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.
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.
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.
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We became aware of S.K. Ali from our good friend Ayesha Mattu, author of Love, InshAllah fame. When we found out about the amazing work she’s doing, we decided to get her two cents on Muslim voices, books, and gummies.
The Book Doctors: Why did you start #MuslimShelfSpace?
S.K. Ali: In early December, I tweeted a picture of my shelf of works by Muslim authors in response to the news of a book that “parodied” classic children’s book covers using extremely racist imagery of marginalized communities. My shelf of Muslim authors offered narratives that stared down the awful stereotypes of Muslims included in the “parodied” covers.
Friends wanted to post their own shelf pictures and we discussed how important it was that Muslim #ownvoices narratives be centered in order to counter all the Islamophobia the U.S. election season had brought to the fore, and voila, #MuslimShelfSpace was born. We launched the hashtag on January 1, 2017 and it garnered a lot of support from people committing to making space for Muslim authors on their shelves.
TBD: Why is it so important to hear our “own voices”?
SKA: Islam and Muslims are often, well, almost relentlessly, discussed in public spheres such as the media and politics, but Muslims who claim the identity are rarely involved in the conversations. The focus is on Muslims — without Muslim voices. When we have that happening — people of a certain identity talked about, talked of, talked for but never or very rarely DOING the actual talking — we can quickly slide onto the dangerous terrain of othering to the point of denying people’s humanity. And then we begin to see policies like the Muslim Ban moving into place.
If that itself is not enough of an important reason to hear own voice narratives, what if I said they were immensely more entertaining than the faked stuff? Because authenticity — of the rarely seen variety — offers fresh takes and whoa, you’ll be taken to places/spaces you might not have visited before. Fun!
TBD: What are some of your favorite books and why?
SKA: I have too many! Because my debut novel is Young Adult, I can tell you some of my YA/MG favorites:
The Chaos Walking Trilogy by Patrick Ness — breathtakingly ambitious and unique. The setting of the series is so out-of-this-world, yet familiar and the conflicts and issues explored are relevant to our point in time. It’s such an important series.
When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead — crucial to me as a writer because it wasn’t afraid to be what it was: unconstrained. As writers, it’s important to go back to that space when you first discovered the thrill of creativity, before it became fenced (in your mind) by the mores of those who’ve already shaped the literary landscape(s). This book helped remind me to just be and write free.
The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart — I love girl power stories and this one was really well done, with a writing style that’s bare and upfront. It traces the moment of a girl waking up to the realities of gender inequity and proceeding to take the reigns of power into her own hands, all set to a backdrop of an old-money, private school.
TBD: What are your feelings regarding the Muslim ban imposed by the current administration?
SKA: The only feelings to be had on hearing such a vile thing: how does hate get to dictate the policies of a country with such a constitution, “We the People..”?
TBD: As a Canadian, how did you react to the Canadian terrorist attack by a white man on Muslims?
SKA: Utter sadness. And the remembrance that Canada is not immune to the Islamophobia sweeping many parts of the world.
TBD: How did you become an author?
SKA: Since I was 12, I’ve known that I wanted to tell stories. I proceeded to get my degree in creative writing and then set the dream aside when I embarked on motherhood and pursuing a career as a teacher. It was only recently — ten years ago recently — that I picked the dream up again. That meant writing, learning, rewriting, and repeating until I got a literary agent and sold my book last year.
TBD: Tell us about your book Saints & Misfits.
SKA: It’s about a Muslim fifteen-year-old, Janna Yusuf, who finds her voice in the midst of something painful. It’s also about the diverse communities, plural, she moves in — her high school, neighborhood, the Muslim community. I’m honored that Saints & Misfits will be the first YA novel published by a major publisher, featuring an American-Muslim in hijab, set in an American-Muslim community. The book also looks at relationships in various forms, including Janna’s friendship with an elderly Hindu neighbor.
“S.K. Ali’s Saints and Misfits follows Janna Yusuf, a geeky, hijabi Arab-Indian-American girl, as she navigates high school and the possibility of first love—even though Muslim girls aren’t supposed to date, right? She’s trying to figure herself out, along with her place in the world, especially if that means revealing a shattering secret that just might send ripples through her tight-knit Muslim community.” -Sona Charaipotra, “11 of Our Most Anticipated #OwnVoices Reads of 2017”
TBD: Is it true that there are halal gummy bears in the book?
SKA: Yes, definitely. And halal marshmallows. (Cue screams from the creeping-sharia-alert crowd.)
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers and citizens who’d like to see more diverse books on the world’s shelves?
SKA: My advice for writers from marginalized communities is to write the stories you want to see. Don’t limit yourself with the thought that nobody wants them — because that’s NOT TRUE. I point to the multi-billion dollar Islamic fashion industry that now major corporate brands are wanting to break into. Muslims who couldn’t find the clothes they wanted made the clothes they wanted and customers found them and bought from them. Same thing with writers and other artists: make what you want to see/read/write and your audience will find you. Don’t be constrained by the canon that came before because that canon didn’t include you. (And, psst, another bit of advice: don’t delve on the why-it-didn’t-include-you thought too long because that’s how your writing won’t get done.)
People who’d like to see more diversity in literature can support own voice narratives by boosting authors writing from within their identities. [This is where I’d like to say, thanks, David!]
One thing not to do: PLEASE, PLEASE DON’T WRITE OUR STORIES FOR US. It’s really hard, impossible, even, to get it right and even the best-intentioned ones have a way of harming more than helping. And trust me, over the years, we’ve seen Muslim characters who, at their best, we don’t recognize and, at their worst, hurt us to the core with the way they’re depicted. For young readers especially, this kind of pain affects their understanding of their place in the world and that’s just too sad.
S.K. Ali is a teacher based in Toronto whose writing on Muslim culture and life has appeared in the Toronto Star. Her family includes Muslim scholars consistently listed in the The 500 Most Influential Muslims in the World, and her insight into Muslim culture is both personal and far-reaching. S.K. Ali’s debut YA novel is a beautiful and nuanced story about a young woman exploring her identity through friendship, family, and faith.
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As book doctors, we have the privilege of traveling all over the country and connecting with organizations that help writers get successfully published. We’ve been hearing about GrubStreet for years, and when we started investigating, we found out what an amazing organization it is. So when we discovered that Katherine A. Sherbrooke, GrubStreet’s board chair, was coming out with a new book, Fill the Sky, we thought we’d pick her brain about writing, writers groups, and the joys and perils of switching from memoir to fiction.
The Book Doctors: We understand you’ve always wanted to be a writer since you were a kid. Why in God’s name would you want to be a writer?
Katherine A. Sherbrooke: I suppose in the same way a kid watching the lunar landing decides they want to be an astronaut, or the way the 1980 Winter Olympics spawned legions of hockey players. Witnessing something extraordinary makes you want to do it. Reading books transported me in that way. Plus, I’m claustrophobic and afraid of heights, so space travel was definitely out.
TBD: What were some of your favorite books as a kid, and why?
KS: I vividly remember being mesmerized by James and the Giant Peach, and The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, I suppose in part because they opened my eyes to the power of imagination combined with ink and paper. One of my all-time favorites had to be The Velveteen Rabbit. Its metaphor of fraying fur and missing buttons as proof of love, of being real, moved me deeply.
TBD: How did you learn the craft of writing?
KS: I was blessed with incredible English teachers in my early days, and built a strong foundation for writing through (don’t laugh) diagramming sentences until I was blue in the face, and later learning the art of a well-written essay and the importance of good structure. While that gave me a certain confidence with the written word, creative writing requires a whole added set of skills. The first teacher was good novels, reading a lot of them. The rest I learned at GrubStreet, mostly getting feedback on my work from other writers so I could hear first hand what techniques were working and which ones weren’t.
