We met Val Emmich when he won our Jersey City Pitchapalooza at Word Bookstore. He was so comfortable presenting, he paused in all the right places, and he put the right emphasis on all the right words. And he had a fantastic story. We found out he’s also a very accomplished actor and musician, which explained his ability to present himself. One of the greatest things about being a book doctor is when one of your patients gets a fab book deal with a fantastic publisher. Val did exactly that. So we thought we’d pick his brain about exactly how he managed to add Author to his impressive resume.
The Book Doctors: What were some of your favorite books as a kid, and why? What are you reading currently?
Val Emmich: I have pretty poor recall of my childhood years, which may be surprising coming from someone who just wrote a whole novel about a child with a near-perfect memory. That said, I do remember ripping through as many Hardy Boys books as I could. I also have a vivid recollection of listening to one of my teachers read aloud to our class Charlotte’s Web. I was riveted by it, probably because it’s about animals and I love animals, more than I love people. Right now, I’m reading Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance, a recommendation from my father, and The Nix by Nathan Hill.
TBD: David was also an actor who became a writer of books. How do you think this helped you as you craft a first novel?
VE: Acting is about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. Embodying a character that isn’t you. It requires empathy and observational skills. You keep searching for how to get to the heart of the person you’re trying to portray. You’re looking for a detail that speaks to you. How someone walks. How he got that scar on his chin. How he styles his hair. This is all very similar to the character work necessary for writing a novel. Additionally, the process of reading and breaking down scripts was really instructive, both in terms of understanding the motivation and objective of a given scene and also how stories are structured and paced.
TBD: Tell us about The Reminders.
VE: Joan is ten and she’s got this rare condition where she can recall nearly every day of her life in exact detail. Then there’s Gavin, an actor in his thirties, who’s just lost his partner and soulmate, Sydney. Gavin attempts to rid his life of all reminders of Sydney, hoping it’ll soothe some of his overwhelming pain. But then he learns that Joan possesses detailed memories of Sydney, stories about him that Gavin has never heard, and Gavin has no choice but to dive back into the past. Meanwhile, Joan wants something back from Gavin. She’s the girl who can’t forget, but she’d rather be the girl who can’t be forgotten and she believes that Gavin, a semi-celebrity, might be able to help her achieve that dream.
The idea for the novel first came to me when my daughter fell out of a shopping cart in Home Depot and landed on her head on the concrete floor. Around the same time I saw a piece on 60 Minutes that featured people with this real-life memory condition known as highly superior autobiographical memory (HSAM) and I had this absurd thought: What if my daughter’s bonk on the head resulted in her somehow acquiring this specialized memory? That ridiculous hypothesis, the playfulness of it, set the tone for the whole novel.
TBD: Please describe your path to publication.
VE: The quick version. I wrote one novel. It sucked. I wrote a second novel. It sucked less. I wrote a third novel. It was decent enough to get me an agent. We tore the novel apart, and I built it back up again essentially from scratch. Then my agent sold the book and my editors tore it up and I put it back together yet again. By the time the novel was published, in May of this year, it had been ten years of dedicated writing, along with tons of reading (other novels, how-to books), attending writers conferences and picking the brains of the few writers I had access to who had written books.
TBD: Was it difficult writing in two voices?
VE: Very. The most difficult parts were making sure the voices were both distinct and compelling. The consensus among my earliest readers seemed to be that Joan was the star of the book. I knew I’d never be able to have Gavin outshine her. That’s not his role. Still, I wanted to make sure his sections didn’t feel like a letdown after hers.
I’d listen to different music when writing in each voice. I found songs that seemed to tap into the energy of each character. After listening to the songs over and over, the music began to trigger an almost Pavlovian response in me where I’d immediately enter the head of that specific character. Also, I focused in a boringly technical way on the language used by my two protagonists. I created a detailed spreadsheet that counted the frequency of each word in each section. It showed me a lot about what I was organically doing with each character, and at that point, it was a matter of removing what made the two voices similar and emphasizing what made them different. Eventually, this overt hypersensitivity to vocabulary became second nature and I was able to write fluidly, making Joan and Gavin their own distinct people on the page.
TBD: We notice that you are doing house concerts to promote your book. What exactly are they, and how did you come up with the idea?
VE: It just made sense. The book is partially about music. I’m a musician, songwriter, and performer. I record and release albums. I have music fans. I hoped my music fans would also be interested in reading my book. On top of all that, I’ve been to enough poorly attended author events at bookstores, and even when they’re well attended, they can be boring when it’s just straight-up reading. I wanted to do a hybrid event, some reading, a bit of discussion, plenty of music. I didn’t feel like a bookstore or traditional music venue was going to offer the intimate, casual vibe I had in mind as well as the guarantee of a crowd. I wanted a place where people could relax and stay a while and where I could really forge a personal connection. I reached out to some of my fans and asked if they’d be interested in hosting shows in their homes and inviting all their friends. They said yes.
TBD: How does being a musician and songwriter affect your prose writing?
VE: Prose writing requires an ear, just like songwriting. You need to have a sense of rhythm. Also, with a song (at least with my songs) there’s usually a refrain or leitmotif that emphasizes an important theme or emotion. I try to do the same thing in my writing, sprinkle in timely repetitions to drive home something that I deem significant. But I think the biggest thing I’ve learned from my life in music has to with my understanding of the audience. Over two decades of performing in front of a crowd and engaging online with listener feedback, I’ve learned a lot about how to make people feel something. The goal is the same when writing prose: to trigger a reaction in the reader.
TBD: What are you working on next?
VE: I’ve started writing a new novel. Before I get too deep into it, I plan to record and release new music. Songwriting is more tactile and physical than prose writing. It also takes far less time. I need a more immediate artistic fix right now.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?
VE: Treat it like a real job and remember that even a so-called real job involves plenty of goofing off. Carve out time to write, whatever works for you, thirty minutes, four hours, however long and sit there, even if you’re not actually typing words or producing pages, just sit there. Even when you’re staring at a white page, mind wandering elsewhere, that’s okay. That’s work. Sitting there with that dumb look on your face is part of the job. Do it again the next day. And the next. If you miss a day, no worries. Miss two days? Doesn’t matter. Put yourself in that chair as many times as you can over as long a stretch as you can. If you keep showing up in that chair, over time, enough time, you might have something. Might not, but there’s no other way to do it. If you want it, that’s what’s required: hours. There’s less magic involved than the would-be writer might imagine. At the end of the day, it’s simple math. It’s a whole bunch of hours added up. Start spending them.
Dubbed a “Renaissance Man” by the New York Post, Val Emmich is a writer, singer-songwriter, and actor. He has had recurring roles on Vinyl and Ugly Betty as well as a memorable guest role as Liz Lemon’s coffee-boy fling, Jamie, on 30 Rock. Emmich lives in Jersey City, New Jersey, with his wife and their two children. The Reminders is his first novel.
Susan Wolfe on How to Get a Great Blurb, the Importance of Maternity Leave, and Reading to be a Writer
We first met Susan Wolfe when we taught a workshop at Stanford, where we were the least educated people in the room. We were struck by what a seasoned professional she seemed, even though she was a novice author. She asked all the right questions, she worked her ass off, and it didn’t hurt that she had actual bona fide talent. Her first book was a big success, and now that Escape Velocity, her second novel, is out, we picked her brain about transitioning from the world of law to the world of books.
The Book Doctors: What were your favorite books as a kid and why?
