What's a miserable 40something to do? Write her own ending

The Globe and Mail

Author Kim Izzo has just released her first novel, a romantic comedy titled The Jane Austen Marriage Manual. (Brett Gundlock/Brett Gundlock for The Globe and Mail)

Kim Izzo has one simple message. When you’re at your nadir, and you’re determined to do something about it, anything can happen.

In Ms. Izzo’s case, her frustration resulted in her first novel, The Jane Austen Marriage Manual, a delightful page-turner of a romantic comedy that’s filmic in its deft depiction of characters and sharp plot twists. Faster than a fashion magazine editor can find herself jetting off on a hilarious romantic quest to Palm Beach, Fla., St. Moritz, Switzerland, London and the English countryside – which is what happens to her screwball heroine, Kate Shaw – the book sold in Britain, Germany, the United States and Canada, where it made its debut last week.

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“I was in a miserable, sad state,” Ms. Izzo explains, looking the exact opposite in a tailored leopard-print dress and heels, her long, dark hair sleek as mink. “I didn’t have a job. I was working part-time. I didn’t have a home. My relationship at the time wasn’t doing well. I was 40. And I thought, ‘Really? This is where I’m at?’ I felt I had been sold this bill of goods – feminism. You’re supposed to do it all on your own, and here I am: I have nothing.”

And then she had an idea. Or not quite an idea, a silly thought. “I should have married a rich man, like people always told me to do in my 20s. And I asked my friends as a joke: ‘Is it too late?’ ” She may have laughed about it, but she quickly turned serious. Here was the perfect premise for a novel: Can a woman after 40 marry for money? And what better way to escape the reality of your life than disappear – one hour at a time – into the possibilities of your imagination?

“I wanted to write what would make me happy,” she says, before leaning in to take a sip of wine from a large glass she has been holding in front of her as if it were a beautiful, fragrant rose. She pulls back from its bouquet and tosses off the gritty determination of the next sentence like a breezy party greeting. “I felt, dammit, I know I can write a novel. I can do something I could control.”

Ms. Izzo, now 45, is one of those women who does style as others might make a grocery list. It seems to be an easy, quotidian ritual, executed by habit, not effort. In the 1990s, she co-wrote two books on etiquette, The Fabulous Girl’s Guide to Decorum and The Fabulous Girl’s Code Red: A Guide to Grace Under Pressure. She and her writing partner, Ceri Marsh, former editor of Fashion magazine, ended up on Oprah, and their books became international bestsellers. On Ms. Izzo’s Facebook page, her signature photo shows a pair of feet in high heels, kicked up in the air, as though the wearer is lying on her back, laughing, one imagines, naked or in a killer dress, a flute of champagne in hand. “I like all the things about being a woman,” she explains with a demure smile.

Ms. Izzo carries her Fabulous Girl attitude like a perfect accessory. It’s part of her arsenal. Underneath the frivolity of fashion – she once worked at Flare and is now deputy editor of Zoomer magazine – lies a steely focus. By the time she started the novel, she was employed at Zoomer, but she set out a strict writing schedule for herself. “I can’t write at night when I’m working at a magazine. I’m too exhausted. I write in the morning. I try to get up at 6 or 5:30 and try to write for an hour or so before I go to work.” She also writes every Sunday.

The advice of an ex-husband helped. In her late 20s, she had a “starter” two-year marriage, she tells me in one of her frequent wry asides. Michael Stokes is a screenwriter, based in Los Angeles, who had been a teaching assistant at York University, where she was studying film. “He taught me really great things: the importance of the outline and to take every five pages – like every five minutes in a film – and figure out what happens to keep it moving. … He was also the one who told me that if you just do an hour a day, it adds up.”

She started her novel on New Year’s Day, 2009, and finished her first draft in February, 2010. Her fiction draws heavily from her own life experience. Kate Shaw is a fashion editor who finds herself at 40 with nothing – unemployed, broke and single. Her beloved grandmother has just died. Ms. Izzo, who was born and raised in Toronto, had also recently lost her grandmother, who looked after her in the wake of her parent’s divorce.

In the novel, Kate encounters a British man, Griffith, who was a character loosely inspired by one of Ms. Izzo’s romantic skirmishes. “I had met a British guy at a wedding at Oxford. It was very Four Weddings and a Funeral. We dated. Well, it was really just a romance. I just sort of turned my back on it. It was impractical, too far away. And I always think that he’s the one who got away. In the book, I could relive that romance, and make my own ending,” she says, making her last remark as pointed as a stiletto.

Ms. Izzo has a sort of girlish yet mature wisdom. Her asides, spoken almost under her breath, out of the corner of her red-lipsticked mouth, come off as the funny, dark after-thoughts of someone who lives life by the seat of her designer jeans rather than with an expected script. Last fall, she became engaged to someone she knew in high school. So she got her happily ever after, I point out. “We’ll see,” she shoots back laconically. “I haven’t had the greatest track record with men and relationships, but it always makes for great fodder for books.”

It’s a joke – or at least, she quickly passes it off as such. “He’s great,” she adds about her fiancé, explaining that she doesn’t “need marriage to be happy. I believe in it.” But the commitment hasn’t dampened her determination to write more novels and screenplays.

“Looking back, I do regret not pushing harder on the film and television thing in my 20s. I dabbled in a lot of things … I have learned how to get the focus and the discipline. If you don’t have it, you won’t get to do what you want.”

What about her new love life?

At the beginning, it got in the way of the next novel, she happily admits. “I spent months not writing.” But now? She looks up over her wine glass after another sip to offer a perfect bauble of a retort. “Well, he golfs.”