TBD: Tell us about GrubStreet and your involvement with it. What have you learned about writing and writers from being involved with this organization?
KS: GrubStreet is one of the largest creative writing organizations in the country, open to writers of all levels. It is an organization that believes deeply in the power of narrative to transform us as humans, and the desperate need for us to hear stories from all walks of life, a mission very close to my heart. So I fell in love with them from the minute I walked in the door and immediately wanted to help. From a writer’s point of view, I describe GrubStreet as the lifeline of my creative pursuits. Many people think of writing as a lonely endeavor, and I suppose the actual act of sitting down and putting thoughts on paper can feel that way, but there is much more to the process than that if you are willing to give and accept help. I have found the most incredible community of writers at GrubStreet. This is a group of amazingly talented and generous people who truly want to help each other succeed. I have learned everything I know about what it takes to actually complete a novel and get it out into the marketplace through classes, conferences and the community at Grub.
TBD: You’re also an entrepreneur. We are too. What did you learn about being a writer by inventing and running a business?
KS: My co-founder of Circles used to say that there is a fine line between entrepreneurs and mad men: they both see things that aren’t there. Writing is the same. You have to believe that what you have to offer has a place out there in the world, even when it’s not finished, even if it doesn’t fly off the shelf at first. Entrepreneurship, in my view, takes a whole lot of really hard work, a good measure of luck, a legion of people keen to help the project succeed, and a willingness to take a deep breath and fling yourself off the cliff. Trying to get a book out into the world isn’t much different. Or maybe I’m still just crazy.
TBD: Your first book was a memoir, and it was about your family. After David’s memoir came out, his family didn’t speak to him for five years. What were some of the dangers and joys of writing and publishing your memoir?
KS: My parents had a classic, tumultuous love story leading up to their marriage that they would occasionally indulge me or my siblings by telling. We had each heard different snippets, but none of us had all the detail, all the various pieces. When my mother was overcome by dementia, I realized that I had to sit down with my father (who thankfully has an iron-clad memory) and get the whole story on paper before it was too late. The best part were the hours of conversation I had with my dad about his younger days, including touring through every corner of Newark, NJ with him to set the scene: where he grew up, his high school, his father’s old tavern, where they went on dates, etc. I walked away with much more material than fit in the book, but they were conversations I might never have had without that impetus. On the flip side, handing my own version of my parent’s love story back to my father to read was terrifying. Thankfully he loved it. He emails me all the time to tell me he stayed up all night to read it again.
TBD: How was it transitioning from writing non-fiction to being able to make stuff up and create a novel?
KS: Really hard! As restrictive as the requirement to stick to the facts felt at times while I was writing the memoir, I was handed a great cast of characters, a fantastic plot, and a setting that I didn’t have to invent. I added a little research to corroborate what my father had told me, and voila, my book was born. When I turned to fiction, having absolutely no boundaries on any of that made the process much harder, and take much longer. That said, it is really satisfying to have a new plot point or a new character pop into my head while I’m out for a walk and suddenly know that my story has taken a turn for the better. And having the license to explore through fiction things that have never actually happened to me is pretty amazing.
TBD: What was your inspiration for your new novel Fill the Sky?
KS: I love reading books that take me to a place or time I have never been to so I can learn through the ease of a great story. I was beginning to hunt around for a book idea when I happened to go on a trip to Ecuador with a group of friends to spend some time with local shamans. The trip was a life-changer for me, and it struck me as an incredible and unique setting for a novel. The premise is fictional (we didn’t travel there for health reasons) but all the rituals in the book save one are things I have actually experienced.
TBD: What is your next project?
KS: I’m at work on another novel. Stay tuned.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?
KS: Find trusted readers, people who are willing to read your entire manuscript and give you honest and detailed feedback. They do not have to be writers; in fact, some of the best input can come from avid readers. But don’t just do this because you want applause and adoration. It is really important to be open to their feedback. It can be very hard to hear that a scene that had you weeping while you wrote it barely registered with your reader, or that your favorite character leaves them cold (and you may need several days or weeks to process what they have to say), but that is precisely the kind of input you want. I find it very hard to see my work for what it is without the guiding hands of intelligent readers. They are worth their weight in gold.
Katherine A. Sherbrooke received her B.A. from Dartmouth College and M.B.A. from Stanford University. An entrepreneur and writer, she is the author of Finding Home, a family memoir about her parents’ tumultuous and inspiring love affair. This is her first novel. She lives outside Boston with her husband, two sons, and black lab. Visit her online at www.kasherbrooke.com, Facebook, or Twitter.
One of the joys of being a book doctor is that we get to meet so many cool and unusual people who give us a constant education. So when Sean M. Bailey approached us about his book regarding the perils of being hacked, and what to do about it, we were overjoyed. As we watch the horrors of Hillary’s Hackgate unfold, it became clear that no one was immune. Now that his book, Hack-Proof Your Life Now!, is out, we thought we’d pick his brain about what the hack to do regarding the safety of our electronic life.
The Book Doctors: Someone recently broke the Internet by hacking into Dyn. Please explain how that could happen, and what can we do to protect ourselves?
Sean Bailey: In Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, the military creates something called “Ice-9,” which gets out of control and causes all water on the planet to freeze and only melts above 114.4 F degrees. Now imagine a digital version of Ice-9 where suddenly the entire World Wide Web “freezes.” We had a glimpse of what that might be like with the Dyn attack. It’s a scary development and especially tough to stop.
It opened up people’s eyes because the hackers hijacked unsecured, web-connected devices like DVRs and video cameras to flood Dyn’s servers, which play a critical role in managing web traffic to big websites like Amazon and Twitter. Here’s how they did it: Those devices are protected with passwords, just like smartphones, tablets, and computers. But people who bought those devices NEVER changed the passwords from the default setting they had when they left the factory. The hackers knew that and developed a malware program that could identify these devices and enslave them into a robot network of about 100,000 devices. The hackers then trained those devices to shoot requests for information at the Dyn servers and by doing so, overwhelmed those servers to the degree that people who legitimately wanted to get to websites like Amazon or Twitter could not access those pages. Even though those websites were open and operating normally, people couldn’t reach them. It would be like driving to the mall on the highway but discovering the exit ramp was closed—you could see the mall was open but you just couldn’t get there.
The Dyn attack is a poignant reminder, again, of the importance of good, strong passwords. Now we can see that that rule applies beyond our smartphones, tablets, and computers to now include any devices in our homes that connect to the Internet.
TBD: There is so much hysteria and hype about Internet security, including of course the presidential election, and Hillary’s hacked emails. Do you think the average Joe or Jane has a chance of getting hacked, and what could be the consequences?
SB: Hackers never sleep. They blast out 94 billion dangerous spam emails every day. Everyone is vulnerable. One wrong click can cause you to stumble into a variety of nightmares including identity theft, blackmail, or unwittingly enslaving your computer to a criminal robot network. I think everyone knows someone who’s been hacked or ensnared in a computer scam. The consequences range from spending dozens of hours trying to fix an identity-theft stained credit report, to paying a $500 to $1,000 ransom to blackmailers who seized your computer, and all the way to the workplace where companies have seen hundreds of thousands, even millions, of dollars disappear from their bank accounts that have been breached by cyber thieves.
Of course, during the recent election, we’ve seen the devastating impact of having one’s email hacked. Our emails contain tons and tons of sensitive, private personal and business information that potentially can ruin relationships and businesses.
