We live in Montclair, New Jersey. John Dufresne lives in southern Florida. So naturally, we met him at the South Dakota Festival of Books. We were sitting next to him waiting for people to show up to sign our books. Let’s just say there wasn’t a huge line. Normally, this would really be a downer, but this time we realized it was good luck because we got the chance to talk with John.
John has had a long and distinguished career as a writer. He also teaches writing. Now that his new book, I Don’t Like Where This Is Going, is out, we picked his brain about writing, books, publishing, and life.
To read the full interview on the Huffington Post, click here.
The Book Doctors: When did you first start becoming a writer, and how did you learn to be one?
John Dufresne: I was a storyteller first, even if I didn’t know I was. My father told me a bedtime story every night. Fairy tales. Only I thought he made them up because he had no book. I thought he invented wolves. He may be why I loved stories and wanted to make up my own. I had a couple of narratives going when I was seven or eight or so in which I was the central character. They both took place in my neighborhood. In one I was the leader of a band of good guys with white hats and spirited horses. Cowboys on Grafton Hill in Worcester, Mass. The only real horse we ever saw on the Hill was the ragman’s nag, whom we loved to pat. Every night in bed I continued the story from where it ended when I had dozed off the night before. I did this for years. And during the day, I was thinking of what I would now call plot points and creating new characters. The other narrative was similar with me as a sports hero. Whenever I heard sirens, I imagined the house the fire trucks were heading for and the people trapped inside the burning house and how they would be saved. Or not.
TBD: What were some of your favorite books as a kid, and why?
JD: I grew up in a house without very many books. We did have 26-volumes of the Universal Standard Encyclopedia, bought for 99 cents a week at the A&P on Grafton Street. I read them in order, not quite thoroughly. One month every subject I talked about at the supper table began with A. Afghanistan, alligator, antbirds. With volume 13, it was everything between Idaho and Jewel Cave. I loved information, loved knowing the names of things. I didn’t much like the stories we read in my grammar school, stories about kids who had horses and good fortune. I couldn’t find anyone like me, someone who grew up in a housing project, in them. Then I happened on a series of books that I devoured, the Chip Hilton series for boys, written by Claire Bee. I think it was David Mamet who described drama as two outs, bottom of the ninth, man on first, 3-2 count, and your team down by one. That describes Clutch Hitter, a book in the series that illustrated to me, the little jock that I was, how exciting, compelling, and tense a story could be.
TBD: Your new book, I Don’t Like Where This Is Going, is a wild, wacky ride that fits squarely into the noir tradition, but it seems to break as many rules as it follows. How did you get the idea for the book, and does writing in this genre inform how you work?
JD: I found a character I liked in a short story I wrote. I wrote the story, my first bit of crime fiction, on request. The character was Wylie Melville, a therapist and police consultant; the story was “The Timing of Unfelt Smiles,” and it appeared in Miami Noir and in Best American Mystery Stories 2007. I wanted to give Wylie a much larger problem to solve and to put his life in great danger. That’s what got me started, that and the long legacy of police and political corruption in South Florida, rich material to work with. Then, having done it once, I thought, I’ll do it again. I liked Wiley and Bay and wondered what mayhem would follow them and where would they go. They went to Vegas so that Bay could ply his trade at the poker tables. To be honest, I hadn’t read much crime fiction before I wrote crime fiction. Sherlock Holmes, of course, books my friends Les Standiford, James W. Hall, and Dennis Lehane wrote. So if I broke any rules, I may not have known what they were. I wrote the two novels like I wrote every book with the focus on characters and themes, not on plot. This is what it means to be a human being and this is how it feels.
TBD: What do you want people to take away from your novel?
JD: Before I was a writer, and before I was a house painter, I worked for a while in social service organizations, a suicide prevention hotline, like the one Wylie works at in Vegas, a youth center, a drug prevention program. So I was in touch with that difficult life that so many people have here. In America. I worked with so many people who had lost hope and others who were in terrible emotional pain. And I’ve never lost that feeling that we don’t do enough to take care of the less fortunate. The exploitation and oppression of unfortunate people is something I’d hope the reader would think about. Daily violence is a norm here, but it’s easy to look the other way. And I want the reader to care about Wylie and his friends.
TBD: What were some of the pleasures and perils of writing this book?
JD: I spoke glibly above saying how theme and character drove the novel. Plot’s always been the most difficult aspect of novel writing for me. It’s so damn hard. So when I wrote the first Coyote novel, I got to about 250 pages when I realized I didn’t know who committed those murders in the opening chapter, and I thought, this is why the crime writers make the big money: they have to write a novel and solve a crime. Too late then to bring a bad guy with a gun onto the stage. So it was pack to page one. Same thing this time. As possible suspects entered the novel, I paid attention and watched them looking for clues. Anyone of them could have done the deed, but who really did? Wylie’s no Sherlock Holmes, no consulting detective, but he is a man who pays attention. And he doesn’t work alone. He has the illusionist Bay and the bedlamite Open Mike by his side.
TBD: Tell us about how you got your first book published?
JD: It was a book of short stories, and I had probably published six or seven stories in literary journals. I had a bunch of others, and I put them together as a book, and I went through one of those books Writer’s Digest put out or something like that. And I looked through all of the agents looking for short story collections, and there were three.
TBD: I’m surprised there were three!
JD: I know, I know! So I wrote to the three of them, and one of them got back to me. He was very enthusiastic. I would tell anybody who is looking for an agent, make sure the agent is excited about you and your project. Not just, “I’ll do it…” Because it’s hard for an agent to sell a book. Especially if it’s short stories. So my agent sent my book of stories around for about a year. It finally sold to Jill Bialosky at Norton, and I’ve been with Jill and Norton ever since. I remember my editor saying, “You’re the last guy I’ll ever sell a book of stories for.”
TBD: Your career is interesting and highly unusual for today in terms of sticking with one publisher for each book. And it’s a publisher that’s independent but has real chops in this business. Not to mention the fact that you write very quirky books that are not highly commercial, mainstream, etcetera. How can other writers achieve this kind of elusive success?
