We first met David Gilmore many years ago during a writing conference in Tucson, Arizona. He stood out among the other attendees in part because he was just so smart, funny. He had already done so much work as a writer, and he was a fantastic listener. When we saw that he had a new book out, How I Went to Asia for a Colonoscopy and Stayed for Love: A Memoir of Mischief and Romance, we decided we would pick his brain about writing, travel, love, and colonoscopies.
The Book Doctors: How did you learn to be a writer?
David Gilmore: Pretty much everything I’ve done in my life has been self-taught. I learned to write because I needed to clear my head so I could have a good night’s sleep when Xanax was getting a little expensive and addictive. I also learned to write when I had my radio show on Public Radio International (Outright Radio). Back before that I used to write in my daily diary as a kid. I would open up the little red vinyl book and scribble something profound like, “Normal day.” Doesn’t that just scream future author? I dunno. I guess I learned to write by being an observant person. I listen. I watch everything carefully. I ask questions. I feel too much. And this all fills my mind and at some point, I have to just start emptying it onto the written page. So, one could say writing has become a survival skill in not becoming overburdened by everything and everyone.
TBD: What are some of your favorite books, and why?
DG: Mostly I read non-fiction because with politics these days, really, who needs fiction? Basically, I’ll read anything by Michael Pollan, Bill Bryson, and Beth Lisick. It doesn’t matter to me what they write about, I’ll read it. I recently found a copy of The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid in Goodwill and I bought it for a dollar. Bryson’s hyperbolic style has me squealing with delight. And he takes us back to a time in America — his childhood in Iowa — when life seemed simple and people didn’t go around with semi-automatic weapons in their suitcases. I’m currently reading White Trash by Nancy Isenberg because all that’s going on with Trump’s rise to power is dissected in that book. I also am reading God’s Hotel by Victoria Sweet about a doctor who works at an old almshouse in San Francisco caring for the un-curable. I like books that fill me with someone else’s life experience or help explain to me what in Sam Hill is going on here, and frankly, right now I am in need of a lot of ‘splaining.
TBD: Tell us about the long and winding road to writing How I Went to Asia for a Colonoscopy and Stayed for Love.
DG: The long and winding road began in the States where I had become bored with my romantic life and unable to afford health insurance. Coming from a long line of intestinal malcontents I was in need of a colonoscopy. I had read that Thailand was the place to go for overseas medical care, so on a whim, I just booked a flight and made an appointment for the procedure.
After having a colonoscope make its way through my long and winding intestines, much to my delight I found that Thailand actually suited me. I had the time of my life! And when I came back to the States, my life seemed so empty and dull that I just kept going back to Southeast Asia and expanding out from Thailand to Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and eventually Malaysia.
Then something really big happened. I don’t want to spoil the book, but I felt compelled, so to speak, to move to Malaysia. It wasn’t just a holiday. I gave up my life in the US and moved there. And within 6 weeks of arriving, I met the guy I’d been looking for my whole life. Thus began a storybook gay romance in a Muslim country, of all places. It was starting to seem like a plot from a book or a movie…something perhaps by Elizabeth Gilbert. I knew that if my Malaysian boyfriend and I ever got married, the book would have a full narrative arc and I really would have no choice but to write it. And that’s how it came to be.
TBD: We’re curious about how you approached publishing this book. Did you go after agents and publishers?
DG: I did go after agents. And there was some initial interest from several. I think, however, the raunchy beginning to the book may have put some of them off if they didn’t go beyond the first few chapters. However, I am of the belief that the publishing industry is no longer in its golden age and to be an author with an agent and a contract with a publisher isn’t really all it’s cracked up to be. I’ve heard too many stories of authors getting little or nothing from their publishers. I know friends who have book contracts who have to pay for their own book tours and do all their own marketing. Or agents who never found a publisher for their clients. I began to wonder what the point of a publishing contract was. I felt that my story was begging to be told NOW and couldn’t wait for agents and publishers. Thus, I jumped on the self-publishing bandwagon.
TBD: What are the pros and cons, the do’s and don’ts of self-publishing? How do you avoid some of the pitfalls?
DG: The biggest con for most people is that you’re on your own to produce and market it. For me that’s not a con because I am by trade a graphic designer, and so knocking out the cover and interior design is something I can do while watching Sarah Huckabee Sanders do her sour face at the White House press corps. The plus side of self-publishing is that you as the author have full creative control and no one is going to reject you because you’re unknown or frankly, your story is kinda dumb. Anyone can publish, which is a blessing and a curse. People have been known to strike a chord with readers and hit it big, but it’s a long shot and it’s a game. And if you’re up for playing the game without getting defeated by the odds that you’ll be a huge success, the world is your playground. But you know, when your book is released and you check the sales tally and on your first day you only sold 17 copies, well, you have only yourself to blame. And when you find that you misspelled something, you can’t call the editor and have a hissy fit about it.
TBD: This is kind of a personal question, but what was your budget for making the video trailers for this book?
DG: Hmm, let’s see…my budget. OK, the Marketing Budget Office has deliberated and just released the figures on the video trailer budget. It was zero. In addition to writing, I also make films so I just pulled those together myself from videos I shot over the years of traveling in Asia. The trailers seemed to catch people’s attention. Whether they translate to sales remains to be seen.
TBD: What was it like to have a colonoscopy in Thailand?
DG: Now that is a personal question! Basically, getting a colonoscopy in Thailand was just like in the US except at about 1/10th the cost. A colonoscopy, however, no matter where you are, is kind of a disgusting proposition. Being in Thailand makes it more fun because I find Asians so fascinating and amusing. Sitting in the “bowel preparation room” in Bangkok (appropriately appointed with brown furnishings), I’m more likely to have fun chatting with someone or watching inscrutably bad Thai daytime television. I did enjoy a night of frolicking in the world’s most extraordinary sex club with the cleanest colon on earth afterward. Perhaps that should have been the title of the book? Really, though, the book is not all about my colonoscopy (who would want to read about that) or even sex. The book starts out there and moves on to more meaningful adventures like the slow boat up the Mekong River, the Flying Nuns of Luang Prabang, and negotiating a gay relationship in a Muslim country.
TBD: How did writing this book about rediscovering yourself in the middle of your life change you?
DG: Well, I lost something significant in Asia: my loneliness. And I got my life back. For years I moped around America complaining about being middle-aged, nerdy, and unlovable. When I couldn’t take it any longer, I took off the tight shoe of American life and let myself go on an incredible journey of love. And I got what I always wanted — a partner — and brought him back to the US with me. His name is Chuan and he tucks me in bed each night and tells me he loves me. Meeting him turned my life around. I went from being a cranky curmudgeon to being contented, playful, and at least somewhat hopeful about my life.
TBD: Was there any part of your book that was particularly difficult for you to write?
DG: Yes. There is a chapter about a young student I had when I was teaching for the United Nations in Malaysia. He was a Burmese refugee who fled over the border from Myanmar fleeing religious persecution. I taught him and a bunch of adorable kids in a filthy, run-down, absolute hole of a school in a slum in Kuala Lumpur. Well, something awful happened to that boy and it broke my heart. It pained me so much to write that chapter, and to this day I cannot read it without bursting into tears. That boy’s life touched me and I will never forget him.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?
DG: I don’t know that I’m in the position to be giving advice to other writers, honestly. But if I had to say anything to anyone about writing (or any creative pursuit) I would say this: be critical. Be REALLY critical of your own work. Ignore that nonsense about defeating the inner critic. The inner critic is very important to your process of refinement. I’m not of the school of belief that anything we create is beautiful and worthy. I believe the PROCESS is valuable to simply write whatever is on your mind. But I don’t believe that it is necessarily going to be worth reading by others. Reading and staying aware of current events and thought trends and history and keeping your eyes open to all aspects of society is very important, not just to being relevant but for one’s output to be taken seriously.
David Gilmore is a freelance writer, photographer, and filmmaker living in Tucson, Arizona. He was the host and producer of the Edward R. Murrow Award winning radio show Outright Radio, featured nationally on Public Radio International from 1998-2004. He is a NEA and CPB grantee and has contributed essays to theGay & Lesbian Review Worldwide, The Advocate, and was a contributing author in Johns, Marks, Tricks, and Chickenhawks. He is the author of the bookHomoSteading at the 19th Parallel — one man’s adventure building his nightmare dream house on the Big Island of Hawaii.