TBD: Give us three simple things we can do so we don’t get hacked.
SB: Here are three easy things you can do to quickly boost your security and reduce the likelihood of getting hacked.
First, stop using your personal email address for your online banking and credit accounts. Create a “financial-only” email address that you use just for your online financial transactions and activities. That way, that important email address is not sitting on dozens, even hundreds, of websites exposed to data breaches and hacks. You don’t want the bad guys to have the first step to logging into any of your financial accounts.
Second, turn on two-step login (two-factor authentication) on your email and bank accounts. That way, should a hacker ever begin trying to break in to your accounts, you’ll receive a notification code on your phone. The hackers will never get the code because it’s on your smartphone and you’ll be tipped off that something is happening.
Third, put a security freeze, also known as a credit freeze, on your credit files at Experian, Equifax, and Transunion. This takes just a couple of minutes and it ensures that no identity thief can take out credit in your name. When your files are in a “freeze,” no new credit can be added unless YOU lift the freeze with your own personal PIN.
TBD: What were some of the difficulties of putting together a book of practical nonfiction?
SB: I think the biggest challenge is breaking down scary-sounding, and occasionally complex, concepts into easy to understand actions and then motivating the reader to act.
In Hack-Proof Your Life Now!, we’re trying to deliver on our promise of “online security made easy for everyone.” It’s true, we’re no longer in the innocent “you’ve got mail” era. It’s much more serious. Our computers and devices are connected to everything. That’s fine, even good, as long as everyone realizes they need to adopt a certain number smart security activities. It’s not unlike driving a car. You need to do a few important things to keep your car in good running order and you always need to follow common-sense actions when you’re operating your car out in the world. It’s the same for using our Internet-connected devices.
Another challenge was making the book fun, action-oriented and accessible. Cybersecurity is regularly cast as a dark, dangerous underworld of hooded miscreants looking to ruin our lives and drain our bank accounts. That’s partly true and contributes to people feeling overwhelmed and frightened by the topic. Our challenge was to show the reader how to break through that inertia. In the beginning of the book, the reader measures their “cybersecurity score.” Normally, people score very low. But we then lead the reader through taking a handful of simple actions that quickly boost their security and give them confidence and knowledge that being secure online is completely possible.
TBD: Did you find that writing a book based on your business helped you to articulate even further exactly what you do? Has this helped your business as a result?
SB: The book grew out of a workshop we created for the public called “One Hour to Savvy Cybersecurity.” The reception from the workshop, presented hundreds of times in the U.S. and Canada, told us we needed to find a way to get our message to the wider public.
Going to the next step of writing a book just forced us to continue to struggle with refining and organizing our cybersecurity concepts so that the reader could see a clear, easy path to taking action.
Cybersecurity is a very big, sprawling topic. Many books on the topic focus on crime, the underworld, terrorism or cyberwar—all informative, even entertaining. Some books that focus on personal security deliver long, comprehensive lists of threats and 50, 60, 70 things we should do to stay safe.
People will usually throw up their hands when faced with a huge list of possible threats and actions. So writing Hack-Proof Your Life Now! meant continually honing our recommendations to the most important, do-able actions people can take to boost their online security. By doing that, it’s also caused us to see more deeply into the topic and identify other areas where we can take our “online security made easy for everyone” mantra. For instance, business owners and executives face a separate group of actions in order to “hack-proof” their enterprises. So writing the book, and struggling with what to exclude rather than include, crystalized in our minds new areas of focus for the future.
TBD: Our children are on our computers all the time downloading who knows what. How do we protect ourselves from our kids and how do we make our kids aware of the risks?
SB: Hack-proofing your kids is a second order of business many of us face once we’ve protected ourselves. Any family that is sharing a computer with young children needs to restrict the ability for the child to download files and programs on their own. (Just search Google for “how to restrict downloads” for your computer’s operating system.) If you don’t do that, your child can easily download dangerous malware when they think they’re actually getting something that will help with a game like Club Penguin or Minecraft. For teenagers, learning good cybersecurity is right up there with safe sex and driving skills—key things you must learn as you approach adulthood.
TBD: How did you get into the business of helping people not get hacked?
SB: My company, Horsesmouth, helps financial planners deliver financial education in their communities. It’s our mission to help people make the right decisions about the complex financial decisions they face in life, including protecting their identities and finances from fraud. After the infamous Target breach in 2013, we realized no one in the public’s life acts as a guide, or professional “nudge,” to encourage people to boost their online security.
It became our aim to help Internet users quickly and easily boost their online security, especially those worried about identity theft, concerned about hackers getting into their email and bank accounts, and people who want to use the Internet with confidence that they’re in control of their safety, not the hackers.
So we created a workshop called “One Hour to Savvy Cybersecurity.” It is based on surveying more than 1,500 people. The workshop has been delivered hundreds of times in the U.S. and Canada to rave reviews.
During our research, we discovered that people can actually quickly and easily boost their online security. How we do this is by getting people to measure their current “Cybersecurity Score” and then showing them simple, clear, and effective action steps they can take right now to dramatically boost their safety—usually for little or no cost.
TBD: What’s the worst hacking story you’ve come across?
SB: Wow. We run into new stories every day. For instance, last week I had two friends, within two hours, tell me identical stories about getting lured into the phony Apple Tech Support scam. Don’t ever respond to a pop-up on your screen telling you to contact any organization because you have a “virus.” It’s a scam. Just close your browser, and if you still have any trouble, restart your computer. Whatever you do, don’t call them.
The worst stories these days involve the growing ransomware threat. This happens when people click on a fake email link that suddenly encrypts their computer and demands ransom in order to get back access to their computer and its files. It happened to a colleague, right in front of us, while we were writing the book. It happened last week to an entire hospital in the U.K., causing the cancellations of surgeries, closing of their emergency room, and cancellation of nearly all doctors’ appointments. Totally devastating. And it happened because one person clicked on a dangerous link. In our book, we teach the “10-Second EMAIL Rule” where EMAIL stands for “examine message and inspect links.” It’s an easy system to remember and it shows you how to unmask the true identity of someone sending a suspicious email and see the true destination of the dangerous link they’re trying to get you to click.
TBD: What’s one simple thing we can do to better protect our smartphones?
SB: Everyone should put the strongest passcodes on their smartphones and tablets. The strongest codes are the six-digit options. Most phones started with a four-digits. When you change from four digits to six digits, you increase the possible combinations from 10,000 to one million, which makes cracking your code much harder.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but do you have any advice for writers?
SB: For writers, I’d offer two bits of important advice. First, start using a “cloud service” to routinely and automatically back up your files to the cloud. When you set up one of these services, such as Drobox or Google Drive, your files are saved locally to your computer and also out on the web, in “the cloud.” Once you set it up, you don’t need to do anything special. It’s a safe, easy, and affordable way to always have backup copies of your files. If you ever click into a ransomware scam—where hackers encrypt your computer and hold it for ransom—you can ignore them and retrieve your files from the cloud.
Two, we all need to change our views about updating software and do it all the time—routinely. That’s because many hackers exploit dangerous security holes in widely used software programs. If you visit a malware-infected website, the hackers’ program can tell if your programs are not updated and quietly slip a malware program onto your computer. Then you’re in trouble and you might not even know it. Updating your software is the one thing nearly all security experts do religiously. That’s because they know that the software updates are closing security holes that could inflict serious damage to them and their computers and devices. You can set many of your most important software programs to automatically update.