JD: First of all, the best readers you’re going to get are your agent and your editor. They’re generous. They want your book to succeed. And they know what they’re talking about. Even if you disagree with them, I always say, just do what they tell you to do. Because they know the business. I don’t know anything about the business. I don’t want to know; I want to write. I also say, if you write something beautiful and moving and telling, it’ll get published. But it may not get published when you want it to be, or where you want it to be. The important thing for a lot of young writers is getting it published. I steer them away from self-publishing. Some of them have, and that’s alright. But you want to get the imprimatur of somebody else. Somebody else who believes in you. Small presses are as good a place to be published as large presses… I mean obviously you’re not getting the same money. But the money isn’t like it was before. You used to be sent on book tours. Now you’re lucky if they give you lunch money. The important thing is to get yourself into the game. You get your book around. You have people reading it. Just don’t give up. You owe it to your characters that you love to get other people to read about them. Until you get an agent, you’re going to do the business work too, and persist with it. I think in some ways publishing is more democratic than it ever was.
TBD: When we go to these conferences, there’s always one person who’s telling writers, “You have to be on Facebook! You have to be on Twitter! You have to have a website, blah blah blah-” And you can see the blood draining out of writers’ faces.
JD: The publishers want you to do work with them, which I understand. When I did my first book of stories, I set up what I called the Motel Six tour. I told them, “Get me the books and a bookstore, and I’ll drive. I’ll take my wife and my kid, and we’ll drive to all the bookstores.” And that’s what I did. And they were all really happy, because this was before social media. I printed up a fake newspaper from Louisiana Power and Light, and Norton sent it around, and got hard copies to people. It was fun. They appreciated that I was willing to do it. I still do it. Somebody just asked me to do a bookstore in Baltimore. But I’m thinking, “How much is this going to cost me?” In the old days, they put me up in beautiful hotels. Paid for everything. Now, at least for mid-list people like me, it’s not happening. And I don’t think it’s happening too much in general anymore. I also have gotten on Facebook because Norton said to do that. A guy helped me out. My wife is good at the computer. I think that’s been kind of helpful. It’s a nice way to spread the news. I saw there was a good review of my new book in the Tampa Bay paper on Sunday, and I put it online. Lots of people have liked it already. They know about the book, they buy the book. Twitter I’ve never been on. I remember once, Carol Houck Smith (who was an editor at Norton for years) and I were sitting together by these editors, and they were all answering questions with, “You need a platform.” And Carol muttered under her breath, “I don’t need a goddamn platform, I need a great book!”
TBD: What are you reading now?
JD: I tend to read a lot of books at the same time. I’m reading Lee Martin’s new novel Late One Night, which begins with the death of a mother and three kids in a fire that may or may not have been arson. And I started Campbell McGrath’s new poetry collection, XX, in which he writes a poem for every year in the last century, in the voices of some of the century’s prominent figures, like Picasso. Mao, and Elvis. Also reading Wired to Create, by Kaufman and Gregoire, and Actual Minds, Possible Worlds by Jerome Bruner. I’m loving, if not completely understanding, Lawrence M. Krauss’s A Universe from Nothing and Carlo Rovelli’s Seven Brief Lessons on Physics.
TBD: How does teaching fiction help or hinder you as a fiction writer?
JD: It only helps. Every reading and every discussion of a story helps me see how stories work or don’t work, including my own. We’re all apprentices in a craft where no one is a master–I think Hemingway said that. This is the craft so long to learn. I always feel better at the end of class than at the start. I always feel like rushing home (which is actually impossible on Biscayne Boulevard) and getting back at whatever it is I’m writing. To be honest, there are moments that I would rather be learning about my central character’s secrets than reading a story about goblins with swords, but I know I’ll learn something about setting a scene, let’s say, in the goblin story that will be valuable to my students and to me.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but since you actually wrote a book about how to write a novel, we feel we have to. What advice do you have for writers?
JD: Probably the advice you were expecting to hear: read and write every day. No holidays for the writer. We always find time to do the things we love. We only have to want to write as much as we want to go to the movies. And if you don’t love writing and reading, do something else. It’s too hard, and discipline won’t bring you to the writing desk. Only love for stories will do that. Here’s Faulkner on reading: “Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it.” And Chekhov on writing: “Write as much as you can! Write, write, write till your fingers break.”
John Dufresne is the author of seven novels, including I Don’t Like Where This is Going and No Regrets, Coyote. Among other honors, he has received a Guggenheim Fellowship and is a professor in the MFA program at Florida International University. He lives in Dania Beach, Florida. For more information, please visit www.johndufresne.com.
John will be joining our Pitchapalooza panel in Miami on May 7, 2016, at 2 p.m. Learn more at the Miami Herald.
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Six years ago, we went through the grueling process of launching our website in conjunction with the launch of The Essential Guide To Getting Your Book Published. It was hours and hours of work. And we had some serious blips along the way. For example, we decided to use the crowdsourcing design website 99Designs.com because we didn’t want to spend an arm and a leg. The good news was that for $500, we got a really nice looking site that functioned well. The bad news was that our designer was in Bulgaria and we couldn’t actually talk to him. So lots of things that we wanted fell by the wayside and it was, we’d say, about three-quarters baked.
This past year, with the launch of the updated edition of our book, we decided it was time to update our website as well. At the James River Writers Conference, we met a wonderful writer named Kris Spisak who had a web design company called Midlothian Web Solutions with her husband, Frank Petroski. Though they design all kinds of sites, they are partial to writers and understand the search engine optimization that is specific to author websites. We hired them and the redesign began. Again, it took countless hours of work. But this time, we had real partners and we’ve launched a site that makes us feel happy every time we look at it.
To get the site we wanted, we studied lots of other sites. Just like with your book, you need comps–comparable websites to the one you’re trying to build. On the content side, our comp site was one that wasn’t actually for an author but for a consultant in the nonprofit sector. On the visual side, we borrowed from all kinds of sites, but still kept the same color scheme and clean feel of our last site. Kris handled our keyword search, which is essentially an exercise is figuring out your audience and how to reach them. These keywords also help us with our blog posts, our newsletters and our workshops.
Why are we waxing on about our website? Because it’s crucial for you to have one as well. Check out the video to find out our Top Ten Tips for most excellent websites!
