We first met J. K. Knauss when we did a Pitchapalooza at Anderson’s Bookshop in Naperville, Illinois, one of our favorite bookstores in the world. We loved her idea for her book, but we were also impressed that she actually wrote a blog post that was very entertaining and formative about the event itself. Subsequently she bought one of David’s books and noticed that the metadata for the e-book was wrong. It was these impressive displays that made us become big fans. Not only of what a professional J. K. is, but also how generous a person. And now that her new book is out, we wanted to pick her brain about writing, publishing, and all that jazz.
The Book Doctors: What made you decide to become a writer? What were some of your favorite books as a kid and why?
J. K. Knauss: I’m not sure there was a decision involved. I have no memory of ever wanting to do anything else. My favorite books as a kid were the many by Zilpha Keatley Snyder and Willo Davis Roberts. Not only did they write lots of great books, but I also got to meet them at an author fair near my hometown. Seeing that authors were real people, like me, I hoped that someday, somebody might pay me for my writing.
TBD: We noticed that you use Goodreads. Could you explain to our readers how you work with that website and what some of the benefits are?
JKK: Goodreads is a wonderful way for readers to get in touch with authors because the site is entirely dedicated to books. I encourage readers to use the “Ask a Question” feature on my profile, and to join groups that interest them. With so many books out there, sites like Goodreads can help with one of life’s toughest questions: what to read next?
TBD: Could you describe your process of writing Seven Noble Knights? How did you come up with the idea? What is your daily writing practice like?
JKK: Seven Noble Knights is based on a legend I encountered in graduate school. Don’t let that turn you off! I read my advisor’s paper about the possible meanings of the bloody cucumber incident and decided I had to read everything I could about such a bizarre story. It had much more to offer—knights, ladies, Spanish pride, Moorish civilization… I let it marinate for a few years, then wrote the big travel chapters, the giant battle, and the last three chapters during two consecutive NaNoWriMos. During November, writing was the first thing I did every morning. Otherwise, I stealth wrote, fitting in sentences and scenes wherever I could between my paid editing and copyediting projects. I’m still a stealth writer today.
TBD: Do you use beta readers? Are they valuable in the editing process?
JKK: The first time I lived in Tucson, I had the kismet to join a writers group worth its weight in editorial comment balloons. They’re talented writers who gave me fresh perspectives on how to build a medieval world without bogging the reader down. Most importantly, they’ve stuck with me through some exaggerated highs and lows, even though I had to leave Tucson not once, but twice. Thanks, Low Writers!
TBD: Did you work with an editor at your publishing house? If so, what was that like?
JKK: I worked with a couple of professional editors as well as my critique group, got feedback at the 2013 Naperville Pitchapalooza and the 2014 Grub Street conference, and sent Seven Noble Knights through my own editing mill before I sent it out. Bagwyn Books makes historical accuracy their highest priority, so my editor and I focused on presenting a well-rounded picture of medieval Spain.
TBD: This is such an epic, how did you approach keeping all the storylines and characters afloat and helping your readers not get confused?
JKK: Buried in a tote bag with a flamenco dancer on it, I have a folder that’s thicker than the paperback is going to be with research notes, fold-out maps, character lists, chapter outlines, and a handwritten translation/summary of a few chapters of a thirteenth-century history book. There’s nothing like the benevolent authority of King Alfonso X, el Sabio, to keep a writer on track.
TBD: There’s lots of violence in Seven Noble Knights, but none of it feels gratuitous. Could you give us some of your philosophy about violence in stories, particularly violence towards women?
JKK: Medieval Spain was a society in a state of perpetual warfare for more than 800 years. Everywhere you looked, there was a border to attack or defend. So while it surprised me to be so drawn to such a violent story, it’s important to present the context accurately. I hope readers will come to their own conclusions about the appropriateness of violence in the Middle Ages and today.
There’s so much else going on in Seven Noble Knights, violence against women only occurs during Doña Lambra’s punishment. This is a female character who hasn’t hesitated to wield violence against others as one more tool for getting ahead. In the sequel, there will probably be some nongratuitous violence against innocent women characters. Much as it pains me to consider, again it’s a question of historical realism.
TBD: So, we have violence and odd uses of produce. Do the passions of your medieval characters come out in any other way?
JKK: As fiercely as they slay the enemy and seek revenge, so do the characters in Seven Noble Knights defend their families and fall in love. The hero, Mudarra, finds no meaning in his life until he meets a forbidden love. The seven young title characters will do anything to keep the peace within their beloved family. Don Gonzalo is deeply devoted to his wife, the mother of the seven noble knights, and will do anything to return to her—even betray her with another woman. Doña Lambra loves her cousin, but has to marry some nobleman she’s never met before. Lambra’s maid falls in love with the stable boy and hopes he can help her escape her servile life. Love arises all the stronger in hopeless places.
TBD: We checked out your story collection Rhinoceros Dreams. David also loves rhinoceroses. Why are you drawn to the rhinoceros?
JKK: All five species of rhino are soulful creatures, the gentle giants of the savannah or the rainforest. I had the opportunity to pet a pair of white rhinos at Southwick’s Zoo in southern Massachusetts, and it was the most Zen moment of my life. I highly recommend petting a rhino if you can! And I hope people will stop desiring them for their horns, which are worthless to anyone who isn’t a rhino.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but do you have any advice for writers?
JKK: You might think a field dedicated to bringing the dreams of sensitive writers to an eager reading public would be all daisies and unicorns. But the publishing world has more of the brutal about it than the subtle. When you least expect it, something about the publishing process will break your heart. It’s the price authors pay for loving to write. If you have what it takes, you’ll keep going. So my advice is: “Brace yourself.”
Born and raised in Northern California, J. K. Knauss has wandered all over the United States, Spain, and England. She worked as a librarian and a Spanish teacher and earned a PhD in medieval Spanish literature before entering the publishing world as an editor. Seven Noble Knights, an epic of family, betrayal, and revenge in medieval Spain, debuted December 2016 in ebook from Bagwyn Books. The softcover edition came out January 16, 2017. Tour dates, fun, and prizes are still being added to the Seven Noble Knights Grand Book Launch Blog Tour. Feel free to sign up for her mailing list or visit JessicaKnauss.com for castles, stories, and magic.
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.
We first met Kevin Dann when we did our Pitchapalooza (think American Idol for books) at the Brooklyn Public Library. He was so sharp, smart, warm yet professional. It’s funny, when you do this stuff as long as we have, most of the time you can tell pretty quickly whether somebody has the goods or not. And he clearly did. Now that Kevin’s book Expect Great Things is out, we thought we’d pick his brain on writing, publishing, books and our beautiful planet.
The Book Doctors: How did you first become interested in writing?
Kevin Dann: When I was 12, my best friend moved to St. Louis, and I would write long letters to him about what was going on.
TBD: What were some of your favorite books as a kid and why?
KD: I loved Arthurian legend – T.H. White’s Once and Future King, Mary Stewart’s The Crystal Cave, and Tolkien’s recasting of “the myth of Arthur.” I was also a nut for maps, and any books with maps. Block diagrams! N.M. Fenneman’s, A.K. Lobeck’s, and Erwin Raisz’s physiographic maps and block diagrams gave me an appetite for earth history. I graduated early from the Golden Guides to Peterson Field Guide series, and May Thielgaard Watts’s fabulous Reading the Landscape of America.
TBD: How did you learn to become a writer?
KD: In high school I had two great English teachers, Mrs. O’Neill and Mr. Muir – who let me play Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush in class one day when we were reading Walden. In college I took up the discipline of keeping a natural history journal. But the most consistent writing I did in my 20s was letter writing and song writing.
