David Henry Sterry

Author, book doctor, raker of muck

David Henry Sterry

Month: July 2015

Jenny Milchman

Jenny Milchman on How to Get a Book Deal After Only 11 Years of Bitter Rejection

We first met Jenny Milchman when we heard about some crazy book tour she was doing that seemed almost as ridiculous as the book tour we were doing. Essentially, The Book Doctors have been on tour for seven years, during which time we’ve done over 300 events. We wanted to connect with Jenny to see how she was doing it, and maintaining her sanity. When we reached out to her, we found out she was not only a wonderful writer, but also a wonderful human, generous, smart, funny, down-to-earth, full of joy and expertise. Now that she has a new book out, we thought we might pick her brain about books and writing and yes, touring.

To read this interview on the Huffington Post, click here.

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The Book Doctors: How did you first become interested in being a writer?

Jenny Milchman: I don’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be one. In fact, the desire, or predilection, or bug apparently predates conscious memory. All of my [failed] college essays began with the line, “I wanted to be a writer before I knew how to write,” which came from an anecdote my mother told about how she used to write down bedtime stories that I dictated at the age of two.

TBD: How did you learn how to become a writer?

JM: I did a lot of workshop-type things between high school and college. Summer Arts Institute in New Jersey was formative, and I studied with poets like the late Kenneth Koch and Robert Kelly in college. But the way I learned to write a novel, a whole, structured work of long-form fiction, instead of just scribbling lines and starts until I’d lost interest, was by reading every book on craft I could get my hands on. I called it my self-inflicted MFA and during the years I was inflicting it, I must’ve read every book in the Writer’s Digest catalog. And a whole lot more. Albert Zuckerman of Writers House fame wrote a great book called Writing the Blockbuster Novel. Donald Maass wrote The Breakout Novel. Anne Lamott, Bret Lott, Stephen King, James N. Frey–not the scandalous one–the list goes on and on and on and on. Those authors schooled me more than any class.

TBD: What are some of your favorite books, who were some of your favorite authors, and why?

JM: Oh, gosh, this is always the toughest. Impossible really. I loved the great short storyists growing up. Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game,” W.W. Jacobs’ “The Monkey’s Paw.” Anything by O. Henry. I studied the Victorians in college and all three Bronte sisters, George Eliot, and Henry James were great favorites of mine. But perhaps the most visceral authors, the ones who really took my heart in their hands and squeezed it into a ball, were the great horror writers of the 1970s. Ira Levin, Frank De Felitta, David Seltzer, William Peter Blatty, and of course, Stephen King.

TBD: How did you get your first book deal?

JM: It took me 11 years, 3 agents, and 8 novels before I finally landed a book deal with Ballantine. How it happened required all eleven of those years: reading those books on craft, going to events at bookstores and seeing how real authors did it, building a circle that included people like you, David, and Arielle. But in the sense that big events do come to one single moment in time…this one rested on a favorite author, Nancy Pickard, who read my eighth novel in manuscript form and passed it on to her editor. I’ve been with the same editor for both books since my debut, and I hope we never part. My third novel is dedicated to Nancy and our mutual editor.

TBD: How do you deal with rejection?

JM: I stomp around and cry and whine and scream. I break computer screens. Seriously–when a much loved bookstore declined to do an event with me, I fell over my computer sobbing, and the screen cracked. Don’t be like me.

Rejection is part and parcel of this business–I just never got good at accepting that.

TBD: What is your new book about?

JM: If I tell you that As Night Falls is about two convicts, one huge and one wiry, who escape from an Adirondack prison, would you believe me? But on a deeper level, it’s about how a mother’s love can go awry, twisting and thwarting the generations to come in one unending double helix. When the convicts encounter a family contained by a snowstorm in their mountain home, only unveiling the secrets from the past will allow for true escape.

TBD: Why did you decide to go on the longest book tour in the world, and how did you go about setting it up?

JM: You mean not every published author rents out her house, trades in two cars for an SUV that can handle Denver in February, asks her spouse to work from the front seat while the kids are car-schooled in the back, and hits the road for 50,000 miles? What??? Oh right. My publisher was skeptical, too.

But when it takes you eleven years to get published, you either make a lot of friends or a lot of enemies along the way. I was lucky enough to make friends. And when I finally had a book released, I wanted to go out and thank them. Face-to-face. The world’s longest book tour–as Shelf Awareness called it–made the virtual world come alive, and that’s when true magic sparks, in my opinion.

And since my debut novel wound up going into six printings in hardcover, people became a little less skeptical. I wouldn’t say that sending authors around the country for seven months has quite become standard operating procedure for the Big 5, but by this third tour, my publisher is helping with some of the events and cost. I also have a crack independent publicity team, a husband who is heck at the traveling salesman problem, and a whole country full of bookstores, libraries, book clubs, writers’ organizations like Sisters in Crime, and readers who know how to unroll one beautiful red carpet.

