David Henry Sterry

Author, book doctor, raker of muck

David Henry Sterry

Month: July 2017

Photo of Val Emmich sitting in front of a door playing a guitar

Val Emmich on Sucking and the Short, Torturous Ten-Year Process of Getting Published

We met Val Emmich when he won our Jersey City Pitchapalooza at Word Bookstore. He was so comfortable presenting, he paused in all the right places, and he put the right emphasis on all the right words. And he had a fantastic story. We found out he’s also a very accomplished actor and musician, which explained his ability to present himself. One of the greatest things about being a book doctor is when one of your patients gets a fab book deal with a fantastic publisher. Val did exactly that. So we thought we’d pick his brain about exactly how he managed to add Author to his impressive resume.

Read this article on the HuffPost.

Photo of Val Emmich sitting in front of a door playing a guitar

Val Emmich

The Book Doctors: What were some of your favorite books as a kid, and why? What are you reading currently?

Val Emmich: I have pretty poor recall of my childhood years, which may be surprising coming from someone who just wrote a whole novel about a child with a near-perfect memory. That said, I do remember ripping through as many Hardy Boys books as I could. I also have a vivid recollection of listening to one of my teachers read aloud to our class Charlotte’s Web. I was riveted by it, probably because it’s about animals and I love animals, more than I love people. Right now, I’m reading Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance, a recommendation from my father, and The Nix by Nathan Hill.

TBD: David was also an actor who became a writer of books. How do you think this helped you as you craft a first novel?

VE: Acting is about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. Embodying a character that isn’t you. It requires empathy and observational skills. You keep searching for how to get to the heart of the person you’re trying to portray. You’re looking for a detail that speaks to you. How someone walks. How he got that scar on his chin. How he styles his hair. This is all very similar to the character work necessary for writing a novel. Additionally, the process of reading and breaking down scripts was really instructive, both in terms of understanding the motivation and objective of a given scene and also how stories are structured and paced.

TBD: Tell us about The Reminders.

VE: Joan is ten and she’s got this rare condition where she can recall nearly every day of her life in exact detail. Then there’s Gavin, an actor in his thirties, who’s just lost his partner and soulmate, Sydney. Gavin attempts to rid his life of all reminders of Sydney, hoping it’ll soothe some of his overwhelming pain. But then he learns that Joan possesses detailed memories of Sydney, stories about him that Gavin has never heard, and Gavin has no choice but to dive back into the past. Meanwhile, Joan wants something back from Gavin. She’s the girl who can’t forget, but she’d rather be the girl who can’t be forgotten and she believes that Gavin, a semi-celebrity, might be able to help her achieve that dream.

The idea for the novel first came to me when my daughter fell out of a shopping cart in Home Depot and landed on her head on the concrete floor. Around the same time I saw a piece on 60 Minutes that featured people with this real-life memory condition known as highly superior autobiographical memory (HSAM) and I had this absurd thought: What if my daughter’s bonk on the head resulted in her somehow acquiring this specialized memory? That ridiculous hypothesis, the playfulness of it, set the tone for the whole novel.

Cover of The Reminders by Val Emmich; a string is tied around the pointing index finger of a white hand

Little, Brown, and Company

TBD: Please describe your path to publication.

VE: The quick version. I wrote one novel. It sucked. I wrote a second novel. It sucked less. I wrote a third novel. It was decent enough to get me an agent. We tore the novel apart, and I built it back up again essentially from scratch. Then my agent sold the book and my editors tore it up and I put it back together yet again. By the time the novel was published, in May of this year, it had been ten years of dedicated writing, along with tons of reading (other novels, how-to books), attending writers conferences and picking the brains of the few writers I had access to who had written books.

TBD: Was it difficult writing in two voices?

VE: Very. The most difficult parts were making sure the voices were both distinct and compelling. The consensus among my earliest readers seemed to be that Joan was the star of the book. I knew I’d never be able to have Gavin outshine her. That’s not his role. Still, I wanted to make sure his sections didn’t feel like a letdown after hers.

I’d listen to different music when writing in each voice. I found songs that seemed to tap into the energy of each character. After listening to the songs over and over, the music began to trigger an almost Pavlovian response in me where I’d immediately enter the head of that specific character. Also, I focused in a boringly technical way on the language used by my two protagonists. I created a detailed spreadsheet that counted the frequency of each word in each section. It showed me a lot about what I was organically doing with each character, and at that point, it was a matter of removing what made the two voices similar and emphasizing what made them different. Eventually, this overt hypersensitivity to vocabulary became second nature and I was able to write fluidly, making Joan and Gavin their own distinct people on the page.

TBD: We notice that you are doing house concerts to promote your book. What exactly are they, and how did you come up with the idea?