Susan Wolfe: The first real book I ever read was The Black Stallion by Walter Farley. I was in Mr. Adams’ second grade classroom in San Bernardino, and he gave me permission to read on my own while the rest of the class finished up something else. So I found The Black Stallion, settled into my chair, and the next thing I knew the class was laughing. Apparently, I had whinnied. I was so shocked to look up and see that I was back in that classroom that I still remember the way the light was filtering in through the windows.
I had just discovered that reading created a little room out behind my head where I could go to have adventures and be other people. That little room has been my solace and a major source of learning and pleasure ever since.
I also loved The Wind in the Willows (I wanted a yellow motor car!) and Stowaway to the Mushroom Planet by Eleanor Cameron (Maybe a little low-tech now). And my sister Linda, who was three years older, read me entire Zane Grey westerns (Riders of the Purple Sage, Thirty Thousand 0n the Hoof) before I could read them myself.
TBD: What are you reading now, and who are some your favorite authors and books?
SW: I just finished Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, which I found moving, funny and original. Now I am halfway through The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov.
Some of my favorite books and authors so far:
- Moby Dick
- Madame Bovary
- Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
- The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
- The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt. (I still love a good western!)
TBD: How did you learn to be a writer?
SW: First and foremost by reading a really wide range of fiction for years and years. For example, my two favorite authors of dialogue are Elmore Leonard and Henry James, for very different reasons. Thinking about these two helped me understand what I wanted my dialogue to accomplish.
Second, by writing. That’s what everybody says, so here are some specifics:
- When I decided to write my first book, I needed to get a feel for how much should happen in a given chapter. So I made a chart showing what happened in each chapter of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. Then I made sure to have about that same amount happen in each of my chapters. That was hugely helpful to me in setting the pace of the book.
- I was lucky enough to have a good editor for my first book, and I tried out almost every suggestion he made. Some of them didn’t work out, so I ultimately rejected them, but I gave all the suggestions a real try.
- When I was writing my second book, I found a workshop at Stanford where all we did was listen to 20 pages of somebody’s manuscript and then comment. This was great for two reasons: first, some of the comments were helpful. Second, I learned that reading my own work out loud is a terrific way to figure out what works and what doesn’t. For some reason, I can hear things that aren’t right. I also tried two other workshops where the instructor gives little writing projects, and those felt to me like a waste of time. Could have just been the instructors, but I didn’t get much out of them.
- 4Finally, I am lucky enough to know two other writers whose writing and critiques of my work I respect. We have our own workshop and get to know each other’s work thoroughly. I can’t say enough about how helpful this three-person writing group has been to me.
TBD: How did you first get published?
SW: This will not be instructive to anybody else, but it is sort of interesting.
I was a lawyer on maternity leave when I started my first book, The Last Billable Hour (a murder mystery set in a Silicon Valley law firm). When it was time to return to work I told the partner at my law firm that I couldn’t come back because I was writing a novel. He said (among other things), “When you finish, you should show it to my old college roommate Jared Kieling, who is now an editor at St. Martin’s Press.” I thought “yeah, yeah” and kept writing.
One day while I was working away in my writing room, my phone rang and it was Jared Kieling of St. Martin’s Press. He said, “Mike said he’s never seen your fiction, but if it’s anything like the quality of your legal writing I should probably take a look.” A few months later when I finished it, I tied the printed manuscript with string and sent if off to him. He bought it, and the book went on to sell more than 100,000 copies and win the Edgar Award.
The only downside to this amazing and wonderful story is that it gave me very unreasonable expectations of how easy it is to get published. With my second book I woke up and joined the rest of humanity.
TBD: What was the inspiration for Escape Velocity?
SW: Two-sentence synopsis: Escape Velocity is a wickedly hilarious* thriller about a reformed con artist in a Silicon Valley software company who decides to revive her con artist skills to straighten out her very screwed up company. She needs to get enough money to move out of her car and make a home for her little sister before it’s too late.
My inspiration for the book comes from my own work as a lawyer. I have spent most of my adult life practicing law here in Silicon Valley, partly in-house at several high-tech companies. I liked working in-house, but I sometimes got frustrated that a few people who worked for the company—from accounts payable clerks to highly paid executives—seemed unable or uninterested in doing their jobs. Due to incompetence or egotism or out-and-out self-dealing, some people just seem to burrow into a company like ticks on a tormented dog, and no amount of damage they cause ever seems to dislodge them. If you’ve every worked in a company, you’ve met these people!
So I thought the malfeasance and nonfeasance (as we say in the law) were interesting, and even entertaining in a nice black kind of way. I thought other people might like to know about the chaos, or if they already knew about it, they might like to know that somebody else had experienced it, too. After all, as C.S. Lewis said, “We read to know we are not alone.” I also thought people might enjoy seeing some incredibly annoying people get their comeuppance.
But then I needed a main character, and along came Georgia Griffin. She is young, inexperienced and from a completely alien environment, so she experiences the wonder that is Silicon Valley high tech right along with the reader. She is also highly intuitive and a little bit tougher than people around her might expect. She is blessed with a job that makes people underestimate her. She badly needs the company to succeed in order to realize her personal goal of finding a better life than the one she was born to, and she reluctantly decides to use her con artist training—sparingly—to help the company succeed.
The surprise to me was that Georgia’s moral and psychological complexities gradually became central to my story. Georgia wants to be a good person, but she does a few sketchy things. At one point I wrote out the fifteen points of Georgia’s moral code. She adheres strictly to her moral code, but it’s a little bit different from other people’s. (For example, “Point #13: Cause the least harm necessary to be effective.” ) So I ended up focusing on the question of whether Georgia succeeds in the effort to turn away from her con artist background.
*According to Hank Phillippi Ryan, award-winning author of Say No More
TBD: How has being a lawyer affected you as a writer?
SW: In some ways that’s hard to know since I’ve always been both. Here’s what I can say:
My books are shot through with my actual experiences as a lawyer. The most obvious impact is on my plots, but my experience also makes my dialogue authentic and helps me create a powerful sense of place.
I worried that my legal writing would make my fiction writing ponderous, but it turns out the two kinds of writing issue from different parts of my brain. So no recognizable impact of one on the other.
I do think being a lawyer has made me more precise, which creates a risk I will over-explain things “for the avoidance of doubt” as we sometimes say in contracts. I hope I fight this effectively.
Finally, I would say I’m a serious writer without being a literary one. I suspect lawyering makes me opt for clarity over poetry when a choice must be made.
TBD: How did you manage to juggle a legal career and a writing career, when both seem like ridiculously time-consuming jobs?
SW: Not. Very. Easily.
And you left out my third ridiculously time-consuming job, which was raising two daughters. For years I would lie in bed and look up at the ceiling thinking, “Baby, Book, Law. Baby, Book, Law.” I was determined to make them all fit.
There were times I did make them fit. I wrote my first book, The Last Billable Hour, when I had only my older daughter. I would write 15 hours a week with babysitting until we ran out of money, and then I’d go to work as a contract lawyer (by project or by the hour) until I had enough money to pay the bills. I got the whole book done that way, and it was a happy, productive time in my life.
The second book was more challenging. By then we had two daughters, and I had a much bigger job as the head lawyer of a company. I decided to go to Starbucks from 6am to 7:30am twice a week to work on the book, and my daughter Catherine, who was eight or nine at the time, decided to go with me. She would sit very quietly and focus on her homework so that I could concentrate. I loved those mornings, but then it turned out I didn’t have one single unstructured moment in my life and was going slowly berserk. So I gave up writing until I was ready to leave law entirely, which is when Escape Velocity finally got written.
