We first met Grant Faulkner at one of the greatest gigs the Book Doctors ever had, presenting our writing workshops in rural Alaska. There were eagles, there were bears, there were drunken sailors, and there were lots of amazing Alaskan writers. Going through the writing process bonds you with someone, and we feel like Grant has become part of our literary family. His new book, Pep Talks for Writers: 52 Insights and Actions to Boost Your Creative Mojo, is out now, so we picked his brain about what it’s like running the amazing National Novel Writing Month organization and writing—and publishing—his own book.
The Book Doctors: Why in the name of all that’s good and holy did you decide to become a writer?
Grant Faulkner: I’m not sure that I had a choice. I’ve always felt like I was a writer. I took a fetishist’s delight over paper and pens when I was a kid. My mom bought me a little antique rolltop desk when I was 6, and I wrote my first story on that desk. I asked for a leather bound diary for my 7th birthday, and I’ve kept a journal ever since then.
When I was 20, I was deciding whether to be an economics or an English major, and I fortunately spent a semester abroad in France before declaring. I whiled away most of my time in cafes reading novels and writing. When I returned home, I spent the summer writing stories in a little shack on my grandmother’s farm. It goes without saying that I didn’t major in economics, and the field of economics is the better for it.
TBD: What were some of your favorite books as a kid? What are you reading now, and why?
GF: The book that most changed my sense of the world as a kid was Crime and Punishment. I was too young to truly understand it, but I stumbled on it in the library when I was 13, and I picked it up because I was writing a paper on crime. Dostoyevsky showed me the many layers and paradoxes of the human soul in a way I hadn’t imagined. I truly stared into the abyss. Raskolnikov still haunts me.
I just finished Leonard Cohen’s biography, and I’m now reading his book of poems, The Book of Longing. I can never get enough of Leonard Cohen’s voice in my head. I like the way the textures of his poetry influence the textures of my prose. I’m also reading Stranger, Father, Beloved by Taylor Larsen. I just met her, and I thought she was a fantastic person, and it turns out she wrote a really wonderful, probing book.
TBD: What was your inspiration for writing Pep Talks for Writers?
GF: I’ve talked to so many writers who want to write year-round, who want to finish their novels after National Novel Writing Month, but it can be challenging to keep writing. I think it can be a little like a New Year’s resolution. People buy gym memberships in January and show up to exercise for a month or two, but then it’s tough to keep going regularly the rest of the year.
I want people to prioritize creativity and develop a creative mindset so that they’re not just creative in November, but every day of their lives. Creative on the page—and beyond the page. The book offers 52 different angles on creativity, so I hope people will read an essay a week and work to develop a creative habit.
TBD: What were some of the joys, and some of the pains, of putting this book together, finding a publisher, and getting it out into the world?
GF: I’d never written a nonfiction book proposal, so that was a learning experience. I didn’t realize how involved the proposal would be. It was practically like writing the book itself—which was a blessing once I actually started writing the book. Fortunately, my agent, Lindsay Edgecombe, was a fantastic and generous guide.
Other than that, it was a great experience. I was fortunate to find a home for the book at Chronicle Books, which is the perfect publisher for it, and then I also had the perfect editor for it in Wynn Rankin. I hope the experience hasn’t spoiled me for upcoming book projects.
TBD: We give pep talks to writers all the time. What are some dos and don’ts of this very precarious activity?
GF: The interesting thing about being a writer is how intrinsically challenging it is, no matter if you’re a beginner or a seasoned pro. The anguish of self-doubt is always looming. The difficulty of making your ideas come alive through your words never ends. There are so many how-to-write books that deal with the nuts and bolts of craft, but the thing that matters in the end is sitting down to write, believing in yourself, taking creative risks, and writing your story.
That’s easier said than done, of course. Every writer, especially when finishing a long work like a novel, goes through cycles of despair. We all need to be reminded of why we’re doing this crazy activity of making art, putting our voice into the world. It’s easy to forget what a gift it is. It’s easy to forget that we need to constantly nourish our creative spirits.
