Chick Lit with a twist

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Chick Lit novels can be set almost anywhere, but when two authors decide to set their heroine’s adventures in the middle of the philosophy department at University of Dallas, you may feel as if you’ve entered the Twilight Zone.

Welcome to the world of Catholic Philosopher Chick.  The brainchild of popular children’s novelist Regina Doman and Rebecca Bratten Weiss, the series is published by Chesterton Press, founded by Doman and her husband, Andrew.

The protagonist, Cate Frank, is a Jewish convert to Roman Catholicism. When not flashing back to her past life as a New York fashion writer, Cate is pursuing a Ph.D in the study of Thomas Aquinas – and keeping a lookout for the perfect guy.

To date, there are two novels in the Catholic Philosopher Chick series, the second of which was released this year.  In Catholic Philosopher Chick Comes on Strong, the reader follows Cate’s adventures and misadventures as she deals with some dysfunctional classmates, breaks up with her truck-driving boyfriend and helps crack a mysterious case of vandalism at the university library. The engaging effect overall is a cross between P.G. Wodehouse and Bridget Jones’s Diary.

What inspired the two authors to create Cate Frank?

“In 1995, Regina and I were in a writers’ group together at Franciscan University of Steubenville,” says Weiss.

“The novels I was writing then totally failed to go anywhere — but Regina was starting the first of her popular Fairy Tale novels….so I got to see the idea take form.

Over the years, the two writers stayed in touch.  One day, they were chatting on the phone when Doman brought up an idea she had for a smart Chick Lit series.

“Bridget Jones was recently out,” Weiss says, “so I envisioned something like that but with philosophy and religion.  Anyone who thinks philosophy and religion don’t click with romantic comedy has never been an angsty ‘twenty-something,’ agonizing over what to wear for a conference on Plato.”

Weiss, a Nietzsche scholar with a BA and MA in philosophy from Franciscan University of Steubenville and a current doctoral candidate in Literature at University of Dallas, has certainly done just that.

Doman, on the other hand, majored in television production and managed to graduate college without ever having read Plato – “horrifyingly,” she now says.

“I was doing what any publisher would do: shopping the idea around to other Catholic women writers. Everyone thought it was a great idea, but no one had time to work on it… and then I re-connected with Rebecca, and as she and I talked about it, we both realized what a perfect fit it was for her talents. In retrospect, it seems as if I was developing the story just for her. God’s sense of humor.”

How does the work break down between the two authors?

Doman does the overall outline of the plot.

Says Weiss, “Regina has the whole series mapped out already (yes, there are more to come….and one in the works at present).”

Droman explains that she uses “a Hollywood technique [called] Batchler Sequencing, as well as Lajos Egri’s premise-centered method, which I swear by. I think that’s important for a collaboration, to have a map and a plan.”

“We start with the germ of an idea, we sketch out how we’d like it to branch out, and then Rebecca does the actual writing. We sort of use our plan as a scaffold, like how you stake a tomato plant as it grows, to support it.”

Gardening is more than a metaphor for both authors. To call Weiss the outdoorsy type is an understatement.  She runs an organic farming business during the summer when she’s not teaching English at Franciscan University of Steubenville.

Doman shares Weiss’s enthusiasm for life on a farm: “My husband and I have a five-acre homestead where we raise sheep and chickens and cats and children, but my background was strictly suburban, but I share with her a commitment to sustainability, locality, small businesses, and respect for all life.”

Why Catholic Philosopher Chick?

“Philosophy has always been a part of my life,” says Weiss.
“l can’t say whether [Nietzsche’s] my favorite or not. I just know him extremely well….like a weird family member with a crazy reputation. Our protagonist, Cate Frank, is a Thomist, but I myself can live fairly happily without the Angelic Doctor.  So, writing about Cate’s intellectual journey and tying Aquinas in with the conundrums of life has been interesting!
“[Philosophy is] as intimate to living as eating breakfast or falling in love. I wouldn’t be able to write about the business world or the sports world but l can go on and on about philosophy. To my family’s distress.”

For her part, Doman believes that philosophy is something that a lot of single Catholic women relate to: for many of her friends, the quest to find that soul mate eventually led them to focus on one idea, going back to school and studying something they love…and seeing if they meet someone.
“The idea of a second chance, of finding out what you love and hoping that you’ll find someone who you can love along the way,” she says, “that just appealed to me.”

“I am not an intellectual myself, and I married at 24, but I feel for women who are on that journey, and I asked myself, ‘Is anyone else publishing books that speak to that woman’s experience, of seeking truth through love?’ When the answer was, ‘No,’ I thought, ‘Well, then obviously, I should publish some!’”

While romance novels tend to center on the industries of fashion, design, entertainment, Doman say that most of the women in her circles who went back to school study theology, literature, or philosophy.

“And it struck me that in some ways, fashion and philosophy were polar opposites, and I saw some humor potential there, in the what-if concept.  What if a girl gave up fashion to study philosophy? And the next question would be, What sort of girl would give up fashion to study philosophy? The answer was Cate Frank.”

Who is the target audience?

“The target is primarily Catholic women,” says Weiss who was raised by parents who converted to Catholicism, and who did not practice the faith for many years.

“My dad converted from Protestantism and my mum from Judaism. But we didn’t practice the Catholic faith as a family until I was about ten, so l grew up going to a non-denominational charismatic church some days, or to the local Episcopal church with my grandmother, while also celebrating Jewish feasts and learning Catholic prayers. I think this gave me a great appreciation for the breadth of our faith tradition.”

Although the target audience is Catholic woman, Weiss says that she has had positive responses from male readers, and readers from other faiths.

“I have non-Catholic friends who said they stayed up all night reading it.”

Doman, who was born and raised Catholic notes that, “William Carlos Williams once said, ‘I write for myself and for my friends, and I write to ease the passage of time.’ To me, that means that as I write, I visualize the friends who would enjoy this particular book and tell them the story.
“But the fun of this project is that I feel Rebecca is telling me the story, too. And I know she’s telling it to my husband, who works closely with me and who usually snatches Rebecca’s drafts out of the inbox before I can get to them. So I’m not surprised when I hear from men that they’ve enjoyed the books. And that heartens me.”

But there is a larger purpose, as well, according to Doman. “You see, our society is so fragmented and isolating, that so many times audiences are divided and subdivided by publishers – especially men and women – so you have the extremes of guns n’ bombs vs. dresses and kissing. I like the idea that our Catholic Chick Lit project is actually bringing the sexes together in some small way, instead of further dividing them.”

The two authors are at work on a third volume, and hope to publish the books in audio as well.

John Farrell is the author of The Day Without Yesterday: Lemaitre, Einstein and the Birth of Modern Cosmology from Basic Books. He writes about science, technology and media for Forbes.

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