VE: It just made sense. The book is partially about music. I’m a musician, songwriter, and performer. I record and release albums. I have music fans. I hoped my music fans would also be interested in reading my book. On top of all that, I’ve been to enough poorly attended author events at bookstores, and even when they’re well attended, they can be boring when it’s just straight-up reading. I wanted to do a hybrid event, some reading, a bit of discussion, plenty of music. I didn’t feel like a bookstore or traditional music venue was going to offer the intimate, casual vibe I had in mind as well as the guarantee of a crowd. I wanted a place where people could relax and stay a while and where I could really forge a personal connection. I reached out to some of my fans and asked if they’d be interested in hosting shows in their homes and inviting all their friends. They said yes.

TBD: How does being a musician and songwriter affect your prose writing?

VE: Prose writing requires an ear, just like songwriting. You need to have a sense of rhythm. Also, with a song (at least with my songs) there’s usually a refrain or leitmotif that emphasizes an important theme or emotion. I try to do the same thing in my writing, sprinkle in timely repetitions to drive home something that I deem significant. But I think the biggest thing I’ve learned from my life in music has to with my understanding of the audience. Over two decades of performing in front of a crowd and engaging online with listener feedback, I’ve learned a lot about how to make people feel something. The goal is the same when writing prose: to trigger a reaction in the reader.

TBD: What are you working on next?

VE: I’ve started writing a new novel. Before I get too deep into it, I plan to record and release new music. Songwriting is more tactile and physical than prose writing. It also takes far less time. I need a more immediate artistic fix right now.

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

VE: Treat it like a real job and remember that even a so-called real job involves plenty of goofing off. Carve out time to write, whatever works for you, thirty minutes, four hours, however long and sit there, even if you’re not actually typing words or producing pages, just sit there. Even when you’re staring at a white page, mind wandering elsewhere, that’s okay. That’s work. Sitting there with that dumb look on your face is part of the job. Do it again the next day. And the next. If you miss a day, no worries. Miss two days? Doesn’t matter. Put yourself in that chair as many times as you can over as long a stretch as you can. If you keep showing up in that chair, over time, enough time, you might have something. Might not, but there’s no other way to do it. If you want it, that’s what’s required: hours. There’s less magic involved than the would-be writer might imagine. At the end of the day, it’s simple math. It’s a whole bunch of hours added up. Start spending them.

Dubbed a “Renaissance Man” by the New York Post, Val Emmich is a writer, singer-songwriter, and actor. He has had recurring roles on Vinyl and Ugly Betty as well as a memorable guest role as Liz Lemon’s coffee-boy fling, Jamie, on 30 Rock. Emmich lives in Jersey City, New Jersey, with his wife and their two children. The Reminders is his first novel.

Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry are co-founders of The Book Doctors, a company that has helped countless authors get their books published. They are co-authors of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published: How To Write It, Sell It, and Market It… Successfully (Workman, 2015). They are also book editors, and between them they have authored 25 books, and appeared on National Public Radio, the London Times, and the front cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review.

JOIN OUR NEWSLETTER TO RECEIVE MORE INTERVIEWS AND TIPS ON HOW TO GET PUBLISHED.

Photo of Jacqueline Mroz smiling

Jacqueline Mroz on Making an Article into a Book and How to Father 150 Children

We met Jacqueline Mroz when she put together the Montclair Literary Festival. From our first meeting and all the way through the end of the festival, she was smart, she was funny, she showed up on time, and she smelled good. So we were not surprised to learn that she had gotten a book deal. Now that Scattered Seeds: In Search of Family and Identity in the Sperm Donor Generation is out, we thought we’d pick her brain about what it’s like to navigate the rocky seas of the publishing world.

Read this interview of the HuffPost.

Photo of Jacqueline Mroz smiling

Jacqueline Mroz

The Book Doctors: What was the inspiration for Scattered Seeds?

Jacqueline Mroz: The inspiration for the book came from a New York Times article that I wrote in 2011 about a sperm donor who had 150 kids. Once I started looking into the fertility industry, I found it was full of fascinating stories and people.

TBD: How is it possible that one man biologically fathered 150 children?

JM: The sperm bank continued to sell this man’s sperm for years–and it was very popular. Most donors are asked to donate around 3 times per week. Also, each donation is divided up into somewhere between 8 and 25 vials, which are then sold to women around the world. Those numbers can really start to add up!

TBD: How did you get that great article in the New York Times? What was the fallout from it?

JM: I came across the original news story through my sister, who was trying to have a baby on her own, using donor sperm. She noticed on a message board for Single Mothers by Choice that one mom wrote about her unease when she found out that her daughter had 75 half siblings. I was intrigued and decided to dig deeper—that’s when I found out that there was a sperm donor with 150 children. The article was very popular and was picked up all over the world. As a result of the story, a state legislator in NYC introduced a bill to limit the number of kids that a sperm donor could have—but she wasn’t able to get enough support to push the bill through.

