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Olivia Goldsmith: Putting Women on Top

None of today's top writers can attest to the benefits of not giving up more than Olivia Goldsmith. Goldsmith's novel The First Wives Club was rejected 27 times before being published and made into a movie.

Author of seven novels, including First Wives Club, Olivia Goldsmith is credited with creating the new genre W.O.T. (Women On Top). Goldsmith's stories are meant to encourage and empower women in an entertaining manner. "The world seems set up so women can't win. But no one acknowledges that. I write about the lies we have been told: if we just dress right, meet the right guy, be 'super woman' or 'super mom' we'll be happy forever. Nonsense! I write to comfort women, to tell them sequentially, perhaps you can 'have it all' but don't kill yourself trying to be that image." In all of Goldsmith's stories, her message comes through clearly: believe in who you are inside as an individual-with all the accompanying defects and dreams-and don't worry that you don't look like Cameron Diaz.

Goldsmith is a bouncy, vivacious woman with soulful dark eyes, a great laugh and an air of comic self-deprecation. She is also a complex, interesting person who loves four-hour hikes, gardening, museums and reading. Her interest in interior design has led her to renovate a 1793 home in Vermont. She hates cooking but is great at 'take out'. Born in the Bronx, she is the eldest of three sisters. Goldsmith had a conventional New York childhood, went to public school and then attended NYU. After college, she became a marketing consultant for computer companies where she formed an acute distaste for the American corporate culture, a distaste that has run through all her work.

Using what she knew about marketing, Goldsmith says she did everything she could to market herself and her first book, First Wives Club. When the publishers wished she could be "more glitzy"—for the "women's market"—she donned a blond wig and spiked heels for media interviews. "I always thought I wrote social satire," she says. "But they tried to sell my novels as sex and shopping novels."

A large part of Goldsmith's success is that she treats writing as a business with all its disciplines. As a former marketing consultant, she knows that one must fill the needs and desires of the audience—the readers—before her own as a writer. She covers important issues for women, balancing serious issues with humor. "The themes of my stories are often very bitter pills. I have to coat these pills with as much humor as I can, to make them as easy to swallow as possible. I write about heart-breaking subjects; I couldn't bear it if I couldn't add humor to my stories."

When asked about her writing background, she replies, "I was always good at essays in school but didn't even consider fiction writing until I was in my thirties. At that point, I was deeply dissatisfied with my life. My marriage had failed, and though I was very successful in business I was very unhappy with my work. I just could not find any meaning. I loved reading and I thought about chucking it all and trying to write a novel. But then I had to get over the 'who do I think I am to assume I could be a writer?' scenario. I gave myself three years to write a book." She lived on her savings and stayed at her sister's unheated guest house in East Hampton, because her former husband had control of their summer home. "I was the only woman I knew who lost the house, the apartment and the car. Adversity had worn me down, yet at the same time made me stronger."

Goldsmith says reading and observing people prepared her for writing. "I've always been interested in what people do and why they do it. I try to balance internal conflict against the action. I know I'm not a lyrical writer. I never even attempted poetry. What I do have is the ability to be a fairly good storyteller. I know how to push the story forward... to plot. But it's never easy. I work at it. I am a good craftsperson."

Her book reviews consistently state that "Goldsmith is right on target... clearly an insider." She insists she's not an insider but that her research skills are excellent. "One of the things I try to do is to describe or get into a very particular world. Obviously I've never been a New York socialite, as the characters in First Wives Clubare. And I never worked on Seventh Avenue as the designer in Fashionably Late did. I just do a lot of research. I'm also a good observer and very good listener. Some reviewers give me this mysterious woman image, like I'm really some low-key celebrity writing under a pseudonym."

For Fashionably Late, Goldsmith not only interviewed the assistants of many designers; she also watched designing in studios. She watched and then wrote about the creation of fashion as fabric is pinned and fitted onto models. "I'm really proud of my research," she says. To round out her understanding of a particular field, Goldsmith sniffs out what might seem unlikely sources of information. "You get the best dirt by talking to secretaries and gophers. There's a saying, 'no man is a hero to his valet,' and believe me, no one is a saint to his secretary. This fashion idea of women versus their actual perception of themselves along with the way they are manipulated absolutely fascinates me."

