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 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.
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 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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Phillip Lopate on Worshiping at the Altar of Literature, Mother’s Rage, and the Power of University Presses
Phillip Lopate is one of the smartest guys we know–about books, about words, about literature, and, frankly, about life. So when we found out he had a new memoir coming out called A Mother’s Tale, we thought we’d pick his brain about why words and mothers matter.
The Book Doctors: What were some of your favorite books and authors as a kid, and why?
Phillip Lopate: As a kid, I was drawn to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped, books about Greek mythology, and just about any nonfiction young adult book about baseball. I was not a very selective reader; I read just about everything in my local library. Taste came later.
TBD: How did you become a writer? Can someone actually learn to write, or are some people just born writers?
PL: I initially thought I was not smart enough to become a writer, but experimented with story-writing for my own amusement. I was the editor of my high school and my college literary magazine, which required a certain amount of posing and bluffing. Mostly what I was was a reader. I worshiped at the altar of literature. I do think it helps to have talent, but persistence matters more. Writers are made, not born.
TBD: Why did you choose to work with a university press for this book, which doesn’t seem inherently academic? We’re interested in the change in academic presses over the years and wondered if you could share your observations.
PL: I chose a university press because, frankly, a bunch of commercial presses passed on the manuscript, saying they weren’t sure how to sell it. Then I found out that Ohio State University Press was starting a new nonfiction/essay imprint, and I submitted it to them and they were happy to snap it up. You have to find a publisher who will love your book, whether it’s a trade or academic press. In these days when publishers are under so much pressure to make money, the line between commercial, academic and small independent presses is very thin. Any port in a storm, as they say.
TBD: You wrote, “I was put on earth to understand my mother’s pain I have not gotten very far in the process.” I feel much the same. What did you learn about her pain writing A Mother’s Tale?
PL: I learned a lot about my mother’s range, and her alternation between being very shrewd and self-deluded. As for her pain, some people find tremendous animation in self-pity and rage: there’s not a lot you can do about it.
TBD: Does writing help you understand things you don’t know about yourself, other people, and the world?
PL: Writing certainly helps to understand myself better, as well as other people. I have only to start to explain something I’ve thought or done and I begin to get a whiff of defensiveness and alibi-ing. I just have to talk to myself on the page. Essays are perfect for that kind of back-and-forth, with a drive toward greater honesty.
TBD: I tried to talk with my mother about sex with very little success. What was it like hearing your mom talk about her sexuality?
PL: I cannot say it was much fun as her son hearing my mother talk about her sexuality. But in retrospect, I’m glad for her expressiveness and lack of self-censoring. I think it helped me to become a writer, and to appreciate that things are what they are.
TBD: Family secrets and lies seem to be a universal fact of life. What did you find out about yours?
PL: There is no getting around family secrets: every family has them. I learned a little more about my mother’s affairs and how my father responded to them. I also learned how my mother fit into her historical period, how she reacted to the big public events of the day.
TBD: Your mother seems to be such a larger-than-life character. How did her melodrama affect your personality development?
PL: My mother’s melodramatic temperament pushed me in the opposite direction: I became skeptical of Drama, and a bit clinical and detached. A spectator, in effect, with an aversion to tantrums.
TBD: How would you characterize the book’s genre?
PL: I would say it’s like a play, a dialogue between my mother and my younger self, with my present, older self commenting and kibbitzing.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?
PL: Read a ton, and put in a thousand hours at your desk. Don’t get discouraged by what nay-sayers tell you. You’ll know when you’ve hit pay dirt.
Phillip Lopate is a central figure in the resurgence of the American essay, both through his best-selling anthology The Art of the Personal Essay and his collections Bachelorhood, Against Joie de Vivre, Portrait of My Body, Portrait Inside My Head and To Show and to Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction. He directs the nonfiction MFA program at Columbia University, where he is Professor of Writing.
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.
We’ve said it before, and will say it again: if you are writing for kids, or reading for kids, or ever were a kid yourself, it behooves you to be a member of the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). That’s where we met Josh Funk. Until recently, he was in charge of the annual conference, so we got to know him in an intimate yet thoroughly professional way. Josh is a bundle of creativity, imagination and good fun. And since his new book The Case of the Stinky Stench is out, we picked his brain about kids and books, and the strange and wonderful intersection of those two things.
The Book Doctors: Welcome back!
Josh Funk: Thank you so much for inviting me back, Arielle and David!
TBD: What books are you currently reading, and why?
JF: If it’s okay with you, I’m gonna answer the ‘why’ first. I recently returned home from a two-week tour celebrating The Case of the Stinky Stench, during which I went to 19 schools, a couple of public libraries, and over a dozen bookstores. Because of that, most of what I’m reading is based on bookseller recommendations – and I couldn’t have made a better decision to go that route. Booksellers know their stuff! So here’s what I’ve got:
Out of Wonder by Kwame Alexander with Chris Colderly and Marjory Wentworth, illustrated by Ekua Holmes – this one is so good, I often read a few of the poems contained within this book during my events (usually “How to Write a Poem,” “For Our Children’s Children,” and “Spin a Song”).