TBD: How do you think that the process of sperm donation, and the industry it has spawned, ultimately affects kids and parents?

JM: Sperm donation can be great for families or women who aren’t able to have kids otherwise, but for some children who are born through anonymous sperm donors, it can be difficult. Some of these kids become confused about their identity, and end up endlessly searching for their biological fathers, trying to figure out who they are and what they inherited from their donors. There’s also the risk of rare, genetic diseases being passed on from donors to their biological children, and then spreading through the population. (I wrote about this in another Times article.)

TBD: What are some tips for people who want to artificially inseminate?

JM: For someone who is looking to use a sperm donor, I would recommend using the Sperm Bank of California in Berkeley. They’re extremely ethical, they limit the number of kids that a sperm donor can have, they’re a nonprofit, and they try to connect kids with their donors when they’re of age. I would also make sure that the sperm bank tests its donors for a significant number of genetic diseases — and I would ask how many kids the donors has already!

TBD: Why isn’t there more oversight into what is one of the most personal areas of human existence?

JM: It’s hard to get the government to institute more oversight over the industry since there are actually few people that really want it — the parents want to have a baby, and the doctors and sperm banks want to help people — and make money. But that’s starting to change, as donor-conceived children are starting to come of age and demanding their rights. The other problem with oversight is it’s a slippery slope, and many are afraid it could lead to (even) more regulation of abortion.

TBD: What was your takeaway from talking to same-sex couples who have used artificial insemination to have a child?

JM: They are grateful for this chance to have children. Also, some of the single mothers by choice that I spoke to have been particularly good at finding and reaching out to their kids’ half-siblings — it gives them an extended family that their children might not otherwise have. Many visit each other and take vacations together.

Cover of Scattered Seeds by Jacqueline Mroz: seeds fall from fruit on the cover

Seal Press

TBD: How did you go about getting this book deal?

JM: The newspaper article was extremely popular, so I used that and my proposal to find an agent. My agent, Jane Dystel, is amazing!

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

JM: Writers’ groups can be very helpful, especially if you’re having trouble finishing something that you’re working on. You can ask the other writers to give you a deadline to help you get things done.

Jacqueline Mroz is a veteran journalist specializing in reproductive and family issues. She lives in Montclair, New Jersey, with her husband and three children.

Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry are co-founders of The Book Doctors, a company that has helped countless authors get their books published. They are co-authors of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published: How To Write It, Sell It, and Market It… Successfully (Workman, 2015). They are also book editors, and between them they have authored 25 books, and appeared on National Public Radio, the London Times, and the front cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review.

JOIN OUR NEWSLETTER TO RECEIVE MORE INTERVIEWS AND TIPS ON HOW TO GET PUBLISHED.

Annie Sprinkle on How to Have Cooler and Hotter Orgasms

Dr. Annie Sprinkle is a national treasure, with a brain and a heart as large and bountiful as other famous bosoms. In these troubled times, we need her more than ever. And as Rome burns, we turn to the goddess to help us discover, or rediscover, one of the most important elements to leading a happy life: Orgasm. Since her new book, The Explorer’s Guide to Planet Orgasm, is all about expanding, redefining, and celebrating that most primal of human forces, I thought I’d pick her brain, and other body parts, about the power and beauty of the orgasm.

Read this interview on the HuffPost.

Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens standing in front of a van

Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens

David Henry Sterry: What was the inspiration for Planet Orgasm?

Annie Sprinkle: Ever since I was in the womb, I have always had a fascination with orgasm. I was born to do this book. Orgasm has been an important part of my adult life, in all kinds of ways. It’s good medicine for me. My orgasms lubricate me through life. Over the years I had written several articles about orgasm, and about twelve years ago, I made a film called Annie Sprinkle’s Amazing World of Orgasm, which was my homage to the Big O. I interviewed twenty-four orgasm experts of all kinds, and I learned a lot from that.

So, when Janet Hardy, the author of the wonderful best selling book, The Ethical Slut, called me and asked me if I wanted to do a new book for her publishing company, Greenery Press, I thought about it for a few days, and thought about what I’d want to do. I kept coming back to the idea of doing a book about orgasm. It’s such a rich, juicy topic.

All my work for the past fifteen years has been with my partner and collaborator Beth Stephens, so I wanted to do the book with her. Janet said “OK, great.” Beth is an artist and professor and my orgasm muse. So we worked on the book together, which was fun. Beth added some good stuff. She’s so creative and very sexual. A double Scorpio. Enough said.

