David Henry Sterry

Author, book doctor, raker of muck

David Henry Sterry

Category: Books Page 1 of 4

CHICKEN COVERS

Jane Friedman On Giving Writers the Education They Never Get

We first met Jane Friedman online, which is where she is a lot. And quite brilliantly, she’s carved out a very cool corner of the publishing world by taking deep dives into analytics and numbers revolving around the Internet and books. We subsequently got to hang out with her in person recently at the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Conference — which is, in fact, one of the great writers’ conferences in America! She was a panelist on our event, Pitchapalooza, and as always, was a font of wisdom. Yet another reason to go to great writers’ conferences: You meet the most amazing people. So we thought now that her new book The Business of Being a Writer is out, we’d pick her brain about writing, publishing, and what it takes to flourish in the brave new world of books.

The Business of Being a Writer, by Jane Friedman

The Business of Being a Writer, by Jane Friedman

The Book Doctors: Tell us about your new book and why writers should have it on their nightstand.

Jane Friedman: Let’s rephrase that and ask why the book should be on a writer’s reference shelf. I’d hate to think of a writer trying to relax before bed while reading this tome on business!

It’s essentially the business education that writers rarely receive, especially if they’re creative writing students. In fact, that was my driving motivation to publish the book: to reach writers early in their careers, before bad expectations or mythologies have the chance to take hold. Every writer should be told, upfront, what it means to earn a living from writing, and that it rarely happens through book sales — especially if you’re writing literary fiction, which is the case with so many creative writing students.

So this book acts as a wake-up call and then — once that message is delivered — as a reference book on the publishing industry.

TBD: What was it like being published by a great university press?

JF: Slow! LOL. But good things take time, right? One of my first managers in publishing once told me, “Pick two: good, fast, cheap.” Hmm, I guess my book is only one of those: good! That’s probably everything one might need to know about university press publishing, but this book found the right home.

TBD: Your idea of “Literary Citizenship” is so compelling! Tell us more about what habits a good literary citizen should have.

JF: I can’t take credit for it — I first learned of literary citizenship from Cathy Day, a writing professor at Ball State. Some say the idea originated with the editor of Tin House. Whoever is responsible, the essence of it is: (1) spread the word about the writers and publications you enjoy or appreciate and (2) support those who make such literary activity possible.

Spreading the word can be as informal as writing an online review, posting pictures on social media, or buying books as gifts. Supporting those who make literary activity possible includes patronizing your local library or bookstore, going to readings, and subscribing to literary journals.

Bottom line: Don’t be quiet or shy about the writing, authors, or books that meaningfully affect your life.

TBD: A lot of writers don’t understand what an author platform is. And many of those who do often seem intimidated by it. Could you please illuminate the idea of platform, as well as the why and how of it?

JF: Platform is your visibility to a readership who will read or buy your books. It’s intimidating to many because this visibility often gets simplified, incorrectly, as “You have to be on social media” or “You have to market yourself.” But being on social media to market yourself doesn’t contribute meaningfully to platform building. And marketing by itself is not platform building.

First and foremost, publishing more work contributes to your platform. The more you publish, the more potential readers you have. That’s where platform starts. So if you’re intimidated by it, then know that just being prolific can make up for a host of weaknesses in other areas.

So what are those other areas? Being able to build relationships (the dreaded “networking”) contributes to a strong platform. The writing program you graduated from and the online classes you take are often the first ways a new writer builds a platform. Your platform includes all those relationships that might contribute to your professional development, or help you get published, or market your work.

A Platform is usually built through a series of small, consistent steps over time — of increasing the visibility of your work, who sees it, and who shares it. It’s possible to be calculated about it, but if it stresses you out, then your best bet is to return to the writing. With some experience under your belt, you might feel better prepared to take more intentional, strategic steps — like attending certain conferences, being more focused on how and where you publish, or sharing aspects of your work on social media.

TBD: How have you made your Web site such a go-to resource for writers?

The same way that a platform is built: small, consistent steps over time. My site was not a go-to resource back in 2010. But when you post content that’s useful to people every week for seven or eight years, word gets around. That’s the heart of platform building.

I also rank well in Google search for the questions that I know writers frequently ask. I intimately know my audience and what information they need, and I’m not afraid to give it away. I have a strategy for what’s free and what’s paid.

TBD: We heard somebody say recently at a writers’ conference that every author absolutely has to have a website. But in our experience, if you have a sad little website that hasn’t been updated and no one goes to, it can actually be a detriment. What are your thoughts regarding this?

JF: It depends on the context and who you’re trying to impress, but if I had to offer a general answer, I’d say no. Just about any author website is better than no website, assuming it functions.

Most author websites don’t need to be updated that often. The most critical pages detail your books or publications, your bio, and your contact information. There doesn’t need to be an active blog, an updated calendar, etc., although kudos if you take the time.

And frankly it doesn’t matter if your author website is getting little traffic. That only says you don’t have many readers yet or aren’t generating much interest in your work — at this moment. What if tomorrow someone at the New York Times writes a review of your long-lost, out-of-print novel about a binge-drinking teenager who becomes a judge? I’d really want an author website in place so I could take advantage of interest from the media or readers.

Author websites remain a life-long work in progress. One of the benefits of having one, even if it’s not that good, is that you at least have something to build on, plus you have been pushed to think about presenting your work and yourself in a public forum. Anyone serious about his or her career ought to have one, no matter how modest — unless you’re trying to be less accessible and put up a few barriers, like Jonathan Franzen.

TBD: We keep hearing the word “discoverability” when it comes to books. What are some ways that writers can help their work get discovered?

JF: There are traditional forms of discoverability and digital-age forms. Traditional discoverability would be scoring a major review, getting media coverage, going on tour, and so on.

These days, most people are concerned with digital discoverability, which relates to algorithms and social media. Let’s say you’re a cozy mystery author who has a scrapbooker protagonist, and your readers are a cross between those who read mysteries and are interested in crafts. If that person visits Amazon or Google and searches for that type of work, your books ought to come up. If they don’t, you have a discoverability problem.

You can improve your discoverability by ensuring your book is categorized correctly at bookstores/retailers, and that the book’s metadata and marketing description are accurate and speak the reader’s language. You should have an understanding of what keyword phrases your readers might use to describe your work, then double check your book description to see if those phrases are included. More on that here at Publishers Weekly .

TBD: Tell us about The Hot Sheet.

JF: It’s basically Publishers Lunch for professional authors.

For those unfamiliar with Publishers Lunch, then here’s the longer explanation: Many people have asked me at conferences how they can stay up-to-date on changes happening in publishing. They’re confused and it feels like everything is changing so fast, especially in book marketing. And that’s true. For instance, the Amazon of today is quite different from the Amazon of just a few years ago. Self-publishing is a legitimate means to establishing a career, but the services surrounding it remain volatile — publishing services going out of business, merging, changing terms, and so on.

So The Hot Sheet is an email newsletter (now entering its fourth year) available only by subscription, delivered every other Wednesday. If you find it difficult to keep up with the changes underway in publishing, or (you) wonder who’s “right” about controversial issues, The Hot Sheet helps you make sense of what’s happening. We have no agenda or bias other than helping writers understand the business they’re operating in. We try to offer a 360-degree perspective on issues relevant to traditional and indie authors, with bottom-line takeaways — with trends and news not often covered by the major industry publications.

TBD: We read that the greatest area of growth in publishing is audiobooks. What can an author do to help his or her audiobook succeed? And is there any shame in listening to books instead of reading them?

JF: There is no shame in listening to books.

The best way to help your audiobook succeed, if you’re producing it yourself, is to choose the right narrator or voice talent. That makes all the difference in ensuring people will listen without stopping after five minutes. Authors are rarely the right voice talent for their own work, so don’t be eager to do it yourself unless a professional in the audiobook industry thinks you should.

If your publisher is producing your audiobook, the best thing you can do is simply make everyone know it’s available. List it on your website, mention it on social media, link to it as regularly or consistently as you would a print or e-book edition.

TBD: Mental health is, rightfully, a major topic in the news today. What are some positive life skills you want aspiring writers to follow so they can succeed responsibly, without unhealthy expectations? How do we stop that voice in our head that screams at us that everything we write SUCKS?

JF: The first step is to acknowledge the voice in our head is not an authority. It arises from layers of absolute crap that have been fermenting over the years, put there by every hurt we’ve experienced, every failure, every negative comment written in the margins, every I’m-not-enough feeling. However, the voice is also there to protect us and help us avoid embarrassment. Sometimes it’s not entirely wrong.

The best life skill a writer can have when feeling anxiety (which is inevitable), when feeling envy (which is inevitable), when feeling drained (which is inevitable) is to acknowledge the feeling for what it is (“I see you, okay”), give it a label (hashtag it even, #writerenvy #writeranxiety), take time to meditate on where it’s coming from, then get back to work. Focusing on the work is usually the best antidote to whatever ails you. If it’s the work itself driving you mad, either step away for a while, find another project, or identify a nonjudgmental helper who can problem solve with you.

TBD: As a veteran in the field, what are your writing habits? How have they changed over time?

JF: As my available time has decreased, I’ve had to set up strict blocks of writing time. It’s best for me to write during the first half of the day before I dig into emails, social media, or client work. Otherwise, anxiety or stress about other aspects of work-life can prevent me from achieving the focus needed to write.

TBD: What are common traps for writers?

JF: A couple of the biggest:

(1) Thinking that great work will rise to the top. It will not — and there are a million reasons why it might not: bad timing, bad market conditions, bad geography, bad etiquette, bad luck.

Artists tend to think that great work speaks for itself — or that it doesn’t have to be, or shouldn’t be, marketed. Unfortunately, the stories we often tell about artists are rarely the ones where they strategically engineered their success or demonstrated business prowess. They exist, though — and these are the stories I like to tell when invited to speak at conferences. We need to hear more about how George Eliot strategized to earn more money from her publisher, or how Mark Twain sold his work in unfashionable ways.

(2) Thinking that art and business can’t coexist when the friction between the two can be productive, even desirable. In the literary community especially, it’s thought that “real” writers shouldn’t have to market — that’s the publisher’s job, or at least someone else’s job. This kind of thinking ends up hobbling only the writer and the sustainability of the career he or she has chosen.

TBD: What books, resources, and authors inspire you in the Business of Being a Writer?

JF: I enjoy the resources and perspective provided by people like Austin Kleon (Show Your Work), Ilise Benun (posts and courses on pricing), Alain de Botton(everything), Richard Nash (“The Business of Literature”), Paul Jarvis (his email newsletter), Elizabeth Hyde Stevens (Make Money Make Art)David Moldawer (his email newsletter), Nicole Dieker (posts and podcast on writing and money), and Jessica Abel (her blog and courses). This is not an exhaustive list, but they’re the types of people I often reference in my own talks.

TBD: What was the best monetary investment you ever made as a writer?

JF: Hiring a CPA and buying more expensive website hosting. Both save me money (and headaches) over the long term.

TBD: What is the best way(s) to market a book?

JF: The best marketing starts with the author and is a years-long, organic process that begins (whether you acknowledge it or not) the day you decide you’re serious about being an author. The best marketing emerges from the work itself and matches your strengths.

Of course, so many authors have been trained to see marketing as separate from the work and outside of their skillset. It doesn’t have to be that way — that’s just the way we’re trained to see it. But the best marketing doesn’t feel like selling — to the reader or to the author.

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

JF: Be patient with yourself and with the editors, agents, and service folks you deal with. You get further, psychologically and materially, when you assume the person on the other side of the email has good intentions toward you and your work.


Jane Friedman

                                     Jane Friedman

Jane’s newest book is The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press). Publishers Weekly said that it is “destined to become a staple reference book for writers and those interested in publishing careers.” Also, in collaboration with The Authors Guild, she wrote The Authors Guild Guide to E-Publishing.

Jane Friedman is a full-time entrepreneur (since 2014) and has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry. She is the co-founder of The Hot Sheet, the essential publishing industry newsletter for authors, and is the former publisher of Writer’s Digest. In addition to being a columnist with Publishers Weekly and a professor with The Great Courses, Jane maintains an award-winning blog for writers at JaneFriedman.com and her expertise has been featured by NPR, PBS, CBS, The Washington Post, the National Press Club and many other outlets. Jane’s newest book is The Business of Being a Writer(University of Chicago Press, 2018).

Jane has delivered keynotes and workshops on the digital era of authorship at worldwide industry events, including the Writer’s Digest annual conferenceSan Miguel Writers ConferenceThe Muse & The MarketplaceFrankfurt Book FairBookExpo AmericaLitFlow Berlin, and Digital Book World. She’s also served on grant panels for the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund, and has held positions as a professor of writing, media, and publishing at the University of Cincinnati and University of Virginia.

In her spare time, Jane writes creative nonfiction, which has been included in the anthologies Every Father’s Daughter and Drinking Diaries. If you look hard enough, you can also find her embarrassing college poetry.

In 2o17, Jane was honored with the Virginia Writers Club Lifetime Achievement Award.


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 ReviewGet publishing tips delivered to your inbox every month.


Grant Faulkner wearing a horned helmet writing

Grant Faulkner on National Novel Writing Month, Pep Talks for Writers, and Dostoyevsky

We first met Grant Faulkner at one of the greatest gigs the Book Doctors ever had, presenting our writing workshops in rural Alaska. There were eagles, there were bears, there were drunken sailors, and there were lots of amazing Alaskan writers. Going through the writing process bonds you with someone, and we feel like Grant has become part of our literary family. His new bookPep Talks for Writers: 52 Insights and Actions to Boost Your Creative Mojo, is out now, so we picked his brain about what it’s like running the amazing National Novel Writing Month organization and writing—and publishing—his own book.

Read this interview on the Medium.

Photo of Grant Faulkner smiling

Grant Faulkner

The Book Doctors: Why in the name of all that’s good and holy did you decide to become a writer?

Grant Faulkner: I’m not sure that I had a choice. I’ve always felt like I was a writer. I took a fetishist’s delight over paper and pens when I was a kid. My mom bought me a little antique roll top desk when I was 6, and I wrote my first story on that desk. I asked for a leather bound diary for my 7th birthday, and I’ve kept a journal ever since then.

When I was 20, I was deciding whether to be an economics or an English major, and I fortunately spent a semester abroad in France before declaring. I whiled away most of my time in cafes reading novels and writing. When I returned home, I spent the summer writing stories in a little shack on my grandmother’s farm. It goes without saying that I didn’t major in economics, and the field of economics is the better for it.

TBD: What were some of your favorite books as a kid? What are you reading now, and why?

GF: The book that most changed my sense of the world as a kid was Crime and Punishment. I was too young to truly understand it, but I stumbled on it in the library when I was 13, and I picked it up because I was writing a paper on crime. Dostoyevsky showed me the many layers and paradoxes of the human soul in a way I hadn’t imagined. I truly stared into the abyss. Raskolnikov still haunts me.

I just finished Leonard Cohen’s biography, and I’m now reading his book of poems, The Book of Longing. I can never get enough of Leonard Cohen’s voice in my head. I like the way the textures of his poetry influence the textures of my prose. I’m also reading Stranger, Father, Beloved by Taylor Larsen. I just met her, and I thought she was a fantastic person, and it turns out she wrote a really wonderful, probing book.

TBD: What was your inspiration for writing Pep Talks for Writers?

GF: I’ve talked to so many writers who want to write year-round, who want to finish their novels after National Novel Writing Month, but it can be challenging to keep writing. I think it can be a little like a New Year’s resolution. People buy gym memberships in January and show up to exercise for a month or two, but then it’s tough to keep going regularly the rest of the year.

I want people to prioritize creativity and develop a creative mindset so that they’re not just creative in November, but every day of their lives. Creative on the page—and beyond the page. The book offers 52 different angles on creativity, so I hope people will read an essay a week and work to develop a creative habit.

TBD: What were some of the joys, and some of the pains, of putting this book together, finding a publisher, and getting it out into the world?

GF: I’d never written a nonfiction book proposal, so that was a learning experience. I didn’t realize how involved the proposal would be. It was practically like writing the book itself—which was a blessing once I actually started writing the book. Fortunately, my agent, Lindsay Edgecombe, was a fantastic and generous guide.

Other than that, it was a great experience. I was fortunate to find a home for the book at Chronicle Books, which is the perfect publisher for it, and then I also had the perfect editor for it in Wynn Rankin. I hope the experience hasn’t spoiled me for upcoming book projects.

Photo of the cover of Pep Talks for Writers by Grant Faulkner; title is in white letters in front of a blue and green background

Chronicle Books

TBD: We give pep talks to writers all the time. What are some dos and don’ts of this very precarious activity?

GF: The interesting thing about being a writer is how intrinsically challenging it is, no matter if you’re a beginner or a seasoned pro. The anguish of self-doubt is always looming. The difficulty of making your ideas come alive through your words never ends. There are so many how-to-write books that deal with the nuts and bolts of craft, but the thing that matters in the end is sitting down to write, believing in yourself, taking creative risks, and writing your story.

That’s easier said than done, of course. Every writer, especially when finishing a long work like a novel, goes through cycles of despair. We all need to be reminded of why we’re doing this crazy activity of making art, putting our voice into the world. It’s easy to forget what a gift it is. It’s easy to forget that we need to constantly nourish our creative spirits.

TBD: What are you doing to promote and market the book?

GF: So many things. It’s been great to write articles on different creativity topics related to the book for publications such as Poets & WritersWriter’s Digest, and The Writer. I’ve been on a lot of podcasts and radio shows, which have been really fun. And then I’m doing bookstore events, tweet chats, presentations at colleges and companies, and then speeches at writing and publishing conferences.

My favorite part of my job is talking to people about their writing, and promoting this book has deepened those conversations, so I love it.

TBD: How did you learn to be a writer?

GF: I learned how to be a writer mainly by writing. I unfortunately didn’t have a superhero teacher who mentored me along the way. I’ve read many writing guides and how-to books. I’ve taken writing workshops and even have a masters in creative writing. But I’ve learned most about writing just by showing up to write regularly, being in conversation with my favorite writers’ books, and experimenting in different forms.

TBD: You’ve been running National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) for a few years now. What have you learned from rubbing elbows, and various other body parts, with all those writers?

GF: I’ve learned so much from the NaNoWriMo writing community. We writers tend to be solitary creatures, or that is how we often think of ourselves. And it’s true, a lot of writing tends to happen in solitude. But if you trace the history of literature, you realize how it takes a veritable village to write a book. Think of Bloomsbury, Paris in the ‘20s, the Inklings, the Beatniks. The writers in those communities created each other as they were creating themselves.

Frissons of creativity tend to happen with others. When you engage with other writers, you’re naturally combining an assortment of different concepts, elaborating and modifying each other’s thoughts. Meeting regularly with others to write or get feedback is important, and not just for your creativity— it also keeps you accountable.

The NaNoWriMo writing community is such a wondrous playground of ideas. It’s so spirited, so encouraging, so generous. It’s not only made me a better writer, it’s made me a better person.

Grant Faulkner wearing a horned helmet writing

TBD: We hate to ask you this, but since your book is about writing, we kind of have to ask. What advice do you have for writers?

GF: Sit down. Try to remember the first story you wrote, the glee you took in exploring your imagination on the page. Hold onto the feeling of that gift and write. Write your story, your way—as if no one is going to read it but you. Write some more. And then keep writing, never doubting that the world needs your story.

The Book Doctors will host the eighth annual NaNoWriMo Pitchapalooza beginning in 2018. One winner will receive an introduction to an agent or publisher appropriate for their manuscript. Be the first to know about 2018 NaNoWriMo Pitchapalooza.

Grant Faulkner is the Executive Director of National Novel Writing Month and the co-founder of 100 Word Story. His stories have appeared in dozens of literary magazines, including Tin House, The Southwest Review, and The Los Angeles Review. His essays on writing have been published in The New York Times, Poets & Writers, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer. He recently published Pep Talks for Writers: 52 Insights and Prompts to Boost Your Creative Mojo with Chronicle Books. He’s also published a collection of one hundred 100-word stories, Fissures, two of which are included in Best Small Fictions 2016. Learn more at www.grantfaulkner.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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Portrait photo of Peter Ginna smiling

Peter Ginna on Getting Published, Saying No, and What Editors Do

We were absolutely delighted when we got a request from editor extraordinaire Peter Ginna to write something for a new book he was putting together called What Editors Do: The Art, Craft, and Business of Book Editing. Because Arielle is an agent and writer, and David is a writer and book doctor, we have a very different perspective than most people who make money editing books. We thoroughly enjoyed writing our piece, but it was much more fun reading some of the amazing pieces in this book. So now that What Editors Do is out, we picked Peter’s brain on what it was like to go from being the guy with the red pencil to the guy waiting to see how many red marks would come back on his pages.

Read this interview on the HuffPost.

Portrait photo of Peter Ginna smiling

Peter Ginna

The Book Doctors: As your subtitle suggests, and as your introduction states, being an editor today includes so much more than editing. What should you expect from your editor? Or if you’re looking to become an editor, what skills do you need to do the job well?

Peter Ginna: Let me answer those questions in reverse order. As I said in the piece that you mention, editing encompasses many different roles. The core of the job is still working with an author to make his or her text as good as it can be. Some editors inside publishing houses, and most freelance editors, focus almost entirely on that task. But most editors, especially in trade publishing, have to shepherd a book all the way from the author’s keyboard into the marketplace, so they have to be very involved in marketing, design, production, publicity—everything that goes into bringing that work to readers.

If you’re looking to become an editor, nobody expects you to be an expert at that stuff right away. But you need to have an interest in learning about it, because it’s crucial.

If you’re an author, you should expect your editor to be passionate about your book, and to treat you as a valued partner in the publishing process. For a lot of authors, the publishing house is a black box. The editor owes them frequent and honest communication.

TBD: Why is it that in relationships, as in books, it’s so easy to see what’s wrong with someone else’s stuff, but so hard to see what’s wrong with our own stuff? Is there any way to bring the editor’s outlook to your own work?

PG: It’s incredibly hard to judge your own work! That’s why there are editors. At the risk of seeming to suck up, your chapter in this book on self-editing for authors has great advice on this. At a minimum, put your manuscript away for a week (or longer) and reread it with fresher eyes. Read it aloud so you can really hear how it flows, or doesn’t. Even better, enlist some “beta readers” whom you can trust to give you an honest response.

TBD: We have found that editing other people’s books makes us better writers, and being writers helps us as editors. What did you learn from writing and putting together this book that you will bring back to your job as editor?

PG: Hah! —I learned how hard it is to meet your editor’s deadlines! And continuing from your last question, learned, from the author’s side, how valuable it is to be forced to think about why you said something a certain way, and whether there might be a clearer or cleaner way to say it.

TBD: While we’re on the subject, what was it like exchanging your editor hat for your writer hat? And did you end up cursing your editor silently or out loud? And what advice do you have for writers when they receive an edit back on their most precious book?

PG: I never cursed my editor, who was wonderful. My experience in thirty-plus years of editing has been that authors rarely cursed me out. I believe that what authors want, more than praise or even success, is to be read. For a reader to connect with their writing. If the author knows you’ve read their work really closely, even if you are criticizing something or asking them to change it, they are usually grateful. I have definitely found that it’s the best writers who are most gracious and receptive to editorial suggestions. (With very rare egomaniacal exceptions…)

TBD: We always tell people that editors and agents are trained to say “no.” Can you speak to the experience of rejecting books? Is it rote at this point or do you actually feel anything when you are rejecting? And if you dealt with rejection with this book, can you tell us how it felt to be on the other side?

PG: I understand why you say editors are trained to say no—we do it 95 percent of the time, or more. And especially as traditional publishers compete with self-publishing, we’ve heard a lot about the editor as “gatekeeper,” an image that makes you think of a bouncer turning away people from a hot party. But that’s not how editors think about it—nobody comes to work hoping to turn down a lot of books that day. Editors live to find books to publish, and new titles are the lifeblood of a publishing house. Every day you open your email hoping to find something you love. It’s easy to reject a manuscript that leaves you cold, but editors really agonize when they come across a book that shows talent but that they can’t make an offer for—either because colleagues won’t support it, or because it’s too flawed in some way. Fortunately for me, my editor and I worked together on creating What Editors Do from the beginning so I didn’t have to go through the process of pitching it.

TBD: Can you tell us the process a book goes through at a publishing house once a deal is made? And are there any differences in the actual editing process between a Big 5 publisher, an independent house, or an academic press?

PG: Whew, the process is quite complicated and anyone who wants a thorough description of it should read the chapter by Nancy Miller called “The Book’s Journey.” The first part of it is the actual editing, where editor and author revise the manuscript (sometimes several times). But there’s also a multi-pronged marketing process that begins at acquisition and really ramps up when the final manuscript is delivered. At that point there’s also the complex work of turning the author’s text into a printed or digital book, which itself usually takes several months.

The principles of editing don’t vary between presses, but it is often the case that academic presses do a kind of triage on their lists. They don’t have the resources to edit every book intensively, so many books don’t get too much more than a copy edit. However, for books where they feel the effort is appropriate, scholarly publishers often do just as good a job, or better, than trade houses. My editor, and the whole press at Chicago, did a superbly thorough job on What Editors Do. I should add that there are chapters in my book by editors from independent and academic presses who discuss their work in more depth.

Cover for What Editors Do by Peter Ginna; title in blue, black and orange letters next to descriptive bubbles of the same colors on a white background

University of Chicago Press

TBD: Speaking of academic presses, What Editors Do is published by The University of Chicago Press. Why did you choose to go with a university press? Does the fact that they publish The Chicago Manual of Style influence your decision at all, since this is a book every editor needs to have on her desk? What was the experience like and how did it differ from the publishing experience of say, Bloomsbury, where you were Editorial Director?

PG: Chicago, in fact, proposed this project to me, which was some form of kismet because I had been thinking for some time about the need for a book like this. This subject made sense for them, because good publishers are always looking for books in areas where they’re already strong—they know the market and have a head start on getting recognition for new titles in that field. And for me, because Chicago is a leading publisher in this area, I was thrilled to be on their list. For an editing book, to be marketed alongside the Manual of Style is a big advantage. It’s hard for me to compare Chicago vs. Bloomsbury from the author’s point of view because I have only been an author with one of them. I’d say the main difference is that Chicago is placing more emphasis on marketing to courses and libraries than most trade presses would, and is less focused on the trade market.

TBD: Is it possible for writers to approach editors at larger houses directly? What is the best way of doing this?

PG: Realistically speaking, I would recommend authors try to find an agent before approaching publishers directly. It’s simply much harder to get an editor’s attention when you submit “over the transom.” That said, as an editor I was always open to an intelligent, well-targeted query. If an author wrote me and said, “I saw that you were the editor of Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse mysteries. I’ve written a new crime novel with a brilliant, enigmatic detective and classic whodunit elements that I think will appeal to the same readers who love Morse,” I would always give that person’s work a read. I knew that the author had at least done some homework and thought about why they were sending it to me.

TBD: Our essay in What Editors Do is about self-publishing. Many people ask us, “If I self-publish my book, will it ruin my chances of getting published by a bigger publisher?” How would you answer this question?

PG: You probably know more about this question than I do, but especially nowadays I don’t think there’s any stigma attached to having self-published your work. What’s important is to self-publish your work well. If your self-published book is full of mistakes, badly typeset, or amateurish-looking, it will reflect badly on you. (Covers are hugely important!) But if you do a good job with it—and especially if you sell enough copies to show there is an audience for your writing—I think that gives you a leg up on finding a publisher for future work.

TBD: You rarely hear a kid say “I want to be an editor when I grow up.” This is particularly true if you don’t grow up in a typically white, well-educated, upper middle class environment. Chris Jackson has a brilliant essay in the book about the fact that there is little to no diversity in publishing despite all the talk about the issue. If someone is reading this interview and wants to become an editor but doesn’t fit into these boxes, what tips do you have for breaking into the business? How can you encourage someone to make the effort to break down doors?

PG: I would urge anyone, of any background, to read Chris’s essay because it shows how a person who is passionate about books found his way in publishing despite both his own handicaps—Chris says he didn’t know how to type a letter when he started out as an assistant—and the structural obstacles in the system. It’s unfortunately true that, like many other old-school businesses, publishers are oversupplied with applicants from privileged backgrounds with fancy college degrees, and they still hire lots of those people because it’s easy to do. The good news is that most every publisher understands the importance of diversity and many houses have explicit efforts under way to increase it, so it’s a great time to apply for a job in publishing.

Also, I truly believe publishing is democratic in the sense that, if you really love reading, and really know your way around books, and you’re smart and willing to work hard, that will get recognized really fast. And it’s actually way more important than whether you went to an Ivy League school. This may sound silly, but what we all have in common in the book business is that we love books! And being among people who self-selected on that principle makes for a pretty congenial working life. Whatever “box” you fit into, if you are one of those people who spent your teenage years reading with a flashlight under the covers, you should think about a career in publishing.