This post originally appeared in our newsletter. JOIN OUR NEWSLETTER TO RECEIVE MORE TIPS ON HOW TO PROMOTE YOUR BOOK.
Do you want to get successfully published? Find an agent? Attract an editor at a great independent publishing house? Or do it yourself? Whichever way your publishing path takes you, your pitch is in many ways the most important arrow in your quiver. Learn how to pitch like a professional at Pitchapalooza. Like American Idol for books (only kinder and gentler), the winner receives an introduction to an agent or editor that is appropriate for his/her book. Numerous Pitchapalooza winners and participants now have book deals. Pitchapalooza is the brainchild of Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry, co-founders of The Book Doctors and authors of over 25 books including The Essential Guide To Getting Your Book Published.
Now, for the first time, BlogHer is collaborating with The Book Doctors on an interactive online Pitchapalooza. Writers will send in their pitch, 250 words maximum. Then, on May 18, at noon (CT) we will randomly select 20 pitches, and read them aloud, one by one. We will critique them, and explain what’s working, and what needs to be improved. At the end of the webinar, a winner will be announced. Whether you get to pitch or not, this is a highly educational (and entertaining!) experience for writers. All genres are accepted. Here’s a link to the webinar on Spreecast. Anyone can listen in, but you’ll need to sign in to Spreecast to ask questions.
The Pitchapalooza is free, but in order to pitch, you must buy a copy of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published: How To Write It, Sell It, and Market It… Successfully. Just send your pitch along with proof of purchase to firstname.lastname@example.org. This also entitles the purchaser of the book–whether you are picked to pitch or not–to a free 20-minute consultation (worth $100). The consultation will be set up after the webinar, and will take place over the phone.
UPDATE: We will accept pitches until an hour before we start.
Who We Are
Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry are co-founders of The Book Doctors, a company dedicated to helping authors get their books published. They are also co-authors of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published: How To Write It, Sell It, and Market It… Successfully (Workman, 2015). Arielle Eckstut has been a literary agent for over 20 years at The Levine Greenberg Literary Rostan Literary Agency. She is also the author of nine books and the co-founder of the iconic brand, LittleMissMatched. David Henry Sterry is the best-selling author of 16 books, on a wide variety of subject including memoir, sports, Middle Grade fiction and reference. His first book has been translated into 10 languages and optioned by HBO, his latest book was featured on the cover of the New York Times Book Review. They’ve taught their workshop on how to get published everywhere from Stanford University to Smith College. They have appeared everywhere from The New York Times to NPR’s Morning Edition to USA Today.
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We first met Cathie Borrie years ago on our trips around the publishing world. It was immediately apparent upon reading her stuff that she was an amazing storyteller and an exquisite wordsmith with a true gift for poetic articulation. But her book was about such a difficult subject, we knew she’d have a hard time getting a traditional publisher interested. That didn’t stop her. She wrote a deep, moving, glorious book, and eventually, after years of ridiculously hard work, she found her audience. We thought we check in with her to see exactly how the heck she did it.
To read the full interview on the Huffington Post, click here.
The Book Doctors: When did you first start becoming a writer, and how did you learn to be one?
Cathie Borrie: No doubt you are aware of that stale, sorrowful mantra: “I’ve always wanted to. . . ” That cliché was my writing story. I dabbled in poetry as a child, followed by decades during which I had marvelous experiences and adventures but did not write. When my mother became ill and went on to develop dementia, everything changed for me, turned direction, and stopped. Her language evolved into one of extraordinary insight, humor, and poetic sensibility. I wanted to keep her voice, and began to tape our conversations. I think this time of quieting down, of listening and taping, served as muse for the release of my own writing voice. Mother living with dementia, as muse! My goal became to convey that the story is not a long goodbye, and that she had not become an empty shell.
How does anyone learn to be a writer? Can it be learned? I began my vignette-like pencil scratchings in 2004, when my mother was still alive and living with dementia. I have always loved learning, and loved going to school. It suits me: the discipline, the homework, the camaraderie, and I was thrilled when, in 2005, I was accepted into The Writer’s Studio program at Simon Fraser University. This course changed everything for me and for my writing. Under the expert tutelage of author and then-director Betsy Warland, I honed the words I had already written and added thousands more. After the program, a number of us formed an inter-genre writing group, which provided me with an enormous opportunity to continue with my writing and editing.
TBD: What are some of your favorite books or authors, and why?
CB: Treasured genres: literary fiction, short stories, poetry. The ever evolving author list: Annie Dillard, Harriet Doerr, Lydia Davis, Ann Michaels, Anita Brookner, Yeats, Jane Yolen, John Kennedy Toole, because they write in a sparing beauty and I crave that. Favorite book: Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, the 1980 edition with illustrations by Michael Hague.
TBD: Read any good books lately?
CB: I am reading or re-reading, and loving, The Conference On Beautiful Moments by Richard Burgin, The Night Sky by Mary Morris, Tinkers by Paul Harding, Seamus Heaney’s Wintering Out, and Molly Peacock’s Alphabetique: 26 Characteristic Fictions.
TBD: We’ve heard over and over from New York publishing people that books about Alzheimer’s don’t sell. We tell writers that they know more about their audience than New York publishing oftentimes does. Tell us about Cathie’s wild ride to publication.
CB: I finished the work around 2008, at the time of the economic crash. Agents and publishers were pulling back on taking new clients, especially platform-less memoirists. On top of this dismal scene, I kept hearing that books about Alzheimer’s don’t sell, or that the market is saturated with memoirs about Alzheimer’s. But non-fiction topics leave room for different perspectives, and I knew this work wasn’t like anything else in the field, in form or content. It uniquely included the voice of an elderly woman living with dementia and no author had taken that approach with this topic. Also, I wrote a memoir with broader themes, which I set in context of family relationships, and, although its center revolved around dementia, it included universal stories that would, I believed, appeal to a wider memoir readership.
