We met Barry Lyga when we were waiting to sign books at the (thoroughly awesome) New England SCBWI conference. Turns out we are all Jersey-crowd–the Garden State representing! We had a funny chat, and then we checked out his books. This guy is a powerful writer. His new book, Bang, is out, so we picked his brain about books and publishing and whatnot.
The Book Doctors: Who were your favorite authors, and what were some of your favorite books when you are a kid?
Barry Lyga: I had such eclectic tastes as a kid! I loved old classics like Poe and Milton, but I was also obsessed with modern sci-fi authors like Joe Haldeman, as well as comic books by the truckload. Paul Levitz and Alan Moore were two of my favorite comic book writers. I read Haldeman’s Dealing in Futures short story collection over and over as a kid — those stories really opened my mind as to what was possible in storytelling. Oh, and I can’t forget to mention Ken Grimwood’s classic Replay. That book blew my mind. I re-read it every year, and it still knocks me down every time.
TBD: How did you learn to become a writer?
BL: I sort of figured it out on my own, really. I knew at a very young age that I wanted to tell stories, and I was manic in my reading. I read constantly. Every chance I had, I would have my nose in a book. So I sort of absorbed a lot of the lessons and the rhythms of writing and internalized them subconsciously. Which isn’t to say that I was a great writer the first time my fingers touched the keyboard! Hell, no! I still had to practice and hone my craft, which took literally decades. But no one ever really sat me down and taught me how to start — I figured that out on my own and then just kept iterating and trying until things started to click.
TBD: How did you find your first agent, and what was your road to publication?
BL: I met Kathy Anderson at a writers conference in early 2005. I had won the Editor’s Choice award at the conference, so she was looking for me. And I had seen one of her lectures the day before I won the award, so I was looking for her. And then it turned out I was scheduled for a pitch session with her! So, it was a fortuitous meeting.
She read the manuscript I had at the time, which was my first YA novel: The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy & Goth Girl. After a couple of weeks, she offered me representation and I accepted. Then we talked about the book a little; she had some suggestions and I took ‘em. About five months later, she sold that book and my next one at auction. We haven’t looked back since!
TBD: Do you ever get pushback for writing books for teenagers that are so full of darkness?
BL: Not from anyone in the business. Occasionally there are people out there in the wider world who take issue with something I’ve written, but they are — thankfully — a minority. I think most people recognize that my books aren’t promoting the darkness or proselytizing for it; they just reflect it for the reader.
TBD: What did you learn about writing while working in the comic book business?
BL: I worked in comics on the distribution side, not the creative side. So honestly, the most important lesson I learned was that I wanted to be on the creative side!
But there WAS writing involved in that old job; it just wasn’t creative. It was a lot of marketing copy and so on. I did learn a substantial work ethic from that. I learned how to edit myself. I learned how to heed the sanctity of a deadline, which has stood me in good stead — in 12 years as a professional author, I think I’ve missed exactly one deadline. Thanks, comics!
TBD: Tell us about BANG.
BL: BANG is the story of Sebastian. Ten years ago, when he was four years old, Sebastian was playing with his father’s loaded handgun. It went off. And killed Sebastian’s four-month-old baby sister.
Now, ten years later, he’s still living with the guilt, the horror, the shame, and he’s decided he doesn’t deserve to live. How can you find forgiveness for something so unforgivable? How can you atone for a mistake you made before you even knew what a mistake was?
And there’s pizza. Believe me — the pizza is important. It’s a pretty dark book, so the pizza matters.
TBD: What are you working on next?
BL: I wish I could tell you! I have two projects in the hopper right now, but contracts have yet to be signed, so I’m not supposed to say anything about them. They’re both dream projects, for completely different reasons, and I’m so, so incredibly excited about them. Stay tuned!
TBD: What do you love most about being a professional author? What do you hate most about it?
BL: I love the freedom. I don’t mean the freedom of dictating my own hours and days (which is amazing; don’t get me wrong!), but rather the freedom of knowing that I am the one deciding what I do next. No one comes to me and says, “OK, your next book is about a kid who can talk to chickens…but he has a poultry allergy! Make it so!” I have the freedom to decide what stories I will tell. Some of them succeed; some of them don’t. But they’re all mine.
As to what I hate… I really hate the uncertainty. Which, of course, is the flip side of the freedom! There’s no way to know which, if any, of the stories I decide to tell will strike a chord with the reading public. If you made a graph of the sales of my books, it would look like a cardiac patient’s EKG. It’s all over the place. There’s nothing you can do about it, of course, but that doesn’t stop me from hating it!
TBD: You’ve written some pretty grim books on some really difficult topics. How does that affect you personally?
BL: Until recently, it didn’t! I mean, I wrote a book about child abuse (Boy Toy) and a whole series about serial killers (I Hunt Killers) and it never bothered me. I slept the sleep of the just every night, no matter what horrors I’d conjured during the day.
But BANG was different. Maybe because I was a new father. I was writing about a dead four-month-old baby while my own four-month-old baby was sleeping in a bassinet next to me. This book really, really got its hooks into me, and while that bothers me, I hope it will get its hooks into readers, too.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?
BL: I always tell writers: It’s OK to suck. It’s OK to look at something you’ve written and not like it. That just means that you’ve grown as a writer, developed better taste and better instincts, in the interim. So, take that new perspective and write something new. Inevitably, you’ll look back on that in a little while and think that it sucks, too! But that’s all right. That’s progress. One of these days, you’ll write something that only half-sucks, and then you’re on your way!
Called a “YA rebel-author” by Kirkus Reviews, Barry Lyga has published seventeen novels in various genres in his eleven-year career, including the New York Times bestselling I Hunt Killers. His books have been or are slated to be published in more than a dozen different languages in North America, Australia, Europe, and Asia. Lyga lives and podcasts near New York City with his wife, Morgan Baden, their nigh-omnipotent daughter, and their preternaturally chill son. His comic book collection is a lot smaller than it used to be, but is still way too big.
We’ve been fans of Todd Colby for a long time. He’s one of the most creative people we know. He’s always making something: art, poetry, mayhem. So when we saw that his new book, Time for History, is out, we picked his fertile brain.
The Book Doctors: Why the heck did you decide to become an artist, of all things?
Todd Colby: The alternative is just, well, boring. Why not live in a state that allows me to pay attention to the world a little closer and then celebrate or mourn the delicious and repulsive state we’re all in?
