by Len Lear
If you have ever watched “American Idol,” “The Voice” or any other of the myriad “reality”competition shows on TV, you have heard the mantra, “Follow your dream,” over and over ad nauseam, but apparently it does not only apply to young singers. Local author of “Project Ex,” Helen V. Reese, who will be at Alma Mater Restaurant, 7165 Germantown Ave., on Wednesday, Feb. 10, 6 p.m., to read from her comic novel, “Project Ex,” is also the embodiment of this hoary cliché.
Reese (formerly Helen Schaeffer), who will not reveal her age but only ‘fess up to being a “baby boomer” (born not too many years after World War II), has been writing her entire life but never took the big leap until a few years ago when she returned from “the date from hell” and then read an ad about an upcoming meeting of a writers’ group at a local bookstore.
Helen, who grew up in Holyoke, MA, went to Stern College in NYC and then graduate school at Bryn Mawr College, has been a social worker at the Philadelphia Ronald McDonald House on Chestnut Street since 1998. But she wrote a page and a half of personal anecdotal material and took it to the bookstore.
“I just wanted to share some thoughts about my experiences as a divorced single parent,” she recalled, “returning to the frustrating, bewildering and anxiety-provoking world of dating. When I read what I has written, everybody was hysterical.
“I didn’t even think it was so funny. I thought ‘This is just my life. I don’t understand why they are laughing so hard.’ But some of the people said they wanted to hear more, so I went back and wrote more. I did not even think it would wind up as a novel, but I kept going. Scene after scene came to me, and it just took shape.”
Helen was encouraged even more when she submitted her writing to a 2014 competition called “Pitchapalooza” at Main Point Books in Bryn Mawr, conducted by “Book Doctors” Arrielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry. Lo and behold, Helen wound up winning the contest, which was a stratospheric boost to her self-confidence.
“I was then introduced to a New York agent,” said Reese, “who loved the book but thought it would be a hard sell, partly because of the comedic voice and also because the protagonist just turned 50, too old. So I decided to publish it myself.”
The book was published last October. At Alma Mater Reese will discuss her experiences as a first-time novelist and self-published writer. Helen will also share some of the challenges she’s faced — and continues to face — in her struggle to fit this novel with a mature female protagonist into current categories of genre fiction. The term “chick lit,” used for the books of authors like former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Jennifer Wiener, does not fit because Helen’s hero is not in her 20s or 30s. The terms “hen lit” and “hag lit” have been used, probably derisively, for books like Reese’s with an older female protagonist.
“Project Ex” is about a woman over 50, Lydia Birnbaum, whose romantic misadventures show that “you never outgrow feeling clueless about love.” She decides it’s time to take a new approach to dating, drawn from her training as a psychotherapist. Determined to avoid the romantic mistakes she’s made in the past, she launches an intriguing research project on Facebook. When “Project Ex” (“ex-boyfriends”) unexpectedly turns Lydia into Philadelphia’s radio relationship-guru-sensation, she attracts the attention of a jaded food critic-turned investigative reporter who assumes a fake identity as a new therapy client in an effort to unmask her as a fraud.
(In a typical line about one of her dates, Lydia says that “making out with Harry was as much fun as having my braces tightened but without any of the benefits of ending up with a great smile.”)
Cathy Millar, who rides a tractor on her 12-acre property in Bucks County, is one person who began reading “Project Ex,” and said “once I started reading, I just couldn’t stop!”
According to long-time Chestnut Hill resident Debra Roberts, ‘“Project Ex’ is a feel-good, must read. Reese is a wonderful story teller and has done an outstanding job of combining humor, intrigue and romance to create a real page-turner. I certainly hope that we’ll have another Lydia Birnbaum novel soon, but in the meantime, I’m already trying to figure out which actress will play Lydia on the big screen!”
Helen, who was also the p.r. director of the Philadelphia Festival Theatre from 1988 to1990, has been married to portrait photographer Steve Reese since 2003. This is the second marriage for both of them. They live in Narberth. Helen is planning on a sequel to “Project Ex” and is working on a play inspired by her husband’s life-long struggle with Attention Deficit Disorder.
On self publishing, Helen advises, “When you’re a new author, you have to be prepared to devote a lot of time to promoting your work … I also attended a number of writers’ conferences and met many brilliant, kind and experienced people who provided advice and encouragement. And I made some terrific new writer friends along the way.”