The literary landscape has changed a great deal since I started writing. So many of the old guard have died, including John Updike, Norman Mailer, and Kurt Vonnegut. Writers no longer shlep their paper manuscripts to the post office after digging for change to pay for an SASE. Even the bookstore, that nexus of the universe for story-obsessed teens, has fallen by the wayside in favor of algorithm-fueled online shopping.
Even as the statistics look glum (only half of all Americans read a book for pleasure last year), writers still have great reason to rejoice. There is a thriving ecosystem of indie writers who self-publish their own work, bypassing the industry’s normal choke points. On one hand, the quality control mechanism is not as strong on this side of things. On the other hand, there is great beauty in the idea that anyone can pour their heart onto the page and make the result available to everyone in the world.
I’m working up to doing some self-publishing in earnest, perhaps in largest part because I just want to entertain. My manuscripts do no good for anyone if they languish on my hard drive. I learned how to make EPUB files a couple years ago and posted the results in the usual online outlets. One of my books (the free one) sells at the rate of a semi-respectable trickle.
I say all of this to prepare you to describe my state of mind with respect to Anna Mara’s HER PERFECT REVENGE. I came across the title during a search through the catalog of The Cover Collection, one of the many graphic design firms happy to create a book cover for you. I liked the image. The title sounded fun. So I found the book on Amazon to look at the synopsis and sales rank.
Oh my god. Ms. Mara was killing it! She was selling more units and receiving more reviews than a surprisingly large percentage of traditionally published books.
I bought the book at its very reasonable regular price and dug around to find out about Ms. Mara’s platform. She doesn’t seem to have a Twitter feed or Facebook account like so many indie authors…it seems as though the book sells for all of the best reasons: a compelling cover image, a fun synopsis, and an enjoyable free sample.
Ms. Mara did have a web site, so I sent her an e-mail through her contact page asking her how she is doing so very well in 2018 with a book she first published in 2014. My goodness, she actually responded and did so in generous fashion. This is the kind of generosity I was hoping would surround me when I started writing all those years ago. Ms. Mara ended her e-mail with an off-the-cuff question of her own, asking me why I thought HER PERFECT REVENGE was such a hit with readers.
This essay is an open letter answer to her question and a way to do her a kindness in return by giving her book a little more attention.
The primary reason that HER PERFECT REVENGE resonates with readers because it is written in a cinematic fashion. Ms. Mara’s web site points out that the author comes from a screenwriting background, which makes absolute sense to me. The beginning of the book is a flashback teaser that foregrounds the protagonist’s conflict in the present tense narrative. There are tons of movies like this. If memory serves, the Drew Barrymore film Never Been Kissed begins this way. The deceptively genius 21 Jump Street film begins with a few scenes showing us what Jenko and Schmidt were like in high school, which adds depth to the characters and plot when the film fast-forwards to the protagonists during their time in the police academy. Speaking of which, Police Academy also uses this tactic. Many of the cadets get a fun introductory scene, demonstrating why they want to go to the academy in the first place.
Ms. Mara’s teaser is so effective because it means she wasted no time in establishing the two most important things about a story: what the characters want and what is holding them back. Bill Havenwood is a rich-kid asshole who humiliated Christina in high school. It’s immediately clear that Christina wants revenge (hence the title) and that Bill has had to de-asshole himself in the sixteen years that have elapsed. Being that this is a romantic comedy, the reader is reasonably sure that the two will get together. The reader is also caught up in the big question: how will these two characters get together, given their history? When we establish the central dilemma and the roadblocks immediately, the reader can simply go along for the ride instead.
The main reason that I believe HER PERFECT REVENGE has been so successful is very simple: it is fun. Ms. Mara gives us intrigue. (What will happen to that expensive ring?) She makes us laugh. (There’s a grin-inducing food fight.) Ms. Mara gives us high stakes and memorable scenes that make the book actual fun to read. (I am afraid that some “literary” authors have forgotten that reading is supposed to be fun.)
Still, Ms. Mara has a message or two that she wants to share. The critical idea is that she privileges the narrative over the message. Aesthetics over ideology. Bill is a recovering alcoholic and what he did screams to the reader, “OMG Don’t drink and drive! Call a cab!” But the author is not screaming at you. Ms. Mara has an environmental message to share. Cool. But she never lets her politics get in the way of the story. In fact, her “messages” have a graceful influence on the narrative.
I wonder if “literary” authors realize how much they can learn from a book like Ms. Mara’s. HER PERFECT REVENGE is a very satisfying read. The author fulfills all of the promises she makes to the reader, including the most important promise: that the reader will have fun scrolling through the pages.