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We first met Grant Faulkner at one of the greatest gigs the Book Doctors ever had, presenting our writing workshops in rural Alaska. There were eagles, there were bears, there were drunken sailors, and there were lots of amazing Alaskan writers. Going through the writing process bonds you with someone, and we feel like Grant has become part of our literary family. His new book, Pep Talks for Writers: 52 Insights and Actions to Boost Your Creative Mojo, is out now, so we picked his brain about what it’s like running the amazing National Novel Writing Month organization and writing—and publishing—his own book.
The Book Doctors: Why in the name of all that’s good and holy did you decide to become a writer?
Grant Faulkner: I’m not sure that I had a choice. I’ve always felt like I was a writer. I took a fetishist’s delight over paper and pens when I was a kid. My mom bought me a little antique rolltop desk when I was 6, and I wrote my first story on that desk. I asked for a leather bound diary for my 7th birthday, and I’ve kept a journal ever since then.
When I was 20, I was deciding whether to be an economics or an English major, and I fortunately spent a semester abroad in France before declaring. I whiled away most of my time in cafes reading novels and writing. When I returned home, I spent the summer writing stories in a little shack on my grandmother’s farm. It goes without saying that I didn’t major in economics, and the field of economics is the better for it.
TBD: What were some of your favorite books as a kid? What are you reading now, and why?
GF: The book that most changed my sense of the world as a kid was Crime and Punishment. I was too young to truly understand it, but I stumbled on it in the library when I was 13, and I picked it up because I was writing a paper on crime. Dostoyevsky showed me the many layers and paradoxes of the human soul in a way I hadn’t imagined. I truly stared into the abyss. Raskolnikov still haunts me.
I just finished Leonard Cohen’s biography, and I’m now reading his book of poems, The Book of Longing. I can never get enough of Leonard Cohen’s voice in my head. I like the way the textures of his poetry influence the textures of my prose. I’m also reading Stranger, Father, Beloved by Taylor Larsen. I just met her, and I thought she was a fantastic person, and it turns out she wrote a really wonderful, probing book.
TBD: What was your inspiration for writing Pep Talks for Writers?
GF: I’ve talked to so many writers who want to write year-round, who want to finish their novels after National Novel Writing Month, but it can be challenging to keep writing. I think it can be a little like a New Year’s resolution. People buy gym memberships in January and show up to exercise for a month or two, but then it’s tough to keep going regularly the rest of the year.
I want people to prioritize creativity and develop a creative mindset so that they’re not just creative in November, but every day of their lives. Creative on the page—and beyond the page. The book offers 52 different angles on creativity, so I hope people will read an essay a week and work to develop a creative habit.
TBD: What were some of the joys, and some of the pains, of putting this book together, finding a publisher, and getting it out into the world?
GF: I’d never written a nonfiction book proposal, so that was a learning experience. I didn’t realize how involved the proposal would be. It was practically like writing the book itself—which was a blessing once I actually started writing the book. Fortunately, my agent, Lindsay Edgecombe, was a fantastic and generous guide.
Other than that, it was a great experience. I was fortunate to find a home for the book at Chronicle Books, which is the perfect publisher for it, and then I also had the perfect editor for it in Wynn Rankin. I hope the experience hasn’t spoiled me for upcoming book projects.
TBD: We give pep talks to writers all the time. What are some dos and don’ts of this very precarious activity?
GF: The interesting thing about being a writer is how intrinsically challenging it is, no matter if you’re a beginner or a seasoned pro. The anguish of self-doubt is always looming. The difficulty of making your ideas come alive through your words never ends. There are so many how-to-write books that deal with the nuts and bolts of craft, but the thing that matters in the end is sitting down to write, believing in yourself, taking creative risks, and writing your story.
That’s easier said than done, of course. Every writer, especially when finishing a long work like a novel, goes through cycles of despair. We all need to be reminded of why we’re doing this crazy activity of making art, putting our voice into the world. It’s easy to forget what a gift it is. It’s easy to forget that we need to constantly nourish our creative spirits.
TBD: What are you doing to promote and market the book?
GF: So many things. It’s been great to write articles on different creativity topics related to the book for publications such as Poets & Writers, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer. I’ve been on a lot of podcasts and radio shows, which have been really fun. And then I’m doing bookstore events, tweet chats, presentations at colleges and companies, and then speeches at writing and publishing conferences.
My favorite part of my job is talking to people about their writing, and promoting this book has deepened those conversations, so I love it.
TBD: How did you learn to be a writer?
GF: I learned how to be a writer mainly by writing. I unfortunately didn’t have a superhero teacher who mentored me along the way. I’ve read many writing guides and how-to books. I’ve taken writing workshops and even have a masters in creative writing. But I’ve learned most about writing just by showing up to write regularly, being in conversation with my favorite writers’ books, and experimenting in different forms.
TBD: You’ve been running National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) for a few years now. What have you learned from rubbing elbows, and various other body parts, with all those writers?
GF: I’ve learned so much from the NaNoWriMo writing community. We writers tend to be solitary creatures, or that is how we often think of ourselves. And it’s true, a lot of writing tends to happen in solitude. But if you trace the history of literature, you realize how it takes a veritable village to write a book. Think of Bloomsbury, Paris in the ‘20s, the Inklings, the Beatniks. The writers in those communities created each other as they were creating themselves.
Frissons of creativity tend to happen with others. When you engage with other writers, you’re naturally combining an assortment of different concepts, elaborating and modifying each other’s thoughts. Meeting regularly with others to write or get feedback is important, and not just for your creativity— it also keeps you accountable.
The NaNoWriMo writing community is such a wondrous playground of ideas. It’s so spirited, so encouraging, so generous. It’s not only made me a better writer, it’s made me a better person.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but since your book is about writing, we kind of have to ask. What advice do you have for writers?
GF: Sit down. Try to remember the first story you wrote, the glee you took in exploring your imagination on the page. Hold onto the feeling of that gift and write. Write your story, your way—as if no one is going to read it but you. Write some more. And then keep writing, never doubting that the world needs your story.
The Book Doctors will host the eighth annual NaNoWriMo Pitchapalooza beginning in 2018. One winner will receive an introduction to an agent or publisher appropriate for their manuscript. Be the first to know about 2018 NaNoWriMo Pitchapalooza.
Grant Faulkner is the Executive Director of National Novel Writing Month and the co-founder of 100 Word Story. His stories have appeared in dozens of literary magazines, including Tin House, The Southwest Review, and The Los Angeles Review. His essays on writing have been published in The New York Times, Poets & Writers, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer. He recently published Pep Talks for Writers: 52 Insights and Prompts to Boost Your Creative Mojo with Chronicle Books. He’s also published a collection of one hundred 100-word stories, Fissures, two of which are included in Best Small Fictions 2016. Learn more at www.grantfaulkner.com.
We were absolutely delighted when we got a request from editor extraordinaire Peter Ginna to write something for a new book he was putting together called What Editors Do: The Art, Craft, and Business of Book Editing. Because Arielle is an agent and writer, and David is a writer and book doctor, we have a very different perspective than most people who make money editing books. We thoroughly enjoyed writing our piece, but it was much more fun reading some of the amazing pieces in this book. So now that What Editors Do is out, we picked Peter’s brain on what it was like to go from being the guy with the red pencil to the guy waiting to see how many red marks would come back on his pages.
The Book Doctors: As your subtitle suggests, and as your introduction states, being an editor today includes so much more than editing. What should you expect from your editor? Or if you’re looking to become an editor, what skills do you need to do the job well?
Peter Ginna: Let me answer those questions in reverse order. As I said in the piece that you mention, editing encompasses many different roles. The core of the job is still working with an author to make his or her text as good as it can be. Some editors inside publishing houses, and most freelance editors, focus almost entirely on that task. But most editors, especially in trade publishing, have to shepherd a book all the way from the author’s keyboard into the marketplace, so they have to be very involved in marketing, design, production, publicity—everything that goes into bringing that work to readers.
If you’re looking to become an editor, nobody expects you to be an expert at that stuff right away. But you need to have an interest in learning about it, because it’s crucial.
If you’re an author, you should expect your editor to be passionate about your book, and to treat you as a valued partner in the publishing process. For a lot of authors, the publishing house is a black box. The editor owes them frequent and honest communication.
TBD: Why is it that in relationships, as in books, it’s so easy to see what’s wrong with someone else’s stuff, but so hard to see what’s wrong with our own stuff? Is there any way to bring the editor’s outlook to your own work?
PG: It’s incredibly hard to judge your own work! That’s why there are editors. At the risk of seeming to suck up, your chapter in this book on self-editing for authors has great advice on this. At a minimum, put your manuscript away for a week (or longer) and reread it with fresher eyes. Read it aloud so you can really hear how it flows, or doesn’t. Even better, enlist some “beta readers” whom you can trust to give you an honest response.