Peter Ginna is an independent book editor and the author/editor of WHAT EDITORS DO: THE ART, CRAFT, AND BUSINESS OF BOOK EDITING. He has worked in publishing houses for over 30 years, most recently as publisher and editorial director at Bloomsbury Press, an imprint he founded at Bloomsbury USA. Before that he held editorial positions at Oxford University Press, Crown Publishers, St. Martin’s Press, and Persea Books. Authors he has worked with include James M. McPherson, David Hackett Fischer, and David Oshinsky (all winners of the Pulitzer Prize), Daniel Ellsberg, Michael B. Oren, Alice Kessler-Harris, Suze Orman, and Colin Dexter. He comments about books, writing, and publishing at the blog Doctor Syntax, and has written for Creative Nonfiction magazine, Nieman Storyboard, and the Huffington Post. You can follow him on Twitter at @DoctorSyntax.

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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Book cover for ThriftStyle by Allison Engel, Reise Moore, and Margaret Engel; Woman in red coat holding multi colored purse under title in front of a blue wall

The ThriftStylers on Writing, Upcycling and Fabulous Couture for Cheap

We met the ThriftStylers at one of the great comedy writers conferences in America: the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop. We knew as soon as we saw them that they were special, in the best sense of that word. So when we found out they were coming out with a book, ThriftStyle: The Ultimate Bargain Shoppers Guide to Smart Fashion, we decided it was in everyone’s best interest to pick their brains about writing, style, and being awesomely thrifty.

Read this interview on the HuffPost.

Book cover for ThriftStyle by Allison Engel, Reise Moore, and Margaret Engel; Woman in red coat holding multi colored purse under title in front of a blue wall

Imagine

The Book Doctors: What in the world made you want to write a book?

Reise Moore: I had been quietly thrifting for years and had started a thrifting blog that had gone defunct. Allison and I had a lunch date (the Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles Summit) where she mentioned she and her twin Margaret (Peggy) had been kicking around a TV show on thrifting. I revealed that I was an avid thrifter and almost everything I wore, except underwear, was thrifted head to toe. Next thing I knew, Allison said, “So let’s work on this show.” I’m a mom of three and I was finishing up grad school at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at USC, so all I was thinking about was sleep. But Allison is convincing. Next thing I knew, I was nodding and saying, “Yeah, when we produce the show.” The idea morphed into us writing a book first and using it as a calling card for a show.

TBD: Did you have any books that you used as models for ThriftStyle: The Ultimate Bargain Shoppers Guide to Smart Fashion?

Allison Engel: There aren’t that many books on thrifting, but the few I saw tended not to have the ring of truth. They showed fabulous couture quality items that the author admitted buying three decades ago in Paris and were not relatable to readers looking in their local Goodwill today. We made a conscious decision to buy items that were in thrift stores right now, and for each item shown we included the price we paid and where we bought it. We also wanted lots of photographs of people wearing thrifted outfits. We used our diverse friends and family as models (both male and female), further making the point that these are clothes and accessories that can be found and worn by real people right now.

Reise Moore: I wanted ThriftStyle to be a love letter to thrifting. I wanted readers to realize the creative possibilities by upcycling and making simple fixes. And I wanted people to understand that textile waste is real and thrifting is a way to recycle and reuse. I wanted ThriftStyle to be the ultimate book on thrifting. In the quest to achieve that, we touched on so much more, such as developing your personal style and using thrifting to support charitable causes. The book is way more than I imagined it would be at the onset.

Portrait photo of Margaret Engel smiling

Margaret Engel

TBD: How did you go about getting the book published?

Margaret Engel: Our original idea was to make ThriftStyle a television show, and we are now working with a Hollywood production company to do just that. When I was managing editor at the Newseum, the museum of news, I had worked with a publisher on several books about journalists. That publisher reconnected with me when his firm was merging with a larger publisher, Charlesbridge, and asked me if I had any ideas for a mass-market book. I mentioned that the three of us were starting work on a possible television series about thrifted clothing. He suggested doing the book first, and we dove in.

TBD: What were some of the joys, and some of the pains, of writing this book?

Reise Moore: One frustration in writing the book is in thrifting; most everything you find is one of a kind. Everything in our book — clothes, jewelry, shoes, handbags, belts — is thrifted. So there is no size up or size down if the clothes don’t fit your model. We were thrifting clothes and doing fittings before shoots. If it did not work on the model, the outfit you loved on the hanger was out the window and you had to go back shopping. Allison’s apartment was overrun with all things ThriftStyle. It looked like a Salvation Army outlet!

We have more than 350 photos in ThriftStyle. Shoot days brought me huge joy. They were tough and long. We were a skeleton crew jamming in a bunch of set-ups, but we were pushing the dream forward. It reminded me of my film school days. Our photographer, the amazing Roger Snider, was patient and flexible and the hardest worker of all.

TBD: We are married, and we’ve written several books together. What was it like to navigate writing this book with your twin?

Margaret Engel: Allison and I began writing books together in the typewriter and carbon paper days of the early 1980s, mailing finished pages to each other cross country in envelopes with stamps, so the advent of cheap long-distance phone calls and emails has made the process much, much easier. When we are writing, we can still have the world’s shortest phone conversations, because we don’t need to give a long preamble or carefully couch criticism. We can be quick and direct. We tend to write different sections and then send it to each other for edits. Working together in a room, with one person typing and the other looking over her shoulder, is not a recipe for success for us. It takes twice as long. When Reise joined the team, we used the same strategy. We divided up chapters – or parts of chapters – and each of us wrote separately, then emailed the results to the others.

Reise Moore: It was daunting to step into the dynamic of twin sisters who have written successfully together and you are the literal third wheel. Allison and I were friends first so I knew she was cool. But I was super concerned about Peggy and I wanted to make sure she was OK with it. I was super concerned about me because here I am suddenly writing alongside two very accomplished and successful writers who have had a whole lifetime of being each other’s sounding board. There were a lot of “what ifs” on my end. But I had to get over it quickly because I noticed early on that everything was about the work. Once I got over myself, we were cooking. I found the room to be as big and expressive and creative as I wanted to be, and it easily became a creative space we shared and collaborated in. We complemented each other well.

Portrait photo of Reise Moore smiling outdoors

Reise Moore

TBD: How did you get into the whole world of ThriftStyling?

Reise Moore: My big sister Barbara Biggs-Lester is a jewelry connoisseur with a stunning fully-thrifted collection, and she was my muse. It started with some cheaply made purses I was so proud to have scored on sale at a retail store. She saw them, was not impressed, and said, “Let’s go thrifting.” I discovered the quality and bargains I could find in a thrift store and took off. Soon after, I became aware that thrifting is green and philanthropic, and I never looked back. What keeps me thrifting now is I love the idea of looking good while doing good for the planet, for important causes and for my own creativity.

TBD: Can you give us the top-three list of dos and don’ts when it comes to finding awesome bargains for pennies?

Reise Moore:

  1. Don’t judge a thrift store by its cover. Some of the most amazing clothing I have found has been in a place I was afraid to walk into. The neighborhood was dicey, but once I was inside, the designer pieces were jumping off the racks. The folks were warm and friendly and most everything was priced between two and five bucks.
  2. Do seek out a top-notch dry cleaner. If you turn your nose up at thrifting because someone else has worn the clothes, please know that several studies have shown that even new clothes hanging in a store can be pretty darn dirty. We immediately take everything we thrift to the dry cleaner or wash it ourselves. If you focus on quality, natural fiber items at thrift stores (and you should), they deserve the extra cost of dry cleaning.
  3. Do develop a clear idea of your own personal style. Thrifting newbies often are seduced by the low prices and end up with armloads of items in a grab bag of styles. Being able to focus on the silhouettes, colors and styles that flatter you and make you happy can help you sift through the sometimes overwhelming thrift store inventory and find what speaks to you. Tastemakers and trendsetters know this, and that’s why some of the best-dressed people I have ever seen have been in thrift stores.

Portrait photo of Allison Engel

Allison Engel

TBD: What are some of the things that you learned talking to all the people in the book?

Allison Engel: We realized the absolute explosion in thrift and consignment shopping in this country, with new online outlets and new brick and mortar chains, as well as the longtime charitable thrifts. The Association of Resale Professionals has determined that thrift stores generate $12 billion in annual revenue. One in six American adults now shop second hand, and they are increasingly drawn to thrift stores because they are eco-friendly. Textile waste is a huge problem, and thrift stores are luring millennials who are concerned about the issue.

We interviewed thrift shop owners, dedicated thrifters, personal shoppers at thrift stores (they exist!), professionals who help people downsize and organize their belongings, costume designers, tailors, dry cleaners, cobblers, re-weavers and many others, and filled the book with their tips and observations. We loved the hints we received from Chelsea Confalone, who scouts the bins at thrift stores where items are sold by the pound. She buys clothing in beautiful fabrics that might have a rip or tear and remakes them into items for her young children. She’s now taking sewing lessons. Pinterest can supply clothing redo ideas (look under “Remake Clothes” under the “Explore” tab), and YouTube has instruction videos. I love the idea that thrift stores can spark creativity and an interest in handmade, refashioned items.

TBD: Why should people thrift?

Reise Moore: People have a misconception that thrifting is just for folks without money or down on their luck. Don’t get it twisted, I can afford to shop retail and I definitely can afford to shop discount clothing stores. I thrift because I want to be a better kind of consumer. I don’t want my purchases to add to the huge issue of textile waste that is fueled by fast fashion. I want my purchases to count toward the missions of the charity-based thrift stores I frequent.

Also, I have never felt so creatively unchained when it comes to clothes. Your unique take on how you choose to clothe yourself is a form of self-expression. It can be unleashed in thrift stores because there is so much to choose from. When it comes to trends, nothing is better than thrift stores because trends often repeat or harken back to some specific decade. So if I see that ‘90s grunge or ‘70s chic is back, I can find original representations of the look in thrift stores. Nothing beats originals, as they are a much higher quality than what can be found in fast-fashion outlets. It is the reason why celebrities and fashionistas wear vintage and frequent thrift stores.

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

Allison Engel: Be persistent. Most of the ideas we’ve had for books and plays have existed in our notebooks, computers and brains for years and years. We don’t give up on ideas we think are worthwhile, even if it takes others a while to agree. We had our Food Finds idea for several years before our first book was published – and we still were very early in identifying and chronicling the rise of American foods made by small, family-run producers.

If we hit a roadblock, we might abandon a project for a bit, but we simply hold the thought until we, perhaps, meet someone who will help it along, or wait for the topic to catch fire in the national consciousness. If we listened to naysayers and gatekeepers, we wouldn’t have published or produced much in our lives.

Allison Engel is a journalist who has written articles and produced photographs for Apartment Life, Metropolitan Home, Traditional Home, Country Home, Renovation Style, American Patchwork & Quilting, Quilt Sampler, Midwest Living, Palm Springs Life and others. She was a longtime columnist for Saveur, and her freelance articles have appeared in Esquire, The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times. She and her twin sister wrote three editions of a book on family-run food producers (Food Finds: America’s Best Local Foods and the People Who Produce Them) for HarperCollins, which they turned into the show Food Finds for Food Network that ran for seven years.

She holds a dual bachelor’s degree in textiles/clothing and journalism from Iowa State University, a master’s degree in screenwriting from the University of Southern California and was a Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University. A play she wrote with twin sister Margaret Engel, Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins, attracted Kathleen Turner for its premiere production, and has received several other record-breaking Equity productions around the nation in the last three years. A second play, Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End, had its premiere at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., last year, an Equity production in Cincinnati this past spring, and several upcoming productions scheduled.

For five years, Allison was senior editor of the University of Southern California alumni magazine and web editor for USC News, and she currently is the associate director of the Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities at USC.

Maricia “Reise” Moore has more than 16 years of experience producing and managing productions, including shows for Animal Planet and A&E’s Biography. She is a graduate of the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts with an emphasis in production, and holds a master’s degree in communication management from the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at USC. She is currently an executive in charge of production for the Campus Filming Office at USC, overseeing major production companies on feature films, network and cable television and national commercial shoots.

Reise is a thrift store fanatic. What started out six years ago as a grudging trip to a thrift store swiftly became a passion for quality and beautiful, unique clothes at a rock bottom prices. She prides herself on dressing head to toe every day —including accessories—in fabulous thrifted finds. When she is not combing the aisles of thrift stores, she is happily being mom to three kids and wife to her writer husband in Los Angeles.

Her first book, ThriftStyle: The Ultimate Bargain Shopper’s Guide to Smart Fashion, written with Allison Engel and Margaret Engel, was published in September 2017. Reise and the Engels currently are working with a production company to turn the book into a television show starring Hollywood costume designers who shop at thrift stores to help everyday consumers solve fashion problems.

Margaret Engel directs the Alicia Patterson Journalism Foundation and was the managing editor of the Newseum. She was a reporter for the Washington Post, Des Moines Register and Lorain Journal and was a Nieman fellow at Harvard. She co-wrote Food Finds: America’s Best Local Foods and the People Who Produce Them with her twin Allison, and helped turn the book into a show for Food Network, where it ran for seven years.

She and Allison wrote the play Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins, which is still being produced regularly, and has had about 35 productions to date around the country. She also co-authored the play Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End, which has had several Equity productions, with upcoming productions in Arizona, New York, New Jersey, Florida, Virginia and Ohio.

She has served on the board of Theatre Washington/Helen Hayes Awards, the Fund for Investigative Journalism and chairs the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism awards board. She is a judge for the Boston Globe’s Spotlight awards and is a member of the Nieman Foundation board.

She and her husband, Bruce Adams, wrote three editions of a Fodor’s travel guide to America’s baseball parks, with the help of their children, Emily and Hugh.

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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Portrait photo of Patricia Perry Donovan

Patricia Perry Donovan on Hurricane Sandy, NaNoWriMo, and the Dreaded Sophomore Jinx

We first met Patricia Perry Donovan several years ago when she won our Pitchapalooza event (think American Idol for books, only much gentler and much kinder) down at the Jersey Shore. She had a great success with her first book, and At Wave’s End, her second novel, dropped this week. So we thought we’d pick her brain about books, writing, and how—when it comes to novels—it’s different the second time around.

Read this article on the HuffPost.

Portrait photo of Patricia Perry Donovan

Patricia Perry Donovan

The Book Doctors: Many congratulations on the publication of your second book. Tell us about At Wave’s End.

Patricia Perry Donovan: I’m delighted to. Inspired by Hurricane Sandy, At Wave’s End is the story of Connie Sterling, an impulsive woman who wins a ramshackle bed and breakfast at the Jersey Shore. When a deadly hurricane hits, Connie finds herself in over her head, requiring her adult daughter Faith, a Manhattan chef, to bail her out. Once Faith comes to Connie’s rescue, the storm’s aftermath dredges up deceptions and emotional debris that threaten to destroy the inn’s future and their fragile mother-daughter bond.

TBD: Do you do research for your books? Were there any other books that influenced your writing of this book? Do you outline before you start writing?

PPD: I’m also a journalist, so research is second nature. However, in this case, having lived through a coastal superstorm, I could mostly write from experience. I did research Hurricane Sandy’s actual timeline to lend authenticity to the book’s fictional Hurricane Nadine.

Influence-wise, At Wave’s End began as a series of short stories I penned in the storm’s aftermath. I had hoped to entwine these stories in a novel, a la Elizabeth Strout’s faultless Olive Kitteridge. That didn’t exactly happen, but I still wrangled a fairly large cast of characters in this book. I’d still like to one day write a novel comprised of linked stories.

And on the question of ‘pants-ing’ versus ‘planning,’ I’m a card-carrying ‘seat of the pants’ writer. However, I surrendered that luxury in order to meet my publisher’s deadline.

Cover of At Wave's End by Patricia Perry Donovan; cropped woman of a woman's back in fron t of a beach holding a shell

Lake Union Publishing

TBD: Were you worried about the dreaded sophomore jinx? Did this affect you in any way?

PPD: Gee, I didn’t really think about a ‘jinx’ until you mentioned it! But yes, it’s terribly daunting to write a second book during the launch and review of your first. On the one hand, my writing felt stronger the second time out. On the other hand, I needed to make a concerted effort to close myself off from all Deliver Her feedback (both glowing and gut-wrenching) in order to complete book two.

TBD: What did you learn from writing your first book that you could apply to your second?

PPD: SO much. First, in terms of process, I tapped into the trove of guidance from my gifted team of Deliver Her editors. I could hear these ‘book whisperers’ in my head as I wrote At Wave’s End.

Second, I discovered a delightful community of readers, who love to interact and share snippets of their lives, and immersed myself in the world of book reviews. My skin is thicker as a result! Here, I must acknowledge my amazing tribe of fellow Lake Union authors, who welcomed a newcomer with open arms. As a group, we shake off (and laugh off) the more distasteful aspects of publishing and savor the favorable ones.

The entire experience reinforced my desire to write the kind of stories I enjoy reading: family dramas with a dollop of dysfunction, but also a glimmer of optimism.

TBD: What did you learn from your first book that you could apply to your second in terms of promotion and marketing?

PPD: I’ve improved my advance game this time around, investing many more pre-release hours attempting to put At Wave’s End in influencers’ hands. As a debut novelist, I didn’t grasp the importance of this.

Also, I’m trying to rein in my time on social media, which, if I’m not careful, quickly consumes my writing window. I can’t avoid it right now during At Wave’s End’s launch. The other day, my first waking thought was the edit of a tweet I’d sent the night before. If that’s not a warning I need to cut back, I don’t know what is!

My goal is to create a balance. While I’m thrilled with my success as a novelist, I miss those early days of writing in the dark only for myself.

TBD: Do you have an agent representing you on these books? What was your experience working with your publisher like?

PPD: I am represented by the fabulous Elisabeth Weed of The Book Group. And working with my Lake Union Publishing team is heavenly. They are responsive, supportive and attuned to writers’ needs.

TBD: Congratulations on the Writers Digest award. How did that come about?

PPD: Thank you! My short story “Still Life” won an Honorable Mention in the 84th Annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition in 2015. That story resurrected Mia, a darling from Deliver Her, and also won an Honorable Mention that year in the Lorian Hemingway Short Story Competition. Who knows? We may see Mia in longer form one day.

TBD: Journalism tends to be short-form writing. How did you learn to tell a story that keeps going for 300 or so pages?

PPD: My fiction generally starts out in short form as a short story. Then, the best stories beg to keep going; in fact, they pretty much tell themselves. My job is just to keep up and capture them on the page.

I suppose I ‘learned’ to tell longer stories by participating in NaNoWrMo’s online novel writing competition. I would encourage anyone who thinks they can’t write a book to try it. There are no prizes, other than attaining a personal goal of writing 50,000 words in a single month. NaNoWriMo is a lot of fun, and taught me that with daily discipline, I could complete a book—a very rough one, but a book nonetheless.

TBD: Why would you write a book inspired by a natural disaster that impacted your own community, as well as thousands of others?

PPD: I read once that every novel is a love letter to someone. In this case, perhaps At Wave’s End is a love letter to my community. While Sandy spared my home, hundreds of thousands of storm survivors, including many friends and neighbors, weren’t as fortunate.

I actually organized this book into six parts, each named for a stage in a community Disaster Recovery model. I learned about the model in post-Sandy volunteer training. It’s similar to the stages of grief experienced after a death. The Reconstruction phase continues today, which is why I included this Afterword in my book:

This story is a work of fiction. However, in 2012, a storm of similar magnitude devastated the East Coast, killing thirty-seven people and destroying close to 350,000 homes. Although Hurricane Sandy forever altered the topography of countless neighborhoods, the destruction also triggered an extraordinary surge of community and compassion. With reconstruction ongoing at the superstorm’s five-year mark, this story is intended to honor Sandy’s survivors for their resilience and determination to rise above disaster.

TBD: We hate to ask you this, but now that you have two books under your belt, what advice do you have for writers?

PPD: Going back to my earlier comment about zealously guarding my writing time, I would advise aspiring writers to avoid becoming so consumed by the business of writing that you forget to get down to the business of writing.

Patricia Perry Donovan is an American journalist who writes about healthcare. Her fiction has appeared at Gravel Literary, Flash Fiction Magazine, Bethlehem Writers Roundtable and in other literary journals. The mother of two grown daughters, she lives at the Jersey shore with her husband, with whom she has fond memories of raising their young family abroad in France. Connect with her on Facebook @PatriciaPerryDonovanBooks and on Twitter @PatPDonovan. Learn more at www.patriciaperrydonovan.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 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.

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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.

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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.

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Photo of Holly Kowitt smiling

Holly Kowitt on Cutting Good Jokes, P.G. Wodehouse, & the Principal’s Underwear (Which Is Missing!)

We’ve been fans of Holly Kowitt for longer than any of us care to remember. And now, our nine-year-old is a fan. And so it goes. When we heard the title of Holly’s new book, we howled, we roared, we had to have it! The Principle’s Underwear Is Missing! What more do you need in a kids’ book? Since she’s one of the funniest, most creative, and most successful writers we know, we thought we’d pick her brain on books, writing, principals, and yes, underwear.

Photo of Holly Kowitt smiling

Holly Kowitt

The Book Doctors: Why in heaven’s name did you decide to become a writer? And having made that decision, why did you decide to write books for kids?

Holly Kowitt: I first became a writer to get illustration work! My cartoon-like drawing style made me a tough match for most children’s books (this was pre-Wimpy Kid) so I had to create my own projects. Which turned out to be a good thing.

Part of ending up in children’s books was random– my first entry-level job just happened to be at Scholastic. Being there naturally made me focus on kids.

TBD: What were some of your favorite books when you were growing up, and why?

HK: Harriet the Spy was my all-time favorite. The characters were so alive to me—so real and quirky—and, like Harriet, I wanted to be a writer. I also loved Beverly Cleary’s Fifteen, a low-concept, timeless coming-of-age story with the best first line ever: “Today I’m going to meet a boy…”

TBD: What books are you reading currently, and what books have you really enjoyed lately?

HK: Should be reading: Evicted by Matthew Desmond

Secretly reading: I Represent Sean Rosen, a middle grade novel by Jeff Baron.

Recently enjoyed: The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett and The Daily Show: An Oral History.

TBD: As an illustrator as well as a writer, how do you get these two parts of your brain to cooperate with each other? What are some of the advantages and disadvantages to wearing both hats simultaneously?

HK: The cartoons give me an extra way to hook reluctant readers, and add a loose, fun energy. Plus, they’re a blast to draw. The disadvantage is sometimes the text gets robbed to let the illustrations shine. It’s hard to cut a good joke, even when you realize it works better as a picture.

TBD: I just did a Google search of your name and the wordunderwear, and I got tons of hits. Did you ever think your life as a kids’ book author would lead you down this dark path?

HK: Ha ha! Children’s Book Rule #8: Use the word “underwear” whenever possible.

Cover of The Principal's Underwear is Missing by Holly Kowitt; two students run under the title

MacMillan

TBD: The Principal’s Underwear Is Missing: That may be the greatest title I’ve ever heard. How did you come up with it? And what was the inspiration for the story? Have you ever had underwear go missing? Have you ever been involved with principal’s underwear?

HK: I tried to invent the most catastrophic scenario possible for my heroines—and I think I found it. My approach to a story is always: what’s the biggest problem I could give this character? No, it’s not torn from my own life!

TBD: How do you capture the voice of the kids so well?

HK: Obvi it’s, like, crazy-hard. Some combination of subway eavesdropping, The Urban Dictionary website, profiles of twelve-year old YouTube stars, Seventeen Magazine, and Shop Jeen on Instagram gets me in the ballpark.

TBD: What was your inspiration for the story?

HK: I got the idea from Jeeves, the P.G. Wodehouse series about a rich, dimwitted young man and his very smart butler. I thought it would be fun to set the story in middle school, where a ditzy, super-popular 8th grader teams up with a 6th grade nobody. The Queen Bee has a habit of getting herself into trouble, and it’s up to her brilliant younger friend to get her out.

TBD: What’s this story about?

HK: Becca, a bookish 6th grader, accidentally zonks the school’s most glamorous 8th grader with a volleyball. To make it up to her, Becca tries to do Selfie a favor. But she accidentally grabs the wrong shopping bag—one containing a very personal item. Even that wouldn’t be so bad, if Selfie didn’t immediately lose it.

It’s the story of a friendship that holds constant surprises. It’s about exploring an off-limits older world, and finding out how it’s better (and worse) than your own. It’s about challenging the unspoken rules of middle school, and doing what’s right. It’s about losing the principal’s underwear.

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

HK: Billy Crystal’s ex-manager once told him to “leave a tip” with his stand-up act—to go deeper and more personal. After I finish a chapter, I go back and try to squeeze in an extra ten percent to make it funnier, weirder, realer. So my advice is to always give your work that extra push. You won’t be sorry.

Holly Kowitt has written more than fifty books for younger readers, including the Loser List series. She lives in New York City, where she enjoys cycling, flea markets, and West Coast swing dancing. Find her online at kowittbooks.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.

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

Inspector Croissant: croissant with eyes, mouth, arms, legs, wearing a hat and walking with suitcase

Josh Funk on the Wonders of SCBWI, iPhone Book Trailers, [REDACTED] & Stinky Stench

We’ve said it before, and will say it again: if you are writing for kids, or reading for kids, or ever were a kid yourself, it behooves you to be a member of the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). That’s where we met Josh Funk. Until recently, he was in charge of the annual conference, so we got to know him in an intimate yet thoroughly professional way. Josh is a bundle of creativity, imagination and good fun. And since his new book The Case of the Stinky Stench is out, we picked his brain about kids and books, and the strange and wonderful intersection of those two things.

Photo of Josh Funk holding a stuffed monkey toy

Josh Funk

The Book Doctors: Welcome back!

Josh Funk: Thank you so much for inviting me back, Arielle and David!

TBD: What books are you currently reading, and why?

JF: If it’s okay with you, I’m gonna answer the ‘why’ first. I recently returned home from a two-week tour celebrating The Case of the Stinky Stench, during which I went to 19 schools, a couple of public libraries, and over a dozen bookstores. Because of that, most of what I’m reading is based on bookseller recommendations – and I couldn’t have made a better decision to go that route. Booksellers know their stuff! So here’s what I’ve got:

Out of Wonder by Kwame Alexander with Chris Colderly and Marjory Wentworth, illustrated by Ekua Holmes – this one is so good, I often read a few of the poems contained within this book during my events (usually “How to Write a Poem,” “For Our Children’s Children,” and “Spin a Song”).

7 Ate 9 by Tara Lazar, illustrated by Ross MacDonald – to me, this is a perfect picture book. It’s overflowing with cleverness, exactly my kind of humor, gorgeous illustrations, a well-crafted story, and frankly, a solution I didn’t see coming (but I’ll bet some clever kids could figure it out). With six stellar picture books under her belt, Lazar is one of my favorite picture book authors today.

Stack the Cats by Susie Ghahremani – this book makes me chuckle on every page. I bought it for my 8-month old niece, and almost kept it for myself. Absurdist humor at its best. And a counting book (as a software engineer, I do love numbers!).

Timmy Failure #6: The Cat Stole My Pants by Stephan Pastis – this series is fantastic! I’ve read each book aloud with my kids and there are at least 2 or 3 times during each book when I have to stop cause I’m laughing so hard (it was Speedo Steve this time). I can’t wait for the movie!

The Gardener by Sarah Stewart, illustrated by David Small – so this has been one of my favorite books for a long time (one of four books that I credit with making me want to be a writer). But while at Bookbug in Kalamazoo, Michigan, about 5 minutes prior to my event, the proprietor of the store came over to me and whispered, “That’s Sarah Stewart and David Small.” Long-story-short…ish – they’re regulars and it was just a coincidence they showed up. Nevertheless, I shared my love of The Gardener with them, at which point Sarah asked me why I felt so strongly about the book. I gave her my reasons and she responded with a hug. Then they signed a copy for me and posed for a picture. Needless to say I was giddy with excitement during the event.

Some other books I bought based on bookseller recommendation (but haven’t gotten to read yet) are:

  • Real Friends by Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham
  • The Lost Island of Tamarind by Nadia Agular
  • Bull by David Elliott
  • Goodbye, Columbus by Philip Roth
  • Red Rising by Pierce Brown
  • The Highest Mountain of Books in the World by Rocio Bonilla
  • King of the Bench: No Fear by Steve Moore

TBD: If we’re not mistaken, this is your last year running the fabulous New England SCBWI Conference. What have you learned from all this, and are you ready to pass out?

JF: I was co-director of the New England Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) Regional Spring Conference in 2016 and 2017 – and yes, my duties are now complete. It’s been an incredible experience working with my co-directors Heather Kelly, Sera Rivers, and Marilyn Salerno.

