We’ve said it before, and will say it again: if you are writing for kids, or reading for kids, or ever were a kid yourself, it behooves you to be a member of the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). That’s where we met Josh Funk. Until recently, he was in charge of the annual conference, so we got to know him in an intimate yet thoroughly professional way. Josh is a bundle of creativity, imagination and good fun. And since his new book The Case of the Stinky Stench is out, we picked his brain about kids and books, and the strange and wonderful intersection of those two things.
The Book Doctors: Welcome back!
Josh Funk: Thank you so much for inviting me back, Arielle and David!
TBD: What books are you currently reading, and why?
JF: If it’s okay with you, I’m gonna answer the ‘why’ first. I recently returned home from a two-week tour celebrating The Case of the Stinky Stench, during which I went to 19 schools, a couple of public libraries, and over a dozen bookstores. Because of that, most of what I’m reading is based on bookseller recommendations – and I couldn’t have made a better decision to go that route. Booksellers know their stuff! So here’s what I’ve got:
Out of Wonder by Kwame Alexander with Chris Colderly and Marjory Wentworth, illustrated by Ekua Holmes – this one is so good, I often read a few of the poems contained within this book during my events (usually “How to Write a Poem,” “For Our Children’s Children,” and “Spin a Song”).
7 Ate 9 by Tara Lazar, illustrated by Ross MacDonald – to me, this is a perfect picture book. It’s overflowing with cleverness, exactly my kind of humor, gorgeous illustrations, a well-crafted story, and frankly, a solution I didn’t see coming (but I’ll bet some clever kids could figure it out). With six stellar picture books under her belt, Lazar is one of my favorite picture book authors today.
Stack the Cats by Susie Ghahremani – this book makes me chuckle on every page. I bought it for my 8-month old niece, and almost kept it for myself. Absurdist humor at its best. And a counting book (as a software engineer, I do love numbers!).
Timmy Failure #6: The Cat Stole My Pants by Stephan Pastis – this series is fantastic! I’ve read each book aloud with my kids and there are at least 2 or 3 times during each book when I have to stop cause I’m laughing so hard (it was Speedo Steve this time). I can’t wait for the movie!
The Gardener by Sarah Stewart, illustrated by David Small – so this has been one of my favorite books for a long time (one of four books that I credit with making me want to be a writer). But while at Bookbug in Kalamazoo, Michigan, about 5 minutes prior to my event, the proprietor of the store came over to me and whispered, “That’s Sarah Stewart and David Small.” Long-story-short…ish – they’re regulars and it was just a coincidence they showed up. Nevertheless, I shared my love of The Gardener with them, at which point Sarah asked me why I felt so strongly about the book. I gave her my reasons and she responded with a hug. Then they signed a copy for me and posed for a picture. Needless to say I was giddy with excitement during the event.
Some other books I bought based on bookseller recommendation (but haven’t gotten to read yet) are:
- Real Friends by Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham
- The Lost Island of Tamarind by Nadia Agular
- Bull by David Elliott
- Goodbye, Columbus by Philip Roth
- Red Rising by Pierce Brown
- The Highest Mountain of Books in the World by Rocio Bonilla
- King of the Bench: No Fear by Steve Moore
TBD: If we’re not mistaken, this is your last year running the fabulous New England SCBWI Conference. What have you learned from all this, and are you ready to pass out?
JF: I was co-director of the New England Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) Regional Spring Conference in 2016 and 2017 – and yes, my duties are now complete. It’s been an incredible experience working with my co-directors Heather Kelly, Sera Rivers, and Marilyn Salerno.
The NESCBWI Conference is a three-day conference (Fri-Sun) that takes place annually in Springfield, MA in late April / early May. This year we had over 700 attendees for the first time ever (to be fair, last year was 699, this year was 703). Planning duties have included:
- Selecting and scheduling 100+ hours of breakout workshops led by about 75-100 faculty members (each year we get well over 300 workshop proposals)
- Arranging 3-4 keynote speakers and another 3-4 keynote panels
- Organizing bonus activities like our Portfolio Showcase, Illustration Challenge, and evening activities
- Arranging professional critique opportunities with over two dozen literary agents, editors, and art directors
- Countless (but necessary) logistical arrangements with online registration databases, convention/hotel/AV staff, travel-related activities, and delegation of duties to over 100 volunteers
- And probably a lot more that I’ve already forgotten
Everything went swimmingly.
Did a New York City subway power outage cause the charter bus carrying most of the agents and editors to arrive with only minutes to spare before critiques began? Of course it did!
Did it matter that the hotel overbooked conference attendees by 14 rooms? Absolutely not!
What have I learned? Two things:
- Relax, it will always work out.
- I never want to become an event planner.
I probably would have passed out for a month … but due to the unpredictable schedules of publishing, my aforementioned book tour for The Case of the Stinky Stench started just six days later!
TBD: Tell us about The Case of the Stinky Stench. Everyone wants to know, why is the stench so stinky?
JF: Have you ever opened the fridge and smelled something funny? Have you followed that up by taking out every item until you’ve found the stinky culprit, only to find that it wasn’t the obvious ‘spoiled cheese’ or ‘rancid meat’ – but it was the last thing you’d have suspected? Who knew an innocent zucchini would turn that color? Or so that’s what happens when you put mushrooms next to mustard! (That’ll teach me to organize my fridge alphabetically.)
Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast was a race for the last drop of syrup. In this sequel, I wanted to keep the setting and characters, but change up the genre. Maybe if there’s a third one it’ll be an action-spy-thriller (wink-wink).
In The Case of the Stinky Stench, Inspector Croissant (Sir French Toast’s nephew) joins the team and they travel through the fridge chasing suspect after suspect. Is it Baron von Waffle in his evil lair (Onion Ring Cave)? Could it be a fetid fish in Corn Chowder Lake – or is the fish a literal red herring? I won’t ‘spoil’ the ending for you (but I’ll give you a hint – it is spoiled food).
TBD: How did you manage to make Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast such a great success?
JF: Thanks for the kind words about Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast, but I really can’t take credit for most of the success that it’s had.
First off, it has incredible illustrations (thanks, Brendan Kearney) and the Sterling Art Department put together a fantastic cover design. When the art started making its way around the Sterling offices, it got the Marketing and Publicity teams excited enough to create a big promotional push – they even made tote bags to give out at BookExpo! All that helped the Sterling Sales Reps get the book into stores big and small across the country.
And let’s face it, I had absolutely no control over everything in the previous paragraph.
But I did what I could. I created a book trailer:
Yes, that’s me singing (I created the whole trailer on my iPhone using the GarageBand app and iMovie).
I spend a lot of time on Twitter @joshfunkbooks sharing writing tips, educators’ blogs, other people’s good news, and generally putting out positive vibes in the kidlit world.
I attended many other author events in the years leading up to Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast’s publication. Not only did I learn a lot about what makes great events, but I met lots of authors, educators, and booksellers in the process.
I’ve tried to give back to the writing community. I co-directed the NESCBWI 2016 and 2017 Regional Conferences. I’m on the board of The Writers’ Loft in Sherborn, MA (if you’re in New England and you haven’t been – you MUST visit). I even created a 12-Step Guide to Writing Picture Books on my website – it’s basically a high level brain dump of everything I’ve learned about writing since I started.
But I think more than anything, what’s made Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast a success is the readers. Enthusiastic booksellers across the country who handsell it daily, like those at The Novel Neighbor in St. Louis and Octavia Books in New Orleans. Teachers and librarians who exuberantly share it with their students. And folks like you, The Book Doctors, who invite me to chat about it here.
TBD: How did studying computer science help (or hinder) you as a writer?
JF: I’d like you to imagine (because it’s true) that I’ve been sitting at my computer thinking about this for a very, very long time. I typed a few paragraphs, and then deleted them (because they don’t really answer the question OR have a point). I thought some more, typed some more, and deleted some more. Lather, rinse, repeat. Ultimately, the answer to your question is as follows:
I don’t think it’s helped or hindered me as a writer. I’ve been a software engineer for almost two decades. And I enjoy the day job. It’s possible that I’d had a lot of creativity bottled up over that time which is finally spilling out at a rate faster than one might expect.
So maybe the answer is that at first studying computer science hindered me as a writer, but now it’s helping? I guess it’s a wash. (Ha! Lather, rinse, repeat!)
TBD: How did you come up with all the cool extra stuff for kids: activity kits, character cards, etc.?
JF: Once again, the activity kits were all thanks to my publishers and illustrators. For Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast and The Case of the Stinky Stench, Sterling’s Marketing and Publicity (and probably Art and Design) teams put them together. They’re incredible! Coloring pages, word searches, mazes, crosswords, and a whole bunch of other stuff – all free to download and print from my website on my ‘Stuff for Kids’ page!
As far as the character cards, I was just about to order some bookmarks back in the summer of 2015 when I saw the option of ordering Collector’s Cards. At this point I realized two things:
- I write picture books, which rarely require bookmarks.
- Collector’s cards can easily be used as bookmarks.
So I began designing collector’s cards. And I had a lot of fun with that! For Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast, I made one for each of the main characters. I made six different ones for Pirasaurs! (thanks to Michael Slack for his help designing those), and I made three more for The Case of the Stinky Stench.
I even made an online quiz to determine Which Pirasaur Are You?! – I’m Bronto Beard, in case you were wondering.
TBD: What are you working on next?
JF: It’s interesting that you ask! I just spent a few hours revising [REDACTED] based on my editor’s comments. As you know, I’m very interested in the topic of [REDACTED]. And I’m excited to dive into [REDACTED], that’s gonna be fun to work on. I’ve seen some of [REDACTED]’s illustrations and they’re perfect.
In the near term, I’ve got a book called It’s Not Jack and the Beanstalk coming out this fall (9.19.17), illustrated by Edwardian Taylor. It’s not just a fractured-fairy-tale – it’s a META-fractured-fairy-tale – one where Jack doesn’t want to do what the reader tells him to do. Trade his cow for five beans? That’s a terrible idea! Climb the beanstalk? But there’s probably a giant up there! This one will make for a hilarious reader’s theater – and it’s my first picture book that isn’t in rhyme. If you don’t follow Edwardian Taylor on Instagram, you’re missing out. He is an incredible character designer.
Then, in 2018 I’ve got at least two more books coming out. In the spring, it’s Albie Newton (about a genius’s attempt to make friends on his first day of school – and his classmate’s ability to accept his ‘quirks’). This one is illustrated by Ester Garay – and everything I’ve seen so far is beyond adorable!
Then, Lost in the Library: A Story of Patience and Fortitude is the first picture book in Macmillan’s partnership with the New York Public Library – and I got to write the story of the two lion statues (Patience and Fortitude) that guard the steps on 5th Avenue. When Patience goes missing, Fortitude must search the entire library to find him! I’d already been a fan of Stevie Lewis’ art, and when they told me she had signed on to illustrate, I couldn’t have been more thrilled.
And yes, both Albie Newton and Lost in the Library are in rhyme.
TBD: How did you come up with your very entertaining live show? What have you observed that writers who present well do in common?