TBD: What drew you to Henry David Thoreau?
KD: We read Walden my junior year of high school; I was hooked from the opening paragraph. That summer I hiked the Appalachian Trail with two friends, and we carried Walden for inspiration. Thoreau’s voice always felt close and familiar, and his wordplay and powers of observation mesmerized me.
TBD: Considering there’s been so much written about Henry David Thoreau, what new ideas are you bringing to the table?
KD: I could never understand why everyone made Thoreau out to be a misanthrope. All I could feel from him was his deep and intelligent love for his fellow creatures – humans included. I celebrate that persistent philanthropy (in its original sense of “love of man”), and his perennial quest for the spiritual beings standing behind the physical world.
I’d like to leave the most surprising thing I discovered about Thoreau as a surprise, just like he did!
TBD: What similarities did you see between the time when Thoreau was living and our own time?
KD: The enormous technological change, imperial expansion, and social upheaval of the antebellum era in America prompted Thoreau to relentlessly ask his neighbors to become better citizens and friends. He was mocked and misunderstood – and jailed – for doing so. Sound familiar?
TBD: What do you want people to take away from your book?
KD: The title – a distillation of Thoreau’s personal motto – is an injunction and invitation for us all, if we take it in as Thoreau intended it, not in a material, but soul-spiritual sense. It can and will work magic.
TBD: How do you think Thoreau would have reacted to today’s relentless assault on the earth by human beings?
KD: In Thoreau’s day, there was no such thing as an “environmentalist.” He was a moralist, and his principled stance against exploitation and enslavement rested on his commitment to spiritual independence for all beings. He would no doubt be mercilessly calling us all to account for our present sins against both Nature and Humanity. And he’d remind us to live more simply and essentially.
TBD: Why the heck did you walk all the way from Montreal to Manhattan?
KD: The 1909 Champlain and Hudson 300th anniversary celebrations ended up to be less about discovery than about America’s growing imperialist militarism. One of the products of that commemoration was a historical map of the Hudson and Champlain Valleys; all of its featured sites were battlefields. In 2009, with a silenced peace movement, I figured I’d walk the two valleys collecting stories of peace-making. Walking means crossing boundaries, and meeting all sorts of people face-to-face, which fosters amity. I called the pilgrimage “A Corridor of Amity,” and thanks to the kindness of strangers, that’s what it became.
TBD: If you could take a walk with Thoreau, where would you go?
KD: I’d walk from Walden Pond to Wall Street, by the backroads, until we’d reached Broadway, raising a ruckus the whole way. . .
TBD: We hate to ask you this but what advice do you have for writers?
KD: I have to shamelessly steal from Henry here: “Know your own bone; gnaw at it, bury it, unearth it, and gnaw it still.”
Historian, naturalist, and troubadour Dr. Kevin Dann is the author of ten books, including Bright Colors Falsely Seen: Synaesthesia and the Search for Transcendental Knowledge; Across the Great Border Fault: The Naturalist Myth in America; and Lewis Creek Lost and Found. He has taught at Rutgers University, University of Vermont, and SUNY. He wrote, produced, and acted in Brooklyn’s first immersive street mystery, Enigma.
We first met Cathy Camper when she won our Pitchapalooza at the great Portland bookstore Powell’s. The first book in the series did so well that the second one is out now, so we thought we’d pick her brain about books, lowriders, outer space, libraries and diversity in books.
The Book Doctors: Tell us about the new book.
Cathy Camper: Lowriders to the Center of the Earth came out July 2016. This graphic novel follows Lowriders in Space. The three main characters are the same, but you can read each book on its own and still understand what’s going on. At the end of Lowriders in Space, Genie, Elirio, Lupe and Flapjack Octopus’s cat goes missing. The three embark on a crazy road trip to find their cat. It leads them down into the Underworld, ruled by Miclantecuhtli, the Aztec God of the Dead. He’s catnapped their gato, and to get back Genie, it will take all their combined wits and camaraderie to outwit La Llorona, Chupacabra driving a monster truck, and Miclantecutli, who wears a luchadore cape of eyeballs! Similar to the first book, Raúl III illustrated it all in ballpoint pen, with the addition of a green pen in this book, because they get lost in a maíz maze along the way.
TBD: How was it different writing the second book after the first book did so well?
CC: Once you have a book out there, there’s always pressure to deliver another book that’s equally good. Luckily, I was already thinking up book two at the same time I was writing book one. I had to do a big rewrite early on, which was tough, but the book kept getting richer and richer the more I wrote. Also – a big difference – when I wrote book one, I didn’t know who would illustrate it, or even if it would be a graphic novel or picture book. But with book two, I was able to write towards Raúl III, and his style. I even asked him, “What do you like drawing?” He said, “Bats and skeletons.” So I wrote the story to let his artwork flourish. In this way, we work together more like musicians, and it’s really fun.
TBD: There seems to be this idea in the publishing community that Latino people don’t read books. Could you address that please?
CC: Well that’s sure not been our experience – every school visit and author talk we’ve done, we have Latinx loving our book, both kids and adults. Those publishers might need to look at it the other way around; if people aren’t buying their books, maybe you don’t have things people want to read. School Library Journal just chose our book as one of their top Latinx books of 2016 for kids, and we got this best books of 2016 shout out from Gene Yang, Ambassador of Children’s Books, so there ya go!
TBD: What are some of the challenges of writing a graphic novel, as opposed to a novel without images?
CC: A graphic novel is a collaboration (unless you’re drawing it too), so you can’t be too precious about your words….lots get edited, cut and changed. Writing a comic is more like writing a film than fiction; your words are instructing actions. So you need to be like a director when you visualize what happens; it’s boring to have lots of static scenes with crowded dialog. Sometimes, you can sneak a little poetry into the text, but more often, the poetry exists in the meld between text and art.
TBD: Tell us about the process of working with your illustrator.
CC: Raúl III and I are lucky, because we get along super well. When we started to work together, we had only spent around eight hours together (he lives in Boston, I live in Portland, OR), but we both have a good work ethic, a similar sense of humor, and we give each other a lot of give and take in the books’ creation. Generally, I write the story first with the editors, then it goes to Raúl and the art director, for the blocking of panels and pages, and artwork. In most kids’ picture books, the artist and illustrator only communicate via the editor. But Raúl and I often share ideas; he might suggest text, and I might tell him something to tuck in the illustrations. It really is like playing jazz, lots of improvisation and adding in things we discover along the way.
TBD: How has being a librarian affected your work as an author?
CC: I wrote these books because I couldn’t find them to give to kids at my library. We desperately need more diverse books, and books that appeal to boys. Working around teachers, parents and kids all day, I know what books are connecting with folks. I’m also pretty good at pitching books to people – I do it for my job! As a librarian, I’ve also learned a ton about publishing and the business side of books, how books are made, ordered and promoted.
TBD: What is your next project?
CC: I’m working on the third lowrider book. It’s called Blast from the Past; L’il Lowriders in Space. Remember L’il Archies, or the Muppet Babies? This is the same thing – it’s all about our three heroes when they were kids, their families and where they grew up. I have an Arab American picture book that will come out in 2019, called Ten Ways to Hear Snow with Penguin/Dial. There’s another Arab American picture book in the works, and a YA novel called Circle A, about some kids in the ‘80s that meet some punks squatting in an abandoned house. That one deals with issues of social justice, race, sexual orientation and how images are misused in the media, all issues that are front and center right now. I look at each book as a good adventure, you never know where it will lead.
TBD: What or some graphic novels you love, and why?
