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.
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David first met Frances Stroh when he read on the same bill as her during a Litquake event in a bar in San Francisco’s North Beach that stank of beer. When he found out who she was and what the book was about, it seemed weirdly appropriate. Besides being a wonderful artist and writer, Frances is also part of a family that made wildly successful and popular beer for many decades. And then all the beer money dried up. And so she became yet another version of the American Dream: family dreams of making a fortune in the beer business, family makes a fortune in the beer business, family loses a fortune in the beer business. And now she’s written a memoir to prove it. Since her book, Beer Money, just came out, we thought we’d pick her brain about alcohol, money, family and writing it all down.
The Book Doctors: First of all, why in the name of all that is good and holy did you decide to write a memoir?
Frances Stroh: I’d been working on a novel set in the late nineties New York art world about an artist protagonist whose family had lost their wealth. It was a true work of fiction but echoed some of the themes in my own life. Deep down I knew the real book I needed to write was my own coming of age story as an artist as it related to my family’s tragic decline, and the door to do this opened in 2009 when the family company announced that dividends would end because the company was broke, followed a few months later my father’s sudden death. My father had appointed me as the executor of his estate and as I combed through his many collections of antique firearms, vintage cameras and guitars, and stacks of artwork, preparing them for auction, a maelstrom of memories was triggered. These memories of the complex dynamics behind the painful events in my family eventually became the book.
TBD: What books did you love when you were growing up?
FS: I devoured everything by Hemingway and Fitzgerald in high school, as well Tom Wolfe and all the Beat writers. Around that time I read a biography of Edie Sedgwick by George Plimpton that was as much about Andy Warhol and the Factory as it was about Edie, and this book hugely impacted my view of art and what it could be.
TBD: How did you learn to be a writer?
FS: In the very beginning, I studied with writers whose work I deeply respected–Tom Barbash and Julie Orringer. Their influence on my development was immense. Then it was time to just do the work, one early morning writing session at a time, followed by a late morning session, and an afternoon session. I kept reminding myself of Woody Allen’s famous line, “Eighty percent of success is just showing up.” In my case, this meant showing up at my desk physically and emotionally–being present.
TBD: What was your road to publication like?
FS: Surprisingly smooth. I had put in a good deal of work on the book to get it in shape, working with an excellent freelance editor–Zoë Rosenfeld–before sending out to agents. I signed on with the amazing Rob McQuilkin one week after I mailed him the manuscript. A month later we sold the book to HarperCollins at auction. I was extremely fortunate. At Harper I worked with Jennifer Barth, for whose keen eye and sensitivity I have a deep respect. From beginning to end, the publication experience has been very positive, down to all the renowned authors with whom I did my “in conversation” events on my book tour.
TBD: Did your work as a visual artist influence your writing?
FS: I explore issues of identity, point of view, and the mythologies that define us across all media, and the family video installation piece I describe in the prologue of the book was really the genesis for the memoir. The seeds for the memoir were also present in the high school application essay I describe in the book, where, as a thirteen-year-old, I write about my brother’s drug bust and how it affected my family. I think the writing and the visual work influenced each other in the sense that the same themes kept coming up, no matter the medium. Writing the memoir was a way to deepen my exploration of these themes.
TBD: How did being a member of the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto help you in your development as a writer?
FS: I waited to join the Grotto until I was finished with the book, and yet the support I have felt as a member of that community while bringing the book into the world has been huge. There’s truly no replacement for working among and socializing with seasoned writers who have been down the road one is about to embark on. I am very grateful for the friends I have made at the Grotto and the immeasurable impact they’ve had on my path as a writer.
TBD: When David’s first memoir, Chicken, came out, his family basically didn’t speak to him for five years. Have there been any repercussions from your family about writing a story in which many of them are characters?
FS: I published a chapter of the memoir two years ago with Shebooks, a publisher of short ebooks by women writers based in San Francisco, to the applause of everyone in my immediate family. My brother told me it read like a “modern day version of The Catcher in the Rye.” Since then, my mother has been a huge champion of the memoir, rallying her friends with galleys and attending many of my book tour events. The extended Stroh family, most of which are not in the book, have been quieter on the subject, but some have sent letters of praise and support and attended events as well. Overall, I feel the reception of the book has been positive.
TBD: Between the two of us, we’ve written, agented, publicized, and performed more memoirs than we care to remember. What were some of the joys and difficulties of taking the seemingly random events of your life and turning them into a plot with a beginning, middle and an end?
FS: I view the memoir as a love letter to my past, and a book I needed to write in order to reconcile with that past. Throughout my life the tension of one challenging event had built upon the next one with no outlet. From an early age, I was told that it wasn’t okay to talk about money, family difficulties, or anything of any import. And all the while these idealized photos of the perfect American family were piling up all over our house. My father’s photographs now seem haunting in the context of my truth-telling narrative, a juxtaposition in the book I view as a wonderful collaboration between my father and me. By reconstructing the past through the writing of the book I was able to reclaim many of the feelings that I’d had to push aside through the years, feelings I hadn’t been able to feel at the time because the events that triggered them were too taboo to talk about, such as my brother Charlie’s decline into drugs and eventual death. As I wrote the book, patterns began to form, links that connected events that had never before seemed connected–such as the simultaneous unraveling of my family, our business, and Detroit. A new kind of understanding took hold within me. I call it “strange alchemy.” Only through the writing of the book did I come to see how these links were all there, all along, on a somewhat epic scale, making the story of the family, our livelihood, our hometown, and our shared destinies a kind of American story. It became something bigger than my own personal story, while at the same time it’s told in a very personal voice.
TBD: Do you have any advice for writers?
FS: Find the voice that wants to tell your story. Once your narrator is there, the book will essentially write itself. All you have to do is show up at your desk, every day, and give that voice free reign. And don’t think about any kind of an end goal. Following that voice, and the writing itself, is the real reward.
Frances Stroh was born in Detroit and raised in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. She received her B.A. from Duke University and her M.A. from Chelsea College of Art in London as a Fulbright Scholar. She practiced as an installation artist, exhibiting in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and London, before turning to writing. Frances is a member of the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto, and her work across all media explores issues of identity, point of view, and the mythologies that define us.