Who would've thought that a peppy little book about an overweight gal struggling through the single life in a big city would've changed the world-the publishing world, that is.
The book was Bridget Jones' Diary, which has now been made (in)famous through its adaptation into a blockbuster film whose critical acclaim always seemed focused on the hip-size-fluctuation of Rene Zelwegger. The author, Helen Fielding, has now been credited with the invention of a new and incredibly trendy strain of literature: Chick Lit.
"Chick Lit is a phenomenon," says San Diego author Jennifer Coburn, whose new novel, The Wife of Reilly, is a benefactor of the phenomenon. "They used to call it "contemporary women's fiction,' and then Bridget Jones came along and redefined everything. Chick Lit is kind of this single girl in the city looking for love. You get into her head more. It's these highly imperfect heroines. [My book] is definitely Chick Lit. The Chick Lit ending is usually that she gets her man...."
To avoid spoiling her work, I won't divulge whether or not Coburn's main character, Prudence Malone, gets her man in the end. Although the book begins with Prudence stuck between two suitors-a new and an old hat.
"Finding a new wife for my husband was not going to be an easy task," she writes to open the novel. "Keeping [my husband] a secret from my new fiancé was going to be an even greater one. This sounds just awful, I'm sure."
Sure does. Thus begins the idea Coburn calls "romantic environmentalism," which was sparked by a fantastical exchange with a friend.
"All married women go through "moments' where they just think, "What the hell am I doing here?'" explains Coburn, herself married with a 6-year-old daughter. "My friend called me up and said, "I'm watching a housing development go up in this neighborhood, and all I can think about today is that I want my husband to move into one of these houses with his new wife and I want to move into the one next door.'"
Coburn's natural question to her friend was, what new wife?
To which her friend responded: "Oh, well, I guess I'd have to do that for him, too-like I do everything else around this house."
The two laughed off the fantasy, but while driving a half-hour later, Coburn decided the very Sex in the City idea was the nugget she needed for her new novel.
"What kind of a comedy of errors would that be for her," Coburn proposes, "to keep that a secret from her husband while dating women who want to know why they're on a date with the wife who's telling them she's [her husband's] sister."
At the time, things weren't going so well for the project Coburn was working on-a series of essays about motherhood titled Tales from the Crib. Since penning her first published article for a church newsletter in San Diego called Positive Living News, Coburn has become an established writer in San Diego on women's issues-reproductive rights, civil rights, political issues.
Her first book-Take Back Your Power: A Working Women's Response to Sexual Harassment in the Workplace (1996, ISM Press Inc.)-was a non-fictional analysis of her own experience with sexual harassment on the job, compared and contrasted with hundreds of interviews with other females with similar experiences.
Since, she has written "three to four hundred" articles on women's issues for newspapers and magazines, including the Union-Tribune. Four years ago, while receiving an award for her work, one judge commented that Coburn's style reminded him of Erma Bombeck.
"And I thought, "Wow, I'd love to write a Bombeckian collection of essays about motherhood.' So I sent a couple of essays to an agent in New York. They said, "We love your edgy style and your lack of treacle sentimentality about motherhood, but we think this would be better as a novel.'"
So Coburn rewrote the stories as a cohesive novel, which her agent pitched and pitched to publishers-to no avail.
"I'm a New Yorker, and I'm Jewish-so the combination means I'm highly neurotic," Coburn says with flippant, humorous self-awareness. "So to keep my mind off when it's gonna sell and to not call my agent everyday and bug the crap out of him, I decided I would just busy myself by writing another book, which was the Wife of Reilly... which sold before Tales from the Crib."
Coburn acknowledges that one of the reasons why The Wife of Reilly was picked up by Kensington Publishing-a major New York house that accounts for 7 percent of all mass market paperback sales in the U.S-was because of the Chick Lit boom.
"Just like everyone else in New York, they just opened up a Chick Lit imprint," she says. "If you look at Random House, Downtown Press, even Harlequin Romance-everyone is branching out into Chick Lit."
For the book, Coburn tapped her natural resources-friends. When she was running dry of ideas for bad dates to conjure for Prudence, she e-mailed everyone she knew, asking them for horror stories.
"I got tons of e-mails that had me in stitches," she explains. "And then I just used them. [One friend told me], "I once went out with this person who was worried that I was a vegetarian and he pulled down my eyelids to check out if my lids were red enough and check me for anemia.'
"I can think of some freaky dates," Coburn says, "but I would never come up with that. So that made it into the book."
While waiting for the book's Jan. 1 release, Coburn attends to daily life in Del Cerro. She owns and operates Coburn Communications, which handles media relations for about 12 local businesses and non-profit organizations, including Planned Parenthood. She also teaches girls' soccer-not only running drills, but also trying to impart the life lessons of the game to her pint-sized players.
"In life, have a goal and move toward it," she says, relating her soccer-is-life paradigm. "Things will get in your way. Move around it. If that doesn't work, try something else. Look around for your friends. Look around for space and opportunities. There's more than one way to solve a problem."
Coburn is also appreciating her husband, who is growing accustomed to friends raising eyebrows once they learn that his wife has just dedicated 345 pages of prose to spouse recycling.
"He looks at it like a work of fiction," Coburn says. "He was very helpful in sharing some of his worst date stories. He realizes that I get to be really, really naughty in fiction so that I can be just sort of a boring, happily married person in real life."
The Wife of Reilly will be released on Jan. 1. Coburn will hold a launch party on Jan. 17 at Gallery 504 (3041 University Ave. in North Park) from 7-9 p.m. www.jennifer coburn.com.