7 Ate 9 by Tara Lazar, illustrated by Ross MacDonald – to me, this is a perfect picture book. It’s overflowing with cleverness, exactly my kind of humor, gorgeous illustrations, a well-crafted story, and frankly, a solution I didn’t see coming (but I’ll bet some clever kids could figure it out). With six stellar picture books under her belt, Lazar is one of my favorite picture book authors today.
Stack the Cats by Susie Ghahremani – this book makes me chuckle on every page. I bought it for my 8-month old niece, and almost kept it for myself. Absurdist humor at its best. And a counting book (as a software engineer, I do love numbers!).
Timmy Failure #6: The Cat Stole My Pants by Stephan Pastis – this series is fantastic! I’ve read each book aloud with my kids and there are at least 2 or 3 times during each book when I have to stop cause I’m laughing so hard (it was Speedo Steve this time). I can’t wait for the movie!
The Gardener by Sarah Stewart, illustrated by David Small – so this has been one of my favorite books for a long time (one of four books that I credit with making me want to be a writer). But while at Bookbug in Kalamazoo, Michigan, about 5 minutes prior to my event, the proprietor of the store came over to me and whispered, “That’s Sarah Stewart and David Small.” Long-story-short…ish – they’re regulars and it was just a coincidence they showed up. Nevertheless, I shared my love of The Gardener with them, at which point Sarah asked me why I felt so strongly about the book. I gave her my reasons and she responded with a hug. Then they signed a copy for me and posed for a picture. Needless to say I was giddy with excitement during the event.
Some other books I bought based on bookseller recommendation (but haven’t gotten to read yet) are:
- Real Friends by Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham
- The Lost Island of Tamarind by Nadia Agular
- Bull by David Elliott
- Goodbye, Columbus by Philip Roth
- Red Rising by Pierce Brown
- The Highest Mountain of Books in the World by Rocio Bonilla
- King of the Bench: No Fear by Steve Moore
TBD: If we’re not mistaken, this is your last year running the fabulous New England SCBWI Conference. What have you learned from all this, and are you ready to pass out?
JF: I was co-director of the New England Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) Regional Spring Conference in 2016 and 2017 – and yes, my duties are now complete. It’s been an incredible experience working with my co-directors Heather Kelly, Sera Rivers, and Marilyn Salerno.
The NESCBWI Conference is a three-day conference (Fri-Sun) that takes place annually in Springfield, MA in late April / early May. This year we had over 700 attendees for the first time ever (to be fair, last year was 699, this year was 703). Planning duties have included:
- Selecting and scheduling 100+ hours of breakout workshops led by about 75-100 faculty members (each year we get well over 300 workshop proposals)
- Arranging 3-4 keynote speakers and another 3-4 keynote panels
- Organizing bonus activities like our Portfolio Showcase, Illustration Challenge, and evening activities
- Arranging professional critique opportunities with over two dozen literary agents, editors, and art directors
- Countless (but necessary) logistical arrangements with online registration databases, convention/hotel/AV staff, travel-related activities, and delegation of duties to over 100 volunteers
- And probably a lot more that I’ve already forgotten
Everything went swimmingly.
Did a New York City subway power outage cause the charter bus carrying most of the agents and editors to arrive with only minutes to spare before critiques began? Of course it did!
Did it matter that the hotel overbooked conference attendees by 14 rooms? Absolutely not!
What have I learned? Two things:
- Relax, it will always work out.
- I never want to become an event planner.
I probably would have passed out for a month … but due to the unpredictable schedules of publishing, my aforementioned book tour for The Case of the Stinky Stench started just six days later!
TBD: Tell us about The Case of the Stinky Stench. Everyone wants to know, why is the stench so stinky?
JF: Have you ever opened the fridge and smelled something funny? Have you followed that up by taking out every item until you’ve found the stinky culprit, only to find that it wasn’t the obvious ‘spoiled cheese’ or ‘rancid meat’ – but it was the last thing you’d have suspected? Who knew an innocent zucchini would turn that color? Or so that’s what happens when you put mushrooms next to mustard! (That’ll teach me to organize my fridge alphabetically.)
Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast was a race for the last drop of syrup. In this sequel, I wanted to keep the setting and characters, but change up the genre. Maybe if there’s a third one it’ll be an action-spy-thriller (wink-wink).
In The Case of the Stinky Stench, Inspector Croissant (Sir French Toast’s nephew) joins the team and they travel through the fridge chasing suspect after suspect. Is it Baron von Waffle in his evil lair (Onion Ring Cave)? Could it be a fetid fish in Corn Chowder Lake – or is the fish a literal red herring? I won’t ‘spoil’ the ending for you (but I’ll give you a hint – it is spoiled food).
TBD: How did you manage to make Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast such a great success?
JF: Thanks for the kind words about Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast, but I really can’t take credit for most of the success that it’s had.
