I first met the lovely Kristin Harmel — author of the internationally bestselling THE SWEETNESS OF FORGETTING — about a million years ago when we were both working for People magazine. I was in awe of the fact that she managed to balance magazine work with her passion for fiction — publishing several novels over the years. We reconnected when I took a Mediabistro class with her — she’s an awesome teacher! — in which she made me do a full 42-page outline of my current WIP. Oh, who am I kidding? I loved it! (Glutton that I am.) Kristin’s nothing if not meticulous and that’s why you know this Q&A will rock — as will her newest book, THE LIFE INTENDED, a heart-wrenching tale that asks the question: what does it take to move forward in life without forgetting the past?
A bit about the novel: Sliding Doors meets P.S. I Love You in the richly-told INTENDED. After her husband’s sudden death over ten years ago, Kate Waithman never expected to be lucky enough to find another love of her life. But now she’s planning her second walk down the aisle to a perfectly nice man. So why isn’t she more excited? At first, Kate blames her lack of sleep on stress. But when she starts seeing Patrick, her late husband, in her dreams, she begins to wonder if she’s really ready to move on. Is Patrick trying to tell her something? Attempting to navigate between dreams and reality, Kate must uncover her husband’s hidden message. Her quest leads her to a sign language class and into the New York City foster system, where she finds rewards greater than she could have imagined.
We caught up with Kristin — writing from Orlando, Florida — to chat about first readers, odd jobs and idol worship.
Which talent do you wish you had?
Oh, that’s an easy one! I wish I had musical talent – any sort of musical talent! I played the drums in middle school and high school, and I was pretty adept at marching a snare drum, but sadly, that is not a life skill that translates into coolness in adulthood (with the notable exception of anyone who plays in a professional drumline, because that’s basically the coolest thing I’ve ever seen). But I’ve always wanted to be able to sing; I even went through a brief phase when I was in elementary school where I was convinced I was going to be a famous pop star one day. My stage name was going to be Mystica, and my hit song was going to be one I wrote called “Why Did You Leave Me.” Seriously, I still remember the lyrics (“Why did you leave me… when things were going so well? Why did you leave me… Pleeeeeeease tell.”). I know you’re probably all greatly surprised that this never worked out for me. Suffice it to say that this was before Auto-Tune was a thing. However, because THE LIFE INTENDED is largely about music, I had the idea of co-writing a song about the book, and hiring a band (including the very talented singer Addie) to record it, so at long last, two and a half decades after that initial Mystica dream, I finally have some musical street cred. Not much… but some! Check out the song here. You can even buy it on iTunes! Somewhere deep inside of me, Mystica is jumping for joy.
What are the hardest and easiest things about your job?
I think the hardest thing (other than forcing myself to stick to a writing schedule when I have five billion other things going on) is occasionally hearing criticism from people who didn’t really “get” the book. It’s funny; I don’t mind bad reader reviews when the person has read the book and simply doesn’t like it. I mean, of course it hurts to be criticized, but to be honest, it has helped me to understand that you can’t always please everyone, which has in turn made me grow a little as a person, I think. But it’s those reviews in which you can tell that the reader didn’t actually finish the book and jumped to conclusions about an ending they never read – or made assumptions about the book (or about me as a person) that simply weren’t true – that actually kind of hurt. I’d say that the hardest part of it is that you simply can’t respond as an author. You can’t go on Amazon or Goodreads and defend yourself or try to clarify your intentions, because then you sound like a jerk. Again, it’s not the bad reviews I mind – those hurt a little, of course, but everyone is entitled to an opinion. It’s the ones that assume facts not in evidence, so to speak, and unfortunately, when they write things that just aren’t true, others sometimes read those reviews and assume they’re accurate. So that’s tough, but fortunately, it really hasn’t happened to me very often, thank goodness.
The easiest thing about my job is kind of the complete opposite: responding to readers who take the time to write and tell me they liked my novels. It’s such a gift every time I get an email from a reader who has been touched, moved or simply entertained by something I’ve written. I always try to reply, because I truly am grateful that the reader took the time to sit down, find my email address and write to me. It’s especially gratifying to respond to emails from kids and teens (I also write young adult novels, so I get a number of emails from young readers). So for any of you who have ever written to an author… Thank you. We really do appreciate it.
Have you ever met someone you idolized? What was it like?