Then I came across a young artist’s paintings on the internet and thought they were really interesting and well done. So I wrote to tell her. YuDori turned out to be a 22-year-old Korean art student that was going to School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, my alma matter. When I asked her if she was interested in collaborating on a book together she got excited. It’s her first book. Everyone loves her illustrations. We didn’t want to make a usual, stereotypical sex education book, but a special book that was also a work of art. Her work is very special. She will go far.

DHS: It feels like in these dangerous times, orgasm is more important than ever. How can we use orgasm to relieve fear and anxiety, and also to inspire us to take action?

AS: Orgasm releases unwanted stress and tension. It brings us back into our bodies when we’ve been watching TV or on the computer. Orgasm helps us feel our feelings. It helps us sleep better after watching the world news. Oy vey. Orgasm puts a bounce in our step. Orgasm connects us to something bigger than ourselves, on a good day. Orgasm is a natural anti-depressant; it’s uplifting. It gets you going when you are down.

However, not all orgasms are healing, inspiring and amazing. Our book also discusses some of the scary aspects of orgasm: orgasms during rape, which is more common than you’d think; orgasm when used as a way of hurting someone else; orgasm that can fuck up your life. That’s what is so fascinating. Orgasm can be dangerous and can cause some physical problems. We include it all, and more.

DHS: Why do you think it’s so difficult for many people in America to have orgasms, or even talk about orgasms for that matter? When did the orgasm get such a bad rap?

AS: Good question. Not all cultures historically felt that way. But in our recent history there is this common belief that if we talk about our orgasms it will take away some of the mystery. I’ve been talking about my orgasms for decades, and the mystery is still there, more than ever. So that’s a fallacy.

However, you can compare orgasm to watching a sunset with your lover. You can enjoy a sunset in silence. Or you can talk about it. If the talking takes away from the experience, then you’re not really throwing yourself into the mystery of the sunset, but distracting each other from the sunset. But if you talk in a way that takes you deeper into the experience, marvel at it together, create some poetic words, talk about the mystery or what you love about the experience… then you enhance the experience.

In general people think orgasm is something we should know automatically how to do, and do well. But we can be taught a lot more about our orgasms. Just like we can be taught how to be more mindful watching a sunset, for example. Learn to focus on circular breathing, imagine opening your heart and becoming the sunset.

As we all know, many people believe sex is bad and dirty. A lot of people have a lot of guilt and shame about sex and their orgasms. Sexual energy is something they want to get rid of, expel, not utilize, build and wallow in. In Planet Orgasm we talk about orgasmic states, extended orgasm… all kinds of orgasms…. nocturnal orgasms, crygasms, breath and energy orgasms, Barbara Carrellas’s gender-free orgasms, Deb Herbenick’s coregasms, and many other kinds.

I had some amazing teachers, who taught me about orgasm, and I’m so grateful to them. I had to seek them out. You won’t see classes on how to have better orgasm at the university, although I have taught some college workshops, come to think of it.

DHS: As a man, I was taught that the whole purpose of sex was for me to have an orgasm, which meant I wanted to get to that ejaculation and shoot the seed, baby…. But you have reclaimed and redefined what the word orgasm means. How do you see this in a larger historical cultural context?

AS: We are all for quickies. Or just shooting the seed, baby. That feels really good! Sometimes that’s what’s desired. But it’s not always the be-all and end-all. There are choices. Often taking more time will generate more powerful orgasms. But there are no absolutes.

Learning orgasm is like learning tennis. To get good at it you need some good instructors, information, techniques, and encouragement to practice. We are orgasm trainers.

Yes, the usual “models of orgasm” define orgasm in terms of blood flow, heart rate, contractions… That thinking is so incredibly limited. So we go out of that box, big time. That’s like saying life is about blood flow, heart rate, and sneezes.

Cover to The Explorer's Guide to Planet Orgasm by Annie Sprinkle; sexy astronauts in front of a planet under title

Greenery Press

DHS: What do you want people to take away from your book?

AS: That orgasm is a much more interesting, complex, versatile and useful experience than they ever knew. We also offer seven golden keys to having bigger, better, more badass orgasms. Each key comes with a one-minute experiment so you can experience the effects of each key in a really clear and simple way. For example, you can build a lot of excitement with the mind and use your mind to move that sexual excitement to different parts of your body and have orgasms in different parts of your body.

For the advanced orgasmanaut, we suggest that sex is something much more than bodies coming together. Sex is a frame of mind. Sex is happening all around us all the time, when we look for it.

DHS: What are some simple things we can do to be more in touch with our orgasm?

AS: I’m a big believer in sex education. Read, take classes, look at YouTube videos, and talk with people who are more knowledgeable than you. Orgasm is actually a really big topic. There is a lot of new research being done, which is fascinating. We include some of that in our book.

