Thank you to Kat Lieu for inviting us to her blog, Phil and Mama. You can read the interview “Working Parents Rock! # 1: The Book Doctors!” on Phil and Mama. Our interview is below.
Interview with David Henry Sterry and Arielle Eckstut
Almost ten years ago, I was in grad school and I met David through Craigslist. I applied to became his intern and helped worked on his website. In return, he read my draft manuscripts and became my writing mentor. Thanks to David, the world refers to me as Kat now instead of Kathleen. Kat Lieu just has a better ring than Kathleen Lieu, David advised. I also landed an opportunity to create online games for Little Miss Matched, a company founded by Arielle, David’s wife. I met their daughter Olive when she was just a little baby, and I can’t believe that she’s eight now! Time really flies. It was such a treat to interview this dynamic duo of working parents, and to catch up with a mentor. The first word that comes to my mind is “goals” after learning about what they’ve accomplished through the years and continue to accomplish. I know you’ll enjoy this fun interview as much as I did! – Mama Kat
Q. Tell us a little about yourselves.
A: Arielle is a city girl, she grew up in New Yawk New Yawk, as an only child surrounded by millions and millions of people. She was (and is) an avid reader, very precocious, and went to an amazing school called Bank Street, where she learned about reading, writing, arithmetic, and being an entrepreneur. This would lead her to become the author of nine books, a literary agent, and start a business called Little Miss Matched, which began by selling socks in packs of threes that don’t match. That company blew up to the point where they have stores all the way from Disneyland to 5th Avenue in New York City, back where Arielle was born. Her favorite writer and all-time hero is Jane Austen.
David is the son of immigrants, and has lived all over the country. He never went to the same school for two years in a row until he went to college. He spent several early years in Hueytown, Alabama, when that state was ranked 50th in the nation and education, and they still whacked you on the knuckles with a metal ruler when you acted too sassy. His mother was an avid reader and an amazing educator. David was obsessed with baseball as a kid, and he always loved to write. He went on to become an avid soccer player, but was injured terribly just as he was offered a contract to play professionally. He then became a stand-up comedian, and an actor, who performed in everything from industrial training movies to plays that nobody came to, all the way to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air with Will Smith. While in Hollywood, he became a screenwriter, and eventually got a three picture deal with Disney, which was promptly terminated after the first screenplay was rudely rejected. His hypnotherapist at the time (and it is mandatory to have a hypnotherapist if you live in Hollywood), advised him to start writing about his life. This led him to finding an agent, who helped him not write the book he was writing, but write the book he was supposed to write. That book sold for six figures in under two hours when it was put into the marketplace. This led David to become the author of 16 books. That agent was Arielle Eckstut, who is now his beloved wife, and mother of his child.
Speaking of which, Olive is eight years old and, like her parents, she loves to read. One of her heroes is Raina Telgemeier, the splendid middle-grade graphic novelist. Olive adores the Harry Potter books, and has recently been reading books about Gabby Douglas, Hillary Clinton and Babe Ruth. She just loves to watch reality cooking shows. She also enjoys gymnastics, baking, and hanging out with her awesome BFFs. Olive travels all over the country with her parents, and has now been to 33 States. Her favorites are Austin, Texas, and Hollywood. She is absolutely adamant that she does not want to be an author when she grows up. She’s been to the circus too many times, and seen how scary the clowns look like backstage without their makeup on. She wants to be a teacher, an Olympic gymnast, a baker who runs a restaurant, a photographer, or perhaps an agility trainer for dogs. Speaking of which, she also loves her dog Moe, who is a very loving beast, and has lots of problems.
Together, Arielle and David formed a company called The Book Doctors, after they wrote a book called “The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published.” They travel all over the country, helping writers get successfully published, with Olive, and have presented everywhere from rural Alaska to Miami Beach to Brooklyn to Deadwood.
Q: What’s a typical day like for you? What about a typical week?
A: We are either on the road, in which case we are going to airports, checking into flights, going to hotels, doing workshops, taking in the local sights, and swimming wherever we go. When we were in South Dakota, a donkey practically climbed into our car to eat the apple that we were offering. In Alaska we saw wild bears, eagles, and even a whale.
The three of us love to eat. Whenever we’re on the road, we make sure to find amazing restaurants. We have eaten moose in Alaska, steak in Omaha, paella in Miami Beach, lobster in Rhode Island, and barbecue in Kansas City. When we’re not on the road, we are writing our own books, consulting with organizations like the Blue Man Group, doing consultations on the phone with authors, playing softball, riding our tandem bicycle, watching movies, knitting, baking, cooking, and/or hanging out with each other. We really like hanging out with each other. 🙂 And of course Olive is in school. She is extremely lucky to go to a great elementary school called Hillside, and she hopes to be in their world class drum squad called Drums of Thunder.
