David Henry Sterry

Author, book doctor, raker of muck

David Henry Sterry

Category: Memoir

Photo of David Gilbert holding a magnifying glass in front of his mouth to enlarge his smile

David Gilmore on Finding Love in Strange Places, Writing About It, and a Colonoscopy

We first met David Gilmore many years ago during a writing conference in Tucson, Arizona. He stood out among the other attendees in part because he was just so smart, funny. He had already done so much work as a writer, and he was a fantastic listener. When we saw that he had a new book out, How I Went to Asia for a Colonoscopy and Stayed for Love: A Memoir of Mischief and Romance, we decided we would pick his brain about writing, travel, love, and colonoscopies.

Read this interview in the HuffPost.

Photo of David Gilbert holding a magnifying glass in front of his mouth to enlarge his smile

David Gilmore

The Book Doctors: How did you learn to be a writer?

David Gilmore: Pretty much everything I’ve done in my life has been self-taught. I learned to write because I needed to clear my head so I could have a good night’s sleep when Xanax was getting a little expensive and addictive. I also learned to write when I had my radio show on Public Radio International (Outright Radio). Back before that I used to write in my daily diary as a kid. I would open up the little red vinyl book and scribble something profound like, “Normal day.” Doesn’t that just scream future author? I dunno. I guess I learned to write by being an observant person. I listen. I watch everything carefully. I ask questions. I feel too much. And this all fills my mind and at some point, I have to just start emptying it onto the written page. So, one could say writing has become a survival skill in not becoming overburdened by everything and everyone.

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

DG: Mostly I read non-fiction because with politics these days, really, who needs fiction? Basically, I’ll read anything by Michael Pollan, Bill Bryson, and Beth Lisick. It doesn’t matter to me what they write about, I’ll read it. I recently found a copy of The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid in Goodwill and I bought it for a dollar. Bryson’s hyperbolic style has me squealing with delight. And he takes us back to a time in America — his childhood in Iowa — when life seemed simple and people didn’t go around with semi-automatic weapons in their suitcases. I’m currently reading White Trash by Nancy Isenberg because all that’s going on with Trump’s rise to power is dissected in that book. I also am reading God’s Hotel by Victoria Sweet about a doctor who works at an old almshouse in San Francisco caring for the un-curable. I like books that fill me with someone else’s life experience or help explain to me what in Sam Hill is going on here, and frankly, right now I am in need of a lot of ‘splaining.

TBD: Tell us about the long and winding road to writing How I Went to Asia for a Colonoscopy and Stayed for Love.

DG: The long and winding road began in the States where I had become bored with my romantic life and unable to afford health insurance. Coming from a long line of intestinal malcontents I was in need of a colonoscopy. I had read that Thailand was the place to go for overseas medical care, so on a whim, I just booked a flight and made an appointment for the procedure.

After having a colonoscope make its way through my long and winding intestines, much to my delight I found that Thailand actually suited me. I had the time of my life! And when I came back to the States, my life seemed so empty and dull that I just kept going back to Southeast Asia and expanding out from Thailand to Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and eventually Malaysia.

Then something really big happened. I don’t want to spoil the book, but I felt compelled, so to speak, to move to Malaysia. It wasn’t just a holiday. I gave up my life in the US and moved there. And within 6 weeks of arriving, I met the guy I’d been looking for my whole life. Thus began a storybook gay romance in a Muslim country, of all places. It was starting to seem like a plot from a book or a movie…something perhaps by Elizabeth Gilbert. I knew that if my Malaysian boyfriend and I ever got married, the book would have a full narrative arc and I really would have no choice but to write it. And that’s how it came to be.

Book Cover of " How I Went to Asia for a Colonoscopy and Stayed for Love" by David Gilmore; altered image of a black and white man climbing up the side of an orange tower

David Gilmore

TBD: We’re curious about how you approached publishing this book. Did you go after agents and publishers?