CC: For kids, I enjoyed Fantasy Sports by Sam Bosma, and The Hilda comics by Luke Pearson are really imaginative. I also recommend March Grand Prix by Kean Soo, for kids that ask for more comics about cars, since it’s about car racing. I thought the Lunch Witch books by Deb Lucke were also great. For adult comics, I love Ed Luce’s Wuvable Oaf, and thought the compilation The Shirley Jackson Project edited by Rob Kirby, of comics about Shirley Jackson, was fantastic.
TBD: Any exciting news about Lowriders in Space, since it came out in 2014?
CC: Yes, Lowriders in Space got nominated for a Texas Bluebonnet Award, so Raul and I have done a lot of author presentations down there, and felt all kinds of love from the Lone Star State. The Bluebonnet committee is made up of awesome librarians and educators, and they posted a lot of fun material educators and parents can use to supplement our book.
Also, both Raúl and I have heard many accounts of how our books connect with kids. The most touching is testimony that they are a gateway books, for kids who just wouldn’t read. For kids that don’t see themselves reflected in books, for kids that struggle with reading, for autistic kids – we’ve heard again and again our book was the spark that lit the flame of how exciting reading can be. As creators, we’d hoped to share a story in our heads with folks, but to have those stories open the door to the pleasure of a lifetime of reading? We are totally awed, and honored.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers, illustrators, or graphic novel people?
CC: Keep writing. Writing is like a boiling pot; if you have talent and write enough, it will get better and better, something good will eventually boil over and someone will notice. My other advice is to do work in the DIY/alternative world, the same as you do in the mainstream world. Eventually the two overlap, and the adventures and skills you learn in both end up complimenting each other. And for writers of color, and writers outside the mainstream, don’t give up! We need your stories, and you are the future.
Cathy Camper is the author of Lowriders in Space, and Lowriders to the Center of the Earth, with a third volume in the works. She has a forthcoming picture book, Ten Ways to Hear Snow, and also wrote Bugs Before Time: Prehistoric Insects and Their Relatives. Her zines include Sugar Needle and The Lou Reeder, and she’s a founding member of the Portland Women of Color zine collective. A graduate of VONA/Voices writing workshops for people of color in Berkeley, California, Cathy works as a librarian in Portland, Oregon, where she does outreach to schools and kids in grades K-12.
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We first met Tamim Ansary many years ago through an intern who went to the same college as David and Tamim. David attended the San Francisco Writers Workshop, which Tamim ran for many years, and was startled again and again by how smart, kind and wise Mr. Ansary is. Having been a professional writer for four decades and taught hundreds of writers in general, and memoirists in particular, David thought he would pick Tamim’s brain about writing, publishing and storytelling, in anticipation of his new memoir Road Trips.
The Book Doctors: Tell us about your new book, what inspired it, and what were some of the joys and difficulties of writing it?
TA: This book started out as an anecdote I wanted to tell my sister about a time I drove across the country in a cheap car with just enough money to cover gas. The crux was, I got caught in a blizzard. But when I started telling the tale, it turned out that it wasn’t enough to talk about the blizzard or the cheap car, I had to include why I was on that journey and what led to it. By the time I was done—hours later (my sister was patient, bless her heart)—I found myself obsessed with the idea that every journey is an odyssey if you consider it as a whole, especially if the destination is far away and difficult to reach, and you include what led to leaving and what came of having gone. So I decided to pick three iconic journeys and write each one up from start to finish in a single sitting, and that way produce a book in, you know, three nights. That was 12 years ago. I just finished. Ah well. The journeys in Road Trips all took place in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s. I was a newbie in America, then, coming of age at a remarkable moment in history. The book isn’t about history; it’s a personal story about coming of age. The ‘60s was just the context. I have to say, though, now that I’ve finished the book, it feels strangely relevant to right now. I mean, here we stand, at the threshold of the Age of Trump and it’s important, I think, to remember that there was another time so totally unlike this one. To recover that memory.
TBD: As someone who has written and taught memoirs, why do you think people are so drawn to reading about other people’s pain and misery?
TA: Is a memoir necessarily about pain and misery? Not sure I agree with that. Road Trips has some pain and misery in it, sure, but it also has humor, adventure, romance, pratfalls, pompous philosophical rumination–anything that might turn up in life. Because everything does. The pain and misery genre of memoir taps the impulse that makes us slow down to gawk at car accidents. And there’s a place for that. Mos’def. Memoirs like that can draw us into empathy with experiences we ourselves will never have to endure. That could be me, you think. But it can work the other way too. It can give you a glad sense of separation from experiences you’ll never have. Thank God, that’s not me. The kind of memoir that interests me is today’s version of the storytelling our species did 40,000 years ago, when we were little bands of hunter-gatherers huddled around our fires. That kind of memoir stokes our sense of human interconnection because it’s not just the people who were raised by wolves who have stories. We all have stories. In fact, we all are stories. When we hear one another’s stories, if they’re well-told, we experience the story-like quality of our own lives.
TBD: Why did you decide to start your own publishing company? What are some of the challenges involved in making your own book, and then actually selling it to readers?
TA: The publishing company you’re referring to is Kajakai Press, and it came out of a grant I wrote seven years ago, funded by the Christenson Fund. I proposed to help young Afghan-Americans write about their lives, because here was a generation of young people who felt they had nothing to say. They were growing up in the shadow of their parents’ catastrophe, the holocaust in Afghanistan. Their parents had incredibly dramatic experiences to recount–imprisonment, torture, bombs, abandoning all they owned, running for their lives. Their children? They felt alienated in high school. Big deal! But my premise was, they had stories too, these children. The loneliness of living in the cracks—that’s a story. Growing up in the shadow of a catastrophe and feeling like you have no story—that’s a story. So I did the project, we got some great stuff, and I set up Kajakai Press to publish their work as Snapshots: This Afghan-American Life.
We sold out our print run and let the book go out of print but now, years later, I look at all the people who go through my memoir writing workshops and I feel like I want to help some of them—not all of them but some of them—get their stories to an audience. Because the writers I want to publish do have an audience. There are people out there who want to hear them. What they don’t have is a mass audience. And traditional publishers, unfortunately, can’t publish for many niche audiences—increasingly less so. Fortunately, technology has opened up new vistas with print-on-demand publishing that individual writers or small concerns like mine can access through Createspace, Nook Press, and others.
Distribution is the big problem, though. People often tell me they won’t order a book from Amazon, they’ll only buy books at a bookstore because they want to side with the little guy. I heartily endorse this position. Bookstores and books by traditional publishers offer something vital to the reading public, and that system must not be allowed to perish. But individual authors and imprints like mine are even littler guys. The only way this new niche-audience publishing can survive is for alternative distribution mechanisms to form, and that’ll only happen if readers open up to these alternative systems. Ordering online is going to be part of that. So it’s a process. We have to keep exploring, we have to keep opening up alternatives channels between writers and readers.
TBD: Tell us about your Memoir Pool project.
TA: Last year, I decided to start a website dedicated to the art of telling real life stories. Every week (except when circumstances intrude—like this presidential election) I publish a new story, by me or by someone else. As I said, I’m interested in the stories-told-around-a-campfire kind of memoir and with Memoir Pool I hope to help develop and promote that kind of memoir. Here, the premium is not what happened but what the writer made of it and how he or she told the story. So the stories at Memoir Pool might be about anything. There’s one by Colleen McKee, for example, about her mother giving out 59-cent pads of paper when she worked at “a private insane asylum” in Missouri. There’s another by Rick Schmidt about getting a really good deal on a sandwich thirty years ago. If those don’t sound like stories to you, look them up at www.memoirpool.com. You might change your mind.
TBD: What were some of your favorite books as a kid, and why? What are you reading right now?