Q: Where do you vacation? Do you recommend it for parents with smaller children?
A: We are of the profound belief that people need to vacation whenever humanly possible. While it’s certainly great for parents to get away by themselves, we take Olive with us everywhere. Part of our job, as we said, takes us to some amazing locations, and we always make time to mix vacation with vocation, and fun with work. Olive’s grandparents have a place up in Rhode Island that we go to every summer; there are great beaches, amazing food, and a great old time carousel. It’s fantastic. We also love going down to the Jersey Shore, and we loved going to Hawaii!
Q: Where do you draw your inspiration from?
A: Mostly from everyday life and our crazy imaginations. We see things on the news, we see things at schools, and we are inspired by what we read especially. In this household, people are always turning funny incidents in life into story ideas.
parenting and working just fit…
Q: What’s one piece of advice that really helped you when you were new parents? How about now?
A: We had an amazing woman named Ivorine who helped us when Olive was a baby. Olive did not cry that much, but one day when I (David) was with her, I just couldn’t get her to stop crying. So the next day I asked Ivorine what I should do when our baby was crying, and why Olive kept crying. She looked at me very patiently, like I was a slightly dull child, and said, “Babies cry.” Those two words changed our entire life. As for the feeding, watering, grooming and educating of an eight-year-old, we really try to make sure she knows she can ask us any questions, and that she can come to us if she’s having trouble with anything. We’re also very vigilant about the computer and the Internet. We try to make sure she eats great food, gets lots of rest and sleep, and knows that she is very loved. We try to teach her daily about empathy, caring about other people, trying to see things from another person’s point of view. And of course we tried to instill a sense of discipline and hard work, which is not always so easy in the entitled bubble which we Americans create as a culture for our kids.
Q: How do you two achieve work-life balance?
A: It’s actually not very easy in certain ways when your office is your home. Of course it’s fantastic to have a 30-second commute. But it’s also kind of relentless, because everywhere you look around your house is a reminder of the work that needs to be done. But we really try to focus on small things like having dinner together every night, having a big Sunday dinner with the grandparents, riding our bikes or doing something outside when it’s nice, and doing fun things together that we all love.
Q: How do you define success?
A: We define success as finding something you love to do, something you’re absolutely passionate about, and doing it, hopefully on a daily basis. If you can actually find a way to make money doing that, as we have done, all the better. In fact the first iteration of our book about publishing was called, Putting Your Passion into Print, because we are so dedicated to the idea of spending a life doing things one is passionate about.
Thank you again, Kat!
Kat Lieu is a millennial mama, doctor of physical therapy, certified lymphedema therapist, professor, indie author, and blogger from NYC. Phil is her happy little toddler who loves to play, joke around, and shower her family with love. Her blog, Phil and Mama, provides tips, hacks, free printables, advice, and resources for busy, new (and experienced) parents who work, and who seek to fit life and work into a harmonious balance.
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The Book Doctors first met Ylonda Gault Caviness when she won our Pitchapalooza at Words Bookstore in Maplewood, NJ. We were immediately struck by her presence, authority, wit, style, and the way she could string words and ideas together in exciting ways. We’re very excited her book Child, Please: How Mama’s Old School Lessons Helped Me Check Myself Before I Wrecked Myself is out, and we thought we’d pick her brain about the process of getting successfully published. To read on the Huffington Post, click here.
The Book Doctors: When did you start being a writer and how did it affect the way you see the world?
Ylonda Gault Caviness: I started being a writer at age 8 or so. I was in an all-white school at the time–which wasn’t as traumatic as you might think. I was treated warmly by 98 percent of the kids there. But a not-so-silent minority did call me the N-word occasionally and I could tell that a couple of teachers either felt sorry for me or didn’t quite know what to feel. So I always had this sense of “other-ness.” Writing assignments were my absolute favorite part of the day. In hindsight that’s not saying much because the other parts we were filled with things like either attending mass or reciting the rosary–honorable activities, of course, but at 8 or 9 not so much.
Still, writing made me an observer of life. It’s made me someone who tends to focus on the details and minutia of life. I blame all my most annoying qualities on the fact that I have a writer’s view of the world. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t see myself as a writer. It’s the only thing I ever wanted to be. Well, there was a brief period when I endeavored to be Samantha Stephens. I was young and I thought Bewitched was a career option, like being a nurse or teacher. To my mama’s credit, she never dissuaded my aspirations. Never let on that despite all my nose twitching–practice, in this case, would not make perfect. Nor was there the most remote likelihood that a little black girl would grow up to be a white woman. I guess Mama didn’t want to be a dream killer. Either that, or she was paying me no mind. In hindsight, it was probably the latter.
