SEX AS A SECOND LANGUAGE
Atria • Hardback & Trade Paperback
April 25, 2006
Katherine Miner has decided to withdraw from the world of men at the ripe old age of forty. A former actress, Kat now teaches advanced English as a second language to adults in downtown Manhattan.
But even as Kat prepares her students to venture into the linguistic minefields of casual social contact, she has no intention of risking her own neck. In fact, Kat plans on retiring from sex. It’s not that she hates men. It’s just that she doesn’t trust them. After all, her soon-to-be ex-husband has dropped all contact with their nine-year-old son, and she herself hasn’t spoken to her father in more than thirty years.
Bit then Kat receives a letter from her father that turns her life upside down. And suddenly she is discovering that she still has a lot to learn about men, friendship and kind of nonverbal communication they don’t teach in school.Alisa Kwitney’s darkly humorous novel affirms that forty is not the end of the world for women – sometimes, it’s just the beginning.
Interview with Alisa Kwitney and Deirdre Martin!
You know the standard author interview format: Where do you get your ideas from, how many hours a day do you write, do you use a computer or dip a quill in your own blood. Yawn. Tired of the same old questions? Then find out what happens when two writers stop being polite and start asking each other what they really want to know.
A New Look for Spring
I’m not entirely sure why, but my seventy-one year old mother tends to be a surprisingly good indicator of trends. If my mother starts walking around in gold metallic sneakers, I know I’ll soon be seeing them in the New York Times Style section. If she starts singing the praises of some barbecue joint in Harlem, I just wait for the Food Network to follow suit. And when she complains that she’s losing interest in LOST, I brace myself for the series’ cancellation.
So when Mom says that she’s no longer purchasing hardcover novels, I pay attention. “With all the high quality trade paperbacks they print now,” she explains, “there just isn’t the same distinction that there used to be between hardcover and mass market paperback.” According to my mother, trade paperbacks have changed her formerly snobbish attitude about hardcovers, the way HBO TV movies made her rethink her assumption that movie theater films are inherently superior.
Sure enough, I began getting reader mail asking me when Sex as a Second Language is coming out in trade.
Well, the answer is now. As of April 3, SASL is out in trade paperback with an eye-catching new cover and some nifty extras, like a reader’s group guide and an author Q & A.
And even though I don’t always agree with my mother about the little things, (those were not attractive shoes, Mom) I’ve learned to respect her opinions about the big issues. So Flirting in Cars will be published as a trade paperback right away in August.
Naturally, my mother approves my decision. “Not only is it more affordable, but you can fit it more easily into your suitcase.”
I’m holding firm on the shoes, however.
Why is Romance a Dirty Word?
In the first chapter of Sex as a Second Language, my heroine says that the only men she finds attractive are the ones she would be insane to get involved with. Her friend counters that the last time Kat was single was ten year earlier, and hasn't her taste in the opposite sex changed at all?
Well, Kat admits, she's no longer attracted to Kevin Costner. But beyond that, my heroine doesn't really know what she would like in a man. She dismisses Magnus at first because he doesn't seem articulate and lacks an edge, but it's pretty damn obvious that she's going to be reevaluating that initial impression.
Why is it pretty damn obvious? Well, because although my books aren't published as mainstream romances, they adhere to many of the conventions of the genre. Hero and heroine meet early, and their relationship is central to the book. My endings are, if not happy, then at least hopeful.
And, although my books are often described as "chick lit", I tend to break the unofficial chick-lit rule that the whole book should remain in female point of view. (This used to be an unofficial romance genre rule, too, until Laura Kinsale revealed just how compelling the hero's perspective could be.)
Now, as I write this, I am very much aware that admitting to writing chick lit is like admitting to smoke the occasional social cigarette, while admitting to writing romance is like carrying a pack of Marlboros around. It is, to put it bluntly, not quite acceptable. At family gatherings, relatives ask, Aren't you ready to quit yet?
And I say, No, because I'm enjoying myself too much. And why the hell is romance such a dirty word, anyway? Literary authors who think nothing of dabbling in other genres - mystery, fantasy, young adult - still treat romance as if it were in some way inherently inferior.
But I don't see romance that way. For me, the general structure of romance fiction is open and roomy enough to allow me to create my own kind of stories. And I like the way romance allows me to make my hero a catalyst for my heroine's change, and vice versa. I also like the way in which the expectations of the romance genre give me something concrete to play with, as I explore the themes that interest me - the way honesty and deception can get tangled up with each other, the confluence of the personal and professional in modern life, how strange we all are under the surface, and how wonderful it feels when we reveal our hidden strangeness and find a kindred strangeness in somebody else.
Which is why I don't think it matters whether or not a reader can predict the ending of a romance. The real challenge, for me, is in convincing my own cynical self that it makes emotional and psychological sense for these characters to wind up together.