We met Suzanne Trauth when she participated in our Pitchapalooza (think American Idol for books except kinder and gentler) at Watchung Booksellers. She pitched a piece of women’s fiction, which eventually morphed into a cozy mystery, and then she turned that mystery into a three-book deal with Kensington Books. Now that the first book, Show Time, is out, we thought we would pick her brain on writing, publishing, and getting a book deal.
Suzanne Trauth: I wrote in different genres at different points in my life. I wrote nonfiction works during my career as an academic theater professor. I also started writing screenplays during that period. But toward the end of my academic career, I segued into writing plays and novels. Though the writing varies widely, the basic approach is the same: sitting down in front of a blank screen and facing my fears that nothing will happen!
Suzanne Trauth’s novels include Show Time (2016) and Time Out (2017), the initial books in a new mystery series published by Kensington Books. Her plays include Françoise, nominated for the Kilroy List; Midwives developed at Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey; Rehearsing Desire; iDream, supported by the National Science Foundation’s STEM initiative; and Katrina: the K Word. Suzanne wrote and directed the short film Jigsaw and is a member of the Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and the Dramatists Guild. www.suzannetrauth.com
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Jonathon Keats on Buckminster Fuller, Being a Critic, a Writer, and How to Get Unusual Books Published
We first met Jonathon Keats many years ago, and we were immediately struck by what an eclectic set of interests he had, and what amazing bowties he wore. He’s working on a couple new projects, and his book You Belong to the Universe: Buckminster Fuller and the Future came out this year, so we picked his brain about philosophy, lighting, publishing, and how to get strange and beautiful books published.
The Book Doctors: First of all, tell us about your new book.
Jonathon Keats: I’ve written a book that explores the legacy of Buckminster Fuller, a visionary inventor and architect who styled himself as a comprehensive anticipatory design scientist. Fuller spent much of the 20th century striving “to make the world work for one hundred percent of humanity.” His visionary thinking led most famously to his invention of the Geodesic Dome, but I believe his deeper legacy was as a pioneer of what we now refer to as world-changing ideas. Many of these – such as visualizing global resources and gaming world peace – were not possible in Fuller’s lifetime but have become feasible since his death in 1983, and are now urgently needed to meet the growing demands of an exploding world population.
My ambition with this book is to revive Fuller’s comprehensivist approach to framing and addressing colossal problems. Along the way I delve into his life story and personal eccentricities. This is a man who seriously proposed to make cars with inflatable wings and to build a dome over Manhattan. He was equal parts genius and crackpot, and I believe we need to consider all aspects of his character if we’re going to responsibly revive comprehensive anticipatory design science in our own time.
TBD: How exactly does one go about becoming a professional conceptual artist and experimental philosopher?
JK: It happened by default. I studied philosophy in college, but ultimately found it too stiflingly academic. So I sought ways in which to do philosophy in public, engaging the broadest possible audiences in questions that ultimately concern everyone: questions about what we value in life and what kind of future we want.
For instance, I recently designed a camera with a hundred-year-long exposure. Hundreds of these devices have been hidden in cities worldwide. You might think of them as surveillance cameras, invisibly watching over the decisions we make. They’ll reveal our activities to future generations that have no way of influencing us yet will be impacted by many of the choices we’re making today.
I’ve found the art world to be the most permissive realm in which to undertake these large-scale thought experiments. If I’m a conceptual artist, it’s really a matter of convenience. Conceptual art provides cover for doing what I’ve always done, which is to systematically question everything.
TBD: What has being a critic taught you about writing?
JK: Criticism keeps me honest. It exposes me to other work and helps me to examine my own work at a distance.
TBD: How did you go about getting your book published?
JK: This is my third book with Oxford University Press. My first book was about language and my second one was about forgery, and before those I wrote a collection of stories inspired by Talmud, which was published by Random House. My interests are eclectic and my writing reflects that. I suppose it can be a liability in terms of getting published, since publishers may be unsure of how to define me, but at a certain point, the eclecticism became a defining characteristic. My books all have in common the fact that they have nothing in common except my eclectic sensibility. Somehow it seems to work – and eclecticism turns out to be a good starting point for writing about a comprehensive anticipatory design scientist.
TBD: What do you want people to take away from the book?
JK: I want people to understand Buckminster Fuller’s way of thinking. Equally important, I want people to appreciate the limitations of his worldview. Fuller was a techno-utopian who believed that all problems could be solved by engineering. This assumption has become mainstream as companies like Google have come to dominate the planet. By seeing the ways in which Fuller failed – and there were many – we can be smarter about technology and how we engage the new economy.
TBD: Tell us about the global warming ice cream project.
JK: Maybe I should blame it on Fuller. He was obsessed with data visualization. Toward that end, he invented the Geoscope, a vast animated globe intended to reveal patterns ranging from cloud cover to human migration. While the Geoscope never got built, visualization has subsequently become increasingly mainstream. We’re increasingly immersed in big data, and we increasingly rely on visualization to model complex systems.
Yet for all the benefits of visualization, we remain incapable of understanding many phenomena, from the accelerating expansion of the universe to the intricacies of climate change. So I started thinking about whether visualization was the only way of examining complex patterns, and I realized that there was another option. Instead of visualizing complex systems, we could gastronify them. In other words, we could eat our data.
The human gut turns out to be a remarkably intelligent organ, second only to the brain in number of neurons. The enteric nervous system is also manifestly unlike our gray matter, as is suggested by talk about ‘gut feelings.’ By representing scientific models with digestible biochemicals instead of colored arrows, it’s possible to expose scientific phenomena to the alimentary canal, where they may be understood in terms that elude the brain.
Over the past year, I’ve been developing a chemical language based on the effect of substances like vanillin and capsaicin on receptors lining the intestine. Practically any phenomenon can be represented, but I’m initially concentrating on global warming, transforming the carbon cycle and albedo effect into edible feedback loops. My gastronification of the global climate will be presented next month at the STATE Festival in Berlin, where it will be consumed not only by climate scientists but also the general public.
I’ve chosen to serve the climate feedback loops in a specially-made sorbet, since ice cream seems to be universally popular and is bound only to become more so as the planet warms. Unlike the conundrum of dark energy, climate change needs to be understood by everybody because we need to act on it as a society. By consuming my sorbet, people may internalize the problem, emotionally confronting climate change through the enteric nervous system.
TBD: How does being a visual artist influence you as a writer?
JK: I really don’t differentiate between the two modes of expression, at least at the outset. In some cases ideas are more effectively explored through narrative, while others can be examined more incisively through an object or installation. So for any given project, I decide on an approach that I think will be most generative. There are countless considerations – such as the trade-off between control and flexibility – but ultimately I work on instinct.
And I’m also pretty promiscuous. Over the years I’ve made numerous artist’s books, and my installations inevitably involve language. Just consider all the words I’ve used to talk about data gastronification – and I’m only getting started.
TBD: What were some of your favorite books as a kid, and why? What are you reading these days?
JK: My favorite books as a child are still some of my favorites, and remain some of the most profound influences on what I do every day. Harold and the Purple Crayon showed me how to create an imaginary world with the simplest imaginable materials. Goodnight Moon taught me philosophy. (What to make of the page reading “Goodnight nobody”? I’m still trying to figure it out.) The light touch of the best children’s books allows them to probe deeper than most anything else ever written. In everything I do, I strive for that lightness. I have yet to achieve it.
The books I’m reading today are often those that I’m reviewing. (The most recent is Time Travel by James Gleick.) Then there are new books by friends, such as Damion Searls’s excellent forthcoming history of the Rorschach Test, The Inkblots. And finally there are books I find myself rereading on a regular basis, always finding something I hadn’t previously noticed. One of those is Five Hundred and Seven Mechanical Movements by Henry T. Brown. (The title pretty well encapsulates what it’s about.)