TBD: We have found that editing other people’s books makes us better writers, and being writers helps us as editors. What did you learn from writing and putting together this book that you will bring back to your job as editor?
PG: Hah! —I learned how hard it is to meet your editor’s deadlines! And continuing from your last question, learned, from the author’s side, how valuable it is to be forced to think about why you said something a certain way, and whether there might be a clearer or cleaner way to say it.
TBD: While we’re on the subject, what was it like exchanging your editor hat for your writer hat? And did you end up cursing your editor silently or out loud? And what advice do you have for writers when they receive an edit back on their most precious book?
PG: I never cursed my editor, who was wonderful. My experience in thirty-plus years of editing has been that authors rarely cursed me out. I believe that what authors want, more than praise or even success, is to be read. For a reader to connect with their writing. If the author knows you’ve read their work really closely, even if you are criticizing something or asking them to change it, they are usually grateful. I have definitely found that it’s the best writers who are most gracious and receptive to editorial suggestions. (With very rare egomaniacal exceptions…)
TBD: We always tell people that editors and agents are trained to say “no.” Can you speak to the experience of rejecting books? Is it rote at this point or do you actually feel anything when you are rejecting? And if you dealt with rejection with this book, can you tell us how it felt to be on the other side?
PG: I understand why you say editors are trained to say no—we do it 95 percent of the time, or more. And especially as traditional publishers compete with self-publishing, we’ve heard a lot about the editor as “gatekeeper,” an image that makes you think of a bouncer turning away people from a hot party. But that’s not how editors think about it—nobody comes to work hoping to turn down a lot of books that day. Editors live to find books to publish, and new titles are the lifeblood of a publishing house. Every day you open your email hoping to find something you love. It’s easy to reject a manuscript that leaves you cold, but editors really agonize when they come across a book that shows talent but that they can’t make an offer for—either because colleagues won’t support it, or because it’s too flawed in some way. Fortunately for me, my editor and I worked together on creating What Editors Do from the beginning so I didn’t have to go through the process of pitching it.
TBD: Can you tell us the process a book goes through at a publishing house once a deal is made? And are there any differences in the actual editing process between a Big 5 publisher, an independent house, or an academic press?
PG: Whew, the process is quite complicated and anyone who wants a thorough description of it should read the chapter by Nancy Miller called “The Book’s Journey.” The first part of it is the actual editing, where editor and author revise the manuscript (sometimes several times). But there’s also a multi-pronged marketing process that begins at acquisition and really ramps up when the final manuscript is delivered. At that point there’s also the complex work of turning the author’s text into a printed or digital book, which itself usually takes several months.
The principles of editing don’t vary between presses, but it is often the case that academic presses do a kind of triage on their lists. They don’t have the resources to edit every book intensively, so many books don’t get too much more than a copy edit. However, for books where they feel the effort is appropriate, scholarly publishers often do just as good a job, or better, than trade houses. My editor, and the whole press at Chicago, did a superbly thorough job on What Editors Do. I should add that there are chapters in my book by editors from independent and academic presses who discuss their work in more depth.
TBD: Speaking of academic presses, What Editors Do is published by The University of Chicago Press. Why did you choose to go with a university press? Does the fact that they publish The Chicago Manual of Style influence your decision at all, since this is a book every editor needs to have on her desk? What was the experience like and how did it differ from the publishing experience of say, Bloomsbury, where you were Editorial Director?
PG: Chicago, in fact, proposed this project to me, which was some form of kismet because I had been thinking for some time about the need for a book like this. This subject made sense for them, because good publishers are always looking for books in areas where they’re already strong—they know the market and have a head start on getting recognition for new titles in that field. And for me, because Chicago is a leading publisher in this area, I was thrilled to be on their list. For an editing book, to be marketed alongside the Manual of Style is a big advantage. It’s hard for me to compare Chicago vs. Bloomsbury from the author’s point of view because I have only been an author with one of them. I’d say the main difference is that Chicago is placing more emphasis on marketing to courses and libraries than most trade presses would, and is less focused on the trade market.
TBD: Is it possible for writers to approach editors at larger houses directly? What is the best way of doing this?
PG: Realistically speaking, I would recommend authors try to find an agent before approaching publishers directly. It’s simply much harder to get an editor’s attention when you submit “over the transom.” That said, as an editor I was always open to an intelligent, well-targeted query. If an author wrote me and said, “I saw that you were the editor of Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse mysteries. I’ve written a new crime novel with a brilliant, enigmatic detective and classic whodunit elements that I think will appeal to the same readers who love Morse,” I would always give that person’s work a read. I knew that the author had at least done some homework and thought about why they were sending it to me.
TBD: Our essay in What Editors Do is about self-publishing. Many people ask us, “If I self-publish my book, will it ruin my chances of getting published by a bigger publisher?” How would you answer this question?
PG: You probably know more about this question than I do, but especially nowadays I don’t think there’s any stigma attached to having self-published your work. What’s important is to self-publish your work well. If your self-published book is full of mistakes, badly typeset, or amateurish-looking, it will reflect badly on you. (Covers are hugely important!) But if you do a good job with it—and especially if you sell enough copies to show there is an audience for your writing—I think that gives you a leg up on finding a publisher for future work.
TBD: You rarely hear a kid say “I want to be an editor when I grow up.” This is particularly true if you don’t grow up in a typically white, well-educated, upper middle class environment. Chris Jackson has a brilliant essay in the book about the fact that there is little to no diversity in publishing despite all the talk about the issue. If someone is reading this interview and wants to become an editor but doesn’t fit into these boxes, what tips do you have for breaking into the business? How can you encourage someone to make the effort to break down doors?
PG: I would urge anyone, of any background, to read Chris’s essay because it shows how a person who is passionate about books found his way in publishing despite both his own handicaps—Chris says he didn’t know how to type a letter when he started out as an assistant—and the structural obstacles in the system. It’s unfortunately true that, like many other old-school businesses, publishers are oversupplied with applicants from privileged backgrounds with fancy college degrees, and they still hire lots of those people because it’s easy to do. The good news is that most every publisher understands the importance of diversity and many houses have explicit efforts under way to increase it, so it’s a great time to apply for a job in publishing.
Also, I truly believe publishing is democratic in the sense that, if you really love reading, and really know your way around books, and you’re smart and willing to work hard, that will get recognized really fast. And it’s actually way more important than whether you went to an Ivy League school. This may sound silly, but what we all have in common in the book business is that we love books! And being among people who self-selected on that principle makes for a pretty congenial working life. Whatever “box” you fit into, if you are one of those people who spent your teenage years reading with a flashlight under the covers, you should think about a career in publishing.
Peter Ginna is an independent book editor and the author/editor of WHAT EDITORS DO: THE ART, CRAFT, AND BUSINESS OF BOOK EDITING. He has worked in publishing houses for over 30 years, most recently as publisher and editorial director at Bloomsbury Press, an imprint he founded at Bloomsbury USA. Before that he held editorial positions at Oxford University Press, Crown Publishers, St. Martin’s Press, and Persea Books. Authors he has worked with include James M. McPherson, David Hackett Fischer, and David Oshinsky (all winners of the Pulitzer Prize), Daniel Ellsberg, Michael B. Oren, Alice Kessler-Harris, Suze Orman, and Colin Dexter. He comments about books, writing, and publishing at the blog Doctor Syntax, and has written for Creative Nonfiction magazine, Nieman Storyboard, and the Huffington Post. You can follow him on Twitter at @DoctorSyntax.
We met the ThriftStylers at one of the great comedy writers conferences in America: the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop. We knew as soon as we saw them that they were special, in the best sense of that word. So when we found out they were coming out with a book, ThriftStyle: The Ultimate Bargain Shoppers Guide to Smart Fashion, we decided it was in everyone’s best interest to pick their brains about writing, style, and being awesomely thrifty.
The Book Doctors: What in the world made you want to write a book?
Reise Moore: I had been quietly thrifting for years and had started a thrifting blog that had gone defunct. Allison and I had a lunch date (the Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles Summit) where she mentioned she and her twin Margaret (Peggy) had been kicking around a TV show on thrifting. I revealed that I was an avid thrifter and almost everything I wore, except underwear, was thrifted head to toe. Next thing I knew, Allison said, “So let’s work on this show.” I’m a mom of three and I was finishing up grad school at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at USC, so all I was thinking about was sleep. But Allison is convincing. Next thing I knew, I was nodding and saying, “Yeah, when we produce the show.” The idea morphed into us writing a book first and using it as a calling card for a show.
