Seven years ago, libraries and bookstores around Vermont began to host readings that were something of a curiosity for these parts: The author was a thirtysomething woman tarted up in leopard-print Spandex, precarious-looking heels and a pouffy, bleached-blond wig.
Her adoring, mostly female audiences knew her as Sarah Strohmeyer of Middlesex, author of the Bubbles Yablonsky mystery series. And they ate up her brilliant marketing strategy: to conduct book tours dressed as her fictional heroine. Bubbles Unbound and its five sequels are written in the chatty first-person voice of Bubbles, a Barbie-proportioned hairdresser and single mom living on the gritty side of Lehigh, Pennsylvania, who aspires to the unlikely career of investigative crime reporter.
Fans might be disappointed that Strohmeyer has put Bubbles aside for now — and donated those wild outfits to a Florida nonprofit for auction. But since her last Bubbles book came out in 2006, the mystery writer, now 45, has been making even bigger waves as a romance novelist.
Strohmeyer is an internationally bestselling author whose books have been translated into a slew of European languages. (“I’m really big in France,” she jokes.) And two of her romances will soon be made-for-television movies: Her giant marketing agency, ICM, just sold the film rights for Strohmeyer’s novels The Cinderella Pact and The Sleeping Beauty Proposal to the Lifetime Channel.
On a recent visit to her Middlesex home, Strohmeyer sprawls comfortably on her couch next to her Basset hound and two cats, dressed casually in a V-neck tee and short skirt. She chats at breakneck speed about the romance market — the publishing industry’s biggest cash cow.
“One thing I’ve learned is that women can’t read enough about romance, no matter what it is,” she declares. “And that’s something that I like to write. Romance is just something women are interested in, whether it’s Buffy or Jane Eyre.” In a huge field, she has already gained national recognition: This summer The Sleeping Beauty Proposal was one of five nominees for the Romance Writers of America’s Rita Award for Best Contemporary Single-Title Romance.
Her romances are a hit locally, too, say area librarians. South Burlington Community Library Director Louise Murphy says Strohmeyer’s chick-lit novels have “gone out a lot for our library,” and Lorrie Colburn at the Fletcher Free Library’s circulation desk in Burlington notes that The Cinderella Pact has gotten so battered it’s currently in repair. “Her books went out like crazy this year,” she adds, explaining, “We like her sense of humor, her lightheartedness. We need that these days.”
Clearly, this is not a sketch of the archetypical organic-farming, flannel-wearing Vermont writer who draws literary inspiration from the land. Strohmeyer knows it, and she maintains an ironic stance toward her rural life. “I live in the dearth of retail here,” she jokes about her remote home, a small house tucked in the network of mountain roads north of Montpelier. She says she wired the place for Internet because “Well — I’m stuck here, so I have to.” Periodically, she apologizes for the smell of the pigs kept by her next-door neighbors. It’s an odor she presumably has to block out when writing about her upper-middle-class characters who frequent Boston bars or New Jersey malls.
Vermont, in fact, has yet to serve as a setting for a Strohmeyer novel. As the Pennsylvania-born author explains, “Most people, including The New York Times, want to think of Vermont as this very Bob Newhart [thing]. But we who live here know that it’s not really like that. If you write that, you’re going to dispel the myth.”
More to the point, she adds, “People get going to malls in New Jersey. They don’t get driving in your car for 30 minutes to buy a pair of jeans for your kid.” At one point, Strohmeyer considered writing a mystery about Vermonters living off the grid, but when she broached the topic during an interview with Janet Evanovich, the wildly popular mystery and romance writer advised bluntly, “You’ll maybe sell 5000 copies. It’s a stupid idea.”
Strohmeyer has perfected the art of living in Vermont while staying on top of the rest of the country’s trends. Her books, which serve up spot-on social critiques in a light, witty style, tap into both mainstream women’s desires and the stereotyping all women can face because of their looks or their marital status. Her awareness of these issues comes in part from her 20-year career as a reporter, half of which she spent in New Jersey and Ohio.
Strohmeyer glimpsed the news-writing life while growing up: Her father was a progressive, Pulitzer Prize-winning news editor who hired a fair number of women. Nevertheless, in Strohmeyer’s experience, newsrooms were “really sexist places — hard-drinking and macho.”
One incident drove that home: After three years at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, she was denied a promotion because she was pregnant. Strohmeyer recounts that she tried to keep her condition a secret, but her bureau chief, a “very ambitious woman,” noticed her severe morning sickness and “ratted me out — a very anti-feminist thing to do.” Strohmeyer found out from a friend that her promotion to high court reporting had been given to a different woman who happened to be single. As Strohmeyer tells it, “I called up my editor and said, ‘What gives?’ and he said, ‘Well, Sarah, you never asked for my permission to get pregnant.’”
Strohmeyer considered suing, but, after hearing discouraging advice from a lawyer, decided she “just wanted out — which is what women sometimes do, whether it’s divorce or whatever.” She was grateful to see a local paper “very much like Seven Days” spill the story.
In 1992, Strohmeyer moved with her husband Charlie Merriman and 1-year-old daughter Anna from Ohio to Vermont, where she later gave birth to son Sam. Here she witnessed what might be called discrimination on the other end of the scale. Surrounded by her new, deeply P.C. neighbors, she found herself being scolded for letting Anna play with Barbies.