TBD: When did you start being a mom and how did it affect the way you see the world?
YGC: Although the first of my three kids was born 16 years ago, I don’t think I really started being a mom right away. I was physically caregiving. But I don’t think I became fully present in mom-dom until much later. Until recently, Mother’s Day seemed to me a holiday for veteran moms. Even when my third was born in May 2007–two days before Mother’s Day–I was singularly focused on my mama, who was visiting us at the time. In my head, I hadn’t yet earned bona fide, official motherhood status yet.
As my oldest kids grew into pre-adolescence I think I gained a much deeper understanding of who they were as people. And it became really clear to me that it was my job to let them grow into who they were meant to be–not some pre-determined notion of who they SHOULD be. When I started to take my hand off the wheel is when I started to see that they were already all that–and a bag of chips. For example, it became clear that the eldest one didn’t need expert tips to make her strong. I thought she was a big ole sassy pants, but she actually has all the best qualities of an independent person who can resist peer pressure. My younger daughter didn’t need to learn empathy; she came here with a sensitive heart. Same for my third, who is one of the most kind and generous people I know.
TBD: When did you start being black and how did it affect the way you see the world?
YGC: I’m really fortunate that I’ve been so black for so very long. And I was born during a time when, as far as I could see, anybody who was anybody was also black. In the early 70s, there was the Black Panther Party–badasses, Mavis Staples, Curtis Mayfield and–forget Beyoncé; I don’t care what Jay Z says–the baddest chick in the game was and still is Pam Grier. I mean, to have anything at all in common with Pam Grier clearly made me a bad mamma jamma by association. So I think growing up black gave me confidence and strength and a fighter’s mentality. I recall so clearly James Brown singing on the radio songs like “I’m Black and I’m Proud” and–my fave–“I Don’t Want Nobody to Give Me Nothin’. Open up the Door I’ll Get It Myself.”
These days a lot of people, especially famous people, will say “don’t label me as black; I’m a person.” And I get that in a way. But I’m really into being black. I feel like it makes me wise; makes me strong; makes me creative; and makes me cool. Of course, one need not be black to have all these great qualities. But if you really own your blackness, you see it as an attribute not a burden. So I’m very happy to be called black.
TBD: What were some of your mother’s mothering techniques?
YGC: Not sure it was a “technique” so much. But Mama rarely paid us any mind. The beauty of that approach was that we knew our place. We never thought we mattered all that much to the world unless we achieved something. Kids now seem to get major props just by virtue of the fact that they exist. Kids in the playground are surrounded by moms cheering their descent down the slide: “Yay, Sofie. You’ve mastered gravity!” My brother, sister and I knew that we had to earn praise. She was not cheering our descent down the slide. She wasn’t giving us extra cookies for doing well in school. Or worrying over us, which forced us to figure life out. It seems harsh by today’s standards, but it was–from what I gathered–pretty much the same in all of my friends’ homes.
TBD: How did you develop your writing skills?
YGC: If I have a skill at all, I think it’s that I know how to work relentlessly to place truth at the center of anything I write. Pretty prose is great. And I love a good turn of phrase as much as the next person. But in the end, if it’s not really, really real, I know I have to dig deep and maybe even start all over from scratch. My life as a writer is very tortuous because of it. Mama–being the cut and dried person she is–used to say to my siblings and me: “If you’ll lie, you’ll steal.” She always made you feel so worthless and despicable–even if you told a little bitty lie about eating the last fig newton or some such that I guess it stuck with me.
But when you think about it, if you can’t tell the low-down and dirty truth about yourself, at least as much as you know of it, why bother? Who are you helping? I’m not saying I’m some kind of superhero, but I honestly believe my writing is supposed to help people. It’s supposed to touch somebody in a dark corner of their heart and heal a wound. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a sort of weird, confused and broken soul. I know I’m charged with sharing that.
TBD: Your book started out as a general parenting book, not necessarily about race. How did it become a memoir that has so much about race in it?
YGC: I didn’t realize when I started writing the book how much of my motherhood was rooted in my blackness. Like anyone, my mother played a huge role in how I mothered and her experiences, growing up in the Jim Crow South and such, clearly shaped her parenting.
