Author Emily Giffin Gets to the Heart of the Matter
The best-selling novelist on creating complex characters, the “chick lit” label and whats at the heart of her latest book.
New York Times bestselling author Emily Giffin may have five books under her belt, been called “a modern day Jane Austen” and have a movie in the works based on one of her books, but when I chatted with her over the phone before her May 25 appearance at Saks Fifth Avenue in St. Louis, it felt less like an interview and more like a conversation between friends.
To say that Emily is down-to-earth is an understatement, and I quickly learned how this sassy, smart and genuinely personable woman is able to write such page-turning, complex and relatable characters. Because she’s so completely real herself, even joking about eating a Greek salad with onions before an event. A big fan of hers for many years, I was excited to get the opportunity to discuss book themes, creating her characters and her new book, “Heart of the Matter.”new book, Heart of the Matter.
ALIVE: Your characters are complex and completely relatable. I know that while I’m reading your books, although a character doesn’t always do the right or best thing, I can empathize with them. What’s the secret to writing these characters in such a real, relatable way?
Emily Giffin: I spend a lot of time on character development. I really get to know my characters and that allows me to have freedom with them so that they can do surprising things while still being themselves. It sounds funny, but I feel like my characters become separate from me at some point in the process. So when someone asks me, “Why did you make Darcy do this or why did Valerie react this way?” I want to respond with, “I didn’t make Darcy do anything. Darcy decided for herself.”
ALIVE: The complexities of relationships are a major theme threaded throughout your books—cheating, loyalty, forgiveness and redemption, which aren’t always the easiest topics to write about. What’s your process?
EG: My writing is very character-driven and organic. With this latest book, Heart of the Matter, I wanted to explore how one moment can change every thing. And I knew I wanted to explore two very different mothers. So the premise comes first, then the characters. Then I come up with their back stories—who they are, what their families are like and eventually after that, the relationships form.
The relationships drive the plot. I have a very vague sense of beginning, middle and end when I first start writing. When I sit down it all unfolds and honestly, as I write, I don’t know what is going to happen either. In Something Borrowed, I wasn’t sure if Rachel and Dex were going to end up together in the end; the ultimate conclusion really comes from the characters, not me. I put those characters in tough situations and we see what happens. Like what would you do if your soul mate wanted different things (Baby Proof)? What would happen if you fell in love with your best friend’s boyfriend (Something Borrowed)? What would happen if you were happily married and ran into what you thought was the love of your life who got away? Sometimes I’m surprised by what they do just like you are.
ALIVE: Your latest novel, Heart of the Matter, explores serious themes of marriage, infidelity and ultimately forgiveness. Why the title Heart of the Matter?
EG: I wasn’t sure what this book was going to be about when I first started it. I wasn’t sure if it was going to be about true love or being true to yourself. Or compassion, trust or friendship. But what ultimately emerged was forgiveness. Tessa and Valerie had to forgive Nick.Valerie had to forgive the negligent mother. Charlie had to forgive the little girl at school. It goes along with empathy—it’s a lot easier to forgive someone if you can see something from their point of view. We all have to make the choice to forgive, move on and free ourselves from bitterness that we hold toward another. For me it was a journey of discovering that forgiveness really was the heart of the matter.
ALIVE: Your characters are smart. They deal with complex issues. How do you feel about the “chick-lit” label?
EG: I don’t really think in terms of genre or labels when I write. I think sometimes I’m categorized in that way and sometimes I’m not. I think that the pretty pastel covers help my books get picked up by some people who might not otherwise pick them up, and other people might say, “I don’t want to read something that has a ring on it and I’m not interested in Chick Lit,” but if they picked up one of my books, they’d realize it’s not like a lot of other Chick Lit. Although the label has never bothered me and I’ve always embraced it, I don’t think that Heart of the Matter is Chick Lit. And I say that not because I don’t want to call it Chick Lit, but because I write stories that are relatable with real characters and the labels don’t really matter as much.
ALIVE: Your first book, Something Borrowed, is currently being made into a movie starring Kate Hudson, John Krasinski and Ginnifer Goodwin (2011 release date). Tell me about that whole experience.
EG: Having a movie made was much of a surprise. So every time I talk about it, I tend to get giddy. I didn’t expect to be involved, but I ended up bonding with the producer and director, so I’ve been really into the whole process. They’ve been great, nice people. At one point, I was the person arguing that something should not be the same as it was in the book. I was like “that can change!” and they were all about keeping it true to the book. I think they nailed the cast. And I am shamelessly into celebrities, subscriber of US Weekly, you name it! I have a huge crush on John Krasinski, which consequently means I know him the least. I’ve had a lot of exchange with Ginnifer Goodwin and Kate Hudson but whenever John comes around I am like, “Hi. I am really honored that you are playing this part,” I become this weird, formal person. But overall, I’m not disappointed about anything. The fact that my book tour is overlapping with the filming of the movie makes life pretty crazy right now, but I was telling my cousin the other day that my life is really boring 90 percent of the time.
For more information about Emily Giffin and her new book, Heart of the Matter, log on to emilygiffin.com.
Purchase her new book, “Heart of the Matter.”new book, “Heart of the Matter” on Amazon.
To see photos from Emily’s St. Louis appearance at Saks Fifth Avenue on May 25, click here.
Author Emily Giffin
Emily Giffin at her book signing
Photo credit: Photo courtesy of Emily Giffin.