The NESCBWI Conference is a three-day conference (Fri-Sun) that takes place annually in Springfield, MA in late April / early May. This year we had over 700 attendees for the first time ever (to be fair, last year was 699, this year was 703). Planning duties have included:

  • Selecting and scheduling 100+ hours of breakout workshops led by about 75-100 faculty members (each year we get well over 300 workshop proposals)
  • Arranging 3-4 keynote speakers and another 3-4 keynote panels
  • Organizing bonus activities like our Portfolio Showcase, Illustration Challenge, and evening activities
  • Arranging professional critique opportunities with over two dozen literary agents, editors, and art directors
  • Countless (but necessary) logistical arrangements with online registration databases, convention/hotel/AV staff, travel-related activities, and delegation of duties to over 100 volunteers
  • And probably a lot more that I’ve already forgotten

Everything went swimmingly.

Did a New York City subway power outage cause the charter bus carrying most of the agents and editors to arrive with only minutes to spare before critiques began? Of course it did!

Did it matter that the hotel overbooked conference attendees by 14 rooms? Absolutely not!

What have I learned? Two things:

  1. Relax, it will always work out.
  2. I never want to become an event planner.

I probably would have passed out for a month … but due to the unpredictable schedules of publishing, my aforementioned book tour for The Case of the Stinky Stench started just six days later!

TBD: Tell us about The Case of the Stinky Stench. Everyone wants to know, why is the stench so stinky?

JF: Have you ever opened the fridge and smelled something funny? Have you followed that up by taking out every item until you’ve found the stinky culprit, only to find that it wasn’t the obvious ‘spoiled cheese’ or ‘rancid meat’ – but it was the last thing you’d have suspected? Who knew an innocent zucchini would turn that color? Or so that’s what happens when you put mushrooms next to mustard! (That’ll teach me to organize my fridge alphabetically.)

Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast was a race for the last drop of syrup. In this sequel, I wanted to keep the setting and characters, but change up the genre. Maybe if there’s a third one it’ll be an action-spy-thriller (wink-wink).

Cover of the Case of the Stinky Stench by Josh Funk; Characters are food with eyes arms and legs

Sterling Children’s Books

In The Case of the Stinky Stench, Inspector Croissant (Sir French Toast’s nephew) joins the team and they travel through the fridge chasing suspect after suspect. Is it Baron von Waffle in his evil lair (Onion Ring Cave)? Could it be a fetid fish in Corn Chowder Lake – or is the fish a literal red herring? I won’t ‘spoil’ the ending for you (but I’ll give you a hint – it is spoiled food).

TBD: How did you manage to make Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast such a great success?

JF: Thanks for the kind words about Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast, but I really can’t take credit for most of the success that it’s had.

First off, it has incredible illustrations (thanks, Brendan Kearney) and the Sterling Art Department put together a fantastic cover design. When the art started making its way around the Sterling offices, it got the Marketing and Publicity teams excited enough to create a big promotional push – they even made tote bags to give out at BookExpo! All that helped the Sterling Sales Reps get the book into stores big and small across the country.

And let’s face it, I had absolutely no control over everything in the previous paragraph.

But I did what I could. I created a book trailer:

                                            

Yes, that’s me singing (I created the whole trailer on my iPhone using the GarageBand app and iMovie).

I spend a lot of time on Twitter @joshfunkbooks sharing writing tips, educators’ blogs, other people’s good news, and generally putting out positive vibes in the kidlit world.

I attended many other author events in the years leading up to Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast’s publication. Not only did I learn a lot about what makes great events, but I met lots of authors, educators, and booksellers in the process.

I’ve tried to give back to the writing community. I co-directed the NESCBWI 2016 and 2017 Regional Conferences. I’m on the board of The Writers’ Loft in Sherborn, MA (if you’re in New England and you haven’t been – you MUST visit). I even created a 12-Step Guide to Writing Picture Books on my website – it’s basically a high level brain dump of everything I’ve learned about writing since I started.

But I think more than anything, what’s made Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast a success is the readers. Enthusiastic booksellers across the country who handsell it daily, like those at The Novel Neighbor in St. Louis and Octavia Books in New Orleans. Teachers and librarians who exuberantly share it with their students. And folks like you, The Book Doctors, who invite me to chat about it here.

TBD: How did studying computer science help (or hinder) you as a writer?

JF: I’d like you to imagine (because it’s true) that I’ve been sitting at my computer thinking about this for a very, very long time. I typed a few paragraphs, and then deleted them (because they don’t really answer the question OR have a point). I thought some more, typed some more, and deleted some more. Lather, rinse, repeat. Ultimately, the answer to your question is as follows:

I don’t think it’s helped or hindered me as a writer. I’ve been a software engineer for almost two decades. And I enjoy the day job. It’s possible that I’d had a lot of creativity bottled up over that time which is finally spilling out at a rate faster than one might expect.

So maybe the answer is that at first studying computer science hindered me as a writer, but now it’s helping? I guess it’s a wash. (Ha! Lather, rinse, repeat!)

TBD: How did you come up with all the cool extra stuff for kids: activity kits, character cards, etc.?

JF: Once again, the activity kits were all thanks to my publishers and illustrators. For Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast and The Case of the Stinky Stench, Sterling’s Marketing and Publicity (and probably Art and Design) teams put them together. They’re incredible! Coloring pages, word searches, mazes, crosswords, and a whole bunch of other stuff – all free to download and print from my website on my ‘Stuff for Kids’ page!

The Case of the Stinky Stench Activity Kit; similar to book cover, but with activity kit written on the bottom

The Case of the Stinky Stench Activity Kit

Regarding the Dear Dragon and Pirasaurs! coloring pages, they were created by illustrators Rodolfo Montalvo and Michael Slack, respectively. I certainly hope that keeps going with my future books!

As far as the character cards, I was just about to order some bookmarks back in the summer of 2015 when I saw the option of ordering Collector’s Cards. At this point I realized two things:

  1. I write picture books, which rarely require bookmarks.
  2. Collector’s cards can easily be used as bookmarks.

So I began designing collector’s cards. And I had a lot of fun with that! For Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast, I made one for each of the main characters. I made six different ones for Pirasaurs! (thanks to Michael Slack for his help designing those), and I made three more for The Case of the Stinky Stench.

Inspector Croissant: croissant with eyes, mouth, arms, legs, wearing a hat and walking with suitcase

Inspector Croissant collector’s card

Back of Inspector Croissant card; has information written about the character

Inspector Croissant collector’s card reverse

I even made an online quiz to determine Which Pirasaur Are You?! – I’m Bronto Beard, in case you were wondering.

Bearded Brontosaurus wearing pirate clothes

Bronto Beard collector card

TBD: What are you working on next?

JF: It’s interesting that you ask! I just spent a few hours revising [REDACTED] based on my editor’s comments. As you know, I’m very interested in the topic of [REDACTED]. And I’m excited to dive into [REDACTED], that’s gonna be fun to work on. I’ve seen some of [REDACTED]’s illustrations and they’re perfect.

In the near term, I’ve got a book called It’s Not Jack and the Beanstalk coming out this fall (9.19.17), illustrated by Edwardian Taylor. It’s not just a fractured-fairy-tale – it’s a META-fractured-fairy-tale – one where Jack doesn’t want to do what the reader tells him to do. Trade his cow for five beans? That’s a terrible idea! Climb the beanstalk? But there’s probably a giant up there! This one will make for a hilarious reader’s theater – and it’s my first picture book that isn’t in rhyme. If you don’t follow Edwardian Taylor on Instagram, you’re missing out. He is an incredible character designer.

Cover of It's Not Jack and the Beanstalk by Josh Funk; boy with climbing gear swinging off of a beanstalk

Two Lions

Then, in 2018 I’ve got at least two more books coming out. In the spring, it’s Albie Newton (about a genius’s attempt to make friends on his first day of school – and his classmate’s ability to accept his ‘quirks’). This one is illustrated by Ester Garay – and everything I’ve seen so far is beyond adorable!

Then, Lost in the Library: A Story of Patience and Fortitude is the first picture book in Macmillan’s partnership with the New York Public Library – and I got to write the story of the two lion statues (Patience and Fortitude) that guard the steps on 5th Avenue. When Patience goes missing, Fortitude must search the entire library to find him! I’d already been a fan of Stevie Lewis’ art, and when they told me she had signed on to illustrate, I couldn’t have been more thrilled.

And yes, both Albie Newton and Lost in the Library are in rhyme.

TBD: How did you come up with your very entertaining live show? What have you observed that writers who present well do in common?

JF: Attending all of those author events before I released a book certainly paid off! I ‘spied’ on so many different author presentations! I learned what worked well with different ages and audience attention spans. And I definitely learned a thing or twelve from amazing performances by the likes of Ame Dyckman, Kate Messner, Tara Lazar, Bob Shea, Anna Staniszewski, Lynda Mullaly Hunt, Jarrett J. Krosoczka, and many others kidlit stars.

But it really comes down to one thing: know your audience. I’m reading to kids ages 0-10(ish) and their caregivers. I’ve got to be entertaining and enthusiastic for those two groups.

Not all crowds are the same. Some jokes work better in one situation vs another. But I always try to have fun – and I hope that’s what lasts in the minds of the readers.

TBD: Why is Twitter your social media platform of choice?

JF: Twitter is a great way to interact with readers. I’ve become e-friends with many educators, booksellers, writers, illustrators, and booklovers of all sorts on Twitter. And in many cases I’ve ended up getting to hang out with these folks in real life because of Twitter. I schedule most of my classroom Skype visits with teachers and librarians in Twitter chats. Sometimes teachers tweet me questions on their students’ behalf.

I’ve even attended several conferences that stemmed from Twitter relationships. This summer, I’ll be attending my third nErDcampMI, a national literacy conference for educators started by the founders of the Nerdy Book Club. The Nerdy Book Club is blog with daily guest posts (mostly by educators and authors), but it is also an unofficial ‘club’ that is open to anyone who loves books (especially those written for children). These nErDcamps are popping up everywhere (New England, Long Island, Kansas, New Jersey, Pacific Northwest, soon in North Carolina) – and they’re an amazing place to for educators to connect with each other and with book creators.

Just like most of the kidlit world, the kidlit Twitter environment is incredibly welcoming and supportive.

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

JF: Most of my advice is in the Resources for Writers section of my website, comprised of my Guide to Writing Picture Books.

Outside of that, my best piece of advice is to keep writing new things – especially when writing picture books. This is for a couple reasons:

  1. The first story you write is unlikely to be the one that sells. Get it critiqued. Revise it. It’ll be a great learning experience. But don’t revise it to death. Take what you learn from writing that first story and write another.
  2. A literary agent will want at least 3-4 picture book manuscripts they think they can sell right now before they’ll sign you – which means you probably need 6-8 that YOU think are complete.

The more you write, the better writer you’ll become. Just like I tell students during school visits – it’s like playing sports and instruments – the more you practice, the better you get. The stories I’m writing today are better than the ones I wrote two years ago, which are better than the ones I wrote two years before that (at least I think so).

So keep writing!

Thanks again for having me! I wish you a wonderful summer of reading!

Josh Funk writes silly stories and somehow tricks people into publishing them as picture books – such as Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast and its sequel The Case of the Stinky Stench along with Pirasaurs!, Dear Dragon, It’s Not Jack and the Beanstalk, Albie Newton, Lost in the Library, and more coming soon!

Josh is a board member of The Writers’ Loft in Sherborn, MA and was the co-coordinator of the 2016 and 2017 New England Regional SCBWI Conferences.

Josh grew up in New England and studied Computer Science in school. Today, he still lives in New England and when not writing Java code or Python scripts, he drinks Java coffee and writes picture book manuscripts.

Josh is terrible at writing bios, so please help fill in the blanks. Josh enjoys _______ during ________ and has always loved __________. He has played ____________ since age __ and his biggest fear in life is being eaten by a __________.

Find more information about Josh at www.joshfunkbooks.com and on twitter @joshfunkbooks.

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.

Photo of Dana Meachen Rau smiling

Dana Meachen Rau on How to Write 340 Books

We recently attended the annual New England Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Regional Conference in Springfield, Massachusetts, and one of the things we love about that conference specifically, and great writers conferences in general, is getting to sit in on lectures and talks by people we don’t know, but should know. One of those people is Dana Meachen Rau. David happened to stumble into her class and ended up learning so much about how to create memorable and complex characters, how inanimate objects can be used to help communicate the emotional state of our characters, and so much more. Now that the dust has settled on that conference, we thought we would pick her brain about books, writing, and all that jazz.

Read this interview on the HuffPost.

Photo of Dana Meachen Rau smiling

Dana Meachen Rau

The Book Doctors: How did you become interested in writing and drawing as a kid? What were your early inspirations and why?

Dana Meachen Rau: Truly, I don’t remember how it all started. My parents always encouraged my early attempts at writing and drawing. Creative expression is empowering, especially to a little kid. I do remember a lot of play. I had a brother who was always a willing participant—he’s blind, and together we invented whole worlds that neither of us could see, but that felt completely real. Instead of a sandbox in the backyard, we had a dirt hole, where we planned to dig a tunnel to a multiple-room clubhouse. (Imagine a time before apps when kids played in dirt holes!) The clubhouse never happened, of course, but that didn’t seem to matter.

As a reader, I didn’t devour every shelf of the library. Instead, I had a few well-worn books that I read countless times—Charlotte’s Web, Encyclopedia Brown, and my absolute favorite and forever inspiration, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. When I reread it recently, I tried to pinpoint what drew me in so passionately as a kid. It must have been the visuals, the silly language, and the underlying creepiness. It was subversively magical.

TBD: How did you get a job editing children’s books, and what did you learn from this that you could apply to your own writing?

DMR: After college, I wanted a job with a tangible end product, and that led me to publishing. Luckily, instead of having to move to big and scary NYC, I landed a job at a small children’s publisher in Connecticut—and I mean small. I was the only member of their editorial department, so I communicated with a bunch of freelancers—authors, illustrators, editors, consultants, designers. It was a crash course in children’s publishing. I moved on to Children’s Press, where I edited early readers and school-and-library nonfiction until my son was born and I began freelancing.

My editorial work laid the groundwork for my writing career in ways I didn’t anticipate. It taught me the value of feedback and revision. I can self-edit while the manuscript is in my hands, but I can also let it go to all the fresh eyes that have a stake in the process. Everyone wants it to be the best it can be.

TBD: Do you think it’s important to write every day?

DMR: I suffer from journal envy. Many writer friends pour out their thoughts onto pages daily, and I’ve tried to be like them. But all I have to show for my efforts is a pile of journals with “Finally, I’m going to start writing a journal!” scrawled on the first pages followed by a bunch of empty ones. I just can’t make it happen.

But it is important to write every day, and I do in some form. Often, it’s related to my current project. But sometimes it’s a lesson plan, a random idea for the future, a quick poem, or even an email. The purpose of all writing is to effectively communicate an idea or image. That’s an important skill to practice. That’s what writing every day is…practice.

Even if I don’t have hours or even minutes to work on my latest project, at least I’ve been maintaining my writing skills. Then muscle memory kicks in when I have more extended time to write.

TBD: How did you become a writing teacher, and what effect has that had on you as a writer?

DMR: I developed a 10-week creative writing class for the Warner Theatre Center for Arts Education (Torrington, CT), to hone in on the basics of creative writing. I tested out writing exercises (some sane, some wacky). It was a chance to experiment. I realized I craved an extended relationship with students, so I sent out my resume to local colleges. When the University of Hartford needed an adjunct to fill out their Fall 2016 schedule, I jumped at the chance.

I teach rhetoric, the art of persuasive writing and speaking, and while it might not seem to apply to creative writing, it has most definitely fed my work. I keep persuasion in mind every time I draft a scene between two characters who are manipulating each other. I think of rhetoric when trying how to sway a reader toward a certain understanding. The intentionality of each word choice applies to both rhetoric and creative writing.

I’m still trying to find that perfect balance, though, between teaching and writing. My current work-in-progress novel has been pushed to the back burner while I navigate my way as a professor. But the benefit of the back burner is that the story is still stewing. Because time is more precious, my chances to write have become a treat to look forward to. When I do have time to write, I’m amped up, eager, and ready to dive in.\

Cover of Who are the Rolling Stones by Dana Meachen Rau; the Rolling Stones have their heads enlarged

Penguin Young Readers Group

TBD: What’s it like writing books for the wildly popular Who Is (Was) … series? And why are their heads so big?

DMR: Out of the blue in 2013, I got a call from the Who Was editor. She had been reading a biography I had written more than a decade before, and thought my voice would be a good fit. Since then, I’ve written six books for the series, with another one waiting on my desk.

Who Was has been one of the most fun series I’ve ever worked on. The process starts with full immersion. I surrounded myself with research, absorb it, map out a plan, and get writing. I don’t work linearly—each manuscript is like a sculpture. First I build the armature, then I slop on lumps of clay. I mold here, shape there, take bits away, add elsewhere. Each book has its own process and personality. Eventually it all comes together under the helpful guidance of my astute and savvy editor, Paula Manzanero.

The best part of writing this series, though, is the reaction from kids. They love those big heads! All the covers (more than 150!) were illustrated by Nancy Harrison, but the idea for the big heads (and for the series) came from editor Jane O’Connor. She says the big heads were inspired by the caricatures that used to appear on the cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review. She thought they would have fantastic kid-appeal.

She was right. When I visit schools, the kids can’t hide their excitement over what they call the “Bobble-Head Bios.” Almost everyone has read at least one, some kids collect them, and they all have their favorites.

TBD: Tell us about your road to publication and how you navigate the stormy seas of the book business. And how in God’s name does one person write 340 books?

DMR: As I mentioned above, I started my career as an editor, and my first few books were for the companies I worked for. When I went freelance, I continued writing for them and for other school and library publishers. Books for the school and library market are often work-for-hire assignments, so my “day job” for the next 15-ish years involved taking on as many assignments as I could to earn a steady income (thus so many books!). I wrote for a variety of age levels on all sorts of topics—roller coasters, cupcakes, sneakers, ladybugs, aliens, suffrage, rocks and minerals, robots, planets, brains, sandcastles, rock climbing. You name it, it’s very possible I’ve written a book about it! Meanwhile, I was also working on picture books and middle grade novels, submitting them to publishers, and marking off rejections on my spreadsheets. So, while I passed the 300 mark for published books, I also passed the 300 mark for rejection letters. (It’s all part of the process for authors writing and submitting over so many years!)

In 2013, I got the itch to become a student again, so I enrolled at Vermont College of Fine Arts to get my MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults. Coming out of that program, I secured an agent, who’s currently marketing a middle grade and a picture book while I work on a YA novel.

Through the years, no matter what the project, I grew as an author. I’ve also realized that there isn’t, nor should there ever be, a point of “arrival.” It’s healthy to give yourself goals along the way, but success is more about the development, patience, and perseverance of the journey.

TBD: What is an objective correlative, and why is it so important?

DMR: I first learned the term objective correlative in graduate school from author Tim Wynn-Jones, and it sounded so academic and important. But it’s quite a simple concept, at least how I interpret it—an author can use an object (setting or event) to correlate to an emotion. In other words, you don’t have to name an emotion to communicate it to readers, you can show it through sensory description. Suzy doesn’t have to say she feels neglected. Instead, Suzy can be looking at a dying, cobwebbed-covered plant on the windowsill that never gets any sun. That says neglected more than the word “neglected” ever could. The plant becomes shorthand for the emotion, so when the plant is reprised in the story, we feel “neglect” again. And then, if that same plant is thriving and blooming by the end, we feel the significance of that change, too.

TBD: How do you inject emotion into characters in a book?

DMR: For me, it all comes down to empathy—getting the reader to feel the same feelings as your character. I think of emotion as the engine of the story. A character’s wants and desires will drive what the character does (action/plot), what the character sees (setting), what the character says (dialogue), and what the character remembers (flashback). Everything in a story has to be in service to the emotions.

To get readers to empathize with characters, the author has to empathize with his or her characters, too. If you can tap into your own authentic, vulnerable, core emotions when writing, then those emotions will show up on the page and transfer to the core of your reader.

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

DMR: This is a great question! Lord knows I’ve needed all the writerly advice I could get my hands on through the years.

Write what scares you…We often say we want to be bold and brave, but that’s not possible without fear. If you don’t think you’re a poet, write a poem. If you don’t think you could ever write YA, try it. You have nothing to lose, but everything to gain. You’ll most likely surprise yourself by easily conquering what you thought impossible.

Find a community… Often the people in your immediate circle (spouse, kids, family, every day friends) don’t understand the writer part of you. You need to find a team. Teams have teammates, of course, who understand the game. But they also have cheerleaders to spur you on and coaches who offer advice to help you become the best version of yourself. Join a critique group, join the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, find your people.

Give yourself permission to play…for so long I thought I needed to be efficient with my writing time. But when I experiment, I create an unexpected (and better) result. Turn off the side of your brain that tells you your writing must have a purpose (and even worse, that it has to be good!). In other words, dig in the dirt hole. You never know what you’ll discover.

Dana Meachen Rau is the author of more than 340 books for children and young adults, including early readers, biographies, history, science, cookbooks, and craft books. Her most recent titles include Who Was Cesar Chavez? and Who Are the Rolling Stones? A graduate of Trinity College in Hartford CT, and Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier, VT, she currently teaches writing at the University of Hartford. To find out more about her books and her blog, visit www.danameachenrau.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 author Paula Priamos

Paula Priamos on Writing, Saying “No” to an Agent, and Being a Shyster’s Daughter

We were lucky to receive a stack of books from Rare Bird Books, a publisher we love. We fell for Inside V by Paula Priamos, who also wrote the memoir The Shyster’s Daughter. So we thought we’d pick her brain about writing, thrillers, memoirs, and how she got published.

Read this interview on the HuffPost.

Photo of author Paula Priamos

Paula Priamos

The Book Doctors: What kind of books did you like to read when you were a kid and why?

Paula Priamos: Well before kindergarten I taught myself how to read with the book Black Beauty. I started sounding out the small words first and then I’d read those same basically one syllable words to my mother and I’d fill in the rest, concocting my own story about a runaway horse, a plot that had nothing to do with the words on the page. Oftentimes I grew frustrated that I didn’t understand the bigger words. But my mother would patiently help me sound those words out and eventually I read her the entire book. As I got a little older I gravitated towards Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mysteries because I loved having to figure things out.

TBD: What was the inspiration for Inside V?

PP: I always start writing with characters first before conflict and I conceptualized this couple in my head, a man and woman, who are in the kind of relationship that begins with infidelity and quickly winds up in marriage. Yet even with a couple of solid years spent as husband and wife their relationship remains intense – deeply sexually and emotionally connected – and sometimes it’s even dangerous because their passion for each other doesn’t level off or stabilize. They remain in the throes of that initial passion that first brought them together.

The threat to their marriage in the form of a seventeen-year-old girl accusing the husband of sexual assault came to me next, and the events and other characters in the book pretty much played out in my head. It felt as if I spent most of the time writing this novel rapidly filling up lined notebooks, then typing it all on the computer, just trying to catch up.

Cover of Inside V by Paula Priamos; "Inside" in small letters on top, a giant V takes most of the cover

Rare Bird Books

TBD: How did you approach writing a novel, as opposed to a memoir?

PP: I wrote my memoir with literary elements like a narrative arc, scenes and dialogue, so it wasn’t very hard to segue into a novel. There are some literary people who claim a writer can’t write in more than one genre, but I think that mindset is false and quite limiting.

TBD: What was it like to be the daughter of a shyster?

PP: I was the only one out of my two siblings who stayed with my father after my parents decided to divorce when I was a young teen. I’m actually proud to be a shyster’s daughter. My father, in his day, before he was disbarred for embezzlement, was a sharp criminal defense attorney. He was a clever showman who rarely needed to rely on notes when he gave closing arguments, and he angered more than one veteran prosecutor when he’d successfully get his clients off. Over the years he’d done some bad things, crossed legal lines he knew he shouldn’t, and essentially became as morally corrupt as the clients he was defending. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t know how to teach me morals. My father taught me how to read people, to question their motives and to stand up for myself when I need to. I know I’m a much stronger woman for having been raised by him.

TBD: How do you think growing up in Southern California affected you as a writer?

PP: Being a So Cal native is a great thing. I live in an area that is ethnically diverse and with that comes all kinds of intriguing people to write about, conflicts to be had. Geographically Southern California offers mountains, the ocean, deserts and all kinds of city culture, so there are fantastic places to set the backdrop of my scenes. In Inside V, the story takes place in LA, the Valley, Palm Springs, and in Newport Beach.

TBD: What draws you to the thriller category?

PP: I love thrillers, whether it’s books or films. There is nothing more satisfying than reading or watching a smart and unpredictable whodunit that deals with character and story in equal measure. I wrote my memoir in a way that leaves the death of my father a mystery up until the end of the book, so it only made sense when I decided to write fiction that it be a thriller.

TBD: What are you working on next?

PP: I’m more than halfway through another thriller, set in the LA area and with another Greek female protagonist. That’s where the similarities end. This protagonist is not as headstrong as “V” nor as confident, but she gains strength in other ways throughout the narrative. The plot is different. She is trying to move on from a failed first marriage, a former husband who isn’t ready to let her go, all while she attempts to find an old childhood friend who’s suddenly disappeared just hours after they’d been reunited.

TBD: How did you go about getting this novel published?

PP: I had a disagreement with the literary agent who was going to send this novel out to publishers. This particular agent wanted me to fatten up my lean novel and make it more of a typical “women’s mystery novel,” which I did not want to do. I feel that some of these bulkier books derail the tension lines with unnecessary details and languishing asides. Instead I had a person who’d worked PR for my memoir send it to the publisher at Rare Bird, and, as it turns out, she sent it to the right place. The publisher loved that it was the type of book a reader could finish in one day while curled up on the couch or on a long plane ride.

TBD: What advice do you have for writers?

PP: I teach creative writing and one of the first things I tell my students is to be both humble and confident. Know that you’re not immune to criticism and helpful suggestions, but also know that you can’t please everyone nor should you try. Keep an open mind without losing your own creative vision. Try not to get frustrated with what may seem like a slow process of seeing your work to publication because, in the end, there’s nothing like the rush of holding your own beautifully bound book for the first time and knowing it now has the potential to reach countless readers.

Paula Priamos’ writing has appeared in The Los Angeles Times Magazine, The New York Times Magazine, ZYZZYVA, Crimewave Magazine in the UK, The Washington Post Magazine, and The San Francisco Chronicle, among others. She is the author of the memoir The Shyster’s Daughter and teaches English and creative writing at CSU San Bernardino. Visit her at paulapriamos.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.

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

Cover of Oakland Noir by Eddie Muller

Eddie Muller, the Czar of Noir, on the Importance of Finding Empathy in Darkness

If you live in the Bay Area, which we did for many years, and you have a penchant for the dark side that draws you toward the underbelly of noir, you know Eddie Muller. He’s a legend. Let’s face it, you don’t get to be the Czar of Noir for nothing. So when we found out he was editing the new Oakland Noir, part of the great noir series by Akashic, we jumped at the chance to pick his dark brain about Oaktown, writing and the book business.

Read this interview on the HuffPost.

Photo of Eddie Muller wearing glasses and a hat, very noir

Eddie Muller

The Book Doctors: What are your earliest memories of being interested in noir? What were some of your favorite noirish books when you were going up, and why?

Eddie Muller: I’m of an earlier generation, pre-VCR. I was first drawn to noir by movies I’d see on Dialing for Dollars, weekdays afternoons when I’d cut school. Stuff like Thieves’ Highway and Cry of the City and The Big Heat. I started combing TV Guide to find movies with “Big,” “City,” “Street” and “Night” in the title. There’s a title: Big City Streets at Night. I’d watch that. The look of the films and the attitudes of the characters resonated with me. I was at the epicenter of the hippie movement in San Francisco, but I was intrigued by this earlier generation’s style and attitude.

In high school I started reading Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, and the die was cast. In that way, I’m like virtually every other crime fiction writer. It’s amazing the influence those guys had, especially Chandler. His prose was intoxicating. Reading Hammett’s short stories made you want to be a detective. Reading Chandler made you want to be a writer. After that, you just start devouring everything. At a certain point I began distinguishing between mystery writers and crime writers. And I became less interested in the detective whodunnits and more fascinated by the noir stuff: Patricia Highsmith, Jim Thompson, David Goodis, Charles Willeford. Their books don’t resolve neatly. Things aren’t going to end well.

TBD: What are you currently reading?

EM: I’m looking forward to a couple of days off so I can read Paul Auster’s latest, 4321. I’ve seen some discouraging reviews, but I read everything of this. He’s my favorite living author. I enjoy how his mind works and I like how he translates it to the page.

TBD: What are some of your favorite noir classics, and again, why?