TA: As a kid I liked big 19th century European novels—Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Turgenev. Elliot and Stendhal. I consumed Dickens and Melville. The sweep! The tapestry! Today, I mainly read suspense thrillers: Lee Childs, Michael Connelly, Harlan Coban. The quicker they move, the better I like ‘em. You see a trajectory here? I do. The thing is, these days, I have to do such a ton of reading for my next project, a history of the world called Ripple Effects, How We Came to Be So Interconnected and Why We’re Still Fighting. You wouldn’t believe how much information you have to gather when you’re trying to tell the story of everything that ever happened from the big bang to the day after tomorrow. Modern literary fiction generally attracts me less than the classics used to or than crime fiction does today, although I have been recommending The Book of Strange New Things by Michael Farber to everyone who will listen.
TBD: You ran the famous San Francisco Writers Workshop for many years. What did you learn as a writer from listening to all those writers read all those words? Do you think that writers should be part of a writing group?
TA: The SFWW got started in 1946 and has met every Tuesday evening since then in some public venue. It’s free and no one maintains it except whoever’s in it at a given time—it’s operated this way for 70 years and counting. If that’s not a mystical phenomenon, I don’t know what is. I ran it for 22 years, but when I stepped down someone else took the reins and it’s still going strong. The great thing about that workshop is that writers flow through. It’s not some single static collection. On any given evening, you see both familiar faces and new faces. I learned a lot about writing by opening my ears to the staggering variety of things people thought worth writing about and the many ways they thought to go about it. Honing in on how to make a piece work when it’s not something you would have written flexes writing muscles you didn’t know you had and opens you up to new directions. Plus, at this workshop, people read their work aloud to whoever’s there, and I’m telling you, when you read what you’ve written to a group strangers and acquaintances, you can feel when you’ve got ‘em, and when you don’t. Apart from any formal critique you get. You can feel it. There’s no substitute for that. So yes, I think every writer could profit from being part of a writer’s group.
TBD: How is it different writing a history book than writing a book about your own history?
TA: Well, in a sense, history is memoir writ large, and memoir is history writ small. We live the lives we do because we’re alive at a certain time and place within the context of a much bigger story going on. What’s different about writing history, though, is that before you can start writing, you have to gather information that you didn’t have before, and you have to steep yourself in those facts until you start to see the story that is in those facts. With memoir, research is a final phase. You start with memory.
TBD: You’ve also edited many books. What has that taught you about being a writer?
TA: One part of writing is getting your voice going and getting out of the way. You have to do that, but what you produce when you’re doing that, even if you’re doing it really, really well, isn’t usually suitable to show to anyone except your cat. Or your dog if you want an enthusiastic response. Once you’re done getting the draft out, however, you have to put your brain to work and get your heart out of the way. Editing is purely about this kind of brainwork. By editing lots of other people’s work, you learn how to pick words, construct sentences of any length, brevity, or complexity, make them work, make them sing, purely on the level of diction and syntax. If you’re a cabinet-maker, it’s not enough to design a great piece of furniture: you have to have good tools. Language—words, sentences, paragraphs, structure—those are your tools as a writer, and those you can hone quite apart from any particular thing you want to say.
TBD: What if you’ve never done anything famous or important or sensational. Can such a person write a memoir?
TA: Absolutely. To me, there are really two kinds of memoir. One kind is an adjunct to the news. You hear about something of public interest, you want to hear about it from someone closer to the scene, an eyewitness maybe, a principal, even. With that kind of memoir, what you’re really interested in is the news event. I wrote one of those myself. West of Kabul, East of New York was published in 2002, right after 9/11; it was about the bicultural aspect of my life, growing up in Afghanistan, growing old in America. The transition between them, I didn’t really talk about. “I arrived in America, twelve years passed during which I never saw another Afghan”—that’s about all I have to say about that. I skipped over those years because they weren’t pertinent to the news event.
But those twelve years were a story too, and that’s the one I’ve tried to tell in Road Trips. I was a freak in Afghanistan because my mother was the first American woman there, and when I came America, the ‘60s were just getting underway, and there was this whole movement of people, millions of people, who were calling themselves freaks and dropping out of American society, and I joined them, even though I wasn’t part of American society. I did it to find “my people.” In that I was not unique. We were all declaring ourselves freaks so we wouldn’t have to feel like freaks. I had my version of a story millions of us lived through, and that’s kinda the point.
The stories that matter are the ones we’ve all lived. Growing up, getting lost, soaring high, crashing, falling in love, falling out of love, getting dumped, breaking it off with someone—all that stuff. Building a home. Raising children. Growing old. How was that for you? That’s the question. Those are the stories. The things we all go through are different for each of us, that’s what makes life so fascinating.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?
TA: My advice to writers is this. Talk about writing all you want, that’s fine. That’s what we’ve been doing here. But don’t talk about writing as a substitute for writing. If you find writing painful, if getting the words out feels like pushing a camel through the eye of a needle—remember: that’s just what writing feels like. That’s how it probably felt to Flaubert and Raymond Chandler. But the aha! moments when you break through, when you nail it, when you get said exactly what you meant to say—in my experience, those are worth the struggle.
Afghan-American author and writing guru Tamim Ansary was born in Kabul, Afghanistan. He moved to America in 1964, attended Reed College in the late sixties, and later joined a countercultural newspaper collective called The Portland Scribe. Ansary wrote West of Kabul, East of New York, San Francisco’s “One City One Book” selection for 2008, and Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World through Islamic Eyes, winner of a Northern California Book Award for nonfiction. His new book Road Trips is about three tumultuous journeys that began and ended in Portland, Oregon.
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It’s hard to be a writer in the Bay Area and not know Charlie Jane Anders. Besides being a prolific writer, she is an incredibly generous networker and runs an absolutely awesome reading series called Writers With Drinks. So we thought we’d check in with her and pick her brain about novels, writing, reading, and all that jazz.
The Book Doctors: In some ways, your book defies categories. To us, it felt like magic realism, but it has elements of fantasy, cyber-steam punk, and coming-of-age. When you sat down to write this book, did you think about what category it would be in? Did this make it more difficult to sell the book and find an audience?
Charlie Jane Anders: When I started to write All the Birds in the Sky, I was attracted to the idea of smushing together fantasy and science fiction by having a witch and a mad scientist in the same story together. I thought of the book initially as sort of pastiche or spoof. I would have all these standard fantasy tropes and these science fiction tropes, and they would be colliding in a funny way. That turned out to be very, very boring. Instead, I had to think more about what these two genres meant to me and how I connected to each of them personally. I was terrified that this genre confusion would make the book a hard sell — but it turned out the bigger problem was the fact that it starts out with the characters as little kids and then we see them grow up about 100 pages in. It seemed like some people could not quite wrap their minds around the idea of a book that feels like a young-adult novel at first but then becomes an adult novel. I was so grateful that my agent and publisher were willing to roll with it and didn’t try to get me to restructure the book, with flashbacks or whatever.
TBD: David has, because of many personal experiences, felt like an outsider most of his life. So he especially related to the main characters of this beautiful book, and we wondered if your experience as an outsider helped shape these characters, who are fighting against a world that sees them as different, unusual, bizarre, and ultimately, threatening.
CJA: The theme of feeling like an outsider kept coming up in this book, in part because of the decision to start out with the main characters as kids. I think a lot of people can relate, one way or another, to the sense of not fitting in or being misunderstood. I had a rough time in grade school and middle school for a bunch of reasons, and I felt like writing honestly about growing up meant that I had to capture some of that emotional and physical insecurity that so many of us have lived with. And yet, having the kids grow up and live as twentysomethings meant that we got to see them as powerful adults, with control over their own lives and agency and all that goes with that. They can’t escape from being shaped by their childhood experiences, but they can choose how they deal with it.