JF: Attending all of those author events before I released a book certainly paid off! I ‘spied’ on so many different author presentations! I learned what worked well with different ages and audience attention spans. And I definitely learned a thing or twelve from amazing performances by the likes of Ame Dyckman, Kate Messner, Tara Lazar, Bob Shea, Anna Staniszewski, Lynda Mullaly Hunt, Jarrett J. Krosoczka, and many others kidlit stars.
But it really comes down to one thing: know your audience. I’m reading to kids ages 0-10(ish) and their caregivers. I’ve got to be entertaining and enthusiastic for those two groups.
Not all crowds are the same. Some jokes work better in one situation vs another. But I always try to have fun – and I hope that’s what lasts in the minds of the readers.
TBD: Why is Twitter your social media platform of choice?
JF: Twitter is a great way to interact with readers. I’ve become e-friends with many educators, booksellers, writers, illustrators, and booklovers of all sorts on Twitter. And in many cases I’ve ended up getting to hang out with these folks in real life because of Twitter. I schedule most of my classroom Skype visits with teachers and librarians in Twitter chats. Sometimes teachers tweet me questions on their students’ behalf.
I’ve even attended several conferences that stemmed from Twitter relationships. This summer, I’ll be attending my third nErDcampMI, a national literacy conference for educators started by the founders of the Nerdy Book Club. The Nerdy Book Club is blog with daily guest posts (mostly by educators and authors), but it is also an unofficial ‘club’ that is open to anyone who loves books (especially those written for children). These nErDcamps are popping up everywhere (New England, Long Island, Kansas, New Jersey, Pacific Northwest, soon in North Carolina) – and they’re an amazing place to for educators to connect with each other and with book creators.
Just like most of the kidlit world, the kidlit Twitter environment is incredibly welcoming and supportive.
TBD: We hate to ask this, but what advice do you have for writers?
Outside of that, my best piece of advice is to keep writing new things – especially when writing picture books. This is for a couple reasons:
- The first story you write is unlikely to be the one that sells. Get it critiqued. Revise it. It’ll be a great learning experience. But don’t revise it to death. Take what you learn from writing that first story and write another.
- A literary agent will want at least 3-4 picture book manuscripts they think they can sell right now before they’ll sign you – which means you probably need 6-8 that YOU think are complete.
The more you write, the better writer you’ll become. Just like I tell students during school visits – it’s like playing sports and instruments – the more you practice, the better you get. The stories I’m writing today are better than the ones I wrote two years ago, which are better than the ones I wrote two years before that (at least I think so).
So keep writing!
Thanks again for having me! I wish you a wonderful summer of reading!
Josh Funk writes silly stories and somehow tricks people into publishing them as picture books – such as Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast and its sequel The Case of the Stinky Stench along with Pirasaurs!, Dear Dragon, It’s Not Jack and the Beanstalk, Albie Newton, Lost in the Library, and more coming soon! Josh is a board member of The Writers’ Loft in Sherborn, MA and was the co-coordinator of the 2016 and 2017 New England Regional SCBWI Conferences. Josh grew up in New England and studied Computer Science in school. Today, he still lives in New England and when not writing Java code or Python scripts, he drinks Java coffee and writes picture book manuscripts.
Josh is terrible at writing bios, so please help fill in the blanks. Josh enjoys _______ during ________ and has always loved __________. He has played ____________ since age __ and his biggest fear in life is being eaten by a __________.
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We first met Julia Kite many years ago, when she won one of our Pitchapaloozas (think American Idol for books, only kinder and gentler). She pitched us a fantastic story, full of fantastic characters. It’s been a long haul, but her book, The Hope and Anchor, has finally found a home, so we thought we would pick her brain about writing, authorship, books, and all things publishing.
The Book Doctors: Why did you decide to become a writer?
Julia Kite: I never decided on it— it simply happened. I learned to read at a very young age, starting in a curry house where the owner gave me a calendar to play with because the food was all too spicy for me and I had nothing else to do. I made my parents read it to me until I memorized what words looked like, then I figured it all out from there and ever since then I haven’t stopped. Eventually I realized that if I was reading books that other people wrote, then I could write them as well. I was often bored in school and I needed some quiet, unobtrusive way to pass the time without getting in trouble. Turns out if you look like you’re working on an assignment or furiously scribbling notes, you can get away with actually writing a story. To this day, I’m a wimp who can’t deal with anything hotter than chicken tikka masala. It’s sad. I know.
TBD: What where your favorite authors and books when you were a kid, and why?
JK: I always liked the realistic stories of other girls’ lives— Beverly Cleary’s books were favorites of mine, because Ramona was so relatable in her mischief and her well-meaning imperfection. I saw a lot of myself in Harriet the Spy, wanting to know everything about everybody and write it down in a book, and I must have read Matilda a million times. It didn’t hurt that when the film adaptation of Matilda came out, I looked like Mara Wilson with a bigger nose. What fiction did to me was give me aspirations— look at these fascinating lives other people are having!
TBD: How did you learn to be a writer?
JK: I got there by first reading everything in sight, and then by being constantly observant of the world around me. I strongly believe that there’s only so much you can directly teach someone when it comes to writing. Being able to write is the function of being able to read, listen, interpret, synthesize, and abstract. These are skills you can only refine by going out and living in the world. You learn by doing. To be honest, eavesdropping on trains and in cafes probably taught me more about dialogue than any how-to book. Strange as this may sound, boredom also has had a lot to do with it. When you’re bored, you think a lot about other people’s lives, about things you’d rather be doing, places you’d rather be sitting at that exact time. You imagine that everything else in the world is so much more intriguing than what you’re stuck in at that moment, and you imagine being a part of it, what you’d do if you were someone else. And that’s the bedrock of fiction.
While I love being able to learn everything about anything at any time using my smartphone, I worry that if I’d had one when I was younger, I wouldn’t have had the opportunities brought by boredom and letting my mind wander. I think that’s a necessity when you’re young, and if people lose that because there’s just so much stimulation, their creativity is going to suffer.
TBD: How did you find a publisher for your debut novel?
JK: What a long, bizarre, maddening trip it has been. The Hope and Anchor is actually my second novel. My first novel was called The Results and it was about two sisters in Liverpool who start up a betting ring, choosing people in their neighborhood who they believe deserve a bit of joy in their lives, based off one girl’s unwanted knack of correctly predicting how every soccer match is going to end. They end up in too deep and realize the only way they can make a clean break with their pasts is to con everybody on the night of the Cup Final, making themselves rich and everybody else an enemy so that they can really never come back. The kitchen sink meets magic realism. I pitched it at your Pitchapalooza competition when I was living in San Francisco back in late 2011 (bloody hell). I ended up winning Pitchapalooza and it was a massive boost to my confidence, which was in the basement, because a year earlier I had abandoned my perfectly lovely life in London to move to California and study for a PhD, which turned out to be a disaster, to put it lightly. Within the course of one year I had gone from living the dream as a financially independent young woman with a decent job, a nice flat, a loving boyfriend, and one hell of a cute pet bird, to an anxious and depressed wreck running into bureaucratic brick walls with my research, earning barely above minimum wage, living in a neighborhood where I couldn’t wear sandals for all the used needles on the pavement, essentially undergoing massive culture shock in the country where I was born. California and I didn’t get along. I couldn’t even watch my beloved Tottenham Hotspur thanks to the eight-hour time difference, and if that means nothing to you, suffice it to say that is a very big deal. The one thing I still had was my writing. No arrogant professor or unhinged person screaming under my window at 3 AM could take my imagination away from me.
After Pitchapalooza, I was convinced my luck was going to change, and I would finally be getting somewhere with my writing. And despite a significant number of rejections, for a moment it looked like that was going to happen. I began working with a well-established agent in England who helped me edit The Results. He really liked it, but explained that unknown new authors of literary fiction are difficult to sell. If he was going to take me on as a client, I had to prove I had more than one book in me. So I wrote The Hope and Anchor…and it didn’t do anything for him. We parted company. I read the writing on the wall and put The Results aside.
After realizing there was a reason average time to degree in my department was nine years, and recognizing there’s definitely something wrong when blood-soaked clothes on the street no longer faze you, I found the courage to quit my PhD and I moved back to the East Coast. While I worked on rebuilding my interrupted policy and research career, I went back to the drawing board with pitching The Hope and Anchor and followed all the directions, writing personalized query letters to agents, double-checking their guidelines, making sure I was doing everything they wanted. I had quite a few agents request my manuscript. Unfortunately, none of them bit. I received many rejections with zero feedback— the most common response was, “I just don’t love it enough,” and variations on that theme. It was frustrating to me, because there’s no way to improve without clear feedback and concrete criticism. It almost would have been more reassuring to hear that they thought I had some kind of deficiency of skill, because at least then I would know what I needed to fix, where I needed to improve. You can learn to improve your mechanics, but you can’t force somebody to fall in love.
There was one agent who replied to my query with incredible enthusiasm and asked for the full. A few days later, she wrote me a bubbly email about how she was halfway through and absolutely in love with the book, and she would get back to me the following week. I was on cloud nine but I knew I needed to be patient, so I waited. And waited. A week passed. Two. Three. I didn’t want to be an annoyance, but after a month of no contact I finally sent her a polite check-in and she rejected me with zero feedback. I asked her if she would mind telling me what hadn’t worked for her in the second half of the book, essentially what had cooled her enthusiasm, but I never got a response. And I was utterly gobsmacked. I understand that the sheer volume of manuscripts literary agents have to deal with precludes detailed feedback, but I felt that I had been strung along and that I had the right to be miffed about a process that put me on ridiculous emotional roller-coasters. That was probably the moment when I first considered that maybe my book wasn’t the problem, the industry landscape was.
At the same time, I was trying to learn as much as possible from people in publishing, and from authors who had found mainstream success. Yet every time I went to a talk by an agent or an editor or an author, I left feeling utterly despondent. An agent spoke to my writing group, gave us all kinds of advice for landing someone like her, then revealed that in the past year, she had signed exactly one new client out of a slush pile of over 400. Then an author with her literary fiction debut published by one of the Big Five told us she had spent most of her modest advance on hiring a publicist, and my jaw hit the floor and stayed there far longer than could possibly be sanitary because I thought the entire point of signing with the Big Five was that they took care of publicity for you in-house. A member of my writing group landed a top-notch agent, then found out that they wanted him to completely change the genre of his book before editors would consider it. I saw people get agents who didn’t sell their books, and they’d part a year later, back at square one. At a certain point, the practical part of my brain intruded and said, “You’re a complete unknown writing literary fiction, and every indication is that the odds are stacked against you, no matter how good a writer you are. Why are you making yourself miserable, trying to do the impossible?” In my day job I’m a very analytic person, very evidence- and data-focused, and all the statistics were screaming that continuing down the same path was not going to magically make a door open. It would only make me bitter.