TBD: Did you have any books that you used as models for ThriftStyle: The Ultimate Bargain Shoppers Guide to Smart Fashion?
Allison Engel: There aren’t that many books on thrifting, but the few I saw tended not to have the ring of truth. They showed fabulous couture quality items that the author admitted buying three decades ago in Paris and were not relatable to readers looking in their local Goodwill today. We made a conscious decision to buy items that were in thrift stores right now, and for each item shown we included the price we paid and where we bought it. We also wanted lots of photographs of people wearing thrifted outfits. We used our diverse friends and family as models (both male and female), further making the point that these are clothes and accessories that can be found and worn by real people right now.
Reise Moore: I wanted ThriftStyle to be a love letter to thrifting. I wanted readers to realize the creative possibilities by upcycling and making simple fixes. And I wanted people to understand that textile waste is real and thrifting is a way to recycle and reuse. I wanted ThriftStyle to be the ultimate book on thrifting. In the quest to achieve that, we touched on so much more, such as developing your personal style and using thrifting to support charitable causes. The book is way more than I imagined it would be at the onset.
TBD: How did you go about getting the book published?
Margaret Engel: Our original idea was to make ThriftStyle a television show, and we are now working with a Hollywood production company to do just that. When I was managing editor at the Newseum, the museum of news, I had worked with a publisher on several books about journalists. That publisher reconnected with me when his firm was merging with a larger publisher, Charlesbridge, and asked me if I had any ideas for a mass-market book. I mentioned that the three of us were starting work on a possible television series about thrifted clothing. He suggested doing the book first, and we dove in.
TBD: What were some of the joys, and some of the pains, of writing this book?
Reise Moore: One frustration in writing the book is in thrifting; most everything you find is one of a kind. Everything in our book — clothes, jewelry, shoes, handbags, belts — is thrifted. So there is no size up or size down if the clothes don’t fit your model. We were thrifting clothes and doing fittings before shoots. If it did not work on the model, the outfit you loved on the hanger was out the window and you had to go back shopping. Allison’s apartment was overrun with all things ThriftStyle. It looked like a Salvation Army outlet!
We have more than 350 photos in ThriftStyle. Shoot days brought me huge joy. They were tough and long. We were a skeleton crew jamming in a bunch of set-ups, but we were pushing the dream forward. It reminded me of my film school days. Our photographer, the amazing Roger Snider, was patient and flexible and the hardest worker of all.
TBD: We are married, and we’ve written several books together. What was it like to navigate writing this book with your twin?
Margaret Engel: Allison and I began writing books together in the typewriter and carbon paper days of the early 1980s, mailing finished pages to each other cross country in envelopes with stamps, so the advent of cheap long-distance phone calls and emails has made the process much, much easier. When we are writing, we can still have the world’s shortest phone conversations, because we don’t need to give a long preamble or carefully couch criticism. We can be quick and direct. We tend to write different sections and then send it to each other for edits. Working together in a room, with one person typing and the other looking over her shoulder, is not a recipe for success for us. It takes twice as long. When Reise joined the team, we used the same strategy. We divided up chapters – or parts of chapters – and each of us wrote separately, then emailed the results to the others.
Reise Moore: It was daunting to step into the dynamic of twin sisters who have written successfully together and you are the literal third wheel. Allison and I were friends first so I knew she was cool. But I was super concerned about Peggy and I wanted to make sure she was OK with it. I was super concerned about me because here I am suddenly writing alongside two very accomplished and successful writers who have had a whole lifetime of being each other’s sounding board. There were a lot of “what ifs” on my end. But I had to get over it quickly because I noticed early on that everything was about the work. Once I got over myself, we were cooking. I found the room to be as big and expressive and creative as I wanted to be, and it easily became a creative space we shared and collaborated in. We complemented each other well.
TBD: How did you get into the whole world of ThriftStyling?
Reise Moore: My big sister Barbara Biggs-Lester is a jewelry connoisseur with a stunning fully-thrifted collection, and she was my muse. It started with some cheaply made purses I was so proud to have scored on sale at a retail store. She saw them, was not impressed, and said, “Let’s go thrifting.” I discovered the quality and bargains I could find in a thrift store and took off. Soon after, I became aware that thrifting is green and philanthropic, and I never looked back. What keeps me thrifting now is I love the idea of looking good while doing good for the planet, for important causes and for my own creativity.
TBD: Can you give us the top-three list of dos and don’ts when it comes to finding awesome bargains for pennies?
- Don’t judge a thrift store by its cover. Some of the most amazing clothing I have found has been in a place I was afraid to walk into. The neighborhood was dicey, but once I was inside, the designer pieces were jumping off the racks. The folks were warm and friendly and most everything was priced between two and five bucks.
- Do seek out a top-notch dry cleaner. If you turn your nose up at thrifting because someone else has worn the clothes, please know that several studies have shown that even new clothes hanging in a store can be pretty darn dirty. We immediately take everything we thrift to the dry cleaner or wash it ourselves. If you focus on quality, natural fiber items at thrift stores (and you should), they deserve the extra cost of dry cleaning.
- Do develop a clear idea of your own personal style. Thrifting newbies often are seduced by the low prices and end up with armloads of items in a grab bag of styles. Being able to focus on the silhouettes, colors and styles that flatter you and make you happy can help you sift through the sometimes overwhelming thrift store inventory and find what speaks to you. Tastemakers and trendsetters know this, and that’s why some of the best-dressed people I have ever seen have been in thrift stores.
TBD: What are some of the things that you learned talking to all the people in the book?
Allison Engel: We realized the absolute explosion in thrift and consignment shopping in this country, with new online outlets and new brick and mortar chains, as well as the longtime charitable thrifts. The Association of Resale Professionals has determined that thrift stores generate $12 billion in annual revenue. One in six American adults now shop second hand, and they are increasingly drawn to thrift stores because they are eco-friendly. Textile waste is a huge problem, and thrift stores are luring millennials who are concerned about the issue.
We interviewed thrift shop owners, dedicated thrifters, personal shoppers at thrift stores (they exist!), professionals who help people downsize and organize their belongings, costume designers, tailors, dry cleaners, cobblers, re-weavers and many others, and filled the book with their tips and observations. We loved the hints we received from Chelsea Confalone, who scouts the bins at thrift stores where items are sold by the pound. She buys clothing in beautiful fabrics that might have a rip or tear and remakes them into items for her young children. She’s now taking sewing lessons. Pinterest can supply clothing redo ideas (look under “Remake Clothes” under the “Explore” tab), and YouTube has instruction videos. I love the idea that thrift stores can spark creativity and an interest in handmade, refashioned items.
TBD: Why should people thrift?
Reise Moore: People have a misconception that thrifting is just for folks without money or down on their luck. Don’t get it twisted, I can afford to shop retail and I definitely can afford to shop discount clothing stores. I thrift because I want to be a better kind of consumer. I don’t want my purchases to add to the huge issue of textile waste that is fueled by fast fashion. I want my purchases to count toward the missions of the charity-based thrift stores I frequent.
Also, I have never felt so creatively unchained when it comes to clothes. Your unique take on how you choose to clothe yourself is a form of self-expression. It can be unleashed in thrift stores because there is so much to choose from. When it comes to trends, nothing is better than thrift stores because trends often repeat or harken back to some specific decade. So if I see that ‘90s grunge or ‘70s chic is back, I can find original representations of the look in thrift stores. Nothing beats originals, as they are a much higher quality than what can be found in fast-fashion outlets. It is the reason why celebrities and fashionistas wear vintage and frequent thrift stores.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?
Allison Engel: Be persistent. Most of the ideas we’ve had for books and plays have existed in our notebooks, computers and brains for years and years. We don’t give up on ideas we think are worthwhile, even if it takes others a while to agree. We had our Food Finds idea for several years before our first book was published – and we still were very early in identifying and chronicling the rise of American foods made by small, family-run producers.
If we hit a roadblock, we might abandon a project for a bit, but we simply hold the thought until we, perhaps, meet someone who will help it along, or wait for the topic to catch fire in the national consciousness. If we listened to naysayers and gatekeepers, we wouldn’t have published or produced much in our lives.
