An interview with Melissa Pimentel

Although LOVE BY THE BOOK is a novel, the premise comes from an experiment that you conducted in your own life, that you turned into a blog called “Love by the Book.” What made you want to try this and how did you come up with the idea?

The idea came after a year of semi-successful dating in London. I’d come out of a serious relationship the year before (a marriage, in fact) so I wasn’t looking for anything remotely serious… and yet every time I tried to convey that to a guy, they seemed to think I was trying to trick them. It was getting annoying, so when the idea came to me to try these different dating guides – and effectively turn my love life into a science experiment – it instantly appealed. I’ve always thought that dating should be fun – when I was in college, I used to play a game called “wrong or funny” with my roommate in which we’d get ourselves in slightly awkward/controversial situations with guys and then ask each other if the situation was wrong or funny (the best ones were both) – so this felt like killing two birds with one stone: making a game out of dating and also (maybe, hopefully) learning something about male behavior along the way.

Why did you decide to write this as a novel and not as a memoir?

In truth, I ran out of material! The real-life experiment was going really well for a few months. It was fun (if exhausting) and the blog was starting to get some traction… but then lo and behold, I went on a first date with one of the test subjects and fell in love. It was sort of a double-edged sword: on the one hand, I was happy to have met the love of my life (we’re now engaged) but on the other, I was kind of annoyed that I had to give up the project. I actually tried to keep it going for the first month we were together, but it was getting too weird. An editor at Penguin who had been following the blog suggested a try to fictionalize it, and here we are!

I’m actually really glad that it ended up being a novel rather than a memoir, as fiction allowed me to be more creative about what happens to Lauren. I was able to incorporate dating horror stories that my friends had told me and also invent situations, which was really satisfying. Though I have to say, real life is often more ridiculous than fiction!

How do you think the dating world has changed in the last two decades? What rules are the same and what rules are different?

I think that there’s more choice out there for everyone, which can be both a good and a bad thing. Women are more comfortable with saying that they’re looking for no-strings sex and I think there’s less pressure on women to settle down and couple off before they’re ready – which is obviously a good thing. I get the feeling that women in their twenties are less concerned about finding Mr. Right (GOD I hate that phrase) than the generation before them, and their focus now is more on their career/friends/self/life in general than getting some dude to buy them a ring. I do think it’s taking guys longer to catch on to that mentality, though, and a lot of guys still think that if a woman has sex with them, that means wants to marry them. And it doesn’t.

There’s also all the choice that online dating has brought about. Think back to Jane Austen times, when there were basically three eligible bachelors in any given neighborhood, so chances were good that you’d end up with one of them. These days, basically every single person within a five mile radius is just a message or a swipe away. This amount of choice is amazing in some ways – what if all three of those bachelors in Austen’s neighborhood were dicks? – but also sort of overwhelming. If everyone’s available, what’s the incentive of giving the person you’re going on a first date with a fair shot? Or the guy who’s photo doesn’t ring your bell, but who might be super charming and funny in person? And Christ only knows that men feel the same way, if not more. I read an interview recently with the two most popular people on a big online dating site – a straight guy and a straight girl. Both received hundreds of messages from prospective suitors. The girl was clearly a little freaked out by it, and the attention had made her more selective, while the guy was like, THIS IS AMAZING.

There are a couple of things that have remained the same, though. The first, more superficial, thing is that everyone loves a chase. For whatever reason, the human race appears to be hardwired to desire the things/people/situations we can’t have, and that is certainly true of dating. As sad and anachronistic as it sounds, if you want a guy to pay more attention to you, pay less attention to him. Don’t text him for a while. Date other guys. Men have some sort of radar about this: if they feel your attention is elsewhere, they’ll want to get it back.

The second, arguably more important, thing is that when it happens, it happens. Dating should be fun! Turning it into a serious issue won’t get you any closer to finding your soulmate, but putting yourself in awkward/unexpected situations just might. Be open to anything but expect nothing. Love is a weird animal and it will sneak up on you when you least expect it. Just make sure you have a lot of fun before it gets you.

What was the most ridiculous thing that’s happened to you on a date?

Oh, god. So many. There was the guy who ordered two drinks for my every one, and then ended up so shitfaced I had to put him in a cab. The guy who ate seemingly an entire head of garlic at dinner and then planted a kiss on me so bad that it made me cancel our second date. The professor who lured me to his apartment with the promise of giving me a book he’d mentioned, only to try to (literally) trap me in his kitchen as he offered to be my sugar daddy… honestly, it got to the point where I was surprised when I went on a non-ridiculous date. And a little disappointed.

What’s the lamest excuse a guy has given you when they come down with “The Fear?”

Well, as in the book, a man did literally choose watching Football Focus (which is a show in the UK dedicated to a bunch of talking heads discussing the Premiere League) over having sex with me, which was a low. And there was another who told me that I was looking for too much commitment when I suggested we try seeing each other more than once every six weeks. Actually, that was the same guy… Hmm.

You’ve worked in the publishing industry for you entire career, currently at Curtis Brown in London. Did you find that your experience has helped you during the writing and acquisition process? How does it feel to be the writer instead of the agent?

I honestly don’t think I would have written this book if I didn’t work in the industry. I would never have had the courage (or the will) to go off on my own volition, write an entire novel, submit it to agents… no way. I would have been way too nervous and self-conscious. I feel incredibly lucky that the editor at Penguin UK, Hana, approached me about the idea and that my great friend and colleague, Felicity, agreed to be my agent. I also feel incredibly guilty, as I know there are so many people out there writing away and hoping to get published one day, and I sort of fell into it. (Though the writing of the actual book was actually pretty tricky while holding down a full-time job, so I will allow myself a little bit of credit).

As for being on the other side of things, it’s actually been really fascinating! I definitely have a bigger respect for the publishing process as a whole. There are so many people involved in the process, and so much work goes into making the finished product – it’s sort of breathtaking to witness. As a writer, you’re sat at your desk pecking away at a keyboard for months on end and then suddenly you’re swept up in this huge publishing machine. It’s really impressive to see it in action.

Did any of the dating guides give you a tip that actually worked?

Two things really worked: playing hard to get, as per The Rules (which I was pretty bad at, because I’m impatient and also because PATRIARCHY!) and flirting with everyone you come across, as per the 1920s guide, The Technique of the Love Affair. This was so much fun and such a big confidence booster – it really proved to me that if you have your light on and you’re open and receptive, basically anyone and everyone will flirt back. And that’s really fun.

Which guide ended up helping the most? Which was the biggest disaster?

I think The Technique of the Love Affair was the most successful in that it was the most fun and definitely made me change the way I went about my everyday business. Even the morning commute started to be fun, as I’d try to get as many cute guys to make eye contact with me as possible (though this is slightly risky on the Tube, where there might be a psychopath waiting quietly behind that cute veneer).
The most disastrous was probably Why Men Love Bitches, because I was trying to shoehorn it into my life after I’d met my partner. Also, while I appreciated the sentiment – I completely agree that no woman should feel like they need to accommodate a guy’s every whim and fancy – but I thought the wording was a little off. You can be a strong, independent woman who tells men what you want and what you think (men should and do love that) without being a bitch. No one likes an asshole.

What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to someone who considers themselves cursed in the dating world?

Broaden your horizons. Go out with the guy who doesn’t seem like your type, or whose picture is a little weird, or who’s two inches shorter than your ideal height. You never know what you’re going to find. And try to enjoy yourself – obviously dating can be excruciating at times, but there are so many other elements of life that cause stress and unhappiness. Dating really should be one of the enjoyable parts. And if at all possible, play Wrong or Funny. It’s seriously so much fun.