Goldsmith's characters are so well developed and sympathetic they seem drawn from real people, but that is not usually the case. "I almost never base them on actual people." Occasionally, though, Goldsmith does model a character after a real person. "I was doing a book-signing in the Bookstall in Winnetka. It was pouring rain and nobody came. So the store owner (Roberta Rubin) and I sat there and talked about books. I looked at her and thought, 'Yeah, people like her make the book business a worthy place to be.' She became a model for a character in Bestseller."

Before creating her characters, Goldsmith looks for a theme, "a central visual image. Once I understand the theme, then I create characters who are archetypal of the issue I'm describing and exploring. For example, in First Wives Club the theme was discarded wives, women who were good enough to support their husbands through school and raise the family. Once they were 'used,' [no longer needed] they were traded in for younger 'trophy wives.' As I envisioned them, my three heroines first coped with the problem [of being traded for younger women] through excesses: one drank too much, one ate too much and the other loved too much. Then I created the archetypal husbands: one who'd always cheated, one who'd stolen, and one who thought he was perfect."

Goldsmith has a unique attitude in writing to please her audience. "I started off writing a historical... more like hysterical... novel, but after the first 250 pages I knew there was a problem when I didn't even want to read it! I noticed that it wasn't effective to write for myself, but for the imagined pleasure of the reader. I work at jokes and surprises and plot twists. These aren't really fun to write. My point is that it can be dangerous to become self absorbed in one's writing. For one thing it's difficult to edit and cut out all that 'beautiful prose.' But you can't let yourself be self-indulgent. When you're thinking of writing for the pleasure of the audience, all the unnecessary stuff goes. I try to structure 'gifts of surprise' balanced with humor. Like in Bestseller I deliberately did not mention the gender of Alex until the reader really got to know and like this person. Where Alex is at last in bed with Emma there's a surprise for the reader, not for the characters. It wasn't easy; try writing without pronouns for 200 pages.

Goldsmith also uses her marketing skills in creating her books. She studied the existing market and found a special niche. "I always know the ending before I start and then I develop the characters to fit the scenario. A lot of writers say they let their characters explore and create the story. I looked at commercial fiction and noted that while women had changed their roles in society, in the family and in the workplace, the novels hadn't reflected that. Ten years ago, women's fiction was not about the real problems today's women deal with. I thought I could do commercial fiction about real women that both entertained and presented a point of view. But what was it? It certainly did not fit into the established genre lines such as romance, mystery or suspense. In London they wanted to come up with a name for this niche. They even ran a contest to name the type of book I write. They finally came up with the term W.O.T. (Women on Top)."

Goldsmith's writing process is very structured. "I am a merciless editor. I work on a manuscript from 8 a.m. until 12 noon daily—7 days a week. Then after lunch I spend about an hour editing the work I've done the day before. My office is very neat, but while working I often have piles of chapters, research and notes organized on the floor. I love the end of writing a book, because I get to throw away all the notes and old drafts. Filled trash bags signal the finish to a project."

While Goldsmith is very successful today, it wasn't always that way. She has had a lot of obstacles to overcome. First Wives Club came from a combination of factors: her horror at her own bad marriage; the fact that many of the corporate CEOs she'd met confided in her—to her disgust—about their affairs. "I developed a real understanding of these lonely guys who are raping the earth." But the book was seen as too harsh. Editors hated it. First Wives Club was rejected 27 times.

But, perseverance paid off—big time. Goldsmith had just returned from New England and was about to quit writing when Hollywood called to tell her that three producers, all women, were bidding over her manuscript. "These three powerful women producers fighting over my manuscript and it wasn't even published!" The three were Dawn Steel, Sherry Lansing and Paula Weinstein. The agent asked her, "Which one do you think shares your vision most closely?" Goldsmith replied: "The one whose check clears first." It was Sherry Lansing, then an independent producer at Paramount, who offered an extra $50,000. "I think she realized how strapped I was," says Goldsmith. Suddenly with a movie deal in the works, publishers were eager to see her manuscript. "When the book came out I got thousands of letters from women who'd been there." The book made the New York Times bestseller list and has been translated into 31 languages. Six years after the publication of First Wives Club, the movie finally came out. The rest is history.