EM: Derek Raymond’s Factory series books are pretty great, especially I Was Dora Suarez. He really turned detective stories into noir literature. Forgive me for touting the obvious touchstones: Hammett’s big three: Red Harvest, The Maltese Falcon, and The Glass Key. Chandler’s The Long Goodbye. Here’s the thing about crime fiction: you end up loving a writer’s body of work more than a single book. I like reading David Goodis, but I can’t say I like Cassidy’s Girl more than Nightfall. Same with Jim Thompson. Charles Willeford, The Burnt Orange Heresy. I like Highsmith’s Ripley novels. I like Highsmith in general. She still doesn’t get her due because, obviously, she was a woman writing in what’s perceived as a man’s genre. I had that bias once, as a younger and stupider man. Then I wised up. More guys should wise up.

Cover of Oakland Noir by Eddie Muller

Akashic

TBD: Having been published in San Francisco Noir, part of the Akashic series, I’m a big fan of these books. How did you become involved with Oakland Noir?

EM: Well, we were both in that San Francisco noir collection! I was sort of wondering when Johnny Temple, Akashic’s publisher, would get around to Oakland. I mean, seriously, how can you have Duluth Noir before Oakland Noir? As it turns out, Jerry Thompson, who’s a writer and bookseller in Oakland, had pitched Johnny on an Oakland Noir collection but hadn’t gotten a green light. Then Jerry approached me about co-editing the anthology—and I guess because Johnny and I had some history we got the go-ahead.

TBD: What was it like editing all these amazing writers?

EM: It was great! Jerry and I shared a vision of what we wanted the book to be—an accurate demographic reflection of the city. Meaning we wanted an appropriate gender/racial/ethnic mix to the stories. Which can be tricky. You want good well-conceived, well-written stories, not just stories featuring a black or Asian or Hispanic character. Let’s be honest: it’s a crap shoot. Jerry did the hard work of selecting most of the contributors, because he knew the literary landscape of Oakland; I pulled in a couple of my buddies, Kim Addonizio and Joe Loya. We had a vision of how the book should play out, but you can’t tell writers what to write. In the end, I was happy with the result. The reviewer for Publishers Weekly complained that some stories weren’t really noir, but the Kirkus reviewer understood completely: our mission was to reveal the city beneath the mainstream perceptions, to use genre fiction show sides of Oakland not usually seen.

TBD: What do you think separates great noir from everyday pulpy potboilers?

EM: Empathy. Great noir writing makes you feel and contemplate lives gone off the rails. That’s not entertaining for a lot of people, but to me it’s one of the purposes of art.

TBD: What exactly is a noircheologist? (Spell check really hated that word!)

EM: I dig through the past to rescue and revive this stuff. That’s the mission of the Film Noir Foundation, which I founded in 2006. We rescue and restore films, specifically noir, that have slipped through the cracks and disappeared. There are a lot of savvy small publishers who are noircheologists on the literary side, but I’m the guy when it comes to film. We recently resurrected a terrific 1956 noir film from Argentina, Los tallos amargos (The Bitter Stems), and preserved a sensational picture from 1952 called El vampiro negro; it’s an Argentine reworking of Fritz Lang’s M. I’m on a crusade now to show that film noir was not specifically an American thing.

TBD: You have one of the coolest nicknames around: “The Czar of Noir.” How did that come about? And how can I get a nickname that cool?

EM: A woman named Laura Sheppard, event coordinator at the Mechanic’s Institute Library in San Francisco, was introducing me one night. She was reading the far-too-lengthy bio I’d supplied—you do that when you’re young and trying too hard—and, frankly, I think she just got tired of it. So she said, “Hell, he’s just the czar of noir.” It’s been the gift that keeps on giving. If you want a cool nickname, I can put you in touch with Laura.

TBD: Will you ever get tired of noir?

EM: I don’t think so. Not once I realized there was far more to it than what was ascribed by the original scholars on the subject. It annoys some purists when you stretch the boundaries, but who cares? We sold out a week of shows at the Museum of Modern Art in New York presenting virtually unknown film noir from Argentina. Akashic’s Noir series has been a fabulous way of getting new writers published and providing a valuable anthropological–literary experience. There’s been a long overdue rethinking of this terrain as strictly a male-only province. All good, as far as I’m concerned.

TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers in general, and writers of noir specifically?

EM: Understand that noir is not about the body count. It is often about violence—the psychological pressures that lead to it, and the inherent drama in trying to stem the tide. It bothers me when books and films featuring ugly people engaged in relentless killing are described as “noir.” It’s not. Those are just Tom and Jerry cartoons for post-adolescent boys. Not entertaining to me, and not of any significant value to the culture at large. I guess my advice would be “Aim a little higher.”

Eddie Muller is the world’s foremost authority on film noir. As founder and president of the Film Noir Foundation he is a leading figure in film restoration and preservation, and a familiar face and voice on the international film festival circuit, DVD special features and Turner Classic Movies, where he hosts Noir Alley every Sunday morning at 10am EST.

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.

Black and white photo of Barry Lyga

Barry Lyga on Freedom, Pizza, and Writing Dark Shit for Young Adults

We met Barry Lyga when we were waiting to sign books at the (thoroughly awesome) New England SCBWI conference. Turns out we are all Jersey-crowd–the Garden State representing! We had a funny chat, and then we checked out his books. This guy is a powerful writer. His new book, Bang, is out, so we picked his brain about books and publishing and whatnot.

Read this interview on the HuffPost.

Black and white photo of Barry Lyga

Barry Lyga

The Book Doctors: Who were your favorite authors, and what were some of your favorite books when you are a kid?

Barry Lyga: I had such eclectic tastes as a kid! I loved old classics like Poe and Milton, but I was also obsessed with modern sci-fi authors like Joe Haldeman, as well as comic books by the truckload. Paul Levitz and Alan Moore were two of my favorite comic book writers. I read Haldeman’s Dealing in Futures short story collection over and over as a kid — those stories really opened my mind as to what was possible in storytelling. Oh, and I can’t forget to mention Ken Grimwood’s classic Replay. That book blew my mind. I re-read it every year, and it still knocks me down every time.

TBD: How did you learn to become a writer?

BL: I sort of figured it out on my own, really. I knew at a very young age that I wanted to tell stories, and I was manic in my reading. I read constantly. Every chance I had, I would have my nose in a book. So I sort of absorbed a lot of the lessons and the rhythms of writing and internalized them subconsciously. Which isn’t to say that I was a great writer the first time my fingers touched the keyboard! Hell, no! I still had to practice and hone my craft, which took literally decades. But no one ever really sat me down and taught me how to start — I figured that out on my own and then just kept iterating and trying until things started to click.

TBD: How did you find your first agent, and what was your road to publication?

BL: I met Kathy Anderson at a writers conference in early 2005. I had won the Editor’s Choice award at the conference, so she was looking for me. And I had seen one of her lectures the day before I won the award, so I was looking for her. And then it turned out I was scheduled for a pitch session with her! So, it was a fortuitous meeting.

She read the manuscript I had at the time, which was my first YA novel: The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy & Goth Girl. After a couple of weeks, she offered me representation and I accepted. Then we talked about the book a little; she had some suggestions and I took ‘em. About five months later, she sold that book and my next one at auction. We haven’t looked back since!

TBD: Do you ever get pushback for writing books for teenagers that are so full of darkness?

BL: Not from anyone in the business. Occasionally there are people out there in the wider world who take issue with something I’ve written, but they are — thankfully — a minority. I think most people recognize that my books aren’t promoting the darkness or proselytizing for it; they just reflect it for the reader.

TBD: What did you learn about writing while working in the comic book business?

BL: I worked in comics on the distribution side, not the creative side. So honestly, the most important lesson I learned was that I wanted to be on the creative side!

But there WAS writing involved in that old job; it just wasn’t creative. It was a lot of marketing copy and so on. I did learn a substantial work ethic from that. I learned how to edit myself. I learned how to heed the sanctity of a deadline, which has stood me in good stead — in 12 years as a professional author, I think I’ve missed exactly one deadline. Thanks, comics!

TBD: Tell us about BANG.

BL: BANG is the story of Sebastian. Ten years ago, when he was four years old, Sebastian was playing with his father’s loaded handgun. It went off. And killed Sebastian’s four-month-old baby sister.

Now, ten years later, he’s still living with the guilt, the horror, the shame, and he’s decided he doesn’t deserve to live. How can you find forgiveness for something so unforgivable? How can you atone for a mistake you made before you even knew what a mistake was?

And there’s pizza. Believe me — the pizza is important. It’s a pretty dark book, so the pizza matters.

Cover of Bang by Barry Lyga; bullet hole in letter "A"

Little Brown Books For Young Readers

TBD: What are you working on next?

BL: I wish I could tell you! I have two projects in the hopper right now, but contracts have yet to be signed, so I’m not supposed to say anything about them. They’re both dream projects, for completely different reasons, and I’m so, so incredibly excited about them. Stay tuned!

TBD: What do you love most about being a professional author? What do you hate most about it?

BL: I love the freedom. I don’t mean the freedom of dictating my own hours and days (which is amazing; don’t get me wrong!), but rather the freedom of knowing that I am the one deciding what I do next. No one comes to me and says, “OK, your next book is about a kid who can talk to chickens…but he has a poultry allergy! Make it so!” I have the freedom to decide what stories I will tell. Some of them succeed; some of them don’t. But they’re all mine.

As to what I hate… I really hate the uncertainty. Which, of course, is the flip side of the freedom! There’s no way to know which, if any, of the stories I decide to tell will strike a chord with the reading public. If you made a graph of the sales of my books, it would look like a cardiac patient’s EKG. It’s all over the place. There’s nothing you can do about it, of course, but that doesn’t stop me from hating it!

TBD: You’ve written some pretty grim books on some really difficult topics. How does that affect you personally?

BL: Until recently, it didn’t! I mean, I wrote a book about child abuse (Boy Toy) and a whole series about serial killers (I Hunt Killers) and it never bothered me. I slept the sleep of the just every night, no matter what horrors I’d conjured during the day.

But BANG was different. Maybe because I was a new father. I was writing about a dead four-month-old baby while my own four-month-old baby was sleeping in a bassinet next to me. This book really, really got its hooks into me, and while that bothers me, I hope it will get its hooks into readers, too.

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

BL: I always tell writers: It’s OK to suck. It’s OK to look at something you’ve written and not like it. That just means that you’ve grown as a writer, developed better taste and better instincts, in the interim. So, take that new perspective and write something new. Inevitably, you’ll look back on that in a little while and think that it sucks, too! But that’s all right. That’s progress. One of these days, you’ll write something that only half-sucks, and then you’re on your way!

Called a “YA rebel-author” by Kirkus Reviews, Barry Lyga has published seventeen novels in various genres in his eleven-year career, including the New York Times bestselling I Hunt Killers. His books have been or are slated to be published in more than a dozen different languages in North America, Australia, Europe, and Asia. Lyga lives and podcasts near New York City with his wife, Morgan Baden, their nigh-omnipotent daughter, and their preternaturally chill son. His comic book collection is a lot smaller than it used to be, but is still way too big.

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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Todd Colby on Writing, Poetry, Art and Drunken Boat

We’ve been fans of Todd Colby for a long time. He’s one of the most creative people we know. He’s always making something: art, poetry, mayhem. So when we saw that his new book, Time for History, is out, we picked his fertile brain.

Read this interview on the HuffPost.

Photo of Todd Colby

Todd Colby

The Book Doctors: Why the heck did you decide to become an artist, of all things?

Todd Colby: The alternative is just, well, boring. Why not live in a state that allows me to pay attention to the world a little closer and then celebrate or mourn the delicious and repulsive state we’re all in?

TBD: For as long as I can remember, it seems people have been talking about the demise of art. And yet, we seem to be in a moment right now where poetry is flourishing. Why do you think that is?

TC: When the going gets tough, like right now, people need a lot more than the latest news cycle whopper to inspire themselves, at least the people I like to be around. They need some depth, something that lasts, or makes them laugh or cry or recognize their own lives in a new light. Movies can do that, music certainly, but poetry has that special distillation of language, rhythm, and meaning that is reassuring and makes me more mindful when it’s really working right.

TBD: How has your career as a poet influenced your career as a visual artist?

TC: They’ve always worked hand in hand for me. In fact, I feel little distinction between the two and shift from being a poet to a visual artist with great ease. I mean both arteries of expression come from the same “Todd,” and that goes for my musical excursions with my old band, Drunken Boat. At the same time, different things that I need to express require different modes. It’s really nice to have options. I feel lucky that way. I will say that when I’m painting or making any kind of art, time moves in very odd chunks. Hours will go by and suddenly I’ll realize it’s dark out or that I haven’t peed for a very long time. That sort of concentration in almost any form is just beautiful.

Knitted picture of the word "history" over a landscape

TBD: What was the inspiration for your new book?

TC: I was doing an artist’s residency on Governors Island provided by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council during the winter and spring of 2015. A friend had given me a huge stack of antique linen postcards as a gift. I brought them with me to the island thinking I could do something with them. One day while strolling around Governors Island I thought, “There are no monuments to poets here!” So, I began altering the postcards by writing captions in oil markers over them. I made a lot of postcard monuments to Arthur Rimbaud, Charles Baudelaire, Gertrude Stein, James Schuyler, James Baldwin, Emily Dickinson and many more. I still feel compelled to make them. It is enormously satisfying to rename monuments that celebrate poets and writers I love.

Postcard-like art of various locations

TBD: How would you describe the art you’re doing in this book?

TC: Time for History is an expansion of the themes I explored on Governors Island. There is some political and social commentary that comes through in a few of the pieces that I made after Trump was elected. And oddly, there’s a narrative that emerges as one goes through the book in sequence.

Image of a dog race saying "They would not carry riders so they dressed them up like fools"

TBD: How did you go about getting this particular book published?

TC: My dear old friend and frequent collaborator, the artist Marianne Vitale approached me with the idea of putting a selection of the hundreds of postcards I’ve made into a book. We’ve done collaborative books together over the years, so she knew what I was capable of, believed in me and the project and helped get the whole thing moving along. She introduced me to a book designer she works with, Nicolas Borel. He designs with a very keen eye and understanding of a book as object and then he subverts that expectation and expands the notion of what a book is, and what it can be. He was a joy to work with.

TBD: Who are some of your favorite artists, and why?

TC: I love Joe Brainard and George Schneeman. They both lived in NYC, and had close ties to the Poetry Project (where I also serve on the board of directors) and they both collaborated with a number of poets I respect and admire, like Ted Berrigan, Alice Notley, John Ashbery, Bill Berkson, and so many more. I also love the painters Amy Sillman. Jack Whitten, Louise Fishman, and Sue Williams; all of them are very different from one another, but they are all fierce, agitated, funny, precise, and driven. All of these artists occupy distinct thrones in the palace of my artistic loves.

TBD: Do you think working in a bookstore has influenced you as someone who does art and puts it into a book?

TC: Yes. As the manager and programmer here at 192 Books, I have been able to meet a wide variety of incredibly talented and creative people. People who I’ve admired so greatly over the years come into the store and talk about their art and their lives. Interacting with them, asking them questions, and getting to know them has been a real life changer for me.

TBD: Do you make something every day?

TC: I do. I try to make or write something a few times a day, even while I’m at work.

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

TC: Keep doing it. It’s important that whatever you want to do gets done. Don’t fall into line. Don’t do what you think other people want you to do because that is just a giant bummer for you and everyone else.

Todd Colby is the author of six books of poetry, most recently of Splash State (The Song Cave, 2014) and Flushing Meadows (Scary Topiary Press, 2012). He was the editor of the poetry anthology Heights of the Marvelous: A New York Anthology (St. Martin’s Press, 2001) and serves on the board of the Poetry Project. He was the lead singer for the critically acclaimed band Drunken Boat.

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 portrait of Julia Kite smiling

Julia Kite on Tottenham Hotspur, Rejection, and Her Long, Strange Trip to Getting Published

We first met Julia Kite many years ago, when she won one of our Pitchapaloozas (think American Idol for books, only kinder and gentler). She pitched us a fantastic story, full of fantastic characters. It’s been a long haul, but her book, The Hope and Anchor, has finally found a home, so we thought we would pick her brain about writing, authorship, books, and all things publishing.

Read this article on the HuffPost.

Photo portrait of Julia Kite smiling

Julia Kite

The Book Doctors: Why did you decide to become a writer?

Julia Kite: I never decided on it— it simply happened. I learned to read at a very young age, starting in a curry house where the owner gave me a calendar to play with because the food was all too spicy for me and I had nothing else to do. I made my parents read it to me until I memorized what words looked like, then I figured it all out from there and ever since then I haven’t stopped. Eventually I realized that if I was reading books that other people wrote, then I could write them as well. I was often bored in school and I needed some quiet, unobtrusive way to pass the time without getting in trouble. Turns out if you look like you’re working on an assignment or furiously scribbling notes, you can get away with actually writing a story. To this day, I’m a wimp who can’t deal with anything hotter than chicken tikka masala. It’s sad. I know.

TBD: What where your favorite authors and books when you were a kid, and why?

JK: I always liked the realistic stories of other girls’ lives— Beverly Cleary’s books were favorites of mine, because Ramona was so relatable in her mischief and her well-meaning imperfection. I saw a lot of myself in Harriet the Spy, wanting to know everything about everybody and write it down in a book, and I must have read Matilda a million times. It didn’t hurt that when the film adaptation of Matilda came out, I looked like Mara Wilson with a bigger nose. What fiction did to me was give me aspirations— look at these fascinating lives other people are having!

TBD: How did you learn to be a writer?

JK: I got there by first reading everything in sight, and then by being constantly observant of the world around me. I strongly believe that there’s only so much you can directly teach someone when it comes to writing. Being able to write is the function of being able to read, listen, interpret, synthesize, and abstract. These are skills you can only refine by going out and living in the world. You learn by doing. To be honest, eavesdropping on trains and in cafes probably taught me more about dialogue than any how-to book. Strange as this may sound, boredom also has had a lot to do with it. When you’re bored, you think a lot about other people’s lives, about things you’d rather be doing, places you’d rather be sitting at that exact time. You imagine that everything else in the world is so much more intriguing than what you’re stuck in at that moment, and you imagine being a part of it, what you’d do if you were someone else. And that’s the bedrock of fiction.

While I love being able to learn everything about anything at any time using my smartphone, I worry that if I’d had one when I was younger, I wouldn’t have had the opportunities brought by boredom and letting my mind wander. I think that’s a necessity when you’re young, and if people lose that because there’s just so much stimulation, their creativity is going to suffer.

TBD: How did you find a publisher for your debut novel?

JK: What a long, bizarre, maddening trip it has been. The Hope and Anchor is actually my second novel. My first novel was called The Results and it was about two sisters in Liverpool who start up a betting ring, choosing people in their neighborhood who they believe deserve a bit of joy in their lives, based off one girl’s unwanted knack of correctly predicting how every soccer match is going to end. They end up in too deep and realize the only way they can make a clean break with their pasts is to con everybody on the night of the Cup Final, making themselves rich and everybody else an enemy so that they can really never come back. The kitchen sink meets magic realism. I pitched it at your Pitchapalooza competition when I was living in San Francisco back in late 2011 (bloody hell). I ended up winning Pitchapalooza and it was a massive boost to my confidence, which was in the basement, because a year earlier I had abandoned my perfectly lovely life in London to move to California and study for a PhD, which turned out to be a disaster, to put it lightly. Within the course of one year I had gone from living the dream as a financially independent young woman with a decent job, a nice flat, a loving boyfriend, and one hell of a cute pet bird, to an anxious and depressed wreck running into bureaucratic brick walls with my research, earning barely above minimum wage, living in a neighborhood where I couldn’t wear sandals for all the used needles on the pavement, essentially undergoing massive culture shock in the country where I was born. California and I didn’t get along. I couldn’t even watch my beloved Tottenham Hotspur thanks to the eight-hour time difference, and if that means nothing to you, suffice it to say that is a very big deal. The one thing I still had was my writing. No arrogant professor or unhinged person screaming under my window at 3 AM could take my imagination away from me.

After Pitchapalooza, I was convinced my luck was going to change, and I would finally be getting somewhere with my writing. And despite a significant number of rejections, for a moment it looked like that was going to happen. I began working with a well-established agent in England who helped me edit The Results. He really liked it, but explained that unknown new authors of literary fiction are difficult to sell. If he was going to take me on as a client, I had to prove I had more than one book in me. So I wrote The Hope and Anchor…and it didn’t do anything for him. We parted company. I read the writing on the wall and put The Results aside.

After realizing there was a reason average time to degree in my department was nine years, and recognizing there’s definitely something wrong when blood-soaked clothes on the street no longer faze you, I found the courage to quit my PhD and I moved back to the East Coast. While I worked on rebuilding my interrupted policy and research career, I went back to the drawing board with pitching The Hope and Anchor and followed all the directions, writing personalized query letters to agents, double-checking their guidelines, making sure I was doing everything they wanted. I had quite a few agents request my manuscript. Unfortunately, none of them bit. I received many rejections with zero feedback— the most common response was, “I just don’t love it enough,” and variations on that theme. It was frustrating to me, because there’s no way to improve without clear feedback and concrete criticism. It almost would have been more reassuring to hear that they thought I had some kind of deficiency of skill, because at least then I would know what I needed to fix, where I needed to improve. You can learn to improve your mechanics, but you can’t force somebody to fall in love.

There was one agent who replied to my query with incredible enthusiasm and asked for the full. A few days later, she wrote me a bubbly email about how she was halfway through and absolutely in love with the book, and she would get back to me the following week. I was on cloud nine but I knew I needed to be patient, so I waited. And waited. A week passed. Two. Three. I didn’t want to be an annoyance, but after a month of no contact I finally sent her a polite check-in and she rejected me with zero feedback. I asked her if she would mind telling me what hadn’t worked for her in the second half of the book, essentially what had cooled her enthusiasm, but I never got a response. And I was utterly gobsmacked. I understand that the sheer volume of manuscripts literary agents have to deal with precludes detailed feedback, but I felt that I had been strung along and that I had the right to be miffed about a process that put me on ridiculous emotional roller-coasters. That was probably the moment when I first considered that maybe my book wasn’t the problem, the industry landscape was.

At the same time, I was trying to learn as much as possible from people in publishing, and from authors who had found mainstream success. Yet every time I went to a talk by an agent or an editor or an author, I left feeling utterly despondent. An agent spoke to my writing group, gave us all kinds of advice for landing someone like her, then revealed that in the past year, she had signed exactly one new client out of a slush pile of over 400. Then an author with her literary fiction debut published by one of the Big Five told us she had spent most of her modest advance on hiring a publicist, and my jaw hit the floor and stayed there far longer than could possibly be sanitary because I thought the entire point of signing with the Big Five was that they took care of publicity for you in-house. A member of my writing group landed a top-notch agent, then found out that they wanted him to completely change the genre of his book before editors would consider it. I saw people get agents who didn’t sell their books, and they’d part a year later, back at square one. At a certain point, the practical part of my brain intruded and said, “You’re a complete unknown writing literary fiction, and every indication is that the odds are stacked against you, no matter how good a writer you are. Why are you making yourself miserable, trying to do the impossible?” In my day job I’m a very analytic person, very evidence- and data-focused, and all the statistics were screaming that continuing down the same path was not going to magically make a door open. It would only make me bitter.

Friends asked me why I didn’t self-publish, but I knew that was a road I didn’t want to take. It can be fulfilling and occasionally lucrative for genre fiction, but that’s not what I write. Then one day in my Facebook feed, a friend had shared a link to a book one of his work colleagues was funding on a website called Unbound. The author was Gautam Malkani, and I recognized the name— he had published an acclaimed book called Londonstani several years earlier, and was now crowd-funding his second book after parting with his publisher. I knew that if a writer as talented as Gautam was going this route, it had to be legit, and that if his publisher had dropped him, then clearly there were issues with traditional publishing. Friends of mine in music were going their own way, recording brilliant songs and releasing them independently, and I realized that publishing needs to innovate just as the music industry has done over the past decade. Clinging to romantic notions of an industry that has changed almost beyond recognition would not get my book into the hands of strangers, but trying something new and exciting just might. I vetted Unbound very carefully, then submitted my manuscript.

I know now that “I just didn’t love it enough” can mean, “It’s good writing, but it’s not going to sell a million copies, and I need a book that will sell a million copies for this to be worth my while.” It’s business, not personal. But I believe there’s still space for good writing that’s not necessarily going to have wide enough appeal to be a summer beach read— and fortunately Unbound does, too.

It’s funny, you work for years to get anywhere with your book, and then two offers come along at once. I turned down an offer from a literary agent on the day I signed with Unbound. I didn’t want to go through any more of the craziness.

TBD: What is your book about?

JK: The Hope and Anchor is a story about love and loss, at its very core. Not only the actual disappearance of a beloved person, but also coming to terms with how your life isn’t going to turn out the way you had always planned, and the need to put old dreams, as lovely as they may have once been, to rest.

Our protagonist is Neely Sharpe, a woman in her late twenties who once believed that as soon as she moved to London, she would be somebody. She figured her life would take off and she would have the bright, exciting future she had always wanted growing up in a satellite town. She figured she had done everything right: being middle-class, highly educated, and ambitious. On paper, it seemed like the city should have been hers for the taking. Unfortunately, the recession took the shine off her big dreams, and so she finds herself working a dead-end job and living in a scruffy, downmarket part of West London. The one bright spot in her life is her relationship with her girlfriend, a local woman named Angela Archer. Angela’s upbringing couldn’t have been more different from Neely’s: nothing much was ever expected of her, particularly after her mother died and her troubled older sister moved away. She has epilepsy, but insists on not being treated differently. Her job at the local leisure center is never going to bring in a living wage, but to Neely she seems happy.

Neely, in her increasing dissatisfaction with life, is prone to making foolish and self-destructive decisions. The morning after one of those bad decisions, she stumbles home hungover and finds Angela is gone. And she’s not answering her mobile phone. Oh, and the medication Angela should have taken yesterday is still sitting in its little box in their kitchen.

Doubt and self-loathing leave Neely unsure of what to do. Locals who have known Angela since childhood tell Neely not to panic, and not to treat her girlfriend like she’s fragile or stupid. Neely, meanwhile, fears Angela may have left deliberately, perhaps knowing more than she let on about Neely’s drunken hookups with a mutual friend— but then there’s the matter of that medication. She finally goes to the police, but not until after making a few more potentially unwise decisions along the way.

We meet Andy, Angela’s older sister, who thought she had left behind her difficult upbringing when she married a middle-class man, moved to the suburbs, and had children. With Angela’s disappearance she gets pulled back into a life she never wanted to see again. Neely’s search for Angela, meanwhile, is interspersed with flashbacks of Angela’s teenage years, where one particular event left her determined to never leave this particular corner of the city. Little by little, Neely finds out just how little she really knew about her girlfriend. It shatters her self-image as someone who should have been smart enough to not end up in this mess, but also gives her greater clarity about her situation. She has to get a grip, get a clue, and come to terms with how little she knows about life, love, and London.

Without giving away too much of what happens, Neely ends up scouring the city, from pubs, to parks, to the sewers in a snowstorm, ending up far more immersed in her girlfriend’s history than she ever imagined. The only shot she has at finding answers is to risk losing all the illusions she ever had about what her life would be like.

I want the reader to be left wondering how much of one’s past you can really leave behind, and whether it’s wise to even try to do so.

TBD: What inspired your novel?

JK: I used to ride my bike along the towpath of the Grand Union Canal in West London, usually going all the way from my flat near Paddington Station out to a suburb called Greenford. When I traveled along the bit that runs beside a railway depot and a nature reserve, I was struck by how much it didn’t feel like the city out there. It was wooded and quiet and it felt a million miles from the council estate where I was living at the time. I thought—and don’t take this the wrong way— that if anybody wanted to get away with hiding a body, they could probably leave it there and nobody would find it for quite some time. I really don’t know why I thought that. I’m not a morbid person. But it planted the seeds of this book in my head. After I moved to California, writing vividly about a place I missed so much helped keep alive my plans to eventually get back the happiness I’d had in London; I suppose it was a grieving process, really, for the life I thought I would have. I picked the title as the name of a fictional pub, a complete wreck of a place, not really realizing at the time how well it fit me when I was writing the book. While Neely is definitely not based on me, I can certainly empathize with her situation where her best laid plans have gone astray and the world is passing her by. Had I not been so miserable in California, she probably wouldn’t have been so rich a character, so you have to take the good with the bad.

The imagery of the Grand Union Canal, which runs through Neely and Angela’s neighborhood, is constantly present throughout the book, as is the London transportation network. They link Angela’s past with her fate, Neely’s dreams with her reality, and Andy’s old resentment and shame with her determination to have a better life. Angela’s father is a Tube driver on the Circle Line, which, unfortunately, was re-routed a few years ago so that it’s no longer a circle, so that kind of wrecks a bit of imagery, but oh well. My day job is in transportation policy, and I’ve always been intrigued by the topic. Most teenagers wanted their own cars but I just wanted to ride the train to the end of the line, looking out at different neighborhoods, watching people come and go and wondering about their lives. In that aspect transportation has been an oddly massive part of my development as a writer, even if I’m the first to admit it’s not exactly sexy. My background in urban policy and planning has taught me that the only constant in any city is change, and the corner of West London captured in The Hope and Anchor is no different. I knew I had to get my book out in the world before the neighborhood morphed beyond recognition. Whenever I go back there, it seems like another pub has closed, another new development I could never afford is rising. It’s already too late for the police station that features throughout the story… it has been turned into luxury flats.