TBD: What are you doing to promote and market the book?
GF: So many things. It’s been great to write articles on different creativity topics related to the book for publications such as Poets & Writers, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer. I’ve been on a lot of podcasts and radio shows, which have been really fun. And then I’m doing bookstore events, tweet chats, presentations at colleges and companies, and then speeches at writing and publishing conferences.
My favorite part of my job is talking to people about their writing, and promoting this book has deepened those conversations, so I love it.
TBD: How did you learn to be a writer?
GF: I learned how to be a writer mainly by writing. I unfortunately didn’t have a superhero teacher who mentored me along the way. I’ve read many writing guides and how-to books. I’ve taken writing workshops and even have a masters in creative writing. But I’ve learned most about writing just by showing up to write regularly, being in conversation with my favorite writers’ books, and experimenting in different forms.
TBD: You’ve been running National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) for a few years now. What have you learned from rubbing elbows, and various other body parts, with all those writers?
GF: I’ve learned so much from the NaNoWriMo writing community. We writers tend to be solitary creatures, or that is how we often think of ourselves. And it’s true, a lot of writing tends to happen in solitude. But if you trace the history of literature, you realize how it takes a veritable village to write a book. Think of Bloomsbury, Paris in the ‘20s, the Inklings, the Beatniks. The writers in those communities created each other as they were creating themselves.
Frissons of creativity tend to happen with others. When you engage with other writers, you’re naturally combining an assortment of different concepts, elaborating and modifying each other’s thoughts. Meeting regularly with others to write or get feedback is important, and not just for your creativity— it also keeps you accountable.
The NaNoWriMo writing community is such a wondrous playground of ideas. It’s so spirited, so encouraging, so generous. It’s not only made me a better writer, it’s made me a better person.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but since your book is about writing, we kind of have to ask. What advice do you have for writers?
GF: Sit down. Try to remember the first story you wrote, the glee you took in exploring your imagination on the page. Hold onto the feeling of that gift and write. Write your story, your way—as if no one is going to read it but you. Write some more. And then keep writing, never doubting that the world needs your story.
The Book Doctors will host the eighth annual NaNoWriMo Pitchapalooza beginning in 2018. One winner will receive an introduction to an agent or publisher appropriate for their manuscript. Be the first to know about 2018 NaNoWriMo Pitchapalooza.
Grant Faulkner is the Executive Director of National Novel Writing Month and the co-founder of 100 Word Story. His stories have appeared in dozens of literary magazines, including Tin House, The Southwest Review, and The Los Angeles Review. His essays on writing have been published in The New York Times, Poets & Writers, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer. He recently published Pep Talks for Writers: 52 Insights and Prompts to Boost Your Creative Mojo with Chronicle Books. He’s also published a collection of one hundred 100-word stories, Fissures, two of which are included in Best Small Fictions 2016. Learn more at www.grantfaulkner.com.
We were absolutely delighted when we got a request from editor extraordinaire Peter Ginna to write something for a new book he was putting together called What Editors Do: The Art, Craft, and Business of Book Editing. Because Arielle is an agent and writer, and David is a writer and book doctor, we have a very different perspective than most people who make money editing books. We thoroughly enjoyed writing our piece, but it was much more fun reading some of the amazing pieces in this book. So now that What Editors Do is out, we picked Peter’s brain on what it was like to go from being the guy with the red pencil to the guy waiting to see how many red marks would come back on his pages.
The Book Doctors: As your subtitle suggests, and as your introduction states, being an editor today includes so much more than editing. What should you expect from your editor? Or if you’re looking to become an editor, what skills do you need to do the job well?