Allison Engel is a journalist who has written articles and produced photographs for Apartment Life, Metropolitan Home, Traditional Home, Country Home, Renovation Style, American Patchwork & Quilting, Quilt Sampler, Midwest Living, Palm Springs Life and others. She was a longtime columnist for Saveur, and her freelance articles have appeared in Esquire, The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times. She and her twin sister wrote three editions of a book on family-run food producers (Food Finds: America’s Best Local Foods and the People Who Produce Them) for HarperCollins, which they turned into the show Food Finds for Food Network that ran for seven years.
She holds a dual bachelor’s degree in textiles/clothing and journalism from Iowa State University, a master’s degree in screenwriting from the University of Southern California and was a Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University. A play she wrote with twin sister Margaret Engel, Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins, attracted Kathleen Turner for its premiere production, and has received several other record-breaking Equity productions around the nation in the last three years. A second play, Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End, had its premiere at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., last year, an Equity production in Cincinnati this past spring, and several upcoming productions scheduled.
For five years, Allison was senior editor of the University of Southern California alumni magazine and web editor for USC News, and she currently is the associate director of the Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities at USC.
Maricia “Reise” Moore has more than 16 years of experience producing and managing productions, including shows for Animal Planet and A&E’s Biography. She is a graduate of the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts with an emphasis in production, and holds a master’s degree in communication management from the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at USC. She is currently an executive in charge of production for the Campus Filming Office at USC, overseeing major production companies on feature films, network and cable television and national commercial shoots.
Reise is a thrift store fanatic. What started out six years ago as a grudging trip to a thrift store swiftly became a passion for quality and beautiful, unique clothes at a rock bottom prices. She prides herself on dressing head to toe every day —including accessories—in fabulous thrifted finds. When she is not combing the aisles of thrift stores, she is happily being mom to three kids and wife to her writer husband in Los Angeles.
Her first book, ThriftStyle: The Ultimate Bargain Shopper’s Guide to Smart Fashion, written with Allison Engel and Margaret Engel, was published in September 2017. Reise and the Engels currently are working with a production company to turn the book into a television show starring Hollywood costume designers who shop at thrift stores to help everyday consumers solve fashion problems.
Margaret Engel directs the Alicia Patterson Journalism Foundation and was the managing editor of the Newseum. She was a reporter for the Washington Post, Des Moines Register and Lorain Journal and was a Nieman fellow at Harvard. She co-wrote Food Finds: America’s Best Local Foods and the People Who Produce Them with her twin Allison, and helped turn the book into a show for Food Network, where it ran for seven years.
She and Allison wrote the play Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins, which is still being produced regularly, and has had about 35 productions to date around the country. She also co-authored the play Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End, which has had several Equity productions, with upcoming productions in Arizona, New York, New Jersey, Florida, Virginia and Ohio.
She has served on the board of Theatre Washington/Helen Hayes Awards, the Fund for Investigative Journalism and chairs the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism awards board. She is a judge for the Boston Globe’s Spotlight awards and is a member of the Nieman Foundation board.
She and her husband, Bruce Adams, wrote three editions of a Fodor’s travel guide to America’s baseball parks, with the help of their children, Emily and Hugh.
Since the first writer wrote the first story by chiseling it into a large rock, then had her creation rudely rejected by the first publisher down in some dark, cold cave, writers have been asking the question: Why? Why didn’t I get a six-figure book deal? Why did the agent who loved my query then proceed to ghost me? Why did all those editors turn down my book, which almost certainly would be the greatest book in the history of books, if only they bothered to publish it?
The Book Doctors will answer these question, and so many more, in their upcoming webinar. From the nuts and bolts of having a great pitch, a totally awesome first sentence, a mind-boggling first page, a righteously compelling platform, and dealing with the eccentricities of a cruel God in an uncaring universe, The Book Doctors will break it down as only they can.
Figuring out how to not only deal with rejection, but actually to learn from it, and move forward with intelligent (as opposed to stupid) persistence is often the difference between succeeding in publishing, and ending up heavily medicated. We don’t want you heavily medicated. Come to our webinar instead. You can do it in your pajamas with bad hair!
The Book Doctors are always drawn to books that break new ground. We love it when someone takes an established genre and tweaks it, twists it, then turns it on its ear. Kate Forest is making a career doing just that. She writes about romance, but she likes to make her characters have some kind of differently-able challenge. So when we saw that her new book, In Tune Out of Sync, is out, we wanted to get the skinny on what brave new world she’ll be taking us to this time.
The Book Doctors: What have you learned from writing your previous books that you could apply to writing In Tune Out of Sync?
Kate Forest: Everything and nothing. I feel as though I will never stop learning how to write a better book. I am constantly reading, going to workshops, and asking people for feedback. I strive to remain open in improving my craft. That said, I seem destined to write first drafts with unlikeable heroines and secondary characters that steal the scene. At least I know those mistakes are coming.
TBD: What is In Tune Out of Sync about?
KF: At the core, it’s about “inspiration porn.” This is the idea that typical bodied people watch videos or read stories about people with challenges doing everyday things and feel “inspired to do better.” As if they were to ask, “What’s my excuse?” People with disabilities are not there to inspire the rest of us. The two main characters in this book struggle with how to overcome, or use, their differences. Yes, they compete for the same jobs, but their real conflict stems from how they view themselves and how the world views them.
TBD: Why did you choose violin and dyslexia as such main elements of your book?
KF: I had a learning disorder when I was a kid. I couldn’t read until I was about 10. I didn’t have dyslexia, but I knew the pain that simply being in school could elicit. As a school social worker, I have worked with kids with dyslexia and wanted to bring those stories to a romance novel.
Violin? I chose something that seems counterintuitive to dyslexia and Tourette’s Syndrome. The violin, to me, seems delicate, requiring speed reading of music and total control of one’s body. Now put someone who doesn’t always control his body, and someone who can’t read quickly, in an orchestra. It was perfect for building tension.
An important thing to note about this book is that it will be available as an audio book. It’s important to make it accessible to anyone interested in dyslexia stories.
TBD: How did you get into the mindset of someone with Tourette’s Syndrome?
KF: I watched many documentaries. I interviewed people. I read. Tourette’s Syndrome is the one issue I have written about that I hadn’t had much experience with. I needed to be accurate and sensitive. I wanted my language to reflect how people in the TS community talk. Two resources I recommend are Jess Thom’s Touretteshero site and An Unlikely Strength by Larry Barber.
TBD: How did you manage to capture the world of the New York Philharmonic and high-end classical music? Did you do lots of research?
KF: Oh, I had to do tons of research. My music education ended in 5th grade with “Hot Cross Buns” on the recorder. I love music, and admire people who make it. Luckily, I know professional classical musicians, and they were kind enough to read drafts of the story and answer my insane questions.
TBD: How do you devise plots for your romances?
KF: I don’t start with plots. Romance stories hinge on the characters. For me, the characters’ inner conflicts are what drive the story. I begin by developing the characters. What do they want? Why do they want it? And what is standing in their way? Layer on that, the two main characters need to have goals that are in direct conflict with each other. There has to be no possible way these two people can end up together. And then, they grow and change, and presto, they are together—happily ever after.
TBD: How do you not fall into cliché as you write books that are filled with so many rules?
KF: The only real rule to genre fiction is that there is an emotionally satisfying ending. I prefer genre fiction to literary fiction for this reason. The genre fiction author makes a promise to the reader on the first page: You will be entertained, we will go on a journey, and everything will be answered in the end. Whether you’re fighting an alien invasion, rooting out a murderer, or watching two people find love, there will be a solution. So clichés? There’s no reason to rely on them when there are no limits.
TBD: Do people who are differently abled ever contact you?
KF: These are my best reviews and letters. I get emails from parents of kids on the spectrum and people with different challenges who say my book portrayed the characters in a sensitive and accurate way. But I’m also happy when someone reads the story and says, “I learned something about this issue.” The more we see fictional characters with disabilities in typical situations, the more we will accept real life people with disabilities in all areas.
TBD: Does your writing fall into any single category? Do you try to fit into the romance genre?
KF: Some people have told me that my books aren’t strictly romance, since they tackle other issues. But the truth is that my books fit squarely in the romance genre. The Romance Writers of America defines romance as stories that “contain a central love story and the resolution of the romance must be emotionally satisfying and optimistic.” All of my books easily meet these criteria. There should be no reason that a story that portrays characters with disabilities should be outside of this genre.
TBD: What new advice do you have for writers?