The strangest thing happened the last time I was in London, last year. I went for a walk down the Harrow Road like I always do, but when I passed by the building I had chosen for Neely and Angela to call home, I noticed the door leading to the flats above the shop was on the latch. Not wide open, just a crack. I pushed it open, walked into the hallway, and it was exactly how I had imagined it, with the mail on the tile floor, even though I’d never set foot in that building before. In the book, the light in the corridor has long burnt out and Neely always has to feel her way up the stairs to her flat. Well, I tried hitting the light switch— and just as I had written it, it was burnt out. I kind of freaked out and ran back to the street at that point. It was just a bit too eerie.

TBD: Tell us about your publisher; they’re quite unusual.

JK: Unbound uses what is essentially a modernized form of subscription publishing, which was popular with everybody from Samuel Johnson to Mark Twain back in their day. Authors essentially crowdfund a certain amount in pre-orders of their book, with different rewards for different levels, much like Kickstarter but without the risk. Once the author hits their funding target, full production of the book begins, like at any other publishing house, and the books land on shelves in brick-and-mortar stores as well as online. Everybody who pledged gets their name in the book as a nice thank-you for helping it come into existence.

The Unbound model makes a lot of sense from a practical standpoint. I’m an unknown with a literary fiction debut. Most unknowns with literary fiction debuts don’t make heaps of money for their publishers. In fact, a few years ago the New York Times said that seven out of ten books overall don’t earn back their advance. These more “niche” books are essentially subsidized by the big bestsellers. What I now realize, after my long experience trying to get a literary agent, is that someone like me is simply a bad risk from a business perspective.

Fortunately, Unbound realized that, too— and made room for people like me. By essentially outsourcing the risk to me, they can bring my book into physical existence without worrying that they’ll pay out thousands in an advance, spend lots of money on production, and then potentially not recoup their investment. You wouldn’t be in business very long if you kept doing that, no matter how skilled your authors— hence the Big Five’s focus on the celebrity clients and proven best-sellers over debut literary authors. I first prove that I can bring in an audience, and then Unbound goes ahead and invests their time and money in creating the physical book to be marketed and sold like any other. The pre-orders show there is a market for the book, as well as provide a financial cushion prior to the full print run. I don’t get an advance, but books sold in shops or online after hitting the target net a much better royalty rate than most authors typically see.

Unbound also gives me as an author a bit more control than a traditional house would. For example, I deliberately chose to not do a hardcover. That’s for a very practical reason: I live in a small Manhattan apartment with another voracious reader, and bookshelf space is at a premium! While I love the look of hardcovers and they certainly give you that “I’ve made it” feeling, I rarely buy them because they’re expensive, heavy, and difficult to shove into a handbag to take on the subway. Producing one would have meant a higher funding goal as well. Paperbacks and e-books are what I like and what are going to sell more effectively than a hardcover, so that’s what I’m going to have.

Unbound is not a vanity press, nor are they a self-publishing service. What I love about them is that they seem truly dedicated to getting an audience for quality writing. For a house that has been around only six years, they’re punching above their weight; they had a book longlisted for the Booker Prize a couple years ago.

TBD: How do you plan to promote and market your book?

JK: Social media is a huge part of this. I’ve had my Twitter account (@juliakite) for… oh god, more than eight years now. You bet I have chronicled the long, long journey to publication, and my followers have been along for the ride, so it’s great to finally be able to have something to show them for it. To find people outside my immediate network, I think about what aspects of the book might interest people who have never heard of me. Number one is the setting. It’s massively important to the story, so I’ve been a bit cheeky and searched for tweets mentioning the Harrow Road and the Grand Union Canal, and reached out to clubs and businesses in the neighborhood. I cringe a bit sending unsolicited messages, but the worst that can happen is that someone calls me annoying and then I move on. I also made an author page on Facebook and ran an ad targeted specifically to people in London who listed reading and novels as an interest. While it wasn’t hugely successful, I did get a few pledges, and when you’re completely unknown, every new person reading your book matters. I’m not the best at self-promotion, but I need to learn if I want this to be successful! I’ve made a video, which is on my Unbound page, featuring a lot of my photography. I think that helps humanize the project a bit, even if my hard-to-place American accent might come as a bit of a shock to some…

Cover of The Hope and Anchor by Julia Kite; a river runs between a road and trees

A few months ago I was on Jeopardy, where I lost spectacularly on the final question after leading for the entire game, but had a great time regardless. The Jeopardy contestant community is surprisingly close, and it includes several bookworms. I’m also fortunate to be part of a writing group called the Columbia Fiction Foundry, which is hosted by the Columbia University Alumni Association. All of us have the goal of being commercially published, and so we support each other. We’ve got a considerable mailing list that hopefully I haven’t completely irritated yet. The members of the workshop have seen this book come together over the past couple of years, and I hope that when they finally have copies in their hands, they’ll know they were an important part of it.

Several Unbound authors already have established careers in journalism, TV, or music, and many have successfully published before. Readers pledge to their projects knowing it’ll be something they will probably like. Me, I’m a complete unknown! I’m asking people to take a leap of faith, and it’s difficult to get a complete stranger to part with money when they’re not familiar with my work other than the excerpt on my Unbound page. I’m ridiculously grateful to everybody who has pledged, but especially to the people who don’t know me at all, because they’ve put their confidence in me. I really hope they’ll enjoy The Hope and Anchor.

TBD: What is your next project?

JK: Oh, wow. I feel like I haven’t had time to think about the next project because technically this first one isn’t finished! Sometimes I consider reviving The Results, but it may be time to simply let that one go. I feel like my next book will have to be set in New York City, as it’s a place I know as well as London and there’s infinite possibility for the kind of stories you could write about here.

I’ve been toying with the idea of writing about the aftermath of a fatal car crash, focusing on the surviving driver. In my job, we insist on saying car “crashes,” not car “accidents,” because even if it wasn’t deliberate, it’s down to the actions a person chose to take and which they could have prevented, rather than an act of God. That distinction is very fascinating to me and I think the exploration of personal agency versus chance is a pretty fertile seam to mine. But I’m still in the very, very early stages.

TBD: What advice do you have for writers?

JK: Be Patient. This was a difficult trait to cultivate in myself. I’m still not the world’s most patient person. If I had told 18-year-old me that I wouldn’t have a book deal until my early 30s, I probably would have torn my hair out. NaNoWriMo is great for motivation, but you shouldn’t expect a novel in one month. Not even the bad bare bones of one, if you have a day job. I’ve found that some of my best writing has come from times when I wasn’t expecting to generate anything substantial. I just started thinking, started writing, and what I created was far better than I expected. If you pressure yourself by putting time constraints on your writing, you miss out on the serendipitous joy of an idea simply popping into your head after ages of long slog.

Similarly, accept that writing the book is the easy part. You should expect to spend far, far more time editing and revising than you did actually getting the words onto the page. And it’s worth it. There’s no substitute for slow, deliberative, quality work.

Be judicious when incorporating autobiography. Remember that above all, your novel must be a work of fiction, and if you are constraining the possibilities of what you’re writing in order to match reality as you lived it, then you’re doing it wrong. Of course, you can lift scenes or character traits from your own life— if something interesting has happened to you, then why not? But be very careful. Your audience of complete strangers wants to read a good story, not your therapy session. They care about whether you can write an interesting, gripping book, not whether everything you’re writing about actually happened in real life. For example, I dropped out of a PhD, and I made Neely someone who has done likewise because I knew I could write really well from the emotional perspective of having derailed what you thought was your surefire plan in life. But the similarities largely stop there. Likewise, there are a few scenes where I’ve lifted the bare bones of the action from real life, but I fleshed them out with imagination. My bike rides along the Grand Union Canal are not Angela’s, even though we traveled in each other’s wheel ruts and looked at the same scenery. She can’t possibly be seeing things the exact same way I did, because she’s not me; she’s had a different life, a different perspective. The magic of fiction is that you get to create these characters who are nothing like you. You get to play God of your own tiny world in a way you can’t do anywhere else in life, so why force yourself to stay within your own experiences? That would be a failure of imagination. Why limit yourself to characters who only tick the same identity boxes that you do? That defeats the purpose of fiction, in my opinion.

I’ve found it’s quite obvious when fiction is really thinly-veiled autobiography. It’s difficult for your peers to critique honestly, because it feels like saying anything negative is casting disapproval on someone’s actual life. But without honest critique, you won’t have a decent book. If your real life is interesting enough to be fictionalized, you might as well write memoir, but remember that unless you’re Malala, Madonna, or Maradonna, few people outside your circle of friends and family will find it interesting.

Get a group. Writing feels like a solitary activity, but you must, must, MUST have readers giving you constructive criticism. Without the Columbia Fiction Foundry, The Hope and Anchor would have been a much weaker book. Your friends and family are lovely people, but they can’t always give you the tough critique you need to grow as a writer. As writers we pour our heart and soul into our work, so criticism can sometimes feel like an attack, but you have to force yourself to get over it. It’s medicine: taking it feels absolutely awful, but it’s what you need to get any better. In a good workshop environment, you’re all going to want each other to succeed, and that means hard truths and hard work, so remember that the people reading your work are just trying to make it the best it can be. Which brings me to my next point…

Don’t take it personally. This applies whether it’s a critique from a workshop or a rejection from an agent. Your work is separate from who you are. Someone not liking your story doesn’t mean they don’t like you. Someone thinking your book isn’t ready for publication doesn’t mean they think you’re talentless. It’s difficult, but you need to remember that writing this specific book is something you do, not something you are. You will fail at individual tasks— that’s simply part of learning and growing— but that does not make YOU a failure.

Cut, but don’t trash. For The Hope and Anchor, I created a Word document I titled excisions.doc, and I put in it everything that needed to be cut for the sake of the story, but which I felt was too well-written to simply throw away and get rid of forever. It functioned as a holding pen for good writing that simply wasn’t right for the moment. It turned out to be a wise idea; while doing a major revision, I found that lots of great lines that I had to cut from Andy when I made her a less central character were easily adaptable to Neely.

Don’t read the comments. Good advice for life, that.

Julia Kite lives in Manhattan, and calls New York City and London home. She is a graduate of Columbia University and the London School of Economics. Obsessed with cities and the people in them, she started her career researching housing and urban regeneration, and she now directs policy and research for Transportation Alternatives, New York City’s advocates for walking, biking, and public transit. Before she began working to make New York City’s streets better for cyclists, she was taking long rides along the Grand Union Canal in West London. She is a member of the Columbia Fiction Foundry, an alumna of quiz shows The Chase and Jeopardy, an urban wildlife rehabilitator, a keen amateur baker, and the owner of an opinionated parrot. The Hope and Anchor, currently funding on Unbound, is her first novel, a work of fiction about a very real place she holds dear.

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.

Portrait photo of Anna Staniszewski smiling

Anna Staniszewski on MFAs, Writing, and Not Teaching Kids Stuff in Your Kids’ Book

Anna Staniszewski is one of our daughter’s favorite authors. Our daughter is nine, with great taste in books, so we always pay very close attention to who she’s loving as a middle grade reader. We were all lucky enough to meet Anna at least year’s New England SCBWI Conference and had the chance to pick her brain after about writing, writers, MFA programs, kids’ books, and whatever else spilled out of our collective heads.

Read this interview on the HuffPost.

Portrait photo of Anna Staniszewski smiling

Anna Staniszewski

The Book Doctors: I’d like to start with the MFA programs, because we hear such conflicting things, particularly for children’s book writers. What are the benefits of going to a program like the one at Simmons College where you teach?

Anna Staniszewski: I hear that question a lot. For me, I think that it comes down to two things. If you want to be a published writer, you have to put in the work. Some people need a structured environment like an MFA program. I know I did. For other people, they can do it on their own. Another benefit of having an MFA program is the community aspect of it. You have this network that you’re part of—people with similar interests and goals. Some say you can’t be taught to write. While I think ultimately the actual storytelling voice is hard to teach, I obviously believe that you can teach someone to write, because I attended an MFA program and I teach in one.

TBD: What kinds of things do you actual teach in an MFA program for children’s literature?

AS: When the students come into the MFA program at Simmons, we really break down the basics. We look at character, plot, structure, setting, all those things, which seem really basic because we do so many of them by instinct, because we see how they work in other people’s stories. But if you really break down how they work, then you can take them and use them in your own story. The more aware you are of the different building blocks of fiction, the more consciously you can use them to benefit the story that you’re working on.

TBD: What was the transition like going from student to published author to teacher?

AS: When I first started at Simmons, I originally went for the MA of Children’s Literature. I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do. I thought I wanted to go into publishing. But my first semester there they were just launching that MFA program–this was over ten years ago–and so I thought that’s exactly what I want to do, I want to do both those things. Once I knew that, I was really focused throughout that program on wanting to be published when I graduated, and then when I finished, I actually applied to the Writer Resident Program at the Boston Public Library and, miraculously, got it the next year. Right after I graduated I was a writer-in-residence at the BPL, which was amazing. I think that really gave me such a boost of confidence that writing could be a real job for me! Right after I finished at the BPL, I went to teaching. Originally, for the first year that I taught, I taught all over the Boston area. I was really lucky when an opening popped up in Simmons, where they needed someone to teach in the MFA program, so I was able to do that right around the time that I got my agent. That was interesting to go through the submission process all while I was teaching other students who were trying to get to the same point.

TBD: One thing that we run into all the time is that people think that it is easier to write a children’s book than an adult book, particularly when it comes to picture books, and what I find amusing, in terms of length of time, is that it takes longer to publish a picture book than it does any other kind of book that I’ve ever seen.

AS: Absolutely! I sold my first picture book in 2011, and it is coming out in 2017. It was a long process! (Even though book publishing is a slow process, it’s rare for a book to take this long.) I think because there are so few words, you have to pick the exact, perfect words for every spread. And then there’s this whole other element if you’re not the illustrator and you just have to wait and hope that it all comes together! Writing picture books is such a specific craft, I was actually a little bit intimidated by it for a while. For me, writing a novel somehow feels less scary.

Cover of Dogosaurus Rex by Anna Staniszewski; boy walking a T. Rex on leash

Holt Books for Young Readers

TBD: For those writers out there who really know nothing about the craft of picture books, do you have a few tips?

AS: I would say the big thing is thinking about what would you like to see illustrated because I think a lot of times you’ll have a certain idea of “wouldn’t this be cute” and “wouldn’t this be fun,” but then you really have to think, “Can I get several illustrations out of this?” Then there are the parts of your book that not only could be illustrated, but also are begging to be illustrated! That’s why you need to find an idea that doesn’t just resonate with people, but that’s demanding to be illustrated.

The other thing I often tell students, because this is true of my own experience, is that an idea is not a story. The picture book I mentioned that’s coming out in 2017–the one that took six years–that was one where it took me a good year to find what I was actually trying to say. I came up with the idea, “Oh, wouldn’t it be fun if a boy turned a dog into a dinosaur?” And so I kind of played around with it, and it just wasn’t really working. I think part of it was because I wasn’t really thinking about the illustration potential. But I think a bigger part of it was that while it was a fun idea, it wasn’t really a story. And so I had to really dig into it. It took me a while to find what it needed to be about, which was the relationship between the boy and what turned out to be just a dinosaur.

Probably the most important thing in a picture book is the emotional component to the story. Because picture books are so short, there’s so little time to get the point across. You need something readers can really connect to on an emotional level because otherwise it’s just a fun story and you forget about it. But if there’s that deeper emotional layer, then readers will come back to it over and over.

TBD: We love that last one! We do a lot of work with writers to try to help them figure out how to pitch their books, and many writers have tremendous difficulties doing this. We get so many pitches where we don’t see an emotional connection with their main character. They just have an idea, there’s no actual plot or story there.

AS: It’s true, because by the time you finish reading a story, if there’s no emotional component and there’s no real plot, you find yourself asking, “Why did I just read this?” There has to be something there, even if it’s not a traditional story arc. My picture book, Power Down, Little Robot, is not a traditional story arc. It’s about a robot that doesn’t want to go to bed. It tries out all these different things to prevent going to bed, so it’s more like a list-type story. But I really try to highlight the mother-son relationship there. I hope, by the end, readers feel changed by the story, even if it doesn’t have a traditional beginning, middle, and end.

TBD: It’s confusing to many people who are starting out in the field what the category Middle Grade even means–the age range, where it diverges from early reader, how it stretches up to YA but doesn’t cross over into it. Can you give us your thoughts on this?

AS: I get this question all the time as well. I think people define it slightly differently, but this is how I think about it. I think the characters are typically between the ages of eight and twelve or thirteen. There are also early chapter books, and I do include those in early middle-grade, so in early chapter books, the protagonist can sometimes be in second grade or age seven. But a lot of early readers of chapter books are very much riding that line between picture book and novel. So I look at early chapter books on a case-by-case basis to know where exactly those fall. I feel like once you get into high school, that’s where it gets tougher. In my novels, most of my characters are thirteen or fourteen, which is at the upper end of middle-grade, often referred to as “tweens.” And even fifteen years ago, those would have been published as YA. Because YA has aged up so much, middle-grade has had to expand a little bit and the characters have become a little older.

While part of the way I define middle grade is by age, part of it I define by focus. It’s not only the content, but also how you deal with the content. So in middle-grade, if it’s younger middle grade, you might get away with a little bit of romance, but there are a lot of kids who don’t want that in their books. Whereas if it’s upper middle-grade, you might see a little bit of romance and you might see some darker things like war and death. With the latter, they tend to be handled a little bit more in the background or off-screen, so they are certainly there and they’re impacting the main character, but not in a direct way. For example, if there’s a character with something very serious going on in her life, maybe that’s not happening to the main character, it’s happening to the main character’s friend or somebody else in the family. In middle grade, you’re still kind of discovering what the world is like, whereas in young adult, I’d say it’s “Now that I know what the world is like, how do I fit in?” In YA, the focus is more inward, where middle-grade is more outward.

TBD: In your bio you write, “When she’s not writing, Anna spends her time reading, daydreaming, and challenging unicorns to games of hopscotch.” We thought this was so funny, and it’s just the sort of thing our nine-year-old daughter would love. Speaking of our nine-year-old daughter, she loves your books so much and just had the experience where she sat down with The Dirt Diary and couldn’t get up until she finished. You captured something that felt grounded in reality yet she could fantasize. How do you come up with your stories? Are they things that just come to you, or are they things you’ve been thinking about since you were little?

AS: I feel that I never have a lack of ideas. I feel like my brain is open, that it’s always asking “What if this happened?” I’m always kind of twisting the things that I notice, and thinking about “What if I told it this way?” Then it’s just a matter of figuring out what am I most excited about, and that’s what I decide to write about. But sometimes I feel like the process is a little bit mysterious. With my first book, My Very UnFairy Tale Life, I was working on something completely different. I was working on a sort of depressing book that ended up not going anywhere, and I needed something fun to work on. So I sat down and I just thought “Okay, I’ll just write a fun scene, just for myself,” and I wrote a scene about a girl who came home from school to find a talking frog sitting on her bed, and if that was me, I would have screamed and run out of the room, but she was so annoyed at the sight of the frog, and she actually grabbed that frog and she threw it out a window. I thought, “Who is this character? I need to know more about her!” I would write a chapter or two every once in a while, just for my own amusement, and that’s how that book came about. With my book The Dirt Diary, I heard a story on the radio about a girl who used to work for her mom’s cleaning business and a bell went off in my head. So for me, the premise comes first a lot of times, but it’s not until I connect with the characters that I go with it.

I feel that what you were saying about being rooted in the real world with a little bit of fantasy or magic, those are the kinds of stories I’ve always loved the most, and so I feel like that’s what I most enjoy writing as well.

TBD: We were impressed with how you dealt with class issues in The Dirt Diary. Our daughter happens to be in a public school that is very mixed, class-wise, from the very top to the very bottom. We were happy to see her reading a book that made her think about class. Speaking of which, your dedication may be our favorite ever: To anyone who has ever had to clean a toilet.

AS: I always thought I’d write fantasy. I wasn’t sure I had realistic fiction in me until I started writing it. For me, I guess what helped me was that I felt like my entire middle school existence could be summed up in the word “embarrassed.” I was nothing but embarrassed all the time. I also needed to know “Where do I fit in?” So a lot of those class issues are things that I experienced in school, where there were kids who lived in the big fancy houses and their families had big fancy cars, and then there were the rest of us. There was a lot of pressure no matter where you were on that hierarchy, and I thought that was something worth exploring. It also felt very true to my character because of the situation I put her in, and it also felt very true emotionally for me. A lot of people ask me how much of that story comes from my personal experience, and it’s very little. I did not clean houses for a living. I try to avoid cleaning houses at all, even my own. But I feel the emotional element is very true to life, and so I feel like I took a character who is very shy and very awkward, and took those qualities from myself when I was her age and amplified them by ten.

TBD: Something we run into every day with clients trying to get children’s books published is the desire tell us what their book is trying to teach. I would love for you to say something about the didactic nature of children’s books, and what do you advise on that?

AS: I think the important thing is telling a good story, and if there’s something that comes out of that for the reader, that’s fantastic, but if that’s the aim–if you go into it looking to teach something—it will show. The story always has to come first. When I set out to write a book, I’m not thinking what I want the reader to learn, or what do I want the character to learn, I just focus on something much more simple, like how does the character change. I try to think of it in a very specific way. With The Dirt Diary, for example, it’s about a character finding her voice. Though that may imply that maybe she learned some things along the way, that’s not what the story is really about. I think about: “Where does she start?” She’s shy, she can’t speak up for herself. “Where does she end?” She comes out of her shell a little bit, she speaks up for herself, at least when she really needs to. I’m not just trying to hit the reader over the head with a lesson or a moral. As a reader, I like to be able to think about the book myself and also feel like I have grown and changed along with the character; that’s more valuable than having a very obvious and concrete lesson.

Anna Staniszewski is the author of several tween novels, including The Dirt Diary and Once Upon a Cruise, and the picture books Power Down, Little Robot and Dogosaurus Rex. She lives outside of Boston and teaches at Simmons College. When she’s not writing, Anna spends her time reading, daydreaming, and challenging unicorns to games of hopscotch. You can learn more about her and her books at www.annastan.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.

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

Jamie Mayer on Screenplay vs Book, the Garden State and the Power of Pain

Since David was a screenwriter for many years, he’s fascinated by the difference between writing for the screen and writing for between the covers. He’s also quite fascinated by pain, how we use it, how we avoid it, and what we can learn from it. So when he came across Jamie Mayer’s wonderful new novel Painless, we decided to pick her brain about books, screenplays, and pain. Which all seem oddly related somehow.

Read this interview on the HuffPost.

Photo of Jamie Mayer sitting and smiling

Jamie Mayer

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

Jamie Mayer: I think some of the books that make the biggest impression are the ones that help you learn about things you really want to know but no one is telling you, so stuff like sex (Judy Blume, my parents’ old hippy-ish copy of The Joy of Sex), magic (Half Magic, Dragonsong), or the mysteries of older, cooler kids (The Outsiders, Judy Blume again – my friends and I had a well marked-up copy of Forever, her “adultiest” one).

I also loved stories about kids who did things they weren’t supposed to be able to do, like living in a museum (From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler), or solving mysteries (Harriet the Spy, Encyclopedia Brown).

TBD: How did you learn to be a writer?

JM: I always wrote short stories for myself, but never really considered writing as a career. In college I studied film, photography and documentary film. I later decided that if I wanted to direct films, no one would let me unless I also wrote them, so I started writing screenplays – and then it turned into my primary career.

Cover of Painless by Jamie Mayer; silhouette of a person kneeling

Rare Bird Books

TBD: What was the inspiration for Painless?

JM: I read a newspaper story about a young boy with the same disorder as Quinn, the main character in Painless. It’s a neurological condition where you literally can’t feel pain, and his parents were beside themselves trying to live with this kid who had no natural fear of pain and thought nothing of doing things that would hurt himself or others. And I wondered what living like this would do psychologically to this boy as he grew older – if he grew older, because lots of people with this condition don’t survive to adulthood.

TBD: Why did you choose to write a Young Adult novel?

JM: The story of Painless originally took the form of a screenplay, one of the first I ever wrote. I came close to directing it as a film, but when that fell apart, I put it in a drawer and tried to forget about it – but the story still wasn’t done with me somehow. My mentor Holly Goldberg Sloan, the screenwriter/director-turned-best-selling YA author, suggested I try writing it as a YA novel. And that idea just breathed new energy into it – as I expanded and developed it into novel form it took on a whole new life!

TBD: We live in New Jersey, and we wonder what it was like for you growing up in the Garden State?

JM: I always like to stick up for New Jersey, which is really such a beautiful place but gets a bad rap!

My parents lived in New York City before I was born, but when I was still a baby they hit the suburbs of central New Jersey. It was a great place to grow up, just an hour’s train ride from New York – and we visited often to see family, go to museums or theater, etc. – but it really was this smallish town, where kids wandered freely, disappearing into the woods to play and collect tadpoles or whatever for hours without grownup supervision. At the time I thought it was a little boring, but in retrospect, it was pretty awesome. Plus Jersey corn and tomatoes. Plus Springsteen. Plus Jon Stewart. Come on.

TBD: Why did you pick someone who can’t feel physical pain to be your book’s hero?

JM: There are upsides to feeling no pain, but obviously there are downsides too. Around the time I wrote the original story, I was dealing with the long illness and death of my father (who was a wonderful guy, by the way, nothing like Quinn’s dad!). And like anyone who’s experienced the death of a loved one, or a terrible romantic breakup or even unrequited love, I thought to myself, “Wow, this feels horrible. Maybe if I just never care this much about anyone ever again, I’ll never feel this bad again!” Of course, that’s a terrible idea if you want to be even remotely human – if you want to feel the good stuff, you’ll also be vulnerable to feeling the bad. So this physical condition struck me as a perfect metaphor for how people sometimes close themselves off from connection and love, becoming emotionally “painless”. And I wanted to write a story about someone who comes to realize that to make life worth living, he has to open that door a crack.

TBD: How does your process for writing a novel differ from writing a screenplay?

JM: Screenplays are so much about structure and clear character arcs – which are also really useful in writing a novel. But where screenwriting style is usually very spare and external, only describing what you can see, a novel can be more descriptive and internal, so I needed to consciously remind myself to widen the palette, and that was really fun and liberating! Also, in a screenplay you don’t have to choose between first and third (or second!) person POVs, so that created a whole new facet to the process as well..whose POV are we in when, and why, and how?

TBD: What are you working on next?

JM: I just wrote and directed a short coming-of-age film called Crowbar Smile that you can watch on TheScene.com. I’m hoping it will become a full-length feature film soon. I’m also writing several new film and television scripts. There may be a new YA novel brewing as well, but it’s too soon to talk about it!

TBD: If time had split and you were living another, parallel life, what would it be?

JM: I would be a large animal veterinarian. As a kid, I loved biology and animals and was always bringing random animals home. I wanted to go to vet school and interned in high school with my local vet, where I even got to scrub in and assist in the surgery to spay my own kitten! In college, I discovered a love of film and photography, and somehow never got around to all the pre-med classes I would need for vet school. So in my alternate timeline I am a horse doctor, driving from farm to farm with my muddy boots on…

I know it seems unrelated to my current career, but my interest in biology and things medical makes me especially interested in story ideas like the one underlying Painless!

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

JM: Write – which seems obvious, but lots of people don’t do. There are a lot of bad drafts that have to happen on the way to accumulating 10,000 hours of practice! And learn to re-write – which I think is a different, and in lots of ways harder, process, which involves evaluating and incorporating criticism and notes and being willing to tear up things that you might be very attached to! These things are simple to say but not necessarily to do – and I think every writer grapples with both these processes every day.

Screenwriter Jamie Mayer is venturing into prose with her debut YA novel Painless. Born in New York City, Mayer grew up in New Jersey and graduated with a degree in Visual and Environmental Studies from Harvard University. She now lives in Los Angeles with her husband, son and a neurotic-but-good-hearted rescue dog. More info at www.jamiemayer.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.

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

Book cover of you talking to me by Lawrence Grobel

Lawrence Grobel on Warren Beatty, Joyce Carol Oates, John Lennon’s Death and the Uselessness of Celebrities

One of our operatives who scout this great nation for publishing talent alerted us to Lawrence Grobel, a wonderful writer who has lots to say about the strange celebrity culture our species created. Since his new book, You, Talking to Me, is out, we picked his brain about why our culture worships and reviles these people with these strange little talents.

Read this interview on the HuffPost.