TBD: You have put a lot of time and effort into reaching out to a community of writers. We suggest this to our clients all the time. How did you do this, and has this helped you in your writing career?
CJA: I can still easily remember when I felt totally isolated as a newbie fiction writer, and how hard it was to find people to connect with. Whatever point you’re at in your career, writers really need to stick together, to help deal with the pressure and insanity of the creative process and the publishing biz. I’ve had a blast curating Writers With Drinks, the reading series that I organize and (usually) host in San Francisco. I have gotten to meet a whole bunch of amazing writers — including David! — and hear them read. And it’s been a thrill to expose people to a new audience, especially since Writers With Drinks usually has as many different genres and styles as I can fit into one event. So you might come to hear the science fiction author, but discover a new favorite poet. But just as valuable has been the social aspect — an event where we’re all creating something together and nobody’s competing has been great for helping me (and hopefully others) make friends. I think being around these awesome, talented people has helped me raise my game as a writer, because I get to hear/read some of the best examples of the craft every month.
TBD: David has read several times at the fantastic reading series called Writers with Drinks, at the deliciously named Make Out Room in San Francisco, and he always has a blast. What have you learned by watching the hundreds of writers that you have wrangled into this wildly successful series?
CJA: Ha, see above. To add to what I wrote up there, I think that part of the fun of Writers With Drinks has been the thing of combining different genres and getting to see how a stand-up comic, a slam poet, a science fiction author and a literary memoirist are using some of the same techniques and approaches — just with different end goals. Plus you get to see how each genre is powerful in its own particular way. I love when you get people laughing their ass off one minute and then being moved to tears the next.
TBD: Tell us about io9 magazine.
CJA: Getting to be involved with the creation of io9 was one of the greatest opportunities of my life. Annalee Newitz, who founded io9, wanted to blend science and science fiction in a kind of homage to Omni Magazine, and it was really inspirational to see how the two things informed each other. After eight and a half years, I came away with a really strong sense that we are 100 percent living in the future. And I basically got paid to geek out about storytelling, and sometimes my half-baked ideas about books, movies and TV shows led to some of the most fascinating conversations with our readers and other folks. It was like getting paid to go to grad school.
TBD: You’ve been published in tons of small magazines and journals, like Tin House, McSweeney’s, and Zyzzyva, to name a few. How does a writer get published in these places, and how has this helped you in your publishing career?
CJA: When it comes to Tin House and McSweeney’s, I was only published on their websites, but it was still a major honor to be featured there. And getting into ZYZZYVA was one of the coolest things that ever happened to me. This super well-respected literary magazine chose to publish me way, way back when I was just starting out and barely getting my stories into tiny zines and the occasional website. In general, I published tons and tons of fiction in small publications, many of which have gone under or never received any exposure to speak of. Early on, I would publish stories pretty much anyplace that was willing to consider them, including one of those adult newspapers that’s mostly a vehicle for stripper ads. I didn’t make a lot of money from doing that, to say the least, but it was good to get the experience of having my creative writing appear in a lot of places and dealing with editors and readers. The whole process of making up a story — and having it turn into something that other people read and take in and form their own relationship with — is so weird, it might be kinda good to get used to it before you start reaching a bigger readership.
TBD: You won an Emperor Norton Award. First of all, what is that exactly, and how did you end up becoming a winner of this prestigious award?
CJA: Oh ha ha ha… the Emperor Norton Award for Extraordinary Invention and Creativity Unhindered by the Constraints of Paltry Reason is something that Tachyon Publishing and Borderlands Bookstore were doing for a while there — I don’t know many of them they gave out, but I was so thrilled. I think something about the weird, silly intros I cook up for the authors at Writers With Drinks, plus my bizarre fiction, struck someone as unhinged, in a good way. I was very flattered — hinges are good for doors, but I think a lot of people could stand to be a little less hinged. I’m always kind of scared of how many people seem to think they have everything all figured out.
TBD: You are a self-described “female geek.” What does that mean to you? And tell us about the anthology you put together that embraces this particular demographic.
CJA: Way back in 2006, Annalee and I were both approached about editing anthology projects for Seal Press, and we decided to collaborate. Our book was called She’s Such a Geek, and it was a collection of essays by women in science, technology and other geeky fields. We put out a call for submissions, and we were just blown away by the hundreds of submissions we received. There were a lot of heartbreaking stories by women who had been at the top of their class as undergraduates but then got treated horribly in grad school. A lot of geeky women of color shared stories of hearing subtle (and not-so-subtle) messages about their ability to keep up and contribute. There were also a ton of uplifting, thrilling stories of geeky triumph and discovery, from women who discovered a love of science, math, tech, gaming or science fiction and found that it changed their lives. It was an eye-opening, intense experience. Since that book came out a decade ago, we’ve seen way more women celebrating their geek identity, and venues for female geeks to come together. There’s an annual event called GeekGirlCon and a ton of other stuff. It’s been so awesome to see that happen.
TBD: In All the Birds in the Sky, Patricia the witch forms a really strong bond with her cat, Berkley. What happens to the cat after she goes off to magic school?
CJA: A ton of people asked me what happened to Berkley, who’s very important in Patricia’s life when she’s in middle school. I learned the hard way that you can’t leave any loose ends where cats are concerned — unless they’re loose ends in a ball of yarn, in which case go ahead. So I wrote a story called “Clover,” which is available at Tor.com, to explain what happened to Berkley later on. This turned out to be one of those things where you start pulling on one thread — to continue the ball of yarn metaphor — and then all sorts of interesting things start coming out. I ended up getting a chance to explore a bit more about the use of magic in my fictional world, and approach it from a very different direction than I did in the book, thanks to a different protagonist. Plus this story absolutely stands on its own — so if someone hasn’t read the book yet, this is a good way to dip into that world.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but since you do have a column in which you give writing advice, what advice you have for writers?
CJA: The main advice I have for writers is to hang in there and keep writing. And also, to be kind to yourself. A writer — especially a beginning writer — has to keep two contradictory mindsets in order to keep going. You have to believe that you’re a flippin’ genius, your ideas are brilliant, and you’re a fantastic storyteller, or you won’t be able to summon the audacity and stamina to create the big, ambitious stories you want to tell. But you also have to be aware that your writing is going to have huge flaws, it’s easy to screw up, the craft takes a long time to learn (and you really never finish learning it), and when people criticize your work they’re probably on to something. That combination of hubris and humility can be hard to sustain and can easily drive you nuts. So be nice to yourself, and just keep writing even if you think you’re churning out garbage sometimes.
Charlie Jane Anders is the author of All the Birds in the Sky. She organizes the Writers With Drinks reading series, and was a founding editor of io9, a site about science fiction, science and futurism. Her fiction has appeared in Tin House, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, ZYZZYVA, Pindeldyboz, Tor.com, Asimov’s Science Fiction, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Lightspeed, and a ton of anthologies. Her story “Six Months, Three Days” won a Hugo Award and her novel Choir Boy won a Lambda Literary Award.
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We became aware of S.K. Ali from our good friend Ayesha Mattu, author of Love, InshAllah fame. When we found out about the amazing work she’s doing, we decided to get her two cents on Muslim voices, books, and gummies.
The Book Doctors: Why did you start #MuslimShelfSpace?
S.K. Ali: In early December, I tweeted a picture of my shelf of works by Muslim authors in response to the news of a book that “parodied” classic children’s book covers using extremely racist imagery of marginalized communities. My shelf of Muslim authors offered narratives that stared down the awful stereotypes of Muslims included in the “parodied” covers.