First off, it has incredible illustrations (thanks, Brendan Kearney) and the Sterling Art Department put together a fantastic cover design. When the art started making its way around the Sterling offices, it got the Marketing and Publicity teams excited enough to create a big promotional push – they even made tote bags to give out at BookExpo! All that helped the Sterling Sales Reps get the book into stores big and small across the country.
And let’s face it, I had absolutely no control over everything in the previous paragraph.
But I did what I could. I created a book trailer:
Yes, that’s me singing (I created the whole trailer on my iPhone using the GarageBand app and iMovie).
I spend a lot of time on Twitter @joshfunkbooks sharing writing tips, educators’ blogs, other people’s good news, and generally putting out positive vibes in the kidlit world.
I attended many other author events in the years leading up to Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast’s publication. Not only did I learn a lot about what makes great events, but I met lots of authors, educators, and booksellers in the process.
I’ve tried to give back to the writing community. I co-directed the NESCBWI 2016 and 2017 Regional Conferences. I’m on the board of The Writers’ Loft in Sherborn, MA (if you’re in New England and you haven’t been – you MUST visit). I even created a 12-Step Guide to Writing Picture Books on my website – it’s basically a high level brain dump of everything I’ve learned about writing since I started.
But I think more than anything, what’s made Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast a success is the readers. Enthusiastic booksellers across the country who handsell it daily, like those at The Novel Neighbor in St. Louis and Octavia Books in New Orleans. Teachers and librarians who exuberantly share it with their students. And folks like you, The Book Doctors, who invite me to chat about it here.
TBD: How did studying computer science help (or hinder) you as a writer?
JF: I’d like you to imagine (because it’s true) that I’ve been sitting at my computer thinking about this for a very, very long time. I typed a few paragraphs, and then deleted them (because they don’t really answer the question OR have a point). I thought some more, typed some more, and deleted some more. Lather, rinse, repeat. Ultimately, the answer to your question is as follows:
I don’t think it’s helped or hindered me as a writer. I’ve been a software engineer for almost two decades. And I enjoy the day job. It’s possible that I’d had a lot of creativity bottled up over that time which is finally spilling out at a rate faster than one might expect.
So maybe the answer is that at first studying computer science hindered me as a writer, but now it’s helping? I guess it’s a wash. (Ha! Lather, rinse, repeat!)
TBD: How did you come up with all the cool extra stuff for kids: activity kits, character cards, etc.?
JF: Once again, the activity kits were all thanks to my publishers and illustrators. For Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast and The Case of the Stinky Stench, Sterling’s Marketing and Publicity (and probably Art and Design) teams put them together. They’re incredible! Coloring pages, word searches, mazes, crosswords, and a whole bunch of other stuff – all free to download and print from my website on my ‘Stuff for Kids’ page!
As far as the character cards, I was just about to order some bookmarks back in the summer of 2015 when I saw the option of ordering Collector’s Cards. At this point I realized two things:
- I write picture books, which rarely require bookmarks.
- Collector’s cards can easily be used as bookmarks.
So I began designing collector’s cards. And I had a lot of fun with that! For Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast, I made one for each of the main characters. I made six different ones for Pirasaurs! (thanks to Michael Slack for his help designing those), and I made three more for The Case of the Stinky Stench.
I even made an online quiz to determine Which Pirasaur Are You?! – I’m Bronto Beard, in case you were wondering.
TBD: What are you working on next?
JF: It’s interesting that you ask! I just spent a few hours revising [REDACTED] based on my editor’s comments. As you know, I’m very interested in the topic of [REDACTED]. And I’m excited to dive into [REDACTED], that’s gonna be fun to work on. I’ve seen some of [REDACTED]’s illustrations and they’re perfect.
In the near term, I’ve got a book called It’s Not Jack and the Beanstalk coming out this fall (9.19.17), illustrated by Edwardian Taylor. It’s not just a fractured-fairy-tale – it’s a META-fractured-fairy-tale – one where Jack doesn’t want to do what the reader tells him to do. Trade his cow for five beans? That’s a terrible idea! Climb the beanstalk? But there’s probably a giant up there! This one will make for a hilarious reader’s theater – and it’s my first picture book that isn’t in rhyme. If you don’t follow Edwardian Taylor on Instagram, you’re missing out. He is an incredible character designer.
Then, in 2018 I’ve got at least two more books coming out. In the spring, it’s Albie Newton (about a genius’s attempt to make friends on his first day of school – and his classmate’s ability to accept his ‘quirks’). This one is illustrated by Ester Garay – and everything I’ve seen so far is beyond adorable!
Then, Lost in the Library: A Story of Patience and Fortitude is the first picture book in Macmillan’s partnership with the New York Public Library – and I got to write the story of the two lion statues (Patience and Fortitude) that guard the steps on 5th Avenue. When Patience goes missing, Fortitude must search the entire library to find him! I’d already been a fan of Stevie Lewis’ art, and when they told me she had signed on to illustrate, I couldn’t have been more thrilled.
And yes, both Albie Newton and Lost in the Library are in rhyme.
TBD: How did you come up with your very entertaining live show? What have you observed that writers who present well do in common?