Book cover of you talking to me by Lawrence Grobel

The Book Doctors: How did you get into the talking-to-celebrities business?

Lawrence Grobel: It wasn’t intentional. After spending three years teaching at the Ghana Institute of Journalism (in the Peace Corps), I returned to the States and started freelancing for Newsday’s Sunday magazine. I also wrote a few pieces for the New York Times and for True magazine. Then I decided to give up journalism, move to L.A. and write fiction. But as soon as I got to L.A. my Newsday editor asked if I would interview “Household Names” for them, starting with Mae West. I wound up doing dozens of interviews for them, with people like Warren Beatty, Jane Fonda, Ray Bradbury, Linus Pauling, J.P. Donleavy, Henry Moore, Cher, Lucille Ball….but since these were 3,000 word interviews, I could do them in two hours. However, the form interested me, and I wondered what it would be like to spend days, weeks, even months interviewing one person. The only outlet I knew that allowed that kind of depth was Playboy, so I managed to convince the editors there that I could do 30,000-word interviews with people like Barbra Streisand, Dolly Parton, Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Henry Fonda, Patty Hearst, Robert De Niro, and Saul Bellow. It’s taken me decades to finally get back to that fiction I wanted to write!

Black and white photo of Lawrence Grobel and Halle Berry

Lawrence Grobel and Halle Berry

TBD: Why do you think our culture is so obsessed with celebrities, most of whom have jobs where they don’t actually do anything useful, not like doctors, plumbers, or teachers?

LG: If you put celebs into the category of usefulness, then you’re eliminating most athletes, actors, and the Kardashians. If celebs provide entertainment for people, then I suppose they serve a purpose. We elected a celebrity (albeit a minor one) president recently—and I’ve yet to believe anything he’s done so far has been useful, and yet, whatever he does certainly affects a lot of people.

Celebrities seem to exist in most cultures—some for their prowess as being stronger or more agile than others, some for their sharp wit, some for their ability to mimic others. I don’t know why we are so obsessed as a culture by celebrities, but I’ve seen how people react to seeing someone famous and all I can say is that I’m glad I’m not one. It can be frightening when a stranger approaches you in a restaurant or on a street with a demand for an autograph or a picture. I’ve been with Goldie Hawn when she was approached at a Japanese restaurant by a guy who acted like he knew her and saw how she handled it; with Al Pacino when a woman took him by surprise on the street where he lives in Beverly Hills and thrust a DVD at him, as he jumped away from her and tossed the DVD into a bush as if it might explode. I’ve been around celebs when paparazzi are waiting for them, and I can understand why they react the way they often do. A lot of it stems from when the Manson “Family” committed their crimes, making celebrities afraid. And after John Lennon got shot, it just magnified how vulnerable celebrities are. It’s no fun being a target for the insane.

TBD: Who are some of your favorite celebrities and why?

LG: Having interviewed so many, I would prefer to rephrase the question: Who, among all the celebrities you’ve interviewed or known, would you miss if they were no longer around? Of those who have already passed, I’d say John Huston, because I appreciated our conversations and his interest in my work; Truman Capote, because he said so many hilarious and outrageous things; Luciano Pavarotti, because I enjoyed his company and looked forward to seeing him in Italy, which would have been the best reason to travel to Italy; Robin Williams, because he was so quick and so down-to-earth; Miles Davis, because he was Miles Davis!; and Farrah Fawcett, because I miss our paddle tennis games, and her being “one of the guys” whenever we got together.

Photo of Lawrence Grobel and Miles Davis

Lawrence Grobel and Miles Davis

Of those still around, Elliott Gould, because he has become like family and is one of the truly special people I know; Christopher Walken, because he always responds to my calls, and when I send him a book of an author I think he might like, he sends me one back; Kim Basinger, because though she’s so shy, we have long phone conversations that cover whatever’s on our minds; Joyce Carol Oates, because even though she’s a goddamn genius, she always makes time to get together whenever she’s in town; and Lily Tomlin, because how can you not love Lily Tomlin?

TBD: Have you ever wanted to tell a celebrity to eff off? Who and why?

LG: The only celebrity I ever walked out on (though I didn’t say “fuck off,” it was implied) was Robert Mitchum. I went to see him while he was making That Championship Season, and during a break we went back to his trailer where he ate a sandwich and didn’t contribute to our conversation (in other words, I did most of the talking), other than to compare me—when I said that I was there doing my job—to Adolph Eichmann. When I asked him if he was comparing doing a Playboy Interview with what Eichmann did to the Jews, he said it was the same thing. That’s when I got up and told him that his publicist knew where to reach me, and walked out. Some years later, after my book on The Hustons came out, I was invited to watch Mitchum narrate a documentary about John Huston. There were 18 scenes, and for each one, after the first take Mitchum asked the director, “Too Jewish?” It was funny the first time. Not funny the second, and uncomfortable the next sixteen times.

TBD: What are some of your best interviews and why?

LG: I’d like to think that all of my work is the best that I can do at the time, but I guess that the ones that have turned into books are the ones that most people remember: Truman Capote, Marlon Brando, James A. Michener, John Huston, Al Pacino, Robert Evans, and Ava Gardner. Though I should also include the ones that got the most publicity: with Gov. Jesse Ventura, and with Coach Bob Knight. The Ventura one appeared during a slow news week because it wound up being covered by all the morning news and talk shows and put the Governor on the cover of Newsweek for his controversial remarks about religion, prostitution, sexual abuse in the Navy, fat people, and hoping to be reincarnated as a 38 DDD bra. As for Knight, he tried to throw me out of his car twice, fought with me over the tapes, punched me in the ribs, and I wound up putting that interview at the end of my Art of the Interview book to demonstrate how an interview is really like a three-act play.

Photo of Lawrence Grobel and Al Pacino

Al Pacino and Lawrence Grobel

TBD: What were some of your most bizarre interviews?

LG: I’d have to say the Bob Knight interview was the most bizarre. I was actually contemplating how to jump out of his car onto the highway in Indiana without breaking any bones.

TBD: What were some of your worst interviews?

LG: One of the worst was with James Franco, because he had nothing to say, other than answering “Nah” to most of my questions. But this was before he became an academic, a writer, an artist, and did some interesting films. But I’ve yet to see a really good interview with the guy.

TBD: Your first dozen books were published by major publishers like Random House, Scribner, NAL, Hyperion, Simon & Schuster, Da Capo, and the University of Mississippi Press. Why have you self-published your last dozen books?

LG: It started when my agent refused to represent a satire on yoga I’d written (Yoga? No, Shmoga!). I couldn’t understand his reaction, because he didn’t even want to read it. Then I discovered that he had repped a book called Elvis, Shmelvis, which didn’t do well and was somewhat of a nightmare for him. I told him my book was funny and he should reconsider, but he couldn’t get past the title. So I left him and decided to publish it on my own after Larry Kirschbaum at Amazon (at the time) invited me into a program they had set up for professional writers. The experience was positive, so when I discovered that another writer had a contract to publish his secret conversations with Ava Gardner at the same time I had finished a similar book about Ava, I thought I’d self-publish that as well. And then when I got the rights back from some of my other books, like Conversations with Capote and Conversations with Brando, I put them up on Amazon.

Black and white photo of Truman Capote and Lawrence Grobel

Truman Capote and Lawrence Grobel

Suddenly, it became so much easier and quicker to publish what I wanted to write myself (a few novels, a memoir, a book of poetry, some collections of magazine work) rather than have to deal with satisfying a new agent, writing proposals, waiting to hear from publishers—that whole process takes months, sometimes years. Of course I don’t get the advances I used to get, nor the distribution, but I can now look at the 25 books I’ve written knowing that I’d still be waiting to hear from publishers for probably ten of them had I not decided to self-publish.

Am I happy about it? Yes and no. Yes, that the books appear exactly as I have written them and I’m proud of all of them. No, because I would like to reach a much larger audience, and reviewers don’t review self-published books. But hey, I’ve managed to do a few podcasts with Marc Maron and Adam Carolla about my work, and I’m still waiting to hear back from Terry Gross at NPR—so who knows? A writer should never give up hope.

Book cover to You Show Me Yours by Lawrence Grobel

TBD: What advice do you have for people who want to be interviewers? And what advice do you have for writers?

LG: I don’t separate being an interviewer from being a writer. A good interviewer is a good writer. Structuring a good interview involves many skills. One must be able to converse like a talk show host, think like a writer, understand subtext like a psychiatrist, have an ear like a musician, be able to select what’s pertinent like a book editor, and know how to piece it together dramatically like a playwright. Writers today have more outlets than they realize, and it’s more important than ever before to hone one’s skills, to make sure what you put out into the world is miles above the mostly crap that passes for writing these days. It takes patience, talent, and the willingness to rewrite. It’s a noble profession.

Lawrence Grobel (www.lawrencegrobel.com) is a novelist, journalist, biographer, poet and teacher. Five of his 25 books have been singled out as Best Books of the Year by Publisher’s Weekly and many have appeared on best-seller lists. He is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship for his fiction. PEN gave his Conversations with Capote a Special Achievement Award. The Syndicat Francais de la Critique de Cinema awarded his Al Pacino their Prix Litteraire as the Best International Book of 2008. Writer’s Digest called him “a legend among journalists.” Joyce Carol Oates dubbed him “The Mozart of Interviewers.” He has written for dozens of magazines and has been a Contributing Editor for Playboy, Movieline, World (New Zealand), and Trendy (Poland).

His new work, You, Talking to Me, highlights the lessons he’s learned from interviewing. He is married to the artist Hiromi Oda and they have two daughters.

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.

Cover of Standing Up by Kate Forest; two hands touching

Kate Forest on Amputee Romance, Learning to Write, and the Superpower of Empathy

We’ve known Kate Forest for many years, and it’s been a joy to watch her come into her own as a writer. She has an unusual book out now, and we wanted to pick her brain about how she came up with this fascinating twist on the classic romance.

Read this interview on the HuffPost.

Photo of Kate Forest smiling

Kate Forest

The Book Doctors: Why did you do something as silly as decide to become a writer?

Kate Forest: I wish I weren’t a writer. I’ve always been the storyteller of the family (some of the stories were even truthful). I felt compelled to write them down a few years ago. I didn’t have plans to publish at first. But I’m also too ambitious for my own good.

TBD: What are you reading these days? What were your favorite books growing up, and why?

KF: Growing up was tough in terms of books.I didn’t learn to read until I was about 11 years old. Not only did I miss out on all the Judy Blumes, but school was a very painful place. I had the fortune of getting some extra help in 6th grade. One day I looked around the reading group I was in and noticed I was with the smart kids. I immediately went to Sherlock Holmes (still some of my favorite stories).

Now, I love reading romance of any kind. Devouring Amanda DeWees, Veronica Forand. And I love non-fiction. Isaac’s Storm by Erik Larson is on the top of my Kindle now.

TBD: How did you learn to be a writer?

KF: Trial and error. My sister, Andrea Pyros, is the real writer of the family, and she was kind enough to not laugh too hard when I said I was going to write a book. I took classes at my local community college, read books, and attended conferences, online classes, and workshops. I came from a place of knowing that I didn’t know anything and felt no shame in starting from scratch at 40 years old.

TBD: What drew you to romance writing?

KF: I need a happy ever after in my fiction. Because of my work as a social worker, I’ve never been able to read those wonderful weepy Oprah Book Club books. When Precious came out, I couldn’t look at that as entertainment, since foster care was my day job. Fiction, for me, needs to be an escape. And I’d better be emotionally satisfied at the end or I’ll hurl the book at the wall. For non-fiction I can be forgiving.

Cover of Standing Up by Kate Forest; two hands touching

Ruby Basset Publishing

TBD: Tell us what your new book, Standing Up, is about.

KF: It’s the classic nerd/jock story but with a twist. Mike was the star football player in high school. A car accident lands him on crutches in excruciating pain, and he elects to have his legs amputated below the knee. Jill is a woman determined to get to NASA but finds it hard to stand up for herself in a man’s world. It’s more a story of finding your identity than a straightforward romance.

TBD: They say, “Write what you know, but you’ve never had an amputation. How did you get into the mindset of someone missing a limb? There’s so much attention being paid to ensuring that genuine experience dictates the content of books like this. How did you make sure that your writing was real?

KF: If I only wrote what I “know” all my characters would be middle class Jewish cis-gendered women. I am in complete agreement that representation matters. We need diversity in books, not just in the characters depicted, but also among the authors. That said, I think I did my due diligence. I interviewed amputees and people with disabilities. I met with a prosthetics expert, had sensitivity readers, and relied on my professional experiences. This story is not going to be true for everyone with limb loss because not everyone with limb loss has the same experience. But it could be true for some. And not everything the characters think and feel will sit well with everyone. Just because one of my characters says something insensitive doesn’t mean that it’s my personal belief. I hope people see the evolution of the characters.

TBD: It’s unusual to see an amputee in a romance novel. What prompted you to write something like this?

KF: I was tired of all the “perfect” characters in romance. Their only flaws being they are “too smart,” “too wealthy,” etc. I meet people all the time who find true lasting love, and they are far from perfect. We all need love stories. We all deserve a happy ever after.

TBD: How did being a social worker impact how you wrote this novel?

KF: I’m a storyteller, but I’m also a listener. If I had a superpower it would be empathy. It takes a lot out of me to sit with someone through their pain. To be present and hold them in that space. That’s the job of a good social worker. To offer the non-judgemental support and advocacy. I’ve been telling people’s stories through court reports, case files, and hospital notes, always with the conviction to get the person what they need.

TBD: How long does it take you to write a book?

KF: Too darn long. I am a painfully slow writer and an even slower editor/reviser. I can’t plot a book at the beginning. I have some vague idea of what will happen. Mostly, I have a clear idea of who these characters are. I just let them play on the page. I end up deleting many, many wonderfully written pages that are absolutely useless.

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

KF: A good story has terrible conflict. You can’t be afraid to put your characters through hell. They should be at the place where everything is hopeless. It’s really hard to go there. None of us want to think about being hopeless. But that’s the desperation the characters need to feel. Otherwise, the story isn’t compelling.

Author Kate Forest has worked in a psychiatric hospital, as a dating coach, and spent a disastrous summer selling above-ground swimming pools. But it was her over 20-year career as a social worker that compelled her to write love stories with characters you don’t typically get to read about. She lives in Philadelphia with her husband, two kids, and a fierce corgi. Learn more at kateforestbooks.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.

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

Photo of J.K. Knauss smiling

J. K. Knauss on Bloody Cucumbers, NaNoWriMo, Bagwyn Books, and Violence

We first met J. K. Knauss when we did a Pitchapalooza at Anderson’s Bookshop in Naperville, Illinois, one of our favorite bookstores in the world. We loved her idea for her book, but we were also impressed that she actually wrote a blog post that was very entertaining and formative about the event itself. Subsequently she bought one of David’s books and noticed that the metadata for the e-book was wrong. It was these impressive displays that made us become big fans. Not only of what a professional J. K. is, but also how generous a person. And now that her new book is out, we wanted to pick her brain about writing, publishing, and all that jazz.

Read this interview on the HuffPost.

Photo of J.K. Knauss smiling

J.K. Knauss

The Book Doctors: What made you decide to become a writer? What were some of your favorite books as a kid and why?

J. K. Knauss: I’m not sure there was a decision involved. I have no memory of ever wanting to do anything else. My favorite books as a kid were the many by Zilpha Keatley Snyder and Willo Davis Roberts. Not only did they write lots of great books, but I also got to meet them at an author fair near my hometown. Seeing that authors were real people, like me, I hoped that someday, somebody might pay me for my writing.

TBD: We noticed that you use Goodreads. Could you explain to our readers how you work with that website and what some of the benefits are?

JKK: Goodreads is a wonderful way for readers to get in touch with authors because the site is entirely dedicated to books. I encourage readers to use the “Ask a Question” feature on my profile, and to join groups that interest them. With so many books out there, sites like Goodreads can help with one of life’s toughest questions: what to read next?

Book cover of Seven Noble Knight by JK Knauss; silhouettes of knights on horseback

Cover of Seven Noble Knights by J.K. Knauss

TBD: Could you describe your process of writing Seven Noble Knights? How did you come up with the idea? What is your daily writing practice like?

JKK: Seven Noble Knights is based on a legend I encountered in graduate school. Don’t let that turn you off! I read my advisor’s paper about the possible meanings of the bloody cucumber incident and decided I had to read everything I could about such a bizarre story. It had much more to offer—knights, ladies, Spanish pride, Moorish civilization… I let it marinate for a few years, then wrote the big travel chapters, the giant battle, and the last three chapters during two consecutive NaNoWriMos. During November, writing was the first thing I did every morning. Otherwise, I stealth wrote, fitting in sentences and scenes wherever I could between my paid editing and copyediting projects. I’m still a stealth writer today.

TBD: Do you use beta readers? Are they valuable in the editing process?

JKK: The first time I lived in Tucson, I had the kismet to join a writers group worth its weight in editorial comment balloons. They’re talented writers who gave me fresh perspectives on how to build a medieval world without bogging the reader down. Most importantly, they’ve stuck with me through some exaggerated highs and lows, even though I had to leave Tucson not once, but twice. Thanks, Low Writers!

TBD: Did you work with an editor at your publishing house? If so, what was that like?

JKK: I worked with a couple of professional editors as well as my critique group, got feedback at the 2013 Naperville Pitchapalooza and the 2014 Grub Street conference, and sent Seven Noble Knights through my own editing mill before I sent it out. Bagwyn Books makes historical accuracy their highest priority, so my editor and I focused on presenting a well-rounded picture of medieval Spain.

TBD: This is such an epic, how did you approach keeping all the storylines and characters afloat and helping your readers not get confused?

JKK: Buried in a tote bag with a flamenco dancer on it, I have a folder that’s thicker than the paperback is going to be with research notes, fold-out maps, character lists, chapter outlines, and a handwritten translation/summary of a few chapters of a thirteenth-century history book. There’s nothing like the benevolent authority of King Alfonso X, el Sabio, to keep a writer on track.

TBD: There’s lots of violence in Seven Noble Knights, but none of it feels gratuitous. Could you give us some of your philosophy about violence in stories, particularly violence towards women?

JKK: Medieval Spain was a society in a state of perpetual warfare for more than 800 years. Everywhere you looked, there was a border to attack or defend. So while it surprised me to be so drawn to such a violent story, it’s important to present the context accurately. I hope readers will come to their own conclusions about the appropriateness of violence in the Middle Ages and today.

There’s so much else going on in Seven Noble Knights, violence against women only occurs during Doña Lambra’s punishment. This is a female character who hasn’t hesitated to wield violence against others as one more tool for getting ahead. In the sequel, there will probably be some nongratuitous violence against innocent women characters. Much as it pains me to consider, again it’s a question of historical realism.

TBD: So, we have violence and odd uses of produce. Do the passions of your medieval characters come out in any other way?

JKK: As fiercely as they slay the enemy and seek revenge, so do the characters in Seven Noble Knights defend their families and fall in love. The hero, Mudarra, finds no meaning in his life until he meets a forbidden love. The seven young title characters will do anything to keep the peace within their beloved family. Don Gonzalo is deeply devoted to his wife, the mother of the seven noble knights, and will do anything to return to her—even betray her with another woman. Doña Lambra loves her cousin, but has to marry some nobleman she’s never met before. Lambra’s maid falls in love with the stable boy and hopes he can help her escape her servile life. Love arises all the stronger in hopeless places.

TBD: We checked out your story collection Rhinoceros Dreams. David also loves rhinoceroses. Why are you drawn to the rhinoceros?

JKK: All five species of rhino are soulful creatures, the gentle giants of the savannah or the rainforest. I had the opportunity to pet a pair of white rhinos at Southwick’s Zoo in southern Massachusetts, and it was the most Zen moment of my life. I highly recommend petting a rhino if you can! And I hope people will stop desiring them for their horns, which are worthless to anyone who isn’t a rhino.

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

JKK: You might think a field dedicated to bringing the dreams of sensitive writers to an eager reading public would be all daisies and unicorns. But the publishing world has more of the brutal about it than the subtle. When you least expect it, something about the publishing process will break your heart. It’s the price authors pay for loving to write. If you have what it takes, you’ll keep going. So my advice is: “Brace yourself.”

Born and raised in Northern California, J. K. Knauss has wandered all over the United States, Spain, and England. She worked as a librarian and a Spanish teacher and earned a PhD in medieval Spanish literature before entering the publishing world as an editor. Seven Noble Knights, an epic of family, betrayal, and revenge in medieval Spain, debuted December 2016 in ebook from Bagwyn Books. The softcover edition came out January 16, 2017. Tour dates, fun, and prizes are still being added to the Seven Noble Knights Grand Book Launch Blog Tour. Feel free to sign up for her mailing list or visit JessicaKnauss.com for castles, stories, and magic.

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 Jeannie Zokan

Jeannie Zokan on NaNoWriMo, Aerial Yoga, the Existence of Pity, and Getting Published

We first met Jeannie Zokan several years ago when she was putting together her young adult novel. Years later, it’s become a piece of women’s fiction. The Existence of Pity is out now, so we picked Jeannie’s brain on her travels through the rocky seas of publication.

Read the interview on the HuffPost.

Photo of Jeannie Zokan

Jeannie Zokan

The Book Doctors: When did you first become a writer?

Jeannie Zokan: I’ve written all my life, but I first saw myself as a writer at a poetry workshop in Washington, DC. I was in my twenties, and our leader, Sandy Lyne, had us come up with affirmations to silence our inner critics. Mine was, “I am a courageous poet.” I’d filled many notebooks – and burned some of them in a pile in my backyard in Colombia – but that workshop, where I acknowledged my fear and wrote anyway, was my starting block.

TBD: What books did you love as a kid and why?

JZ: Books were my best friends as a kid, and although my generation didn’t have Harry Potter, we had The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, which my mom read to my brothers and me over and over. There were many, many more books, but one author influenced me the most. Betty Cavanna wrote in a clear, easy voice about strong young women facing life with honesty and openness. Every one of her books resonated deeply with me.

TBD: What books are you reading right now?

JZ: I am reading My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout for a book club, and I’m really enjoying her style. Also, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is on my bedside table for the third time. Such a thought-provoking read!

TBD: How did you learn to become a writer?

JZ: Oh, the usual, I suppose. By reading, writing, taking classes, and studying books about writing. But learning to write a novel tripped me up for many years. I wrote poetry, short stories, articles, even my memoirs, but I couldn’t see how to create a complete novel.

Then NaNoWriMo came into my life. I’ll never forget making that seemingly insignificant decision to buy Chris Baty’s No Plot? No Problem! in Barnes & Noble back in 2008. It turned out to be exactly the primer I needed to create a riveting story with complex characters and an amazing setting. And writing a novel in one month worked perfectly for me. My daughters, then seven and ten, and my sweet husband were willing to let me have November.

I wrote my first novel in 2008 and have written seven more since then. The Existence of Pity was written in November of 2010. I’m also grateful NaNoWriMo introduced me to your indispensable book, The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published.

Book cover for The Existence of Pity by Jeannie Zokan; images of leaves and nuts

The Existence of Pity by jeannie Zokan, Cover

TBD: How did you end up getting published?

JZ: For three years, I worked on The Existence of Pity with a critique group at the West Florida Literary Federation. Then I sent it to a list of agents who promptly rejected it. I worked on the manuscript another year with college instructor and English teacher Diane Skelton. Her critiques were absolutely invaluable. Even so, the second time I sent out the manuscript, I was rejected again.

The third time proved to be a charm. With the help of two more critique groups and my daughter, who was fourteen at the time, I knew the book was finally where it needed to be. Among this wave of agents and publishers was Red Adept Publishing, and on November 14, 2015, they called and told me they wanted to publish my manuscript. Exactly one year later, my book was released, and I can’t thank Red Adept Publishing enough for giving my story a chance. It all comes down to publishers and acquisitions editors who read through their slush piles, making dreams come true one manuscript at a time, and I will be forever grateful!

TBD: What was the editing process like for you?

JZ: “Brace yourself,” my publisher told me! But since I’d been through so many critiques with The Existence of Pity, I was prepared. Of course there were moments when my editor wanted more than I thought I could give, but one thing I’ve learned is that there is always a way to resolve scene issues or clunky sentences. I’ve also learned to love feedback. Thoughtful edits always make writing better. I just remind myself I’d rather be happy than right. I’ve been given many gifts of perfect edits: the right word or turn of a phrase, the right addition—or subtraction—of a scene. All I had to do was brace myself and graciously accept each one.

TBD: What the heck is aerial yoga and why does anyone do it?

JZ: Aerial yoga is Cirque du Soleil in my living room! On a much smaller scale. I bought our aerial yoga swing on Amazon and had a professional bolt it to the ceiling. Now my husband, daughters, and I hang upside down and flip around on it whenever we want. I’m half an inch taller as a result. It’s also fun to watch the braver of my friends try it when they come over.

TBD: You are also a writing coach. What do you feel like you’ve learned about your own writing from coaching other writers?

JZ: The writing coach gig hasn’t quite taken off yet, that’s why there’s still an introductory rate of $25 per hour! But I’ve spent hundreds of hours in critique groups over the past decade, and my writing has improved not only because of their edits, suggestions, and comments, but also because of their dedication to writing, and their willingness to show up week in and week out.

TBD: Your book is so much about family. Did you draw from your own experiences? Has your family read this book? Are they still speaking to you?

JZ: Yes, I drew the setting from my experience as a missionary kid in Colombia, mostly because people have always asked me what it was like to grow up overseas. This book is my answer.

My immediate family loves my book like I do, and they are my biggest fans. As for my family of origin, the jury is still out. I don’t think any of them have read it yet, and though I dedicate it to them, this book is more for those who find themselves in Josie’s predicament, not sharing the same beliefs as their families. I want them to know they aren’t alone. I wrote this for my younger self, who felt very much alone, and she really appreciates it.

You could say Josie’s mother is the antagonist, but don’t forget I’m a mother, too. I can relate to Astrid getting caught up in her life’s work, believing she knows what’s best for her children, forgetting to notice how they are changing. It takes an effort to set one’s beliefs aside and allow others their own points of view, and any mother can relate to that.

The Existence of Pity was scary to write, and even scarier to pursue publication, but I did it for my husband and daughters, and for others who loved the story. Besides, if we only wrote what our mamas and daddies approved of, where would we be?

TBD: Have you been back to Colombia?

JZ: I left Colombia after graduating from high school, and was able to visit many times before my parents retired to the States. Around the same time, travel to Colombia became too dangerous. It seemed I’d never get to go back, and I felt like an exile. But then, in a heartbreaking twist of fate, I was given a reason to visit Colombia again.

In 2012, we became aware that my mother had Alzheimer’s. Within two years, my father took her back to Colombia. Healthcare for her was much more affordable and compassionate there. My parents lived in a beautiful compound with cheerful nurses and cooks, and I cherished visiting and being able to take my husband and children to see the country of my youth. I’ve written about these bittersweet trips to paradise in my blog at www.JeannieZokan.blogspot.com.

My parents are back in the States now, since being far from family was difficult for my father. My mom is in a Personal Care Home, living always and only in the now, oblivious of Astrid and Josie. We sing together often, and she tells me she loves me. I can’t ask for any more than this.

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

JZ: You know the answer to this one, David! My advice to writers comes from your book, and the quote is still taped to my computer.

“The more you know in your heart that you are the perfect author for your book and that your book is salable and/or necessary, the better your chances of convincing someone else.”

So to writers everywhere, read the guide (it really is essential!) and then write what is yours to write. Be the courageous poet you were born to be.

Jeannie Zokan grew up in Colombia, South America as the daughter of missionaries. She now lives in Florida’s Gulf Coast with her husband, two daughters, two dachshunds, and a cat.

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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Black and white photo of Kevin Dann

Kevin Dann on Thoreau, Planet Earth, and Gnawing on Bones

We first met Kevin Dann when we did our Pitchapalooza (think American Idol for books) at the Brooklyn Public Library. He was so sharp, smart, warm yet professional. It’s funny, when you do this stuff as long as we have, most of the time you can tell pretty quickly whether somebody has the goods or not. And he clearly did. Now that Kevin’s book Expect Great Things is out, we thought we’d pick his brain on writing, publishing, books and our beautiful planet.

Read this interview on the HuffPost.

Black and white photo of Kevin Dann

Kevin Dann

The Book Doctors: How did you first become interested in writing?

Kevin Dann: When I was 12, my best friend moved to St. Louis, and I would write long letters to him about what was going on.

TBD: What were some of your favorite books as a kid and why?

KD: I loved Arthurian legend – T.H. White’s Once and Future King, Mary Stewart’s The Crystal Cave, and Tolkien’s recasting of “the myth of Arthur.” I was also a nut for maps, and any books with maps. Block diagrams! N.M. Fenneman’s, A.K. Lobeck’s, and Erwin Raisz’s physiographic maps and block diagrams gave me an appetite for earth history. I graduated early from the Golden Guides to Peterson Field Guide series, and May Thielgaard Watts’s fabulous Reading the Landscape of America.

