Kristin Harmel is the author of four novels, two of which will be released this month, including her first Young Adult Novel. I was fortunate recently to “chat” with author Kristin . She is incredibly kind, forthright, inspirational and has a marvelous sense of humor.
Tell the readers a little about your background
I’m the author of two previous novels – How to Sleep with a Movie Star and The Blonde Theory – both from Warner Books (the previous name for Grand Central Publishing). I’ve also been writing regularly for People magazine for nearly eight years and have been an established freelance writer for more than a decade. My credits include American Baby, Men’s Health, Woman’s Day, Glamour, Runner’s World and YM. I also appear monthly as “The Lit Chick” (reviewing novels) on the nationally syndicated morning TV show The Daily Buzz, which airs in more than 130 cities every weekday. I’m an instructor for mediabistro.com, and I spend a lot of time lecturing to college and high school students too.
I was born just outside Boston, lived just outside Columbus, Ohio for eight years and then moved to Florida with my family when I was 10. I grew up in St. Petersburg, Fla., went to college at the University of Florida and currently live in Orlando. I have a little sister, Karen, 25, who works in Washington, DC, and a brother, Dave, 22, who is a senior in college at the University of Florida. I’m very close to my mom and spend a lot of time with her. She lives about 25 minutes from me. My dad and his wife live in Clearwater, Fla., about an hour and a half away.
In what ways did your childhood influence you as a writer? As a person?
I had a great childhood. My mom was a big advocate of reading, and I was an obsessive reader as a kid. I loved the Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys when I was young, and in fact, the first “book” I attempted to write was a little hand-written, stapled Bobbsey Twins “novel” about the twins visiting my family in Ohio! I have a great brother and sister, and when we were kids, the three of us – plus my next door neighbor Jay – used to play all sorts of imaginative games and make up plays and things like that. I think the fact that my mom encouraged that kind of playing really helped my imagination to develop, which helped me as a writer down the road. I’ve been writing professionally since I was 16 – starting with local magazines and the local newspaper in St. Petersburg, Fla. – so I think that helped me to develop as a writer too.
Most writers are avid readers. What authors do you read as a child? And today? Do you have a favorite author or book? What is the last book you read?
Ooh, as a child I loved the Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, and basically all of those types of novel series, including the Three Investigators, the Babysitters Club, Sweet Valley High, etc. I also remember loving Summer of My German Soldier and The Face on the Milk Carton. I was quite passionate about The Diary of Anne Frank, which I read numerous times and felt extremely touched by. And in school, I loved The Great Gatsby and went on to read all of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s other work on my own. I was a voracious reader and used to read under the covers by flashlight long after my bed time. Sorry Mom!
Now, I have so many authors I love that it’s hard to choose a favorite. A few of the ones I like the best: Cecelia Ahern, Sarah Mlynowski, Alison Pace, Jane Porter, Lynda Curnyn, Melissa Senate, Laura Caldwell, Lisa Palmer, Megan Crane, Sarah Dessen, James Patterson, Nicolas Sparks, Brenda Janowitz, Khaled Hosseini, Patricia Cornwell, Helen Fielding, Wendy Holden, Jane Porter and Emily Giffin.
The last book I read was The Good Liar by Laura Caldwell, one of my favorite authors and a wonderful friend of mine. It was AMAZING. Seriously, I couldn’t put it down. I’m currently reading Sarah Dessen’s YA novel That Summer and Liza Palmer’s latest, Seeing Me Naked, and I am enjoying both immensely.
Tell us about the process of your first novel? And now that you have several novels published, are you feeling “established”?
“I still can’t believe I’m lucky enough to do this for my career! It comes a little easier now, though, to tell people, “I’m an author,” when they ask what I do.”
Well, I wrote my first novel, How to Sleep With a Movie Star, over a period of several months, and the thing that really kept me going was that my friends Maite and Gail – both of whom had characters named after them in the novel – would read each chapter as I finished it, so I felt like I was working on deadline for my little “audience” of two. They were the best cheerleads I could have asked for! Since then, I haven’t used that “audience” method; my work tends to be a little more solitary.
As for whether I feel established now, the answer is that to some extent, yes. By February, I’ll have four novels out and two more coming in 2009. So the “newness” has worn off, but the excitement hasn’t. I still can’t believe I’m lucky enough to do this for my career! It comes a little easier now, though, to tell people, “I’m an author,” when they ask what I do. Four books into my career, I feel like I’m legitimate, whereas at the beginning, it took a little getting used to!
I see that you have a young adult novel coming out soon. Tell me about that? How does your approach differ?
