Author’s latest novel leaves ‘chick lit’ label behind

Plenty of people have contemplated a hasty escape – climbing into their cars and driving away from their lives.

Few people follow through with the fantasy.

Katherine Earl is an exception.

The question: Does that make the heroine of Lawrence author Karen Brichoux’s latest novel braver or more cowardly than the people who stay put?

The answer is complex, and it unfolds in the 235 pages of “The Girl She Left Behind,” Brichoux’s third book from New American Library.

“She’s constantly run away from the difficulties in her life because facing them would require her to look inside of herself and find out who she really is and what she really wants,” Brichoux says. “Now, at 22, she’s coming back home to a small town and, over the three years that she has traveled, she has become the kind of person who actually is willing to do the hard thing.”

Kat skipped town at 18, creeping away from tiny Silver Creek, Mont., to marry a moody loner named Stephen and travel with his rock band. Without warning, she left behind her best friend, the great-aunt who’d taken her in when her parents died, the uncle who was supposed to have taken her in, and a bunch of teenage classmates who knew her only as one of the beautiful, popular people who never spoke to them.

Lawrence author Karen Brichoux is publishing her third novel, The

But after nine months of feeling more like the quartet’s fifth wheel than its guitarist’s wife, Kat simply drives away from a filling station where she and Stephen have stopped to refuel. He’s in the old beater; she’s in the car with their cat, and she’s having trouble backing up the U-Haul trailer. As she repositions to come at the pump straight on, Stephen rolls his eyes.

“And I rolled right on by,” Brichoux writes. “Just kept going. And I didn’t stop until the low-gas warning light came on and I HAD to stop or risk Kitty’s and my being stuck on a highway somewhere with psycho serial killers slavering in their black vans as they drive along hunting for unsuspecting girls like Miss Kitty and me. : Miss Kitty and I have been going ever since.”

Motivation to leave

Brichoux, who lives in east Lawrence with her husband, three cats and a dog, has never driven away from her life. But a couple of personal experiences – she calls them “illogical moments” – inspired her to open the book with Kat’s abrupt departure. First, she had an extraordinarily difficult time backing up a trailer attached to her own car. Then, while pumping gas at a station on the outskirts of Lawrence, she observed that cities along interstates all look alike until you venture farther in.

“Since the tank was nearly empty to start with, and the pump was slow, I had time to wonder if anyone had ever just filled up, paid and driven away,” Brichoux says.

That got her thinking about what would compel a person to take such a drastic step, and the puzzle of her heroine was born. Piecing that puzzle together becomes Kat’s task in the book, and she does it by tumbling back to Silver Creek to see just how much she’s changed during her four years away.

Turns out she’s grown up quite a lot. And in the world Brichoux crafts for Kat, that journey to adulthood has had little to do with living in a big city, looking for the right man, the right pair of pumps and the right job – a common formula for so-called “chick lit.”

“I try to put my characters into a situation in which they will have to make a change and move to the next level in their life,” Brichoux says. “And I think that requires the author to write more deeply in the internal life of the character.

“My books tend to revolve around communities of people and the main character’s self-discovery rather than the search for the perfect outfit and perfect matching man.”

Writing outside the mold

Furthermore, her heroines are self-assured women with spunky personalities and drive. Brichoux has done her best to avoid the chick lit label, which she thinks is applied with much too broad a brush by marketers. Most of the books that end up with hot pink and green covers in the chick lit sections of book stores would more properly be called coming-of-age stories, she says.

“I think that a lot of times when women write something it is marginalized and trivialized,” she says. “If Nicholas Sparks writes a romance, it’s not called a romance; it’s called a book. When a woman writes something that would be just the same, it’s called a romance.

“I feel that it’s a marginalization of women authors AND women readers. I think that it is somewhat demeaning in the sense that it says young women like fun, fast, sexy reads and they don’t want to read anything that has any meat or meaning.”

Brichoux, who has a master’s degree in European history from Kansas University, has already completed her next book, “Falling Into the World,” which she expects to be released in July 2006. Her previous titles are “Coffee and Kung Fu” (2003) and “Separation Anxiety” (2004).

She’ll share her experiences with the publishing industry in a workshop Saturday at the Lawrence Public Library.

“There are a lot of things that new authors : need to know before they get published,” she says. “What you publish and how it’s marketed and how you work with the editor and the kind of endorsements you get and the kind of agent you have will greatly affect your writing career, so you need to have thought about those things.”