TBD: How did you learn to become a writer?

KD: In high school I had two great English teachers, Mrs. O’Neill and Mr. Muir – who let me play Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush in class one day when we were reading Walden. In college I took up the discipline of keeping a natural history journal. But the most consistent writing I did in my 20s was letter writing and song writing.

TBD: What drew you to Henry David Thoreau?

KD: We read Walden my junior year of high school; I was hooked from the opening paragraph. That summer I hiked the Appalachian Trail with two friends, and we carried Walden for inspiration. Thoreau’s voice always felt close and familiar, and his wordplay and powers of observation mesmerized me.

TBD: Considering there’s been so much written about Henry David Thoreau, what new ideas are you bringing to the table?

KD: I could never understand why everyone made Thoreau out to be a misanthrope. All I could feel from him was his deep and intelligent love for his fellow creatures – humans included. I celebrate that persistent philanthropy (in its original sense of “love of man”), and his perennial quest for the spiritual beings standing behind the physical world.

I’d like to leave the most surprising thing I discovered about Thoreau as a surprise, just like he did!

TBD: What similarities did you see between the time when Thoreau was living and our own time?

KD: The enormous technological change, imperial expansion, and social upheaval of the antebellum era in America prompted Thoreau to relentlessly ask his neighbors to become better citizens and friends. He was mocked and misunderstood – and jailed – for doing so. Sound familiar?

Book cover of Expect Great Things by Kevin Dann; portrait of Henry David Thoreau

Cover of Expect Great Things by Kevin Dann

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

KD: The title – a distillation of Thoreau’s personal motto – is an injunction and invitation for us all, if we take it in as Thoreau intended it, not in a material, but soul-spiritual sense. It can and will work magic.

TBD: How do you think Thoreau would have reacted to today’s relentless assault on the earth by human beings?

KD: In Thoreau’s day, there was no such thing as an “environmentalist.” He was a moralist, and his principled stance against exploitation and enslavement rested on his commitment to spiritual independence for all beings. He would no doubt be mercilessly calling us all to account for our present sins against both Nature and Humanity. And he’d remind us to live more simply and essentially.

TBD: Why the heck did you walk all the way from Montreal to Manhattan?

KD: The 1909 Champlain and Hudson 300th anniversary celebrations ended up to be less about discovery than about America’s growing imperialist militarism. One of the products of that commemoration was a historical map of the Hudson and Champlain Valleys; all of its featured sites were battlefields. In 2009, with a silenced peace movement, I figured I’d walk the two valleys collecting stories of peace-making. Walking means crossing boundaries, and meeting all sorts of people face-to-face, which fosters amity. I called the pilgrimage “A Corridor of Amity,” and thanks to the kindness of strangers, that’s what it became.

TBD: If you could take a walk with Thoreau, where would you go?

KD: I’d walk from Walden Pond to Wall Street, by the backroads, until we’d reached Broadway, raising a ruckus the whole way. . .

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

KD: I have to shamelessly steal from Henry here: “Know your own bone; gnaw at it, bury it, unearth it, and gnaw it still.”

Historian, naturalist, and troubadour Dr. Kevin Dann is the author of ten books, including Bright Colors Falsely Seen: Synaesthesia and the Search for Transcendental Knowledge; Across the Great Border Fault: The Naturalist Myth in America; and Lewis Creek Lost and Found. He has taught at Rutgers University, University of Vermont, and SUNY. He wrote, produced, and acted in Brooklyn’s first immersive street mystery, Enigma.

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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Author Charlie Jane Anders with a fake raven in her hand

Charlie Jane Anders on Writers Building Community, Smushing Genres, & Being an Outsider

It’s hard to be a writer in the Bay Area and not know Charlie Jane Anders. Besides being a prolific writer, she is an incredibly generous networker and runs an absolutely awesome reading series called Writers With Drinks. So we thought we’d check in with her and pick her brain about novels, writing, reading, and all that jazz.

Read on the Huffinton Post.

Author Charlie Jane Anders with a fake raven in her hand

Charlie Jane Anders

The Book Doctors: In some ways, your book defies categories. To us, it felt like magic realism, but it has elements of fantasy, cyber-steam punk, and coming-of-age. When you sat down to write this book, did you think about what category it would be in? Did this make it more difficult to sell the book and find an audience?

Charlie Jane Anders: When I started to write All the Birds in the Sky, I was attracted to the idea of smushing together fantasy and science fiction by having a witch and a mad scientist in the same story together. I thought of the book initially as sort of pastiche or spoof. I would have all these standard fantasy tropes and these science fiction tropes, and they would be colliding in a funny way. That turned out to be very, very boring. Instead, I had to think more about what these two genres meant to me and how I connected to each of them personally. I was terrified that this genre confusion would make the book a hard sell — but it turned out the bigger problem was the fact that it starts out with the characters as little kids and then we see them grow up about 100 pages in. It seemed like some people could not quite wrap their minds around the idea of a book that feels like a young-adult novel at first but then becomes an adult novel. I was so grateful that my agent and publisher were willing to roll with it and didn’t try to get me to restructure the book, with flashbacks or whatever.

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders book cover; flock of birds all over the title

Book cover for All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

TBD: David has, because of many personal experiences, felt like an outsider most of his life. So he especially related to the main characters of this beautiful book, and we wondered if your experience as an outsider helped shape these characters, who are fighting against a world that sees them as different, unusual, bizarre, and ultimately, threatening.

CJA: The theme of feeling like an outsider kept coming up in this book, in part because of the decision to start out with the main characters as kids. I think a lot of people can relate, one way or another, to the sense of not fitting in or being misunderstood. I had a rough time in grade school and middle school for a bunch of reasons, and I felt like writing honestly about growing up meant that I had to capture some of that emotional and physical insecurity that so many of us have lived with. And yet, having the kids grow up and live as twentysomethings meant that we got to see them as powerful adults, with control over their own lives and agency and all that goes with that. They can’t escape from being shaped by their childhood experiences, but they can choose how they deal with it.

TBD: You have put a lot of time and effort into reaching out to a community of writers. We suggest this to our clients all the time. How did you do this, and has this helped you in your writing career?

CJA: I can still easily remember when I felt totally isolated as a newbie fiction writer, and how hard it was to find people to connect with. Whatever point you’re at in your career, writers really need to stick together, to help deal with the pressure and insanity of the creative process and the publishing biz. I’ve had a blast curating Writers With Drinks, the reading series that I organize and (usually) host in San Francisco. I have gotten to meet a whole bunch of amazing writers — including David! — and hear them read. And it’s been a thrill to expose people to a new audience, especially since Writers With Drinks usually has as many different genres and styles as I can fit into one event. So you might come to hear the science fiction author, but discover a new favorite poet. But just as valuable has been the social aspect — an event where we’re all creating something together and nobody’s competing has been great for helping me (and hopefully others) make friends. I think being around these awesome, talented people has helped me raise my game as a writer, because I get to hear/read some of the best examples of the craft every month.

TBD: David has read several times at the fantastic reading series called Writers with Drinks, at the deliciously named Make Out Room in San Francisco, and he always has a blast. What have you learned by watching the hundreds of writers that you have wrangled into this wildly successful series?

CJA: Ha, see above. To add to what I wrote up there, I think that part of the fun of Writers With Drinks has been the thing of combining different genres and getting to see how a stand-up comic, a slam poet, a science fiction author and a literary memoirist are using some of the same techniques and approaches — just with different end goals. Plus you get to see how each genre is powerful in its own particular way. I love when you get people laughing their ass off one minute and then being moved to tears the next.

TBD: Tell us about io9 magazine.

CJA: Getting to be involved with the creation of io9 was one of the greatest opportunities of my life. Annalee Newitz, who founded io9, wanted to blend science and science fiction in a kind of homage to Omni Magazine, and it was really inspirational to see how the two things informed each other. After eight and a half years, I came away with a really strong sense that we are 100 percent living in the future. And I basically got paid to geek out about storytelling, and sometimes my half-baked ideas about books, movies and TV shows led to some of the most fascinating conversations with our readers and other folks. It was like getting paid to go to grad school.

TBD: You’ve been published in tons of small magazines and journals, like Tin House, McSweeney’s, and Zyzzyva, to name a few. How does a writer get published in these places, and how has this helped you in your publishing career?

CJA: When it comes to Tin House and McSweeney’s, I was only published on their websites, but it was still a major honor to be featured there. And getting into ZYZZYVA was one of the coolest things that ever happened to me. This super well-respected literary magazine chose to publish me way, way back when I was just starting out and barely getting my stories into tiny zines and the occasional website. In general, I published tons and tons of fiction in small publications, many of which have gone under or never received any exposure to speak of. Early on, I would publish stories pretty much anyplace that was willing to consider them, including one of those adult newspapers that’s mostly a vehicle for stripper ads. I didn’t make a lot of money from doing that, to say the least, but it was good to get the experience of having my creative writing appear in a lot of places and dealing with editors and readers. The whole process of making up a story — and having it turn into something that other people read and take in and form their own relationship with — is so weird, it might be kinda good to get used to it before you start reaching a bigger readership.

TBD: You won an Emperor Norton Award. First of all, what is that exactly, and how did you end up becoming a winner of this prestigious award?

CJA: Oh ha ha ha… the Emperor Norton Award for Extraordinary Invention and Creativity Unhindered by the Constraints of Paltry Reason is something that Tachyon Publishing and Borderlands Bookstore were doing for a while there — I don’t know many of them they gave out, but I was so thrilled. I think something about the weird, silly intros I cook up for the authors at Writers With Drinks, plus my bizarre fiction, struck someone as unhinged, in a good way. I was very flattered — hinges are good for doors, but I think a lot of people could stand to be a little less hinged. I’m always kind of scared of how many people seem to think they have everything all figured out.

TBD: You are a self-described “female geek.” What does that mean to you? And tell us about the anthology you put together that embraces this particular demographic.

CJA: Way back in 2006, Annalee and I were both approached about editing anthology projects for Seal Press, and we decided to collaborate. Our book was called She’s Such a Geek, and it was a collection of essays by women in science, technology and other geeky fields. We put out a call for submissions, and we were just blown away by the hundreds of submissions we received. There were a lot of heartbreaking stories by women who had been at the top of their class as undergraduates but then got treated horribly in grad school. A lot of geeky women of color shared stories of hearing subtle (and not-so-subtle) messages about their ability to keep up and contribute. There were also a ton of uplifting, thrilling stories of geeky triumph and discovery, from women who discovered a love of science, math, tech, gaming or science fiction and found that it changed their lives. It was an eye-opening, intense experience. Since that book came out a decade ago, we’ve seen way more women celebrating their geek identity, and venues for female geeks to come together. There’s an annual event called GeekGirlCon and a ton of other stuff. It’s been so awesome to see that happen.

TBD: In All the Birds in the Sky, Patricia the witch forms a really strong bond with her cat, Berkley. What happens to the cat after she goes off to magic school?

CJA: A ton of people asked me what happened to Berkley, who’s very important in Patricia’s life when she’s in middle school. I learned the hard way that you can’t leave any loose ends where cats are concerned — unless they’re loose ends in a ball of yarn, in which case go ahead. So I wrote a story called “Clover,” which is available at Tor.com, to explain what happened to Berkley later on. This turned out to be one of those things where you start pulling on one thread — to continue the ball of yarn metaphor — and then all sorts of interesting things start coming out. I ended up getting a chance to explore a bit more about the use of magic in my fictional world, and approach it from a very different direction than I did in the book, thanks to a different protagonist. Plus this story absolutely stands on its own — so if someone hasn’t read the book yet, this is a good way to dip into that world.

TBD: We hate to ask you this, but since you do have a column in which you give writing advice, what advice you have for writers?

CJA: The main advice I have for writers is to hang in there and keep writing. And also, to be kind to yourself. A writer — especially a beginning writer — has to keep two contradictory mindsets in order to keep going. You have to believe that you’re a flippin’ genius, your ideas are brilliant, and you’re a fantastic storyteller, or you won’t be able to summon the audacity and stamina to create the big, ambitious stories you want to tell. But you also have to be aware that your writing is going to have huge flaws, it’s easy to screw up, the craft takes a long time to learn (and you really never finish learning it), and when people criticize your work they’re probably on to something. That combination of hubris and humility can be hard to sustain and can easily drive you nuts. So be nice to yourself, and just keep writing even if you think you’re churning out garbage sometimes.

Charlie Jane Anders is the author of All the Birds in the Sky. She organizes the Writers With Drinks reading series, and was a founding editor of io9, a site about science fiction, science and futurism. Her fiction has appeared in Tin House, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, ZYZZYVA, Pindeldyboz, Tor.com, Asimov’s Science Fiction, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Lightspeed, and a ton of anthologies. Her story “Six Months, Three Days” won a Hugo Award and her novel Choir Boy won a Lambda Literary Award.

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 author Tamim Ansary smiling

Tamim Ansary on Memoir, Road Trips, Storytelling, Pain and Misery

We first met Tamim Ansary many years ago through an intern who went to the same college as David and Tamim. David attended the San Francisco Writers Workshop, which Tamim ran for many years, and was startled again and again by how smart, kind and wise Mr. Ansary is. Having been a professional writer for four decades and taught hundreds of writers in general, and memoirists in particular, David thought he would pick Tamim’s brain about writing, publishing and storytelling, in anticipation of his new memoir Road Trips.

Read this interview on the Huffington Post.

Photo of author Tamim Ansary smiling

Tamim Ansary

The Book Doctors: Tell us about your new book, what inspired it, and what were some of the joys and difficulties of writing it?

TA: This book started out as an anecdote I wanted to tell my sister about a time I drove across the country in a cheap car with just enough money to cover gas. The crux was, I got caught in a blizzard. But when I started telling the tale, it turned out that it wasn’t enough to talk about the blizzard or the cheap car, I had to include why I was on that journey and what led to it. By the time I was done—hours later (my sister was patient, bless her heart)—I found myself obsessed with the idea that every journey is an odyssey if you consider it as a whole, especially if the destination is far away and difficult to reach, and you include what led to leaving and what came of having gone. So I decided to pick three iconic journeys and write each one up from start to finish in a single sitting, and that way produce a book in, you know, three nights. That was 12 years ago. I just finished. Ah well. The journeys in Road Trips all took place in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s. I was a newbie in America, then, coming of age at a remarkable moment in history. The book isn’t about history; it’s a personal story about coming of age. The ‘60s was just the context. I have to say, though, now that I’ve finished the book, it feels strangely relevant to right now. I mean, here we stand, at the threshold of the Age of Trump and it’s important, I think, to remember that there was another time so totally unlike this one. To recover that memory.

TBD: As someone who has written and taught memoirs, why do you think people are so drawn to reading about other people’s pain and misery?

TA: Is a memoir necessarily about pain and misery? Not sure I agree with that. Road Trips has some pain and misery in it, sure, but it also has humor, adventure, romance, pratfalls, pompous philosophical rumination–anything that might turn up in life. Because everything does. The pain and misery genre of memoir taps the impulse that makes us slow down to gawk at car accidents. And there’s a place for that. Mos’def. Memoirs like that can draw us into empathy with experiences we ourselves will never have to endure. That could be me, you think. But it can work the other way too. It can give you a glad sense of separation from experiences you’ll never have. Thank God, that’s not me. The kind of memoir that interests me is today’s version of the storytelling our species did 40,000 years ago, when we were little bands of hunter-gatherers huddled around our fires. That kind of memoir stokes our sense of human interconnection because it’s not just the people who were raised by wolves who have stories. We all have stories. In fact, we all are stories. When we hear one another’s stories, if they’re well-told, we experience the story-like quality of our own lives.

Book cover of Road Trips by Tamim Ansary; person sitting between two photos of other people

Cover of Road Trips by Tamim Ansary

TBD: Why did you decide to start your own publishing company? What are some of the challenges involved in making your own book, and then actually selling it to readers?

TA: The publishing company you’re referring to is Kajakai Press, and it came out of a grant I wrote seven years ago, funded by the Christenson Fund. I proposed to help young Afghan-Americans write about their lives, because here was a generation of young people who felt they had nothing to say. They were growing up in the shadow of their parents’ catastrophe, the holocaust in Afghanistan. Their parents had incredibly dramatic experiences to recount–imprisonment, torture, bombs, abandoning all they owned, running for their lives. Their children? They felt alienated in high school. Big deal! But my premise was, they had stories too, these children. The loneliness of living in the cracks—that’s a story. Growing up in the shadow of a catastrophe and feeling like you have no story—that’s a story. So I did the project, we got some great stuff, and I set up Kajakai Press to publish their work as Snapshots: This Afghan-American Life.

We sold out our print run and let the book go out of print but now, years later, I look at all the people who go through my memoir writing workshops and I feel like I want to help some of them—not all of them but some of them—get their stories to an audience. Because the writers I want to publish do have an audience. There are people out there who want to hear them. What they don’t have is a mass audience. And traditional publishers, unfortunately, can’t publish for many niche audiences—increasingly less so. Fortunately, technology has opened up new vistas with print-on-demand publishing that individual writers or small concerns like mine can access through Createspace, Nook Press, and others.

Distribution is the big problem, though. People often tell me they won’t order a book from Amazon, they’ll only buy books at a bookstore because they want to side with the little guy. I heartily endorse this position. Bookstores and books by traditional publishers offer something vital to the reading public, and that system must not be allowed to perish. But individual authors and imprints like mine are even littler guys. The only way this new niche-audience publishing can survive is for alternative distribution mechanisms to form, and that’ll only happen if readers open up to these alternative systems. Ordering online is going to be part of that. So it’s a process. We have to keep exploring, we have to keep opening up alternatives channels between writers and readers.

TBD: Tell us about your Memoir Pool project.

TA: Last year, I decided to start a website dedicated to the art of telling real life stories. Every week (except when circumstances intrude—like this presidential election) I publish a new story, by me or by someone else. As I said, I’m interested in the stories-told-around-a-campfire kind of memoir and with Memoir Pool I hope to help develop and promote that kind of memoir. Here, the premium is not what happened but what the writer made of it and how he or she told the story. So the stories at Memoir Pool might be about anything. There’s one by Colleen McKee, for example, about her mother giving out 59-cent pads of paper when she worked at “a private insane asylum” in Missouri. There’s another by Rick Schmidt about getting a really good deal on a sandwich thirty years ago. If those don’t sound like stories to you, look them up at www.memoirpool.com. You might change your mind.

TBD: What were some of your favorite books as a kid, and why? What are you reading right now?

TA: As a kid I liked big 19th century European novels—Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Turgenev. Elliot and Stendhal. I consumed Dickens and Melville. The sweep! The tapestry! Today, I mainly read suspense thrillers: Lee Childs, Michael Connelly, Harlan Coban. The quicker they move, the better I like ‘em. You see a trajectory here? I do. The thing is, these days, I have to do such a ton of reading for my next project, a history of the world called Ripple Effects, How We Came to Be So Interconnected and Why We’re Still Fighting. You wouldn’t believe how much information you have to gather when you’re trying to tell the story of everything that ever happened from the big bang to the day after tomorrow. Modern literary fiction generally attracts me less than the classics used to or than crime fiction does today, although I have been recommending The Book of Strange New Things by Michael Farber to everyone who will listen.

TBD: You ran the famous San Francisco Writers Workshop for many years. What did you learn as a writer from listening to all those writers read all those words? Do you think that writers should be part of a writing group?

TA: The SFWW got started in 1946 and has met every Tuesday evening since then in some public venue. It’s free and no one maintains it except whoever’s in it at a given time—it’s operated this way for 70 years and counting. If that’s not a mystical phenomenon, I don’t know what is. I ran it for 22 years, but when I stepped down someone else took the reins and it’s still going strong. The great thing about that workshop is that writers flow through. It’s not some single static collection. On any given evening, you see both familiar faces and new faces. I learned a lot about writing by opening my ears to the staggering variety of things people thought worth writing about and the many ways they thought to go about it. Honing in on how to make a piece work when it’s not something you would have written flexes writing muscles you didn’t know you had and opens you up to new directions. Plus, at this workshop, people read their work aloud to whoever’s there, and I’m telling you, when you read what you’ve written to a group strangers and acquaintances, you can feel when you’ve got ‘em, and when you don’t. Apart from any formal critique you get. You can feel it. There’s no substitute for that. So yes, I think every writer could profit from being part of a writer’s group.

TBD: How is it different writing a history book than writing a book about your own history?

TA: Well, in a sense, history is memoir writ large, and memoir is history writ small. We live the lives we do because we’re alive at a certain time and place within the context of a much bigger story going on. What’s different about writing history, though, is that before you can start writing, you have to gather information that you didn’t have before, and you have to steep yourself in those facts until you start to see the story that is in those facts. With memoir, research is a final phase. You start with memory.

TBD: You’ve also edited many books. What has that taught you about being a writer?

TA: One part of writing is getting your voice going and getting out of the way. You have to do that, but what you produce when you’re doing that, even if you’re doing it really, really well, isn’t usually suitable to show to anyone except your cat. Or your dog if you want an enthusiastic response. Once you’re done getting the draft out, however, you have to put your brain to work and get your heart out of the way. Editing is purely about this kind of brainwork. By editing lots of other people’s work, you learn how to pick words, construct sentences of any length, brevity, or complexity, make them work, make them sing, purely on the level of diction and syntax. If you’re a cabinet-maker, it’s not enough to design a great piece of furniture: you have to have good tools. Language—words, sentences, paragraphs, structure—those are your tools as a writer, and those you can hone quite apart from any particular thing you want to say.

TBD: What if you’ve never done anything famous or important or sensational. Can such a person write a memoir?

TA: Absolutely. To me, there are really two kinds of memoir. One kind is an adjunct to the news. You hear about something of public interest, you want to hear about it from someone closer to the scene, an eyewitness maybe, a principal, even. With that kind of memoir, what you’re really interested in is the news event. I wrote one of those myself. West of Kabul, East of New York was published in 2002, right after 9/11; it was about the bicultural aspect of my life, growing up in Afghanistan, growing old in America. The transition between them, I didn’t really talk about. “I arrived in America, twelve years passed during which I never saw another Afghan”—that’s about all I have to say about that. I skipped over those years because they weren’t pertinent to the news event.

But those twelve years were a story too, and that’s the one I’ve tried to tell in Road Trips. I was a freak in Afghanistan because my mother was the first American woman there, and when I came America, the ‘60s were just getting underway, and there was this whole movement of people, millions of people, who were calling themselves freaks and dropping out of American society, and I joined them, even though I wasn’t part of American society. I did it to find “my people.” In that I was not unique. We were all declaring ourselves freaks so we wouldn’t have to feel like freaks. I had my version of a story millions of us lived through, and that’s kinda the point.

The stories that matter are the ones we’ve all lived. Growing up, getting lost, soaring high, crashing, falling in love, falling out of love, getting dumped, breaking it off with someone—all that stuff. Building a home. Raising children. Growing old. How was that for you? That’s the question. Those are the stories. The things we all go through are different for each of us, that’s what makes life so fascinating.

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

TA: My advice to writers is this. Talk about writing all you want, that’s fine. That’s what we’ve been doing here. But don’t talk about writing as a substitute for writing. If you find writing painful, if getting the words out feels like pushing a camel through the eye of a needle—remember: that’s just what writing feels like. That’s how it probably felt to Flaubert and Raymond Chandler. But the aha! moments when you break through, when you nail it, when you get said exactly what you meant to say—in my experience, those are worth the struggle.

Afghan-American author and writing guru Tamim Ansary was born in Kabul, Afghanistan. He moved to America in 1964, attended Reed College in the late sixties, and later joined a countercultural newspaper collective called The Portland Scribe. Ansary wrote West of Kabul, East of New York, San Francisco’s “One City One Book” selection for 2008, and Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World through Islamic Eyes, winner of a Northern California Book Award for nonfiction. His new book Road Trips is about three tumultuous journeys that began and ended in Portland, Oregon.

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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Book cover of Lowriders to the Center of the Earth by Cathy Camper and Raul the Third; characters in a car driving underground

Cathy Camper on Lowriders, Graphic Novels and Diversity in Books

We first met Cathy Camper when she won our Pitchapalooza at the great Portland bookstore Powell’s. The first book in the series did so well that the second one is out now, so we thought we’d pick her brain about books, lowriders, outer space, libraries and diversity in books.

Read the interview on the Huffington Post.

Book cover of Lowriders to the Center of the Earth by Cathy Camper and Raul the Third; characters in a car driving underground

Chronicle Books

The Book Doctors: Tell us about the new book.

Cathy Camper: Lowriders to the Center of the Earth came out July 2016. This graphic novel follows Lowriders in Space. The three main characters are the same, but you can read each book on its own and still understand what’s going on. At the end of Lowriders in Space, Genie, Elirio, Lupe and Flapjack Octopus’s cat goes missing. The three embark on a crazy road trip to find their cat. It leads them down into the Underworld, ruled by Miclantecuhtli, the Aztec God of the Dead. He’s catnapped their gato, and to get back Genie, it will take all their combined wits and camaraderie to outwit La Llorona, Chupacabra driving a monster truck, and Miclantecutli, who wears a luchadore cape of eyeballs! Similar to the first book, Raúl III illustrated it all in ballpoint pen, with the addition of a green pen in this book, because they get lost in a maíz maze along the way.

TBD: How was it different writing the second book after the first book did so well?

CC: Once you have a book out there, there’s always pressure to deliver another book that’s equally good. Luckily, I was already thinking up book two at the same time I was writing book one. I had to do a big rewrite early on, which was tough, but the book kept getting richer and richer the more I wrote. Also – a big difference – when I wrote book one, I didn’t know who would illustrate it, or even if it would be a graphic novel or picture book. But with book two, I was able to write towards Raúl III, and his style. I even asked him, “What do you like drawing?” He said, “Bats and skeletons.” So I wrote the story to let his artwork flourish. In this way, we work together more like musicians, and it’s really fun.

TBD: There seems to be this idea in the publishing community that Latino people don’t read books. Could you address that please?

CC: Well that’s sure not been our experience – every school visit and author talk we’ve done, we have Latinx loving our book, both kids and adults. Those publishers might need to look at it the other way around; if people aren’t buying their books, maybe you don’t have things people want to read. School Library Journal just chose our book as one of their top Latinx books of 2016 for kids, and we got this best books of 2016 shout out from Gene Yang, Ambassador of Children’s Books, so there ya go!

TBD: What are some of the challenges of writing a graphic novel, as opposed to a novel without images?

CC: A graphic novel is a collaboration (unless you’re drawing it too), so you can’t be too precious about your words….lots get edited, cut and changed. Writing a comic is more like writing a film than fiction; your words are instructing actions. So you need to be like a director when you visualize what happens; it’s boring to have lots of static scenes with crowded dialog. Sometimes, you can sneak a little poetry into the text, but more often, the poetry exists in the meld between text and art.

Photo of Raúl Gonzalez III and Cathy Camper smiling

Cathy Camper (right) and Raúl Gonzalez III (left)

TBD: Tell us about the process of working with your illustrator.

CC: Raúl III and I are lucky, because we get along super well. When we started to work together, we had only spent around eight hours together (he lives in Boston, I live in Portland, OR), but we both have a good work ethic, a similar sense of humor, and we give each other a lot of give and take in the books’ creation. Generally, I write the story first with the editors, then it goes to Raúl and the art director, for the blocking of panels and pages, and artwork. In most kids’ picture books, the artist and illustrator only communicate via the editor. But Raúl and I often share ideas; he might suggest text, and I might tell him something to tuck in the illustrations. It really is like playing jazz, lots of improvisation and adding in things we discover along the way.

TBD: How has being a librarian affected your work as an author?

CC: I wrote these books because I couldn’t find them to give to kids at my library. We desperately need more diverse books, and books that appeal to boys. Working around teachers, parents and kids all day, I know what books are connecting with folks. I’m also pretty good at pitching books to people – I do it for my job! As a librarian, I’ve also learned a ton about publishing and the business side of books, how books are made, ordered and promoted.

TBD: What is your next project?

CC: I’m working on the third lowrider book. It’s called Blast from the Past; L’il Lowriders in Space. Remember L’il Archies, or the Muppet Babies? This is the same thing – it’s all about our three heroes when they were kids, their families and where they grew up. I have an Arab American picture book that will come out in 2019, called Ten Ways to Hear Snow with Penguin/Dial. There’s another Arab American picture book in the works, and a YA novel called Circle A, about some kids in the ‘80s that meet some punks squatting in an abandoned house. That one deals with issues of social justice, race, sexual orientation and how images are misused in the media, all issues that are front and center right now. I look at each book as a good adventure, you never know where it will lead.

TBD: What or some graphic novels you love, and why?

