Sarah Mlynowski, left, wants to be a writer when she grows up – oh, wait: she is grown-up. At 31, this nice Jewish girl from Montreal is living and loving the big-city writer’s life.
It almost sounds like something out of one of the chick lit novels she writes. After earning her English literature degree from McGill, Mlynowski (it’s pronounced Mlin-OV-ski) moved to Toronto to work for Harlequin Enterprises, the romance publishers. There, in 2001, her talent was discovered with Milkrun, her first novel, which has now sold over 600,000 copies worldwide.
Since then, she’s written or co-written more than 10 books, including the Magic in Manhattan series, set in her new home of New York. It’s about ordinary teen sisters who just happen to have “Glinda” – their special code word for witching power.
For a hard-working writer, Mlynowski sounds suspiciously like she’s having fun. In her first blog post of 2008, she bubbled that her newest Magic in Manhattan book, Parties and Potions, was finally complete: “Yay! There’s magic! Boys! A witch debutante ball!”
A debutante ball closely based on her own group Bat Mitzvah. (“But I obviously changed it to be witch-friendly.”) Growing up in Montreal’s Jewish community – she attended JPPS-Bialik High School – Judaism was a big part of her life.
Mlynowski’s spiritual roots are still proudly Canadian. “My husband’s family is still in Montreal, and my dad lives in Oakville now… I go home for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Passover.” She also has family in Israel, where she’s been three times, once with March of the Living.
Mlynowski says her many strong, vocal female characters may stem from Jewish influences. Plus, “there’s so much humour in Judaism; more than anything I write hoping to entertain, make people laugh.” Finding the lighter side of disaster – perhaps revolving around a roommate situation or love interest – is “definitely a Jewish value,” she says.
“Almost all of my books have a Jewish character,” says Mlynowski, including Magic in Manhattan’s main character, 14-year-old Rachel Weinstein.
Although Parties and Potions won’t be out for a while, fans can look forward to the upcoming release of the paperback edition of Spells and Sleeping Bags (April, Random House). For the grown-ups, there’s also How to be Bad (May, HarperCollins), written with two other authors. “It’s about three girls on a road trip through Florida trying to find themselves.”
Each of the three authors (Mlynowski, E. Lockhart and Lauren Myracle) chose a character and took turns writing a chapter in their character’s voice. Early collaboration happened online, but “once we sold the novel, we met in Florida and plotted out the rest of the book.” Even editing was “a blast”. Once we were finished, then we could dig in and edit each other’s work…We just had so much fun.”
Naturally, Mlynowski’s character is a Jewish girl from Montreal. But that’s where most similarity ends. “I never take anything true and put it in a book,” she says.
And contrary to what you might think, friends don’t hide details of their romantic lives from her: “People love being in books…a friend will call and say, ‘I have a crazy dating story for you.’” She laughs. “The only people territorial about anecdotes are other writers.”
Still, Mlynowski loves spending time with colleagues. “There’s such a fantastic community of writers here” in New York. Her social circle reads like an Amazon.com bestseller list: lunch with The Nanny Diaries’ Emma McLaughlin, parties and readings with teen writers Scott Westerfeld and even her one-time idol, former Montrealer Gordon Korman. “When I was at JPPS, he came to our class and talked to us about becoming a writer… it was so inspiring to me.”
She’s also thrilled to collaborate, as she did on How to be Bad, or with editor Farrin Jacobs on See Jane Write: A Girl’s Guide to Writing Chick Lit. “As a writer, you’re isolated, spend all your time by yourself, stuck in your own head.”
For someone who reads everything from John Grisham thrillers to literary fiction, she doesn’t feel at all constrained by the light romance genre.
“People make assumptions – that the book’s about shopping, [or] it’s about getting dumped.”
Actually, chick lit is “more about being fun and entertaining and uplifting… female characters and their everyday lives.” As one Amazon.com review says, Mlynowski’s writing “goes beyond your usual, ‘I need a boyfriend to make me happy,’ genre and into the unlikely friendships between women.”
Although the dust jacket of her older books still refers to her as “an irrepressibly optimistic twenty-something,” Mlynowski reached a milestone last year: her 30th birthday. She doubts it will affect her writing, though: “Angst is angst no matter what your age.”
And if staying current means being where the teens are, Mlynowski has nothing to worry about. She’s apparently both busy and popular on the MySpace social-networking website, sharing ideas and insights with 4,662 “friends” and over 12,000 fans and colleagues on the “Teen Lit” authors’ and readers’ group she started.
Mlynowski may not have a broomstick of her own, but online and in real life she’s irrepressibly spreading her own special “Glinda” over the world of contemporary fiction, bewitching readers of all ages along the way.