JF: Attending all of those author events before I released a book certainly paid off! I ‘spied’ on so many different author presentations! I learned what worked well with different ages and audience attention spans. And I definitely learned a thing or twelve from amazing performances by the likes of Ame Dyckman, Kate Messner, Tara Lazar, Bob Shea, Anna Staniszewski, Lynda Mullaly Hunt, Jarrett J. Krosoczka, and many others kidlit stars.
But it really comes down to one thing: know your audience. I’m reading to kids ages 0-10(ish) and their caregivers. I’ve got to be entertaining and enthusiastic for those two groups.
Not all crowds are the same. Some jokes work better in one situation vs another. But I always try to have fun – and I hope that’s what lasts in the minds of the readers.
TBD: Why is Twitter your social media platform of choice?
JF: Twitter is a great way to interact with readers. I’ve become e-friends with many educators, booksellers, writers, illustrators, and booklovers of all sorts on Twitter. And in many cases I’ve ended up getting to hang out with these folks in real life because of Twitter. I schedule most of my classroom Skype visits with teachers and librarians in Twitter chats. Sometimes teachers tweet me questions on their students’ behalf.
I’ve even attended several conferences that stemmed from Twitter relationships. This summer, I’ll be attending my third nErDcampMI, a national literacy conference for educators started by the founders of the Nerdy Book Club. The Nerdy Book Club is blog with daily guest posts (mostly by educators and authors), but it is also an unofficial ‘club’ that is open to anyone who loves books (especially those written for children). These nErDcamps are popping up everywhere (New England, Long Island, Kansas, New Jersey, Pacific Northwest, soon in North Carolina) – and they’re an amazing place to for educators to connect with each other and with book creators.
Just like most of the kidlit world, the kidlit Twitter environment is incredibly welcoming and supportive.
TBD: We hate to ask this, but what advice do you have for writers?
Outside of that, my best piece of advice is to keep writing new things – especially when writing picture books. This is for a couple reasons:
- The first story you write is unlikely to be the one that sells. Get it critiqued. Revise it. It’ll be a great learning experience. But don’t revise it to death. Take what you learn from writing that first story and write another.
- A literary agent will want at least 3-4 picture book manuscripts they think they can sell right now before they’ll sign you – which means you probably need 6-8 that YOU think are complete.
The more you write, the better writer you’ll become. Just like I tell students during school visits – it’s like playing sports and instruments – the more you practice, the better you get. The stories I’m writing today are better than the ones I wrote two years ago, which are better than the ones I wrote two years before that (at least I think so).
So keep writing!
Thanks again for having me! I wish you a wonderful summer of reading!
Josh Funk writes silly stories and somehow tricks people into publishing them as picture books – such as Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast and its sequel The Case of the Stinky Stench along with Pirasaurs!, Dear Dragon, It’s Not Jack and the Beanstalk, Albie Newton, Lost in the Library, and more coming soon! Josh is a board member of The Writers’ Loft in Sherborn, MA and was the co-coordinator of the 2016 and 2017 New England Regional SCBWI Conferences. Josh grew up in New England and studied Computer Science in school. Today, he still lives in New England and when not writing Java code or Python scripts, he drinks Java coffee and writes picture book manuscripts.
Josh is terrible at writing bios, so please help fill in the blanks. Josh enjoys _______ during ________ and has always loved __________. He has played ____________ since age __ and his biggest fear in life is being eaten by a __________.
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We recently attended the annual New England Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Regional Conference in Springfield, Massachusetts, and one of the things we love about that conference specifically, and great writers conferences in general, is getting to sit in on lectures and talks by people we don’t know, but should know. One of those people is Dana Meachen Rau. David happened to stumble into her class and ended up learning so much about how to create memorable and complex characters, how inanimate objects can be used to help communicate the emotional state of our characters, and so much more. Now that the dust has settled on that conference, we thought we would pick her brain about books, writing, and all that jazz.
The Book Doctors: How did you become interested in writing and drawing as a kid? What were your early inspirations and why?
Dana Meachen Rau: Truly, I don’t remember how it all started. My parents always encouraged my early attempts at writing and drawing. Creative expression is empowering, especially to a little kid. I do remember a lot of play. I had a brother who was always a willing participant—he’s blind, and together we invented whole worlds that neither of us could see, but that felt completely real. Instead of a sandbox in the backyard, we had a dirt hole, where we planned to dig a tunnel to a multiple-room clubhouse. (Imagine a time before apps when kids played in dirt holes!) The clubhouse never happened, of course, but that didn’t seem to matter.
As a reader, I didn’t devour every shelf of the library. Instead, I had a few well-worn books that I read countless times—Charlotte’s Web, Encyclopedia Brown, and my absolute favorite and forever inspiration, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. When I reread it recently, I tried to pinpoint what drew me in so passionately as a kid. It must have been the visuals, the silly language, and the underlying creepiness. It was subversively magical.
TBD: How did you get a job editing children’s books, and what did you learn from this that you could apply to your own writing?