TBD: How would you improve the English language?
JK: I think we could benefit immeasurably by adding to our relatively meager stock of tenses and moods. One addition that comes to mind in this election season is the faithful. It would work much like the conditional, only instead of indicating statements of possibility, the faithful would mark statements of belief. (Present: I have, you have, s/he has. Conditional: I would have, you would have, s/he would have. Faithful: I believe I have, you believe you have, s/he believes s/he has.) The widespread adoption of the faithful tense – especially the first person faithful – might lead to greater accountability not so much because politicians would actually use it but because we’d be more attuned to what they were avoiding.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?
JK: The virtues of procrastination are greatly underestimated. I tend to do my most interesting work when I’m working on too many things and alternatingly procrastinating on all of them. Projects get mixed up in my head. Serendipitous connections occur to me. And serendipity is a pretty good proxy for creativity.
Jonathon Keats is a writer, artist and experimental philosopher. He is recently the author of the story collection The Book of the Unknown (Random House), winner of the American Library Association’s 2010 Sophie Brody Medal, as well as Virtual Words: Language on the Edge of Science and Technology (2010) and Forged: Why Fakes are the Great Art of Our Age (2013), both published by OUP.
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When we first moved to New Jersey, we were lucky to meet a few local writers. One of them was Caroline Leavitt. We kept running into her at writers conferences and book festivals, and we became huge fans of her and her books. She is the quintessential writer’s writer. When we found out about her new book, Cruel Beautiful World, we picked her brain on the state of writing, publishing, and how the heck she got Scott Simon to interview her on National Public Radio.
TBD: David was coming of age in that strange period between the ‘60s and the ‘70s, when America went from being obsessed with flower power and the Grateful Dead to disco and cocaine. What draws you to this strange crossroads in American history?
CL: Oh, I was coming of age then, too. I wanted to go out to San Francisco and wear flowers in my hair and “meet some gentle people” but I was too young. So I hung out at the Love-Ins in Boston with my older sister. There was such profound hope in the ‘60s, a sense that we really could change the world for the better. And then the ‘70s hit. And Nixon invaded Cambodia. And Kent State happened. And the Mansons. What happens when dreams turn into a reality you didn’t expect? Can you still find meaning in your life? That’s what really interested me.
TBD: We work with so many writers who have a bizarre conception of what it is to be a writer: you’re suddenly filled with inspiration, you dash off your opus, and then you sit in your cabin by the lake while the royalty checks roll in. Of course, anyone who’s written a book knows it’s mostly sitting by yourself in a room, slogging away and trying to chisel out a work of art and commerce from a lump of clay you have to create with your imagination. As authors who’ve been writing for decades, we have to ask, why the heckfire do you do it?
CL: I firmly believe if I didn’t do it, I would be insane. And also because I love the whole sensation of being in another world, of creating characters. Maybe I am a bit of a masochist, but I love the hard, hard work.
CL: I’m writing the first chapter of my new book, and I’m too superstitious to say anything about it. I’m reading Shelter in Place by Alexander Maksik, which is fabulous, and I have this book Idaho by Emily Ruskovich.
TBD: We hate to have to ask you this, but we do. What advice do you have for writers?
CL: Never ever ever ever give up. Never. Someone says, “no”? The next person might say, “yes.” And do not write to the marketplace. Write the book that speaks to you, that is going to change YOUR life. If your book can do that, well then, it will change the lives of others, too.Caroline Leavitt is the author of the Indie Next Pick Cruel Beautiful World, and the New York Times Bestsellers Pictures of You and Is This Tomorrow. She reviews books for the San Francisco Chronicle, The Boston Globe and People, and she teaches novel writing online at UCLA Writers Program Extension and Stanford, as well as working with private clients. She can be reached at www.carolineleavitt.com.
As The Book Doctors, we travel around the country, going to book festivals, writers conferences, and independent bookstores, and we kept hearing about Wordstock in Portland, Oregon, one of our favorite cities. When we looked at the roster of presenters this year, we were blown away: Sherman Alexie, Dianne Abu-Jaber, Carrie Brownstein. And our old friend Cathy Camper, who won our Pitchapalooza at Powell’s, the iconic bookstore in Portland, and now has two graphic novels out with Chronicle. So we thought we would pick the brain of Amanda Bullock, the festival director for Wordstock, and get some inside skinny on what makes Wordstock tick.
TBD: There are so many amazing writers and publishing professionals coming to this year’s Wordstock. We don’t mean to put you on the spot, but what are some of the things you are particularly excited about seeing?
AB: Thank you for mentioning this! We strive for diversity and inclusion in all aspects: genre, age, race, gender, geography, and so much more. It is definitely a hugely important part of our mission, both at Literary Arts and at Wordstock, and as a curator I am always working toward greater representation, diversity, and inclusiveness. I truly want there to be something for every reader at our festival.P.S. I’m also proud that we have great representation from independent publishers in our lineup!
TBD: David has performed at several Lit Crawls with the fantastic festival Litquake in San Francisco. We see you have one too. Describe the sheer exuberant fun of Lit Crawl for people who’ve never been to one.
AB: I was first introduced to Lit Crawl in New York, and it’s one of my favorite literary events. I’ve never believed that book events are boring — the cliché of a tweedy author in elbow patches droning on in front of a leather-bound library has never, ever been my experience at any kind of book event — but I love that Lit Crawl explodes that idea, that book events can be fun, and makes it super accessible by bringing literature “to the streets,” as they say. I think for readers, particularly those who don’t see themselves as a book-event type of person, it’s a wonderful introduction to the literary community. Book nerds are the most fun.
TBD: Portland has such a great tradition of artists and writers. What have you done to tap into that fantastic pool of talent in the Pacific Northwest?
AB: Half of our festival’s featured authors are Oregon writers! It’s not difficult at all to reach that goal, since, as you mentioned, we have such talented writers here. Literary Arts also presents the Oregon Book Awards and Fellowships, so we have a great pool of writers already part of the Literary Arts family. This year features past OBA&F winners or finalists Margaret Malone, Alexis Smith, Gina Ochsner, and many more!
TBD: People who’ve never put on an event like Wordstock have no idea how difficult it is. What are some of the joys and difficulties for you? And what are you going to do in terms of celebrating and collapsing once this thing is over?
AB: This sounds like I’m dodging the question but I swear it’s true: I love reading the books by the festival authors. Since I aim to program as diversely as possible, I’m often, of course, programming authors in genres I don’t read that often, and it’s great to find work I might not have come across if I wasn’t directing a festival in Portland.
I’ve mentioned a few times that the density of the festival is its strength — the sheer number of people — but of course, it’s so difficult to efficiently plan multiple venues and simultaneous events. We’ll always be learning how to do it a little better.
Last year I got a post-festival massage at Löyly, a lovely Finnish spa in Portland, and I’ll hopefully repeat that recovery plan this year… also whiskey.
TBD: We kind of hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?
AB: From an events perspective: Be a good literary citizen! It’s much easier for a bookstore to say yes to an unknown or up-and-coming author if you have been a part of their culture before pitching your event. Go to events, shop there, put the time in before your book is even written so that they’ll know you. In fact, work at a bookstore if that makes sense for you. And support other writers in your area by attending their events. Engage with the community!
Amanda Bullock is the Director of Public Programs at Literary Arts, a nonprofit literary center in Portland, Oregon. She is the festival director for Wordstock: Portland’s Book Festival and produces Portland Arts & Lectures. Prior to joining Literary Arts, she served as the Director of Public Programming at Housing Works Bookstore Cafe in downtown New York City. She is the co-founder and –organizer of Lit Crawl Portland, of the Downtown Literary Festival in NYC, and co-founder and –organizer of Moby-Dick Marathon NYC.