In September, 2010, Francesca Rosenberg, Director of Community, Access and School Programs for the Museum of Modern Art in New York, invited me to present The Long Hello for World Alzheimer’s Month. I had been doing theatrical readings based on the manuscript internationally for a number of years, as I continue to do. For this event, Melia McLure accompanied me by reading my mother’s voice. MoMA expressed interest in having the book available so I took a deep breath, and self-published. For the next four years I marketed the book to the best of my abilities and although I possess drive and determination, my tolerance for rejection is shaky, at best. At the time, media were not interested in a self-published author, and I still held dreams of being part of a publishing team. In 2014, author and memoirist Molly Peacock referred me to a literary agent, Marilyn Biderman, who secured a contract with Simon & Schuster Canada. Publication with a major trade publisher ushered in a sunny day for The Long Hello, and for me. Marilyn then placed The Long Hello with Arcade, an old and esteemed independent house that had recently been bought and resurrected by a larger independent, Skyhorse, while maintaining some of the members of its original editing department. I continue to perform excerpts from The Long Hello, sometimes accompanied by live musicians, and more recently have completed the stage play, co-written with playwright James Fagan Tait.
TBD: Tell us about delivering your keynote performance at MoMA for the World Alzheimer’s Day event. What was that experience like? What were the repercussions?
CB: I think we can all agree that a call from MoMA would be considered a highlight in any author’s career, as it certainly was in mine. MoMA runs a marvelous program for people living with Alzheimer’s and their care partners: Meet Me at MoMA. To be able to tell my story, to hear my mother’s magical words that defy the Alzheimer’s stereotype, in that beautiful space, was unforgettable. I met wonderful people and received additional invitations after my appearance at MoMA.
TBD: What was it like to take some of the worst experiences in your life and make art out of them?
CB: My writing style has been described as “lyrical, poetic, and spare.” The chapters about childhood, birds, horses, dance, even about sports’ day, lent themselves to that form. But when I knew I had to bite the bullet and write about my parents’ divorce, the death of my brother, my mother’s last days, I looked down at the yellow paper with those perfectly spaced wide lines and despaired. How could I take those stories and render them in lyrical form? I hardly wanted to think about them. But, as other writers have described, beauty and meaning are available in the darkest of places, and I found that wonderful memories surfaced alongside the difficult ones. I recalled a poignant incident that occurred shortly after the death of my grandfather.
I would climb a tree after school to wait for my mother to come home from work every day, feeling a deep pleasure in looking out over the beautiful farms scattered throughout the valley, and breathing in the pleasing scent of pine, my fingers sticky with pitch.
In other parts, or scenes, as I think of them, sad memories were often infused with bird song, always birds . . .singing, and the moody sea, offering solace. Homesick at boarding school, my beloved English teacher reveals what it means to love by reading Yeats to us, her eyes closed, a thin private smile etched across her face. And finally, I found a euphoric comfort and sustenance in the writing process itself: that burning need to write sparingly, and the commitment to edit every sentence hundreds of times so that no word is unnecessary, or wasteful, or unfit.
TBD: What was it like to get a quote from Maya Angelou? It must be so gratifying to get so many amazing blurbs from doctors, writers, reporters.
CB: Maya Angelou’s one word, “Joy!” was an absolutely astounding response to the work. Imagine a memoir centered on dementia, described with this one perfect word – “Joy!” I am deeply grateful for all those generous people who endorse The Long Hello: Maya Angelou, Lisa Genova, MoMA’s Francesca Rosenberg, and others whose names warm my heart and whose words fill that uncertain place in which a writer, manuscript completed, waits to be published.
TBD: What’s next?
CB: My current manuscript is a genre busting work for children. My wish list:
1.The stage adaptation, performed in theatres. 2. Just the right people to bring The Long Hello to the screen, with eyes knowing how to unearth the back-stories, the landscape, the beauty.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?
CB: Edit your work so that when you send it to prospective agents and publishers, it is in pristine shape. To survive the process, muster: tenacity, a relentless drive, resilience, and a sturdy constitution.
Cathie Borrie briefly tried her hand at theater school, trained as a nurse, holds a bachelor of science in nursing from the University of British Columbia and a Master of Public Health from Johns Hopkins University. She has a law degree from the University of Saskatchewan and received her Certificate in Creative Writing from the Writer’s Studio at Simon Fraser University. She continues to write new work, and to perform adaptations of The Long Hello, and is no longer an active actor, a nurse, or a lawyer. She lives in North Vancouver. You can see Cathie’s website at: www.cathieborrie.com
Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry are co-founders of The Book Doctors, a company that has helped countless authors get their books published. They are co-authors of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published: How To Write It, Sell It, and Market It… Successfully (Workman, 2015). They are also book editors, and between them they have authored 25 books, and appeared on National Public Radio, the London Times, and the front cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review.
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It’s pretty rare when we, The Book Doctors, are reading the same book. Arielle tends to love books written by people who’ve been dead for several hundred years. Or doorstop-sized biographies, and giant non-fiction tomes about people doing bad things, like the brilliant book about Bernie Madoff, The Wizard of Lies. I tend to gravitate toward books with tragically flawed heroes and gorgeous mysterious dames who are never quite what they seem to be at first blush. I tend to like bullets, bombs, uncontrollable passions, epic gruesome one-of-a-kind murders. Raymond Chandler, Cloud Atlas, Game of Thrones. But we both absolutely adored Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher. We love it so much we’ve become evangelists for the book, telling everyone who will listen that they MUST read this novel. When you read it, you’ll find out why. So we decided we would interview Julie and see what she had to say for herself.
To read the full interview on the Huffington Post, click here.
ARIELLE: Because we edit books, we’re always interested in how a novel is constructed. Yours is one of the most brilliant constructions that we’ve ever seen! You’ve managed to write a novel that is made up solely of recommendation letters from a Professor of English at a University. It’s a brilliant high-concept idea, but it’s one that seems impossible to pull off before you read it. We were wondering how you conceived of the idea and how you constructed it?
JULIE: The idea came to me sort of accidentally. I was teaching an undergrad fiction class at the University of Minnesota, which I often do, and I was telling the students that typically we don’t start with plot and structure, but sometimes if you’re stuck, you might try to begin a short story or a short work of fiction by coming up with some kind of format. Maybe you could come up with a short story in the form of a to-do list. Or a series of definitions. Or there’s a couple of pieces of fiction written in alphabetical order. Is there some way in which they could jumpstart and experiment with something by coming up with a form first? And one of the students asked me, “Is this something you usually do?” And I said, “No, actually, I never do that. I don’t start with structure. It’s not the way I write. I always start with character.” And they kind of pushed me on it. And someone asked, “Well, if you were going to do that, what would you do?” So I said, kind of facetiously, “Well, something in the form of letters of recommendation because I always write them for you people.”