Modern humans have multiple orgasmic tools and vehicles, ranging from Internet porn to a wide variety of really great sex toys; yet many have little to no experience achieving orgasm. Or big orgasm. More than 10% of women report never having an orgasm, and 8% of men and 33% of women are occasionally unable to reach orgasm. To date, there are no studies about orgasm for trans people.

DHS: How were you educated on sex and sexuality when you were a kid?

AS: Like most people, I first heard about sex on the elementary school playground. I was completely horrified that a penis went in a vagina. Ick. Gross.

At about 11, my parents had some sex ed books on the bookshelf that they expected us to find when we were the age where we’d be interested. They had the Kinsey Reports, The Joy of Sex, The Sensuous Woman, The Sensuous Man, and a few others. So of course I found those books. They were my favorite books, next to E.E. Cummings experimental poetry and the World Book Encyclopedias.

Also, I was raised Unitarian Universalist, so we got some sex education at church, amazingly. We watched a film of a baby being born in church, which left quite an impression.

Also, my parents’ best friends were Vern and Bonnie Bullough, two famous sexologists who wrote sixty-five or so books about sex. We would hang out at their house sometimes, and they had hundreds of books about sex.

My family didn’t really talk about sex. It was hidden. But it wasn’t a big secret either, or a bad thing.

DHS: How did Planet Orgasm become a book?

AS: Beth and I did the text. Then we sent sample illustrations to YuDori to try and explain what we had in mind. Then she sent back the drawings. Then we sent it all to Janet Hardy who did the layout. She sent it to the printer. So I guess we did it the old-fashioned way.

DHS: Who should read Planet Orgasm?

AS: We tried to make Planet Orgasm a book for every body. That was a fun challenge. I think we succeeded pretty well.

DHS: What advice do you have for writers, sex educators, and anyone who’d like to have an orgasm after they read this?

AS: Do it your way. Forget what you know, open your mind, open your legs, breathe a lot more, move more, follow your own muse. Secondly, get yourself a copy of Planet Orgasm. There’s probably a lot more to orgasm than you think.

Annie Sprinkle has passionately researched and explored sexuality for over forty years, sharing her experiences through films, books, articles, and photography. She was the first porn star to earn a Ph.D. and has taught hundreds of sex workshops. Sprinkle has collaborated with Beth Stephens for fifteen years. They are internationally acclaimed artists who create sexually oriented visual art, theater, and performance. They are movers and shakers in the new ecosex movement. She can be found at anniesprinkle.org.

David Henry Sterry is the author of 16 books, a performer, muckraker, educator, activist, and book doctor. His new book Chicken Self:-Portrait of a Man for Rent, 10 Year Anniversary Edition, has been translated into 10 languages. He’s also written Hos, Hookers, Call Girls and Rent Boys: Professionals Writing on Life, Love, Money and Sex, which appeared on the front cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review. He is a finalist for the Henry Miller Award. He co-authored The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published with his wife, and co-founded of The Book Doctors, who have toured the country from Cape Cod to Rural Alaska, Hollywood to Brooklyn, Wichita to Washington helping countless writers get published. He has appeared on, acted with, written for, been employed as, worked and/or presented at: Will Smith, a marriage counselor, Disney screenwriter, Stanford University, National Public Radio, Milton Berle, Huffington Post, a sodajerk, Michael Caine, the Taco Bell chihuahua, Penthouse, the London Times, Edinburgh Fringe Festival, a human guinea pig and Zippy the Chimp. He can be found at davidhenrysterry.com.

Photo of Susan Wolfe smiling

Susan Wolfe on How to Get a Great Blurb, the Importance of Maternity Leave, and Reading to be a Writer

We first met Susan Wolfe when we taught a workshop at Stanford, where we were the least educated people in the room. We were struck by what a seasoned professional she seemed, even though she was a novice author. She asked all the right questions, she worked her ass off, and it didn’t hurt that she had actual bona fide talent. Her first book was a big success, and now that Escape Velocity, her second novel, is out, we picked her brain about transitioning from the world of law to the world of books.

Read this interview on the HuffPost.

Photo of Susan Wolfe smiling

Susan Wolfe

The Book Doctors: What were your favorite books as a kid and why?

Susan Wolfe: The first real book I ever read was The Black Stallion by Walter Farley. I was in Mr. Adams’ second grade classroom in San Bernardino, and he gave me permission to read on my own while the rest of the class finished up something else. So I found The Black Stallion, settled into my chair, and the next thing I knew the class was laughing. Apparently, I had whinnied. I was so shocked to look up and see that I was back in that classroom that I still remember the way the light was filtering in through the windows.

I had just discovered that reading created a little room out behind my head where I could go to have adventures and be other people. That little room has been my solace and a major source of learning and pleasure ever since.

