Palm Springs socialite Maxine Simmons thrums at a higher frequency than the rest of everyone. She's fierce and she's funny and she's fearless, the madcap heart of Juliet McDaniel's debut novel, Mr. & Mrs. American Pie. Though she won't arrive on bookshelves until August, Maxine's been around for years.
"Whenever I've had to be in a situation where I'm uncomfortable, I pretend to be someone like Maxine, over the top ridiculously confident " McDaniel told Spine. "She's been with me her whole life."
When McDaniel discovered the Launch Pad Manuscript Competition, a contest sponsored by Hollywood news site The Tracking Board, publishing platform Inkshares, and several production companies, she threw Maxine onto the page and into the past — 1969— and the surreal world of beauty pageants. The granddaughter of Mrs. Minnesota 1956, McDaniel has long been interested in pageants and their constricting views of womanhood.
By Maxine's side, McDaniel placed Robert, a fictional closeted gay man born of another real-world family experience. "I had people I love in the family who came out," McDaniel said. "Everyone was like, 'That's great, let's get on with life.' Not that it's easy, but it's easier for kids to come out now. How awful it was for kids in the '80s, but it was still better than it was in the '60s."
With Maxine and Robert, McDaniel found the heart of her book. She wrote the 25 pages required for contest entry, shipped them off, returned to work … and won! "Selected out of thousands of entries, McDaniel's Mr. & Mrs. American Pie was the top comedy selection," Angela Melamud, Inkshares' Assistant Director of Marketing, told Spine.
"This really outgoing, really excited guy, [Inkshares' Publisher] Adam Gomolin called," McDaniel recalled. "He said, 'We need the draft. We're going to get this published!' None of it was sinking in. I'm thinking, 'Wait a minute, I'm getting a book published?' And my second thought was, 'I haven't finished writing.'"
Communicating frequently with Gomolin, whom she describes as "really fantastic," McDaniel first step was a medium shift. For years, she'd been working as a screenwriter and screenplay reader. To produce a full novel, she needed to recalibrate.
"I had to stop and think through smaller details that I wouldn't think through for a screenplay." And she had to refrain from telling her story via pages of dialogue, at the heart of the screenwriter's enterprise. Instead, she sought to create characters by showing "what's around them, and why those things would be around them, and what do those things say."
As her fictional universe rose up, McDaniel developed a fuller sense of her narrative. She created a giant storyline spreadsheet and pushed forward, focused not on individual characters but on the actions that would take her book from start to finish. "Once I had that all in place, I started assigning the scenes, whose perspective it should be from."
She turned in a 120-page draft; too short. She "went nuts," producing a 500-page book; too long. Finally, with Gomolin's guidance, she arrived at just right.
McDaniel and Inkshares' Melamud are now focused on publicizing the book, which includes the usual bookstore and library visits as well as writing about beauty pageants and their idealized notions of womanhood. "Juliet has a degree in American Studies, which is sort of a grab bag of all things history, culture, pop culture, so she's been working on a ton of original content pieces," Melamud said.
Resting in the relatively calm space between editing and publicizing (the book comes out on August 7), McDaniel's positioned to think bigger picture, about not only what she's created, but also how it might speak to readers. She's always admired film comedy's ability to open viewers to thinking about difficult topics, and hopes her humorous book might achieve the same end. "I think comedy can be something that softens us up to really roll up our sleeves and do some work. I like that comedy can do that. If we can laugh about it, we're open to doing more."
Spine Authors Editor Susanna Baird grew up inhaling paperbacks in Central Massachusetts, and now lives and works in Salem. Her writing has appeared in a variety of publications, including Boston Magazine, BANG!, Failbetter, and Publishers Weekly. She's the founder of the Salem Longform Writers' Group, and serves on the Salem Literary Festival committee. When not wrangling words, she spends time with her family, mostly trying to pry the cat's head out of the dog's mouth, and helps lead The Clothing Connection, a small Salem-based nonprofit dedicated to getting clothes to kids who need them. Online, you can find her at susannabaird.com and on Twitter @SusannaBaird.