For romance novelist Jennifer Crusie, inspiration for a new book is as inexplicable as love itself. "I can't tell you where my ideas come from," says the Ohio resident, whose sharp wit and keen insight into human nature are showcased in such best-selling titles as Fast Women and Faking It. "They just show up." The author of 15 books, Crusie has learned to trust her instincts, knowing better than to dismiss those "aha!" moments, no matter how or where or when they appear. "If something comes knocking at the door," she says, "I let it in."
From lovable, flawed men to a mother who counts every celery stick that passes her lips, colorful characters abound in Crusie's new novel, Bet Me. In a word, these characters are real. At the story's center is Min Dobbs, a smart, spirited insurance executive who forever laments her ample body's swerves and curves. Society's obsession with thinness is a hot button for Crusie, and one she pushes frequently. "American culture is so soaked with the ideal of feminine beauty being about 40 pounds underweight," Crusie says. "Min is healthy, with a good attitude, but every once in a while she gives into the pressure and begins to think she's fat."
From the start, Crusie tackles the weight issue with characteristic levity. When Min tries to make chicken marsala without olive oil, the results border on the inedible. Crusie's message is clear: in cooking, as in romance, there's no substitute for the real thing. "Cooking and love are very similar," she says, "You invest a lot of time in each, and you get out of it what you put into it." On a deep level, Min's repeated efforts to render a low-cal version of the rich Italian dish are attempts to deny who she really is—a vibrant, full-bodied woman.
In Bet Me, handsome Calvin Morrisey is not smitten with Min at first sight; he only notices her striking blond and redheaded friends. When he asks her out, the cynic in Min suspects it's simply to win a wager placed by two of his pals (that's the "bet" in Bet Me). But as Cal falls in love, he begins to see Min as beautiful. While his transformation may seem like a fantasy to some women, Crusie insists such men really exist, and that finding them isn't as difficult as pop culture would have us think. "A lot of men may be trained by society to go for the Victoria's Secret model," says Crusie. "But let's face it: they don't marry the Victoria's Secret model."
Though praised by critics for her wicked wit, Crusie hardly considers herself the queen of quips. "I've never deliberately written to be funny—nobody slips on a banana peel in my books," she says. "I think my characters just have a particular kind of sense of humor. They use it the way a lot of people do, to cope with the absurdities of life." When people make a list of things they seek in a partner, a sense of humor is always in the top five, says Crusie. "Instinctively people know that those with an ability to see the humor in a situation are mentally sound; they can roll with the punches."
Frank feedback from longtime friend and critique partner Valerie Taylor helps Crusie keep her own life—and prose—in perspective. "We've been working together for so long now, I don't know if I could write a book without her," she says. Taylor's assessments can be both brilliant and blunt. "There was a sentence in Bet Me, where Valerie wrote in the margin: 'Who wrote this, your reptile brain?' It was really a bad sentence, and I thought: 'Oh hell, she's right.'"
Recently, Crusie has also teamed up with her 29-year-old daughter Mollie, a production assistant in the film industry. The two hope to adapt one of Crusie's books into a screenplay. The business partnership is worlds away from Mollie's college days, when she'd sit around with her friends, laughing as they read steamy passages from her mother's books. "Her friends would say, 'Your mom wrote that . . . that's so cool!'" remembers Crusie.
Beyond those well-phrased fits of passion, what makes romance novels so popular? It's the one genre where you are guaranteed to find a woman at the center, says Crusie. "Romance novels are an affirmation, an antidote to all that stuff on TV, where the woman is the assistant D.A., and the story is really about the D.A., who's a man. Or the woman gets kidnapped and raped and tortured." In those shows, even when a woman is in a position of authority, they still make her a bimbo on the side. "That doesn't happen in romance. She's never on the side. She may be a bimbo," says Crusie with a laugh, "but it's her story."
A self-proclaimed "narrative junkie," Crusie advises aspiring romance writers to read everything they can get their hands on. "Story is so phenomenally interesting," says Crusie, who holds two master's degrees in English literature and has completed everything but her dissertation in the Ph.D. program at Ohio State. "The first thing you say when you sit down with somebody you haven't seen in a while is, 'tell me what's happening.' It's so basic to the human condition." Among Crusie's favorite writers: Dorothy Parker, Margery Allingham, Georgette Heyer and Terry Pratchett.
Crusie is currently at work on a murder mystery in the spirit of Agatha Christie (she wrote her first master's thesis on women in mystery fiction), and a ghost story. While her tales may center on specters or suspense, Crusie will always write through the prism of romance. "It's such an elastic genre, you can put anything into it," she says. And there's never a shortage of material about the rocky road to love. "Dating is so full of pitfalls," says Crusie. "That's why it makes such good fiction fodder."
Allison Block writes from La Jolla, California.