I also loved The Wind in the Willows (I wanted a yellow motor car!) and Stowaway to the Mushroom Planet by Eleanor Cameron (Maybe a little low-tech now). And my sister Linda, who was three years older, read me entire Zane Grey westerns (Riders of the Purple Sage, Thirty Thousand 0n the Hoof) before I could read them myself.

TBD: What are you reading now, and who are some your favorite authors and books?

SW: I just finished Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, which I found moving, funny and original. Now I am halfway through The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov.

Some of my favorite books and authors so far:

  • Moby Dick
  • Madame Bovary
  • Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
  • The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
  • The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt. (I still love a good western!)

TBD: How did you learn to be a writer?

SW: First and foremost by reading a really wide range of fiction for years and years. For example, my two favorite authors of dialogue are Elmore Leonard and Henry James, for very different reasons. Thinking about these two helped me understand what I wanted my dialogue to accomplish.

Second, by writing. That’s what everybody says, so here are some specifics:

  1. When I decided to write my first book, I needed to get a feel for how much should happen in a given chapter. So I made a chart showing what happened in each chapter of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. Then I made sure to have about that same amount happen in each of my chapters. That was hugely helpful to me in setting the pace of the book.
  2. I was lucky enough to have a good editor for my first book, and I tried out almost every suggestion he made. Some of them didn’t work out, so I ultimately rejected them, but I gave all the suggestions a real try.
  3. When I was writing my second book, I found a workshop at Stanford where all we did was listen to 20 pages of somebody’s manuscript and then comment. This was great for two reasons: first, some of the comments were helpful. Second, I learned that reading my own work out loud is a terrific way to figure out what works and what doesn’t. For some reason, I can hear things that aren’t right. I also tried two other workshops where the instructor gives little writing projects, and those felt to me like a waste of time. Could have just been the instructors, but I didn’t get much out of them.
  4. 4Finally, I am lucky enough to know two other writers whose writing and critiques of my work I respect. We have our own workshop and get to know each other’s work thoroughly. I can’t say enough about how helpful this three-person writing group has been to me.

TBD: How did you first get published?

SW: This will not be instructive to anybody else, but it is sort of interesting.

I was a lawyer on maternity leave when I started my first book, The Last Billable Hour (a murder mystery set in a Silicon Valley law firm). When it was time to return to work I told the partner at my law firm that I couldn’t come back because I was writing a novel. He said (among other things), “When you finish, you should show it to my old college roommate Jared Kieling, who is now an editor at St. Martin’s Press.” I thought “yeah, yeah” and kept writing.

One day while I was working away in my writing room, my phone rang and it was Jared Kieling of St. Martin’s Press. He said, “Mike said he’s never seen your fiction, but if it’s anything like the quality of your legal writing I should probably take a look.” A few months later when I finished it, I tied the printed manuscript with string and sent if off to him. He bought it, and the book went on to sell more than 100,000 copies and win the Edgar Award.

The only downside to this amazing and wonderful story is that it gave me very unreasonable expectations of how easy it is to get published. With my second book I woke up and joined the rest of humanity.

Cover of Escape Velocity by Susan Wolfe; sketch of Newton's cradle with a ball flying off

Steelkilt Press

TBD: What was the inspiration for Escape Velocity?

SW: Two-sentence synopsis: Escape Velocity is a wickedly hilarious* thriller about a reformed con artist in a Silicon Valley software company who decides to revive her con artist skills to straighten out her very screwed up company. She needs to get enough money to move out of her car and make a home for her little sister before it’s too late.

My inspiration for the book comes from my own work as a lawyer. I have spent most of my adult life practicing law here in Silicon Valley, partly in-house at several high-tech companies. I liked working in-house, but I sometimes got frustrated that a few people who worked for the company—from accounts payable clerks to highly paid executives—seemed unable or uninterested in doing their jobs. Due to incompetence or egotism or out-and-out self-dealing, some people just seem to burrow into a company like ticks on a tormented dog, and no amount of damage they cause ever seems to dislodge them. If you’ve every worked in a company, you’ve met these people!

So I thought the malfeasance and nonfeasance (as we say in the law) were interesting, and even entertaining in a nice black kind of way. I thought other people might like to know about the chaos, or if they already knew about it, they might like to know that somebody else had experienced it, too. After all, as C.S. Lewis said, “We read to know we are not alone.” I also thought people might enjoy seeing some incredibly annoying people get their comeuppance.

But then I needed a main character, and along came Georgia Griffin. She is young, inexperienced and from a completely alien environment, so she experiences the wonder that is Silicon Valley high tech right along with the reader. She is also highly intuitive and a little bit tougher than people around her might expect. She is blessed with a job that makes people underestimate her. She badly needs the company to succeed in order to realize her personal goal of finding a better life than the one she was born to, and she reluctantly decides to use her con artist training—sparingly—to help the company succeed.

