Johanna Edwards visits one of her favorite Midtown spots, Otherlands Coffee Bar, which is one of the many Memphis settings that have been transplanted into the fictional world of The Next Big Thing.
The woman steps out from the pages of Johanna Edwards' debut novel and into the real world of the 27-year-old author's first book signing. Junior-high teacher Chris Allen, whose name is listed in the acknowledgements of The Next Big Thing, stands among the crowd at the March 1 event, ready to complete the loop of publicly expressed recognition between former student and teacher. This technically is a question-and-answer session at Davis-Kidd Booksellers for Edwards' novel, but Allen has a story to tell to the large audience.
Long before Edwards signed a two-book, six-figure deal with a New York City publisher in 2003, and years before she graduated with a bachelor's in journalism from the University of Memphis in 2001, Edwards was learning her craft as a middle-school student of creative writing teacher Allen at Colonial Junior High in Memphis. Even then Edwards had a knack for the written word, outshining her classmates' efforts with her stories, Allen tells the crowd. "Nobody wanted to read after her because they could not top what she'd written," says Allen. "After [her] reading, we'd actually look at each and say, 'Dang!'"
Immediately following the question-and-answer session, Allen rushes to the front of the store to obtain a copy of the book. "She was one of those kids that was so observant," Allen says to this reporter, choosing a paperback copy from a prominent display. "She had such an eye for detail." And then Allen opens the book, flips to the fourth page and points to a line that Edwards had written in the acknowledgements:
"To Chris Allen, my very first creative writing teacher at Colonial Jr. High -- your class meant the world to me."
At the back of the bookstore, the former junior high student with the eye for spot-on details is fully immersed in signing copies of her debut novel for the crowd of roughly 150 people. It's a day Edwards likely won't forget, a highlight in a whirlwind year and a half jammed full of heady events. Consider this timeline: Two weeks earlier, Edwards held a copy of her 342-page book in her hands for the first time. In December 2003 Edwards signed a two-book deal for about $190,000 with Berkley Books, an imprint of Manhattan-based publishing house Penguin Group.
She was 25 at the time.
In L.A., but feeling Memphis
In The Next Big Thing, Memphis native and public-relations professional Kat moves to Los Angeles for several months to the join the cast of reality show, From Fat to Fabulous, in which plus-size contestants try to shed pounds through a series of challenges that are both comic and poignant. Like Kat, Edwards is a Memphis native who has visited L.A. several times for press junkets as arts and entertainment editor for U of M's student newspaper, The Daily Helmsman, and has experience as both a member of the media and as the focus of the media spotlight. Just as Memphis destinations such as Otherlands Coffee Bar and Oak Court Mall are peppered throughout the novel's storyline, Edwards' life is still firmly entrenched in Memphis. She continues to work full time at the job she has held since January 2003 as a producer of the nationally syndicated radio show Book Talk, which is taped in studios adjacent to the Central Library on Poplar Avenue.
Photo courtesy of Johanna Edwards
In the book's acknowledgments, Edwards also gives thanks to another influential teacher: Candy Justice, an assistant professor of journalism at the U of M. As a budding journalist at the U of M, Edwards displayed a talent for locating a juicy story in Justice's feature writing class. Justice had given several classes an assignment to write about students' colorful excuses for missed project deadlines for professors, but Edwards was the first to really nail it.
"She had taken an idea that everybody else had failed with, and she managed to get all these sources that just had these hilarious stories," says Justice, who also is general manager of The Daily Helmsman. The story was so good, in fact, that it won Edwards a national Hearst award after it was printed in the Helmsman.
But building a fact-based article around quotes is one thing. Creating a piece of fiction entirely from your imagination is another. After a number of false starts for other books, Edwards, a reality-show junkie, came up with the From Fat to Fabulous concept first and the book's story line second. In the novel, Kat, the witty, outspoken protagonist, wrestles with her feelings of being a plus-size woman in a culture that favors size fours. Complicating matters, Kat has constructed a false impression of herself for her Internet boyfriend from London, Nick, telling him that she is actually a size four.