TBD: For as long as I can remember, it seems people have been talking about the demise of art. And yet, we seem to be in a moment right now where poetry is flourishing. Why do you think that is?
TC: When the going gets tough, like right now, people need a lot more than the latest news cycle whopper to inspire themselves, at least the people I like to be around. They need some depth, something that lasts, or makes them laugh or cry or recognize their own lives in a new light. Movies can do that, music certainly, but poetry has that special distillation of language, rhythm, and meaning that is reassuring and makes me more mindful when it’s really working right.
TBD: How has your career as a poet influenced your career as a visual artist?
TC: They’ve always worked hand in hand for me. In fact, I feel little distinction between the two and shift from being a poet to a visual artist with great ease. I mean both arteries of expression come from the same “Todd,” and that goes for my musical excursions with my old band, Drunken Boat. At the same time, different things that I need to express require different modes. It’s really nice to have options. I feel lucky that way. I will say that when I’m painting or making any kind of art, time moves in very odd chunks. Hours will go by and suddenly I’ll realize it’s dark out or that I haven’t peed for a very long time. That sort of concentration in almost any form is just beautiful.
TBD: What was the inspiration for your new book?
TC: I was doing an artist’s residency on Governors Island provided by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council during the winter and spring of 2015. A friend had given me a huge stack of antique linen postcards as a gift. I brought them with me to the island thinking I could do something with them. One day while strolling around Governors Island I thought, “There are no monuments to poets here!” So, I began altering the postcards by writing captions in oil markers over them. I made a lot of postcard monuments to Arthur Rimbaud, Charles Baudelaire, Gertrude Stein, James Schuyler, James Baldwin, Emily Dickinson and many more. I still feel compelled to make them. It is enormously satisfying to rename monuments that celebrate poets and writers I love.
TBD: How would you describe the art you’re doing in this book?
TC: Time for History is an expansion of the themes I explored on Governors Island. There is some political and social commentary that comes through in a few of the pieces that I made after Trump was elected. And oddly, there’s a narrative that emerges as one goes through the book in sequence.
TBD: How did you go about getting this particular book published?
TC: My dear old friend and frequent collaborator, the artist Marianne Vitale approached me with the idea of putting a selection of the hundreds of postcards I’ve made into a book. We’ve done collaborative books together over the years, so she knew what I was capable of, believed in me and the project and helped get the whole thing moving along. She introduced me to a book designer she works with, Nicolas Borel. He designs with a very keen eye and understanding of a book as object and then he subverts that expectation and expands the notion of what a book is, and what it can be. He was a joy to work with.
TBD: Who are some of your favorite artists, and why?
TC: I love Joe Brainard and George Schneeman. They both lived in NYC, and had close ties to the Poetry Project (where I also serve on the board of directors) and they both collaborated with a number of poets I respect and admire, like Ted Berrigan, Alice Notley, John Ashbery, Bill Berkson, and so many more. I also love the painters Amy Sillman. Jack Whitten, Louise Fishman, and Sue Williams; all of them are very different from one another, but they are all fierce, agitated, funny, precise, and driven. All of these artists occupy distinct thrones in the palace of my artistic loves.
TBD: Do you think working in a bookstore has influenced you as someone who does art and puts it into a book?
TC: Yes. As the manager and programmer here at 192 Books, I have been able to meet a wide variety of incredibly talented and creative people. People who I’ve admired so greatly over the years come into the store and talk about their art and their lives. Interacting with them, asking them questions, and getting to know them has been a real life changer for me.
TBD: Do you make something every day?
TC: I do. I try to make or write something a few times a day, even while I’m at work.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for artists?
TC: Keep doing it. It’s important that whatever you want to do gets done. Don’t fall into line. Don’t do what you think other people want you to do because that is just a giant bummer for you and everyone else.
Todd Colby is the author of six books of poetry, most recently of Splash State (The Song Cave, 2014) and Flushing Meadows (Scary Topiary Press, 2012). He was the editor of the poetry anthology Heights of the Marvelous: A New York Anthology (St. Martin’s Press, 2001) and serves on the board of the Poetry Project. He was the lead singer for the critically acclaimed band Drunken Boat.
Anna Staniszewski is one of our daughter’s favorite authors. Our daughter is nine, with great taste in books, so we always pay very close attention to who she’s loving as a middle grade reader. We were all lucky enough to meet Anna at least year’s New England SCBWI Conference and had the chance to pick her brain after about writing, writers, MFA programs, kids’ books, and whatever else spilled out of our collective heads.
The Book Doctors: I’d like to start with the MFA programs, because we hear such conflicting things, particularly for children’s book writers. What are the benefits of going to a program like the one at Simmons College where you teach?
Anna Staniszewski: I hear that question a lot. For me, I think that it comes down to two things. If you want to be a published writer, you have to put in the work. Some people need a structured environment like an MFA program. I know I did. For other people, they can do it on their own. Another benefit of having an MFA program is the community aspect of it. You have this network that you’re part of—people with similar interests and goals. Some say you can’t be taught to write. While I think ultimately the actual storytelling voice is hard to teach, I obviously believe that you can teach someone to write, because I attended an MFA program and I teach in one.
TBD: What kinds of things do you actual teach in an MFA program for children’s literature?
AS: When the students come into the MFA program at Simmons, we really break down the basics. We look at character, plot, structure, setting, all those things, which seem really basic because we do so many of them by instinct, because we see how they work in other people’s stories. But if you really break down how they work, then you can take them and use them in your own story. The more aware you are of the different building blocks of fiction, the more consciously you can use them to benefit the story that you’re working on.
TBD: What was the transition like going from student to published author to teacher?
AS: When I first started at Simmons, I originally went for the MA of Children’s Literature. I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do. I thought I wanted to go into publishing. But my first semester there they were just launching that MFA program–this was over ten years ago–and so I thought that’s exactly what I want to do, I want to do both those things. Once I knew that, I was really focused throughout that program on wanting to be published when I graduated, and then when I finished, I actually applied to the Writer Resident Program at the Boston Public Library and, miraculously, got it the next year. Right after I graduated I was a writer-in-residence at the BPL, which was amazing. I think that really gave me such a boost of confidence that writing could be a real job for me! Right after I finished at the BPL, I went to teaching. Originally, for the first year that I taught, I taught all over the Boston area. I was really lucky when an opening popped up in Simmons, where they needed someone to teach in the MFA program, so I was able to do that right around the time that I got my agent. That was interesting to go through the submission process all while I was teaching other students who were trying to get to the same point.
