Laura Zigman: Just Like Life

Sunday, September 3, 2006

Many years from now, when literary historians are poring over the Chick Lit phenomenon and trying to determine how and where it all began in America, pencils will point to one writer, Laura Zigman, and one book, Animal Husbandry.

Before Bridget Jones's Diary saw these shores -- before The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing existed -- Zigman's witty novel about dumpers and dumpees and the "Old Cow, New Cow Theory" was planting a firm seed in American women's imaginations. With it, a new genre was born.

"You wouldn't call it Chick Lit if I were British," she protests. "In Britain, my books would be 'novels of manners.' It's a condescending term, really. Not to mention: unseemly. I'm 44 years old!"

In truth, she is quite willing to accept the label. "In the end, I don't care what they call my books," she admits eventually. "As long as people read them. As long as the books sell. Yes, I write thinly disguised autobiographical fiction. I figure what happens to me happens to a lot of people. Everyone has a story about being dumped."

Indeed, when Animal Husbandry was released in 1997, the gossip in Manhattan publishing circles, where Zigman worked as a book publicist, was feverish. The novel was obviously about real life. Happily in love, poised to move in with her editor boyfriend, she was suddenly, unceremoniously made aware of another woman. Actually, quite a few "other" women. Put plainly: She was dumped. "By a womanizer of the highest order!" That's where the pen came in.

Animal Husbandry was a publishing sensation. A feature film called "Someone Like You," starring Ashley Judd, followed. A whole genre came into being and flourished. Before long, because she was back in the hunt for a new boyfriend, Zigman published another novel, Dating Big Bird . And then, because she was trying to work out how she felt about her fiancé's ex: Her .

What follows love and marriage? Mommy Lit. Zigman's latest novel is about a young mother trying to work her way back into professional life. "She's a has-been, taking a job in a small-fry publicity firm, although she'd been a big-time publicist in the past." Whom does she represent? Another has-been -- an out of work, aging, former screen star. The title of the book is Piece of Work .

This, too, is a slice of real life, as it turns out. After Zigman published Her , she tried her hand at a mystery novel. "No one wanted it," she says. "All that rejection! I began to think my writing career was over. I didn't feel like a failure, but that's what I was being told I was."

But of course, she wasn't. This is an indefatigable writer, despite all the self-doubt she expresses in the accompanying essay. Like many novelists before her, she writes what she's lived. What she's felt. What she knows.

Chick Lit? The term has a tired feel to it. But there's nothing tired about Zigman.

-- Marie Arana

© 2006 The Washington Post Company