Two years ago, Memphian Johanna Edwards was producing the local Library Channel's radio and TV show Book Talk. She was also author of a debut comic novel, The Next Big Thing. Edwards followed that success, the very next year, with Your Big Break. And this month, she's back with her third novel in as many years: How To Be Cool. It's the story of 29-year-old, onetime overweight Kylie Chase, a Chicago "image consultant," whose business is turning the geeky and fashion-challenged into the fashion-conscious and cool. But to her credit (and future happiness), Kylie learns a couple of life lessons: 1) every drop-dead handsome reporter can't be trusted, and 2) image isn't everything. But image does count for something — the basis for a book. Ask Johanna Edwards.
"I'm a bit obsessed with images and with how people who seemingly have it all aren't always as happy as they appear," Edwards says. "And I think a lot of people hinge their happiness on one thing or another, thinking that once they lose weight or get married or move to another city their life will really begin. It doesn't actually work that way. In How To Be Cool, I wanted to tell the story of someone who had accomplished her biggest dream — Kylie loses 75 pounds and reinvents herself — but the happily-ever-after isn't exactly what she bargained for."
Three novels in three years maybe wasn't what Edwards bargained for either when she thought to try her hand at fiction. But she's not complaining. Owing to the success of The Next Big Thing, her publisher, Berkley, signed her to an expanded contract before her second novel even appeared. And she's entered a new market (young-adult fiction), with a new publisher (Simon & Schuster), and under a new name ("Jo Edwards"). That book is called Love Undercover, which was released in December 2006. And though Edwards is 29, getting into the minds of high-schoolers, she says, was no big deal: "In my head, I'm still a teenager, but my birth certificate would tell you otherwise."
Getting a grip on her popularity with readers was another matter.
"How To Be Cool was the hardest thing I've ever written," Edwards admits. "People say the second book is the most difficult. But for me it was the third, because I delivered Your Big Break to my publisher before The Next Big Thing was released. When writing How To Be Cool I kept thinking, Uh-oh, I'm cussing too much and my grandparents are going to read this! Or: 'Lisa in Oklahoma' slammed me on Amazon for having too much plot. Maybe I need to tone down the plot this time around?
"It's stupid, because with The Next Big Thing I had about 10 major reviews. All of them were positive. But I'd see one bad reader review on Amazon and take it to heart. I used to Google my name — there were lots of blogs out there about me, lots of reader reviews on dozens of Web sites. I was driving myself crazy! So I just quit cold turkey. Now I don't look at Amazon. I don't Google my name. And that's made a HUGE difference in helping me relax."
Dropping her day job at the Memphis Public Library is also helping Edwards to meet her lifelong goal: full-time writer. "It's been my dream from day one," she says, "and I'm still in a state of shock that it came true. As cheesy as it sounds, I really wake up a lot of mornings and pinch myself because I can't believe it's true.
"I loved working at the library, producing Book Talk, but it just got to where I couldn't keep up. At this point, I have six books under contract (counting my two young-adult titles), and I'm also doing some freelance magazine work. So I'm keeping busy writing, which is exactly the way I like it."