Peter Ginna: Let me answer those questions in reverse order. As I said in the piece that you mention, editing encompasses many different roles. The core of the job is still working with an author to make his or her text as good as it can be. Some editors inside publishing houses, and most freelance editors, focus almost entirely on that task. But most editors, especially in trade publishing, have to shepherd a book all the way from the author’s keyboard into the marketplace, so they have to be very involved in marketing, design, production, publicity—everything that goes into bringing that work to readers.
If you’re looking to become an editor, nobody expects you to be an expert at that stuff right away. But you need to have an interest in learning about it, because it’s crucial.
If you’re an author, you should expect your editor to be passionate about your book, and to treat you as a valued partner in the publishing process. For a lot of authors, the publishing house is a black box. The editor owes them frequent and honest communication.
TBD: Why is it that in relationships, as in books, it’s so easy to see what’s wrong with someone else’s stuff, but so hard to see what’s wrong with our own stuff? Is there any way to bring the editor’s outlook to your own work?
PG: It’s incredibly hard to judge your own work! That’s why there are editors. At the risk of seeming to suck up, your chapter in this book on self-editing for authors has great advice on this. At a minimum, put your manuscript away for a week (or longer) and reread it with fresher eyes. Read it aloud so you can really hear how it flows, or doesn’t. Even better, enlist some “beta readers” whom you can trust to give you an honest response.
TBD: We have found that editing other people’s books makes us better writers, and being writers helps us as editors. What did you learn from writing and putting together this book that you will bring back to your job as editor?
PG: Hah! —I learned how hard it is to meet your editor’s deadlines! And continuing from your last question, learned, from the author’s side, how valuable it is to be forced to think about why you said something a certain way, and whether there might be a clearer or cleaner way to say it.
TBD: While we’re on the subject, what was it like exchanging your editor hat for your writer hat? And did you end up cursing your editor silently or out loud? And what advice do you have for writers when they receive an edit back on their most precious book?
PG: I never cursed my editor, who was wonderful. My experience in thirty-plus years of editing has been that authors rarely cursed me out. I believe that what authors want, more than praise or even success, is to be read. For a reader to connect with their writing. If the author knows you’ve read their work really closely, even if you are criticizing something or asking them to change it, they are usually grateful. I have definitely found that it’s the best writers who are most gracious and receptive to editorial suggestions. (With very rare egomaniacal exceptions…)
TBD: We always tell people that editors and agents are trained to say “no.” Can you speak to the experience of rejecting books? Is it rote at this point or do you actually feel anything when you are rejecting? And if you dealt with rejection with this book, can you tell us how it felt to be on the other side?
PG: I understand why you say editors are trained to say no—we do it 95 percent of the time, or more. And especially as traditional publishers compete with self-publishing, we’ve heard a lot about the editor as “gatekeeper,” an image that makes you think of a bouncer turning away people from a hot party. But that’s not how editors think about it—nobody comes to work hoping to turn down a lot of books that day. Editors live to find books to publish, and new titles are the lifeblood of a publishing house. Every day you open your email hoping to find something you love. It’s easy to reject a manuscript that leaves you cold, but editors really agonize when they come across a book that shows talent but that they can’t make an offer for—either because colleagues won’t support it, or because it’s too flawed in some way. Fortunately for me, my editor and I worked together on creating What Editors Do from the beginning so I didn’t have to go through the process of pitching it.
TBD: Can you tell us the process a book goes through at a publishing house once a deal is made? And are there any differences in the actual editing process between a Big 5 publisher, an independent house, or an academic press?
PG: Whew, the process is quite complicated and anyone who wants a thorough description of it should read the chapter by Nancy Miller called “The Book’s Journey.” The first part of it is the actual editing, where editor and author revise the manuscript (sometimes several times). But there’s also a multi-pronged marketing process that begins at acquisition and really ramps up when the final manuscript is delivered. At that point there’s also the complex work of turning the author’s text into a printed or digital book, which itself usually takes several months.