TBD: How did you manage to get such great blurbs for your book?
SW: It’s interesting that you ask me that, because my editor Jared Kieling asked me the exact same thing regarding my first book. Answer: I asked people.
I asked them very humbly to consider this great favor for a fellow author.
I spoke to each author about why I admired his or her writing and why I hoped they would like mine.
I asked for three or four times as many blurbs as I actually got, and tried to remind myself not to take it personally if they refused or just blew me off. Writers (and professors and deans and chief lawyers of companies) are very busy people. Fortunately, many of them are also generous.
TBD: How does your title Escape Velocity relate to your story?
SW: In physics, escape velocity is the minimum speed a rocket ship needs to escape the earth’s gravitational pull. Here in Silicon Valley the term is used as a metaphor to describe the amount of money a start-up company needs in order to stop taking money from venture capitalists. The company’s founders try to achieve escape velocity from outside interference by becoming self-sustaining.
In my book, Georgia’s upbringing with her con artist father exerts tremendous pull over her, first because it’s the life she knows and feels competent to navigate, and second because she loves her father. As the story unfolds, the reader realizes she also rather enjoys the excitement. But she doesn’t want a con artist life. So a central question of the novel is whether she has the strength of character to achieve escape velocity from the only life she knows. I don’t think many people accomplish that, and I have been fascinated by readers’ varying opinions about whether she succeeds.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?
SW: Elmore Leonard gave me the best writing advice I ever received, and I am happy to pass it along.
I had gone to his reading at a bookstore, and when it was time for him to autograph my copy of his book I asked him to wish me good luck with mine. He asked a question or two about what I was writing and then signed his book. After I turned to go he called after me, “Susan!”
“Don’t let anybody else write your book. You write your own book.”
So there you are. Share your writing, read it out loud, listen to intelligent people’s advice, and then decide for yourself.
Susan Wolfe is a lawyer with a B.A. in literature from the University of Chicago and a law degree from Stanford University. After four years of practicing law, she bailed out and wrote her Edgar Award-winning first novel The Last Billable Hour. She returned to law for another sixteen years, first as a criminal defense attorney and then as an in-house lawyer for Silicon Valley high-tech companies. Her second novel Escape Velocity was published in October and just won the 2017 IPPY Gold Medal in suspense/thriller from the Independent Publishers Book Awards. She lives in Palo Alto, California with her husband Ralph DeVoe. authorsusanwolfe.com
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 were lucky to receive a stack of books from Rare Bird Books, a publisher we love. We fell for Inside V by Paula Priamos, who also wrote the memoir The Shyster’s Daughter. So we thought we’d pick her brain about writing, thrillers, memoirs, and how she got published.
The Book Doctors: What kind of books did you like to read when you were a kid and why?
Paula Priamos: Well before kindergarten I taught myself how to read with the book Black Beauty. I started sounding out the small words first and then I’d read those same basically one syllable words to my mother and I’d fill in the rest, concocting my own story about a runaway horse, a plot that had nothing to do with the words on the page. Oftentimes I grew frustrated that I didn’t understand the bigger words. But my mother would patiently help me sound those words out and eventually I read her the entire book. As I got a little older I gravitated towards Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mysteries because I loved having to figure things out.
TBD: What was the inspiration for Inside V?
PP: I always start writing with characters first before conflict and I conceptualized this couple in my head, a man and woman, who are in the kind of relationship that begins with infidelity and quickly winds up in marriage. Yet even with a couple of solid years spent as husband and wife their relationship remains intense – deeply sexually and emotionally connected – and sometimes it’s even dangerous because their passion for each other doesn’t level off or stabilize. They remain in the throes of that initial passion that first brought them together.
The threat to their marriage in the form of a seventeen-year-old girl accusing the husband of sexual assault came to me next, and the events and other characters in the book pretty much played out in my head. It felt as if I spent most of the time writing this novel rapidly filling up lined notebooks, then typing it all on the computer, just trying to catch up.
TBD: How did you approach writing a novel, as opposed to a memoir?
PP: I wrote my memoir with literary elements like a narrative arc, scenes and dialogue, so it wasn’t very hard to segue into a novel. There are some literary people who claim a writer can’t write in more than one genre, but I think that mindset is false and quite limiting.
TBD: What was it like to be the daughter of a shyster?
PP: I was the only one out of my two siblings who stayed with my father after my parents decided to divorce when I was a young teen. I’m actually proud to be a shyster’s daughter. My father, in his day, before he was disbarred for embezzlement, was a sharp criminal defense attorney. He was a clever showman who rarely needed to rely on notes when he gave closing arguments, and he angered more than one veteran prosecutor when he’d successfully get his clients off. Over the years he’d done some bad things, crossed legal lines he knew he shouldn’t, and essentially became as morally corrupt as the clients he was defending. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t know how to teach me morals. My father taught me how to read people, to question their motives and to stand up for myself when I need to. I know I’m a much stronger woman for having been raised by him.
TBD: How do you think growing up in Southern California affected you as a writer?
PP: Being a So Cal native is a great thing. I live in an area that is ethnically diverse and with that comes all kinds of intriguing people to write about, conflicts to be had. Geographically Southern California offers mountains, the ocean, deserts and all kinds of city culture, so there are fantastic places to set the backdrop of my scenes. In Inside V, the story takes place in LA, the Valley, Palm Springs, and in Newport Beach.
TBD: What draws you to the thriller category?
PP: I love thrillers, whether it’s books or films. There is nothing more satisfying than reading or watching a smart and unpredictable whodunit that deals with character and story in equal measure. I wrote my memoir in a way that leaves the death of my father a mystery up until the end of the book, so it only made sense when I decided to write fiction that it be a thriller.
TBD: What are you working on next?
PP: I’m more than halfway through another thriller, set in the LA area and with another Greek female protagonist. That’s where the similarities end. This protagonist is not as headstrong as “V” nor as confident, but she gains strength in other ways throughout the narrative. The plot is different. She is trying to move on from a failed first marriage, a former husband who isn’t ready to let her go, all while she atgetting publishedtempts to find an old childhood friend who’s suddenly disappeared just hours after they’d been reunited.
TBD: How did you go about getting this novel published?
PP: I had a disagreement with the literary agent who was going to send this novel out to publishers. This particular agent wanted me to fatten up my lean novel and make it more of a typical “women’s mystery novel,” which I did not want to do. I feel that some of these bulkier books derail the tension lines with unnecessary details and languishing asides. Instead I had a person who’d worked PR for my memoir send it to the publisher at Rare Bird, and, as it turns out, she sent it to the right place. The publisher loved that it was the type of book a reader could finish in one day while curled up on the couch or on a long plane ride.
TBD: What advice do you have for writers?
PP: I teach creative writing and one of the first things I tell my students is to be both humble and confident. Know that you’re not immune to criticism and helpful suggestions, but also know that you can’t please everyone nor should you try. Keep an open mind without losing your own creative vision. Try not to get frustrated with what may seem like a slow process of seeing your work to publication because, in the end, there’s nothing like the rush of holding your own beautifully bound book for the first time and knowing it now has the potential to reach countless readers.
Paula Priamos’ writing has appeared in The Los Angeles Times Magazine, The New York Times Magazine, ZYZZYVA, Crimewave Magazine in the UK, The Washington Post Magazine, and The San Francisco Chronicle, among others. She is the author of the memoir The Shyster’s Daughter and teaches English and creative writing at CSU San Bernardino. Visit her at paulapriamos.com.