Friends wanted to post their own shelf pictures and we discussed how important it was that Muslim #ownvoices narratives be centered in order to counter all the Islamophobia the U.S. election season had brought to the fore, and voila, #MuslimShelfSpace was born. We launched the hashtag on January 1, 2017 and it garnered a lot of support from people committing to making space for Muslim authors on their shelves.
TBD: Why is it so important to hear our “own voices”?
SKA: Islam and Muslims are often, well, almost relentlessly, discussed in public spheres such as the media and politics, but Muslims who claim the identity are rarely involved in the conversations. The focus is on Muslims — without Muslim voices. When we have that happening — people of a certain identity talked about, talked of, talked for but never or very rarely DOING the actual talking — we can quickly slide onto the dangerous terrain of othering to the point of denying people’s humanity. And then we begin to see policies like the Muslim Ban moving into place.
If that itself is not enough of an important reason to hear own voice narratives, what if I said they were immensely more entertaining than the faked stuff? Because authenticity — of the rarely seen variety — offers fresh takes and whoa, you’ll be taken to places/spaces you might not have visited before. Fun!
TBD: What are some of your favorite books and why?
SKA: I have too many! Because my debut novel is Young Adult, I can tell you some of my YA/MG favorites:
The Chaos Walking Trilogy by Patrick Ness — breathtakingly ambitious and unique. The setting of the series is so out-of-this-world, yet familiar and the conflicts and issues explored are relevant to our point in time. It’s such an important series.
When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead — crucial to me as a writer because it wasn’t afraid to be what it was: unconstrained. As writers, it’s important to go back to that space when you first discovered the thrill of creativity, before it became fenced (in your mind) by the mores of those who’ve already shaped the literary landscape(s). This book helped remind me to just be and write free.
The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart — I love girl power stories and this one was really well done, with a writing style that’s bare and upfront. It traces the moment of a girl waking up to the realities of gender inequity and proceeding to take the reigns of power into her own hands, all set to a backdrop of an old-money, private school.
TBD: What are your feelings regarding the Muslim ban imposed by the current administration?
SKA: The only feelings to be had on hearing such a vile thing: how does hate get to dictate the policies of a country with such a constitution, “We the People..”?
TBD: As a Canadian, how did you react to the Canadian terrorist attack by a white man on Muslims?
SKA: Utter sadness. And the remembrance that Canada is not immune to the Islamophobia sweeping many parts of the world.
TBD: How did you become an author?
SKA: Since I was 12, I’ve known that I wanted to tell stories. I proceeded to get my degree in creative writing and then set the dream aside when I embarked on motherhood and pursuing a career as a teacher. It was only recently — ten years ago recently — that I picked the dream up again. That meant writing, learning, rewriting, and repeating until I got a literary agent and sold my book last year.
TBD: Tell us about your book Saints & Misfits.
SKA: It’s about a Muslim fifteen-year-old, Janna Yusuf, who finds her voice in the midst of something painful. It’s also about the diverse communities, plural, she moves in — her high school, neighborhood, the Muslim community. I’m honored that Saints & Misfits will be the first YA novel published by a major publisher, featuring an American-Muslim in hijab, set in an American-Muslim community. The book also looks at relationships in various forms, including Janna’s friendship with an elderly Hindu neighbor.
“S.K. Ali’s Saints and Misfits follows Janna Yusuf, a geeky, hijabi Arab-Indian-American girl, as she navigates high school and the possibility of first love—even though Muslim girls aren’t supposed to date, right? She’s trying to figure herself out, along with her place in the world, especially if that means revealing a shattering secret that just might send ripples through her tight-knit Muslim community.” -Sona Charaipotra, “11 of Our Most Anticipated #OwnVoices Reads of 2017”
TBD: Is it true that there are halal gummy bears in the book?
SKA: Yes, definitely. And halal marshmallows. (Cue screams from the creeping-sharia-alert crowd.)
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers and citizens who’d like to see more diverse books on the world’s shelves?
SKA: My advice for writers from marginalized communities is to write the stories you want to see. Don’t limit yourself with the thought that nobody wants them — because that’s NOT TRUE. I point to the multi-billion dollar Islamic fashion industry that now major corporate brands are wanting to break into. Muslims who couldn’t find the clothes they wanted made the clothes they wanted and customers found them and bought from them. Same thing with writers and other artists: make what you want to see/read/write and your audience will find you. Don’t be constrained by the canon that came before because that canon didn’t include you. (And, psst, another bit of advice: don’t delve on the why-it-didn’t-include-you thought too long because that’s how your writing won’t get done.)
People who’d like to see more diversity in literature can support own voice narratives by boosting authors writing from within their identities. [This is where I’d like to say, thanks, David!]
One thing not to do: PLEASE, PLEASE DON’T WRITE OUR STORIES FOR US. It’s really hard, impossible, even, to get it right and even the best-intentioned ones have a way of harming more than helping. And trust me, over the years, we’ve seen Muslim characters who, at their best, we don’t recognize and, at their worst, hurt us to the core with the way they’re depicted. For young readers especially, this kind of pain affects their understanding of their place in the world and that’s just too sad.
S.K. Ali is a teacher based in Toronto whose writing on Muslim culture and life has appeared in the Toronto Star. Her family includes Muslim scholars consistently listed in the The 500 Most Influential Muslims in the World, and her insight into Muslim culture is both personal and far-reaching. S.K. Ali’s debut YA novel is a beautiful and nuanced story about a young woman exploring her identity through friendship, family, and faith.
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As book doctors, we have the privilege of traveling all over the country and connecting with organizations that help writers get successfully published. We’ve been hearing about GrubStreet for years, and when we started investigating, we found out what an amazing organization it is. So when we discovered that Katherine A. Sherbrooke, GrubStreet’s board chair, was coming out with a new book, Fill the Sky, we thought we’d pick her brain about writing, writers groups, and the joys and perils of switching from memoir to fiction.
The Book Doctors: We understand you’ve always wanted to be a writer since you were a kid. Why in God’s name would you want to be a writer?
Katherine A. Sherbrooke: I suppose in the same way a kid watching the lunar landing decides they want to be an astronaut, or the way the 1980 Winter Olympics spawned legions of hockey players. Witnessing something extraordinary makes you want to do it. Reading books transported me in that way. Plus, I’m claustrophobic and afraid of heights, so space travel was definitely out.
TBD: What were some of your favorite books as a kid, and why?
KS: I vividly remember being mesmerized by James and the Giant Peach, and The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, I suppose in part because they opened my eyes to the power of imagination combined with ink and paper. One of my all-time favorites had to be The Velveteen Rabbit. Its metaphor of fraying fur and missing buttons as proof of love, of being real, moved me deeply.
TBD: How did you learn the craft of writing?
KS: I was blessed with incredible English teachers in my early days, and built a strong foundation for writing through (don’t laugh) diagramming sentences until I was blue in the face, and later learning the art of a well-written essay and the importance of good structure. While that gave me a certain confidence with the written word, creative writing requires a whole added set of skills. The first teacher was good novels, reading a lot of them. The rest I learned at GrubStreet, mostly getting feedback on my work from other writers so I could hear first hand what techniques were working and which ones weren’t.
TBD: Tell us about GrubStreet and your involvement with it. What have you learned about writing and writers from being involved with this organization?
KS: GrubStreet is one of the largest creative writing organizations in the country, open to writers of all levels. It is an organization that believes deeply in the power of narrative to transform us as humans, and the desperate need for us to hear stories from all walks of life, a mission very close to my heart. So I fell in love with them from the minute I walked in the door and immediately wanted to help. From a writer’s point of view, I describe GrubStreet as the lifeline of my creative pursuits. Many people think of writing as a lonely endeavor, and I suppose the actual act of sitting down and putting thoughts on paper can feel that way, but there is much more to the process than that if you are willing to give and accept help. I have found the most incredible community of writers at GrubStreet. This is a group of amazingly talented and generous people who truly want to help each other succeed. I have learned everything I know about what it takes to actually complete a novel and get it out into the marketplace through classes, conferences and the community at Grub.