DG: I did go after agents. And there was some initial interest from several. I think, however, the raunchy beginning to the book may have put some of them off if they didn’t go beyond the first few chapters. However, I am of the belief that the publishing industry is no longer in its golden age and to be an author with an agent and a contract with a publisher isn’t really all it’s cracked up to be. I’ve heard too many stories of authors getting little or nothing from their publishers. I know friends who have book contracts who have to pay for their own book tours and do all their own marketing. Or agents who never found a publisher for their clients. I began to wonder what the point of a publishing contract was. I felt that my story was begging to be told NOW and couldn’t wait for agents and publishers. Thus, I jumped on the self-publishing bandwagon.

TBD: What are the pros and cons, the do’s and don’ts of self-publishing? How do you avoid some of the pitfalls?

DG: The biggest con for most people is that you’re on your own to produce and market it. For me that’s not a con because I am by trade a graphic designer, and so knocking out the cover and interior design is something I can do while watching Sarah Huckabee Sanders do her sour face at the White House press corps. The plus side of self-publishing is that you as the author have full creative control and no one is going to reject you because you’re unknown or frankly, your story is kinda dumb. Anyone can publish, which is a blessing and a curse. People have been known to strike a chord with readers and hit it big, but it’s a long shot and it’s a game. And if you’re up for playing the game without getting defeated by the odds that you’ll be a huge success, the world is your playground. But you know, when your book is released and you check the sales tally and on your first day you only sold 17 copies, well, you have only yourself to blame. And when you find that you misspelled something, you can’t call the editor and have a hissy fit about it.

TBD: This is kind of a personal question, but what was your budget for making the video trailers for this book?

DG: Hmm, let’s see…my budget. OK, the Marketing Budget Office has deliberated and just released the figures on the video trailer budget. It was zero. In addition to writing, I also make films so I just pulled those together myself from videos I shot over the years of traveling in Asia. The trailers seemed to catch people’s attention. Whether they translate to sales remains to be seen.

TBD: What was it like to have a colonoscopy in Thailand?

DG: Now that is a personal question! Basically, getting a colonoscopy in Thailand was just like in the US except at about 1/10th the cost. A colonoscopy, however, no matter where you are, is kind of a disgusting proposition. Being in Thailand makes it more fun because I find Asians so fascinating and amusing. Sitting in the “bowel preparation room” in Bangkok (appropriately appointed with brown furnishings), I’m more likely to have fun chatting with someone or watching inscrutably bad Thai daytime television. I did enjoy a night of frolicking in the world’s most extraordinary sex club with the cleanest colon on earth afterward. Perhaps that should have been the title of the book? Really, though, the book is not all about my colonoscopy (who would want to read about that) or even sex. The book starts out there and moves on to more meaningful adventures like the slow boat up the Mekong River, the Flying Nuns of Luang Prabang, and negotiating a gay relationship in a Muslim country.

TBD: How did writing this book about rediscovering yourself in the middle of your life change you?

DG: Well, I lost something significant in Asia: my loneliness. And I got my life back. For years I moped around America complaining about being middle-aged, nerdy, and unlovable. When I couldn’t take it any longer, I took off the tight shoe of American life and let myself go on an incredible journey of love. And I got what I always wanted — a partner — and brought him back to the US with me. His name is Chuan and he tucks me in bed each night and tells me he loves me. Meeting him turned my life around. I went from being a cranky curmudgeon to being contented, playful, and at least somewhat hopeful about my life.

TBD: Was there any part of your book that was particularly difficult for you to write?

DG: Yes. There is a chapter about a young student I had when I was teaching for the United Nations in Malaysia. He was a Burmese refugee who fled over the border from Myanmar fleeing religious persecution. I taught him and a bunch of adorable kids in a filthy, run-down, absolute hole of a school in a slum in Kuala Lumpur. Well, something awful happened to that boy and it broke my heart. It pained me so much to write that chapter, and to this day I cannot read it without bursting into tears. That boy’s life touched me and I will never forget him.