We’ve been fans of Todd Colby for a long time. He’s one of the most creative people we know. He’s always making something: art, poetry, mayhem. So when we saw that his new book, Time for History, is out, we picked his fertile brain.
The Book Doctors: Why the heck did you decide to become an artist, of all things?
Todd Colby: The alternative is just, well, boring. Why not live in a state that allows me to pay attention to the world a little closer and then celebrate or mourn the delicious and repulsive state we’re all in?
TBD: For as long as I can remember, it seems people have been talking about the demise of art. And yet, we seem to be in a moment right now where poetry is flourishing. Why do you think that is?
TC: When the going gets tough, like right now, people need a lot more than the latest news cycle whopper to inspire themselves, at least the people I like to be around. They need some depth, something that lasts, or makes them laugh or cry or recognize their own lives in a new light. Movies can do that, music certainly, but poetry has that special distillation of language, rhythm, and meaning that is reassuring and makes me more mindful when it’s really working right.
TBD: How has your career as a poet influenced your career as a visual artist?
TC: They’ve always worked hand in hand for me. In fact, I feel little distinction between the two and shift from being a poet to a visual artist with great ease. I mean both arteries of expression come from the same “Todd,” and that goes for my musical excursions with my old band, Drunken Boat. At the same time, different things that I need to express require different modes. It’s really nice to have options. I feel lucky that way. I will say that when I’m painting or making any kind of art, time moves in very odd chunks. Hours will go by and suddenly I’ll realize it’s dark out or that I haven’t peed for a very long time. That sort of concentration in almost any form is just beautiful.
TBD: What was the inspiration for your new book?
TC: I was doing an artist’s residency on Governors Island provided by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council during the winter and spring of 2015. A friend had given me a huge stack of antique linen postcards as a gift. I brought them with me to the island thinking I could do something with them. One day while strolling around Governors Island I thought, “There are no monuments to poets here!” So, I began altering the postcards by writing captions in oil markers over them. I made a lot of postcard monuments to Arthur Rimbaud, Charles Baudelaire, Gertrude Stein, James Schuyler, James Baldwin, Emily Dickinson and many more. I still feel compelled to make them. It is enormously satisfying to rename monuments that celebrate poets and writers I love.
TBD: How would you describe the art you’re doing in this book?
TC: Time for History is an expansion of the themes I explored on Governors Island. There is some political and social commentary that comes through in a few of the pieces that I made after Trump was elected. And oddly, there’s a narrative that emerges as one goes through the book in sequence.
TBD: How did you go about getting this particular book published?
TC: My dear old friend and frequent collaborator, the artist Marianne Vitale approached me with the idea of putting a selection of the hundreds of postcards I’ve made into a book. We’ve done collaborative books together over the years, so she knew what I was capable of, believed in me and the project and helped get the whole thing moving along. She introduced me to a book designer she works with, Nicolas Borel. He designs with a very keen eye and understanding of a book as object and then he subverts that expectation and expands the notion of what a book is, and what it can be. He was a joy to work with.
TBD: Who are some of your favorite artists, and why?
TC: I love Joe Brainard and George Schneeman. They both lived in NYC, and had close ties to the Poetry Project (where I also serve on the board of directors) and they both collaborated with a number of poets I respect and admire, like Ted Berrigan, Alice Notley, John Ashbery, Bill Berkson, and so many more. I also love the painters Amy Sillman. Jack Whitten, Louise Fishman, and Sue Williams; all of them are very different from one another, but they are all fierce, agitated, funny, precise, and driven. All of these artists occupy distinct thrones in the palace of my artistic loves.
TBD: Do you think working in a bookstore has influenced you as someone who does art and puts it into a book?
TC: Yes. As the manager and programmer here at 192 Books, I have been able to meet a wide variety of incredibly talented and creative people. People who I’ve admired so greatly over the years come into the store and talk about their art and their lives. Interacting with them, asking them questions, and getting to know them has been a real life changer for me.
TBD: Do you make something every day?
TC: I do. I try to make or write something a few times a day, even while I’m at work.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for artists?
TC: Keep doing it. It’s important that whatever you want to do gets done. Don’t fall into line. Don’t do what you think other people want you to do because that is just a giant bummer for you and everyone else.
Todd Colby is the author of six books of poetry, most recently of Splash State (The Song Cave, 2014) and Flushing Meadows (Scary Topiary Press, 2012). He was the editor of the poetry anthology Heights of the Marvelous: A New York Anthology (St. Martin’s Press, 2001) and serves on the board of the Poetry Project. He was the lead singer for the critically acclaimed band Drunken Boat.
We first met Julia Kite many years ago, when she won one of our Pitchapaloozas (think American Idol for books, only kinder and gentler). She pitched us a fantastic story, full of fantastic characters. It’s been a long haul, but her book, The Hope and Anchor, has finally found a home, so we thought we would pick her brain about writing, authorship, books, and all things publishing.
The Book Doctors: Why did you decide to become a writer?
Julia Kite: I never decided on it— it simply happened. I learned to read at a very young age, starting in a curry house where the owner gave me a calendar to play with because the food was all too spicy for me and I had nothing else to do. I made my parents read it to me until I memorized what words looked like, then I figured it all out from there and ever since then I haven’t stopped. Eventually I realized that if I was reading books that other people wrote, then I could write them as well. I was often bored in school and I needed some quiet, unobtrusive way to pass the time without getting in trouble. Turns out if you look like you’re working on an assignment or furiously scribbling notes, you can get away with actually writing a story. To this day, I’m a wimp who can’t deal with anything hotter than chicken tikka masala. It’s sad. I know.
TBD: What where your favorite authors and books when you were a kid, and why?
JK: I always liked the realistic stories of other girls’ lives— Beverly Cleary’s books were favorites of mine, because Ramona was so relatable in her mischief and her well-meaning imperfection. I saw a lot of myself in Harriet the Spy, wanting to know everything about everybody and write it down in a book, and I must have read Matilda a million times. It didn’t hurt that when the film adaptation of Matilda came out, I looked like Mara Wilson with a bigger nose. What fiction did to me was give me aspirations— look at these fascinating lives other people are having!
TBD: How did you learn to be a writer?
JK: I got there by first reading everything in sight, and then by being constantly observant of the world around me. I strongly believe that there’s only so much you can directly teach someone when it comes to writing. Being able to write is the function of being able to read, listen, interpret, synthesize, and abstract. These are skills you can only refine by going out and living in the world. You learn by doing. To be honest, eavesdropping on trains and in cafes probably taught me more about dialogue than any how-to book. Strange as this may sound, boredom also has had a lot to do with it. When you’re bored, you think a lot about other people’s lives, about things you’d rather be doing, places you’d rather be sitting at that exact time. You imagine that everything else in the world is so much more intriguing than what you’re stuck in at that moment, and you imagine being a part of it, what you’d do if you were someone else. And that’s the bedrock of fiction.
While I love being able to learn everything about anything at any time using my smartphone, I worry that if I’d had one when I was younger, I wouldn’t have had the opportunities brought by boredom and letting my mind wander. I think that’s a necessity when you’re young, and if people lose that because there’s just so much stimulation, their creativity is going to suffer.
TBD: How did you find a publisher for your debut novel?