DMR: After college, I wanted a job with a tangible end product, and that led me to publishing. Luckily, instead of having to move to big and scary NYC, I landed a job at a small children’s publisher in Connecticut—and I mean small. I was the only member of their editorial department, so I communicated with a bunch of freelancers—authors, illustrators, editors, consultants, designers. It was a crash course in children’s publishing. I moved on to Children’s Press, where I edited early readers and school-and-library nonfiction until my son was born and I began freelancing.
My editorial work laid the groundwork for my writing career in ways I didn’t anticipate. It taught me the value of feedback and revision. I can self-edit while the manuscript is in my hands, but I can also let it go to all the fresh eyes that have a stake in the process. Everyone wants it to be the best it can be.
TBD: Do you think it’s important to write every day?
DMR: I suffer from journal envy. Many writer friends pour out their thoughts onto pages daily, and I’ve tried to be like them. But all I have to show for my efforts is a pile of journals with “Finally, I’m going to start writing a journal!” scrawled on the first pages followed by a bunch of empty ones. I just can’t make it happen.
But it is important to write every day, and I do in some form. Often, it’s related to my current project. But sometimes it’s a lesson plan, a random idea for the future, a quick poem, or even an email. The purpose of all writing is to effectively communicate an idea or image. That’s an important skill to practice. That’s what writing every day is…practice.
Even if I don’t have hours or even minutes to work on my latest project, at least I’ve been maintaining my writing skills. Then muscle memory kicks in when I have more extended time to write.
TBD: How did you become a writing teacher, and what effect has that had on you as a writer?
DMR: I developed a 10-week creative writing class for the Warner Theatre Center for Arts Education (Torrington, CT), to hone in on the basics of creative writing. I tested out writing exercises (some sane, some wacky). It was a chance to experiment. I realized I craved an extended relationship with students, so I sent out my resume to local colleges. When the University of Hartford needed an adjunct to fill out their Fall 2016 schedule, I jumped at the chance.
I teach rhetoric, the art of persuasive writing and speaking, and while it might not seem to apply to creative writing, it has most definitely fed my work. I keep persuasion in mind every time I draft a scene between two characters who are manipulating each other. I think of rhetoric when trying how to sway a reader toward a certain understanding. The intentionality of each word choice applies to both rhetoric and creative writing.
I’m still trying to find that perfect balance, though, between teaching and writing. My current work-in-progress novel has been pushed to the back burner while I navigate my way as a professor. But the benefit of the back burner is that the story is still stewing. Because time is more precious, my chances to write have become a treat to look forward to. When I do have time to write, I’m amped up, eager, and ready to dive in.
TBD: What’s it like writing books for the wildly popular Who Is (Was) … series? And why are their heads so big?
DMR: Out of the blue in 2013, I got a call from the Who Was editor. She had been reading a biography I had written more than a decade before, and thought my voice would be a good fit. Since then, I’ve written six books for the series, with another one waiting on my desk.
Who Was has been one of the most fun series I’ve ever worked on. The process starts with full immersion. I surrounded myself with research, absorb it, map out a plan, and get writing. I don’t work linearly—each manuscript is like a sculpture. First I build the armature, then I slop on lumps of clay. I mold here, shape there, take bits away, add elsewhere. Each book has its own process and personality. Eventually it all comes together under the helpful guidance of my astute and savvy editor, Paula Manzanero.
The best part of writing this series, though, is the reaction from kids. They love those big heads! All the covers (more than 150!) were illustrated by Nancy Harrison, but the idea for the big heads (and for the series) came from editor Jane O’Connor. She says the big heads were inspired by the caricatures that used to appear on the cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review. She thought they would have fantastic kid-appeal.
She was right. When I visit schools, the kids can’t hide their excitement over what they call the “Bobble-Head Bios.” Almost everyone has read at least one, some kids collect them, and they all have their favorites.
TBD: Tell us about your road to publication and how you navigate the stormy seas of the book business. And how in God’s name does one person write 340 books?
DMR: As I mentioned above, I started my career as an editor, and my first few books were for the companies I worked for. When I went freelance, I continued writing for them and for other school and library publishers. Books for the school and library market are often work-for-hire assignments, so my “day job” for the next 15-ish years involved taking on as many assignments as I could to earn a steady income (thus so many books!). I wrote for a variety of age levels on all sorts of topics—roller coasters, cupcakes, sneakers, ladybugs, aliens, suffrage, rocks and minerals, robots, planets, brains, sandcastles, rock climbing. You name it, it’s very possible I’ve written a book about it! Meanwhile, I was also working on picture books and middle grade novels, submitting them to publishers, and marking off rejections on my spreadsheets. So, while I passed the 300 mark for published books, I also passed the 300 mark for rejection letters. (It’s all part of the process for authors writing and submitting over so many years!)
In 2013, I got the itch to become a student again, so I enrolled at Vermont College of Fine Arts to get my MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults. Coming out of that program, I secured an agent, who’s currently marketing a middle grade and a picture book while I work on a YA novel.