DAVID: That’s hilarious! So what happened next?
JULIE: I was thinking about the idea and didn’t know if it would be feasible or doable. I told the idea to a colleague, and he said, “I hope you’re going to do that.” And I thought, well, maybe I could just give it a whirl. I realized pretty early on the two major challenges would be: One, how do you make the letters stick together? Where’s the narrative glue? And two, how do I portray my main character if he’s supposed to always be invisibly describing other people? He’s supposed to be behind the scenes as an author of these letters, rather than on stage. But I thought, having written a zillion letters myself, just finding them frustratingly dull and full of praise but also very boring at the same time that I could create a guy who would just insert himself all over the place. Talk about himself when he’s supposed to be talking about other people. I thought that could actually be good fun!
ARIELLE: What were your next steps?
JULIE: I decided to try to write a few pages a day and see if it went anywhere, and if it didn’t, I’d throw it away. I started it in the summer, and probably by the end of the summer I had a good piece of it done. And I was having the time of my life writing it. I loved writing this book. I had so much fun. Writing is not always a good time, you know? But this was a great time.
ARIELLE: Did you already have an agent? And if so, at what point did you talk about the idea or send some pages, and what was his or her reaction?
JULIE: Yeah, I do. I’d been trying to get her to sell a collection of short stories, and she was giving me the big yawn.
DAVID: Yeah, good luck with that. You had already written a number of books that had sold, right?
JULIE: Yeah. I had two books for them that were out of print, then I had written five novels for kids. In part because my own kids were young, and I was reading what they were reading. I was urging them, “Why don’t you try this book or that book?” and that was where my mind sort of was. Because my agent was not terribly excited, to say the least, about my short story collection, I wrote to her when I was about half done with Dear Committee Members, and said, “Maybe they would want my stories if they knew I was working on a novel as well.” She said, “Well, what are you working on?” And I said, “Well, it’s kind of a weird thing, it’s not done.” And she said, “Send it to me anyway.” I was kind of nervous sending it to her because I thought maybe it’s just amusing to me, and anybody else will think it’s a dumb idea. But she immediately wrote back and said, “Forget your story! We’ll sell this!”
ARIELLE: And did you pitch her the idea over the phone or an email before sending her the manuscript?
JULIE: No, no, I didn’t.
ARIELLE: David and I both heard Maureen Corrigan review your book on Fresh Air while driving and we were both so intrigued we went out and bought the book.
DAVID: It was an incredible review. It was basically a letter of recommendation for your book!
JULIE: I was so thrilled with that review. I think I was in the car too, but I must have been listening to another station. My sister called me and was shouting over the phone at me. “Turn the radio on!”
DAVID: One of the things I love about the book is the way that we watch not only the Creative Writing department, but this man himself, deteriorate through the course of these letters. Was this a conscious decision, or did that just come about as the book went forward?
JULIE: I think his deterioration came about as I was writing the book. I realized early on, “Okay, I’ve got to have several people that he writes to more than once, so it’ll stick together. I started out with his poor student Darren.”
DAVID: We won’t give away what happens. I’ll just say, poor schmuck!
JULIE: Yeah! And then I thought, “Okay, he’s got to have an ex,” so I added Janet. And then I thought, “I should have some backstory to him,” so I created the seminar and his pals from that time. But I wasn’t really sure. I did start to worry when I was about halfway or two-thirds of the way through. Is he just going to seem monochromatic? So I thought, “Okay, I’ve got to kill Darren off.”
DAVID: Well, you just gave it away!
JULIE: Actually, I had an argument with the editor when he bought it. Again, I had sent the agent the first half of it that was finished. The back half was in draft form, I was fairly sure at that point what was happening. But it wasn’t polished enough that I wanted to send it anywhere. And the editor called me up and said, “What’s gonna happen at the end?” And I said, “Well, I’m going to kill Darren off.” And he said, “Oh no no no. Don’t like that idea.” And I said, “Well, Darren’s going.”
ARIELLE: Wait, so you sold this on half a novel?!
ARIELLE: That’s wonderful and very unusual. How did the editor influence what you ended up writing in the second half?
JULIE: I had long conversations with the editor about what was going to happen. And he was worried about Darren. He wasn’t sure that was going to be justified. And he was also worried that there wouldn’t be any sort of change in Fitger (my protagonist) himself. He wanted me to include a letter written by someone else that would recommend Fitger for something. And I kept saying, “No no no, I don’t want to do that. I want them all to be outgoing because I thought that would make him seem lonelier somehow.” He said, “Okay, you can kill Darren off, but I still want somebody to write a letter for Fitger.” And I said, “No no no no no.” But we did finally compromise with the letter at the end, in which Fitger quotes someone saying about him: “He’s not as much of an ass as he thinks he is.”
DAVID: Had you worked with this editor before?
JULIE: No. So it was kind of nerve-wracking.
ARIELLE: So what happened? It was sent as an exclusive?
JULIE: No, she sent it to four or five places. I think one or two of them thought about it and passed. And there were two that did want it at the end. Doubleday was one. And I talked to both editors. That had never happened to me before. It was terrific.
ARIELLE: Who was your editor?
JULIE: Gerald Howard.
ARIELLE: Oh, lucky you!
JULIE: Yeah it was really lucky. But again, I didn’t know him at all. And I had never met him. And I was kind of nervous as I was finishing this thing. But it turned out to be a really good editing relationship.
DAVID: Fitger’s character is so unlikeable in certain ways. He’s a liar. He’s petty. He’s narcissistic. But in the end, you kind of end up loving the guy because his heart seems to be in the right place in many ways.