Friends asked me why I didn’t self-publish, but I knew that was a road I didn’t want to take. It can be fulfilling and occasionally lucrative for genre fiction, but that’s not what I write. Then one day in my Facebook feed, a friend had shared a link to a book one of his work colleagues was funding on a website called Unbound. The author was Gautam Malkani, and I recognized the name— he had published an acclaimed book called Londonstani several years earlier, and was now crowd-funding his second book after parting with his publisher. I knew that if a writer as talented as Gautam was going this route, it had to be legit, and that if his publisher had dropped him, then clearly there were issues with traditional publishing. Friends of mine in music were going their own way, recording brilliant songs and releasing them independently, and I realized that publishing needs to innovate just as the music industry has done over the past decade. Clinging to romantic notions of an industry that has changed almost beyond recognition would not get my book into the hands of strangers, but trying something new and exciting just might. I vetted Unbound very carefully, then submitted my manuscript.
I know now that “I just didn’t love it enough” can mean, “It’s good writing, but it’s not going to sell a million copies, and I need a book that will sell a million copies for this to be worth my while.” It’s business, not personal. But I believe there’s still space for good writing that’s not necessarily going to have wide enough appeal to be a summer beach read— and fortunately Unbound does, too.
It’s funny, you work for years to get anywhere with your book, and then two offers come along at once. I turned down an offer from a literary agent on the day I signed with Unbound. I didn’t want to go through any more of the craziness.
TBD: What is your book about?
JK: The Hope and Anchor is a story about love and loss, at its very core. Not only the actual disappearance of a beloved person, but also coming to terms with how your life isn’t going to turn out the way you had always planned, and the need to put old dreams, as lovely as they may have once been, to rest.
Our protagonist is Neely Sharpe, a woman in her late twenties who once believed that as soon as she moved to London, she would be somebody. She figured her life would take off and she would have the bright, exciting future she had always wanted growing up in a satellite town. She figured she had done everything right: being middle-class, highly educated, and ambitious. On paper, it seemed like the city should have been hers for the taking. Unfortunately, the recession took the shine off her big dreams, and so she finds herself working a dead-end job and living in a scruffy, downmarket part of West London. The one bright spot in her life is her relationship with her girlfriend, a local woman named Angela Archer. Angela’s upbringing couldn’t have been more different from Neely’s: nothing much was ever expected of her, particularly after her mother died and her troubled older sister moved away. She has epilepsy, but insists on not being treated differently. Her job at the local leisure center is never going to bring in a living wage, but to Neely she seems happy.
Neely, in her increasing dissatisfaction with life, is prone to making foolish and self-destructive decisions. The morning after one of those bad decisions, she stumbles home hungover and finds Angela is gone. And she’s not answering her mobile phone. Oh, and the medication Angela should have taken yesterday is still sitting in its little box in their kitchen.
Doubt and self-loathing leave Neely unsure of what to do. Locals who have known Angela since childhood tell Neely not to panic, and not to treat her girlfriend like she’s fragile or stupid. Neely, meanwhile, fears Angela may have left deliberately, perhaps knowing more than she let on about Neely’s drunken hookups with a mutual friend— but then there’s the matter of that medication. She finally goes to the police, but not until after making a few more potentially unwise decisions along the way.
We meet Andy, Angela’s older sister, who thought she had left behind her difficult upbringing when she married a middle-class man, moved to the suburbs, and had children. With Angela’s disappearance she gets pulled back into a life she never wanted to see again. Neely’s search for Angela, meanwhile, is interspersed with flashbacks of Angela’s teenage years, where one particular event left her determined to never leave this particular corner of the city. Little by little, Neely finds out just how little she really knew about her girlfriend. It shatters her self-image as someone who should have been smart enough to not end up in this mess, but also gives her greater clarity about her situation. She has to get a grip, get a clue, and come to terms with how little she knows about life, love, and London.
Without giving away too much of what happens, Neely ends up scouring the city, from pubs, to parks, to the sewers in a snowstorm, ending up far more immersed in her girlfriend’s history than she ever imagined. The only shot she has at finding answers is to risk losing all the illusions she ever had about what her life would be like.
I want the reader to be left wondering how much of one’s past you can really leave behind, and whether it’s wise to even try to do so.
TBD: What inspired your novel?
JK: I used to ride my bike along the towpath of the Grand Union Canal in West London, usually going all the way from my flat near Paddington Station out to a suburb called Greenford. When I traveled along the bit that runs beside a railway depot and a nature reserve, I was struck by how much it didn’t feel like the city out there. It was wooded and quiet and it felt a million miles from the council estate where I was living at the time. I thought—and don’t take this the wrong way— that if anybody wanted to get away with hiding a body, they could probably leave it there and nobody would find it for quite some time. I really don’t know why I thought that. I’m not a morbid person. But it planted the seeds of this book in my head. After I moved to California, writing vividly about a place I missed so much helped keep alive my plans to eventually get back the happiness I’d had in London; I suppose it was a grieving process, really, for the life I thought I would have. I picked the title as the name of a fictional pub, a complete wreck of a place, not really realizing at the time how well it fit me when I was writing the book. While Neely is definitely not based on me, I can certainly empathize with her situation where her best laid plans have gone astray and the world is passing her by. Had I not been so miserable in California, she probably wouldn’t have been so rich a character, so you have to take the good with the bad.
The imagery of the Grand Union Canal, which runs through Neely and Angela’s neighborhood, is constantly present throughout the book, as is the London transportation network. They link Angela’s past with her fate, Neely’s dreams with her reality, and Andy’s old resentment and shame with her determination to have a better life. Angela’s father is a Tube driver on the Circle Line, which, unfortunately, was re-routed a few years ago so that it’s no longer a circle, so that kind of wrecks a bit of imagery, but oh well. My day job is in transportation policy, and I’ve always been intrigued by the topic. Most teenagers wanted their own cars but I just wanted to ride the train to the end of the line, looking out at different neighborhoods, watching people come and go and wondering about their lives. In that aspect transportation has been an oddly massive part of my development as a writer, even if I’m the first to admit it’s not exactly sexy. My background in urban policy and planning has taught me that the only constant in any city is change, and the corner of West London captured in The Hope and Anchor is no different. I knew I had to get my book out in the world before the neighborhood morphed beyond recognition. Whenever I go back there, it seems like another pub has closed, another new development I could never afford is rising. It’s already too late for the police station that features throughout the story… it has been turned into luxury flats.
The strangest thing happened the last time I was in London, last year. I went for a walk down the Harrow Road like I always do, but when I passed by the building I had chosen for Neely and Angela to call home, I noticed the door leading to the flats above the shop was on the latch. Not wide open, just a crack. I pushed it open, walked into the hallway, and it was exactly how I had imagined it, with the mail on the tile floor, even though I’d never set foot in that building before. In the book, the light in the corridor has long burnt out and Neely always has to feel her way up the stairs to her flat. Well, I tried hitting the light switch— and just as I had written it, it was burnt out. I kind of freaked out and ran back to the street at that point. It was just a bit too eerie.
TBD: Tell us about your publisher; they’re quite unusual.
JK: Unbound uses what is essentially a modernized form of subscription publishing, which was popular with everybody from Samuel Johnson to Mark Twain back in their day. Authors essentially crowdfund a certain amount in pre-orders of their book, with different rewards for different levels, much like Kickstarter but without the risk. Once the author hits their funding target, full production of the book begins, like at any other publishing house, and the books land on shelves in brick-and-mortar stores as well as online. Everybody who pledged gets their name in the book as a nice thank-you for helping it come into existence.
The Unbound model makes a lot of sense from a practical standpoint. I’m an unknown with a literary fiction debut. Most unknowns with literary fiction debuts don’t make heaps of money for their publishers. In fact, a few years ago the New York Times said that seven out of ten books overall don’t earn back their advance. These more “niche” books are essentially subsidized by the big bestsellers. What I now realize, after my long experience trying to get a literary agent, is that someone like me is simply a bad risk from a business perspective.
Fortunately, Unbound realized that, too— and made room for people like me. By essentially outsourcing the risk to me, they can bring my book into physical existence without worrying that they’ll pay out thousands in an advance, spend lots of money on production, and then potentially not recoup their investment. You wouldn’t be in business very long if you kept doing that, no matter how skilled your authors— hence the Big Five’s focus on the celebrity clients and proven best-sellers over debut literary authors. I first prove that I can bring in an audience, and then Unbound goes ahead and invests their time and money in creating the physical book to be marketed and sold like any other. The pre-orders show there is a market for the book, as well as provide a financial cushion prior to the full print run. I don’t get an advance, but books sold in shops or online after hitting the target net a much better royalty rate than most authors typically see.
Unbound also gives me as an author a bit more control than a traditional house would. For example, I deliberately chose to not do a hardcover. That’s for a very practical reason: I live in a small Manhattan apartment with another voracious reader, and bookshelf space is at a premium! While I love the look of hardcovers and they certainly give you that “I’ve made it” feeling, I rarely buy them because they’re expensive, heavy, and difficult to shove into a handbag to take on the subway. Producing one would have meant a higher funding goal as well. Paperbacks and e-books are what I like and what are going to sell more effectively than a hardcover, so that’s what I’m going to have.
Unbound is not a vanity press, nor are they a self-publishing service. What I love about them is that they seem truly dedicated to getting an audience for quality writing. For a house that has been around only six years, they’re punching above their weight; they had a book longlisted for the Booker Prize a couple years ago.
TBD: How do you plan to promote and market your book?
JK: Social media is a huge part of this. I’ve had my Twitter account (@juliakite) for… oh god, more than eight years now. You bet I have chronicled the long, long journey to publication, and my followers have been along for the ride, so it’s great to finally be able to have something to show them for it. To find people outside my immediate network, I think about what aspects of the book might interest people who have never heard of me. Number one is the setting. It’s massively important to the story, so I’ve been a bit cheeky and searched for tweets mentioning the Harrow Road and the Grand Union Canal, and reached out to clubs and businesses in the neighborhood. I cringe a bit sending unsolicited messages, but the worst that can happen is that someone calls me annoying and then I move on. I also made an author page on Facebook and ran an ad targeted specifically to people in London who listed reading and novels as an interest. While it wasn’t hugely successful, I did get a few pledges, and when you’re completely unknown, every new person reading your book matters. I’m not the best at self-promotion, but I need to learn if I want this to be successful! I’ve made a video, which is on my Unbound page, featuring a lot of my photography. I think that helps humanize the project a bit, even if my hard-to-place American accent might come as a bit of a shock to some…
A few months ago I was on Jeopardy, where I lost spectacularly on the final question after leading for the entire game, but had a great time regardless. The Jeopardy contestant community is surprisingly close, and it includes several bookworms. I’m also fortunate to be part of a writing group called the Columbia Fiction Foundry, which is hosted by the Columbia University Alumni Association. All of us have the goal of being commercially published, and so we support each other. We’ve got a considerable mailing list that hopefully I haven’t completely irritated yet. The members of the workshop have seen this book come together over the past couple of years, and I hope that when they finally have copies in their hands, they’ll know they were an important part of it.