JK: What a long, bizarre, maddening trip it has been. The Hope and Anchor is actually my second novel. My first novel was called The Results and it was about two sisters in Liverpool who start up a betting ring, choosing people in their neighborhood who they believe deserve a bit of joy in their lives, based off one girl’s unwanted knack of correctly predicting how every soccer match is going to end. They end up in too deep and realize the only way they can make a clean break with their pasts is to con everybody on the night of the Cup Final, making themselves rich and everybody else an enemy so that they can really never come back. The kitchen sink meets magic realism. I pitched it at your Pitchapalooza competition when I was living in San Francisco back in late 2011 (bloody hell). I ended up winning Pitchapalooza and it was a massive boost to my confidence, which was in the basement, because a year earlier I had abandoned my perfectly lovely life in London to move to California and study for a PhD, which turned out to be a disaster, to put it lightly. Within the course of one year I had gone from living the dream as a financially independent young woman with a decent job, a nice flat, a loving boyfriend, and one hell of a cute pet bird, to an anxious and depressed wreck running into bureaucratic brick walls with my research, earning barely above minimum wage, living in a neighborhood where I couldn’t wear sandals for all the used needles on the pavement, essentially undergoing massive culture shock in the country where I was born. California and I didn’t get along. I couldn’t even watch my beloved Tottenham Hotspur thanks to the eight-hour time difference, and if that means nothing to you, suffice it to say that is a very big deal. The one thing I still had was my writing. No arrogant professor or unhinged person screaming under my window at 3 AM could take my imagination away from me.
After Pitchapalooza, I was convinced my luck was going to change, and I would finally be getting somewhere with my writing. And despite a significant number of rejections, for a moment it looked like that was going to happen. I began working with a well-established agent in England who helped me edit The Results. He really liked it, but explained that unknown new authors of literary fiction are difficult to sell. If he was going to take me on as a client, I had to prove I had more than one book in me. So I wrote The Hope and Anchor…and it didn’t do anything for him. We parted company. I read the writing on the wall and put The Results aside.
After realizing there was a reason average time to degree in my department was nine years, and recognizing there’s definitely something wrong when blood-soaked clothes on the street no longer faze you, I found the courage to quit my PhD and I moved back to the East Coast. While I worked on rebuilding my interrupted policy and research career, I went back to the drawing board with pitching The Hope and Anchor and followed all the directions, writing personalized query letters to agents, double-checking their guidelines, making sure I was doing everything they wanted. I had quite a few agents request my manuscript. Unfortunately, none of them bit. I received many rejections with zero feedback— the most common response was, “I just don’t love it enough,” and variations on that theme. It was frustrating to me, because there’s no way to improve without clear feedback and concrete criticism. It almost would have been more reassuring to hear that they thought I had some kind of deficiency of skill, because at least then I would know what I needed to fix, where I needed to improve. You can learn to improve your mechanics, but you can’t force somebody to fall in love.
There was one agent who replied to my query with incredible enthusiasm and asked for the full. A few days later, she wrote me a bubbly email about how she was halfway through and absolutely in love with the book, and she would get back to me the following week. I was on cloud nine but I knew I needed to be patient, so I waited. And waited. A week passed. Two. Three. I didn’t want to be an annoyance, but after a month of no contact I finally sent her a polite check-in and she rejected me with zero feedback. I asked her if she would mind telling me what hadn’t worked for her in the second half of the book, essentially what had cooled her enthusiasm, but I never got a response. And I was utterly gobsmacked. I understand that the sheer volume of manuscripts literary agents have to deal with precludes detailed feedback, but I felt that I had been strung along and that I had the right to be miffed about a process that put me on ridiculous emotional roller-coasters. That was probably the moment when I first considered that maybe my book wasn’t the problem, the industry landscape was.
At the same time, I was trying to learn as much as possible from people in publishing, and from authors who had found mainstream success. Yet every time I went to a talk by an agent or an editor or an author, I left feeling utterly despondent. An agent spoke to my writing group, gave us all kinds of advice for landing someone like her, then revealed that in the past year, she had signed exactly one new client out of a slush pile of over 400. Then an author with her literary fiction debut published by one of the Big Five told us she had spent most of her modest advance on hiring a publicist, and my jaw hit the floor and stayed there far longer than could possibly be sanitary because I thought the entire point of signing with the Big Five was that they took care of publicity for you in-house. A member of my writing group landed a top-notch agent, then found out that they wanted him to completely change the genre of his book before editors would consider it. I saw people get agents who didn’t sell their books, and they’d part a year later, back at square one. At a certain point, the practical part of my brain intruded and said, “You’re a complete unknown writing literary fiction, and every indication is that the odds are stacked against you, no matter how good a writer you are. Why are you making yourself miserable, trying to do the impossible?” In my day job I’m a very analytic person, very evidence- and data-focused, and all the statistics were screaming that continuing down the same path was not going to magically make a door open. It would only make me bitter.
Friends asked me why I didn’t self-publish, but I knew that was a road I didn’t want to take. It can be fulfilling and occasionally lucrative for genre fiction, but that’s not what I write. Then one day in my Facebook feed, a friend had shared a link to a book one of his work colleagues was funding on a website called Unbound. The author was Gautam Malkani, and I recognized the name— he had published an acclaimed book called Londonstani several years earlier, and was now crowd-funding his second book after parting with his publisher. I knew that if a writer as talented as Gautam was going this route, it had to be legit, and that if his publisher had dropped him, then clearly there were issues with traditional publishing. Friends of mine in music were going their own way, recording brilliant songs and releasing them independently, and I realized that publishing needs to innovate just as the music industry has done over the past decade. Clinging to romantic notions of an industry that has changed almost beyond recognition would not get my book into the hands of strangers, but trying something new and exciting just might. I vetted Unbound very carefully, then submitted my manuscript.
I know now that “I just didn’t love it enough” can mean, “It’s good writing, but it’s not going to sell a million copies, and I need a book that will sell a million copies for this to be worth my while.” It’s business, not personal. But I believe there’s still space for good writing that’s not necessarily going to have wide enough appeal to be a summer beach read— and fortunately Unbound does, too.
It’s funny, you work for years to get anywhere with your book, and then two offers come along at once. I turned down an offer from a literary agent on the day I signed with Unbound. I didn’t want to go through any more of the craziness.
TBD: What is your book about?
JK: The Hope and Anchor is a story about love and loss, at its very core. Not only the actual disappearance of a beloved person, but also coming to terms with how your life isn’t going to turn out the way you had always planned, and the need to put old dreams, as lovely as they may have once been, to rest.
Our protagonist is Neely Sharpe, a woman in her late twenties who once believed that as soon as she moved to London, she would be somebody. She figured her life would take off and she would have the bright, exciting future she had always wanted growing up in a satellite town. She figured she had done everything right: being middle-class, highly educated, and ambitious. On paper, it seemed like the city should have been hers for the taking. Unfortunately, the recession took the shine off her big dreams, and so she finds herself working a dead-end job and living in a scruffy, downmarket part of West London. The one bright spot in her life is her relationship with her girlfriend, a local woman named Angela Archer. Angela’s upbringing couldn’t have been more different from Neely’s: nothing much was ever expected of her, particularly after her mother died and her troubled older sister moved away. She has epilepsy, but insists on not being treated differently. Her job at the local leisure center is never going to bring in a living wage, but to Neely she seems happy.
Neely, in her increasing dissatisfaction with life, is prone to making foolish and self-destructive decisions. The morning after one of those bad decisions, she stumbles home hungover and finds Angela is gone. And she’s not answering her mobile phone. Oh, and the medication Angela should have taken yesterday is still sitting in its little box in their kitchen.