TBD: You’re also an entrepreneur. We are too. What did you learn about being a writer by inventing and running a business?
KS: My co-founder of Circles used to say that there is a fine line between entrepreneurs and mad men: they both see things that aren’t there. Writing is the same. You have to believe that what you have to offer has a place out there in the world, even when it’s not finished, even if it doesn’t fly off the shelf at first. Entrepreneurship, in my view, takes a whole lot of really hard work, a good measure of luck, a legion of people keen to help the project succeed, and a willingness to take a deep breath and fling yourself off the cliff. Trying to get a book out into the world isn’t much different. Or maybe I’m still just crazy.
TBD: Your first book was a memoir, and it was about your family. After David’s memoir came out, his family didn’t speak to him for five years. What were some of the dangers and joys of writing and publishing your memoir?
KS: My parents had a classic, tumultuous love story leading up to their marriage that they would occasionally indulge me or my siblings by telling. We had each heard different snippets, but none of us had all the detail, all the various pieces. When my mother was overcome by dementia, I realized that I had to sit down with my father (who thankfully has an iron-clad memory) and get the whole story on paper before it was too late. The best part were the hours of conversation I had with my dad about his younger days, including touring through every corner of Newark, NJ with him to set the scene: where he grew up, his high school, his father’s old tavern, where they went on dates, etc. I walked away with much more material than fit in the book, but they were conversations I might never have had without that impetus. On the flip side, handing my own version of my parent’s love story back to my father to read was terrifying. Thankfully he loved it. He emails me all the time to tell me he stayed up all night to read it again.
TBD: How was it transitioning from writing non-fiction to being able to make stuff up and create a novel?
KS: Really hard! As restrictive as the requirement to stick to the facts felt at times while I was writing the memoir, I was handed a great cast of characters, a fantastic plot, and a setting that I didn’t have to invent. I added a little research to corroborate what my father had told me, and voila, my book was born. When I turned to fiction, having absolutely no boundaries on any of that made the process much harder, and take much longer. That said, it is really satisfying to have a new plot point or a new character pop into my head while I’m out for a walk and suddenly know that my story has taken a turn for the better. And having the license to explore through fiction things that have never actually happened to me is pretty amazing.
TBD: What was your inspiration for your new novel Fill the Sky?
KS: I love reading books that take me to a place or time I have never been to so I can learn through the ease of a great story. I was beginning to hunt around for a book idea when I happened to go on a trip to Ecuador with a group of friends to spend some time with local shamans. The trip was a life-changer for me, and it struck me as an incredible and unique setting for a novel. The premise is fictional (we didn’t travel there for health reasons) but all the rituals in the book save one are things I have actually experienced.
TBD: What is your next project?
KS: I’m at work on another novel. Stay tuned.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?
KS: Find trusted readers, people who are willing to read your entire manuscript and give you honest and detailed feedback. They do not have to be writers; in fact, some of the best input can come from avid readers. But don’t just do this because you want applause and adoration. It is really important to be open to their feedback. It can be very hard to hear that a scene that had you weeping while you wrote it barely registered with your reader, or that your favorite character leaves them cold (and you may need several days or weeks to process what they have to say), but that is precisely the kind of input you want. I find it very hard to see my work for what it is without the guiding hands of intelligent readers. They are worth their weight in gold.
Katherine A. Sherbrooke received her B.A. from Dartmouth College and M.B.A. from Stanford University. An entrepreneur and writer, she is the author of Finding Home, a family memoir about her parents’ tumultuous and inspiring love affair. This is her first novel. She lives outside Boston with her husband, two sons, and black lab. Visit her online at www.kasherbrooke.com, Facebook, or Twitter.
One of the joys of being a book doctor is that we get to meet so many cool and unusual people who give us a constant education. So when Sean M. Bailey approached us about his book regarding the perils of being hacked, and what to do about it, we were overjoyed. As we watch the horrors of Hillary’s Hackgate unfold, it became clear that no one was immune. Now that his book, Hack-Proof Your Life Now!, is out, we thought we’d pick his brain about what the hack to do regarding the safety of our electronic life.
The Book Doctors: Someone recently broke the Internet by hacking into Dyn. Please explain how that could happen, and what can we do to protect ourselves?
Sean Bailey: In Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, the military creates something called “Ice-9,” which gets out of control and causes all water on the planet to freeze and only melts above 114.4 F degrees. Now imagine a digital version of Ice-9 where suddenly the entire World Wide Web “freezes.” We had a glimpse of what that might be like with the Dyn attack. It’s a scary development and especially tough to stop.
It opened up people’s eyes because the hackers hijacked unsecured, web-connected devices like DVRs and video cameras to flood Dyn’s servers, which play a critical role in managing web traffic to big websites like Amazon and Twitter. Here’s how they did it: Those devices are protected with passwords, just like smartphones, tablets, and computers. But people who bought those devices NEVER changed the passwords from the default setting they had when they left the factory. The hackers knew that and developed a malware program that could identify these devices and enslave them into a robot network of about 100,000 devices. The hackers then trained those devices to shoot requests for information at the Dyn servers and by doing so, overwhelmed those servers to the degree that people who legitimately wanted to get to websites like Amazon or Twitter could not access those pages. Even though those websites were open and operating normally, people couldn’t reach them. It would be like driving to the mall on the highway but discovering the exit ramp was closed—you could see the mall was open but you just couldn’t get there.
The Dyn attack is a poignant reminder, again, of the importance of good, strong passwords. Now we can see that that rule applies beyond our smartphones, tablets, and computers to now include any devices in our homes that connect to the Internet.
TBD: There is so much hysteria and hype about Internet security, including of course the presidential election, and Hillary’s hacked emails. Do you think the average Joe or Jane has a chance of getting hacked, and what could be the consequences?
SB: Hackers never sleep. They blast out 94 billion dangerous spam emails every day. Everyone is vulnerable. One wrong click can cause you to stumble into a variety of nightmares including identity theft, blackmail, or unwittingly enslaving your computer to a criminal robot network. I think everyone knows someone who’s been hacked or ensnared in a computer scam. The consequences range from spending dozens of hours trying to fix an identity-theft stained credit report, to paying a $500 to $1,000 ransom to blackmailers who seized your computer, and all the way to the workplace where companies have seen hundreds of thousands, even millions, of dollars disappear from their bank accounts that have been breached by cyber thieves.
Of course, during the recent election, we’ve seen the devastating impact of having one’s email hacked. Our emails contain tons and tons of sensitive, private personal and business information that potentially can ruin relationships and businesses.
TBD: Give us three simple things we can do so we don’t get hacked.
SB: Here are three easy things you can do to quickly boost your security and reduce the likelihood of getting hacked.
First, stop using your personal email address for your online banking and credit accounts. Create a “financial-only” email address that you use just for your online financial transactions and activities. That way, that important email address is not sitting on dozens, even hundreds, of websites exposed to data breaches and hacks. You don’t want the bad guys to have the first step to logging into any of your financial accounts.
Second, turn on two-step login (two-factor authentication) on your email and bank accounts. That way, should a hacker ever begin trying to break in to your accounts, you’ll receive a notification code on your phone. The hackers will never get the code because it’s on your smartphone and you’ll be tipped off that something is happening.
Third, put a security freeze, also known as a credit freeze, on your credit files at Experian, Equifax, and Transunion. This takes just a couple of minutes and it ensures that no identity thief can take out credit in your name. When your files are in a “freeze,” no new credit can be added unless YOU lift the freeze with your own personal PIN.