The principles of editing don’t vary between presses, but it is often the case that academic presses do a kind of triage on their lists. They don’t have the resources to edit every book intensively, so many books don’t get too much more than a copy edit. However, for books where they feel the effort is appropriate, scholarly publishers often do just as good a job, or better, than trade houses. My editor, and the whole press at Chicago, did a superbly thorough job on What Editors Do. I should add that there are chapters in my book by editors from independent and academic presses who discuss their work in more depth.
TBD: Speaking of academic presses, What Editors Do is published by The University of Chicago Press. Why did you choose to go with a university press? Does the fact that they publish The Chicago Manual of Style influence your decision at all, since this is a book every editor needs to have on her desk? What was the experience like and how did it differ from the publishing experience of say, Bloomsbury, where you were Editorial Director?
PG: Chicago, in fact, proposed this project to me, which was some form of kismet because I had been thinking for some time about the need for a book like this. This subject made sense for them, because good publishers are always looking for books in areas where they’re already strong—they know the market and have a head start on getting recognition for new titles in that field. And for me, because Chicago is a leading publisher in this area, I was thrilled to be on their list. For an editing book, to be marketed alongside the Manual of Style is a big advantage. It’s hard for me to compare Chicago vs. Bloomsbury from the author’s point of view because I have only been an author with one of them. I’d say the main difference is that Chicago is placing more emphasis on marketing to courses and libraries than most trade presses would, and is less focused on the trade market.
TBD: Is it possible for writers to approach editors at larger houses directly? What is the best way of doing this?
PG: Realistically speaking, I would recommend authors try to find an agent before approaching publishers directly. It’s simply much harder to get an editor’s attention when you submit “over the transom.” That said, as an editor I was always open to an intelligent, well-targeted query. If an author wrote me and said, “I saw that you were the editor of Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse mysteries. I’ve written a new crime novel with a brilliant, enigmatic detective and classic whodunit elements that I think will appeal to the same readers who love Morse,” I would always give that person’s work a read. I knew that the author had at least done some homework and thought about why they were sending it to me.
TBD: Our essay in What Editors Do is about self-publishing. Many people ask us, “If I self-publish my book, will it ruin my chances of getting published by a bigger publisher?” How would you answer this question?
PG: You probably know more about this question than I do, but especially nowadays I don’t think there’s any stigma attached to having self-published your work. What’s important is to self-publish your work well. If your self-published book is full of mistakes, badly typeset, or amateurish-looking, it will reflect badly on you. (Covers are hugely important!) But if you do a good job with it—and especially if you sell enough copies to show there is an audience for your writing—I think that gives you a leg up on finding a publisher for future work.
TBD: You rarely hear a kid say “I want to be an editor when I grow up.” This is particularly true if you don’t grow up in a typically white, well-educated, upper middle class environment. Chris Jackson has a brilliant essay in the book about the fact that there is little to no diversity in publishing despite all the talk about the issue. If someone is reading this interview and wants to become an editor but doesn’t fit into these boxes, what tips do you have for breaking into the business? How can you encourage someone to make the effort to break down doors?
PG: I would urge anyone, of any background, to read Chris’s essay because it shows how a person who is passionate about books found his way in publishing despite both his own handicaps—Chris says he didn’t know how to type a letter when he started out as an assistant—and the structural obstacles in the system. It’s unfortunately true that, like many other old-school businesses, publishers are oversupplied with applicants from privileged backgrounds with fancy college degrees, and they still hire lots of those people because it’s easy to do. The good news is that most every publisher understands the importance of diversity and many houses have explicit efforts under way to increase it, so it’s a great time to apply for a job in publishing.
Also, I truly believe publishing is democratic in the sense that, if you really love reading, and really know your way around books, and you’re smart and willing to work hard, that will get recognized really fast. And it’s actually way more important than whether you went to an Ivy League school. This may sound silly, but what we all have in common in the book business is that we love books! And being among people who self-selected on that principle makes for a pretty congenial working life. Whatever “box” you fit into, if you are one of those people who spent your teenage years reading with a flashlight under the covers, you should think about a career in publishing.