CC: For kids, I enjoyed Fantasy Sports by Sam Bosma, and The Hilda comics by Luke Pearson are really imaginative. I also recommend March Grand Prix by Kean Soo, for kids that ask for more comics about cars, since it’s about car racing. I thought the Lunch Witch books by Deb Lucke were also great. For adult comics, I love Ed Luce’s Wuvable Oaf, and thought the compilation The Shirley Jackson Project edited by Rob Kirby, of comics about Shirley Jackson, was fantastic.

TBD: Any exciting news about Lowriders in Space, since it came out in 2014?

CC: Yes, Lowriders in Space got nominated for a Texas Bluebonnet Award, so Raul and I have done a lot of author presentations down there, and felt all kinds of love from the Lone Star State. The Bluebonnet committee is made up of awesome librarians and educators, and they posted a lot of fun material educators and parents can use to supplement our book.

Also, both Raúl and I have heard many accounts of how our books connect with kids. The most touching is testimony that they are a gateway books, for kids who just wouldn’t read. For kids that don’t see themselves reflected in books, for kids that struggle with reading, for autistic kids – we’ve heard again and again our book was the spark that lit the flame of how exciting reading can be. As creators, we’d hoped to share a story in our heads with folks, but to have those stories open the door to the pleasure of a lifetime of reading? We are totally awed, and honored.

TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers, illustrators, or graphic novel people?

CC: Keep writing. Writing is like a boiling pot; if you have talent and write enough, it will get better and better, something good will eventually boil over and someone will notice. My other advice is to do work in the DIY/alternative world, the same as you do in the mainstream world. Eventually the two overlap, and the adventures and skills you learn in both end up complimenting each other. And for writers of color, and writers outside the mainstream, don’t give up! We need your stories, and you are the future.

Cathy Camper is the author of Lowriders in Space, and Lowriders to the Center of the Earth, with a third volume in the works. She has a forthcoming picture book, Ten Ways to Hear Snow, and also wrote Bugs Before Time: Prehistoric Insects and Their Relatives. Her zines include Sugar Needle and The Lou Reeder, and she’s a founding member of the Portland Women of Color zine collective. A graduate of VONA/Voices writing workshops for people of color in Berkeley, California, Cathy works as a librarian in Portland, Oregon, where she does outreach to schools and kids in grades K-12.

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.  

Rainbow, Baba Ram Wammalamma dingdong & the Garden of Earthly Delights

delightc-362x400SPORTING MY NUT-HUGGING ELEPHANT BELLS, I arrived in Laurel Canyon, an enchanted eucalyptus oasis in the middle of this Hollywood smogfarm metropolis. As I entered the log cabin house set behind a wildflower jasmine jungle, a solid block of patchouli incense musk nearly knocked me over. With driftwood tie-dye batik beanbags windchimes macrame´ hanging plants and Mexican day-of-the-dead skeleton art everywhere, it looked like Woodstock exploded in Rainbow’s house, as this boomed out:

“Driving that train, high on cocaine, Casey Jones, you better watch your speed”

Rainbow had long straight grey hair, feather earrings and a floor length tie-dye dress with a dopey hippie happy face on it. No make-up. No shoes.

Namaste.  Enter.  Would you like some ginseng tea?” wafted out of Rainbow.

The customer’s always right. When in Rome, drink ginseng tea. While she fetched me tea I survey lots of pots of pot plants. Rainbow returned with my tea in a psychedelic homemade mug with a drawing of some dopey hippie happy face on it. The tea smelled too earthy and dank for drinking, but I brought the Mother Earth medicine scent up to my lips and sipped.

It was good. And good for me.

“Do you dig the dead?”

Rainbow looked at me like she expected something. I was confused.  Was this some weird necrophilia deal Mr. Hartley, my employment counselor/father confessor/fairy godmother/pimp, forgot to tell me about? I made a mental note: Find out what’s the going rate for having sex with dead people. But perhaps more importantly, do I feel comfortable shopping a dead person?

“I believe Jerry Garcia is the physical embodiment of the Godhead, don’t you?”

Jerry Garcia!  The Grateful Dead. That’s who belonged to that dopey hippie happy face.  Jerry Garcia! I saw me digging a grave and putting a gratefully dead Jerry Garcia in it.

“Oh yeah, Jerry Garcia is a total Godhead. Yeah, I definitely dig the Dead…”

I trotted out my best hippieboy smile. Actually, I couldn’t’ve cared less about the Dead. Or the dead. Rule #5: the customer is always right. I was there to get paid. I looked around for my envelope. No envelope. I didn’t like that. I was looking for a low-maintenance score, get in, get out, badda bing badda boom. Relax, cowboy, you’re gonna get paid, go with the flow, flowing, in the flow. Hey, someone wants to pay me to say Jerry Garcia is the physical embodiment of the Godhead, that’s Easy Money.

“Give me your hand,” Rainbow said.

I gave her the hand. She took it.

“You have big hands,” she said.

In my line of work that was a compliment.

“Thank you,” I said.

She looked at me funny, like it wasn’t a compliment at all, just a statement of fact. But she didn’t really seem to care, she looked into my palm like it held the key to the sweet mysteries of life.

GET THE MONEY UP FRONT

GET THE MONEY UP FRONT

GET THE MONEY UP FRONT

 Only the newest greenhorn in Greenhornville doesn’t get the money up front. This is what separates the rank amateur from the hard working professional. You’re not here to have a good time, Charley, you’re here to get paid.

But Rainbow had produced nothing, and I could tell she’d be just the sort who’d get all bent if a guy mentioned something as crass as cash.

So I sat and stewed as Rainbow gazed into the crystal ball of my palm.

After she stared at my palm for what seemed like a month, Rainbow was starting to seem demented. I was convinced she was a Charlie Manson groupie with a garotte she was going to use to sacrifice me and the goat I was sure was in the backyard.

I was starting to have serious doubts about Rainbow.  About this whole line of work. I had enough money. I could excuse myself like I’m going to the bathroom and walk out and just drive. But again the question: Where would I go? Who would I go to? I had nowhere. I had no one.

“You’re a very old soul…” Rainbow concluded.

You said a mouthful there, sister.

“…and you‘ve lived many lives…you were an explorer and sailed all over the world… and you were a sultan with many women. You were a mighty warrior in battle, and you were a slave on a plantation…”

Rainbow looked into me like she had periscopes that went through my eyes.

That was when I noticed her for the first time. In all the confusion I hadn’t really seen her. She had deep eyes, steel-colored with flecks of cobalt. A big Scandihoovian Bergman madly-suffering but eternally hopeful face. I half expected Death to walk out of her bedroom and challenge me to a game of chess for my soul.

“You’re here to learn a lesson, and I’m here to teach you…” Said Rainbow.

Okay, it’s a hot-for-hippy-teacher thing. I breathed easy.

“Do you know what tantric sex is?” Rainbow asked.

I could dish some semicoherent gobbledygook about ancient mystic Asian sex, but she wanted me to be the blissfully ignorant manmoonchild, so naturally I turned myself into whatever she wanted me to be. That was my job.

“No, I don’t…”

Rainbow handed me a smile, and led me through a translucent tie-dye cloth door into a bed with a room around it. It was the biggest bed I’d ever seen. Overhead, high in the tall pointed ceiling was a skylight, where incense curled up thick from fat Buddha bellies; candles tossed soft little drops of light everywhere; elephantheaded Indian gods with massive genitalia copulated with lionheaded goddesses; statue women stared with dozens of breasts; a halfman halfbull was inside a godhead with a doghead; Japanese paintings of Jade-looking beautybabies intercoursed in every position imaginable, one leg up over an ear, the other wrapped around a head; Old French postcards of cherubinesque honeys were Frenched and doggied; a guy went down (or would that be up?) on himself; and a shrine of rosebudvaginas and phalluspeni smiled.  Pillows and cushions plump velvety; blankets, fur, and fat cloth made me feel like a cat, and I wanted to roll around getting my belly stroked while nubile handmaidens fed me catnip.

A sculpture of a vagina started talking to me: “Hi, David, welcome to the party, come on in.”

And in the center of it all a big picture of a dark man with long black curly hair and brown magnets for eyes that kept staring at me no matter where I went in the room, it was freaky. He was hard and soft at the same time.  I’d never seen the guy, but he looked familiar, like he was the kind of guy who could set you straight if you were floundering around. And I was so very full of flounder at the moment.  I made a mental note to find a wise, kind, benevolent guru teacher as soon as I left Rainbow’s. I’m still looking.

“That’s Baba Ram Wammmalammadingdong,” said Rainbow.

I was sure she didn’t really say that, but that’s what it sounded like to my 17 year-old man child idiot ears, all Dr. Seussy.

“He’s the master of sensual enlightenment.”

That’s what I wanna be when I grow up: master of sensual enlightenment.

“Sexual transcendance can only happen when you are connected to the life force that flows through all living things,” breathed Rainbow. “You have to open, I mean really open, all of your… shock absorbers.”

Years later I would realize it was my chakras and not my shock absorbers that needed opening, but at the time I couldn’t care less.  I’d open my shock absorbers, my athletic supporters my cookie jar, whatever she wanted. I just needed to get paid, and I needed to get paid IMMEDIATELY. I was seeking enlightenment through cold hard cash.

“Why don’t we start by meditating?”

Rainbow settled into a big comfy-womfy cushy cushion crosslegged, and motioned for me to do the same.

I balked. I’m naturally curious by nature, I was very interested in the whole third-eye transcendent sex thing, and picking up some exotic kinky eastern sex tips would’ve been grand, but I had to get my money UP FRONT.

I sighed quiet. I knew for a fact it will not help us achieve harmony with the life force that flows through all living things if I told Rainbow she needed to pay me IMMEDIATELY.

I was dreadfully dithered.

But just when things were looking their most dodgy, the gods smiled upon me, and Rainbow, God love her, new what I needed and could not ask for.

“Oh, shit, you need some bread, don’t you?” she said.

I could’ve cried. I saw this as a clearcut sign that I was being taken care of by something bigger than myself.

Rainbow got out of crosslegged, rummaged through an old macrame´ bag, and returned with four skanky twenties, a nasty ten, a funky five, four filthy ones and a bunch of loose change, then handed me the whole kitandkaboodle.

I was starting to dig this crazy chick. I could see her scrimping and saving to give herself a treat. Me. I was the treat for my trick. I vowed then and there to be a pot of gold for this Rainbow.

“Opening the gate that leads to the garden of earthly delights can only be achieved through a woman’s pleasure.”

Rainbow paused to make sure I got it.

“Opening the gate that leads to the garden of earthly delights can only be achieved through a woman’s pleasure.”

She looked at me intensely, so I understood how important this was.

So I thought about it hard.  It was comforting to have someone telling me what to think about. I didn’t have to make any decisions, and that moment, decisions were just disasters waiting to happen.

Garden of earthly delights. A woman’s pleasure. A woman’s orgasm.  Tumblers click in my head, a lock snapped open, and I saw the light. A woman’s pleasure was the key to sexual ecstasy. Now that I had my money, I was keenly interested in this whole thing.

“A man can have multiple orgasms… most people don’t know that, but it’s true. And I can show you how to do it.” Rainbow said with absolute conviction.

Multiple orgasms? Hell, I had one and it nearly kills me. But I was crazy curious to see if I could incorporate some clitoris into my penis.

“There’s a line where your orgasm is, it’s kinda like a waterfall. See, it’s like you’re in a beautiful warm river, and the current is pulling you along, and you’re headed towards the waterfall, you’re getting closer and closer… until you’re hanging right there on the edge of the waterfall, but you’re not letting yourself go over.  You just get inside your own orgasm, and you can stay there as long as you want, as long as you don’t release. Do you know what release  means?”

Yeah, I think I got the idea.

“No, what do you mean?” I asked.

“Your release is your ejaculation. So you can orgasm without ejaculating,” Rainbow said carefully.

And the weird thing was, I knew exactly what she meant. River, waterfalls, release, the whole shebang.

“I know it sounds totally… far out… but if you can wrap your cosmic mind around this, you’ll always have lots of groovy lovemaking in your life. You probably won’t get it tonight, but it’s something you can always practice. By yourself, with a partner, doesn’t matter. In the words of Baba Ram Wammalammadingdong, ‘Practice makes perfect.’”

I was starting to really like this Wammalammadingdong guy.

“Wow, that sounds… far out.” I’d never said far out before or since, but Rainbow ate it up like wavy gravy with a tie-dye spoon.

She took off her robe. She was the only industrial sex customer I ever had who took off her clothes while I still had mine on. And for an old broad (again with the proviso that anyone over the age of twenty-five years was Old) she had a riproaring body. Supple muscles firm lithe and graceful, breasts slung low, with big brown chocolate kiss nipples in the middle. Mental note to self: as far as books go, don’t judge them by their covers.

Rainbow seemed to be one of those rare people who was actually comfortable with her own naked body.

“You have a beautiful body…”  I would’ve said it whether it was true or not, but in this case it was true, which did make it easier.

She liked it. She wasn’t desperate like lots of my other clients, but she liked it.

“Do whatever makes you happy,” said Rainbow.

“Do you want me to take my clothes off?” Just trying to keep the customer satisfied.

Wow. Whatever made me happy. Reminded me of my mom. No one said that to me in real life, never mind when I was chickening.

Seemed like if you were gonna learn to orgasm without ejaculating, you should be naked. So I took off my clothes.  Rainbow set opposite me crosslegged on that continent of a bed. I tried, but I just couldn’t get the crosslegged thing going.  My pedophile grandfather’s coalminer soccerplaying legs were just too unyielding. I was tugging and pulling, cuz I was trying to suck it up and play through the pain, but damn, that shit hurt.

“Don’t do it if it hurts. Don’t do anything that hurts…” Rainbow flows. You gotta hand it to the hippies, when it comes to peace and love and all that business, they really know their shit.

Rainbow showed me how to deepbreathe, and we deepbreathe until we felt the life force flowing through us. I didn’t actually feel the life force flowing through me as such, but she did, and that was good enough for me. The crumpled bills in my pocket were filling me with the life force.

Rainbow and I Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhmmmmed for about a fortnight. Eventually I did feel a little lightheaded, like when I first smoked a cigarette. But hey, if she wanted to pay me to breathe and say om, that was rolling off a log for a chicken.

Finally when Rainbow was om’d out, she took my hand, placed it on her breast, looked me in the eyes, and with a hypnotic smile showed me how to roll that mammoth mammarian poolcue tip between my thumb and forefinger, and it got bigger and tighter, until it felt like it was ready to pop, while she made airsuck sounds of pleasure.

I could smell her now, Rainbowing as she made my hand the axis between her legs around which she gyrated, nestling my head into her neck and whispering, “Kiss me soft…”

I ate her neck like a fruitcake while she revved in growly moans, everything moved in rhythm like a well-oiled sex machine, the fur blanket softly soft as she guided me like an air traffic controller. Then Rainbow replaced my hand with my mouth and she huffed and she puffed like she was gonna blow the house down, jimjamming and earthquakeshaking.

I smiled inside. I was getting a crash course in the fine art of a woman’s orgasm, and I was getting paid for it. America–what a country!

“Now I’m right there,” she pants, “…if I let myself, I’d go right over the waterfall… but… I’m… not… I’m gonna stay… right here and let the… waves roll through me… there’s one… slow down… Stop!” Rainbow squeezed, fists clenching and unclenching like a baby breastfeeding, “…now slow… there’s another one… ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh… God…”

Rainbow let rip with a top-of-the-lungs scream. A gigantic little death. When she collapsed at the tip of my tongue, I understood for the first time what they were talking about, as time warped, Einstein smiling somewhere, eternity in a second, infinity in a grain of sand.

I thought of busting my ass in the grease of Hollywood Fried Chicken.  I thought of my father slaving away at the explosives plan. I thought about my grandfather shovelling coal down the mine. I sure as hell wouldn’t be getting black lung disease from this.

A rainbow slowly descended from Orgasm Mountain, while I stood next to her, nakedly rolling my big huge rock up my big huge hill.

After a brief intermission, Act II began. She pulled me into the river, took me right to the edge of the waterfalls, and then stopped. The most important thing, she said, was to turn off your mind, and move into your body. You can’t think and swim at the same time.

Once a man plunges over the waterfalls in his barrel, of course, it’s all over for him. For a while at least.  So you have to be very careful and really pay attention. I practiced getting right on the edge and just sticking there. And it was good. When she did something particularly compelling, I felt the spray in my face and the pull of the fall, and by God, quivers did quiver me, then I quickly pulled myself back.

Rainbow was my Seeingeyesexdog.

“Wow, that was groovy…” I said, when it was clear we were done.

Groovy? I couldn’t believe that came out of my mouth, but as usual I’d ceased to exist in my need  to please.

I didn’t know what to do next. Should I hang out? Were we friends? I thought for a minute. I still didn’t feel that creeping mudslide of depression I usually got after I worked as a chicken. I was just a little confused, that’s all. But looking around I could see myself moving right in here and being the sextoy for all of Rainbow’s old greatbodied freakyhippie chicks. Sounded like fun, I think, as I grabbed at another salvation flotation device.

“I have something for you…” Rainbow was sweet as you please, slipping into an old soft tie-dye robe. I followed at her heels like a naked chickenpuppy. She reached in a drawer and I was expecting a nice fat juicy tip. Twenty, maybe fifty. Instead Rainbow pulled the out a feather.

A feather.

“It’s an earring,” said Rainbow.

I had to work hard not to show how totally disgusted I was as I took out the rhinestone in my ear and replaced it with the feather. I looked in the mirror. To my amazement, I actually liked the way it looked. Kind of tribal. Even though I silently scoffed when she presented it to me, that feather became a war souvenir, and I wore it on and off for many years.

And whenever I did, I thought of Rainbow.

She kissed me on both cheeks. She thanked me. I thanked her. She didn’t say we should get together again soon, or that we should stay in touch. I loved that. I did what I came to do, we both got what we wanted, and that, as they say, was that.

Rainbow was the only trick I ever had who gave me more than I gave her.

Motorcycling away from Rainbow, floating on my feather earring in the sweetness of the cool Laurel Canyon night, I was high on Rainbow’s free love.

That she paid for.

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.

 

 

Chicken: “Sizzles Off the Page”

I just ordered your book and read it last night until I fell asleep. Your honesty is astounding and your story is so compelling. I cannot believe you came through your experiences with such strength and dignity. You told your story without a hint of hatred or self pity and it sizzles off the page. I just wanted to tell you that. -David Crow

 

Chicken

Purchase the Book

Paperback : Amazon.com | Barnes & Nobles | Indiebound | Softskull | Powells
Ebook : Kindle | Nook | iBookStore | Kobo
Audiobook: Audible.com
Signed Book : Contact me

Discuss the Book

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“Ten years ago, this debut memoir from Sterry burst upon the literary scene with an energy and inventiveness that captured his little-known subject matter—teenage life in Los Angeles as a rent boy working for a benevolent pimp named Sunny whose “rich, generous, horny friends,” Sterry explains, “pay good money to party with a boy like me.” Now back in print, Sterry’s memoir still crackles with its unsparingly honest approach: “I catch myself in the mirror, seventeen-year-old hardbody belly, pitprop legs, zero body fat, and huge hands. I’m seduced by the glitter of my own flesh.” Scenes from Sterry’s early dysfunctional family life not only add pathos to this tale of fall and resurrection but assure readers that he never sees himself as better than his clients, such as Dot, the wealthy 82-year-old, whose only desire is to experience cunnilingus for the first time—a desire that Sterry readily fulfills. “Even though I have no home and no family except for a bunch of prostitutes and a pimp, even though I have no future… at least I’m good at this.” (Oct.) – Publisher’s Weekly.This is the chronicle of a young man walking the razor-sharp line between painful innocence and the allure of the abyss. David Sterry was a wide-eyed son of 1970s suburbia, but within a week of enrolling at Immaculate Heart College, he was lured into the dark underbelly of the Hollywood flesh trade. Chicken has become a coming-of-age classic, and has been translated into ten languages. This ten-year anniversary edition has shocking new material.“Sterry writes with comic brio … [he] honed a vibrant outrageous writing style and turned out this studiously wild souvenir of a checkered past.” – Janet Maslin, The New York Times“This is a stunning book. Sterry’s prose fizzes like a firework. Every page crackles… A very easy, exciting book to read – as laconic as Dashiell Hammett, as viscerally hallucinogenic as Hunter S Thompson. Sex, violence, drugs, love, hate, and great writing all within a single wrapper. What more could you possibly ask for? -Maurince Newman, Irish Times“A beautiful book… a real work of literature.” – Vanessa Feltz, BBC“Insightful and funny… captures Hollywood beautifully” – Larry Mantle, Air Talk, NPR“Jawdropping… A carefully crafted piece of work…” -Benedicte Page, Book News, UK

“A 1-night read. Should be mandatory reading for parents and kids.” -Bert Lee, Talk of the Town

“Alternately sexy and terrifying, hysterical and weird, David Henry Sterry’s Chicken is a hot walk on the wild side of Hollywood’s fleshy underbelly. With lush prose and a flawless ear for the rhythms of the street, Sterry lays out a life lived on the edge in a coming-of-age classic that’s colorful, riveting, and strangely beautiful. David Henry Sterry is the real thing.” –Jerry Stahl, author of Permanent Midnight

“Compulsively readable, visceral, and very funny. The author, a winningly honest companion, has taken us right into his head, moment-by-moment: rarely has the mentality of sex been so scrupulously observed and reproduced on paper. Granted, he had some amazingly bizarre experiences to draw upon; but as V. S. Pritchett observed, in memoirs you get no pints for living, the art is all that counts-and David Henry Sterry clearly possesses the storyteller’s art.” – Phillip Lopate, author of Portrait of My Body – Phillip Lopate, author of Portrait of My Body

“Like an X-rated Boogie Nights narrated by a teenage Alice in Wonderland. Sterry’s anecdotes… expose Hollywood at its seamiest, a desperate city of smut and glitz. I read the book from cover to cover in one night, finally arriving at the black and white photo of the softly smiling former chicken turned memoirist.” -Places Magazine

“Snappy and acutely observational writing… It’s a book filled with wit, some moments of slapstick, and of some severe poignancy… a flair for descriptive language… The human ability to be kind ultimately reveals itself, in a book which is dark, yet always upbeat and irreverent. A really good, and enlightening, read.” – Ian Beetlestone, Leeds Guide

“Brutally illuminating and remarkably compassionate… a walk on the wild side which is alternatively exhilirating and horrifying, outrageous and tragic… Essential reading.” – Big Issue

“Visceral, frank and compulsive reading.’ –City Life, Manchester

“Sparkling prose… a triumph of the will.” -Buzz Magazine

“Pick of the Week.” -Independent

“Impossible to put down, even, no, especially when, the sky is falling…Vulnerable, tough, innocent and wise… A fast-paced jazzy writing style… a great read.” -Hallmemoirs

“Full of truth, horror, and riotous humor.” -The Latest Books

“His memoir is a super-readable roller coaster — the story of a young man who sees more of the sexual world in one year than most people ever do.” – Dr. Carol Queen, Spectator Magazine

“Terrifically readable… Sterry’s an adventurer who happens to feel and think deeply. He’s written a thoroughly absorbing story sensitively and with great compassion… A page-turner… This is a strange story told easily and well.” – Eileen Berdon, Erotica.com

“Love to see this book turned into a movie, Julianne Moore might like to play Sterry’s mum…” – by Iain Sharp The Sunday Star-Times, Auckland, New Zealand).

Excerpts

Featured Books by David Henry Sterry

chicken-10-year-anniversary-cover-198x300 Master-ceremonies-cover-199x300 essential hos
johns mort HobbyistFinalPRINTCover5.375x8.25inchesCMYK300dpi confessions

David Henry Sterry’s Chicken: Fearless writing, raw, revealing, intriguing promiscuity, raw hope

David Henry Sterry’s intensely unique writing style has the ability to grip you by the soul and take you right inside as he struggles to free himself from “SEXY.” As you read word for word into his poetic memoir he continues by assuring the reader can feel, smell, taste, touch, and hear every step of the way. So as you read about Georgia and David we can smell her vagina and taste her juices right along side him. Davids pen runs like the hand of an older man given free range in-between the thighs of a ripe young pretty thing. Fearless, raw, revealing, and even strange at times, Mr. David Henry Sterry is more than just a man with a passion to survive and cook chickens! If you haven’t read his memoir Chicken : Portrait of a Young Man for Rent I urge you too. For those who have read it I urge you to revisit the vulnerability, intriguing promiscuity, raw hope, and aspiring twist of his great memoir.

Review by Jo Cantu

Find Chicken at your local independent bookstore:  Indiebound Amazon

chicken 10 year anniversary cover“I walk all the way up Hollywood Boulevard to Grauman’s Chinese Theatre: past tourists snapping shots; wannabe starlets sparkling by in miniskirts with head shots in their hands and moondust in their eyes; rowdy cowboys drinking with drunken Indians; black businessmen bustling by briskly in crisp suits; ladies who do not lunch with nylons rolled up below the knee pushing shopping carts full of everything they own; Mustangs rubbing up against muscular Mercedes and Hell’s Angels hogs. It’s a sick twisted Wonderland, and I’m Alice.”

This is the chronicle of a young man walking the razor-sharp line between painful innocence and the allure of the abyss. David Sterry was a wide-eyed son of 1970s suburbia, but within a week of enrolling at Immaculate Heart College, he was lured into the dark underbelly of the Hollywood flesh trade. Chicken has become a coming-of-age classic, and has been translated into ten languages. This ten-year anniversary edition has shocking new material.

“Sterry writes with comic brio … [he] honed a vibrant outrageous writing style and turned out this studiously wild souvenir of a checkered past.” – Janet Maslin, The New York Times

“This is a stunning book. Sterry’s prose fizzes like a firework. Every page crackles… A very easy, exciting book to read – as laconic as Dashiell Hammett, as viscerally hallucinogenic as Hunter S Thompson. Sex, violence, drugs, love, hate, and great writing all within a single wrapper. What more could you possibly ask for? -Maurince Newman, Irish Times

“A beautiful book… a real work of literature.” – Vanessa Feltz, BBC

“Insightful and funny… captures Hollywood beautifully” – Larry Mantle, Air Talk, NPR

“Jawdropping… A carefully crafted piece of work…” -Benedicte Page, Book News, UK

“A 1-night read. Should be mandatory reading for parents and kids.” -Bert Lee, Talk of the Town

“Alternately sexy and terrifying, hysterical and weird, David Henry Sterry’s Chicken is a hot walk on the wild side of Hollywood’s fleshy underbelly. With lush prose and a flawless ear for the rhythms of the street, Sterry lays out a life lived on the edge in a coming-of-age classic that’s colorful, riveting, and strangely beautiful. David Henry Sterry is the real thing.” –Jerry Stahl, author of Permanent Midnight

“Compulsively readable, visceral, and very funny. The author, a winningly honest companion, has taken us right into his head, moment-by-moment: rarely has the mentality of sex been so scrupulously observed and reproduced on paper. Granted, he had some amazingly bizarre experiences to draw upon; but as V. S. Pritchett observed, in memoirs you get no pints for living, the art is all that counts-and David Henry Sterry clearly possesses the storyteller’s art.” – Phillip Lopate, author of Portrait of My Body – Phillip Lopate, author of Portrait of My Body

“Like an X-rated Boogie Nights narrated by a teenage Alice in Wonderland. Sterry’s anecdotes… expose Hollywood at its seamiest, a desperate city of smut and glitz. I read the book from cover to cover in one night, finally arriving at the black and white photo of the softly smiling former chicken turned memoirist.” -Places Magazine

“Snappy and acutely observational writing… It’s a book filled with wit, some moments of slapstick, and of some severe poignancy… a flair for descriptive language… The human ability to be kind ultimately reveals itself, in a book which is dark, yet always upbeat and irreverent. A really good, and enlightening, read.” – Ian Beetlestone, Leeds Guide

“Brutally illuminating and remarkably compassionate… a walk on the wild side which is alternatively exhilirating and horrifying, outrageous and tragic… Essential reading.” – Big Issue

“Visceral, frank and compulsive reading.’ –City Life, Manchester

“Sparkling prose… a triumph of the will.” -Buzz Magazine

“Pick of the Week.” -Independent

“Impossible to put down, even, no, especially when, the sky is falling…Vulnerable, tough, innocent and wise… A fast-paced jazzy writing style… a great read.” -Hallmemoirs

“Full of truth, horror, and riotous humor.” -The Latest Books

“His memoir is a super-readable roller coaster — the story of a young man who sees more of the sexual world in one year than most people ever do.” – Dr. Carol Queen, Spectator Magazine

“Terrifically readable… Sterry’s an adventurer who happens to feel and think deeply. He’s written a thoroughly absorbing story sensitively and with great compassion… A page-turner… This is a strange story told easily and well.” – Eileen Berdon, Erotica.com

“Love to see this book turned into a movie, Julianne Moore might like to play Sterry’s mum…” – by Iain Sharp The Sunday Star-Times, Auckland, New Zealand).

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