-- Alisa Kwitney, off to watch Dear Frankie on DVD for the third time. Hey, it's research - Gerard Butler's restrained yearning is as sexy as his Scottish accent.
"The romance between Kat and Magnus is, except for the CIA part, true-to-life and achingly bittersweet. Kwitney even gives them one of the sexiest scenes involving two 40-somethings since "The Thomas Crown Affair."
- Debra Pickett of the Chicago Sun Times
"Alisa Kwitney’s Sex as a Second Language [has] ...intriguing characters...The engaging heroine, a well-drawn cast and the author’s compassionate eye takes what might have been Chick Lit of the Week to a much more satisfying level."
- Barbara Samuel for Bookpage
"an engaging and intelligently written comedy--with a few genuinely titillating sex scenes."
- Publishers Weekly
“Sex as a Second Language, Alisa Kwitney's smart, sassy, sexy tale of the single mom who brings in a spy from the cold and warms him up, is funny and emotionally true, a great read!”
- Jennifer Crusie, bestselling author of Bet Me
- Valerie Frankel, author of The Girlfriend Curse and Hex and the Single Girl
"Smart, funny and very real. Alisa Kwitney gets to the heart of relationships and portrays them with wit and honesty. Women who've reached the ripe young age of forty will identify with the heroine's concerns, attitude, and longings."
- Leslie Schnur, author of The Dog Walker
“You’re too young to retire from sex.”
“But I’m too old to put up with all the bullshit that’s involved,” said Kat, leaning back in her chair and crossing her legs. “Besides, the only men I find attractive are the ones I’d be insane to get involved with.”
This comment received a mixed review from her friends, a wry smile from Zandra, a look of concern from Marcy. Shit. Kat had learned the hard way that if she didn’t present her depression in a sufficiently amusing manner, she’d wind up having to sit through a steady barrage of unsolicited advice. See a therapist. Take an evening course. Try the new generation of mood altering drugs.
Yet as much as Kat longed to avoid being on the receiving end of any more prepackaged wisdom, she wasn’t sure that she could sustain the requisite level of wit to satisfy her friends. Her feet were sore from walking ten blocks in three and a half inch heels and her head was beginning to throb from the drone of fifty other peoples’ dinner conversations.
“But Kat,” said Marcy, “The last time you were single was ten years ago. Are you saying your taste in men hasn’t changed at all?”
“Well, I no longer fantasize about Kevin Costner.”
“No, seriously. Let’s talk about what would attract you now.” There was a look of missionary eagerness on her pretty, fine-boned features.
“Marcy, I beseech you, no in depth analysis.” Underneath the table, Kat surreptitiously slipped out of her stilettos. “How about a nice, safe topic, like the pros and cons of government sponsored torture?”
“Very funny.” Zandra reached for her martini, jangling the silver bracelets on her arm. “Am I allowed to mention that there’s a guy over at that table who’s checking you out?”
Kat tucked her bare feet under her chair. “You always think men are checking us out. He’s probably looking for a waiter.”
In contrast to Marcy, who seemed to have lost all her fashion sense, Zandra was improving with age. Ten years earlier, when they’d first become friends while watching their toddlers in the playground, Zandra had concealed her hair in bandanas and her body in baggy overalls. Then, sometime last fall, Zandra had stopped trying to restrain her abundant curls and started wearing fitted clothes that flattered her generous, hourglass figure. Not surprisingly, her transformation had coincided with the advent of a new man in her life. Well, not actually in her life, Kat thought, since the man only made sporadic guest appearances. But it was this very unpredictability that kept Zandra on constant French bra and matching panties alert.
Marcy, on the other hand, had gone from gamine short hair and funky vintage dresses to a lank bob and shapeless designer shifts. Looking at her now, Kat could hardly recognize the bohemian waif she’d met twelve years earlier in an acting class. It was a classic case of mommification, but in Marcy’s case, she hadn’t managed to have the child yet,
Thinking about it made Kat realize that she probably needed a style overhaul herself. She’d been wearing the same tailored, mannish chic for over a decade.
“No, he’s definitely looking at you, Kat,” said Zandra, gesturing with a toothpicked olive. “See, the blue shirt, over there?”
Kat wondered if she should try something different with her hair. Layer it? Lighten it? Cut it all off? “I see him.”
“You’re not even looking, Kat.”
“I’m using my peripheral vision. Not my type.”
Zandra looked skeptical. “And what exactly is your type?”
“Borderline.” Now that her divorce was almost final, Kat was aware that her friends felt she ought to be to be past the stage of obsessive thinking and intense bitterness. Without ever saying so directly, Zandra and Marcy had let Kat know that there was a rough timetable for adjusting to break ups. After six months, Kat had reached the point where she was expected to provide a few sardonic anecdotes about her soon-to-be-ex, as well as some fresh tidbits of carnal misadventure with new prospective mates.