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

DG: I don’t know that I’m in the position to be giving advice to other writers, honestly. But if I had to say anything to anyone about writing (or any creative pursuit) I would say this: be critical. Be REALLY critical of your own work. Ignore that nonsense about defeating the inner critic. The inner critic is very important to your process of refinement. I’m not of the school of belief that anything we create is beautiful and worthy. I believe the PROCESS is valuable to simply write whatever is on your mind. But I don’t believe that it is necessarily going to be worth reading by others. Reading and staying aware of current events and thought trends and history and keeping your eyes open to all aspects of society is very important, not just to being relevant but for one’s output to be taken seriously.

David Gilmore is a freelance writer, photographer, and film­maker living in Tucson, Arizona. He was the host and producer of the Edward R. Murrow Award winning radio show Outright Radio, featured nationally on Public Radio International from 1998-2004. He is a NEA and CPB grantee and has contributed essays to theGay & Lesbian Review Worldwide, The Advocate, and was a contributing author in Johns, Marks, Tricks, and Chickenhawks. He is the author of the bookHomoSteading at the 19th Parallel ­— one man’s adventure building his night­mare dream house on the Big Island of Hawaii.

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.

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Tyler Knight laying on a bed grabbing a bedpost

Tyler Knight, xxx-Black Porn God, on Writing Memoir, Sex, and Dangerous Writing

When David first met Tyler Knight, he was blown away by the combination of insight, intelligence, articulation, and smoldering black man porn star sexuality. They’ve been friends ever since. And now that his memoir is coming out, we thought we’d pick his brain on what’s harder, getting into porn or publishing.

Read the interview on the HuffPost.

Tyler Knight laying on a bed grabbing a bedpost

Tyler Knight

The Book Doctors: Why in God’s name would you do something as crazy as writing a memoir?

Tyler Knight: I had no choice. There was a story in me and it was bursting to get out whether I wanted it to or not. The irony is when I was a kid with little life experience, I wanted to write but I had nothing to say. Later, as a middle-aged man, I didn’t want to commit to writing a memoir, but the story inside me had other ideas. I read Jerry Stahl’s Permanent Midnight, Dave Eggers’ A Staggering Work of Heartbreaking Genius, and Mary Karr’s Liar’s Club. Those books showed me that to write a memoir that was worth reading required deep introspection… Picking at scabs and old scars, and then write the truth about myself no matter how ugly… And I wasn’t sure I’d the mettle to do that, let alone share it with the world. I knew it’d be a Sisyphean task of writing draft after draft of a manuscript for many years in a vacuum with no promise that the book would ever see the light of day. I expected my manuscript would be rejected by scores of literary agents. Maybe I’d find an agent crazy enough to schlep a literary memoir, from a pornographer no less, from publishing house to house until he found an editor who loved it. And that’s precisely what happened. But I also knew that I’d have no inner peace if I didn’t do it.

Cover of Burn My Shadow by Tyler Knight; two people standing side by side

Burn My Shadow by Tyler Knight

TBD: David’s family didn’t speak to him for about five years after his memoir, Chicken, came out. Has there been any fallout, blowback, or madness as a result of you writing about your life in public?

TK: Well, I haven’t spoken with my father or anyone on my father’s side of the family since the ‘90s anyway, so there was no effect there. My mother’s side of the family… I can’t be certain if they know what I do for a living or not. It’s odd and telling when at Thanksgiving, people at the table never ask me how work is going. Sometimes the absence of conversation says more than the words that are said…

TBD: We are big fans of Rare Bird; they put out great books. Tell us about your process of getting this book published.