The surprise to me was that Georgia’s moral and psychological complexities gradually became central to my story. Georgia wants to be a good person, but she does a few sketchy things. At one point I wrote out the fifteen points of Georgia’s moral code. She adheres strictly to her moral code, but it’s a little bit different from other people’s. (For example, “Point #13: Cause the least harm necessary to be effective.” ) So I ended up focusing on the question of whether Georgia succeeds in the effort to turn away from her con artist background.

*According to Hank Phillippi Ryan, award-winning author of Say No More

TBD: How has being a lawyer affected you as a writer?

SW: In some ways that’s hard to know since I’ve always been both. Here’s what I can say:

My books are shot through with my actual experiences as a lawyer. The most obvious impact is on my plots, but my experience also makes my dialogue authentic and helps me create a powerful sense of place.

I worried that my legal writing would make my fiction writing ponderous, but it turns out the two kinds of writing issue from different parts of my brain. So no recognizable impact of one on the other.

I do think being a lawyer has made me more precise, which creates a risk I will over-explain things “for the avoidance of doubt” as we sometimes say in contracts. I hope I fight this effectively.

Finally, I would say I’m a serious writer without being a literary one. I suspect lawyering makes me opt for clarity over poetry when a choice must be made.

TBD: How did you manage to juggle a legal career and a writing career, when both seem like ridiculously time-consuming jobs?

SW: Not. Very. Easily.

And you left out my third ridiculously time-consuming job, which was raising two daughters. For years I would lie in bed and look up at the ceiling thinking, “Baby, Book, Law. Baby, Book, Law.” I was determined to make them all fit.

There were times I did make them fit. I wrote my first book, The Last Billable Hour, when I had only my older daughter. I would write 15 hours a week with babysitting until we ran out of money, and then I’d go to work as a contract lawyer (by project or by the hour) until I had enough money to pay the bills. I got the whole book done that way, and it was a happy, productive time in my life.

The second book was more challenging. By then we had two daughters, and I had a much bigger job as the head lawyer of a company. I decided to go to Starbucks from 6am to 7:30am twice a week to work on the book, and my daughter Catherine, who was eight or nine at the time, decided to go with me. She would sit very quietly and focus on her homework so that I could concentrate. I loved those mornings, but then it turned out I didn’t have one single unstructured moment in my life and was going slowly berserk. So I gave up writing until I was ready to leave law entirely, which is when Escape Velocity finally got written.

TBD: How did you manage to get such great blurbs for your book?

SW: It’s interesting that you ask me that, because my editor Jared Kieling asked me the exact same thing regarding my first book. Answer: I asked people.

I asked them very humbly to consider this great favor for a fellow author.

I spoke to each author about why I admired his or her writing and why I hoped they would like mine.

I asked for three or four times as many blurbs as I actually got, and tried to remind myself not to take it personally if they refused or just blew me off. Writers (and professors and deans and chief lawyers of companies) are very busy people. Fortunately, many of them are also generous.

TBD: How does your title Escape Velocity relate to your story?

SW: In physics, escape velocity is the minimum speed a rocket ship needs to escape the earth’s gravitational pull. Here in Silicon Valley the term is used as a metaphor to describe the amount of money a start-up company needs in order to stop taking money from venture capitalists. The company’s founders try to achieve escape velocity from outside interference by becoming self-sustaining.

In my book, Georgia’s upbringing with her con artist father exerts tremendous pull over her, first because it’s the life she knows and feels competent to navigate, and second because she loves her father. As the story unfolds, the reader realizes she also rather enjoys the excitement. But she doesn’t want a con artist life. So a central question of the novel is whether she has the strength of character to achieve escape velocity from the only life she knows. I don’t think many people accomplish that, and I have been fascinated by readers’ varying opinions about whether she succeeds.

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

SW: Elmore Leonard gave me the best writing advice I ever received, and I am happy to pass it along.

I had gone to his reading at a bookstore, and when it was time for him to autograph my copy of his book I asked him to wish me good luck with mine. He asked a question or two about what I was writing and then signed his book. After I turned to go he called after me, “Susan!”

I turned.

“Don’t let anybody else write your book. You write your own book.”

So there you are. Share your writing, read it out loud, listen to intelligent people’s advice, and then decide for yourself.

Susan Wolfe is a lawyer with a B.A. in literature from the University of Chicago and a law degree from Stanford University. After four years of practicing law, she bailed out and wrote her Edgar Award-winning first novel The Last Billable Hour. She returned to law for another sixteen years, first as a criminal defense attorney and then as an in-house lawyer for Silicon Valley high-tech companies. Her second novel Escape Velocity was published in October and just won the 2017 IPPY Gold Medal in suspense/thriller from the Independent Publishers Book Awards. She lives in Palo Alto, California with her husband Ralph DeVoe. authorsusanwolfe.com

Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry are co-founders of The Book Doctors, a company that has helped countless authors get their books published. They are co-authors of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published: How To Write It, Sell It, and Market It… Successfully (Workman, 2015). They are also book editors, and between them they have authored 25 books, and appeared on National Public Radio, the London Times, and the front cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review.