Edwards constantly fields the obligatory questions about how much of the book and its characters are based on her life. Her inevitable answer: very little. "I think you have to take the whole write-what-you-know thing not too seriously," she tells the Davis-Kidd audience. Still, Kat serves as a mouthpiece for many of Edwards' personal feelings about what it's like to be a plus-size woman in contemporary society. "A lot of frustrations and a lot of the thoughts I've had are in it," Edwards says. "So it feels like I've published my diary, which is actually kind of frightening."
The tale of how Edwards landed an agent and a publishing deal hinges on a bold gambit. Many of the authors Edwards spoke to through her job at Book Talk told her that there often was a substantial lag time between querying agents and actually receiving a response from them. So Edwards decided to shorten that maddening time cycle by writing an extremely rough draft of her book and sending written queries to about six agents mostly through e-mail.
The next business day, Edwards received several responses requesting the manuscript. Fueled by massive amounts of coffee, Edwards spent the next couple weeks finishing the book, often writing late into the night. "I felt like I was in school cramming for midterms," says Edwards. "Up all night. Drinking way too much coffee."
After sending queries to a total of 24 agents, Edwards ended up landing representation by prominent Manhattan literary agent Jenny Bent. The book went out to publishers on a Friday in December 2003 and Edwards was getting six-figure offers by the following Tuesday.
Standing out in the crowd
Berkley Books is marketing The Next Big Thing as an entry in the hugely popular genre commonly referred to as "chick lit." Ever since the success of Bridget Jones's Diary by Helen Fielding, chick lit has surged in popularity in recent years, with several publishing houses establishing imprints solely devoted to the category. However, the category's soaring popularity has created a double-edged sword scenario, making it more difficult for new authors to stand out in an increasingly crowded field.
"It's an over-published genre at the moment. There's so much out there," says Bent, Edwards' agent.
In an effort to reach even more readers by diversifying, the chick-lit market has splintered into a number of more specialized sub-genres including "paranormal/fantasy," "sistah" and "mom/pregnancy," according to the Web site www.chicklitbooks.com. "People are trying to find sort of more original forms of the genre so it's not just single in the city looking for love," says Bent.
Edwards caught the attention of Bent so quickly because her singular idea jumped out from the usual blur of queries from aspiring authors. "She just had a very creative, original premise," says Bent, adding that the young author "has a real sense of what the market wants and how to write a book that's quality yet commercial."
Edwards recently finished most of the revisions on her second book, which is slated for release in spring 2006. Although Edwards is contractually prohibited from talking about the novel, Bent says it also is "high concept" and features an "original plot twist."
Not bad for the author who has wanted to write a book since she was 6 years old and used to dictate stories to her dad, who typed them out on an Atari computer. Despite her success, Edwards remains grounded. "It sounds like a Cinderella story, but I got some harsh rejections," she tells the Davis-Kidd audience.
Take the story of one agent who responded to Edwards' query with, "'This is the worst idea ever. You really shouldn't be writing,'" recalls the writer.
"I was in tears," says Edwards. As if the day couldn't get any worse, after that rejection Edwards stepped outside and saw that her car had been egged in a random incident.
Less than a year and a half later, Edwards is speaking to the large audience at Davis-Kidd on the day of her book's release. So much for the worst idea ever.
"Hi, everybody. Wow, this is a great crowd," says Edwards to the audience. "I have to admit that I'm very nervous."
In fact, earlier that day, Edwards almost broke a microphone during an interview with WREG-Channel 3.
"I figure if you're going to break a piece of equipment, better the microphone than the camera," Edwards says with self-deprecating wit that echoes Kat's sense of humor.
And then Edwards begins to read to the audience from her book, which is not only the story of Kat's romantic woes and personal growth, but also something more: the realization of a 6-year-old Memphis girl's dream.