Several Unbound authors already have established careers in journalism, TV, or music, and many have successfully published before. Readers pledge to their projects knowing it’ll be something they will probably like. Me, I’m a complete unknown! I’m asking people to take a leap of faith, and it’s difficult to get a complete stranger to part with money when they’re not familiar with my work other than the excerpt on my Unbound page. I’m ridiculously grateful to everybody who has pledged, but especially to the people who don’t know me at all, because they’ve put their confidence in me. I really hope they’ll enjoy The Hope and Anchor.
TBD: What is your next project?
JK: Oh, wow. I feel like I haven’t had time to think about the next project because technically this first one isn’t finished! Sometimes I consider reviving The Results, but it may be time to simply let that one go. I feel like my next book will have to be set in New York City, as it’s a place I know as well as London and there’s infinite possibility for the kind of stories you could write about here.
I’ve been toying with the idea of writing about the aftermath of a fatal car crash, focusing on the surviving driver. In my job, we insist on saying car “crashes,” not car “accidents,” because even if it wasn’t deliberate, it’s down to the actions a person chose to take and which they could have prevented, rather than an act of God. That distinction is very fascinating to me and I think the exploration of personal agency versus chance is a pretty fertile seam to mine. But I’m still in the very, very early stages.
TBD: What advice do you have for writers?
JK: Be Patient. This was a difficult trait to cultivate in myself. I’m still not the world’s most patient person. If I had told 18-year-old me that I wouldn’t have a book deal until my early 30s, I probably would have torn my hair out. NaNoWriMo is great for motivation, but you shouldn’t expect a novel in one month. Not even the bad bare bones of one, if you have a day job. I’ve found that some of my best writing has come from times when I wasn’t expecting to generate anything substantial. I just started thinking, started writing, and what I created was far better than I expected. If you pressure yourself by putting time constraints on your writing, you miss out on the serendipitous joy of an idea simply popping into your head after ages of long slog.
Similarly, accept that writing the book is the easy part. You should expect to spend far, far more time editing and revising than you did actually getting the words onto the page. And it’s worth it. There’s no substitute for slow, deliberative, quality work.
Be judicious when incorporating autobiography. Remember that above all, your novel must be a work of fiction, and if you are constraining the possibilities of what you’re writing in order to match reality as you lived it, then you’re doing it wrong. Of course, you can lift scenes or character traits from your own life— if something interesting has happened to you, then why not? But be very careful. Your audience of complete strangers wants to read a good story, not your therapy session. They care about whether you can write an interesting, gripping book, not whether everything you’re writing about actually happened in real life. For example, I dropped out of a PhD, and I made Neely someone who has done likewise because I knew I could write really well from the emotional perspective of having derailed what you thought was your surefire plan in life. But the similarities largely stop there. Likewise, there are a few scenes where I’ve lifted the bare bones of the action from real life, but I fleshed them out with imagination. My bike rides along the Grand Union Canal are not Angela’s, even though we traveled in each other’s wheel ruts and looked at the same scenery. She can’t possibly be seeing things the exact same way I did, because she’s not me; she’s had a different life, a different perspective. The magic of fiction is that you get to create these characters who are nothing like you. You get to play God of your own tiny world in a way you can’t do anywhere else in life, so why force yourself to stay within your own experiences? That would be a failure of imagination. Why limit yourself to characters who only tick the same identity boxes that you do? That defeats the purpose of fiction, in my opinion.
I’ve found it’s quite obvious when fiction is really thinly-veiled autobiography. It’s difficult for your peers to critique honestly, because it feels like saying anything negative is casting disapproval on someone’s actual life. But without honest critique, you won’t have a decent book. If your real life is interesting enough to be fictionalized, you might as well write memoir, but remember that unless you’re Malala, Madonna, or Maradonna, few people outside your circle of friends and family will find it interesting.
Get a group. Writing feels like a solitary activity, but you must, must, MUST have readers giving you constructive criticism. Without the Columbia Fiction Foundry, The Hope and Anchor would have been a much weaker book. Your friends and family are lovely people, but they can’t always give you the tough critique you need to grow as a writer. As writers we pour our heart and soul into our work, so criticism can sometimes feel like an attack, but you have to force yourself to get over it. It’s medicine: taking it feels absolutely awful, but it’s what you need to get any better. In a good workshop environment, you’re all going to want each other to succeed, and that means hard truths and hard work, so remember that the people reading your work are just trying to make it the best it can be. Which brings me to my next point…
Don’t take it personally. This applies whether it’s a critique from a workshop or a rejection from an agent. Your work is separate from who you are. Someone not liking your story doesn’t mean they don’t like you. Someone thinking your book isn’t ready for publication doesn’t mean they think you’re talentless. It’s difficult, but you need to remember that writing this specific book is something you do, not something you are. You will fail at individual tasks— that’s simply part of learning and growing— but that does not make YOU a failure.
Cut, but don’t trash. For The Hope and Anchor, I created a Word document I titled excisions.doc, and I put in it everything that needed to be cut for the sake of the story, but which I felt was too well-written to simply throw away and get rid of forever. It functioned as a holding pen for good writing that simply wasn’t right for the moment. It turned out to be a wise idea; while doing a major revision, I found that lots of great lines that I had to cut from Andy when I made her a less central character were easily adaptable to Neely.
Don’t read the comments. Good advice for life, that.
Julia Kite lives in Manhattan, and calls New York City and London home. She is a graduate of Columbia University and the London School of Economics. Obsessed with cities and the people in them, she started her career researching housing and urban regeneration, and she now directs policy and research for Transportation Alternatives, New York City’s advocates for walking, biking, and public transit. Before she began working to make New York City’s streets better for cyclists, she was taking long rides along the Grand Union Canal in West London. She is a member of the Columbia Fiction Foundry, an alumna of quiz shows The Chase and Jeopardy, an urban wildlife rehabilitator, a keen amateur baker, and the owner of an opinionated parrot. The Hope and Anchor, currently funding on Unbound, is her first novel, a work of fiction about a very real place she holds dear.
We first met Kris Spisak at the awesome James River Writers Conference. (Yet another reason to attend writers conferences!) We were immediately impressed by her professionalism, generosity, goodwill, and great hair. She’s been at this for a long time, and now that her book Get a Grip on your Grammar: 250 Writing and Editing Reminders for the Curious or Confused is out, we picked her brain on what it takes to get successfully published.
The Book Doctors: Why in heaven’s name would you want to become a writer?
Kris Spisak: There’s not a question of wanting to be a writer. Everyone these days is a writer. Whether you’re writing the next bestseller, an email to your boss, a manifesto on social media, or a note to your child’s teacher, you are a writer. Communication is a part of our everyday lives, whether we appreciate it or not. I contend, no matter how it is that we use our written words, it’s time we step up our game.
TBD: When you were a kid what were your favorite books, grammatically?
KS: I didn’t care about grammar when I was a kid any more than anyone else. If I was a kid in today’s generation, maybe I’d simply appreciate the semicolon for its versatility in winky-faces. Coming to appreciate the subtleties in language arose somewhere later around a fascination with what a single writer can achieve with well-designed words. I wanted to see how that was done.
TBD: What inspired you to write a book about grammar?
KS: Words matter. You could argue that how we use our words matters more today than ever before. Everyone has a voice, so why not use it? And if you’re going to use it, use it well.
So many books about business writing etiquette, bettering communication skills, and grammar rules are as dry as we remember from pre-adolescence. I wanted to create a writing resource that was jargon free, easily digestible, and written with a sense of humor. Get a Grip on Your Grammar is a writing resource for those moments of temporary bewilderment and for those moments we all want to show off our absolute best.
TBD: Why is grammar important?
KS: Grammar is important because clarity is important. The world will never know the brilliance inside your head unless you can craft it with precision. This is true for fiction writers, journalists, composers of academic essays, and business communicators alike.
Grammar ignorance isn’t bliss; it can be devastating. A weak understanding of English language use is the cause of missed job opportunities, lowered grades, love poems gone wrong, and certainly rejection letters from publishers. Getting a solid grip on your grammar can impact a life for the better. Even being a writer and an editor, I don’t think I’m biased when I say that.
TBD: What are some of your grammatical pet peeves?
KS: Of course I have personal pet peeves—“further” versus “farther,” for example, or “nauseous” versus “nauseated”—but I’m not one to go around correcting people’s English unless they are asking me to. When they ask me to, oh, I can have some fun, but no one likes to be torn down for simple mistakes.
TBD: What do you want people to take away from this book?
KS: Grammar isn’t something to be intimidated by or to be snobby about, and it certainly isn’t something to fight over. There are simply lessons that remain untaught or unsolidified in people’s minds. English might be our native language, but that doesn’t mean we understand it as well as we should. We are all human, and the English language is hard. We rush our communications because we live busy lives; however, what is more important than our expressions of our ideas? Personally, professionally, and creatively, there’s room for us all to do so much better.
TBD: What effect has Twitter had on grammar?
KS: You can look at Twitter and text messages and see the downfall of grammar and punctuation, or you can realize that people are communicating more than they ever have in human history.
TBD: Does being a grammar expert help or hinder you as a creative writer?
KS: As a fiction writer, I leave my editor self behind as I craft my early drafts. If I worried about perfection with every word and squiggle of digital ink, I would never get to that final page. When I do get to the editing, my process may be meticulous, but forcing myself to pay attention to every single word choice creates a manuscript that is fine-tuned when I get there.
TBD: What is your next project?
KS: The project that became Get a Grip on Your Grammar has had an interesting journey from a weekly writing tips blog to an indie published ebook to the literary-agent-represented, traditionally published book that it has become. That weekly writing tips blog continues on kris-spisak.com, and I’m having more fun with it than ever.
As for other projects, I have two novels in the works, which I hope to find homes for in the near future, and I don’t think my non-fiction side is anywhere close to finished. I have a new grammar-based project that’s bubbling in the back of my mind, as well. Stay tuned for that.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers, and for the grammatically challenged?
KS: No matter how well educated or how confident we may be, our writing skills can always be better. Writing is a craft to practice and improve. The more we draft our written words, the stronger that they will become. And if someone happens to be looking for a resource, Get a Grip on Your Grammar: 250 Writing and Editing Reminders for the Curious or Confused is now available from your favorite bookseller.
With degrees from the College of William & Mary and the University of Richmond, Kris Spisak began her career as a college writing instructor; however, after six years in the classroom, she transitioned to professional writing and editing. Helping writers sharpen their craft was the driving force behind her book, Get a Grip on your Grammar: 250 Writing and Editing Reminders for the Curious or Confused (Career Press, 2017), and the creation of her writing program, Grammartopia. Kris is also pursuing the publication of her first novel and is the co-founder of Midlothian Web Solutions.
Anna Staniszewski is one of our daughter’s favorite authors. Our daughter is nine, with great taste in books, so we always pay very close attention to who she’s loving as a middle grade reader. We were all lucky enough to meet Anna at least year’s New England SCBWI Conference and had the chance to pick her brain after about writing, writers, MFA programs, kids’ books, and whatever else spilled out of our collective heads.
