Every now and then, when Emily Giffin is up in her attic on some errand, she’ll spy a plastic bin, inside of which is the manuscript for her first novel.
“It’s a quiet, coming-of-age story,” says Giffin of the YA book that she describes as “summarily rejected” by all eight of the publishers she sent it to back in the early 2000s. “Sometimes, I’ll look at it and think: ‘Hmmm. I do like that genre.’ ”
Young Adult fiction, of course, is not the sphere in which Giffin has made her fortune. After that less-than-successful first attempt, she wrote Something Borrowed, a New York Times bestseller list-topping read about a woman who becomes entangled with her best friend’s fiancé, and which was later turned into a 2011 film. (Bless your heart Kate Hudson, but even a young John Krasinski couldn’t save that one). Almost overnight, this one-time litigation lawyer was one of the biggest names of the turn-of-the-century chick-lit wave.
That’s not a categorization the 46-year-old resists by the way: She just doesn’t think chick lit is technically accurate when it comes to describing her eight – so far, all internationally bestselling –novels.
“If you want to put me in a beach read roundup, go for it,” says Giffin over iced coffees on a late summer afternoon in Toronto. “But I think, especially in the beginning, I was marketed in a way that wasn’t entirely true to the content.”
She goes on to say that she feels that because of the timing – it was the height of Bridget Jones’s Diary, The Devil Wears Prada et al – her book about women in their 30s got lumped in with “true” chick lit, of the, shall we say, frothier, more fairy tale variety.
“My first book was originally called Rolling the Dice, after this moment when the character literally rolls a dice to decide what she’s going to do, and realizes she’s in control of her life. It’s a melancholy ending, jettisoning your oldest friend to be true to yourself. My editor said it sounded like a male gambling memoir, so we changed the title.”
Giffin trusted her publisher, so she also did not demur when the cover proofs arrived, showing an engagement ring set on a pastel pink background, her name all in the very-hip circa-2002 lower case.
“I thought, well, they know what they’re doing and they did. The book sold because we were able to capitalize on the genre. I can’t and won’t complain that I was the beneficiary of that timing, that stroke of luck.”
Now that we’re onto book eight, however, things have “evolved” a bit on the marketing front. “I’m a capital letter kinda gal now!” Giffin says with a laugh, referring to the fact that her name has proper capitalization on the cover of Everything We Ever Wanted. Released in June, it’s a tale of two Nashvilles: One the country club-going landed gentry of Nina Browning and her tech millionaire husband, and the other the working class world of Uber-driving carpenter Tom Volpe and his daughter Lyla. These two lives collide when Nina’s son, Finch, posts a sexually explicit image of a severely inebriated Lyla to social media.
“I just wanted to tell a story about a character forced to choose between her family and her most deeply held values,” says Giffin of the story’s genesis. She then catches herself. “I read something recently about how women writers always use words like ‘try’ and ‘just’ to talk about their writing. I’m trying not to do that.”
Throughout our conversation, Giffin will have these quick moments of vulnerability. Immaculately made-up, beautifully dressed, she presents as very confident, very sure, but then she’ll surprise with admissions such as saying she “hated every minute” of having her picture taken. It’s why, she explains, she may have seemed as though she was micromanaging the photo shoot for this piece. “I’m a socially adept introvert who’s learned to fake it. I’m also not the kind of person who can ever forget what I look like.”
But back to Everything We Ever Wanted. Giffin never intended it, but her story ended up taking in broader issues of classism, racism and sexism. (She was aware of #MeToo, which exploded while she was writing, but she didn’t feel called to explicitly address it.)
In the writing, she worked through a concern of her own: "I was also interested in this idea of when and how does privilege morph into entitlement.” Choosing her words carefully, she continued: “I have observed certain things in the community that we live in in Atlanta. It’s a very upscale enclave called Buckhead, and it’s not the kind of place I grew up in.” (Giffin grew up in the Midwest and writes on her website about practising law to pay off her student loans).
A mother of three herself, Giffin says that, yes, the book is about her anxieties as a parent. “You want to give your children every advantage, but at what point does that become counterproductive to the real goal of creating a well-adjusted citizen of the world with good moral fibre?”
Although Giffin battles “anxiety and panic and self-loathing and fear” that beset her every time she confronts the blank computer screen, she’s never once doubted she could actually finish writing something, anything … even if it generally does take her around four months to write the first page.
“There’s a quiet, deep self-belief that I have. It’s just overshadowed by anxiety around whether that book will be one I’m proud of and that I feel is stronger than the one before.”