Peter Ginna is an independent book editor and the author/editor of WHAT EDITORS DO: THE ART, CRAFT, AND BUSINESS OF BOOK EDITING. He has worked in publishing houses for over 30 years, most recently as publisher and editorial director at Bloomsbury Press, an imprint he founded at Bloomsbury USA. Before that he held editorial positions at Oxford University Press, Crown Publishers, St. Martin’s Press, and Persea Books. Authors he has worked with include James M. McPherson, David Hackett Fischer, and David Oshinsky (all winners of the Pulitzer Prize), Daniel Ellsberg, Michael B. Oren, Alice Kessler-Harris, Suze Orman, and Colin Dexter. He comments about books, writing, and publishing at the blog Doctor Syntax, and has written for Creative Nonfiction magazine, Nieman Storyboard, and the Huffington Post. You can follow him on Twitter at @DoctorSyntax.
We met the ThriftStylers at one of the great comedy writers conferences in America: the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop. We knew as soon as we saw them that they were special, in the best sense of that word. So when we found out they were coming out with a book, ThriftStyle: The Ultimate Bargain Shoppers Guide to Smart Fashion, we decided it was in everyone’s best interest to pick their brains about writing, style, and being awesomely thrifty.
The Book Doctors: What in the world made you want to write a book?
Reise Moore: I had been quietly thrifting for years and had started a thrifting blog that had gone defunct. Allison and I had a lunch date (the Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles Summit) where she mentioned she and her twin Margaret (Peggy) had been kicking around a TV show on thrifting. I revealed that I was an avid thrifter and almost everything I wore, except underwear, was thrifted head to toe. Next thing I knew, Allison said, “So let’s work on this show.” I’m a mom of three and I was finishing up grad school at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at USC, so all I was thinking about was sleep. But Allison is convincing. Next thing I knew, I was nodding and saying, “Yeah, when we produce the show.” The idea morphed into us writing a book first and using it as a calling card for a show.
TBD: Did you have any books that you used as models for ThriftStyle: The Ultimate Bargain Shoppers Guide to Smart Fashion?
Allison Engel: There aren’t that many books on thrifting, but the few I saw tended not to have the ring of truth. They showed fabulous couture quality items that the author admitted buying three decades ago in Paris and were not relatable to readers looking in their local Goodwill today. We made a conscious decision to buy items that were in thrift stores right now, and for each item shown we included the price we paid and where we bought it. We also wanted lots of photographs of people wearing thrifted outfits. We used our diverse friends and family as models (both male and female), further making the point that these are clothes and accessories that can be found and worn by real people right now.
Reise Moore: I wanted ThriftStyle to be a love letter to thrifting. I wanted readers to realize the creative possibilities by upcycling and making simple fixes. And I wanted people to understand that textile waste is real and thrifting is a way to recycle and reuse. I wanted ThriftStyle to be the ultimate book on thrifting. In the quest to achieve that, we touched on so much more, such as developing your personal style and using thrifting to support charitable causes. The book is way more than I imagined it would be at the onset.
TBD: How did you go about getting the book published?
Margaret Engel: Our original idea was to make ThriftStyle a television show, and we are now working with a Hollywood production company to do just that. When I was managing editor at the Newseum, the museum of news, I had worked with a publisher on several books about journalists. That publisher reconnected with me when his firm was merging with a larger publisher, Charlesbridge, and asked me if I had any ideas for a mass-market book. I mentioned that the three of us were starting work on a possible television series about thrifted clothing. He suggested doing the book first, and we dove in.
TBD: What were some of the joys, and some of the pains, of writing this book?