First of all, I should note that I’ve worked for People magazine since 2000, so I’ve had the opportunity to meet lots and lots of celebrities over the years. I managed to keep my cool – and not drool – through encounters with guys such as Matthew McConaughey, Ben Affleck, Andre Benjamin, and the nicest guy in the world (really!), Patrick Dempsey. I even got to interview Walter Cronkite once, which was pretty remarkable for me, since as a journalist, I had always been awed by his work. I only really ever geeked out one time, I think:
I was obsessed – obsessed – with Sex and the City during the entire run of the show. Afterwards, I watched it all the time on DVD, and when I was writing my first novel way back in 2003 (HOW TO SLEEP WITH A MOVIESTAR, which is a chick lit book about a woman who gets involved in a situation in which the whole world believes she’s having an affair with a movie star, whereas in reality, her love life is a total disaster), I literally watched an episode every day during my lunch break. The novel finally came out in February 2006, and the week before its release, I had the opportunity to interview Sarah Jessica Parker, who of course played Carrie Bradshaw, the main character of the show. I was really uncharacteristically nervous; remember that by this point, I had been interviewing celebrities for six years for People. But I mean, this was Carrie Bradshaw! The greatest compliment I was ever paid in print was when a magazine called me the real-life Carrie Bradshaw, in fact. So I fumbled my way through the interview, trying not to act like a total fan, and at the end, I said, “Look, I just have to tell you that that my very first novel comes out next week and that while I was writing it, I watched Sex and the City every day during my lunch break. You and the show have been a huge inspiration for me. So thank you.” There were a few seconds of silence (during which I thought, Oh my gosh, now she thinks I’m a giant loser weirdo!), and then her face lit up, and she said, “You wrote a book? I’m so proud of you!” She even asked for a copy. I walked away completely giddy. Sarah Jessica Parker was proud of me! So that was a pretty cool moment.
What’s the strangest job you’ve ever had?
My very first job, from age 15 to 18, was at a minor league baseball stadium. I was a huge baseball fan growing up, and so I was thrilled to be hired at Al Lang Stadium in St. Petersburg, Florida. For the preceding several years, my mom had taken my siblings and me to games there all the time, so we had become big St. Petersburg Cardinals fans. (They were the advanced-A farm team of the St. Louis Cardinals; sadly, they no longer exist!) Anyhow, I think I did just about everything at that stadium; I started off as the ice cream girl, and I remember one of the team’s pitchers used to come up and get blue raspberry Italian Ice before each game he started; it was sort of a superstition. Then I worked at the souvenir stand, but my favorite part of the job was when I moved into more of a guest relations capacity; I wrote portions of the team’s program, which was really cool for an aspiring writer, and I ran the on-field promotions. That meant that I was responsible for pulling people from the crowd and bringing them onto the field for things like the dizzy bat race (spin around with your head on the top of a baseball bat a dozen times than stagger dizzily to the finish line), the mascot race (self-explanatory!), and this crazy promotion where a guest had to lasso a wooden cow in order to win a coupon for a steak dinner. I even had to drive the players to elementary school appearances; I remember one of the guys, Chris Richard (who went on to play in the majors), being stunned to realize I couldn’t parallel park. It wasn’t required for the driver’s test in Florida, so I really never learned. So after his school appearance, he insisted we go to a side street, where he spent an hour teaching me to park my car. Man, I miss those days.
Another funny job-related story is that when I was 20, I was an intern for Woman’s Day magazine in New York. It was an awesome experience, and I got to shift around from department to department, learning different things. One day, I was asked if I could come help out with a photo shoot. When I got there, it turned out they had called me because they were photographing helpful household tips, and they thought it would be cool for the intern to be a part of one of the photographs. “We thought you could be a hand model!” one of the editors said. “You just have to hold this iron and act like you’re ironing this shirt.” I was so excited. A hand model! Visions of George Costanza’s short-lived career danced through my head. But then I grasped the iron, and there was an audible gasp. “Um, your hands look terrible,” the photographer said. I turned beet red, but of course she was right. I have always been a nail-picker, and believe me when I say that no one would ever want to see those stubby nails in a magazine! I didn’t even think about then when they asked me to hold the iron! In any case, the staff was really nice, and the editor insisted they find a way to make it work, so the final photo – which indeed made it into the magazine – was my hand with basically a death grip on the handle of the iron, my fingertips folded entirely underneath. It looked ridiculous, but I will forever be grateful for my fleeting foray into the glamorous world of hand-modeling! Ha!
Do you have a regular first reader? If so, who is it and why that person?
Yes! My friend Wendy Toliver, who is also an author, is always my first reader, and I know I’m one of her first readers too. We met years ago through a mutual friend – a teenager named Anna who was a fan of both of us and who, very tragically, later died. Anna gave us the gift of our friendship with each other, though, and we’re both very grateful for that. We have different writing styles, but I think that makes us perfect critique partners. In my opinion, when you’re reading and editing work by someone whose voice is very similar to your own, it’s hard not to impose your own voice on that book without even meaning to. But Wendy and I are just different enough to be able to see each other’s work with total clarity, I think. She does a fantastic job of pointing out my weak spots and suggesting changes, but she’s always very encouraging too, which is so important during those early stages of a book’s development when I’m still feeling unsure. I can say for sure that her input has made my books better and that she has made me a better writer.
GIVEAWAY: Whooohooo! Kristin will be giving away a copy of THE LIFE INTENDED — sorry, US or Canada only. Comment on this post by Noon (EST) on Friday, January 2 to enter to win. Follow The Debutante Ball on Facebook and Twitter for extra entries—just mention that you did so in your comments. We’ll choose and contact the winner on Friday. Good luck!
Kristin Harmel is the international bestselling author of THE SWEETNESS OF FORGETTING, and has also written four previous women’s fiction novels, as well as two young adult novels. Her work has been featured in People, Woman’s Day, Men’s Health, Runner’s World, and Ladies’ Home Journal, among many other media outlets. She and her husband live in Orlando, Florida.Connect with Kristin on Facebook or Twitter.