JULIE: I definitely see him that way. I know there’s been a few people who’ve read it who clearly see him as a 100 percent curmudgeon. Just a jerk. They would want to avoid him. But no! He’s sorely lacking in diplomatic skills, and tact, and some common sense. But he cares about things people in the arts care about. And he does care about his students. And I think any shift at the end is demonstrated in the fact that he does start to recognize that he’s not done right by Darren. And he should have said to him early on, “Bad idea. It’s a bad book.” And he didn’t. He was selfishly advocating for Darren in part because it was sort of a vicarious relationship, and selfishly he wanted his program to live on, and Darren’s his last chance.
ARIELLE: I just want to go back to one thing, because we get this question from clients all the time about, “How do I say no to my editor, and when do I say no?”
JULIE: I think that’s really hard. In the past, I think it was the second story I ever published, I was 28, 29 years old, and had a really bad experience where an editor just ran roughshod over my story in a way I thought was offensive. And in retrospect, I think I should have just said, “No, you can’t do that to my story.” But you know, I was 28, I really wanted a credit and something on my resume, and I let him screw with my work. I think right now, I’d say, “I’m taking it back.” But back then, I didn’t have the wherewithal to do it. But most of the time, everything other than that one story, I’ve had really good experiences with editors. In the kid-book world, the editorial hand is extremely heavy. I think I’m not the only one who’s found that. You send in your completed manuscript and feel very happy about it, and they say, “Oh, we still like your book. We’re so excited!” And then they send you a 12 or 15 page letter. “Here are the things we’re really excited to see you do.” So those were sometimes excruciating to receive, and I would get snarly and defensive and take long walks for a few days, and then would realize, well, they were right. Ninety percent of the time, I was just going to do what they asked.
ARIELLE: Gerry Howard is a guy with best-sellers longer than both of his arms. What, in that case — I’m sure you agreed to many of the changes that he made — but what was it in the places you did say no, that made you say no?
JULIE: The only one that was of consequence was his desire for somebody to write a letter for Fitger at the end. He pressed on that and pressed on that, but when I suggested a compromise, and wrote it in, he said fine.
DAVID: But killing off Darren is also a huge thing.
JULIE: Yeah, and he did not like that idea. But once I sent him the completed manuscript, he went, “Oh okay. I see what you want to do. That makes sense.” When I talked to him on the phone after he was thinking about buying it based on the first pass, he said to me, “I’m a reasonable person. I’m not going to ask you to do things to your book that you think are going to ruin it. We’ll be able to talk about ideas. We’ll bat things back and forth. I want you to be able to trust me.” He was great.
ARIELLE: So, Professor Fitger is very helpful to his students who want to get their books published. But we’ve found that, typically, there’s a lack of education, or even just snobbery, by academic and MFA programs about how to get published. I’m wondering how you prepare your students for the very harsh realities of today’s publishing world.
JULIE: I don’t know. I haven’t found any snobbery. I’ve certainly found among creative writing faculty people who say, “Let’s bring editors and agents in here, let’s help with the professional life of the writer.” And on the other hand, some faculty who say, “Let’s create a more sheltered environment in which people can purely work on their writing, and worry about publishing, et cetera, later. Now is not the time to be thinking of marketplace issues. Now is the time to be writing. Let’s consider this a sort of retreat.” I understand both those points of view. I think some programs in particular, Iowa and Columbia – Iowa because it’s Iowa, Columbia because it’s in New York – are very good at bringing in agents, editors, et cetera, to look over people’s work. I’ve certainly had students who, when we have occasionally brought in editors to the U of M, say, “I don’t want to meet with them. I’m busy on my novel. I can’t do that right now.” Which I totally respect.
ARIELLE: And do you, for example, teach people how to write a proper query letter? Or do you give wisdom from your own experience of having books published? As we all know, you can have a perfect book that doesn’t get published.
JULIE: Yeah, definitely. I don’t teach to a whole group of people how to write a query letter. Or here’s how to find an agent. Here’s how to self-publish. I would say on a more individual basis, “This book is on its way to being terrific. I don’t think it’s there yet. I don’t think you’re going to profit by sending it out right now. I think you need more time.” In the rare case where people are ready to sell something while they’re still a student, I and other faculty will try to hook them up with an agent.
ARIELLE: You do? Oh, that’s great!
DAVID: And how did you make the leap from writing for adults to writing for kids? Did you find it a difficult transition, or what?
JULIE: For me it wasn’t hard at all because the short stories I had been writing, and many of which were in my first book of short stories — first and only so far!– were about parents and kids and families. A bunch of them had child narrators. It felt to me like a small or relatively subtle shift to go from writing about children for an adult audience to writing about children for a younger audience. I think in Kid Lit there’s a greater directness in plot and structure, and a greater emphasis on, y’know, what happens next.
JULIE: Yeah. I had started working on the first kid book I wrote, and realized I am not good at plot. I really needed to teach myself how to do it. Again, my own kids were young. I was reading aloud to them, reading E.B. White. I must’ve reread Charlotte’s Web ten times. My kids love that book. I thought, here’s a plot, clicking into place like little Lego pieces. A leads to B leads to C. I’m going to teach myself how to do this. I’m going to learn cause-and-effect in narrative. And I’m going to build a book. And I very, almost mechanically, outlined a book. Conflicts would start on page one. There’s a mother and a daughter disagreeing. Each chapter was going to be 8 to 10 pages long. There were going to be fifteen chapters. I thought, “It’s probably not going to be any good. I’ll probably just toss it away. But I’ll learn something!” And at the end of the year, I had written a book, and I really liked it! Then I kind of fooled myself into thinking it will be so easy writing children’s books, y’know? Every new project refuses to cooperate in its own unique way.
ARIELLE: We saw that you’re teaching a course on the child narrator. And you sort of answered this question, but we’re curious about, for you, what separates YA from adult fiction if you have a child narrator? Prep, for example, was published as adult fiction.
JULIE: I think that’s a really interesting question. I taught a class on child narrators. Again, I think it’s a matter of emphasis. You would read something like Push by Sapphire and simply because of the subject matter, the sexual violence, you would decide, not for a kid. But The Curious Incident of a Dog in the Nighttime was published in Britain in two simultaneous editions with two different covers. One for kids, one for adults. Same book. In the U.S, for whatever marketing reasons, it was decided that it was for adults, but eventually kids started reading it anyway. There’s this whole crossover phenomenon. To me, typically, the hallmarks of a kid book are a greater directness, in plot and structure on the one hand, and maybe in the emotions on the other. I just reread The Yearling. I haven’t read it in ages, and it’s a beautiful thing. There’s nothing in that book that would not satisfy an adult reader. But it’s not as subtle, emotionally. As an adult you can feel that your emotions are about to be worked on in a particular way, but it’s no less beautiful or literary for that.
