A Life of Crime

Finding my muse outside the canon

“The way I see it, living in New Jersey is a challenge, what with the toxic waste and the eighteen-wheelers and the armed schizophrenics. I mean, what’s one more lunatic shooting at you?" —Janet Evanovich, "One for the Money" MONTVILLE, N.J. — I spend my summer days in an office building in Manhattan encased in shelving filled with the literary big wigs, in a publishing house known for its publications of Pound, Bolano, Nabokov, and Sartre. But lately, all I can think about is coming home to New Jersey after work, picking up my three volume edition of Evanovich’s crime series, and reading about bounty hunter Stephanie Plum and her steamy romance with wanted criminals. In the beginning I felt guilty. As a student of comparative literature and a thesis-writing senior come September, I felt I was committing my very own crime against literature. At the end of the school year, I packed up my belongings and stuck a reading list half a mile long—from Adorno to Zizek—into my suitcase. I left Cambridge this spring with a few goals for the summer: I would do some thesis research, work on my writing, finish up the novel I’d started, and commute to my internship in New York City. But after a semester’s worth of writing workshops with Bret Johnston and years of serious literary ammo from Dana Palmer House in my back pocket, I came home to a major case of writer’s block. My expectations were high, and I couldn’t deliver. Would I write the next Great American Novel? Could I do it in the next few months? Not at the rate I was going. A while ago, my friend had connected me to a family friend of his: Janet Evanovich. She and I exchanged a few emails about writing and the publishing industry. At that point, I had certainly heard her name before but hadn’t read any of her books. However, when I came to New York for the summer and started to learn more about the publishing industry, I also learned more about the author whose name frequently tops the New York Times bestseller list. I kept seeing her books displayed in the front windows of bookstores I visited. I heard a few women talking about her in a grocery store aisle in New Jersey. She even popped up in my inbox on a coupon from Barnes and Nobles. This summer she was coming out with the most recent cycle of the "Stephanie Plum" series. It would be book number 14. So after a few weeks of acute writer’s block, I sat down with my copy of “Three Plums in One,” the single-bound version of her first three Plum novels. The way the story goes, Stephanie is recent divorcee and a resident of Trenton, N.J., who, after losing her job as a lingerie purchaser, decides to work as a bounty hunter. There’s one man in particular, a devastatingly good-looking cop-slash-criminal named Joseph Morelli, who keeps popping up throughout Plum’s cleverly narrated and endearingly fumbling crime-fighting scenes. Drama ensues; romance buds. Now as you can imagine, it’s not Joyce. But it’s also definitely not trash. So far, I’ve burned through 3 of these babies, and I’m still roaring to go through the next 11. I can relate to Stephanie Plum. I’m the kind of student who, like Stephanie, lives her life in disarray: 7 minutes past the 7-minute grace period, running around Harvard Square in spandex and no pants (some think this is a crime in and of itself), and constantly straddling the line between academic probation and sanity. I could relate to Stephanie on a level I couldn’t relate to someone like Martin Heidegger, for example. Plus, her descriptions of New Jersey were sharp and right on the money. These books were pure fun. I sat down at last at my laptop, and suddenly I could write. I was no longer tied down by the fetters of the literary greats, who have haunted me for the past so many years. I was no longer judging every measly line I wrote against a chapter of Tolstoy or Proust. Fiction became a fun and easy process, and I could finally let myself write confidently the way I felt comfortable writing. If this is a life of crime, I’ll take it. Evanovich wasn’t on my list when I left for the summer, but she might be the best decision I’ve made so far. —Juli Min ’09, a Crimson arts editor, is a literature concentrator in Leverett House. She will be a guest editor for the blog IvyGate next month. Send her juicy tips and stories at kmin@fas.harvard.edu.