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Selling your First Novel, Maximizing Writers’ Conferences and Making a Living While Writing
We are lucky to live in a town called Montclair, New Jersey. We had no idea when we moved here how many amazing writers would live within a stone’s throw of us. One of them is Christina Baker Kline. We got to know her before her New York Times best-selling novel, Orphan Train, was published. She was at the center of the writing community in Montclair, helping writers both published and unpublished to get their foot into the door of the book biz. It often seems like a bestseller comes out of nowhere, fully formed like Athena springing from the head of Zeus. But as you’ll see from our interview with Christina, a groundbreaking novel, like Rome, is not built in a day.
The Book Doctors: You were a writer for many years before you had a mega bestseller. Take us down the path of your decision to become a writer, the arc of your career, and how it led up to your most recent success.
Christina Baker Kline: I have always been a working writer, by which I mean I was a scrappy kid. I was raised by professor parents who had no money. My mother taught at a community college. When I was about 11 or 12, she put me in charge of cooking, and she put my sister Cynthia, who was about 18 months younger, in charge of laundry. She had to stand on a box to do laundry. And so we became quite self-sufficient. We also took care of our two baby sisters. We called them The Babies until they were 12. And I remember one of my sisters saying, “You have to stop calling us The Babies. We’re not babies anymore.”
In college, I majored in English literature. I did a Masters of Arts in literature for graduate school, and then I did an MFA. For me, as it so happened, English was a marketable degree, even though people might not think of it that way, because that’s where my skills lie. My masters in English literature helped me get teaching jobs. For my MFA, I knew that I could stave off student loans for two more years, and I also wanted to write a novel, but I knew I would never be able to do it if I was working full-time. So I applied to ten programs. I got full fellowships at two, Michigan and The University of Virginia, to, as far as I was concerned, write a novel. They didn’t know I was going to write a novel. MFA programs are not set up to write novels. But I was very directed. I had one shot, and then I was going to be repaying student loans and working. I wrote my first novel in two years while pretending to be writing short stories. I kind of handed in little bits and pieces and old stories.
I also was an entrepreneur, and I had a company called Writing Works, which I started with another grad student. We edited Guggenheim applications, professors’ essays, and letters. Books even. Then I came to New York and continued that little company. I’ve always set up a life in which I was working as an editor and teaching.
I’ve always assumed I would have to make a living in addition to writing. I have ten books, and I’ve always gotten reasonable advances. I broke six-figures once in that period of all those books, but I always had high five-figure advances. Sometimes I could support myself for a year, and sometimes I couldn’t. But the big picture is, I always knew that I wanted to write, and I always assumed it would also entail making a living in some other way as well. So I never expected to write a book that would mean I wouldn’t have to do other jobs.
TBD: What happened to that first novel?
CBK: For my first novel, I got $7,500. It was the little engine that could, and it far surpassed my modest expectations. We sold rights in other countries. We sold film rights, first serial rights. It was a Reader’s Digest Condensed Book. For $40,000, Reader’s Digest bought it. That was huge because the book had earned out way before it came out. This led to a bidding war for my next novel. Of course, that’s how I thought it would continue forever. But the second novel did very poorly, and I had gotten a big advance. So I sold my next novel for a reasonable amount and got myself back on track in terms of publishers not being terrified to take me on. And then my next book was much darker, more serious. That didn’t do so well. My career was very up-and-down. That brings us to Orphan Train.
TBD: It’s interesting that you’ve never really experienced full-on rejection in the way that most writers have. Despite the ups and downs, it sounds like a really nice run!
CBK: Not exactly. I have been protected a bit from rejection. But I went through one very dark period. I had this wonderful experience with my first novel. I had a lot of interest in my second novel. But the editor who bought it was a celebrity editor; she was not hands-on. She took on a lot of writers like me, paid them well because she had a big budget, and then waited to see who would rise to the top. She’d tell me she read the manuscript but didn’t seem to know the story. Her assistant would call and say it was in the pipeline, and I would know it wasn’t. Crazy. I had just had my third child, my second book had done poorly, and my life was kind of a shit show.
TBD: You’ve written many different kinds of books. Now you have a huge bestseller. Do you feel pressure to recreate Orphan Train?
CBK: As you said, all of my books are really different from each other, and they probably always will be. I don’t feel constrained by the weight of Orphan Train. I feel freed by it in a way. Nobody ever thought Orphan Train was going to be a bestseller. There are these books–Eat, Pray, Love, or Water for Elephants, or The Lovely Bones–that writers publish and then have respectable careers, but they don’t repeat that level of commercial success. I fully intend to be that kind of writer. I don’t plan on having another one. I’m not a writer like Stephen King whose books will always be at the top of the bestseller list. And I don’t feel bad about it.
Look at a writer like Claire Messud, who made a big splash with her novel The Emperor’s Children. That was her big book, and she’s very respected. But if you read her other novels, they are very dark and intense. It’s who she is and what she does, and she’s not trying to write to an audience.
My next book is quiet and interior; it’s about a woman who essentially never leaves her house.
Another thing: after I handed in Orphan Train, before it came out, I called everyone I knew in publishing and asked for jobs. I thought, “I have to get a full-time job as an editor. I can’t do this anymore. This book is probably just going to fail.” I was editing 50 manuscripts a year and teaching. It was grueling. I had several interviews, and they all basically said, “You’re too old. There’s no way we’re hiring you as an editorial assistant or anything else.” They didn’t say that, but it was clear. I thought, “What am I going to do? Just work at Starbucks or something?”
TBD: You still teach at writers’ conferences. I see you’re going to be at the Kauai Writers Conference in November. (So jealous!) What impresses you when you come across someone who has never been published when you’re in this environment?
CBK: I was reading The New York Times on the plane yesterday, and there was this person talking about what leads to success. He said there’s an equation, which is Talent + Work = Skill. Skill + Work = Success. But Big Success is when you have a vision of how what you’re doing makes the world a better place. So what I guess impresses me is when they have the talent, the work ethic, the willingness to read a lot, and are willing to edit their own work–a lot of people aren’t. To me, editing is the secret to writing. I edit so much, and I think it’s very important. In literary stories and novels the sound and rhythm of words matter. But understand that even if you want to write a literary novel, plot and structure are incredibly important.
TBD: And on the flip side of that, what do you see people doing that’s a turnoff
CBK: If people want things from me but they don’t know my work, or they haven’t read it and have nothing to say about it, then I’m as anonymous to them as they are to me. If I don’t feel they have any particular reason for approaching me, I don’t have any particular reason for helping them. But if a writer knows my work and has some kind of connection to it, I’m open to being approached. I love discovering and championing great new writing. It’s one of the best things about this writing life.
TBD: We can’t wait to read the next book, Christina!
Christina Baker Kline is the author of five novels. Her most recent novel, Orphan Train, has spent more than two years on the New York Times bestseller list, including five weeks at # 1, and has been published in 38 countries. More than 100 communities and colleges have chosen it as a “One Book, One Read” selection. Her other novels include The Way Life Should Be, Sweet Water, Bird in Hand, and Desire Lines. Her new novel, based on the iconic painting Christina’s World by Andrew Wyeth, will be published in Winter 2017.
