Chick lit is meant to leave you happy, but that doesn't mean it can't weave in serious issues, Michelle Holman says.
It's got one of those dinky little drawings on the cover so beloved of the chick lit genre: an elongated girl, a pair of discarded high heels, some twirly pattern. It promises "sizzling sex", "the best one-liners", "believable escapism". The back cover hints at a love clash. He's an "arrogant American former-NBA star". She's an "aloof `don't mess with me' policewoman". Sherry and Glen can't stand each other but "they fancy each other something rotten".
It would be so easy to be scathing. Too easy. But local writer Michelle Holman's new novel, Barefoot, has a few surprises. Sure there's plenty of sentences like this one: "Her breasts glided over his naked chest as she whispered against his lips, 'Savour this instead'." But there's also a whole bunch of stuff about domestic violence. In her job as a policewoman, Sherry (she of the gliding breasts) works for a family violence unit and two of her cases feature prominently in the book's plotline.
As a former nurse at North Shore Hospital's emergency department, Holman did a workshop on domestic violence and was profoundly affected by what she learnt.
"I never saw my dad hit my mother. My husband's father never hit his mother. I've never been hit. I take it for granted. If I was hit I'd be so shocked, I'd be devastated, but these women, they drag themselves out of bed in the morning, they've got post-concussion syndrome quite often, and they just are dragging themselves around, trying to put food on the table, trying to keep it together.
"I can remember one of my very last duties that I did, I dealt with a young woman who'd obviously been abused... and it's the way it's hidden. They feel so much that they have done something wrong. They're indoctrinated into that thought pattern and they're ashamed too. They only turn up at the hospital if things are really bad because they just get on with their lives and the kids are in on it too. It's this huge secret."
Burdened by the thought of all the victims she'd missed, signs of abuse that weren't picked up, implausible stories that didn't match the injury and weren't challenged, Holman decided to incorporate the subject into her writing.
To better understand it she spent time with Detective Sergeant Kelly Farrant-Alofa from the family violence team at Henderson Police Station in West Auckland, which receives 400 callouts a month. "Domestic violence is an illness. It goes on and on and on. There's never any closure unless the woman dies or finally moves away. Fifty percent of homicides are domestic related. It's chilling. I mean, these are the people that are supposed to love you, they're supposed to protect you, nurture you.
"You know we all have spats, but this is really something out of most people's experience. A simple thing, like you and I, we both expect our personal space to be respected, well these women don't have that. They don't have that in any sense. Your home is your safe place. Their home is a battlefield. And as soon as I started speaking to Kelly, I thought, `Yes, this is exactly what Sherry would go into, this is the kind of policing she would do'."
Holman's hope is that her readers will gain a new perspective on domestic violence: that it's not just a working class problem, rather it permeates all levels of society; and that if you know it's going on, there are people you can call who are trained at dealing with it.
Which is all well and good, but what about the sizzling sex?
"I'm not trying to give messages in my books," she says. "My books are just entertainment and fun, and I hope women go away at the end – and men, men read them too – feeling happier." But the 49-year-old writer firmly believes it's possible to weave serious issues into lighthearted material. "Because that's what life's like." Her publishers obviously believe it too; her last book, Knotted, dealt with breast cancer and the one before, Divine, with transexualism.
After a lifetime of "voracious reading" and six unfinished novels, Holman began writing fulltime only a few months ago. "I've just always juggled writing and a job and the family. And it is hard but I think that's just how women function. We've always got balls up in the air that we're throwing up and down." Her first book Bonkers, which Barefoot is the sequel to, was published in 2006 after she decided to quit procrastinating.
She is untrained. "It's not like you can say, `Right, I'll go off, I'll do that course and then I'm going to apply for those jobs because there's all these jobs on seek.co.nz'. It's not like that. It's something that I think you always have in you and you're always doing." She never expected to get published. "You hear it all the time, `It's really hard, you have to have fifty million rejection letters and then finally you chop your ear off, if you're Van Gogh, and you're a painter'. All that sort of crap. It was just one of those dreams. But anyway, I finally got one finished and sent the first three chapters into Harper Collins. And I was fully expecting them to come back eight weeks later and go, `Well look, thank you very much, but don't darken our doorway again. Give it up while you're ahead, love'." She got the nod a week later.
Holman says she writes what she likes to read and she likes romantic comedies. These books were her release when she was working in nursing, particularly the last six years in her job running community youth health projects where she would be reading texts like "14 to 19-year-olds' representation in sexually transmitted infection".
"But I don't like wishy-washy romance. I like real men and women. I like contemporary settings and I like humour. I really like humour."
How real though are her protagonists with their long long legs and round round breasts? "They don't all have to be bombshells. In Knotted, Danny is flat-chested with short, cropped hair. I've definitely got books that I'm going to have quite plain women, no, ordinary women. They're not plain, they're ordinary women."
OK, but isn't she filling her readers' heads with soppy, steamy dreams of true love and nights of endless passion? Love at first sight is a crock, says Holman. "That's lust at first sight. That's infatuation. We've all had some of that. Real love comes from really getting to know someone and, you know, it changes. You've got the heart beating hot stuff for the first six months when you meet them and that then moves on to something else.
"So I think what people need to remember is when you read books like the ones I write, you're a fly on the wall during the first, say, six months of a relationship."
Holman, who lives with the husband she met on her OE and their two teenage children on a Cambridge lifestyle block, points out that Dan and Lisa, the hero and heroine from Bonkers (Glen's brother and Sherry's sister), whose relationship followed the familiar chick lit trajectory of can't-stand-you-but-really-want-to-shag-you to fireworks-in-bed-but-no-that-was-a-big-mistake to happy-ever-after, have settled into married life in Barefoot.
"Yeah they still love one another, but they're more ordinary. They haven't got the hearts beating, it's not that lust. They're still passionate for one another, they still care about each other, but they've moved on. They're a married couple. She gets annoyed at him because he can't find the car keys. She's not looking wonderful. She's just had the baby. Her head's not in the right space. She can't get out of her pyjamas.
"If I read books where a couple have been married for like five years and they're showing it like the first six months, I tend to, well I laugh, because, hey, it just ain't that way."
Barefoot is available from November. Harper Collins, $29.99.
- Sunday Star Times