TK: My agent, Peter McGuigan, who co-heads Foundry Literary, was extremely hands-on with the editing process. I’d send him drafts, and he’d ink them up and send them back. Peter was my de facto MFA professor. Once we got to a point where the work was salable, he stopped shaping it… He knew it was important that whichever editor acquired the manuscript felt that they had room to put their own stamp on it. The feedback from some of the big houses was a lot of, “Right, he is a talented writer, but we need to make it more commercial.” That would have been more than just putting a stamp on the work. Peter showed it to Tyson at Rare Bird. We met in his office for a half hour meeting that stretched into almost three hours. We talked what I was trying to say, and he had ideas on how to clarify my vision. He got me. We came from the same planet. Books can take years to come out, so the relationship between editor and author is like a marriage. Both parties have to decide that they can work together for years to bring the book into the world.

TBD: While you’re at it, tell us about some of the joys and difficulties of writing a book about yourself and your crazy life.

TK: I come from a school of literary minimalism called Dangerous Writing. Its most prominent practitioners would be Chuck Palahniuk and Amy Hempel. It’s called Dangerous Writing because it forces you to explore what scares you… What about yourself would be mortifying if anyone else knew about it… And you go deep into those crevasses and linger until the feelings are exhausted, then move onto the next. It asks nothing less than absolute commitment to honesty from the author. It’s the perfect cypher for a memoir. Exacting my pound of flesh was the most alive I’ve ever felt in my life.

I have no interest whatsoever in foisting upon the public some bullshit celebrity “I’m-just-like-you!” zeitgeist memoir that risks nothing, asks nothing of its readers, and leaves them just as clueless as to who the author is as a human fucking being when they started reading. I declare the airport memoir dead.

TBD: You have such an incredible way with words, you really make us feel like we’re right in the middle of your life, with all the sights, sounds, and yes, smells that accompany this life. How did you manage to do that?

TK: Thanks, David. That’s a technique of Dangerous Writing: Going to the Body. You sprinkle details about sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch all through the story that, by themselves may not seem like much, but the cumulative impact by the end of the story is nothing less than visceral. My Bukkake story was the first time after many attempts where I finally got it right.

TBD: David gets writing from all over the world that revolves around sex. Most of it is really bad. What approach did you take to writing about sex?

TK: Yeah, most sex writing sucks because their authors love their metaphors and adverbs, and fail to grasp the concept of less is more. My approach was to show, don’t tell. Again, that’s both Going to the Body, and another technique called Recording Angel… You show the reader details without judgement (no labeling anything as good, bad, sexy, whatever), and let her unpack the details and reassemble them in her mind as she reads. Trust the reader to come to her own conclusion… To take ownership in the creation of the scene and story as she reads it. Far more powerful that way.

TBD: What made you decide to use a quote from Moby Dick in a book about your life as a porn stud?

TK: Moby Dick is my favorite novel, and the Knights and Squires section spoke to me… The conflict of good and evil wrestling for possession of a working man’s soul… Dignity in whatever your station in life may be… Faith and moral courage…

TBD: Which was harder, breaking into the adult film industry, or the publishing industry?

TK: Publishing, by far, is more difficult. So, you’re a good writer. Who cares? You still must do the work. Even then, your work may be rejected based on your query letter (basically a sales letter to agents about your book which doesn’t contain a single sentence of your actual book) by a 22-year-old intern who screened and deleted it before anyone in the position to say “yes” to you ever reads it. It happened to me. It happens to everyone. At least with porn, if you are not hideous and you can do the job, they’ll find a place for you. Don’t get me wrong, porn is by no means easy to get into, and it’s far from a meritocracy, but you will get judged on your ability to perform from the get go, sink or swim, rather than a being judged on some letter you wrote describing how good you’d be if you just had a chance.

TBD: What, if any, are your plans for writing?

TK: This is it. Burn My Shadow isn’t a vanity project for me. I’ve pushed my chips all-in with writing books… I can’t imagine a life without writing. I have a novel in its third draft which has nothing to do with pornography.

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

TK: Lookit, I broke every rule and piece of advice that writers should follow, from not sticking to a disciplined writing schedule, to writing a memoir entirely in first-person, present tense. The world already has every example of how a book should be written. What the world doesn’t have is your take on things. Tell your story however you damn well please. The more specific it is to you and your truths, the broader its appeal to the world. Just write, man.