TBD: One thing that we run into all the time is that people think that it is easier to write a children’s book than an adult book, particularly when it comes to picture books, and what I find amusing, in terms of length of time, is that it takes longer to publish a picture book than it does any other kind of book that I’ve ever seen.
AS: Absolutely! I sold my first picture book in 2011, and it is coming out in 2017. It was a long process! (Even though book publishing is a slow process, it’s rare for a book to take this long.) I think because there are so few words, you have to pick the exact, perfect words for every spread. And then there’s this whole other element if you’re not the illustrator and you just have to wait and hope that it all comes together! Writing picture books is such a specific craft, I was actually a little bit intimidated by it for a while. For me, writing a novel somehow feels less scary.
TBD: For those writers out there who really know nothing about the craft of picture books, do you have a few tips?
AS: I would say the big thing is thinking about what would you like to see illustrated because I think a lot of times you’ll have a certain idea of “wouldn’t this be cute” and “wouldn’t this be fun,” but then you really have to think, “Can I get several illustrations out of this?” Then there are the parts of your book that not only could be illustrated, but also are begging to be illustrated! That’s why you need to find an idea that doesn’t just resonate with people, but that’s demanding to be illustrated.
The other thing I often tell students, because this is true of my own experience, is that an idea is not a story. The picture book I mentioned that’s coming out in 2017–the one that took six years–that was one where it took me a good year to find what I was actually trying to say. I came up with the idea, “Oh, wouldn’t it be fun if a boy turned a dog into a dinosaur?” And so I kind of played around with it, and it just wasn’t really working. I think part of it was because I wasn’t really thinking about the illustration potential. But I think a bigger part of it was that while it was a fun idea, it wasn’t really a story. And so I had to really dig into it. It took me a while to find what it needed to be about, which was the relationship between the boy and what turned out to be just a dinosaur.
Probably the most important thing in a picture book is the emotional component to the story. Because picture books are so short, there’s so little time to get the point across. You need something readers can really connect to on an emotional level because otherwise it’s just a fun story and you forget about it. But if there’s that deeper emotional layer, then readers will come back to it over and over.
TBD: We love that last one! We do a lot of work with writers to try to help them figure out how to pitch their books, and many writers have tremendous difficulties doing this. We get so many pitches where we don’t see an emotional connection with their main character. They just have an idea, there’s no actual plot or story there.
AS: It’s true, because by the time you finish reading a story, if there’s no emotional component and there’s no real plot, you find yourself asking, “Why did I just read this?” There has to be something there, even if it’s not a traditional story arc. My picture book, Power Down, Little Robot, is not a traditional story arc. It’s about a robot that doesn’t want to go to bed. It tries out all these different things to prevent going to bed, so it’s more like a list-type story. But I really try to highlight the mother-son relationship there. I hope, by the end, readers feel changed by the story, even if it doesn’t have a traditional beginning, middle, and end.
TBD: It’s confusing to many people who are starting out in the field what the category Middle Grade even means–the age range, where it diverges from early reader, how it stretches up to YA but doesn’t cross over into it. Can you give us your thoughts on this?
AS: I get this question all the time as well. I think people define it slightly differently, but this is how I think about it. I think the characters are typically between the ages of eight and twelve or thirteen. There are also early chapter books, and I do include those in early middle-grade, so in early chapter books, the protagonist can sometimes be in second grade or age seven. But a lot of early readers of chapter books are very much riding that line between picture book and novel. So I look at early chapter books on a case-by-case basis to know where exactly those fall. I feel like once you get into high school, that’s where it gets tougher. In my novels, most of my characters are thirteen or fourteen, which is at the upper end of middle-grade, often referred to as “tweens.” And even fifteen years ago, those would have been published as YA. Because YA has aged up so much, middle-grade has had to expand a little bit and the characters have become a little older.
While part of the way I define middle grade is by age, part of it I define by focus. It’s not only the content, but also how you deal with the content. So in middle-grade, if it’s younger middle grade, you might get away with a little bit of romance, but there are a lot of kids who don’t want that in their books. Whereas if it’s upper middle-grade, you might see a little bit of romance and you might see some darker things like war and death. With the latter, they tend to be handled a little bit more in the background or off-screen, so they are certainly there and they’re impacting the main character, but not in a direct way. For example, if there’s a character with something very serious going on in her life, maybe that’s not happening to the main character, it’s happening to the main character’s friend or somebody else in the family. In middle grade, you’re still kind of discovering what the world is like, whereas in young adult, I’d say it’s “Now that I know what the world is like, how do I fit in?” In YA, the focus is more inward, where middle-grade is more outward.
TBD: In your bio you write, “When she’s not writing, Anna spends her time reading, daydreaming, and challenging unicorns to games of hopscotch.” We thought this was so funny, and it’s just the sort of thing our nine-year-old daughter would love. Speaking of our nine-year-old daughter, she loves your books so much and just had the experience where she sat down with The Dirt Diary and couldn’t get up until she finished. You captured something that felt grounded in reality yet she could fantasize. How do you come up with your stories? Are they things that just come to you, or are they things you’ve been thinking about since you were little?
AS: I feel that I never have a lack of ideas. I feel like my brain is open, that it’s always asking “What if this happened?” I’m always kind of twisting the things that I notice, and thinking about “What if I told it this way?” Then it’s just a matter of figuring out what am I most excited about, and that’s what I decide to write about. But sometimes I feel like the process is a little bit mysterious. With my first book, My Very UnFairy Tale Life, I was working on something completely different. I was working on a sort of depressing book that ended up not going anywhere, and I needed something fun to work on. So I sat down and I just thought “Okay, I’ll just write a fun scene, just for myself,” and I wrote a scene about a girl who came home from school to find a talking frog sitting on her bed, and if that was me, I would have screamed and run out of the room, but she was so annoyed at the sight of the frog, and she actually grabbed that frog and she threw it out a window. I thought, “Who is this character? I need to know more about her!” I would write a chapter or two every once in a while, just for my own amusement, and that’s how that book came about. With my book The Dirt Diary, I heard a story on the radio about a girl who used to work for her mom’s cleaning business and a bell went off in my head. So for me, the premise comes first a lot of times, but it’s not until I connect with the characters that I go with it.
I feel that what you were saying about being rooted in the real world with a little bit of fantasy or magic, those are the kinds of stories I’ve always loved the most, and so I feel like that’s what I most enjoy writing as well.