Doubt and self-loathing leave Neely unsure of what to do. Locals who have known Angela since childhood tell Neely not to panic, and not to treat her girlfriend like she’s fragile or stupid. Neely, meanwhile, fears Angela may have left deliberately, perhaps knowing more than she let on about Neely’s drunken hookups with a mutual friend— but then there’s the matter of that medication. She finally goes to the police, but not until after making a few more potentially unwise decisions along the way.
We meet Andy, Angela’s older sister, who thought she had left behind her difficult upbringing when she married a middle-class man, moved to the suburbs, and had children. With Angela’s disappearance she gets pulled back into a life she never wanted to see again. Neely’s search for Angela, meanwhile, is interspersed with flashbacks of Angela’s teenage years, where one particular event left her determined to never leave this particular corner of the city. Little by little, Neely finds out just how little she really knew about her girlfriend. It shatters her self-image as someone who should have been smart enough to not end up in this mess, but also gives her greater clarity about her situation. She has to get a grip, get a clue, and come to terms with how little she knows about life, love, and London.
Without giving away too much of what happens, Neely ends up scouring the city, from pubs, to parks, to the sewers in a snowstorm, ending up far more immersed in her girlfriend’s history than she ever imagined. The only shot she has at finding answers is to risk losing all the illusions she ever had about what her life would be like.
I want the reader to be left wondering how much of one’s past you can really leave behind, and whether it’s wise to even try to do so.
TBD: What inspired your novel?
JK: I used to ride my bike along the towpath of the Grand Union Canal in West London, usually going all the way from my flat near Paddington Station out to a suburb called Greenford. When I traveled along the bit that runs beside a railway depot and a nature reserve, I was struck by how much it didn’t feel like the city out there. It was wooded and quiet and it felt a million miles from the council estate where I was living at the time. I thought—and don’t take this the wrong way— that if anybody wanted to get away with hiding a body, they could probably leave it there and nobody would find it for quite some time. I really don’t know why I thought that. I’m not a morbid person. But it planted the seeds of this book in my head. After I moved to California, writing vividly about a place I missed so much helped keep alive my plans to eventually get back the happiness I’d had in London; I suppose it was a grieving process, really, for the life I thought I would have. I picked the title as the name of a fictional pub, a complete wreck of a place, not really realizing at the time how well it fit me when I was writing the book. While Neely is definitely not based on me, I can certainly empathize with her situation where her best laid plans have gone astray and the world is passing her by. Had I not been so miserable in California, she probably wouldn’t have been so rich a character, so you have to take the good with the bad.
The imagery of the Grand Union Canal, which runs through Neely and Angela’s neighborhood, is constantly present throughout the book, as is the London transportation network. They link Angela’s past with her fate, Neely’s dreams with her reality, and Andy’s old resentment and shame with her determination to have a better life. Angela’s father is a Tube driver on the Circle Line, which, unfortunately, was re-routed a few years ago so that it’s no longer a circle, so that kind of wrecks a bit of imagery, but oh well. My day job is in transportation policy, and I’ve always been intrigued by the topic. Most teenagers wanted their own cars but I just wanted to ride the train to the end of the line, looking out at different neighborhoods, watching people come and go and wondering about their lives. In that aspect transportation has been an oddly massive part of my development as a writer, even if I’m the first to admit it’s not exactly sexy. My background in urban policy and planning has taught me that the only constant in any city is change, and the corner of West London captured in The Hope and Anchor is no different. I knew I had to get my book out in the world before the neighborhood morphed beyond recognition. Whenever I go back there, it seems like another pub has closed, another new development I could never afford is rising. It’s already too late for the police station that features throughout the story… it has been turned into luxury flats.
The strangest thing happened the last time I was in London, last year. I went for a walk down the Harrow Road like I always do, but when I passed by the building I had chosen for Neely and Angela to call home, I noticed the door leading to the flats above the shop was on the latch. Not wide open, just a crack. I pushed it open, walked into the hallway, and it was exactly how I had imagined it, with the mail on the tile floor, even though I’d never set foot in that building before. In the book, the light in the corridor has long burnt out and Neely always has to feel her way up the stairs to her flat. Well, I tried hitting the light switch— and just as I had written it, it was burnt out. I kind of freaked out and ran back to the street at that point. It was just a bit too eerie.
TBD: Tell us about your publisher; they’re quite unusual.
JK: Unbound uses what is essentially a modernized form of subscription publishing, which was popular with everybody from Samuel Johnson to Mark Twain back in their day. Authors essentially crowdfund a certain amount in pre-orders of their book, with different rewards for different levels, much like Kickstarter but without the risk. Once the author hits their funding target, full production of the book begins, like at any other publishing house, and the books land on shelves in brick-and-mortar stores as well as online. Everybody who pledged gets their name in the book as a nice thank-you for helping it come into existence.
The Unbound model makes a lot of sense from a practical standpoint. I’m an unknown with a literary fiction debut. Most unknowns with literary fiction debuts don’t make heaps of money for their publishers. In fact, a few years ago the New York Times said that seven out of ten books overall don’t earn back their advance. These more “niche” books are essentially subsidized by the big bestsellers. What I now realize, after my long experience trying to get a literary agent, is that someone like me is simply a bad risk from a business perspective.
Fortunately, Unbound realized that, too— and made room for people like me. By essentially outsourcing the risk to me, they can bring my book into physical existence without worrying that they’ll pay out thousands in an advance, spend lots of money on production, and then potentially not recoup their investment. You wouldn’t be in business very long if you kept doing that, no matter how skilled your authors— hence the Big Five’s focus on the celebrity clients and proven best-sellers over debut literary authors. I first prove that I can bring in an audience, and then Unbound goes ahead and invests their time and money in creating the physical book to be marketed and sold like any other. The pre-orders show there is a market for the book, as well as provide a financial cushion prior to the full print run. I don’t get an advance, but books sold in shops or online after hitting the target net a much better royalty rate than most authors typically see.
Unbound also gives me as an author a bit more control than a traditional house would. For example, I deliberately chose to not do a hardcover. That’s for a very practical reason: I live in a small Manhattan apartment with another voracious reader, and bookshelf space is at a premium! While I love the look of hardcovers and they certainly give you that “I’ve made it” feeling, I rarely buy them because they’re expensive, heavy, and difficult to shove into a handbag to take on the subway. Producing one would have meant a higher funding goal as well. Paperbacks and e-books are what I like and what are going to sell more effectively than a hardcover, so that’s what I’m going to have.
Unbound is not a vanity press, nor are they a self-publishing service. What I love about them is that they seem truly dedicated to getting an audience for quality writing. For a house that has been around only six years, they’re punching above their weight; they had a book longlisted for the Booker Prize a couple years ago.
TBD: How do you plan to promote and market your book?
JK: Social media is a huge part of this. I’ve had my Twitter account (@juliakite) for… oh god, more than eight years now. You bet I have chronicled the long, long journey to publication, and my followers have been along for the ride, so it’s great to finally be able to have something to show them for it. To find people outside my immediate network, I think about what aspects of the book might interest people who have never heard of me. Number one is the setting. It’s massively important to the story, so I’ve been a bit cheeky and searched for tweets mentioning the Harrow Road and the Grand Union Canal, and reached out to clubs and businesses in the neighborhood. I cringe a bit sending unsolicited messages, but the worst that can happen is that someone calls me annoying and then I move on. I also made an author page on Facebook and ran an ad targeted specifically to people in London who listed reading and novels as an interest. While it wasn’t hugely successful, I did get a few pledges, and when you’re completely unknown, every new person reading your book matters. I’m not the best at self-promotion, but I need to learn if I want this to be successful! I’ve made a video, which is on my Unbound page, featuring a lot of my photography. I think that helps humanize the project a bit, even if my hard-to-place American accent might come as a bit of a shock to some…
A few months ago I was on Jeopardy, where I lost spectacularly on the final question after leading for the entire game, but had a great time regardless. The Jeopardy contestant community is surprisingly close, and it includes several bookworms. I’m also fortunate to be part of a writing group called the Columbia Fiction Foundry, which is hosted by the Columbia University Alumni Association. All of us have the goal of being commercially published, and so we support each other. We’ve got a considerable mailing list that hopefully I haven’t completely irritated yet. The members of the workshop have seen this book come together over the past couple of years, and I hope that when they finally have copies in their hands, they’ll know they were an important part of it.