Through the years, no matter what the project, I grew as an author. I’ve also realized that there isn’t, nor should there ever be, a point of “arrival.” It’s healthy to give yourself goals along the way, but success is more about the development, patience, and perseverance of the journey.
TBD: What is an objective correlative, and why is it so important?
DMR: I first learned the term objective correlative in graduate school from author Tim Wynn-Jones, and it sounded so academic and important. But it’s quite a simple concept, at least how I interpret it—an author can use an object (setting or event) to correlate to an emotion. In other words, you don’t have to name an emotion to communicate it to readers, you can show it through sensory description. Suzy doesn’t have to say she feels neglected. Instead, Suzy can be looking at a dying, cobwebbed-covered plant on the windowsill that never gets any sun. That says neglected more than the word “neglected” ever could. The plant becomes shorthand for the emotion, so when the plant is reprised in the story, we feel “neglect” again. And then, if that same plant is thriving and blooming by the end, we feel the significance of that change, too.
TBD: How do you inject emotion into characters in a book?
DMR: For me, it all comes down to empathy—getting the reader to feel the same feelings as your character. I think of emotion as the engine of the story. A character’s wants and desires will drive what the character does (action/plot), what the character sees (setting), what the character says (dialogue), and what the character remembers (flashback). Everything in a story has to be in service to the emotions.
To get readers to empathize with characters, the author has to empathize with his or her characters, too. If you can tap into your own authentic, vulnerable, core emotions when writing, then those emotions will show up on the page and transfer to the core of your reader.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?
DMR: This is a great question! Lord knows I’ve needed all the writerly advice I could get my hands on through the years.
Write what scares you…We often say we want to be bold and brave, but that’s not possible without fear. If you don’t think you’re a poet, write a poem. If you don’t think you could ever write YA, try it. You have nothing to lose, but everything to gain. You’ll most likely surprise yourself by easily conquering what you thought impossible.
Find a community… Often the people in your immediate circle (spouse, kids, family, every day friends) don’t understand the writer part of you. You need to find a team. Teams have teammates, of course, who understand the game. But they also have cheerleaders to spur you on and coaches who offer advice to help you become the best version of yourself. Join a critique group, join the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, find your people.
Give yourself permission to play…for so long I thought I needed to be efficient with my writing time. But when I experiment, I create an unexpected (and better) result. Turn off the side of your brain that tells you your writing must have a purpose (and even worse, that it has to be good!). In other words, dig in the dirt hole. You never know what you’ll discover.
Dana Meachen Rau is the author of more than 340 books for children and young adults, including early readers, biographies, history, science, cookbooks, and craft books. Her most recent titles include Who Was Cesar Chavez? and Who Are the Rolling Stones? A graduate of Trinity College in Hartford CT, and Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier, VT, she currently teaches writing at the University of Hartford. To find out more about her books and her blog, visit www.danameachenrau.com.
I work with Rosa Daneshvar, a wonderful writer who’s writing a novel about emigrating from the Middle East. My parents are immigrants, so I’m first-generation, and I’m fascinated by how the experience of coming to America has changed over time. We were talking about what’s happened to her, as this administration tries to ban Muslims, and I was horrified by what she told me. So I picked her brain about what it’s like living in the United States right now when your faith is under attack.
The Book Doctors: So, Rosa, where are you from in the Middle East, and how have President Trumps actions affected you personally?
Rosa Daneshvar: I am a Muslim from Iran. Never in my thirteen years of life in the States had I felt such a feeling of terror. It started the day after President Trump’s executive order came out– when my sister’s frantic back-to-back phone calls deprived me of my lazy slumber on that Saturday morning – when I opened my eyes to dozens of messages exchanged between my brother in Canada, my sister in Washington, my father in Michigan, and my youngest sister in Iran. They all wanted me to confirm the news that there was a travel ban and deportations.
TBD: That sounds terrifying, what happened next?
RD: In the brief moment that it took me to get from my bed to my computer, my naïve, half-sleep, half-dazed self was confident that it couldn’t be true. I was assured that my family had been carried away with false news. Because it was preposterous. Then I found myself staring at the news in disbelief. It couldn’t be. I searched for more information but I found none.
TBD: What did you do?
RD: My first impulse was to write a post on Facebook to see if my Iranian friends could give me more information. I wrote: “My mom is a green-card holder and visiting home for two months. Does the executive order mean she cannot come back to the US? Has anyone had any news on this?”
Then I sank into my chair. A terrible sense of despair overwhelmed me. Gradually I realized the depth of problem my family was in. My mom only had enough money for her two-month stay, during which she was going to take care of my 79-year-old aunt after her knee surgery. With the financial exchange sanctions on Iran, we were not going to be able to send her money to live on until we figured out how she could come back. Mom herself had had knee surgery two months ago. What if she had a complication and needed to see her doctor? How could Mom live in a suitcase in my aunt’s small two-bedroom apartment indefinitely?
TBD: We were able to contact anybody back home?