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Photo of Pillip Lopate similng

Phillip Lopate on Worshiping at the Altar of Literature, Mother’s Rage, and the Power of University Presses

Phillip Lopate is one of the smartest guys we know–about books, about words, about literature, and, frankly, about life. So when we found out he had a new memoir coming out called A Mother’s Tale, we thought we’d pick his brain about why words and mothers matter.

Photo of Pillip Lopate similng

Phillip Lopate

The Book Doctors: What were some of your favorite books and authors as a kid, and why?

Phillip Lopate: As a kid, I was drawn to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped, books about Greek mythology, and just about any nonfiction young adult book about baseball. I was not a very selective reader; I read just about everything in my local library. Taste came later.

TBD: How did you become a writer? Can someone actually learn to write, or are some people just born writers?

PL: I initially thought I was not smart enough to become a writer, but experimented with story-writing for my own amusement. I was the editor of my high school and my college literary magazine, which required a certain amount of posing and bluffing. Mostly what I was was a reader. I worshiped at the altar of literature. I do think it helps to have talent, but persistence matters more. Writers are made, not born.

TBD: Why did you choose to work with a university press for this book, which doesn’t seem inherently academic? We’re interested in the change in academic presses over the years and wondered if you could share your observations.

PL: I chose a university press because, frankly, a bunch of commercial presses passed on the manuscript, saying they weren’t sure how to sell it. Then I found out that Ohio State University Press was starting a new nonfiction/essay imprint, and I submitted it to them and they were happy to snap it up. You have to find a publisher who will love your book, whether it’s a trade or academic press. In these days when publishers are under so much pressure to make money, the line between commercial, academic and small independent presses is very thin. Any port in a storm, as they say.

Cover of A Mother's Tale by Phillip Lopate; a faded torn picture of a woman sits to the left of the title

The Ohio State University Press

TBD: You wrote, “I was put on earth to understand my mother’s pain I have not gotten very far in the process.” I feel much the same. What did you learn about her pain writing A Mother’s Tale?

PL: I learned a lot about my mother’s range, and her alternation between being very shrewd and self-deluded. As for her pain, some people find tremendous animation in self-pity and rage: there’s not a lot you can do about it.

TBD: Does writing help you understand things you don’t know about yourself, other people, and the world?

PL: Writing certainly helps to understand myself better, as well as other people. I have only to start to explain something I’ve thought or done and I begin to get a whiff of defensiveness and alibi-ing. I just have to talk to myself on the page. Essays are perfect for that kind of back-and-forth, with a drive toward greater honesty.

TBD: I tried to talk with my mother about sex with very little success. What was it like hearing your mom talk about her sexuality?

PL: I cannot say it was much fun as her son hearing my mother talk about her sexuality. But in retrospect, I’m glad for her expressiveness and lack of self-censoring. I think it helped me to become a writer, and to appreciate that things are what they are.

TBD: Family secrets and lies seem to be a universal fact of life. What did you find out about yours?

PL: There is no getting around family secrets: every family has them. I learned a little more about my mother’s affairs and how my father responded to them. I also learned how my mother fit into her historical period, how she reacted to the big public events of the day.

TBD: Your mother seems to be such a larger-than-life character. How did her melodrama affect your personality development?

PL: My mother’s melodramatic temperament pushed me in the opposite direction: I became skeptical of Drama, and a bit clinical and detached. A spectator, in effect, with an aversion to tantrums.

TBD: How would you characterize the book’s genre?

PL: I would say it’s like a play, a dialogue between my mother and my younger self, with my present, older self commenting and kibbitzing.

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

PL: Read a ton, and put in a thousand hours at your desk. Don’t get discouraged by what nay-sayers tell you. You’ll know when you’ve hit pay dirt.

Phillip Lopate is a central figure in the resurgence of the American essay, both through his best-selling anthology The Art of the Personal Essay and his collections Bachelorhood, Against Joie de Vivre, Portrait of My Body, Portrait Inside My Head and To Show and to Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction. He directs the nonfiction MFA program at Columbia University, where he is Professor of Writing.

Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry are co-founders of The Book Doctors, a company that has helped countless authors get their books published. They are co-authors of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published: How To Write It, Sell It, and Market It… Successfully (Workman, 2015). They are also book editors, and between them they have authored 25 books, and appeared on National Public Radio, the London Times, and the front cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review.

JOIN OUR NEWSLETTER TO RECEIVE MORE INTERVIEWS AND TIPS ON HOW TO GET PUBLISHED.

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