Several Unbound authors already have established careers in journalism, TV, or music, and many have successfully published before. Readers pledge to their projects knowing it’ll be something they will probably like. Me, I’m a complete unknown! I’m asking people to take a leap of faith, and it’s difficult to get a complete stranger to part with money when they’re not familiar with my work other than the excerpt on my Unbound page. I’m ridiculously grateful to everybody who has pledged, but especially to the people who don’t know me at all, because they’ve put their confidence in me. I really hope they’ll enjoy The Hope and Anchor.
TBD: What is your next project?
JK: Oh, wow. I feel like I haven’t had time to think about the next project because technically this first one isn’t finished! Sometimes I consider reviving The Results, but it may be time to simply let that one go. I feel like my next book will have to be set in New York City, as it’s a place I know as well as London and there’s infinite possibility for the kind of stories you could write about here.
I’ve been toying with the idea of writing about the aftermath of a fatal car crash, focusing on the surviving driver. In my job, we insist on saying car “crashes,” not car “accidents,” because even if it wasn’t deliberate, it’s down to the actions a person chose to take and which they could have prevented, rather than an act of God. That distinction is very fascinating to me and I think the exploration of personal agency versus chance is a pretty fertile seam to mine. But I’m still in the very, very early stages.
TBD: What advice do you have for writers?
JK: Be Patient. This was a difficult trait to cultivate in myself. I’m still not the world’s most patient person. If I had told 18-year-old me that I wouldn’t have a book deal until my early 30s, I probably would have torn my hair out. NaNoWriMo is great for motivation, but you shouldn’t expect a novel in one month. Not even the bad bare bones of one, if you have a day job. I’ve found that some of my best writing has come from times when I wasn’t expecting to generate anything substantial. I just started thinking, started writing, and what I created was far better than I expected. If you pressure yourself by putting time constraints on your writing, you miss out on the serendipitous joy of an idea simply popping into your head after ages of long slog.
Similarly, accept that writing the book is the easy part. You should expect to spend far, far more time editing and revising than you did actually getting the words onto the page. And it’s worth it. There’s no substitute for slow, deliberative, quality work.
Be judicious when incorporating autobiography. Remember that above all, your novel must be a work of fiction, and if you are constraining the possibilities of what you’re writing in order to match reality as you lived it, then you’re doing it wrong. Of course, you can lift scenes or character traits from your own life— if something interesting has happened to you, then why not? But be very careful. Your audience of complete strangers wants to read a good story, not your therapy session. They care about whether you can write an interesting, gripping book, not whether everything you’re writing about actually happened in real life. For example, I dropped out of a PhD, and I made Neely someone who has done likewise because I knew I could write really well from the emotional perspective of having derailed what you thought was your surefire plan in life. But the similarities largely stop there. Likewise, there are a few scenes where I’ve lifted the bare bones of the action from real life, but I fleshed them out with imagination. My bike rides along the Grand Union Canal are not Angela’s, even though we traveled in each other’s wheel ruts and looked at the same scenery. She can’t possibly be seeing things the exact same way I did, because she’s not me; she’s had a different life, a different perspective. The magic of fiction is that you get to create these characters who are nothing like you. You get to play God of your own tiny world in a way you can’t do anywhere else in life, so why force yourself to stay within your own experiences? That would be a failure of imagination. Why limit yourself to characters who only tick the same identity boxes that you do? That defeats the purpose of fiction, in my opinion.
I’ve found it’s quite obvious when fiction is really thinly-veiled autobiography. It’s difficult for your peers to critique honestly, because it feels like saying anything negative is casting disapproval on someone’s actual life. But without honest critique, you won’t have a decent book. If your real life is interesting enough to be fictionalized, you might as well write memoir, but remember that unless you’re Malala, Madonna, or Maradonna, few people outside your circle of friends and family will find it interesting.
Get a group. Writing feels like a solitary activity, but you must, must, MUST have readers giving you constructive criticism. Without the Columbia Fiction Foundry, The Hope and Anchor would have been a much weaker book. Your friends and family are lovely people, but they can’t always give you the tough critique you need to grow as a writer. As writers we pour our heart and soul into our work, so criticism can sometimes feel like an attack, but you have to force yourself to get over it. It’s medicine: taking it feels absolutely awful, but it’s what you need to get any better. In a good workshop environment, you’re all going to want each other to succeed, and that means hard truths and hard work, so remember that the people reading your work are just trying to make it the best it can be. Which brings me to my next point…
Don’t take it personally. This applies whether it’s a critique from a workshop or a rejection from an agent. Your work is separate from who you are. Someone not liking your story doesn’t mean they don’t like you. Someone thinking your book isn’t ready for publication doesn’t mean they think you’re talentless. It’s difficult, but you need to remember that writing this specific book is something you do, not something you are. You will fail at individual tasks— that’s simply part of learning and growing— but that does not make YOU a failure.
Cut, but don’t trash. For The Hope and Anchor, I created a Word document I titled excisions.doc, and I put in it everything that needed to be cut for the sake of the story, but which I felt was too well-written to simply throw away and get rid of forever. It functioned as a holding pen for good writing that simply wasn’t right for the moment. It turned out to be a wise idea; while doing a major revision, I found that lots of great lines that I had to cut from Andy when I made her a less central character were easily adaptable to Neely.
Don’t read the comments. Good advice for life, that.
Julia Kite lives in Manhattan, and calls New York City and London home. She is a graduate of Columbia University and the London School of Economics. Obsessed with cities and the people in them, she started her career researching housing and urban regeneration, and she now directs policy and research for Transportation Alternatives, New York City’s advocates for walking, biking, and public transit. Before she began working to make New York City’s streets better for cyclists, she was taking long rides along the Grand Union Canal in West London. She is a member of the Columbia Fiction Foundry, an alumna of quiz shows The Chase and Jeopardy, an urban wildlife rehabilitator, a keen amateur baker, and the owner of an opinionated parrot. The Hope and Anchor, currently funding on Unbound, is her first novel, a work of fiction about a very real place she holds dear.
We first met Jeannie Zokan several years ago when she was putting together her young adult novel. Years later, it’s become a piece of women’s fiction. The Existence of Pity is out now, so we picked Jeannie’s brain on her travels through the rocky seas of publication.
The Book Doctors: When did you first become a writer?
Jeannie Zokan: I’ve written all my life, but I first saw myself as a writer at a poetry workshop in Washington, DC. I was in my twenties, and our leader, Sandy Lyne, had us come up with affirmations to silence our inner critics. Mine was, “I am a courageous poet.” I’d filled many notebooks – and burned some of them in a pile in my backyard in Colombia – but that workshop, where I acknowledged my fear and wrote anyway, was my starting block.
TBD: What books did you love as a kid and why?