KF: I’d ask what your goal is as a writer. If you’re writing for pleasure, or you have a single story you want to share, then have fun. Work at your own pace. Take some writing classes. Find a group of like-minded writers. If you have a goal of being a commercial writer, you must join a professional organization of writers. There’s one for each type of book. Writers can’t write alone. I have a team of critique partners who send back angry red comments, slashing entire scenes. I have a different team of beta readers (some writers, some for research questions, some who just like to read). Then I have a technical team of cover designer, formatter, and copy editor. I run a small business, and spend just as much time networking and marketing as I do writing. My grandmother was in a nursing home in her last days, after a lifetime of hard work. Her husband of over 70 years had just died. She said, “Life is not for sissies.” And all I can say is, “Writing is not for sissies either.”
Author Kate Forest has worked in a psychiatric hospital, as a dating coach, and spent a disastrous summer selling above-ground swimming pools. But it was her over twenty-year career as a social worker that compelled her to write love stories with characters you don’t typically get to read about. She lives in Philadelphia with her husband, two kids, and a fierce corgi. Visit her at www.kateforestbooks.com.
We first met Patricia Perry Donovan several years ago when she won our Pitchapalooza event (think American Idol for books, only much gentler and much kinder) down at the Jersey Shore. She had a great success with her first book, and At Wave’s End, her second novel, dropped this week. So we thought we’d pick her brain about books, writing, and how—when it comes to novels—it’s different the second time around.
The Book Doctors: Many congratulations on the publication of your second book. Tell us about At Wave’s End.
Patricia Perry Donovan: I’m delighted to. Inspired by Hurricane Sandy, At Wave’s End is the story of Connie Sterling, an impulsive woman who wins a ramshackle bed and breakfast at the Jersey Shore. When a deadly hurricane hits, Connie finds herself in over her head, requiring her adult daughter Faith, a Manhattan chef, to bail her out. Once Faith comes to Connie’s rescue, the storm’s aftermath dredges up deceptions and emotional debris that threaten to destroy the inn’s future and their fragile mother-daughter bond.
TBD: Do you do research for your books? Were there any other books that influenced your writing of this book? Do you outline before you start writing?
PPD: I’m also a journalist, so research is second nature. However, in this case, having lived through a coastal superstorm, I could mostly write from experience. I did research Hurricane Sandy’s actual timeline to lend authenticity to the book’s fictional Hurricane Nadine.
Influence-wise, At Wave’s End began as a series of short stories I penned in the storm’s aftermath. I had hoped to entwine these stories in a novel, a la Elizabeth Strout’s faultless Olive Kitteridge. That didn’t exactly happen, but I still wrangled a fairly large cast of characters in this book. I’d still like to one day write a novel comprised of linked stories.
And on the question of ‘pants-ing’ versus ‘planning,’ I’m a card-carrying ‘seat of the pants’ writer. However, I surrendered that luxury in order to meet my publisher’s deadline.
TBD: Were you worried about the dreaded sophomore jinx? Did this affect you in any way?
PPD: Gee, I didn’t really think about a ‘jinx’ until you mentioned it! But yes, it’s terribly daunting to write a second book during the launch and review of your first. On the one hand, my writing felt stronger the second time out. On the other hand, I needed to make a concerted effort to close myself off from all Deliver Her feedback (both glowing and gut-wrenching) in order to complete book two.
TBD: What did you learn from writing your first book that you could apply to your second?
PPD: SO much. First, in terms of process, I tapped into the trove of guidance from my gifted team of Deliver Her editors. I could hear these ‘book whisperers’ in my head as I wrote At Wave’s End.
Second, I discovered a delightful community of readers, who love to interact and share snippets of their lives, and immersed myself in the world of book reviews. My skin is thicker as a result! Here, I must acknowledge my amazing tribe of fellow Lake Union authors, who welcomed a newcomer with open arms. As a group, we shake off (and laugh off) the more distasteful aspects of publishing and savor the favorable ones.
The entire experience reinforced my desire to write the kind of stories I enjoy reading: family dramas with a dollop of dysfunction, but also a glimmer of optimism.
TBD: What did you learn from your first book that you could apply to your second in terms of promotion and marketing?
PPD: I’ve improved my advance game this time around, investing many more pre-release hours attempting to put At Wave’s End in influencers’ hands. As a debut novelist, I didn’t grasp the importance of this.
Also, I’m trying to rein in my time on social media, which, if I’m not careful, quickly consumes my writing window. I can’t avoid it right now during At Wave’s End’s launch. The other day, my first waking thought was the edit of a tweet I’d sent the night before. If that’s not a warning I need to cut back, I don’t know what is!
My goal is to create a balance. While I’m thrilled with my success as a novelist, I miss those early days of writing in the dark only for myself.
TBD: Do you have an agent representing you on these books? What was your experience working with your publisher like?
TBD: Congratulations on the Writers Digest award. How did that come about?
PPD: Thank you! My short story “Still Life” won an Honorable Mention in the 84th Annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition in 2015. That story resurrected Mia, a darling from Deliver Her, and also won an Honorable Mention that year in the Lorian Hemingway Short Story Competition. Who knows? We may see Mia in longer form one day.
TBD: Journalism tends to be short-form writing. How did you learn to tell a story that keeps going for 300 or so pages?
PPD: My fiction generally starts out in short form as a short story. Then, the best stories beg to keep going; in fact, they pretty much tell themselves. My job is just to keep up and capture them on the page.
I suppose I ‘learned’ to tell longer stories by participating in NaNoWrMo’s online novel writing competition. I would encourage anyone who thinks they can’t write a book to try it. There are no prizes, other than attaining a personal goal of writing 50,000 words in a single month. NaNoWriMo is a lot of fun, and taught me that with daily discipline, I could complete a book—a very rough one, but a book nonetheless.
TBD: Why would you write a book inspired by a natural disaster that impacted your own community, as well as thousands of others?
PPD: I read once that every novel is a love letter to someone. In this case, perhaps At Wave’s End is a love letter to my community. While Sandy spared my home, hundreds of thousands of storm survivors, including many friends and neighbors, weren’t as fortunate.
I actually organized this book into six parts, each named for a stage in a community Disaster Recovery model. I learned about the model in post-Sandy volunteer training. It’s similar to the stages of grief experienced after a death. The Reconstruction phase continues today, which is why I included this Afterword in my book:
This story is a work of fiction. However, in 2012, a storm of similar magnitude devastated the East Coast, killing thirty-seven people and destroying close to 350,000 homes. Although Hurricane Sandy forever altered the topography of countless neighborhoods, the destruction also triggered an extraordinary surge of community and compassion. With reconstruction ongoing at the superstorm’s five-year mark, this story is intended to honor Sandy’s survivors for their resilience and determination to rise above disaster.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but now that you have two books under your belt, what advice do you have for writers?
PPD: Going back to my earlier comment about zealously guarding my writing time, I would advise aspiring writers to avoid becoming so consumed by the business of writing that you forget to get down to the business of writing.
Patricia Perry Donovan is an American journalist who writes about healthcare. Her fiction has appeared at Gravel Literary, Flash Fiction Magazine, Bethlehem Writers Roundtable and in other literary journals. The mother of two grown daughters, she lives at the Jersey shore with her husband, with whom she has fond memories of raising their young family abroad in France. Connect with her on Facebook @PatriciaPerryDonovanBooks and on Twitter @PatPDonovan. Learn more at www.patriciaperrydonovan.com.
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We met Jacqueline Mroz when she put together the Montclair Literary Festival. From our first meeting and all the way through the end of the festival, she was smart, she was funny, she showed up on time, and she smelled good. So we were not surprised to learn that she had gotten a book deal. Now that Scattered Seeds: In Search of Family and Identity in the Sperm Donor Generation is out, we thought we’d pick her brain about what it’s like to navigate the rocky seas of the publishing world.
The Book Doctors: What was the inspiration for Scattered Seeds?
Jacqueline Mroz: The inspiration for the book came from a New York Times article that I wrote in 2011 about a sperm donor who had 150 kids. Once I started looking into the fertility industry, I found it was full of fascinating stories and people.
TBD: How is it possible that one man biologically fathered 150 children?
JM: The sperm bank continued to sell this man’s sperm for years–and it was very popular. Most donors are asked to donate around 3 times per week. Also, each donation is divided up into somewhere between 8 and 25 vials, which are then sold to women around the world. Those numbers can really start to add up!
TBD: How did you get that great article in the New York Times? What was the fallout from it?
JM: I came across the original news story through my sister, who was trying to have a baby on her own, using donor sperm. She noticed on a message board for Single Mothers by Choice that one mom wrote about her unease when she found out that her daughter had 75 half siblings. I was intrigued and decided to dig deeper—that’s when I found out that there was a sperm donor with 150 children. The article was very popular and was picked up all over the world. As a result of the story, a state legislator in NYC introduced a bill to limit the number of kids that a sperm donor could have—but she wasn’t able to get enough support to push the bill through.