DAVID: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?
JULIE: Oh, persistence. I just think persistence is key. At some point, in the dark of the night, you ask yourself, “Am I more foolish for continuing along this path and hoping, or would I be more foolish for giving up?” You don’t know sometimes.
DAVID: Yeah, there is an element of blind faith, isn’t there?
JULIE: Yeah. It is about blind faith, and believing in yourself. I think part of that is you want to believe in yourself not because you are sure that vast success is on its way, but you’re sure that this matters to you. And that it will offer you some reward even at its most frustrating. There will still be something in it for you.
Julie Schumacher graduated from Oberlin College and Cornell University. Her first published story, “Reunion,” written to fulfill an undergraduate writing assignment (“tell a family tale”) was reprinted in The Best American Short Stories 1983. Subsequent stories were published in The Atlantic, MS, Minnesota Monthly, and Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards 1990 and 1996. Her first novel, The Body Is Water, was published by Soho Press in 1995 and was an ALA Notable Book of the Year and a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award and the Minnesota Book Award. Her other books include Dear Committee Members, An Explanation for Chaos, and five novels for younger readers, all from Delacorte. Ms. Schumacher lives in St. Paul and is a faculty member in the Creative Writing Program and the Department of English at the University of Minnesota.
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Nano Nation: You are all WINNERS! We had such a blast with this year’s National Novel Writing Month Pitchapalooza. So many AWESOME pitches, so much AMAZING imagination, such an ASTOUNDING display of dizzying talent. Thanks so much to all the writers who participated in this year’s NaNoWriMo Pitchapalooza! As always, we got so many fabulous pitches it was stupidly hard to choose a winner. But choose we did. And the winner is …
MAY K. COBB is the winner for her book Big Woods. She wrote a glorious pitch with a vivid voice, scintillating story, gripping characters, and luscious location. Amazing job, May! She will receive an introduction to an agent or publisher appropriate for her manuscript.
The Fan Favorite this year is KELLY BRAKENHOFF for her book Death by Dissertation! She gets a free one-hour consultation with us (worth $250). Congratulations!
Sign up for our newsletter to receive advice on writing and getting published. We’ll also include info on our live Pitchapaloozas and workshops around the country. Visit us on Facebook and Twitter. And if any of you wonderful wacky Wrimos buys a copy of our book The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published, you will receive a free 20-minute consultation, worth 100 American dollars. Just send proof of receipt to email@example.com.
We’re hosting a free webinar on Thursday, April 7th at 8PM EDT. During the webinar, we’ll be teaching the art of the pitch. A great pitch can open so many doors for you. A terrible pitch pretty much assures that those doors will remain closed. We will also answer any questions about pitching, publishing, writing, books, or the nature of the universe. We hope to see you on April 7th.
We met Dirk Lammers a couple of years ago at the South Dakota Festival of Books. (For those of you who haven’t been to that book festival, or to South Dakota, do yourself a favor before you die and do both. Breathtaking landscape, ridiculously friendly people, world-class published authors, very serious and talented attending writers. We saw buffalo; a donkey put his head into our car–it was a series of peak experiences.) So Dirk told us about his book at the South Dakota Festival of Books. David is a huge baseball fanatic, so the subject was of great interest to him. Dirk was fun, knowledgeable, smart and passionate, all wonderful ingredients for an author. Hell, for anybody. We had a very strong feeling that he was going to get his book published. Lo and behold, here it is, Baseball’s No-Hit Wonders, just in time for the Boys of Summer to take center stage as America’s pastime unfolds, as it has since the 1800s, and takes us through the dog days of summer all the way into the Fall Classic. So we thought we’d chat with Dirk about baseball, books and getting published.
To read the full interview on the Huffington Post, click here.
The Book Doctors: Why did you decide to write this book?
Dirk Lammers: My interest in no-hitters is borne out of my identity as a Mets fan and suffering through numerous ninth-inning misses by Tom Seaver, and watching guys like Seaver, Nolan Ryan, David Cone and Doc Gooden finally notch their no-nos in other teams’ uniforms. That led to a website, NoNoHitters.com, which tracked the Mets’ dubious streak of playing more than 7,500 games without a no-hitter. For years, I diligently tweeted updates and wrote blog posts each game until the count reached 8,019 and Johan Santana broke the 50-year curse on June 1, 2012. I decided to retool the site around all no-hitters and realized that my wealth of research was probably worthy of a book.
TBD: Why do you think people are so fascinated by the idea of a no-hitter?
DL: A no-hitter is all about the suspense, and whether it’s a fan, a player or an announcer, the suspense doesn’t begin for everyone at the same time. Some might be aware that it has been happening since the first pitch; others might not take note until the 6th or 7th inning. But once you’re aware it’s happening, each pitch, each crack of the bat, each throw takes on a heightened significance. I also think that for fans, the cast of characters is so varied that you never know who’s going to throw one. It could be Nolan Ryan, Sandy Koufax or Bob Feller or it could be Bobo Holloman, Bud Smith or Chris Heston.
TBD: What were some of the joys and difficulties of writing this book?
DL: Many of the greatest joys in writing this book came from the interviews. Chatting with former MLB Fay Vincent in such detail about the 1991 committee’s decision to tighten the definition of a no-hitter was so compelling, and then to have him agree to write my book’s foreword was such an honor. When I was at Fenway Park to interview Clay Buchholz and some other players, I got to sit in the Red Sox dugout to conduct the interview. Such hallowed ground. And it’s hard to top getting to talk to Don Larsen about his perfect game in the 1956 World Series.
One of the biggest difficulties was securing rights to the book’s nearly 90 photos on a tight budget, considering that financial responsibility fell on me. I combed my hard drives from games and museums I had visited to dig up anything that was relevant, and I headed out to as many ballparks as I could to get my own shots of players, stadiums and other items. I also worked with the National Baseball Hall of Fame to secure rights for some images from the archives, worked with online auction houses for some memorabilia shots and was fortunate to get permission from Keith Allison, a great sports photographer from the D.C. area, to use some of his more recent images.