RD: Yes, I called home to inquire from my youngest sister about my mom’s reaction. As soon as her image loaded on the screen, I recognized those colorful tiles of my aunt’s bathroom. My sister had locked herself up in there to cry freely without worrying others. I asked if she was worried about herself. I told her there was no news about American citizens. She said she was sick with worry about Mom.
TBD: It must be so challenging to live with this every day. What’s that like?
RD: There is profound fear, uncertainty, and confusion, just like it’s always bubbling just below the surface. My family and I have spent countless hours searching the news, checking social media, and calling government agencies and lawyers to see if our mom would be able to come back. It’s exhausting, and very stressful.
TBD: The headlines just seem to feed fears. But the media doesn’t seem interested in filling in the blanks behind the hysteria, to get to the real stories of how people are being affected.
RD: Absolutely. “Muslim ban.” “Making the country safe.” “Securing our borders.” None of the headlines was a satisfying explanation of what was unfolding before us. There was a huge gap of missing information. I wanted to fill that gap because I knew it well. It was only a few years ago that I was in the shoes of those who were impacted by the executive order. I kept wondering why were the people who were among the most educated and progressive demography of my hometown targeted as a potential threat? Perhaps the extreme vetting that visa applicants had already gone through, not to mention multiple costly and onerous trips to a third country, was not widely understood. Surely people could see the political aspect of the executive order and how it was not about securing the borders or about terrorism but purely a move that was there to serve an agenda. Just as no one would question the desire for secure borders, no one would blame one for wanting a safe country. Yes, all these things were true, but how could I make people see what I saw? How could I take them to the corners and niches of that humongous room that the travel ban was, which everyone stepped into it just a foot and walked out of without seeing all there was to see? In searching for an answer, I found myself not thinking about the people who were going to be immediately sympathetic to what I had to say, but about the people who were going to turn their backs to me, the so-called “White Americans.”
TBD: Well, I am a white American, what do you want to tell me? What do you want to tell us?
RD: So when I say “White American,” I mean the notion of White American, the negative epithet that is currently used to imply certain characteristics and a set of beliefs: a group of people who would turn their backs to me as soon as I say, “Hi, my name is Rosa and I am a Muslim from Iran.”
What diversity in the States had taught me is that too many times my ignorance had opened the door of my perceptions to a manipulative world that wanted to build an imaginary foe in my head, to bundle a group of people together and label them in a negative way. Too often the image I had let others build for me had been proven wrong. I came to this country 13 years ago with a dependent student visa in hand, like many people who, under the executive order, were not allowed to board their flight with that same visa. I landed in Boston, as my then husband was going to start his graduate studies at MIT. Not long after my arrival, in that melting pot, I met someone who for 22 years had been portrayed to me as a detested enemy. When that Israeli student asked me where I was from, a dazed fear overcame me. How was he going to react when I told him I was from Iran? This is how he reacted: he invited us to his home. We met his kind, pregnant wife and their sweet, little daughter. Even then, my shy and intimidated self was nervous about the conversations we were going to have. My Israeli friends were not like how we were back then: timid, quiet, and culturally shocked. They talked about Persian cuisine and the Persian cookbook that they used to cook from back home. They told us about our similarities and about the reminiscences of our countries’ past cultural exchanges. With their kindness and rich cultural maturity, they turned that intimidating night into something that felt like a casual catch-up with a good old friend. Having had that experience and many more, I will not let anyone build a new perception of “White Americans” for me. No one else should accept any type of group labeling.
TBD: It does seem like we fear the thing we don’t know, and often when we’re exposed to another culture we see how similar we are rather than how different.
RD: Yes! Those types of exposures germinated something invaluable in the diffident and international student that I was, something that gradually flourished to become a defining principle of my character: that perceptions are like crafts. They are not authentically yours if others have formed them for you. My Israeli friend and his wife taught me a priceless lesson. They now live in Israel with their beautiful kids. We have stayed in touch. They are my friends.
TBD: How has living in America all these years changed the way you see yourself in the world?
RD: With every change of status, I had an opportunity to see a new facet of the society. I started my own graduate studies in Chemical Engineering and held a student visa, like many student-visa holders who, under the executive order, were sent home. Along with my professional growth, I nurtured the diverse cultural exposure that was an intrinsic part of American society I was living in. Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism were not dry concepts that I would come across in books or news, but an enticing reality of the people who I interacted with daily. Atheism and agnosticism were no longer unfamiliar words in my vocabulary. It was proximity to different religions that helped make happen my long-held desire of attending a church service with my Christian friend. It debunked the “Muslims are not welcome to church” myth. I was fascinated by the merry atmosphere of the service and sense of community.
TBD: What other immigration statuses have you held and how have they impacted your life?
RD: After seven years of residing in the States on a visa, I became a permanent resident, like many individuals who were affected by the executive order. Working became a new reality in my life. My change in status lifted the restraints of a life on a visa, where crossing the borders to visit my family was risking my standing in the States. I did not miss my brother’s wedding like many of my friends. I started working as a scientist in one of the largest biopharmaceutical companies in the world. After years of exposure to this culture, America—that one big entity that had been like one individual with one opinion and personality—started to morph into millions of pieces with countless opinions, ideologies, and beliefs. I learned that there was a red and a blue and that I had lived in the Blue all along and that the Red was something that opposed my opinions and me: a Muslim from Iran.