What I learned in the writing of my memoir, though, is that one of the things that makes our country great is the mix of cultures. They don’t exactly melt into a pot, though. And that’s not a bad thing. We bring cultural differences to our cooking. We bring cultural differences to celebrations and holidays. And, guess what? Although we don’t talk about it much, we bring cultural differences to child rearing. My hope is that we can lift up those differences and begin a new conversation, instead of pretending the differences don’t exist.
TBD: What was it like writing for The New York Times?
YGC: It was cool, because I didn’t know I was going to be picked up by the New York Times. I wrote my essay with the idea that I would submit it to a bunch of outlets. Had I known I’d be writing for the New York Times going into the whole process, I might have been intimidated. And the end result might not have been so bold.
Ignorance truly can be bliss. Once the Times accepted the piece and I went through the editing process, I am not sure I understood the power of it all. And, it’s funny. At every turn a part of me kept thinking someone high up on the Times masthead was going to come along and say, “We’ve changed our minds. This piece sucks.”
TBD: How did you get your book deal?
YGC: I won a Pitchapalooza event–which is sort of like American Idol for authors, in Ridgewood, NJ. It was crazy: a room filled with, like 200, would-be authors. And each contestant got a number. Then one by one, you get up in front of the crowd and pitch your book idea to a panel of judges made up of publishing pros.
There is no Simon Cowell and none of the panel members call out “Yo, dog!” But you and your wife Arielle Eckstut definitely have a shtick. And I remember being so nervous! I practiced for hours. And I rolled up in there with my writer’s group crew in tow. For me, I’d already won simply because I fought my doubting thoughts and got up to participate. That’s why, at the end, when the winner was announced I sort of looked around–waiting for this Ylonda Gault person to stand up. Then I suddenly realized it was me! I was the Ylonda Gault person–the winner.
From there Arielle worked with me to whip my proposal into shape. And it’s important to note that the book I pitched was not a memoir. I had absolutely no plans to tell my story. I was just going to write a parenting book and include a few personal anecdotes. It was Arielle who insisted that the personal stuff was the actual book. It took me about a year to come up with and write the Child, Please proposal. Then Arielle introduced me to Jim Levine, of Levine Greenberg Rostan–her mentor.
TBD: How did you go about developing your platform?
YGC: Hell if I know! Seriously, each time I took a job or an assignment I thought I was simply going from one job to another–not at all conscious of any sort of platform. I laugh my butt off when people say, “Wow! Your resume is great!” I think to myself: “Where were you in 2009 when I was laid off?”
I think the best thing anyone can do–and this sounds corny, I know–is do the work you believe in. And stick with it.
TBD: What do you do to make a hook that gets your book everywhere from National Public Radio to Essence magazine to The New York Times?
YGC: In no way did I get her alone, first of all. I have no formula. A lot of this stuff is just how the stars align in a certain moment in time. It’s not something you can forecast really. It’s like that Kanye West & Drake collabo, you know? Blessings on blessings on blessings. There are wonderful people all around me. I’m really fortunate that smart people, like Arielle Eckstut, helped me navigate the book proposal process. I have Jim Levine, the agent of agents, who has believed in me from the start. And Tarcher, the Penguin imprint, has the best editor in the game in Sara Carder. She has the support of publisher, Joel Fontinos. And the publicity team, Brianna Yamashita and Keely Platte, “got” Child, Please from the word “go.” Everyone did, really.
TBD: What advice do you have for writers?
YGC: You’ve gotta go for what you know. It’s the only way to be truly authentic. And if people don’t get it, the hell with them. You have to keep on keeping on.
TBD: For mothers?
YGC: Oh my goodness, I just realized, it’s the same drill! Following your instincts in everything. Mothering is a heart experience more than anything. So I follow my heart. I figure, even if I’m wrong (and I am, often) I have peace of mind. And I truly believe if I have honorable intentions that will be rewarded some how. I don’t believe kids know how good you are at this. It’s not like another mom took the stage before you and killed it–left the crowd screaming for more. But they can totally tell if your heart is not in it.
And in the end, I think we want them to see our truth. So they’ll know how to honor their own.
Ylonda Gault (@TheRealYlonda) is an author, veteran journalist and education advocate. Over the course of her 20-year print and digital magazine career, she has been a senior producer at iVillage; lifestyle and parenting editor at Essencemagazine. CHILD, PLEASE: How Mama’s Old-School Lessons Helped Me Check Myself Before I Wrecked Myself is her first book.
Gault’s feature writing and editing has appeared in a variety of publications including The New York Times, Redbook, Health and The Huffington Post. Best known for her coverage of family, parenting, women’s and lifestyle topics, she has been a frequent guest on NPR, TODAY, Good Day New York ABC News and other broadcasts. She lives in Northern New Jersey with her three amazing children.