In addition to her five novels, Kline has written and edited five nonfiction books. She commissioned and edited two widely praised collections or original essays on the frist year of parenthood and raising young children, Child of Mine and Room to Grow, and a book on grieving, Always Too Soon. She is the coeditor, with Anne Burt, of a collection of personal essays called About Face: Women Write About What They See When They Look in the Mirror, and is co-author, with her mother, Christina Looper Baker, of a book on feminist mothers and daughters, The Conversation Begins. Her essays, articles, and reviews have appeared in The New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, Money, More, Psychology Today, among other places.
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We first met Jenise Aminoff at the New England SCBWI Conference in Springfield, Massachusetts. She wowed us with her awesome pitch at our Pitchapalooza (think American Idol for books), and we were absolutely sure that she was going to be a published author sooner rather than later. Sure enough, her new book, A Witch’s Kitchen, is coming out, and we thought we would pick her brain about her road to publication.
The Book Doctors: How did you learn to be a writer?
Jenise Aminoff: Yikes. There are so many ways I could answer that question. The simple answer is that I took a lot of classes. When I got to MIT, thinking I’d be a physicist or aero/astro engineer, I started taking writing classes as stress relief. Contrary to popular belief, MIT actually has a robust humanities department and an excellent writing program. At some point, I realized that I was enjoying writing much more than solving equations, so I changed majors. I have a bachelor’s of science in writing, and my thesis was poetry. Go figure.
One of the classes I took was Joe Haldeman’s Science Fiction Writing. He told us about the Clarion Workshop, so the fall after I graduated (and got married), I applied and got in. Clarion ’95 was an incredible experience, and a lot of fantastic writers came out of it. Josh Peterson attended having just won the Writers of the Future contest. Kelly Link (a recent Pulitzer finalist) sold her first story to Asimov‘s during Clarion. Nalo Hopkinson (won a Campbell and a Nebula and many, many more), Lucy Snyder (just won a Stoker), and Michael Warren Lucas have all gone on to be successful novelists. Bruce Glassco wrote the incredibly popular board game Betrayal at House on the Hill.
Going from that to the MFA program at Emerson College was a huge letdown, and I quit after one semester. But I needed a job, so a friend took pity on me and got me a job as a technical writer. Funny thing: if you tell people you have a degree in writing from MIT, they immediately assume it’s technical or scientific writing. Since then, I’ve been a technical writer, science writer, information designer, webmaster, grants writer, marketing content writer, and STEM curriculum designer.
For a long time, my fiction and poetry took a backseat to career and kids, but then a novel fell on my head. And I realized I was in trouble because I’d never studied long-form fiction, and novels are NOT just longer versions of short stories. So I found more classes to take: Odyssey Online’s Fabulous Dialogue in Fantastic Fiction with Jeanne Cavelos, Writing Middle Grade/YA Novels with Holly Thompson, and Odyssey Online’s Getting the Big Picture (novel revision) with Barbara Ashford.
All throughout this, I was keeping active in one way or another. I belonged to critique groups, live and online. I was a slush reader for Aboriginal Science Fiction magazine right after Clarion, and after the first Odyssey Online class, I became an editor for New Myths magazine. I ran a reading series with an open mic for nearly ten years. And I read and read and read, everything I could get my hands on about writing: Le Guin’s Steering the Craft; Lawrence Block’s Spider, Spin Me a Web; Don Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel; Cathy Yardley’s Rock Your Plot; and of course, The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published. I also joined the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and read their annual guide and quarterly newsletters and online articles.
TBD: What were some of your favorite books as a kid, and why?
JA: Yikes squared. How long can this article be? I’m a VORACIOUS reader.
When I was still in the children’s room of the Ernie Pyle branch of the Albuquerque Public Library, I read Walter Farley (The Black Stallion), Marguerite Henry (Misty of Chincoteague), Frances Hodgson Burnett (The Secret Garden, The Little Princess). At my school library, I read all the Happy Hollisters and the Oz novels, Louisa May Alcott and Laura Ingalls Wilder. Then one day, when I was nine, I stumbled across a new book, Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonflight. Yes, I know that’s not a juvenile. Someone had misshelved it, I suppose. But I checked it out, read it with avid interest, brought it back, and asked if there were more.
The children’s librarian looked at me. “You read this? Did you understand it?” When I nodded, she called my mother over, spoke to her briefly, then turned back to me and said, “Come with me.” She led me into the adult section of the library and placed in my hands a small paperback: J.R.R Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring.
I owe that librarian so much, and I never even knew her name. After that, I had the run of the adult section. My mother was a mystery reader, but she also liked Ray Bradbury and introduced me to him. I started reading the entire SF section starting with the A’s: Anthony, Asimov, Beagle, Bradley, Cherryh, Clarke, Donaldson, Doyle… Eventually, I looped back to juveniles and found Lloyd Alexander and Madeline L’Engle. Of these, the ones I read over and over and over were Peter Beagle’s The Last Unicorn, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, all the McCaffreys, L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, and, in my teen years, Windhaven by George R.R. Martin and Lisa Tuttle.
TBD: What are you reading these days?
JA: Still reading children’s literature, everything my girls bring into the house, plus a lot of stuff they don’t find interesting but I do. I’m currently investigating verse novels as an interesting form I’d never known about. Also adult SF, particularly Seanan McGuire, Cat Valente, N.K. Jemison, Daniel Jose Older, John Scalzi, and China Mieville. My husband is a history buff, and he hands me the well written stuff. I’m currently reading Sailing the Wine Dark Sea by Thomas Cahill. I’m also reading some basic psychology, articles on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs as a framework for structuring character development. I’m working my way through Second Sight by Cheryl B. Klein. I follow several web comics religiously: xkcd, Girl Genius, Questionable Content, Mare Internum, Blindsprings, Kiwiblitz, and Phoebe and Her Unicorn.
TBD: How did you come up with the idea for your book?
JA: It fell on my head. Really. In my family, we make each other Christmas presents. Right after Thanksgiving 2013, my younger daughter asked me to write her a story with fairies and unicorns as her present. I thought, okay, sure, 10 pages or so. A couple of days later, I was watching my older daughter baking a cake. She doesn’t use recipes (that’s cheating), and sometimes her cakes are fabulous and sometimes they’re awful, but most of the time they’re okay. I thought, What if there were a young witch who just can’t figure out magic but is really good at cooking? And I started writing. And writing. And the story wouldn’t end. By Christmas, I had something like 50 pages written, and I knew then that it was a novel. I finished the first draft in time for her birthday in March, and it was around 50k words by then.
In A Witch’s Kitchen, Millie’s an apprentice witch who can’t cast a successful spell but who can cook amazing meals and scrumptious desserts. Her mother’s only interested in the magic, though, so Millie feels unappreciated and worthless. Millie’s grandmother comes up with the clever idea of sending her to the Enchanted Forest School, where she studies magic and many other things with fairies and dragons and goblins, reconnects with her half-brother, a wizard, befriends a pixie and an elf, and starts discovering that her cooking has value, and her magic isn’t so messed up as it seems. Ultimately, the novel’s about not letting other people define you.
TBD: What were some of the joys and perils of writing your novel?
JA: Joys and perils is a good way to describe it. On the one hand, it was glorious. Words just kept pouring out of me in this seemingly unending stream, and the big challenge was finding time in which to write. Fortunately, my employer decided to move to a new location which would have meant a 90-minute commute for me, so I gleefully quit and focused on the novel. But I really had no idea what I was doing. It felt like navigating a maze in total darkness using only my elbows. Characters would suddenly appear out of nowhere and take over the plot, and I’d later have to ruthlessly revise them out. And because this was my first novel, every niggling little idea I’d ever had, and every moral I wanted to pass on to my girls, showed up in one form or another. And I then had to prune and prune and prune. I have determined, empirically, that I am not a pantser. All those years as a technical writer, I suppose.