TBD: We were impressed with how you dealt with class issues in The Dirt Diary. Our daughter happens to be in a public school that is very mixed, class-wise, from the very top to the very bottom. We were happy to see her reading a book that made her think about class. Speaking of which, your dedication may be our favorite ever: To anyone who has ever had to clean a toilet.
AS: I always thought I’d write fantasy. I wasn’t sure I had realistic fiction in me until I started writing it. For me, I guess what helped me was that I felt like my entire middle school existence could be summed up in the word “embarrassed.” I was nothing but embarrassed all the time. I also needed to know “Where do I fit in?” So a lot of those class issues are things that I experienced in school, where there were kids who lived in the big fancy houses and their families had big fancy cars, and then there were the rest of us. There was a lot of pressure no matter where you were on that hierarchy, and I thought that was something worth exploring. It also felt very true to my character because of the situation I put her in, and it also felt very true emotionally for me. A lot of people ask me how much of that story comes from my personal experience, and it’s very little. I did not clean houses for a living. I try to avoid cleaning houses at all, even my own. But I feel the emotional element is very true to life, and so I feel like I took a character who is very shy and very awkward, and took those qualities from myself when I was her age and amplified them by ten.
TBD: Something we run into every day with clients trying to get children’s books published is the desire tell us what their book is trying to teach. I would love for you to say something about the didactic nature of children’s books, and what do you advise on that?
AS: I think the important thing is telling a good story, and if there’s something that comes out of that for the reader, that’s fantastic, but if that’s the aim–if you go into it looking to teach something—it will show. The story always has to come first. When I set out to write a book, I’m not thinking what I want the reader to learn, or what do I want the character to learn, I just focus on something much more simple, like how does the character change. I try to think of it in a very specific way. With The Dirt Diary, for example, it’s about a character finding her voice. Though that may imply that maybe she learned some things along the way, that’s not what the story is really about. I think about: “Where does she start?” She’s shy, she can’t speak up for herself. “Where does she end?” She comes out of her shell a little bit, she speaks up for herself, at least when she really needs to. I’m not just trying to hit the reader over the head with a lesson or a moral. As a reader, I like to be able to think about the book myself and also feel like I have grown and changed along with the character; that’s more valuable than having a very obvious and concrete lesson.
Anna Staniszewski is the author of several tween novels, including The Dirt Diary and Once Upon a Cruise, and the picture books Power Down, Little Robot and Dogosaurus Rex. She lives outside of Boston and teaches at Simmons College. When she’s not writing, Anna spends her time reading, daydreaming, and challenging unicorns to games of hopscotch. You can learn more about her and her books at www.annastan.com.
Lawrence Grobel on Warren Beatty, Joyce Carol Oates, John Lennon’s Death and the Uselessness of Celebrities
One of our operatives who scout this great nation for publishing talent alerted us to Lawrence Grobel, a wonderful writer who has lots to say about the strange celebrity culture our species created. Since his new book, You, Talking to Me, is out, we picked his brain about why our culture worships and reviles these people with these strange little talents.
Lawrence Grobel: It wasn’t intentional. After spending three years teaching at the Ghana Institute of Journalism (in the Peace Corps), I returned to the States and started freelancing for Newsday’s Sunday magazine. I also wrote a few pieces for the New York Times and for True magazine. Then I decided to give up journalism, move to L.A. and write fiction. But as soon as I got to L.A. my Newsday editor asked if I would interview “Household Names” for them, starting with Mae West. I wound up doing dozens of interviews for them, with people like Warren Beatty, Jane Fonda, Ray Bradbury, Linus Pauling, J.P. Donleavy, Henry Moore, Cher, Lucille Ball….but since these were 3,000 word interviews, I could do them in two hours. However, the form interested me, and I wondered what it would be like to spend days, weeks, even months interviewing one person. The only outlet I knew that allowed that kind of depth was Playboy, so I managed to convince the editors there that I could do 30,000-word interviews with people like Barbra Streisand, Dolly Parton, Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Henry Fonda, Patty Hearst, Robert De Niro, and Saul Bellow. It’s taken me decades to finally get back to that fiction I wanted to write!
TBD: Why do you think our culture is so obsessed with celebrities, most of whom have jobs where they don’t actually do anything useful, not like doctors, plumbers, or teachers?
LG: If you put celebs into the category of usefulness, then you’re eliminating most athletes, actors, and the Kardashians. If celebs provide entertainment for people, then I suppose they serve a purpose. We elected a celebrity (albeit a minor one) president recently—and I’ve yet to believe anything he’s done so far has been useful, and yet, whatever he does certainly affects a lot of people.
Celebrities seem to exist in most cultures—some for their prowess as being stronger or more agile than others, some for their sharp wit, some for their ability to mimic others. I don’t know why we are so obsessed as a culture by celebrities, but I’ve seen how people react to seeing someone famous and all I can say is that I’m glad I’m not one. It can be frightening when a stranger approaches you in a restaurant or on a street with a demand for an autograph or a picture. I’ve been with Goldie Hawn when she was approached at a Japanese restaurant by a guy who acted like he knew her and saw how she handled it; with Al Pacino when a woman took him by surprise on the street where he lives in Beverly Hills and thrust a DVD at him, as he jumped away from her and tossed the DVD into a bush as if it might explode. I’ve been around celebs when paparazzi are waiting for them, and I can understand why they react the way they often do. A lot of it stems from when the Manson “Family” committed their crimes, making celebrities afraid. And after John Lennon got shot, it just magnified how vulnerable celebrities are. It’s no fun being a target for the insane.
TBD: Who are some of your favorite celebrities and why?
LG: Having interviewed so many, I would prefer to rephrase the question: Who, among all the celebrities you’ve interviewed or known, would you miss if they were no longer around? Of those who have already passed, I’d say John Huston, because I appreciated our conversations and his interest in my work; Truman Capote, because he said so many hilarious and outrageous things; Luciano Pavarotti, because I enjoyed his company and looked forward to seeing him in Italy, which would have been the best reason to travel to Italy; Robin Williams, because he was so quick and so down-to-earth; Miles Davis, because he was Miles Davis!; and Farrah Fawcett, because I miss our paddle tennis games, and her being “one of the guys” whenever we got together.
Of those still around, Elliott Gould, because he has become like family and is one of the truly special people I know; Christopher Walken, because he always responds to my calls, and when I send him a book of an author I think he might like, he sends me one back; Kim Basinger, because though she’s so shy, we have long phone conversations that cover whatever’s on our minds; Joyce Carol Oates, because even though she’s a goddamn genius, she always makes time to get together whenever she’s in town; and Lily Tomlin, because how can you not love Lily Tomlin?