Tyler Knight, author of Burn My Shadow: A Selective Memory of an X-Rated Life, is an adult film star who has starred in over 500 films. In 2009 he won the Good For Her Feminist Porn Award, as Heartthrob of the Year, and was a Playgirl Spokesmodel. In 2010 he was nominated for the Urban X Award for Performer of the Year. He has also been nominated for eighteen AVN awards and has won three. Tyler lives in Los Angeles.

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 "Beer Money: A Memoir of Privilege and Loss" by Frances Stroh

Frances Stroh on Writing, Getting Published, Beer, and Beer Money

David first met Frances Stroh when he read on the same bill as her during a Litquake event in a bar in San Francisco’s North Beach that stank of beer. When he found out who she was and what the book was about, it seemed weirdly appropriate. Besides being a wonderful artist and writer, Frances is also part of a family that made wildly successful and popular beer for many decades. And then all the beer money dried up. And so she became yet another version of the American Dream: family dreams of making a fortune in the beer business, family makes a fortune in the beer business, family loses a fortune in the beer business. And now she’s written a memoir to prove it. Since her book, Beer Money, just came out, we thought we’d pick her brain about alcohol, money, family and writing it all down.

Read the interview on the Huffington Post.

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The Book Doctors: First of all, why in the name of all that is good and holy did you decide to write a memoir?

Frances Stroh: I’d been working on a novel set in the late nineties New York art world about an artist protagonist whose family had lost their wealth. It was a true work of fiction but echoed some of the themes in my own life. Deep down I knew the real book I needed to write was my own coming of age story as an artist as it related to my family’s tragic decline, and the door to do this opened in 2009 when the family company announced that dividends would end because the company was broke, followed a few months later my father’s sudden death. My father had appointed me as the executor of his estate and as I combed through his many collections of antique firearms, vintage cameras and guitars, and stacks of artwork, preparing them for auction, a maelstrom of memories was triggered. These memories of the complex dynamics behind the painful events in my family eventually became the book.

TBD: What books did you love when you were growing up?

FS: I devoured everything by Hemingway and Fitzgerald in high school, as well Tom Wolfe and all the Beat writers. Around that time I read a biography of Edie Sedgwick by George Plimpton that was as much about Andy Warhol and the Factory as it was about Edie, and this book hugely impacted my view of art and what it could be.

TBD: How did you learn to be a writer?

FS: In the very beginning, I studied with writers whose work I deeply respected–Tom Barbash and Julie Orringer. Their influence on my development was immense. Then it was time to just do the work, one early morning writing session at a time, followed by a late morning session, and an afternoon session. I kept reminding myself of Woody Allen’s famous line, “Eighty percent of success is just showing up.” In my case, this meant showing up at my desk physically and emotionally–being present.

TBD: What was your road to publication like?

FS: Surprisingly smooth. I had put in a good deal of work on the book to get it in shape, working with an excellent freelance editor–Zoë Rosenfeld–before sending out to agents. I signed on with the amazing Rob McQuilkin one week after I mailed him the manuscript. A month later we sold the book to HarperCollins at auction. I was extremely fortunate. At Harper I worked with Jennifer Barth, for whose keen eye and sensitivity I have a deep respect. From beginning to end, the publication experience has been very positive, down to all the renowned authors with whom I did my “in conversation” events on my book tour.

TBD: Did your work as a visual artist influence your writing?

FS: I explore issues of identity, point of view, and the mythologies that define us across all media, and the family video installation piece I describe in the prologue of the book was really the genesis for the memoir. The seeds for the memoir were also present in the high school application essay I describe in the book, where, as a thirteen-year-old, I write about my brother’s drug bust and how it affected my family. I think the writing and the visual work influenced each other in the sense that the same themes kept coming up, no matter the medium. Writing the memoir was a way to deepen my exploration of these themes.

