& A with Alum, Bestselling Author
graduating from Smith in 1990, Jennifer O’Connell has
worked as a publisher, an editor, businesswoman, and most
recently best-selling author of “chick lit”—that
is, books targeted toward women. She’ll draw from all
those roles when she returns to campus on Thursday, September
22, to speak on “Writing, Publishing, and Reality: A
Smith Alum’s Experience,” at 7 p.m. in Campus
Bachelorette #1 (Penguin 2003) was declared a “poolside
page-turner” by Cosmopolitan magazine and “Chick
lit at its most fun” by the Denver Post. Her
third book, Off the Record, is scheduled for release
this month. O’Connell recently reminisced for Smith’s
News & Events about her days here, becoming a
writer, and other topics.
News & Events: When
did you know you wanted to be a writer? How did it come to
you? Did Smith play a role in that decision?
I didn't always want to be a writer, but I've always loved
thought I wanted to go into publishing, which is why I attended
Radcliffe Publishing Program after Smith (which was amazing).
I'm really a
frustrated editor masquerading as a writer. I recently found
a short story I
wrote for a creative writing class my junior year. It was
amazing how the
story paralleled how my life turned out -- even though it
was written so many
years ago. It was like reading a prediction.
I'd started my own consulting
firm and was working on that when I had the
idea for the my first book. I knew the publishing industry
the Radcliffe program, and knew how to get published. Up until
never really thought about actually writing a book.
I ended up going to business
school at the University of Chicago because I
also wanted to be in the business world. If I took anything
away from Smith,
it's that I can do whatever I want to do -- whenever I want
to do it. I'm 37,
but I still feel like I have more careers ahead of me, like
there are more
things I want to do. That's definitely something I learned
at Smith -- the
idea that the possibilities are limitless.
N&E: Have any experiences from
your Smith years made it into your novels?
All of my books are about women, and in the first two, the
women attended Wellesley (in the third the character attended
Dartmouth -- which my best
friend did her junior year at Smith). I would have had them
but I was afraid people would think it was autobiographical.
Smith is all
over my books, from the women characters to real-life things
Of course, they're the most embarrassing things, and the names
changed to protect the guilty, but my Smith friends know they're
It's like an inside joke that only we understand.
N&E: What was your major at
was a government major. I considered becoming a creative writing
minor, and took all the requisite writing courses, but I couldn't
any of the literature classes I took. So, I ended up with
a major and no
N&E: What were your favorite
courses at Smith?
For some reason, I took a few religion courses that I loved
(and I'm not
even an especially religious person). There was a course on
religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism or Taoism) that
was just the
most interesting class -- an entirely different way of thinking.
As for who
taught it, I can't even begin to remember. I know I still
have the books and
syllabus packed away in a box in my basement, but I don't
specifics. I also loved an ethics class I took my senior year
took theories and applied them to real-life situations, such
integrity. As for a professor I remember, it would have to
be my adviser,
[Provost and Dean of the Faculty] Susan Bourque. I loved her
Women and Politics class.
N&E: What is your advice to
Smithies who want to be writers?
I think there are probably two ways to go about it. The first
is to pursue a
publishing career so you understand the industry. I can't
important it is to do your homework before you write a book
you hope to get
published. I've spoken with people who wrote books and didn't
know that you
needed an agent, how to query an agent, or even what an agent
smarter you are ahead of time, the easier the process is.
My book was
written, sold and published in nine months -- which is amazingly
publishing time (usually a book takes at least a year from
bookshelves). I think that understanding the industry was
a real advantage
for me. Also, getting involved in the industry exposes you
to all aspects of
the process, from publicity and marketing (two different things),
subsidiary and foreign rights. There's a lot more to a book
than just the
writing and editing.
The second way to be a writer
is to just write. It sounds simple, but it
takes a lot of time. This isn't the path I took, needless
to say, because I
had other interests I wanted to pursue while writing. This
include freelancing, either writing communications materials
corporations or submitting articles for newspapers and magazines,
establishing your network. Writing, in whatever form, makes
you a better
N&E: What is your favorite memory
from your undergraduate years?
My friends and all the crazy, unspeakable things we did. My
two best friends from Smith and I just spent a week on Martha's
Vineyard with our families.
One night the three of us were sitting around drinking our
just laughing hysterically. The next day my husband asked
what was so funny,
and my answer was simple: “We were remembering when
we were at Smith.”