TBD: How do you think that the process of sperm donation, and the industry it has spawned, ultimately affects kids and parents?
JM: Sperm donation can be great for families or women who aren’t able to have kids otherwise, but for some children who are born through anonymous sperm donors, it can be difficult. Some of these kids become confused about their identity, and end up endlessly searching for their biological fathers, trying to figure out who they are and what they inherited from their donors. There’s also the risk of rare, genetic diseases being passed on from donors to their biological children, and then spreading through the population. (I wrote about this in another Times article.)
TBD: What are some tips for people who want to artificially inseminate?
JM: For someone who is looking to use a sperm donor, I would recommend using the Sperm Bank of California in Berkeley. They’re extremely ethical, they limit the number of kids that a sperm donor can have, they’re a nonprofit, and they try to connect kids with their donors when they’re of age. I would also make sure that the sperm bank tests its donors for a significant number of genetic diseases — and I would ask how many kids the donors has already!
TBD: Why isn’t there more oversight into what is one of the most personal areas of human existence?
JM: It’s hard to get the government to institute more oversight over the industry since there are actually few people that really want it — the parents want to have a baby, and the doctors and sperm banks want to help people — and make money. But that’s starting to change, as donor-conceived children are starting to come of age and demanding their rights. The other problem with oversight is it’s a slippery slope, and many are afraid it could lead to (even) more regulation of abortion.
TBD: What was your takeaway from talking to same-sex couples who have used artificial insemination to have a child?
JM: They are grateful for this chance to have children. Also, some of the single mothers by choice that I spoke to have been particularly good at finding and reaching out to their kids’ half-siblings — it gives them an extended family that their children might not otherwise have. Many visit each other and take vacations together.
TBD: How did you go about getting this book deal?
JM: The newspaper article was extremely popular, so I used that and my proposal to find an agent. My agent, Jane Dystel, is amazing!
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?
JM: Writers’ groups can be very helpful, especially if you’re having trouble finishing something that you’re working on. You can ask the other writers to give you a deadline to help you get things done.
Jacqueline Mroz is a veteran journalist specializing in reproductive and family issues. She lives in Montclair, New Jersey, with her husband and three children.
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Susan Wolfe on How to Get a Great Blurb, the Importance of Maternity Leave, and Reading to be a Writer
We first met Susan Wolfe when we taught a workshop at Stanford, where we were the least educated people in the room. We were struck by what a seasoned professional she seemed, even though she was a novice author. She asked all the right questions, she worked her ass off, and it didn’t hurt that she had actual bona fide talent. Her first book was a big success, and now that Escape Velocity, her second novel, is out, we picked her brain about transitioning from the world of law to the world of books.
The Book Doctors: What were your favorite books as a kid and why?
Susan Wolfe: The first real book I ever read was The Black Stallion by Walter Farley. I was in Mr. Adams’ second grade classroom in San Bernardino, and he gave me permission to read on my own while the rest of the class finished up something else. So I found The Black Stallion, settled into my chair, and the next thing I knew the class was laughing. Apparently, I had whinnied. I was so shocked to look up and see that I was back in that classroom that I still remember the way the light was filtering in through the windows.
I had just discovered that reading created a little room out behind my head where I could go to have adventures and be other people. That little room has been my solace and a major source of learning and pleasure ever since.
I also loved The Wind in the Willows (I wanted a yellow motor car!) and Stowaway to the Mushroom Planet by Eleanor Cameron (Maybe a little low-tech now). And my sister Linda, who was three years older, read me entire Zane Grey westerns (Riders of the Purple Sage, Thirty Thousand 0n the Hoof) before I could read them myself.
TBD: What are you reading now, and who are some your favorite authors and books?
SW: I just finished Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, which I found moving, funny and original. Now I am halfway through The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov.
Some of my favorite books and authors so far:
- Moby Dick
- Madame Bovary
- Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
- The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
- The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt. (I still love a good western!)
TBD: How did you learn to be a writer?
SW: First and foremost by reading a really wide range of fiction for years and years. For example, my two favorite authors of dialogue are Elmore Leonard and Henry James, for very different reasons. Thinking about these two helped me understand what I wanted my dialogue to accomplish.
Second, by writing. That’s what everybody says, so here are some specifics:
- When I decided to write my first book, I needed to get a feel for how much should happen in a given chapter. So I made a chart showing what happened in each chapter of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. Then I made sure to have about that same amount happen in each of my chapters. That was hugely helpful to me in setting the pace of the book.
- I was lucky enough to have a good editor for my first book, and I tried out almost every suggestion he made. Some of them didn’t work out, so I ultimately rejected them, but I gave all the suggestions a real try.
- When I was writing my second book, I found a workshop at Stanford where all we did was listen to 20 pages of somebody’s manuscript and then comment. This was great for two reasons: first, some of the comments were helpful. Second, I learned that reading my own work out loud is a terrific way to figure out what works and what doesn’t. For some reason, I can hear things that aren’t right. I also tried two other workshops where the instructor gives little writing projects, and those felt to me like a waste of time. Could have just been the instructors, but I didn’t get much out of them.
- 4Finally, I am lucky enough to know two other writers whose writing and critiques of my work I respect. We have our own workshop and get to know each other’s work thoroughly. I can’t say enough about how helpful this three-person writing group has been to me.
TBD: How did you first get published?
SW: This will not be instructive to anybody else, but it is sort of interesting.
I was a lawyer on maternity leave when I started my first book, The Last Billable Hour (a murder mystery set in a Silicon Valley law firm). When it was time to return to work I told the partner at my law firm that I couldn’t come back because I was writing a novel. He said (among other things), “When you finish, you should show it to my old college roommate Jared Kieling, who is now an editor at St. Martin’s Press.” I thought “yeah, yeah” and kept writing.
One day while I was working away in my writing room, my phone rang and it was Jared Kieling of St. Martin’s Press. He said, “Mike said he’s never seen your fiction, but if it’s anything like the quality of your legal writing I should probably take a look.” A few months later when I finished it, I tied the printed manuscript with string and sent if off to him. He bought it, and the book went on to sell more than 100,000 copies and win the Edgar Award.
The only downside to this amazing and wonderful story is that it gave me very unreasonable expectations of how easy it is to get published. With my second book I woke up and joined the rest of humanity.
TBD: What was the inspiration for Escape Velocity?
SW: Two-sentence synopsis: Escape Velocity is a wickedly hilarious* thriller about a reformed con artist in a Silicon Valley software company who decides to revive her con artist skills to straighten out her very screwed up company. She needs to get enough money to move out of her car and make a home for her little sister before it’s too late.
My inspiration for the book comes from my own work as a lawyer. I have spent most of my adult life practicing law here in Silicon Valley, partly in-house at several high-tech companies. I liked working in-house, but I sometimes got frustrated that a few people who worked for the company—from accounts payable clerks to highly paid executives—seemed unable or uninterested in doing their jobs. Due to incompetence or egotism or out-and-out self-dealing, some people just seem to burrow into a company like ticks on a tormented dog, and no amount of damage they cause ever seems to dislodge them. If you’ve every worked in a company, you’ve met these people!
So I thought the malfeasance and nonfeasance (as we say in the law) were interesting, and even entertaining in a nice black kind of way. I thought other people might like to know about the chaos, or if they already knew about it, they might like to know that somebody else had experienced it, too. After all, as C.S. Lewis said, “We read to know we are not alone.” I also thought people might enjoy seeing some incredibly annoying people get their comeuppance.
But then I needed a main character, and along came Georgia Griffin. She is young, inexperienced and from a completely alien environment, so she experiences the wonder that is Silicon Valley high tech right along with the reader. She is also highly intuitive and a little bit tougher than people around her might expect. She is blessed with a job that makes people underestimate her. She badly needs the company to succeed in order to realize her personal goal of finding a better life than the one she was born to, and she reluctantly decides to use her con artist training—sparingly—to help the company succeed.
The surprise to me was that Georgia’s moral and psychological complexities gradually became central to my story. Georgia wants to be a good person, but she does a few sketchy things. At one point I wrote out the fifteen points of Georgia’s moral code. She adheres strictly to her moral code, but it’s a little bit different from other people’s. (For example, “Point #13: Cause the least harm necessary to be effective.” ) So I ended up focusing on the question of whether Georgia succeeds in the effort to turn away from her con artist background.
*According to Hank Phillippi Ryan, award-winning author of Say No More
TBD: How has being a lawyer affected you as a writer?