Reise Moore: One frustration in writing the book is in thrifting; most everything you find is one of a kind. Everything in our book — clothes, jewelry, shoes, handbags, belts — is thrifted. So there is no size up or size down if the clothes don’t fit your model. We were thrifting clothes and doing fittings before shoots. If it did not work on the model, the outfit you loved on the hanger was out the window and you had to go back shopping. Allison’s apartment was overrun with all things ThriftStyle. It looked like a Salvation Army outlet!
We have more than 350 photos in ThriftStyle. Shoot days brought me huge joy. They were tough and long. We were a skeleton crew jamming in a bunch of set-ups, but we were pushing the dream forward. It reminded me of my film school days. Our photographer, the amazing Roger Snider, was patient and flexible and the hardest worker of all.
TBD: We are married, and we’ve written several books together. What was it like to navigate writing this book with your twin?
Margaret Engel: Allison and I began writing books together in the typewriter and carbon paper days of the early 1980s, mailing finished pages to each other cross country in envelopes with stamps, so the advent of cheap long-distance phone calls and emails has made the process much, much easier. When we are writing, we can still have the world’s shortest phone conversations, because we don’t need to give a long preamble or carefully couch criticism. We can be quick and direct. We tend to write different sections and then send it to each other for edits. Working together in a room, with one person typing and the other looking over her shoulder, is not a recipe for success for us. It takes twice as long. When Reise joined the team, we used the same strategy. We divided up chapters – or parts of chapters – and each of us wrote separately, then emailed the results to the others.
Reise Moore: It was daunting to step into the dynamic of twin sisters who have written successfully together and you are the literal third wheel. Allison and I were friends first so I knew she was cool. But I was super concerned about Peggy and I wanted to make sure she was OK with it. I was super concerned about me because here I am suddenly writing alongside two very accomplished and successful writers who have had a whole lifetime of being each other’s sounding board. There were a lot of “what ifs” on my end. But I had to get over it quickly because I noticed early on that everything was about the work. Once I got over myself, we were cooking. I found the room to be as big and expressive and creative as I wanted to be, and it easily became a creative space we shared and collaborated in. We complemented each other well.
TBD: How did you get into the whole world of ThriftStyling?
Reise Moore: My big sister Barbara Biggs-Lester is a jewelry connoisseur with a stunning fully-thrifted collection, and she was my muse. It started with some cheaply made purses I was so proud to have scored on sale at a retail store. She saw them, was not impressed, and said, “Let’s go thrifting.” I discovered the quality and bargains I could find in a thrift store and took off. Soon after, I became aware that thrifting is green and philanthropic, and I never looked back. What keeps me thrifting now is I love the idea of looking good while doing good for the planet, for important causes and for my own creativity.
TBD: Can you give us the top-three list of dos and don’ts when it comes to finding awesome bargains for pennies?
- Don’t judge a thrift store by its cover. Some of the most amazing clothing I have found has been in a place I was afraid to walk into. The neighborhood was dicey, but once I was inside, the designer pieces were jumping off the racks. The folks were warm and friendly and most everything was priced between two and five bucks.
- Do seek out a top-notch dry cleaner. If you turn your nose up at thrifting because someone else has worn the clothes, please know that several studies have shown that even new clothes hanging in a store can be pretty darn dirty. We immediately take everything we thrift to the dry cleaner or wash it ourselves. If you focus on quality, natural fiber items at thrift stores (and you should), they deserve the extra cost of dry cleaning.
- Do develop a clear idea of your own personal style. Thrifting newbies often are seduced by the low prices and end up with armloads of items in a grab bag of styles. Being able to focus on the silhouettes, colors and styles that flatter you and make you happy can help you sift through the sometimes overwhelming thrift store inventory and find what speaks to you. Tastemakers and trendsetters know this, and that’s why some of the best-dressed people I have ever seen have been in thrift stores.
TBD: What are some of the things that you learned talking to all the people in the book?