Spurred by conflicting feelings about the unrealistically proportioned toy she had grown up with, along with a sense that those mothers needed to “lighten up,” Strohmeyer conceived her first book, Barbie Unbound: A Parody of the Barbie Obsession. The small tome features role-playing scenarios and photos of 28 homemade, alternative versions of Barbie. (One shows “P.C. Barbie” headed to the co-op with a toddler doll hanging off her bare breast and dark hair glued to her legs and underarms.) The photographer, Geoff Hansen, worked with Strohmeyer at The Valley News in New Hampshire, where she had taken up reporting again.
Barbie Unbound was a tough sell — it seemed to invite a lawsuit from notoriously protective Mattel. But the book was finally published by New Victoria, a now-defunct lesbian-feminist press in Norwich. It became an immediate cult hit. Attuned to the media world, Strohmeyer called up “CBS This Morning” to tell them about the potentially impending lawsuit (which, luckily, never materialized), and the national exposure only helped sales. Strohmeyer comments sardonically that her daughter, now 17 and hoping to attend Smith College, seems unharmed by a girlhood spent with Barbies.
*Strohmeyer began to imagine what it would be like for a “blond bimbo” to negotiate that milieu. As the character of Bubbles took shape, so did that of Dix Notch, the ultimate macho editor who can’t see past his prize reporter’s blond updo.
Notch, she says, is an amalgam of all the editors she has known. But the bowl of red fireball candies on his desk? That came from Mickey Hirten of The Burlington Free Press, where Strohmeyer once applied for a steady job in a “moment of insanity.”
Strohmeyer relates the story of her final interview animatedly. Hirten asked the bizarre question, “Who are you?” “I said, ‘Well, I’m a thirtysomething mother . . .’ and he said, ‘No, no, no, you’re giving me the facts of your existence. Who are you, really?’ Well, [she thought,] I’m a dreamer; I’m a closet ballet dancer; what the fuck do you care? When she offered something “more specific” about being a writer, the editor “closed the file, and that was it. I still have no idea what I did wrong. And,” Strohmeyer adds, “I never understood what the fireballs were supposed to be – some sort of challenge?” In the end, she didn’t regret not getting a job with the paper that “didn’t even have the guts to editorialize about gay marriage.” Strohmeyer hasn’t touched the reporting world since.
Bubbles, she says, continues to be popular because “I think a lot of women have been in that situation — you know, patted on the head and sent on our merry way.”
Bubbles reached a national audience through a huge stroke of luck: Strohmeyer’s first manuscript was “picked up off the slush pile” — the publishing industry’s term for unsolicited works, almost all of which end up in the recycling bin — by Heather Schroder. The ICM literary agent also represents Candace Bushnell of Sex and the City fame. Schroder happened to be rifling through the pile on the desk of Esther Newburg, the company’s legendary head agent, to whom Strohmeyer had sent her work on a gamble.
“ICM represents the biggest names in the business, so I’m probably a kind of charity case for them,” Strohmeyer says. But her success suggests otherwise. When Lifetime producer-director Stephen Furst, who played “Flounder” in the 1978 film Animal House, asked ICM for a script about marriage, the company sent him Strohmeyer’s Sleeping Beauty. The two Lifetime movies will put Strohmeyer’s books in company with chart-toppers Jodi Picoult’s The Tenth Circle and Kim Edwards’ The Memory Keeper’s Daughter. And her publisher — Dutton, a division of Penguin — couldn’t be bigger.
Strohmeyer is constantly researching her competition — writers like Marion Keyes and Emily Giffin. “My husband’s like, ‘Why do you read all this stuff?’ But you have to; it’s like a stockbroker sitting there and reading all those profiles. You have to know what’s going on.” Her four agents are continually trying to gauge her market, too. “I don’t have enough rampant sex in my books to be in the rampant sex market, [like] J.R. Ward,” she says, explaining the thinking of her literary, foreign-rights, film and audio agents, “so — am I like Joshilyn Jackson, who’s a Southern writer who writes about issues and also has humor? No. Am I Sophie Kinsella? No. I think I’m circling around them.
“The question is,” Strohmeyer continues, “how big is your market, and do you build it, or is there a tipping point beyond which it just becomes a self-fulfilling thing?”
While her agents tackle market assessments, Strohmeyer is at work on the second of a three-book contract with Dutton, slated for publication in June 2009. The Penny Pinchers Club, a look at American women’s recession-related attention to saving money, will follow her latest, Sweet Love, a romance with a mother-daughter bond whipped into the mix.
In an email, Erika Imranyi, Strohmeyer’s editor, writes that her success can be attributed to her ability to write about “real situations that are important to women and that they can relate to — stories that are not only entertaining but also empowering” as well as characters that readers can “rally behind.”
Strohmeyer keeps in touch with her fans by blogging about such topics as Sarah Palin — another woman she thinks is being misjudged because of her looks — on The Lipstick Chronicles, a group blog shared with five other women writers. “The days of just being an author writing from your garret are gone,” she declares.
It’s a wonder that the collective garret of Vermont can also embrace a blockbuster romance writer like Strohmeyer. But she is, after all, the author who thought up Stiletto the war photographer, Bubbles’ hunky love interest who sports a sexy six-pack and a, um, huge lens. And who can resist that?
*In “Chick-Lit Hit” [September 17], the story’s subject, Sarah Strohmeyer, claimed she encountered gender discrimination while working at New Hampshire’s Valley News in the 1990s. However, Strohmeyer provided no specific examples of discrimination, and Seven Days did not seek comment from the Valley News before publishing her remarks. Valley News editors deny Strohmeyer’s claims. The web version of this article has been altered accordingly.