TBD: How did being a member of the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto help you in your development as a writer?

FS: I waited to join the Grotto until I was finished with the book, and yet the support I have felt as a member of that community while bringing the book into the world has been huge. There’s truly no replacement for working among and socializing with seasoned writers who have been down the road one is about to embark on. I am very grateful for the friends I have made at the Grotto and the immeasurable impact they’ve had on my path as a writer.

TBD: When David’s first memoir, Chicken, came out, his family basically didn’t speak to him for five years. Have there been any repercussions from your family about writing a story in which many of them are characters?

FS: I published a chapter of the memoir two years ago with Shebooks, a publisher of short ebooks by women writers based in San Francisco, to the applause of everyone in my immediate family. My brother told me it read like a “modern day version of The Catcher in the Rye.” Since then, my mother has been a huge champion of the memoir, rallying her friends with galleys and attending many of my book tour events. The extended Stroh family, most of which are not in the book, have been quieter on the subject, but some have sent letters of praise and support and attended events as well. Overall, I feel the reception of the book has been positive.

TBD: Between the two of us, we’ve written, agented, publicized, and performed more memoirs than we care to remember. What were some of the joys and difficulties of taking the seemingly random events of your life and turning them into a plot with a beginning, middle and an end?

FS: I view the memoir as a love letter to my past, and a book I needed to write in order to reconcile with that past. Throughout my life the tension of one challenging event had built upon the next one with no outlet. From an early age, I was told that it wasn’t okay to talk about money, family difficulties, or anything of any import. And all the while these idealized photos of the perfect American family were piling up all over our house. My father’s photographs now seem haunting in the context of my truth-telling narrative, a juxtaposition in the book I view as a wonderful collaboration between my father and me. By reconstructing the past through the writing of the book I was able to reclaim many of the feelings that I’d had to push aside through the years, feelings I hadn’t been able to feel at the time because the events that triggered them were too taboo to talk about, such as my brother Charlie’s decline into drugs and eventual death. As I wrote the book, patterns began to form, links that connected events that had never before seemed connected–such as the simultaneous unraveling of my family, our business, and Detroit. A new kind of understanding took hold within me. I call it “strange alchemy.” Only through the writing of the book did I come to see how these links were all there, all along, on a somewhat epic scale, making the story of the family, our livelihood, our hometown, and our shared destinies a kind of American story. It became something bigger than my own personal story, while at the same time it’s told in a very personal voice.

TBD: Do you have any advice for writers?

FS: Find the voice that wants to tell your story. Once your narrator is there, the book will essentially write itself. All you have to do is show up at your desk, every day, and give that voice free reign. And don’t think about any kind of an end goal. Following that voice, and the writing itself, is the real reward.

Frances Stroh was born in Detroit and raised in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. She received her B.A. from Duke University and her M.A. from Chelsea College of Art in London as a Fulbright Scholar. She practiced as an installation artist, exhibiting in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and London, before turning to writing. Frances is a member of the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto, and her work across all media explores issues of identity, point of view, and the mythologies that define us.

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. 

“Chicken’s like Francesca Lia Block & Charles Bukowski arguing playfully at a Lou Reed listening party.”

“Chicken is like Francesca Lia Block and Charles Bukowski arguing playfully at a Lou Reed listening party.” -Chandra Friend

Find Chicken at your local independent bookstore:  Indiebound Amazon

“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.”

chicken 10 year 10-10-13This 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).

I Was Paid to Have Sex with an 82 Year Old Granny

Beautiful funny poignant empowering story of when I was a 17 year old manchild idiot sex worker given as a birthday present to an 82 year old. From Chicken: Self-Portrait of a Young Man for Rent, my Memoir.

Master of Ceremonies: I Watched Doublemint Twins Blow Chippendales Dude @ Sex Worker LIterati

When I was Master of Ceremonies at Chippendales Male Strip club I hardly ever got laid. But I sadly watched on as sexy sexy people all around me were banging boffing & boinking.

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