TBD: Have you ever wanted to tell a celebrity to eff off? Who and why?
LG: The only celebrity I ever walked out on (though I didn’t say “fuck off,” it was implied) was Robert Mitchum. I went to see him while he was making That Championship Season, and during a break we went back to his trailer where he ate a sandwich and didn’t contribute to our conversation (in other words, I did most of the talking), other than to compare me—when I said that I was there doing my job—to Adolph Eichmann. When I asked him if he was comparing doing a Playboy Interview with what Eichmann did to the Jews, he said it was the same thing. That’s when I got up and told him that his publicist knew where to reach me, and walked out. Some years later, after my book on The Hustons came out, I was invited to watch Mitchum narrate a documentary about John Huston. There were 18 scenes, and for each one, after the first take Mitchum asked the director, “Too Jewish?” It was funny the first time. Not funny the second, and uncomfortable the next sixteen times.
TBD: What are some of your best interviews and why?
LG: I’d like to think that all of my work is the best that I can do at the time, but I guess that the ones that have turned into books are the ones that most people remember: Truman Capote, Marlon Brando, James A. Michener, John Huston, Al Pacino, Robert Evans, and Ava Gardner. Though I should also include the ones that got the most publicity: with Gov. Jesse Ventura, and with Coach Bob Knight. The Ventura one appeared during a slow news week because it wound up being covered by all the morning news and talk shows and put the Governor on the cover of Newsweek for his controversial remarks about religion, prostitution, sexual abuse in the Navy, fat people, and hoping to be reincarnated as a 38 DDD bra. As for Knight, he tried to throw me out of his car twice, fought with me over the tapes, punched me in the ribs, and I wound up putting that interview at the end of my Art of the Interview book to demonstrate how an interview is really like a three-act play.
TBD: What were some of your most bizarre interviews?
LG: I’d have to say the Bob Knight interview was the most bizarre. I was actually contemplating how to jump out of his car onto the highway in Indiana without breaking any bones.
TBD: What were some of your worst interviews?
LG: One of the worst was with James Franco, because he had nothing to say, other than answering “Nah” to most of my questions. But this was before he became an academic, a writer, an artist, and did some interesting films. But I’ve yet to see a really good interview with the guy.
TBD: Your first dozen books were published by major publishers like Random House, Scribner, NAL, Hyperion, Simon & Schuster, Da Capo, and the University of Mississippi Press. Why have you self-published your last dozen books?
LG: It started when my agent refused to represent a satire on yoga I’d written (Yoga? No, Shmoga!). I couldn’t understand his reaction, because he didn’t even want to read it. Then I discovered that he had repped a book called Elvis, Shmelvis, which didn’t do well and was somewhat of a nightmare for him. I told him my book was funny and he should reconsider, but he couldn’t get past the title. So I left him and decided to publish it on my own after Larry Kirschbaum at Amazon (at the time) invited me into a program they had set up for professional writers. The experience was positive, so when I discovered that another writer had a contract to publish his secret conversations with Ava Gardner at the same time I had finished a similar book about Ava, I thought I’d self-publish that as well. And then when I got the rights back from some of my other books, like Conversations with Capote and Conversations with Brando, I put them up on Amazon.
Suddenly, it became so much easier and quicker to publish what I wanted to write myself (a few novels, a memoir, a book of poetry, some collections of magazine work) rather than have to deal with satisfying a new agent, writing proposals, waiting to hear from publishers—that whole process takes months, sometimes years. Of course I don’t get the advances I used to get, nor the distribution, but I can now look at the 25 books I’ve written knowing that I’d still be waiting to hear from publishers for probably ten of them had I not decided to self-publish.
Am I happy about it? Yes and no. Yes, that the books appear exactly as I have written them and I’m proud of all of them. No, because I would like to reach a much larger audience, and reviewers don’t review self-published books. But hey, I’ve managed to do a few podcasts with Marc Maron and Adam Carolla about my work, and I’m still waiting to hear back from Terry Gross at NPR—so who knows? A writer should never give up hope.
TBD: What advice do you have for people who want to be interviewers? And what advice do you have for writers?
LG: I don’t separate being an interviewer from being a writer. A good interviewer is a good writer. Structuring a good interview involves many skills. One must be able to converse like a talk show host, think like a writer, understand subtext like a psychiatrist, have an ear like a musician, be able to select what’s pertinent like a book editor, and know how to piece it together dramatically like a playwright. Writers today have more outlets than they realize, and it’s more important than ever before to hone one’s skills, to make sure what you put out into the world is miles above the mostly crap that passes for writing these days. It takes patience, talent, and the willingness to rewrite. It’s a noble profession.
Lawrence Grobel (www.lawrencegrobel.com) is a novelist, journalist, biographer, poet and teacher. Five of his 25 books have been singled out as Best Books of the Year by Publisher’s Weekly and many have appeared on best-seller lists. He is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship for his fiction. PEN gave his Conversations with Capote a Special Achievement Award. The Syndicat Francais de la Critique de Cinema awarded his Al Pacino their Prix Litteraire as the Best International Book of 2008. Writer’s Digest called him “a legend among journalists.” Joyce Carol Oates dubbed him “The Mozart of Interviewers.” He has written for dozens of magazines and has been a Contributing Editor for Playboy, Movieline, World (New Zealand), and Trendy (Poland).
His new work, You, Talking to Me, highlights the lessons he’s learned from interviewing. He is married to the artist Hiromi Oda and they have two daughters.
We’ve known Kate Forest for many years, and it’s been a joy to watch her come into her own as a writer. She has an unusual book out now, and we wanted to pick her brain about how she came up with this fascinating twist on the classic romance.
The Book Doctors: Why did you do something as silly as decide to become a writer?
Kate Forest: I wish I weren’t a writer. I’ve always been the storyteller of the family (some of the stories were even truthful). I felt compelled to write them down a few years ago. I didn’t have plans to publish at first. But I’m also too ambitious for my own good.
TBD: What are you reading these days? What were your favorite books growing up, and why?
KF: Growing up was tough in terms of books.I didn’t learn to read until I was about 11 years old. Not only did I miss out on all the Judy Blumes, but school was a very painful place. I had the fortune of getting some extra help in 6th grade. One day I looked around the reading group I was in and noticed I was with the smart kids. I immediately went to Sherlock Holmes (still some of my favorite stories).