TBD: Yes, we’ve had lots of difficulties talking about politics as we go on the road to places that seem to be fine with rabid sexism, religious intolerance and racial prejudice.
RD: Exactly. I am guilty of holding prejudice myself. All through my residence in the Blue I remained wary of the Red, even when the hands of destiny made me work alongside one in my team who loved talking about politics. If I was accidentally caught up in political conversation in my conservative colleague’s presence, I was that quiet person who wanted to keep work relationships separate from personal opinions. That did not last long. Now we have walked many walks and talked many talks. I learned, once again, that I had been wrong in assuming one voice and one entity for the Red and that it had as many opinions as it had people. My colleague is the one who said, “You cannot really understand your viewpoint until you can eloquently articulate and defend a viewpoint you disagree with.” Her opposing views challenged me to re-evaluate all that I had thought was right, and separate what I deeply believed in from what I had borrowed from others without scrutiny.
TBD: Being a writer, you know how important the nuance of words and intricacies of vocabulary are to participating successfully in a culture. It seems like that’s one reason people who come to a new country sometimes hide among their own and don’t really attempt to assimilate. Have you found that?
RD: You are absolutely right. After thirteen years, I am not that international student who is forced to a shy corner by the new culture. Only after these many years, worries of making mistakes while speaking in a foreign language do not force me into silence and solitude. I do not immerse myself in the Iranian community to shield myself from the unfamiliar world that I live in. Now I have lived in the States long enough to get half of the cultural references and realize that the Seahawks and the Red Sox are sports teams. I am fluent enough in the language to make myself understood and brave enough to talk and make mistakes and learn from them. And I have learned enough social norms of communication to surround myself with people of different colors and race.
TBD: Didn’t you recently become a citizen?
RD: By pure chance, I took my oath of citizenship two days before President Trump’s inauguration. It’s deeply unfortunate to say that I feel lucky to have taken my oath before the change of administration. It shouldn’t be this way. My sister shouldn’t have halted her wedding plans because her future in-laws cannot attend the wedding due to the travel ban. My parents should not worry about crossing the border to visit my brother in Toronto. My brother shouldn’t be banned from entering the U.S. to see us. Our story is just one of the many thousand stories of people who have been affected by the travel ban.
TBD: Do you feel the acrimonious contentiousness of this recent election has divided people, and unleashed an anger simmering beneath the surface?
RD: I do. The excessively lengthy political race and its side effects have put profoundly disproportional weight on our differences and have instigated unhealthy hate and anger. “Unanimity” and “global agreement” are attractive and elevating notions, but are not meant for a healthy society. One cannot champion diversity and not welcome differences of opinions. It is barbaric to attack an idea or a group when you don’t know what that idea or group is about. At this time when our differences are being magnified by people who are running their own race, and rage is being fanned by people who are playing their own game, it is time for all of us to start a dialogue with each other. It is necessary for us, now more than ever, to eloquently articulate and defend a viewpoint we disagree with. Dialogue is the only means to peace. It is time that we the people have a dialogue, not to change each other’s convictions, since convictions fast changed are short-lived, but to understand each other and challenge our firm, long-held beliefs against reality.
TBD: Do you ever worry that exposure to different religions and cultures will water down your own sense of who you are, what God you worship, what you believe in fundamentally?
RD: Getting to know my Israeli and Christian friends neither converted me to Judaism or Christianity nor turned my Israeli and Christian friends to Islam. My conversation with my Republican colleague did not revolutionize me to take on a new political identity. Those exposures empowered me with knowledge of new realities, and broadened my perspective so much that no biased, agenda-driven media outlet can ever again color for me every Israeli or Jew with the color of their choice. No politician can provoke me to be against other religions. No uninformed entity can wrap my opposing ideas in one box and sell it to me. Deep understanding of the reality of the world we live in is what all of us need.
TBD: As someone who has come to this country and embraced it, what would you like to say to America?
RD: The enduring greatness of this nation has been the result, in her walk through time, of a continuum of right decisions. Let’s continue to take that walk together, not in unanimity but in unity. Let’s make that right decision together, not in complete agreement but with sincere understanding. To my so-called “White American” friends, my name is Rosa. I am a Muslim and I am from Iran. Who are you? What are your concerns?
Rosa Daneshvar was born in Tehran, Iran and moved to the United States for graduate studies in 2004. She now lives in Los Angeles, where she is a Chemical Engineer at the world’s largest independent biopharmaceutical company. Her first novel is Darya Chronicles. Inspired by her own cultural experiences and challenges of living away from home, she tells a story of the turbulent life of an Iranian woman, Darya, who has moved to the States for her graduate studies. Rosa is an avid Western horseback rider and dreams of having her own ranch with horses and cattle. Visit her at: rosadaneshvar.com