TBD: How did you go about selling your book?
JA: First, I joined SCBWI and looked through their annual guide, The Book, and their lists of agents and their sample query letter. I usually attend Arisia, the largest SF convention in Boston, and it so happened that in January 2015, N.K. Jemison was doing a pitch session, so I signed up for that. I really had no idea what a pitch was, so I read her the first paragraph of my query letter, and she had some good advice for fixing that up. Her assistant gave me some comp suggestions.
Then I went to the New England SCBWI Conference in Springfield in April 2015, and I learned so much, my head nearly exploded. On the first day, I went to a query critique session with agent Kaylee Davis, and she had some very helpful advice. I was attending with my friend Dirk Tiede, who was also a first-time attendee, and he insisted I had to do the Pitchapalooza. I really didn’t want to; pitching in front of a huge crowd of people I didn’t know sounded absolutely terrifying, but Dirk was pitching, so I put my name in to be supportive. When you pulled my name out of that bucket, I was sitting on the floor in the back of the room, frantically revising that pitch using Davis’s advice. The sheet of paper I brought up was scribbled over and scratched out and rewritten. But I pitched it, and I won. I’m still stunned by this. I’d never even seen a Pitchapalooza before.
This gave me a lot of confidence. Taking what I learned at the conference, I revised the novel again, and I started querying in June, without a whole lot of success. My manuscript buddy Dana told me about Twitter pitch parties, and I tried a few of those and got a few lukewarm responses. And then my friend Elizabeth told me about the Young Explorers’ Adventure Guide, an annual anthology of science fiction written for children, mostly middle grade but also a little YA. I checked out the publisher, Dreaming Robot Press, and I noticed that they were accepting submissions for MG fantasy novels. So I sent them my query. They got back to me in early August expressing interest, and I called in my Pitchapalooza prize, a consultation with you. Thank you so much for holding my hand through that process.
Despite your and my best efforts, I never landed an agent, but I got a lot of good advice from Gay Haldeman and Jeanne Cavelos and Barbara Ashford, and I signed with Dreaming Robot Press in February 2016.
TBD: What was it like to do a Kickstarter campaign? What are some do’s and don’ts that you learned?
JA: The Kickstarter campaign was wild and terrifying and huge fun, all at the same time. I’d been involved in a failed Kickstarter before, but Dreaming Robot Press had done two successful Kickstarters in the past, and I trusted them to make it work. One smart thing they did was pair me up with a more seasoned author, Susan Jane Bigelow, whose Extrahuman Union series is now being republished by The Book Smugglers Publishing. One mistake they made was setting the goal way too low, at just $850. We funded it in the first seven hours, during our Facebook launch party! After that, I think a lot of people just thought, oh, it funded, I don’t need to support this, so getting more buy-in was hard.
I kept trying to come up with stretch goals. I offered to publish a companion cookbook, and we blew through that stretch goal within 24 hours. I then offered to do free school visits for every $1000 over the goal, but that was too high, and it looks like I’ll only be doing one of those. During the middle slump, I got the Kickstarter posted on boingboing.net, and that same evening Susan and I were interviewed on the Sci-Fi Saturday Night podcast. All that effort netted us a total of four new supporters. But at the end, we came in at $2101, which is a pretty good feeling and some nice early publicity before publication in September.
TBD: Many writers have used pen names. In fact, David published a middle grade novel using another name, but that was because his publisher basically forced him. Why are you using one?
JA: I posted a long essay about my pen name on my Facebook author page. Here’s the short form: Dianna is my middle name, and Sanchez is my mother’s maiden name, so it’s as much my name as Jenise Aminoff. Growing up, I never saw Hispanic names on the spines of the books I read, and I never found Hispanic characters inside those books. As a child, I never questioned this. It was obvious that science fiction/fantasy was a white thing, as so many things were then.
It wasn’t until I got to college that I discovered black SF writers such as Samuel R. Delany (who was one of my Clarion instructors) and Octavia Butler. I started asking, where are all the Hispanic SF writers? I found Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jorge Luis Borges, but that was magic realism, and I didn’t really understand the distinction, why Hispanic speculative fiction needed its own little box. Thank goodness other Hispanic SF writers are starting to emerge now: Junot Diaz, Daniel Jose Older, Carmen Maria Machado.
I want my daughters to see Hispanic names on books. I want them to find Hispanic characters in books. I want other kids – white, black, Asian, whatever – to see them, too, and to understand that science fiction is for everyone.
TBD: What’s next?
JA: Right now, I’m in the middle of moving, but that’s starting to calm down a little, so I’m beginning to plan out my next novel. I have so many novels that have been simmering on back burners, it’s been hard to decide which ones to work on next. Right now, I’m outlining a MG urban fantasy which features cross-group characters: one black, one Hispanic, and one of mixed ancestry including Anasazi. It takes place in Albuquerque and addresses issues of culture shock and adapting to new environments.
At the same time, I really want to be working on a YA novel in which a Hispanic boy gets lost in an infinitely large discount store, encountering people from all over the world who are similarly trapped. There are so many fun things I can do with this, while also channeling a creepy vibe I haven’t really played with before. But this novel is much less fully developed than the MG novel, so I’ll probably work on that first. And I have a long, LONG list of other novels I want to get to, not to mention sequels to A Witch’s Kitchen.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?
JA: Ooh, now you’re playing dirty. Okay, here are the things I find myself telling people again and again.
- Go easy on yourself. Life is hard and crazy, and you never know from day to day what’s going to come along to sabotage your writing practice. Don’t feel bad about that, because your life informs your craft, and everything you do when you’re not writing is going to end up in your writing later. It’s great if you have a stable enough life that you can write a set number of hours every day, but if you can’t write every day, don’t let the shame of having failed prevent you from writing when you do have the time.
- That said, be persistent. So you didn’t write today. Tomorrow, find ten minutes to jot down ideas or do character sketches. Then, when you have a luxurious hour or two for uninterrupted writing, you’ve got material ready to work on.
- Don’t write alone. Find a critique group that’s supportive and dedicated, one that’s not overly harsh but also doesn’t pull punches, and one in which everyone is contributing more or less equally. These people are your lifeline. They will keep you sane. Critiquing their work will help you recognize what you should improve in your own writing. If you write kidlit, SCBWI has a critique group matching service you can use. If you don’t, Meetup is another great place to find groups. There are lots of online groups, too. Join the Fantasy and Science Fiction Writers in America Facebook group and just ask there. And if you can’t find a group that meets your needs, make one. That’s what I did, pulling together a bunch of people I met at that fateful 2015 conference. I love them all; I could never have finished my novel without them.
- Every first draft is terrible. Don’t lose heart. That’s what revision is for. I hate revising, passionately, and would rather go clean the bathroom or weed my garden. But revision is actually where things get interesting, when you pull together all the disparate threads of your story into a complex, well-woven whole. Think of revision as an endless series of do-overs. In time, you’ll get it just right.
Dianna Sanchez is the not-so-secret identity of Jenise Aminoff, whose superpower is cooking with small children. She is an MIT alumna, graduate of the 1995 Clarion Workshop and Odyssey Online, active member of SCBWI, and a former editor of New Myths magazine (www.newmyths.com). Aside from 18 years as a technical and science writer, she has taught science in Boston Public Schools, developed curricula for STEM education, and taught Preschool Chef, a cooking class for children ages 3-5. Her debut novel is A Witch’s Kitchen, forthcoming from Dreaming Robot Press in September 2016.