Now, I love reading romance of any kind. Devouring Amanda DeWees, Veronica Forand. And I love non-fiction. Isaac’s Storm by Erik Larson is on the top of my Kindle now.
TBD: How did you learn to be a writer?
KF: Trial and error. My sister, Andrea Pyros, is the real writer of the family, and she was kind enough to not laugh too hard when I said I was going to write a book. I took classes at my local community college, read books, and attended conferences, online classes, and workshops. I came from a place of knowing that I didn’t know anything and felt no shame in starting from scratch at 40 years old.
TBD: What drew you to romance writing?
KF: I need a happy ever after in my fiction. Because of my work as a social worker, I’ve never been able to read those wonderful weepy Oprah Book Club books. When Precious came out, I couldn’t look at that as entertainment, since foster care was my day job. Fiction, for me, needs to be an escape. And I’d better be emotionally satisfied at the end or I’ll hurl the book at the wall. For non-fiction I can be forgiving.
TBD: Tell us what your new book, Standing Up, is about.
KF: It’s the classic nerd/jock story but with a twist. Mike was the star football player in high school. A car accident lands him on crutches in excruciating pain, and he elects to have his legs amputated below the knee. Jill is a woman determined to get to NASA but finds it hard to stand up for herself in a man’s world. It’s more a story of finding your identity than a straightforward romance.
TBD: They say, “Write what you know,” but you’ve never had an amputation. How did you get into the mindset of someone missing a limb? There’s so much attention being paid to ensuring that genuine experience dictates the content of books like this. How did you make sure that your writing was real?
KF: If I only wrote what I “know” all my characters would be middle class Jewish cis-gendered women. I am in complete agreement that representation matters. We need diversity in books, not just in the characters depicted, but also among the authors. That said, I think I did my due diligence. I interviewed amputees and people with disabilities. I met with a prosthetics expert, had sensitivity readers, and relied on my professional experiences. This story is not going to be true for everyone with limb loss because not everyone with limb loss has the same experience. But it could be true for some. And not everything the characters think and feel will sit well with everyone. Just because one of my characters says something insensitive doesn’t mean that it’s my personal belief. I hope people see the evolution of the characters.
TBD: It’s unusual to see an amputee in a romance novel. What prompted you to write something like this?
KF: I was tired of all the “perfect” characters in romance. Their only flaws being they are “too smart,” “too wealthy,” etc. I meet people all the time who find true lasting love, and they are far from perfect. We all need love stories. We all deserve a happy ever after.
TBD: How did being a social worker impact how you wrote this novel?
KF: I’m a storyteller, but I’m also a listener. If I had a superpower it would be empathy. It takes a lot out of me to sit with someone through their pain. To be present and hold them in that space. That’s the job of a good social worker. To offer the non-judgemental support and advocacy. I’ve been telling people’s stories through court reports, case files, and hospital notes, always with the conviction to get the person what they need.
TBD: How long does it take you to write a book?
KF: Too darn long. I am a painfully slow writer and an even slower editor/reviser. I can’t plot a book at the beginning. I have some vague idea of what will happen. Mostly, I have a clear idea of who these characters are. I just let them play on the page. I end up deleting many, many wonderfully written pages that are absolutely useless.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers? For romance writers?
KF: A good story has terrible conflict. You can’t be afraid to put your characters through hell. They should be at the place where everything is hopeless. It’s really hard to go there. None of us want to think about being hopeless. But that’s the desperation the characters need to feel. Otherwise, the story isn’t compelling.
Author Kate Forest has worked in a psychiatric hospital, as a dating coach, and spent a disastrous summer selling above-ground swimming pools. But it was her over 20-year career as a social worker that compelled her to write love stories with characters you don’t typically get to read about. She lives in Philadelphia with her husband, two kids, and a fierce corgi. Learn more at kateforestbooks.com.
We first met Joan Garry through Susan Weinberg, the publisher of Perseus Books Group. Joan was whip smart, pistol sharp, savvy, funny, altogether awesome, and shockingly humble. We would never have guessed that she is a top dog when it comes to consulting with nonprofits. And her website is of-the-charts excellent. It almost didn’t matter what her book was, we knew she had the goods necessary for success. Now that her book Joan Garry’s Guide to Nonprofit Leadership is out, we wanted to pick her brain about books, writing, and nonprofits.
The Book Doctors: There are other books on the subject of nonprofit management. Without an apparent hole in the market, how did you distinguish your book from what was already out there?
Joan Garry: You’re absolutely right – there are plenty of books about nonprofit management, but none that focus on what I call “shared leadership,” which is a challenge and opportunity quite unique to nonprofits.
What I mean is, there are books written for staff executives and resources galore for board leaders. But the reality is neither can be effective without the other. Nobody else has written about them as co-pilots of the same jet. If we don’t treat board chairs like they are in the cockpit, they won’t lead. This book is written for nonprofit leaders – the paid AND the unpaid.
I also found that a number of important topics were conspicuously absent. For example, storytelling plays an absolutely critical role in successful nonprofit leadership. A nonprofit ambassador who can tell a compelling and emotional story can invite folks to know more and do more. Crisis management is another missing topic. Far too few organizations are ready should a crisis strike.
Finally, I tried to bring a real sense of humor to the book. A lot of the book touches on personal experiences I had as a nonprofit Executive Director, a board leader, a donor, and a volunteer. I just had so many great stories to share and these stories are what make the book unique and fun to read – not just practical, though it is that too.
TBD: One thing about your book that’s different from the others out there is your voice. Why is the voice of your book important? For others writing books based on their business, what advice can you offer about bringing your voice into your book?
JG: I’m lucky. I write the way I speak and so folks say reading my work is like hearing me chat with them. My voice is informed by having played every position on the nonprofit field, so I have stood firmly in the shoes of my readers. I have personally experienced many of the same issues and concerns they have – good and bad.
Most nonprofit leadership books tend to be pretty clinical and instructive. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but that’s not the book I wanted to write. I wanted to demonstrate the joy that the best leaders bring to their work. And it’s a short ride from joy to humor. And there’s plenty of humor in my book. I just think that makes it a lot more fun to read, which ultimately makes it easier to absorb the material.
TBD: You have an incredible team that works with you. How did this team help you get your proposal, book, and your marketing done? Why is it important to have a team?
