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News & Events

Q & A with Alum, Bestselling Author

Since 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 Center 205.

O’Connell’s book 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?

O’Connell: I didn't always want to be a writer, but I've always loved writing. I
thought I wanted to go into publishing, which is why I attended the
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 from attending
the Radcliffe program, and knew how to get published. Up until then I'd
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?
Example?

O’Connell: 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 attend Smith,
but I was afraid people would think it was autobiographical. Smith is all
over my books, from the women characters to real-life things that happened.
Of course, they're the most embarrassing things, and the names have been
changed to protect the guilty, but my Smith friends know they're in there.
It's like an inside joke that only we understand.


N&E: What was your major at Smith?

OConnell: I was a government major. I considered becoming a creative writing
minor, and took all the requisite writing courses, but I couldn't get into
any of the literature classes I took. So, I ended up with a major and no
minor.


N&E: What were your favorite courses at Smith?

O’Connell: 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 Eastern
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 recall any
specifics. I also loved an ethics class I took my senior year because it
took theories and applied them to real-life situations, such as corporate
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?

O’Connell: 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 stress how
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 does. The
smarter you are ahead of time, the easier the process is. My book was
written, sold and published in nine months -- which is amazingly fast in
publishing time (usually a book takes at least a year from sale to
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), to
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 approach would
include freelancing, either writing communications materials for
corporations or submitting articles for newspapers and magazines, and really
establishing your network. Writing, in whatever form, makes you a better
writer.


N&E: What is your favorite memory from your undergraduate years?

O’Connell: 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 cocktails and
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.”

9/19/05

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