TBD: What were some of the difficulties of putting together a book of practical nonfiction?
SB: I think the biggest challenge is breaking down scary-sounding, and occasionally complex, concepts into easy to understand actions and then motivating the reader to act.
In Hack-Proof Your Life Now!, we’re trying to deliver on our promise of “online security made easy for everyone.” It’s true, we’re no longer in the innocent “you’ve got mail” era. It’s much more serious. Our computers and devices are connected to everything. That’s fine, even good, as long as everyone realizes they need to adopt a certain number smart security activities. It’s not unlike driving a car. You need to do a few important things to keep your car in good running order and you always need to follow common-sense actions when you’re operating your car out in the world. It’s the same for using our Internet-connected devices.
Another challenge was making the book fun, action-oriented and accessible. Cybersecurity is regularly cast as a dark, dangerous underworld of hooded miscreants looking to ruin our lives and drain our bank accounts. That’s partly true and contributes to people feeling overwhelmed and frightened by the topic. Our challenge was to show the reader how to break through that inertia. In the beginning of the book, the reader measures their “cybersecurity score.” Normally, people score very low. But we then lead the reader through taking a handful of simple actions that quickly boost their security and give them confidence and knowledge that being secure online is completely possible.
TBD: Did you find that writing a book based on your business helped you to articulate even further exactly what you do? Has this helped your business as a result?
SB: The book grew out of a workshop we created for the public called “One Hour to Savvy Cybersecurity.” The reception from the workshop, presented hundreds of times in the U.S. and Canada, told us we needed to find a way to get our message to the wider public.
Going to the next step of writing a book just forced us to continue to struggle with refining and organizing our cybersecurity concepts so that the reader could see a clear, easy path to taking action.
Cybersecurity is a very big, sprawling topic. Many books on the topic focus on crime, the underworld, terrorism or cyberwar—all informative, even entertaining. Some books that focus on personal security deliver long, comprehensive lists of threats and 50, 60, 70 things we should do to stay safe.
People will usually throw up their hands when faced with a huge list of possible threats and actions. So writing Hack-Proof Your Life Now! meant continually honing our recommendations to the most important, do-able actions people can take to boost their online security. By doing that, it’s also caused us to see more deeply into the topic and identify other areas where we can take our “online security made easy for everyone” mantra. For instance, business owners and executives face a separate group of actions in order to “hack-proof” their enterprises. So writing the book, and struggling with what to exclude rather than include, crystalized in our minds new areas of focus for the future.
TBD: Our children are on our computers all the time downloading who knows what. How do we protect ourselves from our kids and how do we make our kids aware of the risks?
SB: Hack-proofing your kids is a second order of business many of us face once we’ve protected ourselves. Any family that is sharing a computer with young children needs to restrict the ability for the child to download files and programs on their own. (Just search Google for “how to restrict downloads” for your computer’s operating system.) If you don’t do that, your child can easily download dangerous malware when they think they’re actually getting something that will help with a game like Club Penguin or Minecraft. For teenagers, learning good cybersecurity is right up there with safe sex and driving skills—key things you must learn as you approach adulthood.
TBD: How did you get into the business of helping people not get hacked?
SB: My company, Horsesmouth, helps financial planners deliver financial education in their communities. It’s our mission to help people make the right decisions about the complex financial decisions they face in life, including protecting their identities and finances from fraud. After the infamous Target breach in 2013, we realized no one in the public’s life acts as a guide, or professional “nudge,” to encourage people to boost their online security.
It became our aim to help Internet users quickly and easily boost their online security, especially those worried about identity theft, concerned about hackers getting into their email and bank accounts, and people who want to use the Internet with confidence that they’re in control of their safety, not the hackers.
So we created a workshop called “One Hour to Savvy Cybersecurity.” It is based on surveying more than 1,500 people. The workshop has been delivered hundreds of times in the U.S. and Canada to rave reviews.
During our research, we discovered that people can actually quickly and easily boost their online security. How we do this is by getting people to measure their current “Cybersecurity Score” and then showing them simple, clear, and effective action steps they can take right now to dramatically boost their safety—usually for little or no cost.
TBD: What’s the worst hacking story you’ve come across?
SB: Wow. We run into new stories every day. For instance, last week I had two friends, within two hours, tell me identical stories about getting lured into the phony Apple Tech Support scam. Don’t ever respond to a pop-up on your screen telling you to contact any organization because you have a “virus.” It’s a scam. Just close your browser, and if you still have any trouble, restart your computer. Whatever you do, don’t call them.
The worst stories these days involve the growing ransomware threat. This happens when people click on a fake email link that suddenly encrypts their computer and demands ransom in order to get back access to their computer and its files. It happened to a colleague, right in front of us, while we were writing the book. It happened last week to an entire hospital in the U.K., causing the cancellations of surgeries, closing of their emergency room, and cancellation of nearly all doctors’ appointments. Totally devastating. And it happened because one person clicked on a dangerous link. In our book, we teach the “10-Second EMAIL Rule” where EMAIL stands for “examine message and inspect links.” It’s an easy system to remember and it shows you how to unmask the true identity of someone sending a suspicious email and see the true destination of the dangerous link they’re trying to get you to click.
TBD: What’s one simple thing we can do to better protect our smartphones?
SB: Everyone should put the strongest passcodes on their smartphones and tablets. The strongest codes are the six-digit options. Most phones started with a four-digits. When you change from four digits to six digits, you increase the possible combinations from 10,000 to one million, which makes cracking your code much harder.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but do you have any advice for writers?
SB: For writers, I’d offer two bits of important advice. First, start using a “cloud service” to routinely and automatically back up your files to the cloud. When you set up one of these services, such as Drobox or Google Drive, your files are saved locally to your computer and also out on the web, in “the cloud.” Once you set it up, you don’t need to do anything special. It’s a safe, easy, and affordable way to always have backup copies of your files. If you ever click into a ransomware scam—where hackers encrypt your computer and hold it for ransom—you can ignore them and retrieve your files from the cloud.
Two, we all need to change our views about updating software and do it all the time—routinely. That’s because many hackers exploit dangerous security holes in widely used software programs. If you visit a malware-infected website, the hackers’ program can tell if your programs are not updated and quietly slip a malware program onto your computer. Then you’re in trouble and you might not even know it. Updating your software is the one thing nearly all security experts do religiously. That’s because they know that the software updates are closing security holes that could inflict serious damage to them and their computers and devices. You can set many of your most important software programs to automatically update.
We met Suzanne Trauth when she participated in our Pitchapalooza (think American Idol for books except kinder and gentler) at Watchung Booksellers. She pitched a piece of women’s fiction, which eventually morphed into a cozy mystery, and then she turned that mystery into a three-book deal with Kensington Books. Now that the first book, Show Time, is out, we thought we would pick her brain on writing, publishing, and getting a book deal.
Suzanne Trauth: I wrote in different genres at different points in my life. I wrote nonfiction works during my career as an academic theater professor. I also started writing screenplays during that period. But toward the end of my academic career, I segued into writing plays and novels. Though the writing varies widely, the basic approach is the same: sitting down in front of a blank screen and facing my fears that nothing will happen!
Suzanne Trauth’s novels include Show Time (2016) and Time Out (2017), the initial books in a new mystery series published by Kensington Books. Her plays include Françoise, nominated for the Kilroy List; Midwives developed at Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey; Rehearsing Desire; iDream, supported by the National Science Foundation’s STEM initiative; and Katrina: the K Word. Suzanne wrote and directed the short film Jigsaw and is a member of the Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and the Dramatists Guild. www.suzannetrauth.com