You know the type: those precocious, in your face, incredibly verbal children. Annoying, aren’t they? Turns out that when they grow up, as much as we wish for payback, that attitude can in some cases take them far.
Meet Jen Lancaster (BA 1996, Political Science), a former citizen of the corporate world who emerged as a bestselling author in 2006. She doesn’t hesitate to admit that she was a brat as a kid and that some people still consider her to be one. That personality, in fact, is at the heart of her writing.
Her books, starting with Bitter is the New Black, are wry, mouthy, sassy ‘chick-lit’ that chronicle her daily adventures and offer keen observations on the world around her. Prolific woman that she is, she has produced a new work annually since her debut as a writer. Her fifth book, My Fair Lazy, will be published in May.
“My biggest goal during childhood was to be able to work little bits of profanity into conversations with grownups without getting into trouble. And now as an adult, every single one of my books has the word ‘ass’ worked into the title or subtitle, which secretly delights me. I feel like my childhood has finally come full circle,” she says.
Lancaster lives in Chicago with her husband, John Fletcher (BA 1995, Communication), who figures prominently in her storytelling as “Fletch,” the ever patient and more reasoned half of the pair. In contrast, she is a bit more of a loose cannon. If you believe what you read, she likes a stiff drink, has been known to redecorate impulsively, and loves animals to zoo-like excess. Her book chapters bear titles like “Gentlemen, Start Your Cheesecakes” and “Loathe Thy Neighbor.”
A devotee of cute shoes, pretty purses, and spa treatments, Lancaster’s world unraveled when she was laid off in 2001. She spent the next year unsuccessfully trying to find a new job, worked as a temp, sank low, and was reborn through the popularity of her Web site about being unemployed, which inspired her to write a book.
A child of metropolitan New York and Boston, Lancaster and her family moved to Huntington, Indiana, when she was in sixth grade. She wrote for her high school yearbook and newspaper, enrolled at Purdue thinking she might like to be a journalist, pledged a sorority, partied more than she studied, flunked out, then returned with determination. Hooked by the 1992 presidential elections, she declared a major in political science and graduated with honors four years later.
“Ultimately, I didn’t get a job in political science, but I learned so much about critical thinking and writing in my courses that I can’t imagine anything that would have better prepared me for my current life,” she says.
Lancaster — whose books have made the New York Times “Bestseller List” and has met her idol, Sex and the City author Candace Bushnell — seems to be living a dream. And it’s one she shares openly with her fans. Just how much, though, does she share?
“I make sure I’m as honest as I can be in whatever I write, which means sometimes I end up looking like an ass for everyone’s amusement. (Did you see how I slipped some profanity in there? Years of practice),” she says. “I do my best to really put myself in my writing and people seem to connect with that.”
To maintain some level of privacy, she now practices what she calls “participatory journalism, where I have to accomplish some task or try to learn something new.” That led to a book focused on weight loss and fitness, and, in her newest book, the pursuit of higher-brow culture, or what she calls a “Jenaissance.”
In the book, she says, “I come to the realization that my addiction to reality television has made my brain a bit sluggish, so I challenge myself to a year full of cultural activities, like theatre and opera and art. I intentionally put myself into situations that make me uncomfortable, to see what I can learn about myself and the world.”
Lancaster, whose blog (www.jennsylvania.com) keeps fans up-to-date on happenings in her life, is hitting her stride. It’s payoff for training that began years ago as the precocious, chatty brat her readers have come to love.
“I was pretty sure I wanted to be famous as a kid, but I had no idea in what capacity,” she says. “To ready myself for pending fame, I used to pull a kitchen chair into the bathroom, I’d stand on it, and I’d interview myself. Years later, I had my first television interview and I was beyond nervous before it started. But as soon as I began talking, the whole thing felt really familiar and it occurred to me that I’d been getting ready for that moment for years.”
WRITING HER ASS OFF
Producing five books in as many years, Jen Lancaster is as profane as she is prolific. With childlike glee, the self-proclaimed brat includes “ass” on the cover of each work. Her latest effort, My Fair Lazy, continues that tradition with the subtitle “One Reality Television Addict’s Attempt to Discover if Not Being a Dumb Ass is the New Black, or a Culture-Up Manifesto.”