TBD: What are some of the things you love and hate about being a professional writer?

JM: At the risk of sounding Pollyanna-like, I love almost everything about it. This might be due to the whole eleven year thing. I’m so grateful to be where I am–I get paid to make up stories, and people actually want to read them–that sometimes it’s hard to see straight. Seeing a book of mine on a shelf catapults me back to the time when I was a small child, reaching for a title, and knowing that a whole other world awaited me inside. Getting to meet other writers, readers, booksellers, librarians, reviewers, journalists, interviewers, radio personalities, TV hosts, editors, agents, publishers…the people who keep this world of words churning, is an honor every single time. Writers’ conferences are sheer bliss for me. There’s one coming up–ThrillerFest–and I get tingles of excitement imagining being there. I honestly can’t think of a more thrilling industry–and we’re not as mean as Hollywood or Nashville.

But one thing does bum me out. I have trouble getting past a bad review. At least I haven’t broken any computer screens over a review. Yet.

TBD: When you win the Mary Higgins Clark award, does she come to your house and hang out with you? Who do you have to pay to win one of those awards?

JM: Well, in all seriousness, Mary does hand the award to you herself. And let me tell you, she is the most elegant doyenne anyone could hope to meet. After eleven years of rejection, that night provided balm for some wounded nerves. I would’ve paid a lot for it, but the truth is I think the awards process is fairly pure. A few years ago, I judged a major award and was a conduit for the most representative taste, not the big hits, nor the expected favorites, or the books that got the biggest push. It’s gratifying to me, especially as we come up to a big election year, that some things really can’t be corrupted.

TBD: I hate to ask, but what advice do you have for writers?

JM: Do ask! Please ask! I love this one. First, come find me, either virtually or on the road, because sharing, not advice (what do I know?), but a compendium of perspectives, tips, and stories gleaned from meeting many, many writers, struggling and successful, as well as publishing people, is one of the things I most love to do.

But if I had to boil all advice down to one single nugget it would be this. Know that anything we write can always use more work. It is never as good or done as we think it is. Critical feedback is like gold. Whether we accept it or not. Hearing different takes on what we create is the only way we will make it appeal to a broad range of readers. And that’s what we’re all hoping for, isn’t it? That’s why we write and read. To find the story that will carry us away.

Jenny Milchman is the author of the summer thriller, As Night Falls, a July Indie Next Pick. She has just hit the road on her third “world’s longest book tour.” Find her–literally–at http://jennymilchman.com/tour/bring-on-the-night-2015.

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Channeling Ichiro

Winning pitcher both ends of a doubleheader rockin my new Ichiro jersey

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Jerry Stahl on Voltaire, Cher, and Being a Dad When You’re Not Wacked Out on Heroin

I’m lucky enough to say I’ve now known Jerry Stahl for over a decade, and we’re both still alive. Ten years ago you could’ve gotten very good odds betting against that happening. Now we’re both OG Dads: Old Guy Dads. So it was with great joy that I found out he had compiled a book out of the filthy and sweet, perverted and lovely, hysterical and horrifying columns he wrote for Rumpus about becoming a father in what should be the beginning of his Golden Years. I had to find out why he was willing to strap on the diapering hat while in a position to be adult-diapered himself. By the way, if you’ve ever been a parent, or ever been a kid, and you’re not squeamish (hell, even if you are squeamish, especially if you’re squeamish!) you need to read this book.

To read Jerry’s interview on the Huffington Post, click here.

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David Henry Sterry: First of all, what were you thinking becoming a dad when you are well over the age when that sort of thing even remotely makes sense?

Jerry Stahl: It didn’t make much sense the first time around either—when I was strung out like a lab rat. Maybe the little fuckers just need to show up. If people waited for the right time, the world might be underpopulated, instead of over. But regardless of logic or circumstance, you love them, and you get to love them, in a way that you can’t or don’t or never will love anyone or anything else. Not sure making sense is part of the package.

DHS: Do you feel it’s easier to be a good parent when you’re taking heroin on a regular basis, or when you’re not?

JS: No getting around it, it’s easier to be up all night and you stay pretty even-keeled on smack. I was never a nodder—I could function on it—the problem was functioning without it. (Like Burroughs said, when asked about why he did dope, “So I can get up in the morning and shave.”) That said, it’s impossible to be kicking heroin—when you are in the ultimate needy baby-state—and also taking care of a baby. (There are no bigger babies than junkies.) The two needinesses can’t co-exist. I wouldn’t advocate for heroin-fueled parenting.

DHS: I love that you invoke Yates at the beginning of the book about the “terrible beauty” of raising a girl. I myself have a seven-year-old, and every day I face the terror, and the beauty. Can you give us an example of those two things in your daily life?