Yes, my first YA novel, When You Wish, comes out Feb. 12. I’m very excited about it. It’s the story of a teenage pop star who runs away from her life of fame to discover what it feels like to just be a normal girl. I was a voracious reader as a preteen and teen, and it feels like such a gift to come back and connect with an audience like that. It took a little work getting the teenage voice right, but now that I’ve done it, I LOVE writing that way. I’m hard at work on my second YA novel now.
Many of our readers are creative types…and most of the writers I talk to write with a schedule in mind. Walk me through a typical day in your world…..
I typically get up between 7 and 8 a.m., wash my face, brush my teeth and stumble downstairs to my coffee maker. I spend about a half hour answering emails and drinking my coffee while I watch CNN Headline News (I love anchor Robin Meade in the morning!), then I switch off the TV and write from 8ish until noon. Some days, I finish earlier, and some days, if I’m on a roll, I’ll write well into the afternoon. But generally, I’ll stop writing at noon, exercise, shower, dress and put makeup on and then, starting at 1 p.m., or so, I’ll answer more emails and do magazine work, which usually involves scouting stories for People, doing interviews, etc. I usually finish my day at 6 or 7 p.m.
Writing can be such a solitary career. How do friends fit in?
I couldn’t live without my friends! I agree that writing can be very solitary, and since I live alone, I think this is especially the case with me! But I have a ton of wonderful friends here in Orlando whom I see three or four nights a week. My friends Willow and Melixa own a shoe store called Shou’ture , so often, I’ll meet them at 7ish as they’re closing up, and a group of us will have a glass of wine in the courtyard behind their store. Then we’ll all go for a drink on Park Avenue, which is a lovely, tree-lined avenue filled with shops, restaurants and bars in Winter Park, a suburb of Orlando. I also have a great group of friends in Los Angeles, so when I’m spending time out there, I see a lot of my friend Gillian, who runs the California Speedway , and my friend Amy Tangerine, an amazing designer who I do all my book launch parties with. In New York, I have an amazing group of writer friends, and in Paris, my friend Lauren and I eat and drink our way around the city. I’m a very, very lucky person to have so many wonderful friends.
And what about a personal life? How do you balance that? Dating…pets….etc.
Well, my friends – and travel to visit friends in various cities – tend to take up most of my free time! I don’t have any pets now, because I travel so much, but my mom, who lives about 25 minutes from me, has the sweetest Pembroke Welsh Corgi in the entire world, and I love him dearly. His name is Duke. Up until recently, my mom also had the two cats I grew up with, Tiger and Kitty. Kitty died just a couple months ago at the age of 19, so he lived a nice, long life. It makes me sad to think about him, though; I really loved him and miss him very much. My littler sister also has a cat named Bailey who has become a member of the family, so I’m an “aunt” to a great little kitty who calls Washington, DC home!
As for dating, there’s no one serious right now. I’d love to settle down and get married and have children someday, but for now, I’m very much enjoying being single. I go out on a lot of dates, but there’s no one exclusive at the moment!
It’s a typical Saturday….where do we find Kristin Harmel?
Ooh, you got me. I’m a workaholic. More often than not, I try to write for at least four hours every Saturday. Then, if I’m not traveling, you’ll find me during the day either a) cleaning my condo, b) at the weekly farmer’s market in Winter Park, c) at Disney World (I have an annual pass) or d) watching a sporting event. At night, I can usually be found either in downtown Orlando at a bar called Cleo’s with my friends or in Winter Park at a really nice restaurant/bar called Luma that has an awesome wine list.
Tell me about the discipline needed to be a successful writer.
I think it takes a certain amount of self-discipline to sit down at the computer every day and write – even when you’d rather be out with friends or doing something else. I’m not always the best at self-discipline, but I’ve become fairly good at setting a schedule for myself and sticking to it most days. I have friends who routinely write 3,000 or 5,000 words a day, and that’s something I have trouble with, because for me, some days are simply not as productive as others. But if I can discipline myself to put in the requisite time every day, I’m able to stay on track, for the most part.
Tell me about the promotional side of being a writer in this digital age….. Blogs, websites, Facebook, MySpace, etc….
Well, I have a myspace and a facebook account, and I do contribute occasionally to the super-fun 5 Spot authors’ blog , but I’m pretty bad at keeping up a regular online diary. (Princess Diaries author Meg Cabot is a fantastic blogger who writes nearly every day; I aspire to be more like that!). I tend to put more effort into trying to keep my web site, www.KristinHarmel.com, updated. But for me, the best thing about being an author in the digital age is the ability to interact directly with readers. I get a lot of emails, both at my email address (Kristin@kristinharmel.com) and through my myspace page, from people who have recently finished reading one or more of my novels. It’s so nice to hear that one of my books has affected someone in some way. I’ve even gotten emails from people as far away as Russia, Italy and New Zealand, which is pretty cool! Some of the emails from readers are incredibly inspiring, and it’s so touching to know that I’ve had any sort of an impact in someone else’s life. To be honest, it’s what makes this all worthwhile. And I always try to write back!