Each subsequent Goldsmith book has its own unique theme, but with the same basic message:

  • Fashionably Late, Goldsmith skewers the fashion industry and its marketing wiles, which prey on the insecurities of women (while exploiting female design talent.)
  • Flavor of the Month came from a remark made by a 60-year-old, heavy-set lady who told Goldsmith she "just wished she looked like Pretty Woman's Julia Roberts. I felt so sorry for her, for all of us." The book is all about female images and non-existent perfection. Flavor of the Month examines the cult of beauty in Hollywood, with the central character as a gifted but unattractive actress who completely remodels herself through plastic surgery to become a movie star.
  • Bestseller came from Goldsmith's own experience with the publishing world. In Bestseller, she wanted to get across the anxiety of a struggling writer, "the worry about how to pay the damn bills." Goldsmith tweaks the world of publishing with an insider's story about five would-be bestselling novelists who are in what she calls "a horse race for the bestseller list." In conjunction with the book, Goldsmith and HarperCollins sponsored a contest for unpublished authors. Out of the top five manuscripts submitted to the competition, one was picked for publication.
  • Marrying Mom is a novel about a family's efforts to marry off the busybody septuagenarian heroine of the tale so she will be too preoccupied to interfere in her children's lives. "When my mother was thinking of moving to New York, I thought, 'what if?' and expanded it. I wanted to do something about how aging takes women off the dating market. These desperate children decide to have their mother meet Mr. Perfect and get married."
  • In Switcheroo, Goldsmith explores what she calls "the John Derek Syndrome": you notice how each one of his wives was a younger 'lookalike' version of the former one?" In Switcheroo, when wife number one finds out there's a mistress, she's not only hurt and angry but astounded when she meets her younger double; it's like looking in the mirror ten years earlier. She talks the mistress into changing places for a while so both women can experience what they're not getting. "All wives want romance; all girlfriends want security. You know, women are crazy, too."

That most of Goldsmith's books have been optioned for movies is no accident. One reason her novels work so well as films is the way she writes them. "I like to write the story almost as a screenplay format first, because that format focuses on the character, dialogue and action. It makes a great outline."

Goldsmith's advice for new writers with their sites on Hollywood is practical. "Take the money, be grateful, and have a good lawyer. Most of the rest isn't up to you." There's a great difference between screenplays and novels. In the novel the writer has complete control; with the screenplay the writer has very little. "I look at the screenplay as an adoptive child: make sure it has a good home and get on with your next project."

Goldsmith's advice for novel writers is to persevere. "At first it was hard for me to sit in an office chair staring at a blank page for even 20 minute—there's always something else that needs doing. I had to work my way up to the four hours. It wasn't easy." To be more productive, Goldsmith advises to, "Edit as you go. Split the day between creating and analyzing, two different skills. Edit something from the previous day. That way you don't have to do such a heavy edit at the end of 200 pages."

Just as she does, Goldsmith advises writers to keep reading. "Some people refuse to read another author's material for fear of picking up their style. I found my own style wasn't influenced by this factor. Reading feeds me."

What does Goldsmith consider to be her greatest success? "Seeing my book on a store bookshelf; seeing the advertising for my books on the walls of the London subway and being reviewed in The New York Times." As for personal achievements, she says, "I'm proud I've been able to present a more balanced image of women. And I consider it a personal triumph to have 50- to 70-year-old heroines."

It's important to note, too, that even when Goldsmith finally succeeded in her own career, she was surprised to find that other hurdles lay ahead. She likens this part of herself to Susann Baker Edmonds, the aging women's fiction writer in Bestseller, who feels the pressure of being unable to live up to each of her previous successes. "I know what the pressure is like now, and I went to see a psychiatrist—really. After about three sessions he laughed and said, 'Oh, I see. You thought when you were successful, things got better, instead of more complicated with harder problems.' The guy was right. I don't have one less problem than I had before—they're just different. Success has its own demons. Its hard to keep things simple. Sometimes I think I'd really like to be a grocery store bagger, where you can think and observe whatever you want as long as you remember to put the bread on the top."

Although Goldsmith truly loves being a writer, if she had to do it all over again, there are a few things she'd do differently. "I'd make sure all of my original titles were used. Fashionably Late was originally Designer Genes. And let's see... I'd also be taller, thinner, more glamorous." She laughs. "Of course, I'm joking about the last part."

DEE PORTER has been involved in a variety of creative interests which include writing nonfiction, fiction and screenplays. She is the co-author of Gangs, A Handbook for Community Awareness (Facts On File).

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