JS: The examples are pretty much non-stop. I’m as blown away by seeing my 26-year-old navigate the world as seeing my rambunctious 3-year-old discover it. The terrible part is knowing what happens to beauty, and to all good things in this world. Nobody gets out alive, as has been said more originally and more intelligently before. Somehow you don’t—or I didn’t, any at any rate—feel it as profoundly until having children.

Today my little one cracked her head open at pre-school. It’s her third visit to the ER. The fragility of the whole enterprise—that, too, is terrible and beautiful. The unlikeliness that anything survives. And in our current epoch, and the even worse Naomi-Klein dystopia of parched earth, poisoned food, nuclear moronicism (and these are just the good things) that awaits, the terror is even more profound. The guiltiest thought of all is that older guys—older people—may be the lucky ones. Because what’s going to happen after we’re gone—that may be the worst terror of all.

DHS: I know that as a former addict, lunatic and indulger in high-risk behavior, I am worried that my crazy shit is going to be inherited by the sweet, innocent little child I have spawned. Do you?

JS: I don’t worry about it. Who knows what’s nature and what’s nurture? My whole theory of childrearing is “try and fuck them up the opposite of the way you were fucked up.” With any luck, knowing there’s that propensity for crazy, high-risk shit, you can try not to feed the beast. But if the beast is coming, the beast is coming.

DHS: This seems so much like a new Netflix show; have there been thoughts and inquiries about transitioning this from a book into a TV series?

JS: Always thoughts, always inquiries. You never know. Johnny Depp, God bless him, optioned my novel, I, Fatty, over a decade ago, and it’s still on the soon-to-be-never-made shelf. So I take it all with a big screen-sized grain of sea salt.

DHS: For me, one of the most challenging things about being a fifty-something with a young child is having to hang out with all the other parents. Do you have any techniques you like to share for dealing with the helicopter/over-entitling/attachment-disordering parents?

JS: I actually can’t. Beyond lighten the fuck up. I am not the helicopter guy. Maybe it’s because I have a an older child who’s 26 and one of the funniest, coolest, smartest, most beautiful, big-hearted and together people I know on the planet—despite having had me as a father. That is a long-winded way of saying, whatever one’s intentions, kids are such nuance-sponges that intentions don’t matter.

If I’m uptight she’s gonna sense it and it’s gonna make her uptight. I know what it’s like to be thus psycho-emotionally infected. Let’s just say my own parents were not on the cover of How To Parent And Not Raise A Neurotic Freak magazine. So, if nothing else, I know what not to do—and how not to be. Helicoptering and the rest of it is not the problem; the human condition, that can be a bitch.

DHS: Does it bother you when people ask if you are the grandfather? I thought it would, but it really doesn’t bother me at all.

JS: I haven’t got the gramps thing yet. I looked older at 39 than 59, thanks to the twin fangs of virulent Hep C and a monstro dope habit. (Or—who am I kidding—if not older, at least greener and moldier.) Maybe because LA is so morally bankrupt there are plenty of old fucks running around in my situation. Not that it implies moral bankruptcy. But it’s not exactly an aberration. DeNiro just had a kid, and he’s got a decade on me. The goalpost is forever moving.

DHS: Do you worry about when your child gets old enough to Google you and asks, “Dad, how come you used to like heroin so much?”

JS: That’s funny. I told my older daughter she could read Permanent Midnight when she’s 40. So far she’s had no trouble holding off. In the meantime, I don’t think kids, or even twenty-somethings, are overly concerned with their parents’ history. They’re too busy trying to make their own. At least I don’t have any secrets about the past. For better or worse, they’re all out there to read or watch on the Sundance Channel at four in the morning when they rerun the movie.

DHS: I hate to get all “happy happy glory hallelujah” on you, but when I look back on my life, I realize I should be dead a dozen times over by now, and I have a profound sense of gratitude that I somehow didn’t die young, especially when I look at my child doing something beautiful and spectacular. Does this happen to you, or am I just crazy?

JS: Maybe both. Much of my life was spent trying to endure life—as opposed to live it. But somehow, knowing what I do is for someone else, some tiny, beautiful weirdo who thinks rabbits live under the bed making fun-candy, I can rise above, can feel all the joy I could never feel when it was just me. Even if I don’t feel particularly joyful—I still have the temperament of a guilty survivor—I can still make it about her enough so it doesn’t matter what I feel. Nothing makes you forget yourself like a child.

And yeah, it’s fucking crazy. But it’s the best kind of crazy there is. We know the odds against all of it: being alive, having a child, having a healthy child … all of it. But here the fuck we are.

DHS: As the Book Doctors, Arielle and I are always looking for new and interesting ways for people to get published. What was the process of taking your column and turning it into a book?