Where do you get your inspiration for your stories?
My stories are entirely fictional, but I suppose they all have a basis in real life. The idea for How to Sleep With a Movie Star, for example, came from my experience working as a celebrity reporter (although I should certainly note here that I’ve never gotten involved with a celeb I’ve interviewed!). The idea for The Blonde Theory came from the frustration myself and many of my friends have shared about men sometimes not wanting to talk to a smart woman and instead preferring women who are air-headed. The idea for The Art of French Kissing came from my time living in Paris. And my teen novel, When You Wish, came from the fact that when I was a preteen, I dreamt of one day being a pop star; I wondered what it would like to be a teen pop star dreaming instead of being a normal girl!
Do first drafts go to your agent, a friend, or who? What is your editing process?
I finish my first draft, put it aside for a few weeks, go back and edit it myself and then send it simultaneously to my editor and my agent. I sometimes seek feedback from one of my trusted writer friends, including Sarah Mlynowski and Alison Pace.
What advice would you give to want-to-be writers?
If you stick with it, you CAN write a novel. Really. It’s all about learning the craft, reading and re-reading great books and then sitting down and dedicating big chunks of time every day to the actual writing.
“…you need a roadmap so that you know where you’re going and approximately how you’ll get there, or there’s a good chance writer’s block will trip you up.”
Beyond that….Outline. I teach a novel-writing class for mediabistro.com, and we spend two of the eight weeks on crafting a lengthy outline. I believe this is vital for a first-time novelist; you need a roadmap so that you know where you’re going and approximately how you’ll get there, or there’s a good chance writer’s block will trip you up. It’s perfectly fine to stray from the outline once you’re writing – I do this all the time – but it’s enormously helpful to know the final destination and some of the major landmarks along the way. I won’t write a novel without outlining; it’s like driving off the highway in an unfamiliar location without a map – and without knowing where you want to go.
Most writers draw upon their own life, especially in early works…. How much have you drawn upon yourself and your life for each of your Novels?
I would say that the narrator of How to Sleep With a Movie Star was fairly similar to who I was when I wrote the book at the age of 24. The narrator of The Blonde Theory was less like me, but the narrator of The Art of French Kissing is probably more like me again.
I think writers do tend to draw on a certain amount of their own personalities; it’s easier to get into the head of a character you truly know. However, I would say that most writers, including myself, don’t deliberately pattern their characters after themselves. And in a way, when you write fiction, it’s very comforting to create someone different from yourself and to sort of live vicariously through those characters. For example, in my first novel, I think my narrator was more insecure than I was, but she learned to stand up for herself in a way that I hadn’t quite done myself yet. So I created someone similar to me but with different weaknesses and put her in the middle of an internal struggle that I was currently working through myself. It was almost therapeutic to learn along with her as I wrote the character and decided what she should do in various situations.
At the beginning of the novel, Emma learns that her fiancé Brett, with whom she lives and is planning to marry shortly, no longer wants to be with her. I have been cheated on in the past, as have some of my closest friends, and I know it’s one of the most unsettling things to go through. You put your faith in another person and let yourself fall in love with someone who you think loves you in return – and then all of a sudden, the rug is pulled out from under you, and you’re left feeling humiliated, shaken and betrayed. Emma goes through this and is still in the midst of this shock when she finds out that Brett has moved on within a week and is now dating one of her best friends. Thankfully, that has never happened to me (my friends are much better people than that!), but I wanted to take Emma’s disillusionment to an entirely new level by creating a situation in which she is betrayed not just by her fiancé but by her friends too. So all of a sudden, she feels incredibly lost and alone, and on top of that, she is laid off from her job. It’s sort of all the worst things you can imagine happening (short of someone dying, of course), all snowballing at the same time. It is this confluence of circumstances that makes her a prime candidate to relocate to Paris when her old friend Poppy invites her over to work on a temporary PR assignment. After all, where else does Emma have to go?
Once in Paris, she thinks she’ll rely on Poppy to help her get back on her feet, but ultimately, she realizes she has to find herself and discover her own way. And that was where I really tried to get into Emma’s skin, as you put it. I know what it feels like to feel alone and betrayed, but what if you pick yourself up by the bootstraps, as Emma does, and create a new reality for yourself? It was enjoyable placing her in what, to me, is the most inspiring city in the world and letting her rediscover who she really is. During her time with Brett, she had become who she thought he wanted her to be, but for the first time in years, with Poppy’s help, she must get in touch with the ‘real’ Emma. I hope that’s something that will resonate with readers.