JG: Some people have a family business – I call mine a ‘chosen family business’ – a small team of colleagues who are smart and dedicated to the work we do. Each of us is clear that we are advocates for the success of nonprofit leaders and we always keep our eye on what we believe would be most helpful to the folks we serve – staff and board leaders. We each brought something different to the development of the book proposal to chapter editing to marketing the book. The brand, the audience, the strategy to reach that particular audience, the content. Each of us were advocates in each of these areas. There’s no way I could have done all this by myself.
TBD: When we first met you, we were really struck by your website. We’ve continued to be so impressed by all your social media — particularly your newsletters. How did you develop your digital platform? What are some things that have worked, and what are some things that haven’t?
JG: I started to build my digital platform in late 2012. One of the best business decisions I ever made was hiring my digital strategist, Scott Paley at Abstract Edge. When I first reached out to him, based on a recommendation I got from somebody else who had worked with his company, I told him I needed a new website for my consulting business. That’s all I thought I needed. What did I know? In our very first conversation, he gave me a vision for what could be – a much bigger vision that I had imagined.
That conversation ultimately led to my blog, my social media, my podcast, my gig as a panelist on NBC’s Give (the first network TV reality show about nonprofits), my upcoming online education platform, and even the opportunity to have a major publisher interested in publishing my book. Now, whenever I write something online, tens of thousands of people read it! Not surprisingly, my consulting practice completely took off. It’s just amazing.
The biggest thing about this platform is that I just focus on helping people. I recently had Adam Grant on the podcast. He’s the author of a best selling book that’s all about “givers” and “takers”. His philosophy has been a big influence. Everything I do online is about giving. I never worry that I’m giving away too much. I really think that’s been the secret.
Most of what we’ve tried has worked very well. The one exception was a couple years ago we built an area on my website called “The Couch.” It was a place where nonprofit people could anonymously vent about their frustrations and others could sympathize. After a couple of months, we realized that it was too negative and we shut it down. But I don’t view that as a failure at all. It taught us a lot about what “Joan Garry” stands for as a brand and how important it is for all of our media to be on brand.
TBD: What did you find challenging about turning your business into a book?
JG: So much of what I do with my clients is teach. I’m an educator. I think writing the book was easier for me because of that and because of how much I’ve already written on my blog. The blog is a place where I can formulate my ideas and get them down in writing and get feedback from literally thousands of people who understand exactly what I’m writing about. The blog is an amazing crucible for me in that sense and the outcome of all that thinking and all that feedback is this book. Without that, it certainly would have been much more challenging to write.
TBD: Did you find that writing a book helped you with your business?
JG: I’ll let you know in about 6-9 months. J
But I will say that the process of writing the book has helped me to organize some of what I teach my clients in new ways I hadn’t previously considered. So in that sense, absolutely it has helped.
TBD: Your book is officially published on March 6, but you’ve been so successful in garnering pre-orders. Can you tell us a little bit about how you did this?
JG: Largely this was also the work of Scott, my digital strategist, and his team at Abstract Edge. They created a gorgeous website for the book (www.nonprofitsaremessy.com), but more importantly they put together a plan that really leveraged the audience we’ve built up over the last 4 years.
We’re offering valuable book bonuses for pre-orders. We developed a really smart rollout strategy that includes the blog, the podcast, my email list, and social media. We organized a volunteer “launch team” to help spread the word. Created a Thunderclap, which will help spread the word even further on launch day. We’ve given copies of the book to some well-known folks in the nonprofit world who are saying lovely things about it and telling their networks. All of that has led to a much larger volume of pre-sales than the publisher was initially anticipating.
I’ve been absolutely thrilled by the response.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?
- Make sure you have something unique to say and can say it in a way that sticks.
- Be absolutely clear about who you are speaking to and be as specific as possible. You have to really understand your readers’ concerns and issues.
- Be passionate about ensuring that the maximum number of those people have the opportunity to buy it. And be ready to invest time, energy and money in reaching them.
Widely known as the “Dear Abby” of nonprofit leadership, Joan Garry works with nonprofit CEOs and boards as a strategic advisor, crisis manager, change agent and strategic planner. Her nonprofit blog at joangarry.com reaches leaders in over 150 countries and she hosts a top nonprofit podcast on iTunes: Nonprofits Are Messy. Joan also teaches at the University of Pennsylvania with a focus on nonprofit communications and leadership.
Jackson Michael on Publishing his Book, Getting his Radio Show, Making his Documentary, and the Houston Oilers
We first met Jackson Michael when he pitched a book to us at the Texas Book Festival in Austin. At that time he was just a guy with a dream and a proposal. Now he is the proud author of The Game Before the Money, a fantastic book about his passion. He has parlayed that success into a radio show and a documentary film. So we picked his brain on how the heck he did it.
The Book Doctors: Please describe your documentary project, and tell us what inspired it.
Jackson Michael: We Were the Oilers: The Luv Ya Blue Era reunites and celebrates the Houston Oilers of the late 1970s. The team came within one game of the Super Bowl two years in a row. Player interviews anchor the show, and viewers hear intimate stories of thrills and sorrow from people like Dan Pastorini, Hall of Famer Elvin Bethea, and Billy “White Shoes” Johnson. Earl Campbell tells a great story about Bum Phillips calling him before the NFL Draft.
Ultimately, I wanted to trace the dreams of these once young men and follow their stories through present day. What’s it like to come that close to your life’s dream, knowing you’ll never get another chance later in life?
They say, “Art imitates life,” but sports do likewise. Few teams capture the hope and heartbreak of life like the Luv Ya Blue era Houston Oilers.
TBD: Tell us how you got this monumental project off the ground.
JM: We ended up doing the documentary in four months, which was truly miraculous. My wife, Lisa/11 Productions, needed a video crew for a different project. She found Jeff Power TV Productions, and while Jeff wasn’t right for Lisa’s other project, he was a perfect fit for We Were the Oilers. Things moved quickly and the timing couldn’t have been better.
Jeff reached out to Dan Pastorini, who coincidentally was about to have an event for the Dan Pastorini Charity and Bum Phillips Charities. So, many of the Oilers were going to be in one place at the same time. Our hope was to produce and secure distribution in time for the Super Bowl and the excitement surrounding Houston.
We got a ton of support from Dan, and Debbie Phillips. The Oiler players really liked the idea, and ROOT SPORTS Southwest committed to airing it around the Super Bowl. All of a sudden, we had interviews scheduled and a hard deadline. One of those cases when if something’s meant to happen, it’s meant to happen. We just added our faith, perseverance, and hard work.
