The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, November 4, 2005


Tracy McArdle maps, navigates and produces her first novel

Photo by Ellen Huber

Tracy McArdle lives on Sunset Road with her husband, a dog, some horses, and a very affectionate cat named Little. Little is actually rather large, but she has grown and prospered since she was a kitten McArdle found outside. Another active part of the household is a computer that chugs along nearly audibly, because McArdle has found an avocation as a writer. This spring, she published her first novel, Confessions of a Nervous Shiksa, and another is now in the works.

The "shiksa" (a Yiddish word meaning a non-Jewish woman) in question is a character based loosely on McArdle herself, and began some years ago as a series of journal entries about a painful and life-changing relationship failure. The journal was a way of navigating a path through the breakup, beginning with despair and progressing toward starting over again with confidence and humor. The journal entries grew into an essay of about 30 pages, which she showed to friends. On their advice, and "since I had no social life so I had more time," she began to develop the essay into a book in the first person.

She found an agent through a connection in Los Angeles who thought she had something, but told her the book was "a mess." A story, says McArdle, has to have a beginning, a middle, and an end: an arc. The characters must have the same sort of arc to ensure that they grow. "Your journal is not a novel." With the help of the agent, she learned to map out the arc of the story, and fictionalized the book. Even though "people I know will recognize bits and pieces of themselves," McArdle says, "it is harder to write fiction than to describe someone exactly as she is." She also asserts that it is more freeing: it is possible to play with characters, to aid traits, eccentricities, digressions, as long as "you bring them back to the story arc."

One of the book's more entertaining minor characters, however, is based fairly faithfully on a real companion: Little, the cat, appears as a weird, long-suffering feline waif with a persistent abscess, whose skyrocketing veterinary bills are an added source of anxiety for the story's heroine. The real Little, the "six-thousand-dollar cat" whose expensive ailments were the basis for the fictional animal, appears quite healthy now, and purrs loudly and contentedly in the company of strangers, demonstrating a high level of social ease that is decidedly lacking in the fictional Little.

Bringing Confessions of a Nervous Shiksa to the reading public was a crash course in learning how to write a novel and then, as the industry term goes, to "shop it" to publishers. After "12 or 13 rewrites" and "refining, by which I mean cutting," about 18 months of work in all, McArdle's opus was rejected 16 times. McArdle says she was "very defensive" about some of the comments on the rejections, but found most of them "helpful," and a way to "learn more about writing." In addition to shopping the book, she took it to a writer's group, and to the Naushon Writers Workshop on Naushon Island for constructive criticism. She declares that writing the book is only half the job and selling it is the other half, and says that, along with their agents, aspiring writers should be "their own publicists; no one is better qualified." Eventually, her book sold to Downtown Press, a trademark division of Simon & Schuster that specializes in what is known as the "Chick Lit" market, or escapist books targeted primarily at women. The finished product is a breezy, frothy and wry look at the life of a Hollywood publicist as she drags herself out of the misery of a breakup with a struggling actor and into a life of her own.

Downtown Press has commissioned a second novel that McArdle has outlined. This one is about "a woman who thinks she has everything she wants, but that may not be the case." Less autobiographical than Shiksa, and written in the third person, it, too, will be a comedy. McArdle says that an outline is like a map: the characters may veer off course, but they have to return to the map to chart their journey. Art mirrors life, as this new author navigates her way through the world of writing and publishing.

Tracy McArdle is the featured speaker at the annual meeting of the Friends of the Gleason Public Library on Saturday, November 19, at 2 p.m. Copies of Confessions of a Nervous Shiksa will be available for sale and for the author's autograph.

2005 The Carlisle Mosquito