JZ: Books were my best friends as a kid, and although my generation didn’t have Harry Potter, we had The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, which my mom read to my brothers and me over and over. There were many, many more books, but one author influenced me the most. Betty Cavanna wrote in a clear, easy voice about strong young women facing life with honesty and openness. Every one of her books resonated deeply with me.
TBD: What books are you reading right now?
JZ: I am reading My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout for a book club, and I’m really enjoying her style. Also, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is on my bedside table for the third time. Such a thought-provoking read!
TBD: How did you learn to become a writer?
JZ: Oh, the usual, I suppose. By reading, writing, taking classes, and studying books about writing. But learning to write a novel tripped me up for many years. I wrote poetry, short stories, articles, even my memoirs, but I couldn’t see how to create a complete novel.
Then NaNoWriMo came into my life. I’ll never forget making that seemingly insignificant decision to buy Chris Baty’s No Plot? No Problem! in Barnes & Noble back in 2008. It turned out to be exactly the primer I needed to create a riveting story with complex characters and an amazing setting. And writing a novel in one month worked perfectly for me. My daughters, then seven and ten, and my sweet husband were willing to let me have November.
I wrote my first novel in 2008 and have written seven more since then. The Existence of Pity was written in November of 2010. I’m also grateful NaNoWriMo introduced me to your indispensable book, The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published.
TBD: How did you end up getting published?
JZ: For three years, I worked on The Existence of Pity with a critique group at the West Florida Literary Federation. Then I sent it to a list of agents who promptly rejected it. I worked on the manuscript another year with college instructor and English teacher Diane Skelton. Her critiques were absolutely invaluable. Even so, the second time I sent out the manuscript, I was rejected again.
The third time proved to be a charm. With the help of two more critique groups and my daughter, who was fourteen at the time, I knew the book was finally where it needed to be. Among this wave of agents and publishers was Red Adept Publishing, and on November 14, 2015, they called and told me they wanted to publish my manuscript. Exactly one year later, my book was released, and I can’t thank Red Adept Publishing enough for giving my story a chance. It all comes down to publishers and acquisitions editors who read through their slush piles, making dreams come true one manuscript at a time, and I will be forever grateful!
TBD: What was the editing process like for you?
JZ: “Brace yourself,” my publisher told me! But since I’d been through so many critiques with The Existence of Pity, I was prepared. Of course there were moments when my editor wanted more than I thought I could give, but one thing I’ve learned is that there is always a way to resolve scene issues or clunky sentences. I’ve also learned to love feedback. Thoughtful edits always make writing better. I just remind myself I’d rather be happy than right. I’ve been given many gifts of perfect edits: the right word or turn of a phrase, the right addition—or subtraction—of a scene. All I had to do was brace myself and graciously accept each one.
TBD: What the heck is aerial yoga and why does anyone do it?
JZ: Aerial yoga is Cirque du Soleil in my living room! On a much smaller scale. I bought our aerial yoga swing on Amazon and had a professional bolt it to the ceiling. Now my husband, daughters, and I hang upside down and flip around on it whenever we want. I’m half an inch taller as a result. It’s also fun to watch the braver of my friends try it when they come over.
TBD: You are also a writing coach. What do you feel like you’ve learned about your own writing from coaching other writers?
JZ: The writing coach gig hasn’t quite taken off yet, that’s why there’s still an introductory rate of $25 per hour! But I’ve spent hundreds of hours in critique groups over the past decade, and my writing has improved not only because of their edits, suggestions, and comments, but also because of their dedication to writing, and their willingness to show up week in and week out.
TBD: Your book is so much about family. Did you draw from your own experiences? Has your family read this book? Are they still speaking to you?
JZ: Yes, I drew the setting from my experience as a missionary kid in Colombia, mostly because people have always asked me what it was like to grow up overseas. This book is my answer.
My immediate family loves my book like I do, and they are my biggest fans. As for my family of origin, the jury is still out. I don’t think any of them have read it yet, and though I dedicate it to them, this book is more for those who find themselves in Josie’s predicament, not sharing the same beliefs as their families. I want them to know they aren’t alone. I wrote this for my younger self, who felt very much alone, and she really appreciates it.
You could say Josie’s mother is the antagonist, but don’t forget I’m a mother, too. I can relate to Astrid getting caught up in her life’s work, believing she knows what’s best for her children, forgetting to notice how they are changing. It takes an effort to set one’s beliefs aside and allow others their own points of view, and any mother can relate to that.
The Existence of Pity was scary to write, and even scarier to pursue publication, but I did it for my husband and daughters, and for others who loved the story. Besides, if we only wrote what our mamas and daddies approved of, where would we be?
TBD: Have you been back to Colombia?
JZ: I left Colombia after graduating from high school, and was able to visit many times before my parents retired to the States. Around the same time, travel to Colombia became too dangerous. It seemed I’d never get to go back, and I felt like an exile. But then, in a heartbreaking twist of fate, I was given a reason to visit Colombia again.
In 2012, we became aware that my mother had Alzheimer’s. Within two years, my father took her back to Colombia. Healthcare for her was much more affordable and compassionate there. My parents lived in a beautiful compound with cheerful nurses and cooks, and I cherished visiting and being able to take my husband and children to see the country of my youth. I’ve written about these bittersweet trips to paradise in my blog at www.JeannieZokan.blogspot.com.
My parents are back in the States now, since being far from family was difficult for my father. My mom is in a Personal Care Home, living always and only in the now, oblivious of Astrid and Josie. We sing together often, and she tells me she loves me. I can’t ask for any more than this.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?
JZ: You know the answer to this one, David! My advice to writers comes from your book, and the quote is still taped to my computer.
“The more you know in your heart that you are the perfect author for your book and that your book is salable and/or necessary, the better your chances of convincing someone else.”
So to writers everywhere, read the guide (it really is essential!) and then write what is yours to write. Be the courageous poet you were born to be.
Jeannie Zokan grew up in Colombia, South America as the daughter of missionaries. She now lives in Florida’s Gulf Coast with her husband, two daughters, two dachshunds, and a cat.
—David Henry Sterry
Of course you can! That’s sort of the point, isn’t it? Even the authors of books intended to help other authors get published, an Escherian concept if ever there was one, need to get publicity, and a phone interview offers a fine alternative. Assuming the interviewer has the gear at home, then everyone can get what politicians like to call the maximum “bang for the buck.” Nobody has to leave home and nobody has to even, in theory, get dressed. Let’s presume, however, for the duration of this article, that everyone was indeed dressed. I might note that there is a bit in the book on getting interviewed, and it is not unhelpful.
Eckstutt and Sterry have a pretty full plate these days. They both have separate literary careers (she’s an agent, he’s a writer), they have a website together, that is The Book Doctors (and what a nice linker I am, eh?), and they have these events, which I’ve heard about for a while — Pitchapalooza, wherein the would-be’s line up at the gate and have a minute to pitch their book. It’s speed dating for writers and agents, and while it is perhaps a dangerous precedent, it also gets results. People who have attended get signed.
I talked to the writers-about-writers about their book, their websites and their live show. To me it just makes perfect sense; by offering a platform for writers to hone their pitching skills, they are doing the best possible job of pitching their own skills. You can hear just how good they are by following this link to the MP3 audio file.
Our own Herb Schaffner displaying his big brain and sharing some big love for The Essential Guide.
For Link on Herb Schaffner click here:
“A must-have for every aspiring writer.” – Khaled Hosseini, New York Times bestselling author of The Kite Runner
The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published