TBD: What are some of your favorite stories from no-hitters?
DL: It’s not an official no-no, but Harvey Haddix losing his perfect game (and the ballgame) in the 13th inning after retiring the first 36 batters still boggles my mind. And the tale of Dock Ellis throwing a no-no while tripping on acid never gets old, no matter how many times I tell it, read it, watch it or hear it in song. I find Dave Stieb’s perseverance of finally completing the task after losing four no-hitters in the ninth inning inspiring for all of us who encounter failure. But as a Mets fan, the no-hitter that is forever etched into my mind is Johan Santana’s no-no, because of the long and detailed backstory.
TBD: Do you think it is immoral, shameful and dishonorable to try to bunt your way on base when someone is in the last innings of trying to throw a no-hitter?
DL: It’s funny, I wrote a whole chapter on this subject and I’m not sure I’ve completely made up my mind. I see both sides, but it’s certainly more acceptable in a 1-0 game than a 12-0 game. If I were the batter I would swing away, and if my coach singled for the bunt I’d be more than a little peeved. But if I were a pitcher who lost my no-no on a push bunt to first, I would stare that batter down for the rest of the inning.
It’s interesting that this is a rather recent unwritten rule. Pete Rose bunted during Ken Johnson’s no-hitter for the Houston Colt .45s but Johnson wasn’t peeved. And then at some point, the practice became taboo. You can’t really expect an athlete to not compete, and if that guy is a speedy leadoff hitter you’re taking something out of his toolbox by removing the bunt.
TBD: How did you go about getting your book deal?
DL: After I outlined the chapters and wrote the first few, I felt like I had enough of a concept of where the book was going to craft a formal proposal, though it was way more work than I had anticipated. I began submitting to literary agents who seemed to have an interest in sports and set a goal of submissions a day. I received my share of rejections and no responses but also got some positive and encouraging responses from agents who could not take on the project. I was then contacted by literary agent Helen Zimmermann, who had a publisher who expressed interest and wanted to publish my book. One of that company’s partners, however, had a recurrence of cancer and they had to shelve any new projects. A month later, Unbridled Books expressed interest and the book found its home.
TBD: Who do you think are some of the most unlikely pitchers to have thrown a no-hitter?
DL: The St. Louis Browns’ Bobo Holloman, who threw a no-hitter in his first major-league start in 1953, has to be one of the most unlikely successful pitching performances of all time, considering he ended his career with a 3-7 record and a 5.23 ERA. It’d give the St. Louis Cardinals’ Bud Smith (7-8 lifetime record) a close second, and probably place Philip Humber’s no-no in third as he’s an ex-Met.
TBD: And what pitchers do you look at and say, I can’t believe you never threw a no-hitter?
DL: Grover Cleveland Alexander is probably the most prolific pitcher not to have thrown a no-hitter. He won 373 games and had an overpowering fastball and sharp curve, so he should have landed in the club. Lefty Grove and Early Wynn should join him as well. Modern-era pitchers that should have thrown at least one include Steve Carlton, Don Sutton, Roger Clemens and Pedro Martinez, who threw nine perfect innings for the Expos but his team couldn’t give him a run. I also find it funny that Paul Dean has a no-no, but brother Dizzy Dean does not.
Greg Maddux easily could have thrown a no-hitter with his talent, but he actually was quoted during his playing days saying he never would because he liked to experiment in the strike zone too often.
TBD: I know you are a Mets fan, I won’t hold that against you, but do you think they have a chance of winning the World Series this year and why?
DL: The Mets have the best starting pitching staff in the league, so anything less than a return to the World Series will be a disappointment. I’m especially happy that the team shored up the middle infield and has brought back Yoenis Céspedes to give some punch in the cleanup spot. That said, the team needs to stay healthy and David Wright needs to return to top form if the Mets are going to go all the way. I sure hope they can do it. The year 1986 seems such a distant memory.
TBD: Do you believe that in the year 2016 the San Diego Padres can finally get off the no-hitter schneid?
DL: I honestly thought that 2015 was going to be the year for the Padres, but a San Diego starter never even reached the sixth inning with a no-no intact that season and the team’s count is now sitting at 7,490 games (still far to go to catch the Mets). James Shields would certainly qualify as the favorite, but my guess is that Tyson Ross or Andrew Cashner might be the one to break the curse. And to live on the dangerous side, I’ll go on record saying it will be Ross in 2016.
TBD: You have written lots of short pieces from a journalistic point of view. How is it different writing a whole book? What advice do you have for writers?
DL: I actually embraced the journalistic process to write this book as that’s what I am used to. And, frankly, it made it less overwhelming to view it that way. I set out to write 27 1,000- to 1,500-word stories, all centered around the same subject, and I conducted as much research as I could through newspaper clippings, books, box scores and (whenever possible) personal interviews. I am currently working on a non-sports biography and am using a similar process, although with a biography I am constantly reworking the early and late parts of chapters when I get a better idea of their placement to make the transitions more seamless. I’m not sure how well this process will translate to fiction, but I will find out when I try to enter that world someday. Writing for the Associated Press has taught me to be concise and write for clarity, and I think that training has helped me as an author. My advice to new authors would be to embrace a process they are comfortable with, and nudge it into a new direction rather than trying to start from scratch. It’s easier to start from a place where you are comfortable and move it out of that zone.
Dirk Lammers is an award-winning Associated Press journalist who for years chronicled the New York Mets’ 50-year quest for the team’s first no-hitter. He has spent more than two decades writing thousands of news stories and features for the AP and Tampa Tribune on a variety of topics including business, politics, technology, sports and entertainment.
In 2008, Lammers tapped into his love of baseball to create NoNoHitters.com, a website dedicated to the Mets’ seemingly futile quest for its first no-hitter. For the 4½ years between the site’s creation and Johan Santana’s first Mets no-no in 2012, NoNoHitters.com blossomed into the Internet’s online gathering point for all things related to no-hitters, garnering press coverage in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post and more. He lives in Sioux Falls, SD.
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