SW: In some ways that’s hard to know since I’ve always been both. Here’s what I can say:
My books are shot through with my actual experiences as a lawyer. The most obvious impact is on my plots, but my experience also makes my dialogue authentic and helps me create a powerful sense of place.
I worried that my legal writing would make my fiction writing ponderous, but it turns out the two kinds of writing issue from different parts of my brain. So no recognizable impact of one on the other.
I do think being a lawyer has made me more precise, which creates a risk I will over-explain things “for the avoidance of doubt” as we sometimes say in contracts. I hope I fight this effectively.
Finally, I would say I’m a serious writer without being a literary one. I suspect lawyering makes me opt for clarity over poetry when a choice must be made.
TBD: How did you manage to juggle a legal career and a writing career, when both seem like ridiculously time-consuming jobs?
SW: Not. Very. Easily.
And you left out my third ridiculously time-consuming job, which was raising two daughters. For years I would lie in bed and look up at the ceiling thinking, “Baby, Book, Law. Baby, Book, Law.” I was determined to make them all fit.
There were times I did make them fit. I wrote my first book, The Last Billable Hour, when I had only my older daughter. I would write 15 hours a week with babysitting until we ran out of money, and then I’d go to work as a contract lawyer (by project or by the hour) until I had enough money to pay the bills. I got the whole book done that way, and it was a happy, productive time in my life.
The second book was more challenging. By then we had two daughters, and I had a much bigger job as the head lawyer of a company. I decided to go to Starbucks from 6am to 7:30am twice a week to work on the book, and my daughter Catherine, who was eight or nine at the time, decided to go with me. She would sit very quietly and focus on her homework so that I could concentrate. I loved those mornings, but then it turned out I didn’t have one single unstructured moment in my life and was going slowly berserk. So I gave up writing until I was ready to leave law entirely, which is when Escape Velocity finally got written.
TBD: How did you manage to get such great blurbs for your book?
SW: It’s interesting that you ask me that, because my editor Jared Kieling asked me the exact same thing regarding my first book. Answer: I asked people.
I asked them very humbly to consider this great favor for a fellow author.
I spoke to each author about why I admired his or her writing and why I hoped they would like mine.
I asked for three or four times as many blurbs as I actually got, and tried to remind myself not to take it personally if they refused or just blew me off. Writers (and professors and deans and chief lawyers of companies) are very busy people. Fortunately, many of them are also generous.
TBD: How does your title Escape Velocity relate to your story?
SW: In physics, escape velocity is the minimum speed a rocket ship needs to escape the earth’s gravitational pull. Here in Silicon Valley the term is used as a metaphor to describe the amount of money a start-up company needs in order to stop taking money from venture capitalists. The company’s founders try to achieve escape velocity from outside interference by becoming self-sustaining.
In my book, Georgia’s upbringing with her con artist father exerts tremendous pull over her, first because it’s the life she knows and feels competent to navigate, and second because she loves her father. As the story unfolds, the reader realizes she also rather enjoys the excitement. But she doesn’t want a con artist life. So a central question of the novel is whether she has the strength of character to achieve escape velocity from the only life she knows. I don’t think many people accomplish that, and I have been fascinated by readers’ varying opinions about whether she succeeds.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?
SW: Elmore Leonard gave me the best writing advice I ever received, and I am happy to pass it along.
I had gone to his reading at a bookstore, and when it was time for him to autograph my copy of his book I asked him to wish me good luck with mine. He asked a question or two about what I was writing and then signed his book. After I turned to go he called after me, “Susan!”
“Don’t let anybody else write your book. You write your own book.”
So there you are. Share your writing, read it out loud, listen to intelligent people’s advice, and then decide for yourself.
Susan Wolfe is a lawyer with a B.A. in literature from the University of Chicago and a law degree from Stanford University. After four years of practicing law, she bailed out and wrote her Edgar Award-winning first novel The Last Billable Hour. She returned to law for another sixteen years, first as a criminal defense attorney and then as an in-house lawyer for Silicon Valley high-tech companies. Her second novel Escape Velocity was published in October and just won the 2017 IPPY Gold Medal in suspense/thriller from the Independent Publishers Book Awards. She lives in Palo Alto, California with her husband Ralph DeVoe. authorsusanwolfe.com
We’ve been fans of Holly Kowitt for longer than any of us care to remember. And now, our nine-year-old is a fan. And so it goes. When we heard the title of Holly’s new book, we howled, we roared, we had to have it! The Principle’s Underwear Is Missing! What more do you need in a kids’ book? Since she’s one of the funniest, most creative, and most successful writers we know, we thought we’d pick her brain on books, writing, principals, and yes, underwear.
The Book Doctors: Why in heaven’s name did you decide to become a writer? And having made that decision, why did you decide to write books for kids?
Holly Kowitt: I first became a writer to get illustration work! My cartoon-like drawing style made me a tough match for most children’s books (this was pre-Wimpy Kid) so I had to create my own projects. Which turned out to be a good thing.
Part of ending up in children’s books was random– my first entry-level job just happened to be at Scholastic. Being there naturally made me focus on kids.
TBD: What were some of your favorite books when you were growing up, and why?
HK: Harriet the Spy was my all-time favorite. The characters were so alive to me—so real and quirky—and, like Harriet, I wanted to be a writer. I also loved Beverly Cleary’s Fifteen, a low-concept, timeless coming-of-age story with the best first line ever: “Today I’m going to meet a boy…”
TBD: What books are you reading currently, and what books have you really enjoyed lately?
HK: Should be reading: Evicted by Matthew Desmond
Secretly reading: I Represent Sean Rosen, a middle grade novel by Jeff Baron.
Recently enjoyed: The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett and The Daily Show: An Oral History.
TBD: As an illustrator as well as a writer, how do you get these two parts of your brain to cooperate with each other? What are some of the advantages and disadvantages to wearing both hats simultaneously?
HK: The cartoons give me an extra way to hook reluctant readers, and add a loose, fun energy. Plus, they’re a blast to draw. The disadvantage is sometimes the text gets robbed to let the illustrations shine. It’s hard to cut a good joke, even when you realize it works better as a picture.
TBD: I just did a Google search of your name and the word “underwear,” and I got tons of hits. Did you ever think your life as a kids’ book author would lead you down this dark path?
HK: Ha ha! Children’s Book Rule #8: Use the word “underwear” whenever possible.
TBD: The Principal’s Underwear Is Missing: That may be the greatest title I’ve ever heard. How did you come up with it? And what was the inspiration for the story? Have you ever had underwear go missing? Have you ever been involved with principal’s underwear?
HK: I tried to invent the most catastrophic scenario possible for my heroines—and I think I found it. My approach to a story is always: what’s the biggest problem I could give this character? No, it’s not torn from my own life!
TBD: How do you capture the voice of the kids so well?
HK: Obvi it’s, like, crazy-hard. Some combination of subway eavesdropping, The Urban Dictionary website, profiles of twelve-year old YouTube stars, Seventeen Magazine, and Shop Jeen on Instagram gets me in the ballpark.
TBD: What was your inspiration for the story?
HK: I got the idea from Jeeves, the P.G. Wodehouse series about a rich, dimwitted young man and his very smart butler. I thought it would be fun to set the story in middle school, where a ditzy, super-popular 8th grader teams up with a 6th grade nobody. The Queen Bee has a habit of getting herself into trouble, and it’s up to her brilliant younger friend to get her out.
TBD: What’s this story about?
HK: Becca, a bookish 6th grader, accidentally zonks the school’s most glamorous 8th grader with a volleyball. To make it up to her, Becca tries to do Selfie a favor. But she accidentally grabs the wrong shopping bag—one containing a very personal item. Even that wouldn’t be so bad, if Selfie didn’t immediately lose it.
It’s the story of a friendship that holds constant surprises. It’s about exploring an off-limits older world, and finding out how it’s better (and worse) than your own. It’s about challenging the unspoken rules of middle school, and doing what’s right. It’s about losing the principal’s underwear.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers and illustrators?
HK: Billy Crystal’s ex-manager once told him to “leave a tip” with his stand-up act—to go deeper and more personal. After I finish a chapter, I go back and try to squeeze in an extra ten percent to make it funnier, weirder, realer. So my advice is to always give your work that extra push. You won’t be sorry.
Holly Kowitt has written more than fifty books for younger readers, including the Loser List series. She lives in New York City, where she enjoys cycling, flea markets, and West Coast swing dancing. Find her online at kowittbooks.com.