The Book Doctors: I’d like to start with the MFA programs, because we hear such conflicting things, particularly for children’s book writers. What are the benefits of going to a program like the one at Simmons College where you teach?
Anna Staniszewski: I hear that question a lot. For me, I think that it comes down to two things. If you want to be a published writer, you have to put in the work. Some people need a structured environment like an MFA program. I know I did. For other people, they can do it on their own. Another benefit of having an MFA program is the community aspect of it. You have this network that you’re part of—people with similar interests and goals. Some say you can’t be taught to write. While I think ultimately the actual storytelling voice is hard to teach, I obviously believe that you can teach someone to write, because I attended an MFA program and I teach in one.
TBD: What kinds of things do you actual teach in an MFA program for children’s literature?
AS: When the students come into the MFA program at Simmons, we really break down the basics. We look at character, plot, structure, setting, all those things, which seem really basic because we do so many of them by instinct, because we see how they work in other people’s stories. But if you really break down how they work, then you can take them and use them in your own story. The more aware you are of the different building blocks of fiction, the more consciously you can use them to benefit the story that you’re working on.
TBD: What was the transition like going from student to published author to teacher?
AS: When I first started at Simmons, I originally went for the MA of Children’s Literature. I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do. I thought I wanted to go into publishing. But my first semester there they were just launching that MFA program–this was over ten years ago–and so I thought that’s exactly what I want to do, I want to do both those things. Once I knew that, I was really focused throughout that program on wanting to be published when I graduated, and then when I finished, I actually applied to the Writer Resident Program at the Boston Public Library and, miraculously, got it the next year. Right after I graduated I was a writer-in-residence at the BPL, which was amazing. I think that really gave me such a boost of confidence that writing could be a real job for me! Right after I finished at the BPL, I went to teaching. Originally, for the first year that I taught, I taught all over the Boston area. I was really lucky when an opening popped up in Simmons, where they needed someone to teach in the MFA program, so I was able to do that right around the time that I got my agent. That was interesting to go through the submission process all while I was teaching other students who were trying to get to the same point.
TBD: One thing that we run into all the time is that people think that it is easier to write a children’s book than an adult book, particularly when it comes to picture books, and what I find amusing, in terms of length of time, is that it takes longer to publish a picture book than it does any other kind of book that I’ve ever seen.
AS: Absolutely! I sold my first picture book in 2011, and it is coming out in 2017. It was a long process! (Even though book publishing is a slow process, it’s rare for a book to take this long.) I think because there are so few words, you have to pick the exact, perfect words for every spread. And then there’s this whole other element if you’re not the illustrator and you just have to wait and hope that it all comes together! Writing picture books is such a specific craft, I was actually a little bit intimidated by it for a while. For me, writing a novel somehow feels less scary.
TBD: For those writers out there who really know nothing about the craft of picture books, do you have a few tips?
AS: I would say the big thing is thinking about what would you like to see illustrated because I think a lot of times you’ll have a certain idea of “wouldn’t this be cute” and “wouldn’t this be fun,” but then you really have to think, “Can I get several illustrations out of this?” Then there are the parts of your book that not only could be illustrated, but also are begging to be illustrated! That’s why you need to find an idea that doesn’t just resonate with people, but that’s demanding to be illustrated.
The other thing I often tell students, because this is true of my own experience, is that an idea is not a story. The picture book I mentioned that’s coming out in 2017–the one that took six years–that was one where it took me a good year to find what I was actually trying to say. I came up with the idea, “Oh, wouldn’t it be fun if a boy turned a dog into a dinosaur?” And so I kind of played around with it, and it just wasn’t really working. I think part of it was because I wasn’t really thinking about the illustration potential. But I think a bigger part of it was that while it was a fun idea, it wasn’t really a story. And so I had to really dig into it. It took me a while to find what it needed to be about, which was the relationship between the boy and what turned out to be just a dinosaur.
Probably the most important thing in a picture book is the emotional component to the story. Because picture books are so short, there’s so little time to get the point across. You need something readers can really connect to on an emotional level because otherwise it’s just a fun story and you forget about it. But if there’s that deeper emotional layer, then readers will come back to it over and over.
TBD: We love that last one! We do a lot of work with writers to try to help them figure out how to pitch their books, and many writers have tremendous difficulties doing this. We get so many pitches where we don’t see an emotional connection with their main character. They just have an idea, there’s no actual plot or story there.
AS: It’s true, because by the time you finish reading a story, if there’s no emotional component and there’s no real plot, you find yourself asking, “Why did I just read this?” There has to be something there, even if it’s not a traditional story arc. My picture book, Power Down, Little Robot, is not a traditional story arc. It’s about a robot that doesn’t want to go to bed. It tries out all these different things to prevent going to bed, so it’s more like a list-type story. But I really try to highlight the mother-son relationship there. I hope, by the end, readers feel changed by the story, even if it doesn’t have a traditional beginning, middle, and end.
TBD: It’s confusing to many people who are starting out in the field what the category Middle Grade even means–the age range, where it diverges from early reader, how it stretches up to YA but doesn’t cross over into it. Can you give us your thoughts on this?
AS: I get this question all the time as well. I think people define it slightly differently, but this is how I think about it. I think the characters are typically between the ages of eight and twelve or thirteen. There are also early chapter books, and I do include those in early middle-grade, so in early chapter books, the protagonist can sometimes be in second grade or age seven. But a lot of early readers of chapter books are very much riding that line between picture book and novel. So I look at early chapter books on a case-by-case basis to know where exactly those fall. I feel like once you get into high school, that’s where it gets tougher. In my novels, most of my characters are thirteen or fourteen, which is at the upper end of middle-grade, often referred to as “tweens.” And even fifteen years ago, those would have been published as YA. Because YA has aged up so much, middle-grade has had to expand a little bit and the characters have become a little older.
While part of the way I define middle grade is by age, part of it I define by focus. It’s not only the content, but also how you deal with the content. So in middle-grade, if it’s younger middle grade, you might get away with a little bit of romance, but there are a lot of kids who don’t want that in their books. Whereas if it’s upper middle-grade, you might see a little bit of romance and you might see some darker things like war and death. With the latter, they tend to be handled a little bit more in the background or off-screen, so they are certainly there and they’re impacting the main character, but not in a direct way. For example, if there’s a character with something very serious going on in her life, maybe that’s not happening to the main character, it’s happening to the main character’s friend or somebody else in the family. In middle grade, you’re still kind of discovering what the world is like, whereas in young adult, I’d say it’s “Now that I know what the world is like, how do I fit in?” In YA, the focus is more inward, where middle-grade is more outward.
TBD: In your bio you write, “When she’s not writing, Anna spends her time reading, daydreaming, and challenging unicorns to games of hopscotch.” We thought this was so funny, and it’s just the sort of thing our nine-year-old daughter would love. Speaking of our nine-year-old daughter, she loves your books so much and just had the experience where she sat down with The Dirt Diary and couldn’t get up until she finished. You captured something that felt grounded in reality yet she could fantasize. How do you come up with your stories? Are they things that just come to you, or are they things you’ve been thinking about since you were little?
AS: I feel that I never have a lack of ideas. I feel like my brain is open, that it’s always asking “What if this happened?” I’m always kind of twisting the things that I notice, and thinking about “What if I told it this way?” Then it’s just a matter of figuring out what am I most excited about, and that’s what I decide to write about. But sometimes I feel like the process is a little bit mysterious. With my first book, My Very UnFairy Tale Life, I was working on something completely different. I was working on a sort of depressing book that ended up not going anywhere, and I needed something fun to work on. So I sat down and I just thought “Okay, I’ll just write a fun scene, just for myself,” and I wrote a scene about a girl who came home from school to find a talking frog sitting on her bed, and if that was me, I would have screamed and run out of the room, but she was so annoyed at the sight of the frog, and she actually grabbed that frog and she threw it out a window. I thought, “Who is this character? I need to know more about her!” I would write a chapter or two every once in a while, just for my own amusement, and that’s how that book came about. With my book The Dirt Diary, I heard a story on the radio about a girl who used to work for her mom’s cleaning business and a bell went off in my head. So for me, the premise comes first a lot of times, but it’s not until I connect with the characters that I go with it.
I feel that what you were saying about being rooted in the real world with a little bit of fantasy or magic, those are the kinds of stories I’ve always loved the most, and so I feel like that’s what I most enjoy writing as well.
TBD: We were impressed with how you dealt with class issues in The Dirt Diary. Our daughter happens to be in a public school that is very mixed, class-wise, from the very top to the very bottom. We were happy to see her reading a book that made her think about class. Speaking of which, your dedication may be our favorite ever: To anyone who has ever had to clean a toilet.
AS: I always thought I’d write fantasy. I wasn’t sure I had realistic fiction in me until I started writing it. For me, I guess what helped me was that I felt like my entire middle school existence could be summed up in the word “embarrassed.” I was nothing but embarrassed all the time. I also needed to know “Where do I fit in?” So a lot of those class issues are things that I experienced in school, where there were kids who lived in the big fancy houses and their families had big fancy cars, and then there were the rest of us. There was a lot of pressure no matter where you were on that hierarchy, and I thought that was something worth exploring. It also felt very true to my character because of the situation I put her in, and it also felt very true emotionally for me. A lot of people ask me how much of that story comes from my personal experience, and it’s very little. I did not clean houses for a living. I try to avoid cleaning houses at all, even my own. But I feel the emotional element is very true to life, and so I feel like I took a character who is very shy and very awkward, and took those qualities from myself when I was her age and amplified them by ten.
TBD: Something we run into every day with clients trying to get children’s books published is the desire tell us what their book is trying to teach. I would love for you to say something about the didactic nature of children’s books, and what do you advise on that?
AS: I think the important thing is telling a good story, and if there’s something that comes out of that for the reader, that’s fantastic, but if that’s the aim–if you go into it looking to teach something—it will show. The story always has to come first. When I set out to write a book, I’m not thinking what I want the reader to learn, or what do I want the character to learn, I just focus on something much more simple, like how does the character change. I try to think of it in a very specific way. With The Dirt Diary, for example, it’s about a character finding her voice. Though that may imply that maybe she learned some things along the way, that’s not what the story is really about. I think about: “Where does she start?” She’s shy, she can’t speak up for herself. “Where does she end?” She comes out of her shell a little bit, she speaks up for herself, at least when she really needs to. I’m not just trying to hit the reader over the head with a lesson or a moral. As a reader, I like to be able to think about the book myself and also feel like I have grown and changed along with the character; that’s more valuable than having a very obvious and concrete lesson.
Anna Staniszewski is the author of several tween novels, including The Dirt Diary and Once Upon a Cruise, and the picture books Power Down, Little Robot and Dogosaurus Rex. She lives outside of Boston and teaches at Simmons College. When she’s not writing, Anna spends her time reading, daydreaming, and challenging unicorns to games of hopscotch. You can learn more about her and her books at www.annastan.com.