But she couldn’t find the motivation necessary to give a convincing performance. Kat no longer believed that she would discover some magical fit with a man. Sure, if she looked hard enough, she could probably find a partner for some mutual genital friction, but she’d given up all hope of someone taking her through the hot, sweaty crucible of transformative sex.
Kat turned to Zandra. “Why don’t we talk about your love life? Are you still seeing the semi-famous guy?” As the man in question was also semi-married, Zandra had kept his identity a secret.
“We’re taking a break right now. He says he needs some time to be on his own and figure out what he wants.”
Translation: He was blowing her off. Kat tried to think of a tactful way of putting this. “I hate to say it, but I think you’d better brace yourself. When men say that, they almost never decide that what they really want is more intimacy.”
Zandra lifted her chin a fraction. “Well, I’m not as certain as you are that it’s all over. But you don’t see me just sitting around, refusing to meet anyone new.” This was true enough. Zandra believed that romance came to those who pursued it, and her quest for an enlightened partner seemed to entail a never-ending array of workshops with titles such as Tantric Vegan Cookery and Spirit Guide Hiking.
Marcy, on the other hand, had been dating the same passive aggressive underachiever for seven years. As far as Kat could tell, his main attraction was that he gave Marcy something to complain about.
“And how are you and Steve doing, Marcy?”
“We’re talking about going to Iceland this winter.”
“Iceland? In winter?”
“It’s actually supposed to be very pretty, and not as cold as people think.” Also, Kat assumed, it was cheap. Steve was a forty-two year old struggling jazz musician, and his refusal to stop temping and get a steady job meant that he lacked the funds to travel anywhere nice with Marcy, let alone get married and have a child with her.
“So, what do you do on a winter vacation in Iceland?”
Marcy stirred her martini. “Well, there’s supposed to be a fabulous night life.”
Which meant that Marcy was going to wind up alone in her hotel room while Steve drank himself into a stupor. Looking at Zandra (trying too hard in an African beaded choker and low-cut red blouse), and Marcy (not trying hard enough in a grey velvet chemise), Kat wondered why the hell she’d been voted the sick puppy of their trio. She also wondered how long she had to stay before pleading a headache and heading back home.
Adding to Kat’s general feeling of malaise was the fact the restaurant, Carnivore, was dark and hot and packed tight with college students and young professionals, all bombarding one another with flirtatious pheromones.
Kat couldn’t even get her drink refilled, as the wait-staff were making only brief appearances at each table before vanishing into the back, presumably to play a hand or two of poker before returning.
Zandra had said that a night out was just what Kat needed. If grouchy was an improvement on miserable, then her plan was working.
“Where is our waitress, anyway?” Kat scanned the room. “We should never have told her we needed another minute to make up our minds.”
“Speaking of making up one’s mind,” said Zandra, “have you decided what you want to do about your birthday next week?”
“Yes,” said Kat. “Ignore it.” It wasn’t the fact of leaving her thirties that disturbed Kat. The way she saw it, she was still youthful enough to wear her hair long and her jeans low, yet was old enough to know not to flash her thong when she sat down. After spending much of her twenties in open auditions, Kat no longer fretted about her looks, her talent, or her ability to withstand rejection.
But with both her personal and professional lives on hold, Kat wasn’t quite in the mood to celebrate the fact that her life was now approximately half over.
“But Kat, you can’t just ignore the big four-oh,” said Zandra. “Marcy and I were talking about throwing you a surprise party, but we decided you’d probably kill us.”
“Oh, dear God. Promise me you aren’t going to do anything like that. You aren’t, are you? This isn’t some elaborate deception where you pretend to be really frank and open while secretly plotting to confront me with a cross section of my past?”
Marcy put her hand on Kat’s arm. “Are you having feelings about reaching middle age?”
Kat laughed. “Yes, I feel this incredible urge to go buy elastic pants and start shopping in bulk. No, Marcy, I’m not depressed about getting older. In fact, I kind of like the fact that for the first time in over twenty years, there isn’t a man in my life and I don’t care.”
“Of course you don’t need a man in your life,” said Zandra. “But I get the impression that you’ve closed yourself off. I hate the idea that your experience with Logan has made you hate all men.”
“Oh, Zandra, please.” Kat pushed away from the table, her chair scraping along the floor.
“Listen, it’s not that I hate men. I don’t. In fact, there are many ways in which I prefer them to women. Men tend to be more direct than women, more decisive and goal oriented. I like the fact that men seem to worry less than women about other peoples’ opinions. And, since I am heterosexual, I do find myself physically attracted to them from time to time.”
Zandra raised her eyebrows. “Okay, if you admire them so much, then explain why you’ve decided to keep them all at arm’s length.”
“Because,” Kat said firmly, “I don’t trust men. I figure it’s best to keep a lion tamer’s attitude – you never know when the other half of your act is going to forget its training, revert to instinct and bite the hand that feeds it.”
End of excerpt Like it? Order it!
The foregoing is excerpted from Sex as a Second Language by Alisa Kwitney. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from Atria.