Allison Engel: We realized the absolute explosion in thrift and consignment shopping in this country, with new online outlets and new brick and mortar chains, as well as the longtime charitable thrifts. The Association of Resale Professionals has determined that thrift stores generate $12 billion in annual revenue. One in six American adults now shop second hand, and they are increasingly drawn to thrift stores because they are eco-friendly. Textile waste is a huge problem, and thrift stores are luring millennials who are concerned about the issue.
We interviewed thrift shop owners, dedicated thrifters, personal shoppers at thrift stores (they exist!), professionals who help people downsize and organize their belongings, costume designers, tailors, dry cleaners, cobblers, re-weavers and many others, and filled the book with their tips and observations. We loved the hints we received from Chelsea Confalone, who scouts the bins at thrift stores where items are sold by the pound. She buys clothing in beautiful fabrics that might have a rip or tear and remakes them into items for her young children. She’s now taking sewing lessons. Pinterest can supply clothing redo ideas (look under “Remake Clothes” under the “Explore” tab), and YouTube has instruction videos. I love the idea that thrift stores can spark creativity and an interest in handmade, refashioned items.
TBD: Why should people thrift?
Reise Moore: People have a misconception that thrifting is just for folks without money or down on their luck. Don’t get it twisted, I can afford to shop retail and I definitely can afford to shop discount clothing stores. I thrift because I want to be a better kind of consumer. I don’t want my purchases to add to the huge issue of textile waste that is fueled by fast fashion. I want my purchases to count toward the missions of the charity-based thrift stores I frequent.
Also, I have never felt so creatively unchained when it comes to clothes. Your unique take on how you choose to clothe yourself is a form of self-expression. It can be unleashed in thrift stores because there is so much to choose from. When it comes to trends, nothing is better than thrift stores because trends often repeat or harken back to some specific decade. So if I see that ‘90s grunge or ‘70s chic is back, I can find original representations of the look in thrift stores. Nothing beats originals, as they are a much higher quality than what can be found in fast-fashion outlets. It is the reason why celebrities and fashionistas wear vintage and frequent thrift stores.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?
Allison Engel: Be persistent. Most of the ideas we’ve had for books and plays have existed in our notebooks, computers and brains for years and years. We don’t give up on ideas we think are worthwhile, even if it takes others a while to agree. We had our Food Finds idea for several years before our first book was published – and we still were very early in identifying and chronicling the rise of American foods made by small, family-run producers.
If we hit a roadblock, we might abandon a project for a bit, but we simply hold the thought until we, perhaps, meet someone who will help it along, or wait for the topic to catch fire in the national consciousness. If we listened to naysayers and gatekeepers, we wouldn’t have published or produced much in our lives.
Allison Engel is a journalist who has written articles and produced photographs for Apartment Life, Metropolitan Home, Traditional Home, Country Home, Renovation Style, American Patchwork & Quilting, Quilt Sampler, Midwest Living, Palm Springs Life and others. She was a longtime columnist for Saveur, and her freelance articles have appeared in Esquire, The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times. She and her twin sister wrote three editions of a book on family-run food producers (Food Finds: America’s Best Local Foods and the People Who Produce Them) for HarperCollins, which they turned into the show Food Finds for Food Network that ran for seven years.
She holds a dual bachelor’s degree in textiles/clothing and journalism from Iowa State University, a master’s degree in screenwriting from the University of Southern California and was a Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University. A play she wrote with twin sister Margaret Engel, Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins, attracted Kathleen Turner for its premiere production, and has received several other record-breaking Equity productions around the nation in the last three years. A second play, Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End, had its premiere at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., last year, an Equity production in Cincinnati this past spring, and several upcoming productions scheduled.
For five years, Allison was senior editor of the University of Southern California alumni magazine and web editor for USC News, and she currently is the associate director of the Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities at USC.
Maricia “Reise” Moore has more than 16 years of experience producing and managing productions, including shows for Animal Planet and A&E’s Biography. She is a graduate of the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts with an emphasis in production, and holds a master’s degree in communication management from the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at USC. She is currently an executive in charge of production for the Campus Filming Office at USC, overseeing major production companies on feature films, network and cable television and national commercial shoots.