TBD: People are so emotional and invested in their teams. Is Houston still with the Oilers?
JM: The relationship between the Oilers and their fans was truly incredible. Fifty thousand fans flooded the Astrodome to greet the team after they lost at Pittsburgh. That’s a special bond between team and city, one that touches the players’ hearts to this day. In one week our Facebook post generated over 1,000 shares alone. The comments from the fans confirmed that deep bond.
Nowadays, there’s an interesting dynamic. Houston has a new team, the Texans, but a substantial number of fans stuck with the Oilers after they moved to Tennessee. You’re almost as likely to see a Titans pennant in your neighbor’s garage as you are to see a J.J. Watt poster. This is especially true in places outside of Houston. Some fans even cheer for both teams.
TBD: We’re curious about your trajectory from being someone who didn’t really know anyone in the professional sports industry to now having a book, radio show, and a documentary about your passion.
JM: People always say, “Follow your passion,” but there isn’t really a roadmap for following it. I met Robert Hurst, the Texas Sports Hall of Fame artist, at a backyard party. Everything started from there, as he introduced me to a few players for The Game Before the Money.
You could say I followed my passion, but really I followed any chance that presented itself. Once the University of Nebraska Press published the book, the radio people looked at me and said, “Hey, this guy wrote a book!” Then, when pitching the documentary, people said, “Hey, this guy wrote a book and hosts a radio show!” Without those foundations, I’m just another guy who rambles about sports history beyond what’s socially acceptable.
In a nutshell, take what you’ve done and parlay that into another project.
TBD: Those Oiler teams were so fun. What do you think made them such crowd pleasers, and why did people fall in love with that team?
JM: A lot of things aligned. The Oilers found success right around the time the “Urban Cowboy” trend gained popularity – and there was Bum Phillips, taking time away from his ranch, standing on the sideline with a cowboy hat and boots. They had Earl Campbell, one of the league’s most exciting rushers since Jim Brown. Dan Pastorini raced cars and briefly dated Farah Fawcett. Billy “White Shoes” Johnson created the NFL’s first touchdown dance, and every kid who scored a schoolyard touchdown imitated it. The Oilers had the type of characters that drove 1970s football.
TBD: What’s it like to interview guys who you grew up watching, in some cases maybe even idolizing?
JM: I always say it’s like having your childhood football cards come to life. And it never gets old. Each and every interview is as special as the first one. It’s an honor and a privilege to do this work.
TBD: How do you think the NFL has changed since those halcyon days?
JM: Well, money is the obvious answer. Free agency increased salaries exponentially. The NFL’s fan base grew enormously since the AFL/NFL merger, and revenues are galaxies beyond what Bud Adams imagined when he founded the Oilers.
Back in the 1970s, even star players lived in middle-class neighborhoods. Almost every player had an off-season job. A friend of mine remembers Oiler Ken Burrough loading furniture into his family’s vehicle. Imagine being an 8-year old kid watching the AFC’s leading receiver loading Dad’s new recliner!
All that aside, football is still football. The game’s cemented into our culture. Although even mediocre players can make millions and franchises are worth over a billion, at the end of the day, we who love football forget that for 3 hours and enjoy the type of drama and excitement that only pro football provides.
TBD: Where is the show going to broadcast, and how can we watch it?
JM: Right now the show is airing on ROOT SPORTS Southwest, and they’ll air it right through Super Bowl 51. It’s great because anybody who’s in Houston for the Super Bowl can likely watch it at the hotel. We’re looking at working with other networks, online streaming, and currently taking pre-orders for the DVDs on The Game Before the Money website.
TBD: How different was it to write a documentary versus writing a book?
JM: Writing a book is a very solitary experience. I worked on the book for a couple of years before a copy editor jumped in.
You have to work with a team in film. That took a little getting used to, because it’s not easy to let go and let somebody else take over creative aspects of your idea. Since we did this on a tight budget, we were resourceful. My background is in music and audio engineering, so I wrote and recorded all the music. That saved us a lot of money right there. We’ve done all of our own promotion and marketing as well. We all wore multiple hats.
The cool part was that Lisa was the executive producer. I think it was Tom Waits who said that working creatively with your wife is like getting to spend the same $20 bill over and over. Lisa created the storyboard, something I’d never encountered in writing a book. I’m like, “You mean we don’t use index cards?”
TBD: We hate to ask, but what advice do you have for people looking to put together a project like this?
JM: Two things: one that I knew beforehand, and one that I learned through the process.
The key to doing any sort of work involving interviews is listening. Allow people to tell you the story. Do your research and have an idea of what the story might be, but also be ready to adjust should you find your storyline was wrong. Your job is to get it right. Be prepared to rewrite your entire script based on what people tell you during interviews, rather than fishing for answers that fit your preconceived notions.
The big lesson learned from doing We Were the Oilers centered around permissions. When writing a book, you can describe logos and photographs all you’d like. You can’t, however, just toss photos and logos into a film by right-clicking on the internet and hitting “Save Image As.”
We were pleasantly surprised at how well received our requests turned out to be. The Titans allowed use of the Oiler logo, and Topps allowed classic football cards to be onscreen. It was a bit intimating making those phone calls as a small-budget production, and we didn’t know if anyone would call us back. People did call back, though, and everyone was friendly and helpful. We made sure that we were “buttoned-up” from a copyright perspective and now we’re on everyone’s radar in a good way.
A true sports geek, Jackson Michael possesses a near encyclopedic knowledge of sports history. The Game Before the Money: Voices of the Men Who Built the NFL is his first book. Michael is the writer/director and music composer for the documentary We Were the Oilers: The Luv Ya Blue! Era, featuring his original song, “Sometimes a Dream (Only Comes True in Your Heart)”. Michael worked for several years with the Austin Daze, as the alternative newspaper’s entertainment writer and music critic. He conducted interviews for Tape Op magazine, the most widely distributed periodical in the field of audio engineering. His music career includes five solo five albums, and he has recorded with Barbara K (Timbuk 3), Kim Deschamps (Cowboy Junkies) and Gregg Rolie (Santana, Journey). A skilled audio engineer, Michael has recorded albums for a number of Texas music acts. He is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and the Maxwell Football Club. Michael lives in New Braunfels, Texas with his wife Lisa and their awesome dog, Indy. Learn more at TheGameBeforeTheMoney.com and JacksonRocks.com.
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.