Since David was a screenwriter for many years, he’s fascinated by the difference between writing for the screen and writing for between the covers. He’s also quite fascinated by pain, how we use it, how we avoid it, and what we can learn from it. So when he came across Jamie Mayer’s wonderful new novel Painless, we decided to pick her brain about books, screenplays, and pain. Which all seem oddly related somehow.
The Book Doctors: What were some of your favorite books as a kid and why?
Jamie Mayer: I think some of the books that make the biggest impression are the ones that help you learn about things you really want to know but no one is telling you, so stuff like sex (Judy Blume, my parents’ old hippy-ish copy of The Joy of Sex), magic (Half Magic, Dragonsong), or the mysteries of older, cooler kids (The Outsiders, Judy Blume again – my friends and I had a well marked-up copy of Forever, her “adultiest” one).
I also loved stories about kids who did things they weren’t supposed to be able to do, like living in a museum (From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler), or solving mysteries (Harriet the Spy, Encyclopedia Brown).
TBD: How did you learn to be a writer?
JM: I always wrote short stories for myself, but never really considered writing as a career. In college I studied film, photography and documentary film. I later decided that if I wanted to direct films, no one would let me unless I also wrote them, so I started writing screenplays – and then it turned into my primary career.
TBD: What was the inspiration for Painless?
JM: I read a newspaper story about a young boy with the same disorder as Quinn, the main character in Painless. It’s a neurological condition where you literally can’t feel pain, and his parents were beside themselves trying to live with this kid who had no natural fear of pain and thought nothing of doing things that would hurt himself or others. And I wondered what living like this would do psychologically to this boy as he grew older – if he grew older, because lots of people with this condition don’t survive to adulthood.
TBD: Why did you choose to write a Young Adult novel?
JM: The story of Painless originally took the form of a screenplay, one of the first I ever wrote. I came close to directing it as a film, but when that fell apart, I put it in a drawer and tried to forget about it – but the story still wasn’t done with me somehow. My mentor Holly Goldberg Sloan, the screenwriter/director-turned-best-selling YA author, suggested I try writing it as a YA novel. And that idea just breathed new energy into it – as I expanded and developed it into novel form it took on a whole new life!
TBD: We live in New Jersey, and we wonder what it was like for you growing up in the Garden State?
JM: I always like to stick up for New Jersey, which is really such a beautiful place but gets a bad rap!
My parents lived in New York City before I was born, but when I was still a baby they hit the suburbs of central New Jersey. It was a great place to grow up, just an hour’s train ride from New York – and we visited often to see family, go to museums or theater, etc. – but it really was this smallish town, where kids wandered freely, disappearing into the woods to play and collect tadpoles or whatever for hours without grownup supervision. At the time I thought it was a little boring, but in retrospect, it was pretty awesome. Plus Jersey corn and tomatoes. Plus Springsteen. Plus Jon Stewart. Come on.
TBD: Why did you pick someone who can’t feel physical pain to be your book’s hero?
JM: There are upsides to feeling no pain, but obviously there are downsides too. Around the time I wrote the original story, I was dealing with the long illness and death of my father (who was a wonderful guy, by the way, nothing like Quinn’s dad!). And like anyone who’s experienced the death of a loved one, or a terrible romantic breakup or even unrequited love, I thought to myself, “Wow, this feels horrible. Maybe if I just never care this much about anyone ever again, I’ll never feel this bad again!” Of course, that’s a terrible idea if you want to be even remotely human – if you want to feel the good stuff, you’ll also be vulnerable to feeling the bad. So this physical condition struck me as a perfect metaphor for how people sometimes close themselves off from connection and love, becoming emotionally “painless”. And I wanted to write a story about someone who comes to realize that to make life worth living, he has to open that door a crack.
TBD: How does your process for writing a novel differ from writing a screenplay?
JM: Screenplays are so much about structure and clear character arcs – which are also really useful in writing a novel. But where screenwriting style is usually very spare and external, only describing what you can see, a novel can be more descriptive and internal, so I needed to consciously remind myself to widen the palette, and that was really fun and liberating! Also, in a screenplay you don’t have to choose between first and third (or second!) person POVs, so that created a whole new facet to the process as well..whose POV are we in when, and why, and how?
TBD: What are you working on next?
JM: I just wrote and directed a short coming-of-age film called Crowbar Smile that you can watch on TheScene.com. I’m hoping it will become a full-length feature film soon. I’m also writing several new film and television scripts. There may be a new YA novel brewing as well, but it’s too soon to talk about it!
TBD: If time had split and you were living another, parallel life, what would it be?
JM: I would be a large animal veterinarian. As a kid, I loved biology and animals and was always bringing random animals home. I wanted to go to vet school and interned in high school with my local vet, where I even got to scrub in and assist in the surgery to spay my own kitten! In college, I discovered a love of film and photography, and somehow never got around to all the pre-med classes I would need for vet school. So in my alternate timeline I am a horse doctor, driving from farm to farm with my muddy boots on…
I know it seems unrelated to my current career, but my interest in biology and things medical makes me especially interested in story ideas like the one underlying Painless!
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?
JM: Write – which seems obvious, but lots of people don’t do. There are a lot of bad drafts that have to happen on the way to accumulating 10,000 hours of practice! And learn to re-write – which I think is a different, and in lots of ways harder, process, which involves evaluating and incorporating criticism and notes and being willing to tear up things that you might be very attached to! These things are simple to say but not necessarily to do – and I think every writer grapples with both these processes every day.
Screenwriter Jamie Mayer is venturing into prose with her debut YA novel Painless. Born in New York City, Mayer grew up in New Jersey and graduated with a degree in Visual and Environmental Studies from Harvard University. She now lives in Los Angeles with her husband, son and a neurotic-but-good-hearted rescue dog. More info at www.jamiemayer.com.
Lawrence Grobel on Warren Beatty, Joyce Carol Oates, John Lennon’s Death and the Uselessness of Celebrities
One of our operatives who scout this great nation for publishing talent alerted us to Lawrence Grobel, a wonderful writer who has lots to say about the strange celebrity culture our species created. Since his new book, You, Talking to Me, is out, we picked his brain about why our culture worships and reviles these people with these strange little talents.
Lawrence Grobel: It wasn’t intentional. After spending three years teaching at the Ghana Institute of Journalism (in the Peace Corps), I returned to the States and started freelancing for Newsday’s Sunday magazine. I also wrote a few pieces for the New York Times and for True magazine. Then I decided to give up journalism, move to L.A. and write fiction. But as soon as I got to L.A. my Newsday editor asked if I would interview “Household Names” for them, starting with Mae West. I wound up doing dozens of interviews for them, with people like Warren Beatty, Jane Fonda, Ray Bradbury, Linus Pauling, J.P. Donleavy, Henry Moore, Cher, Lucille Ball….but since these were 3,000 word interviews, I could do them in two hours. However, the form interested me, and I wondered what it would be like to spend days, weeks, even months interviewing one person. The only outlet I knew that allowed that kind of depth was Playboy, so I managed to convince the editors there that I could do 30,000-word interviews with people like Barbra Streisand, Dolly Parton, Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Henry Fonda, Patty Hearst, Robert De Niro, and Saul Bellow. It’s taken me decades to finally get back to that fiction I wanted to write!
TBD: Why do you think our culture is so obsessed with celebrities, most of whom have jobs where they don’t actually do anything useful, not like doctors, plumbers, or teachers?
LG: If you put celebs into the category of usefulness, then you’re eliminating most athletes, actors, and the Kardashians. If celebs provide entertainment for people, then I suppose they serve a purpose. We elected a celebrity (albeit a minor one) president recently—and I’ve yet to believe anything he’s done so far has been useful, and yet, whatever he does certainly affects a lot of people.
Celebrities seem to exist in most cultures—some for their prowess as being stronger or more agile than others, some for their sharp wit, some for their ability to mimic others. I don’t know why we are so obsessed as a culture by celebrities, but I’ve seen how people react to seeing someone famous and all I can say is that I’m glad I’m not one. It can be frightening when a stranger approaches you in a restaurant or on a street with a demand for an autograph or a picture. I’ve been with Goldie Hawn when she was approached at a Japanese restaurant by a guy who acted like he knew her and saw how she handled it; with Al Pacino when a woman took him by surprise on the street where he lives in Beverly Hills and thrust a DVD at him, as he jumped away from her and tossed the DVD into a bush as if it might explode. I’ve been around celebs when paparazzi are waiting for them, and I can understand why they react the way they often do. A lot of it stems from when the Manson “Family” committed their crimes, making celebrities afraid. And after John Lennon got shot, it just magnified how vulnerable celebrities are. It’s no fun being a target for the insane.
TBD: Who are some of your favorite celebrities and why?
LG: Having interviewed so many, I would prefer to rephrase the question: Who, among all the celebrities you’ve interviewed or known, would you miss if they were no longer around? Of those who have already passed, I’d say John Huston, because I appreciated our conversations and his interest in my work; Truman Capote, because he said so many hilarious and outrageous things; Luciano Pavarotti, because I enjoyed his company and looked forward to seeing him in Italy, which would have been the best reason to travel to Italy; Robin Williams, because he was so quick and so down-to-earth; Miles Davis, because he was Miles Davis!; and Farrah Fawcett, because I miss our paddle tennis games, and her being “one of the guys” whenever we got together.
Of those still around, Elliott Gould, because he has become like family and is one of the truly special people I know; Christopher Walken, because he always responds to my calls, and when I send him a book of an author I think he might like, he sends me one back; Kim Basinger, because though she’s so shy, we have long phone conversations that cover whatever’s on our minds; Joyce Carol Oates, because even though she’s a goddamn genius, she always makes time to get together whenever she’s in town; and Lily Tomlin, because how can you not love Lily Tomlin?
TBD: Have you ever wanted to tell a celebrity to eff off? Who and why?
LG: The only celebrity I ever walked out on (though I didn’t say “fuck off,” it was implied) was Robert Mitchum. I went to see him while he was making That Championship Season, and during a break we went back to his trailer where he ate a sandwich and didn’t contribute to our conversation (in other words, I did most of the talking), other than to compare me—when I said that I was there doing my job—to Adolph Eichmann. When I asked him if he was comparing doing a Playboy Interview with what Eichmann did to the Jews, he said it was the same thing. That’s when I got up and told him that his publicist knew where to reach me, and walked out. Some years later, after my book on The Hustons came out, I was invited to watch Mitchum narrate a documentary about John Huston. There were 18 scenes, and for each one, after the first take Mitchum asked the director, “Too Jewish?” It was funny the first time. Not funny the second, and uncomfortable the next sixteen times.
TBD: What are some of your best interviews and why?
LG: I’d like to think that all of my work is the best that I can do at the time, but I guess that the ones that have turned into books are the ones that most people remember: Truman Capote, Marlon Brando, James A. Michener, John Huston, Al Pacino, Robert Evans, and Ava Gardner. Though I should also include the ones that got the most publicity: with Gov. Jesse Ventura, and with Coach Bob Knight. The Ventura one appeared during a slow news week because it wound up being covered by all the morning news and talk shows and put the Governor on the cover of Newsweek for his controversial remarks about religion, prostitution, sexual abuse in the Navy, fat people, and hoping to be reincarnated as a 38 DDD bra. As for Knight, he tried to throw me out of his car twice, fought with me over the tapes, punched me in the ribs, and I wound up putting that interview at the end of my Art of the Interview book to demonstrate how an interview is really like a three-act play.
