Slate Writer Tries Interactive 'Chick Lit' Novel

Dahlia Lithwick usually writes about judicial hearings and landmark court precedents for Slate. But this month, she's writing a novel — a chapter a day. It's a story about the intrigues of suburban motherhood, rather than the Supreme Court, and it's taking readers' suggestions over Facebook and e-mail for everything from plot twists to character names. Host Scott Simon speaks to Lithwick about her interactive novel, called Saving Face.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Dahlia Lithwick usually writes about judicial hearings, landmark court precedents for Slate, but this month she is writing a novel, a chapter a day. It's a story about the intrigues of suburban motherhood rather than the Supreme Court, and it'll take reader suggestions over Facebook and email for everything from plot twists to character names.

Her interactive novel is called "Saving Face." Dahlia Lithwick joins us. Thanks very much for being with us.

Ms. DAHLIA LITHWICK (Author): Thank you for having me.

SIMON: Tell us how this is going to work.

Ms. LITHWICK: Right. What I did was, I posted the very first chapter on the first day, which was last Thursday. And I said, OK readers, chime in, join this Facebook page, send me mail, give me names, name her husband. Within minutes, someone had named the family cat. And then as it's gone along - we're a couple of chapters in now - readers have actually - I mean, there's hundreds and hundreds of people on this Facebook page who within moments of me saying, OK, tell me the most embarrassing thing that could happen to two women trapped in a law school, hundreds of people are thinking about it, mulling it over, refining suggestions. I almost feel at this point like I'm cherry-picking from their best suggestions, and then by the end of every day I post a chapter. And we sort of take it from there.

SIMON: Now, do you credit your readers when they…

Ms. LITHWICK: You can mouse over any section that's been suggested by a reader. You can click on it, and the reader's name pops up. So they're getting credit as we go. And in fact, it's a lot of fun because a lot of readers, having gotten credit, are desperate for more and then suggest thousands more things as they go.

SIMON: Can you help us understand the premise of the story?

Ms. LITHWICK: Well, it's a genre of what is called chick lit that's mommy lit. And what that is, is the average chick lit novel is confessions of a shopaholic. It's about a 20-year-old trying to make it in the big city. And there's been a sub-genre of that kind of book that's by now called mommy lit. So it's really - I just decided: Write what you know.

I don't know much about shopping in New York, but I know a lot about juggling a career and kids. So I started - I chose that genre and sure enough, there's a protagonist who's juggling work and kids, who's got a husband who works too hard, and a best friend whose marriage is going down the toilet.

SIMON: Now, you didn't choose this genre because you thought it was easy, did you?

Ms. LITHWICK: Oh, I should explain that this came about because Slate has something called the Fresca Fellowship, named after the soda. And each of the senior staff writers and editors need to take off between two and four weeks this year to do some kind of long-form project that is way, way off their bailiwicks. And I thought, the hardest thing I could imagine doing - I've not written fiction before, I'm a Supreme Court reporter, I've been doing that for 10 years. So my notion was: I'm just going to try to write a book, and I'm going to go a chapter a day and the readers are going to shirkle me there, and we're going to see how this goes. In my wildest dreams, I didn't expect it to be as difficult as it's been.

SIMON: If I may, forgive me, speak as a novelist for a moment: It is much harder to write novels than it is nonfiction.

Ms. LITHWICK: Absolutely. And I wish - I wish that someone had told me that it is exponentially harder. I thought, I go to the court, I watch oral arguments. John Roberts says something funny, I write it down. How hard could it this be?

SIMON: Yeah. You know - you know everybody's age, you know how they're dressed, you know how they look.

Ms. LITHWICK: And you're not inventing anything. What I am discovering about this project - and I should add that I'm married to an architect, who looks at me mystified that I didn't know this - that there is architecture to a story. There's craft to building up tension, to creating conflict. You've got to resolve things, you've got to introduce plot points that you need to come back to. I have a - chapter two is all about this delightful Armani suit that disappears. Now I've got readers pointing out that I've moved on and I haven't resolved that problem. So there's a real craft here, and an architecture that is very hard to teach yourself on the fly.

SIMON: You know, novelists often go to sleep thinking about what they've written and what they will write - which is when, you know, a novelist will often say, the characters took me there. Do you do that, or do you sleep well at night knowing that - that all of your Facebook pals are going to take you there?

Ms. LITHWICK: Here's the true answer. I haven't slept in two weeks. Since this project started, I have not had a good night's sleep. And I slept like a baby the night before Bush beat Gore. I don't have a problem sleeping, and my work doesn't keep me up at night.

But these characters have - there - what they do is, I can fall asleep OK at 10. But at 2 a.m. every single morning, I am interrupted by characters and plot twists. And if you go to the Facebook page, you will find me often at 3 and 4 a.m., posting Facebook posts saying, somebody turn these people off. And it's not entirely clear that I can continue writing if I don't figure this problem out.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: So you have no idea where this story is going?

Ms. LITHWICK: I have a general sense. I have a sort of sense of the arc. There's a lot of conventions in mommy lit that I don't love and I'm trying to subvert. It's interesting because a lot of the readers have very strong feelings. If you post about, do you put the kid in day care or not - if you write that as part of your story, there's a tsunami of that mommy wars blowback.

And so it's clear that I think my readers are trying to work out and I'm trying to work out these very, very old themes about women having it all, how you give your children enough and also have a job. And these are not things with easy solutions. So I'm not sure exactly how to resolve it. I don't even know what a happy ending looks like.

SIMON: So we can read this on Slate, right?

Ms. LITHWICK: Yes, Slate.com - a chapter a day at least until October 5th, when I have to go back to being a Supreme Court reporter.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: All right. Well, nice talking to you.

Ms. LITHWICK: Thank you so much for having me.

SIMON: Dahlia Lithwick writes for the online magazine Slate. Her new online novel is entitled "Saving Face."

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