And Guillaume? How did you come up with all the crazy antics he came up with?
I had a ton of fun writing Guillaume, who, on the surface, seems to be a completely crazy pop star. But one of my favorite things about Guillaume is that there’s more to him that you realize at first. There are deeper reasons for his behavior, and when Emma begins to figure that out, it opens some doors of self-discovery for her too. And by the way, in case you were wondering, the pronunciation of his name sounds sort of like Gee-OHM, with a hard G, like in “geese,” and a “ohm” rhyming with “home.” It’s a pretty common name in France.
Tell me about the Hottie Reporter….
Ah, into every life a little hottie reporter must fall. Ha!
The reporter, Gabe, at first infuriates Emma with his constant suspicions that she’s lying to the press to cover up for Guillaume – which of course she is. Her infuriation, however, gradually melts into a grudging respect, and then she begins to see him as more than just an adversary. I really liked his character. Here’s an interesting fact: I had initially named him Nicolas, with the nickname Nick, and I changed his name for two reasons: 1) My good friend Lauren, who lives in Paris, told me that the word “nic” is actually a curse word in French! Sheesh, I couldn’t have his friends calling him that! And 2) It didn’t even occur to me until I was on the second draft of this novel that the cute guy in my teen novel, When You Wish, is also named Nick! I’ve never done that before – accidentally given two main characters the same name — and it’s especially odd, since I didn’t have any friends named Nick at the time I was writing this! (Oddly enough, I now have a Nick in my life, which is weird because I didn’t have any friends named Wendy when I was writing my first novel, and after naming the main character’s best friend ‘Wendy,’ I soon met two women named Wendy who are now two of my good friends! Perhaps in my next novel, I need to write about a character winning the lottery or something!)
And finding what she wants in life while she is in Paris? How did that change in location help spur her on?
I think that Paris is the most inspiring city in the world. The summer I spent in Paris in 2002 was the most transformational time of my life. I think that uprooting yourself and starting over in an entirely different and unfamiliar location is the key to getting back in touch with who you really are. I loved that I was able to do that with Emma in this novel.
And Emma’s sister….what did you base that on?
Certainly not my own sister – my sister Karen is the most supportive, wonderful person in the world. Emma’s sister, who is very self-centered, is based more on the idea that without the support of your family, it’s easier to sort of be adrift in your own life. I’m fortunate to have a very supportive family who would never have let me be with a guy like Brett (Emma’s fiancé at the beginning of the book) in the first place!
Travel…..tell us about you personally and travel? Favorite places?
Paris, Paris and Paris. Seriously, I absolutely adore Paris. I lived there briefly and truly miss it every day. When I travel, I love to eat the local foods and drink the local wines and experience the culture through my taste buds – and through the people I talk to along the way. There’s no better place to do that than Paris! I also love Italy and Ireland. And in the U.S., I spend a lot of time in California with my good friend Gillian (who lives in Los Angeles) and in Boston, New York and DC with family and friends. I absolutely love traveling.
What other projects are you working on? Will you carry over any of your characters from current works – or will your next book introduce us to someone new?
Nope, my next novel will introduce you to a whole new set of characters. My next 5 Spot novel will take you to Rome! And my next YA novel will be about three teens who have recently faced an unexpected tragedy. But look out for some cameo appearances from previous characters!
Five Favorites (since Art of French Kissing is from 5Spot):
- Favorite Color: Blue (purple is a close second)
- Favorite Beverage: Coke Zero
- Favorite Creation to Cook: My mom’s yummy fudge recipe. I make a few batches for friends every December.
- Favorite Room in your House: My dining room; it’s where I write. My bedroom is a close second; it’s big and has a lovely little balcony outside where I love reading and sipping coffee in the mornings.
- Favorite Guilty Pleasure: Watching reruns of Sex and the City that I’ve seen a billion times. Oh, and shopping. Like I need any more clothes!
Anything else you’d like to add?
Thanks for your interest!! Check out KristinHarmel.com and come to one of my launch parties if you can! I’m working with designer Amy Tangerine and Piper-Heidsieck champagne this year to bring you a series of fun “Art of French Kissing” events around the country! And please check out The Art of French Kissing and When You Wish at bookstores near you or at amazon.com or bn.com! I’d love to hear your thoughts on both novels!
Check out our Review of “The Art of French Kissing”.
(Header Photo Credit: Munoz Studio / Other Photos Thanks to Kristen Harmel and Hachette Books)