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Colleen Curran

An exclusive interview
with the author of

Whores on the Hill


By Adrienne Mand Lewin

Colleen Curran really appreciates the congratulatory e-mails she receives from teenage girls who've fallen in love with her debut novel, "Whores on the Hill." She's just surprised that so many are reading it.

"To me, it's not young-adult literature," Curran says of the tale of teenage angst, sex and life in '80s suburbia. "If I did [mean it to be,] I wouldn't have called it 'Whores on the Hill.' I would have toned it down."

Published in May 2005 to much critical acclaim and named one of NPR's "best debuts," "Whores on the Hill" reminds Curran of books like Curtis Sittenfeld's "Prep" and William Golding's "Lord of the Flies" that have young characters but were written "with a narrative distance and language style that make it adult."

"I think it's a fine line between young adult and adult," she says, adding, "Sometimes I do see the book in the young adult section at the library and I just think it's wrong. I would have written it differently. It doesn't mean that I don't think it's appropriate for 15-year-old girls, but I think more mature readers should be reading it."

She also was taken aback by the reaction in her hometown of Milwaukee, where the novel is set at a girls' Catholic school and there was speculation that its provocative characters and events were based on real circumstances.

"I think it's so obvious that it's fiction," she says. "I didn't base it on my experience. I didn't base it on my high school. I was quite surprised that people really did think this stuff was real - it's pretty wild stuff."

Curran says she enjoyed getting to know her heroines Astrid, Juli and Thisbe. "I really liked writing it. I really liked the girls. I was really swept up in their world. I felt a spark with it that I only had with my best short stories."

She also took some chances and had fun with the writing, including such formats as an interview and a quiz, satirical takeoffs on teen magazine staples. "I get pleasure experimenting with prose styles, trying out new language," she says.

Before the success of "Whores on the Hill," Curran was in a position that many writers can empathize with: having a graduate degree and a desk full of work but nothing published.

After attending the MFA program in creative writing at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Curran taught composition for a year before joining the Web site Richmond.com, where she covered arts and entertainment. She currently works at the Richmond Times Dispatch Web site covering entertainment.

With a full-time job, Curran had a set writing routine while working on her first novel. "I'd get up at 5, write until 7:30, go to work. On really good days, I'd hit it again at home in the evenings."

Though she describes herself as a night person, the early routine was a necessity, she says. After a friend told her to quit writing since she hadn't had any success with it, "I was so insulted by that, so upset because I felt like I am a writer. It really forced me to say, 'I'm going to try this getting up in the morning and see if it works.' My brain is kind of more open. I'm not as stressed out. I don't have all the worries of the day."

Curran says getting an agent "took a long time - kind of like building a fire, building a resume."

"I did feel like I'd been at this since I was a teenager. I went to grad school, graduated from grad school and still didn't have any published short stories. I felt pretty much like a failure."

Her luck began to change when she had a short story published in Jane magazine's fiction contest. From there, she had a few pieces picked up in literary magazines and then the anthology "The Dictionary of Failed Relationships: 26 Tales of Love Gone Wrong."

"I knew that finally I had a good base to say I've been published."

After she'd written her third or fourth draft of "Whores on the Hill" and thought it was done, Curran went through all of her favorite books and wrote a list of agents to contact based on who writes like her and what kind of company she would like to be in.

She knew she wanted to be represented by Eric Simonoff, a literary agent with Janklow & Nesbit Associates in Manhattan, based on his reputation and client list. She'd gotten an offer from another agent, but when Simonoff suggested revisions she turned it down to work with him. Four months later, she had cut 100 pages, written 150 more and finished the book. He sold it in a week.

"It's good to work with people that you trust and people that you like," she says, adding that writers have to be "very careful who they sign with. Other people went with agents who were first responders. They didn't get book deals and are in really difficult positions. They can't shop the book again and can't get another agent. Be careful."

After "Whores on the Hill," Curran edited the anthology "Altared: Bridezillas, Bewilderment, Big Love, Breakups, and What Women Really Think About Contemporary Weddings." The idea grew from her own reluctance to plan her nuptials, which eventually took place in 2006.

"The whole idea of plans and the wedding itself seemed really outmoded and daunting," she says, adding, "I was just thinking, 'How do other women deal with it?' I wanted to hear from other women, women who had strong careers and independent wills and never really fantasized about the big day."

In addition to assembling some excellent essays, she says, the process was cathartic.

"It really helped me come to grips with planning my own wedding," Curran says. "That's really what working on a book for me is all about - coming to grips with something that won't let you sleep at night."

Now, Curran is working on short stories about women in their 20s and 30s, as well as a few novel projects. Without divulging specifics, she says they deal with women and their jobs, money, relationships, kids and careers.

She makes writing a part each day.

"For me, working every day really seems to be the best way to go," she says. "I get nervous about writing. I get scared about it, scared to sit down, scared I'm going to write another horrible short story, scared I'm going to write another page of just terrible, terrible work.

"But if you write every day, then it's not as bad because you can have some really bad days but you can have some good days, too."


 

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