TBD: What were some of your most bizarre interviews?
LG: I’d have to say the Bob Knight interview was the most bizarre. I was actually contemplating how to jump out of his car onto the highway in Indiana without breaking any bones.
TBD: What were some of your worst interviews?
LG: One of the worst was with James Franco, because he had nothing to say, other than answering “Nah” to most of my questions. But this was before he became an academic, a writer, an artist, and did some interesting films. But I’ve yet to see a really good interview with the guy.
TBD: Your first dozen books were published by major publishers like Random House, Scribner, NAL, Hyperion, Simon & Schuster, Da Capo, and the University of Mississippi Press. Why have you self-published your last dozen books?
LG: It started when my agent refused to represent a satire on yoga I’d written (Yoga? No, Shmoga!). I couldn’t understand his reaction, because he didn’t even want to read it. Then I discovered that he had repped a book called Elvis, Shmelvis, which didn’t do well and was somewhat of a nightmare for him. I told him my book was funny and he should reconsider, but he couldn’t get past the title. So I left him and decided to publish it on my own after Larry Kirschbaum at Amazon (at the time) invited me into a program they had set up for professional writers. The experience was positive, so when I discovered that another writer had a contract to publish his secret conversations with Ava Gardner at the same time I had finished a similar book about Ava, I thought I’d self-publish that as well. And then when I got the rights back from some of my other books, like Conversations with Capote and Conversations with Brando, I put them up on Amazon.
Suddenly, it became so much easier and quicker to publish what I wanted to write myself (a few novels, a memoir, a book of poetry, some collections of magazine work) rather than have to deal with satisfying a new agent, writing proposals, waiting to hear from publishers—that whole process takes months, sometimes years. Of course I don’t get the advances I used to get, nor the distribution, but I can now look at the 25 books I’ve written knowing that I’d still be waiting to hear from publishers for probably ten of them had I not decided to self-publish.
Am I happy about it? Yes and no. Yes, that the books appear exactly as I have written them and I’m proud of all of them. No, because I would like to reach a much larger audience, and reviewers don’t review self-published books. But hey, I’ve managed to do a few podcasts with Marc Maron and Adam Carolla about my work, and I’m still waiting to hear back from Terry Gross at NPR—so who knows? A writer should never give up hope.
TBD: What advice do you have for people who want to be interviewers? And what advice do you have for writers?
LG: I don’t separate being an interviewer from being a writer. A good interviewer is a good writer. Structuring a good interview involves many skills. One must be able to converse like a talk show host, think like a writer, understand subtext like a psychiatrist, have an ear like a musician, be able to select what’s pertinent like a book editor, and know how to piece it together dramatically like a playwright. Writers today have more outlets than they realize, and it’s more important than ever before to hone one’s skills, to make sure what you put out into the world is miles above the mostly crap that passes for writing these days. It takes patience, talent, and the willingness to rewrite. It’s a noble profession.
Lawrence Grobel (www.lawrencegrobel.com) is a novelist, journalist, biographer, poet and teacher. Five of his 25 books have been singled out as Best Books of the Year by Publisher’s Weekly and many have appeared on best-seller lists. He is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship for his fiction. PEN gave his Conversations with Capote a Special Achievement Award. The Syndicat Francais de la Critique de Cinema awarded his Al Pacino their Prix Litteraire as the Best International Book of 2008. Writer’s Digest called him “a legend among journalists.” Joyce Carol Oates dubbed him “The Mozart of Interviewers.” He has written for dozens of magazines and has been a Contributing Editor for Playboy, Movieline, World (New Zealand), and Trendy (Poland).
His new work, You, Talking to Me, highlights the lessons he’s learned from interviewing. He is married to the artist Hiromi Oda and they have two daughters.
We’ve known Kate Forest for many years, and it’s been a joy to watch her come into her own as a writer. She has an unusual book out now, and we wanted to pick her brain about how she came up with this fascinating twist on the classic romance.
The Book Doctors: Why did you do something as silly as decide to become a writer?
Kate Forest: I wish I weren’t a writer. I’ve always been the storyteller of the family (some of the stories were even truthful). I felt compelled to write them down a few years ago. I didn’t have plans to publish at first. But I’m also too ambitious for my own good.
TBD: What are you reading these days? What were your favorite books growing up, and why?
KF: Growing up was tough in terms of books.I didn’t learn to read until I was about 11 years old. Not only did I miss out on all the Judy Blumes, but school was a very painful place. I had the fortune of getting some extra help in 6th grade. One day I looked around the reading group I was in and noticed I was with the smart kids. I immediately went to Sherlock Holmes (still some of my favorite stories).
Now, I love reading romance of any kind. Devouring Amanda DeWees, Veronica Forand. And I love non-fiction. Isaac’s Storm by Erik Larson is on the top of my Kindle now.
TBD: How did you learn to be a writer?
KF: Trial and error. My sister, Andrea Pyros, is the real writer of the family, and she was kind enough to not laugh too hard when I said I was going to write a book. I took classes at my local community college, read books, and attended conferences, online classes, and workshops. I came from a place of knowing that I didn’t know anything and felt no shame in starting from scratch at 40 years old.
TBD: What drew you to romance writing?
KF: I need a happy ever after in my fiction. Because of my work as a social worker, I’ve never been able to read those wonderful weepy Oprah Book Club books. When Precious came out, I couldn’t look at that as entertainment, since foster care was my day job. Fiction, for me, needs to be an escape. And I’d better be emotionally satisfied at the end or I’ll hurl the book at the wall. For non-fiction I can be forgiving.
TBD: Tell us what your new book, Standing Up, is about.
KF: It’s the classic nerd/jock story but with a twist. Mike was the star football player in high school. A car accident lands him on crutches in excruciating pain, and he elects to have his legs amputated below the knee. Jill is a woman determined to get to NASA but finds it hard to stand up for herself in a man’s world. It’s more a story of finding your identity than a straightforward romance.
TBD: They say, “Write what you know,” but you’ve never had an amputation. How did you get into the mindset of someone missing a limb? There’s so much attention being paid to ensuring that genuine experience dictates the content of books like this. How did you make sure that your writing was real?
KF: If I only wrote what I “know” all my characters would be middle class Jewish cis-gendered women. I am in complete agreement that representation matters. We need diversity in books, not just in the characters depicted, but also among the authors. That said, I think I did my due diligence. I interviewed amputees and people with disabilities. I met with a prosthetics expert, had sensitivity readers, and relied on my professional experiences. This story is not going to be true for everyone with limb loss because not everyone with limb loss has the same experience. But it could be true for some. And not everything the characters think and feel will sit well with everyone. Just because one of my characters says something insensitive doesn’t mean that it’s my personal belief. I hope people see the evolution of the characters.
TBD: It’s unusual to see an amputee in a romance novel. What prompted you to write something like this?
KF: I was tired of all the “perfect” characters in romance. Their only flaws being they are “too smart,” “too wealthy,” etc. I meet people all the time who find true lasting love, and they are far from perfect. We all need love stories. We all deserve a happy ever after.
TBD: How did being a social worker impact how you wrote this novel?
KF: I’m a storyteller, but I’m also a listener. If I had a superpower it would be empathy. It takes a lot out of me to sit with someone through their pain. To be present and hold them in that space. That’s the job of a good social worker. To offer the non-judgemental support and advocacy. I’ve been telling people’s stories through court reports, case files, and hospital notes, always with the conviction to get the person what they need.
TBD: How long does it take you to write a book?
KF: Too darn long. I am a painfully slow writer and an even slower editor/reviser. I can’t plot a book at the beginning. I have some vague idea of what will happen. Mostly, I have a clear idea of who these characters are. I just let them play on the page. I end up deleting many, many wonderfully written pages that are absolutely useless.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers? For romance writers?
KF: A good story has terrible conflict. You can’t be afraid to put your characters through hell. They should be at the place where everything is hopeless. It’s really hard to go there. None of us want to think about being hopeless. But that’s the desperation the characters need to feel. Otherwise, the story isn’t compelling.
Author Kate Forest has worked in a psychiatric hospital, as a dating coach, and spent a disastrous summer selling above-ground swimming pools. But it was her over 20-year career as a social worker that compelled her to write love stories with characters you don’t typically get to read about. She lives in Philadelphia with her husband, two kids, and a fierce corgi. Learn more at kateforestbooks.com.
We first met Joan Garry through Susan Weinberg, the publisher of Perseus Books Group. Joan was whip smart, pistol sharp, savvy, funny, altogether awesome, and shockingly humble. We would never have guessed that she is a top dog when it comes to consulting with nonprofits. And her website is of-the-charts excellent. It almost didn’t matter what her book was, we knew she had the goods necessary for success. Now that her book Joan Garry’s Guide to Nonprofit Leadership is out, we wanted to pick her brain about books, writing, and nonprofits.
The Book Doctors: There are other books on the subject of nonprofit management. Without an apparent hole in the market, how did you distinguish your book from what was already out there?
Joan Garry: You’re absolutely right – there are plenty of books about nonprofit management, but none that focus on what I call “shared leadership,” which is a challenge and opportunity quite unique to nonprofits.
What I mean is, there are books written for staff executives and resources galore for board leaders. But the reality is neither can be effective without the other. Nobody else has written about them as co-pilots of the same jet. If we don’t treat board chairs like they are in the cockpit, they won’t lead. This book is written for nonprofit leaders – the paid AND the unpaid.
I also found that a number of important topics were conspicuously absent. For example, storytelling plays an absolutely critical role in successful nonprofit leadership. A nonprofit ambassador who can tell a compelling and emotional story can invite folks to know more and do more. Crisis management is another missing topic. Far too few organizations are ready should a crisis strike.
Finally, I tried to bring a real sense of humor to the book. A lot of the book touches on personal experiences I had as a nonprofit Executive Director, a board leader, a donor, and a volunteer. I just had so many great stories to share and these stories are what make the book unique and fun to read – not just practical, though it is that too.
TBD: One thing about your book that’s different from the others out there is your voice. Why is the voice of your book important? For others writing books based on their business, what advice can you offer about bringing your voice into your book?
JG: I’m lucky. I write the way I speak and so folks say reading my work is like hearing me chat with them. My voice is informed by having played every position on the nonprofit field, so I have stood firmly in the shoes of my readers. I have personally experienced many of the same issues and concerns they have – good and bad.
Most nonprofit leadership books tend to be pretty clinical and instructive. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but that’s not the book I wanted to write. I wanted to demonstrate the joy that the best leaders bring to their work. And it’s a short ride from joy to humor. And there’s plenty of humor in my book. I just think that makes it a lot more fun to read, which ultimately makes it easier to absorb the material.
TBD: You have an incredible team that works with you. How did this team help you get your proposal, book, and your marketing done? Why is it important to have a team?