JS: Pretty simple actually. I gathered up the stuff I had and wrote a bunch of new ones so people who actually read the columns on The Rumpus would want to grab a copy too. Then I asked a painter friend of mine, Shannon Crawford, who also did the cover an earlier book, Bad Sex On Speed, to come up with something for the cover: me holding a tiny, two-headed baby, who happens to have my own little girl’s face. Things rarely go that smoothly, but once in a while they do.

DHS: Do you have any tips about writing about your own life? Do you have any tips for Old Guy Dads?

JS: My only advice: don’t listen to me.

Beyond that, I don’t give advice. My experience, however, is if writing about your life (or writing in general) is a choice, you probably don’t need to be doing it. If, however, you’re doing this… thing—and are compelled to keep doing it—then you probably wouldn’t listen to anybody anyway. From the time I was 16 on, I had people telling me not to write, to get a day job, etc… etc… If I could have, I would have. But I have no particularly marketable skills, so of course I became a writer. I admire people who can come up with gimmicky ideas and make a shit-ton of money. I just don’t find them particularly interesting. At the end of the proverbial day, I’m always gonna take Raskolnikov over Romney.

As for Old Guy Dads—well, speaking for myself, I used to think we were only here for a cup of coffee, but that’s no longer true. Old guys, we’ve had the coffee, and we’re waiting for the check. Might as well enjoy yourself—and, more importantly, try to help other people do the same—before it’s time to settle up. And always tip big.

Author, journalist, and screenwriter Jerry Stahl has written eight books, including the memoir Permanent Midnight (made into a film with Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson), and the novels Pain Killers and I, Fatty (optioned by Johnny Depp). Former Culture Columnist for Details, Stahl’s widely anthologized fiction and journalism have appeared in a variety of places, including Esquire, The New York Times, Playboy, The Rumpus, and The Believer. Stahl edited the anthology, The Heroin Chronicles, published by Akashic Books; and his latest novel, Bad Sex On Speed was released by A Barnacle Book, an imprint of Rare Bird Books. Stahl co-wrote the HBO film Hemingway & Gellhorn with Clive Owen and Nicole Kidman. His latest novel, Happy Mutant Baby Pills, was published by HarperCollins.

David Henry Sterry on Writing, Sex, Guilt & How to Get Published


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Chicken: Page-Turner & Valuable in Studying Craft of Writing & Storytelling

New Review of Chicken from Susan O’Connor: To purchase click here.

chicken 10 year anniversary coverChicken, a book being about a seventeen-year-old male prostitute in Hollywood, California during the 1970’s, is one I’d never thought I’d purchase, having no interest in that time period, location, or profession.

I’d met the author and his wife (literary agent Arielle Eckstut) at a workshop run by the SCBWI. (Together they are The Book Doctors and provide a consulting service for writers). I found the couple to be insightful and knowledgeable about the writing process and the publishing industry. David was also laugh-out-loud funny so I ordered David’s book, “Chicken,” without knowing much about the content.

In Chicken I was introduced to a complex man with a fantastical story of his foray into the underbelly of prostitution and drugs with his fellow “Fraternity of Freaks.”

This was both an entertaining and tantalizing read, as well as a valuable tool in studying the craft of writing and storytelling

Examples of wording that I loved:

  • There is something so unrotten about her.
  • I come from a long light of toads, and it flows out of me easy as fur pie.
  • I was trying to be coolcalmcollected about the whole thing but my heebees were having geebees.

Lines that I thought were brilliantly specific:

  • Tooling through a trendy treed Pacific Palisades neighborhood chocabloc with brown migrant workers mowing green lawns, pink children throwing red balls, and white women driving overpriced foreign automobiles, I have that wonderful sense of déjà vu all over again as I go from the seedy pit of Hollywood to the clean hightone America of my youth.
  • Georgia lights a new cigarette off the cherry the one she holds, well another smolders from the ashtray.

Sentences where he trimmed the bull:

  • But I can’t listen to that voice inside of me that’s never wrong. I don’t know how yet.
  • I’ll assassinate that part of me that cares.

Metaphors and similes I thought were creative:

  • She’d flush me like a soiled toilet.
  • Steak is warm and yummy, resting like a hamster in the tummy of the snake as a curling to the skank the mattress.
  • It’s like eating taffy with no teeth.
  • Rainbow eats it up like wavy gravy with a tie-dye spoon.

This page-turner kept the stakes high throughout. In any moment he could be ripped off, humiliated, or assaulted. The only “normal” part of his life is a girl named Kristy, who he genuinely cares for. Any minute she could discover he is a “chicken” and break off the only stable relationship in his life.

The ending did leave me questioning what happened next. I wanted to know: How he tear himself away from the industry? What became of Sunny? Did his parents play a role in his breaking away? (I’d really grown to be interested in them through the his childhood reflections.) I hope the author has, or will chronicle that time. This I will investigate further.



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