” by snooty reviewers (if they get reviewed at all!).

It has become one of my missions to expose just how sexist and elitist this is. Why is it that women’s fiction gets such a bashing? Women do most of the reading these days, yet still the fiction we write struggles to be taken seriously? It makes me so mad, but it also makes me a fierce defender of popular/commercial women’s fiction of all kinds – from romance to Picoult!

I can definitely relate to that, especially since I experienced the same thing in my own academic career. So since not everyone is so englightened, how do you feel about your friends, family and contemporaries from your academic life reading your work? What about reviews? Are you worried about them, or do you just plan to ignore them?

I love it. It makes me a little nervous too, of course. You can’t help wondering what everyone will think when they read it and whether they will like it. I particularly love the idea of academics reading this book – if they dare! So far, there are few books out there that explore the private lives of women on campus. Novels like Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys or Zadie Smith’s On Beauty have looked at university life, but mostly from the male perspective. When literary fiction sets a book on campus it invariably tells a story about a male professor who’s either sleeping with or contemplating sleeping with his students! I’m tired of this story and maybe other people are too?

Reviews can be the best thing in the world if they’re good and a real kick in the teeth if they’re bad (especially when they’re posted on Amazon for the world to see!). But it’s all part of the roller coaster ride of publication. I’m learning that a thick skin is essential. As writers, we have to remind ourselves that reviews are just one person’s opinion. Furthermore, we have to appreciate that those people in powerful positions who get to say what is a “good” or “bad” book (in other words, the reviewers in the press or book trade) are often white, male, elite, and are not necessarily interested in the kind of books we write! In short, we can’t take reviews too personally; there’s too much politics and personal taste at play.

Yes, I can see how once again a propensity toward literature can affect reviews of women’s fiction. Although you are a great champion of women’s fiction — including romance, the most popular subgenre of women’s fiction — The Professors’ Wives Club is not a romance novel. Nonetheless, you were at the Romance Writers of America conference last month. Why? What did you take away from it?

My publisher was the one to suggest I go. At first, I was flummoxed. Me? There are no bodices or billowing pirate blouses on my cover after all, and when I looked at the RWA’s criterion for membership my novels didn’t fit the bill: “Books catalogued as romance” and “A main plot centering around two individuals falling in love.” My novel has romantic elements, for sure, but it’s more about women learning, growing, and finding happiness from themselves and from their friendships with other women.

But then I perused the RWA’s website further and was reminded of the staggering success of the romance industry. More than a quarter of all books sold are romance and in 2006 romance fiction generated $1.37 billion in sales (outselling every other market category). In the current climate where book buying is on the decline and where authors are increasingly expected to do the lion’s share of their book’s promotion, a new writer would be foolhardy not to want to learn something from the perennial success of the romance world.

Thus, I signed up and at the end of July jetted off to San Francisco for the conference. It was a blast! The Romance Writers of America are such a supportive and generous group of (mostly) women. They are so smart and professional too. Plus, they’re eminently welcoming. They don’t care if your book doesn’t fit the genre exactly. In fact, it was rare to meet anyone who wrote a standard romance, if bodice ripping and ravishing princes are what you were looking for! I met young adult fiction writers, chick lit writers, and other commercial women’s fiction writers like me. One woman I talked to wrote books about aliens, another about elves; others about panthers and vampires.

Mostly, I had a great time meeting wonderful and encouraging women. I also learnt so much about the publishing industry which I would never have known if I hadn’t attended. I’m going to the RWA convention every year from now on!

Yes, it was a wonderful conference, wasn’t it? Although my first attempts at writing were in the romance genre, I’m not longer solidly there, and yet I have learned more about writing from the romance community than from any other. Those women really know how to band together and help each other, and they’ve analyzed what does and doesn’t work in storytelling. What better place for a writer to learn? So other than joining RWA or similar organizations, what other advice do you have for unpubbed writers out there who are hoping to become published someday?

Join a writing group, either on or offline. Other writers are often fonts of wisdom not just about the craft of writing, but also about the publishing business.

Keep reading. Whichever genre you intend to write in – whether it’s mystery or literary fiction – make sure you know it inside out.

Keep writing. I really treat writing as a job. I sit down at my desk and tell myself I must write 500 words a day. I then get going. Often I trash a lot of what I write the next day, but at least I have words on a page to work with.

Keep learning about writing. Even now, with two books published, I continually go back to my books about writing (such as John Gardner’s Art of Fiction). I have to keep learning about, and reminding myself, what makes good dialogue, or how to transition well into a flashback scene, or how to go easy with the adverbs, or how to show, not tell. Writing is a craft and thus something you must keep working at.

You mentioned above that you are about to have two books out, and I noticed on your website that your second one will be released in the summer of 2009. I’m curious now! What’s it about?

The novel tells the story of two women, professors this time, who work in an English Department. One of the women, Diana, is older, very serious, and extremely established in the academic world. She’s only interested in very serious literature and has written a number of books on Sylvia Plath.

The other professor, Rachel, is new to the department. She’s young, enthusiastic, and her scholarship looks at popular women’s fiction. Her scholarship ruffles a lot of feathers in the academy because people see the books Rachel looks at as trashy and unimportant. Diana is particularly adamant on this point and really doesn’t like it when the young professor comes to the department.

The book basically looks at the tensions between these two very different women and also shows all the repercussions in their department and in their lives when they are forced to work side by side. A handsome visiting professor from Harvard and some high-profile, misbehaving students only serve to make sparks fly even more between the two women.

It sounds fantastic, and I love that it addresses the idea of literary fiction vs. women’s fiction. It reminds me of some of the essays novelist Jennifer Crusie has written in defense of genre fiction.

Thanks for visiting, Joanne! Now I’m off to see if my copy of The Professors’ Wives Club has arrived yet. And if others are interested, they can pick up copies everywhere, including Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, Target, and their local independent bookstores, starting today. Happy reading!