JG: Some people have a family business – I call mine a ‘chosen family business’ – a small team of colleagues who are smart and dedicated to the work we do. Each of us is clear that we are advocates for the success of nonprofit leaders and we always keep our eye on what we believe would be most helpful to the folks we serve – staff and board leaders. We each brought something different to the development of the book proposal to chapter editing to marketing the book. The brand, the audience, the strategy to reach that particular audience, the content. Each of us were advocates in each of these areas. There’s no way I could have done all this by myself.
TBD: When we first met you, we were really struck by your website. We’ve continued to be so impressed by all your social media — particularly your newsletters. How did you develop your digital platform? What are some things that have worked, and what are some things that haven’t?
JG: I started to build my digital platform in late 2012. One of the best business decisions I ever made was hiring my digital strategist, Scott Paley at Abstract Edge. When I first reached out to him, based on a recommendation I got from somebody else who had worked with his company, I told him I needed a new website for my consulting business. That’s all I thought I needed. What did I know? In our very first conversation, he gave me a vision for what could be – a much bigger vision that I had imagined.
That conversation ultimately led to my blog, my social media, my podcast, my gig as a panelist on NBC’s Give (the first network TV reality show about nonprofits), my upcoming online education platform, and even the opportunity to have a major publisher interested in publishing my book. Now, whenever I write something online, tens of thousands of people read it! Not surprisingly, my consulting practice completely took off. It’s just amazing.
The biggest thing about this platform is that I just focus on helping people. I recently had Adam Grant on the podcast. He’s the author of a best selling book that’s all about “givers” and “takers”. His philosophy has been a big influence. Everything I do online is about giving. I never worry that I’m giving away too much. I really think that’s been the secret.
Most of what we’ve tried has worked very well. The one exception was a couple years ago we built an area on my website called “The Couch.” It was a place where nonprofit people could anonymously vent about their frustrations and others could sympathize. After a couple of months, we realized that it was too negative and we shut it down. But I don’t view that as a failure at all. It taught us a lot about what “Joan Garry” stands for as a brand and how important it is for all of our media to be on brand.
TBD: What did you find challenging about turning your business into a book?
JG: So much of what I do with my clients is teach. I’m an educator. I think writing the book was easier for me because of that and because of how much I’ve already written on my blog. The blog is a place where I can formulate my ideas and get them down in writing and get feedback from literally thousands of people who understand exactly what I’m writing about. The blog is an amazing crucible for me in that sense and the outcome of all that thinking and all that feedback is this book. Without that, it certainly would have been much more challenging to write.
TBD: Did you find that writing a book helped you with your business?
JG: I’ll let you know in about 6-9 months. J
But I will say that the process of writing the book has helped me to organize some of what I teach my clients in new ways I hadn’t previously considered. So in that sense, absolutely it has helped.
TBD: Your book is officially published on March 6, but you’ve been so successful in garnering pre-orders. Can you tell us a little bit about how you did this?
JG: Largely this was also the work of Scott, my digital strategist, and his team at Abstract Edge. They created a gorgeous website for the book (www.nonprofitsaremessy.com), but more importantly they put together a plan that really leveraged the audience we’ve built up over the last 4 years.
We’re offering valuable book bonuses for pre-orders. We developed a really smart rollout strategy that includes the blog, the podcast, my email list, and social media. We organized a volunteer “launch team” to help spread the word. Created a Thunderclap, which will help spread the word even further on launch day. We’ve given copies of the book to some well-known folks in the nonprofit world who are saying lovely things about it and telling their networks. All of that has led to a much larger volume of pre-sales than the publisher was initially anticipating.
I’ve been absolutely thrilled by the response.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?
- Make sure you have something unique to say and can say it in a way that sticks.
- Be absolutely clear about who you are speaking to and be as specific as possible. You have to really understand your readers’ concerns and issues.
- Be passionate about ensuring that the maximum number of those people have the opportunity to buy it. And be ready to invest time, energy and money in reaching them.
Widely known as the “Dear Abby” of nonprofit leadership, Joan Garry works with nonprofit CEOs and boards as a strategic advisor, crisis manager, change agent and strategic planner. Her nonprofit blog at joangarry.com reaches leaders in over 150 countries and she hosts a top nonprofit podcast on iTunes: Nonprofits Are Messy. Joan also teaches at the University of Pennsylvania with a focus on nonprofit communications and leadership.
We first met Jeannie Zokan several years ago when she was putting together her young adult novel. Years later, it’s become a piece of women’s fiction. The Existence of Pity is out now, so we picked Jeannie’s brain on her travels through the rocky seas of publication.
The Book Doctors: When did you first become a writer?
Jeannie Zokan: I’ve written all my life, but I first saw myself as a writer at a poetry workshop in Washington, DC. I was in my twenties, and our leader, Sandy Lyne, had us come up with affirmations to silence our inner critics. Mine was, “I am a courageous poet.” I’d filled many notebooks – and burned some of them in a pile in my backyard in Colombia – but that workshop, where I acknowledged my fear and wrote anyway, was my starting block.
TBD: What books did you love as a kid and why?
JZ: Books were my best friends as a kid, and although my generation didn’t have Harry Potter, we had The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, which my mom read to my brothers and me over and over. There were many, many more books, but one author influenced me the most. Betty Cavanna wrote in a clear, easy voice about strong young women facing life with honesty and openness. Every one of her books resonated deeply with me.
TBD: What books are you reading right now?
JZ: I am reading My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout for a book club, and I’m really enjoying her style. Also, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is on my bedside table for the third time. Such a thought-provoking read!
TBD: How did you learn to become a writer?
JZ: Oh, the usual, I suppose. By reading, writing, taking classes, and studying books about writing. But learning to write a novel tripped me up for many years. I wrote poetry, short stories, articles, even my memoirs, but I couldn’t see how to create a complete novel.
Then NaNoWriMo came into my life. I’ll never forget making that seemingly insignificant decision to buy Chris Baty’s No Plot? No Problem! in Barnes & Noble back in 2008. It turned out to be exactly the primer I needed to create a riveting story with complex characters and an amazing setting. And writing a novel in one month worked perfectly for me. My daughters, then seven and ten, and my sweet husband were willing to let me have November.
I wrote my first novel in 2008 and have written seven more since then. The Existence of Pity was written in November of 2010. I’m also grateful NaNoWriMo introduced me to your indispensable book, The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published.
TBD: How did you end up getting published?
JZ: For three years, I worked on The Existence of Pity with a critique group at the West Florida Literary Federation. Then I sent it to a list of agents who promptly rejected it. I worked on the manuscript another year with college instructor and English teacher Diane Skelton. Her critiques were absolutely invaluable. Even so, the second time I sent out the manuscript, I was rejected again.
The third time proved to be a charm. With the help of two more critique groups and my daughter, who was fourteen at the time, I knew the book was finally where it needed to be. Among this wave of agents and publishers was Red Adept Publishing, and on November 14, 2015, they called and told me they wanted to publish my manuscript. Exactly one year later, my book was released, and I can’t thank Red Adept Publishing enough for giving my story a chance. It all comes down to publishers and acquisitions editors who read through their slush piles, making dreams come true one manuscript at a time, and I will be forever grateful!
TBD: What was the editing process like for you?
JZ: “Brace yourself,” my publisher told me! But since I’d been through so many critiques with The Existence of Pity, I was prepared. Of course there were moments when my editor wanted more than I thought I could give, but one thing I’ve learned is that there is always a way to resolve scene issues or clunky sentences. I’ve also learned to love feedback. Thoughtful edits always make writing better. I just remind myself I’d rather be happy than right. I’ve been given many gifts of perfect edits: the right word or turn of a phrase, the right addition—or subtraction—of a scene. All I had to do was brace myself and graciously accept each one.
TBD: What the heck is aerial yoga and why does anyone do it?
JZ: Aerial yoga is Cirque du Soleil in my living room! On a much smaller scale. I bought our aerial yoga swing on Amazon and had a professional bolt it to the ceiling. Now my husband, daughters, and I hang upside down and flip around on it whenever we want. I’m half an inch taller as a result. It’s also fun to watch the braver of my friends try it when they come over.
TBD: You are also a writing coach. What do you feel like you’ve learned about your own writing from coaching other writers?
JZ: The writing coach gig hasn’t quite taken off yet, that’s why there’s still an introductory rate of $25 per hour! But I’ve spent hundreds of hours in critique groups over the past decade, and my writing has improved not only because of their edits, suggestions, and comments, but also because of their dedication to writing, and their willingness to show up week in and week out.
TBD: Your book is so much about family. Did you draw from your own experiences? Has your family read this book? Are they still speaking to you?
JZ: Yes, I drew the setting from my experience as a missionary kid in Colombia, mostly because people have always asked me what it was like to grow up overseas. This book is my answer.
My immediate family loves my book like I do, and they are my biggest fans. As for my family of origin, the jury is still out. I don’t think any of them have read it yet, and though I dedicate it to them, this book is more for those who find themselves in Josie’s predicament, not sharing the same beliefs as their families. I want them to know they aren’t alone. I wrote this for my younger self, who felt very much alone, and she really appreciates it.
You could say Josie’s mother is the antagonist, but don’t forget I’m a mother, too. I can relate to Astrid getting caught up in her life’s work, believing she knows what’s best for her children, forgetting to notice how they are changing. It takes an effort to set one’s beliefs aside and allow others their own points of view, and any mother can relate to that.
The Existence of Pity was scary to write, and even scarier to pursue publication, but I did it for my husband and daughters, and for others who loved the story. Besides, if we only wrote what our mamas and daddies approved of, where would we be?
TBD: Have you been back to Colombia?
JZ: I left Colombia after graduating from high school, and was able to visit many times before my parents retired to the States. Around the same time, travel to Colombia became too dangerous. It seemed I’d never get to go back, and I felt like an exile. But then, in a heartbreaking twist of fate, I was given a reason to visit Colombia again.
In 2012, we became aware that my mother had Alzheimer’s. Within two years, my father took her back to Colombia. Healthcare for her was much more affordable and compassionate there. My parents lived in a beautiful compound with cheerful nurses and cooks, and I cherished visiting and being able to take my husband and children to see the country of my youth. I’ve written about these bittersweet trips to paradise in my blog at www.JeannieZokan.blogspot.com.
My parents are back in the States now, since being far from family was difficult for my father. My mom is in a Personal Care Home, living always and only in the now, oblivious of Astrid and Josie. We sing together often, and she tells me she loves me. I can’t ask for any more than this.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?
JZ: You know the answer to this one, David! My advice to writers comes from your book, and the quote is still taped to my computer.
“The more you know in your heart that you are the perfect author for your book and that your book is salable and/or necessary, the better your chances of convincing someone else.”
So to writers everywhere, read the guide (it really is essential!) and then write what is yours to write. Be the courageous poet you were born to be.
Jeannie Zokan grew up in Colombia, South America as the daughter of missionaries. She now lives in Florida’s Gulf Coast with her husband, two daughters, two dachshunds, and a cat.
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.