Reise is a thrift store fanatic. What started out six years ago as a grudging trip to a thrift store swiftly became a passion for quality and beautiful, unique clothes at a rock bottom prices. She prides herself on dressing head to toe every day —including accessories—in fabulous thrifted finds. When she is not combing the aisles of thrift stores, she is happily being mom to three kids and wife to her writer husband in Los Angeles.
Her first book, ThriftStyle: The Ultimate Bargain Shopper’s Guide to Smart Fashion, written with Allison Engel and Margaret Engel, was published in September 2017. Reise and the Engels currently are working with a production company to turn the book into a television show starring Hollywood costume designers who shop at thrift stores to help everyday consumers solve fashion problems.
Margaret Engel directs the Alicia Patterson Journalism Foundation and was the managing editor of the Newseum. She was a reporter for the Washington Post, Des Moines Register and Lorain Journal and was a Nieman fellow at Harvard. She co-wrote Food Finds: America’s Best Local Foods and the People Who Produce Them with her twin Allison, and helped turn the book into a show for Food Network, where it ran for seven years.
She and Allison wrote the play Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins, which is still being produced regularly, and has had about 35 productions to date around the country. She also co-authored the play Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End, which has had several Equity productions, with upcoming productions in Arizona, New York, New Jersey, Florida, Virginia and Ohio.
She has served on the board of Theatre Washington/Helen Hayes Awards, the Fund for Investigative Journalism and chairs the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism awards board. She is a judge for the Boston Globe’s Spotlight awards and is a member of the Nieman Foundation board.
She and her husband, Bruce Adams, wrote three editions of a Fodor’s travel guide to America’s baseball parks, with the help of their children, Emily and Hugh.
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’ve been fans of Holly Kowitt for longer than any of us care to remember. And now, our nine-year-old is a fan. And so it goes. When we heard the title of Holly’s new book, we howled, we roared, we had to have it! The Principle’s Underwear Is Missing! What more do you need in a kids’ book? Since she’s one of the funniest, most creative, and most successful writers we know, we thought we’d pick her brain on books, writing, principals, and yes, underwear.
The Book Doctors: Why in heaven’s name did you decide to become a writer? And having made that decision, why did you decide to write books for kids?
Holly Kowitt: I first became a writer to get illustration work! My cartoon-like drawing style made me a tough match for most children’s books (this was pre-Wimpy Kid) so I had to create my own projects. Which turned out to be a good thing.
Part of ending up in children’s books was random– my first entry-level job just happened to be at Scholastic. Being there naturally made me focus on kids.
TBD: What were some of your favorite books when you were growing up, and why?
HK: Harriet the Spy was my all-time favorite. The characters were so alive to me—so real and quirky—and, like Harriet, I wanted to be a writer. I also loved Beverly Cleary’s Fifteen, a low-concept, timeless coming-of-age story with the best first line ever: “Today I’m going to meet a boy…”
TBD: What books are you reading currently, and what books have you really enjoyed lately?
HK: Should be reading: Evicted by Matthew Desmond
Secretly reading: I Represent Sean Rosen, a middle grade novel by Jeff Baron.
Recently enjoyed: The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett and The Daily Show: An Oral History.
TBD: As an illustrator as well as a writer, how do you get these two parts of your brain to cooperate with each other? What are some of the advantages and disadvantages to wearing both hats simultaneously?
HK: The cartoons give me an extra way to hook reluctant readers, and add a loose, fun energy. Plus, they’re a blast to draw. The disadvantage is sometimes the text gets robbed to let the illustrations shine. It’s hard to cut a good joke, even when you realize it works better as a picture.
TBD: I just did a Google search of your name and the word “underwear,” and I got tons of hits. Did you ever think your life as a kids’ book author would lead you down this dark path?
HK: Ha ha! Children’s Book Rule #8: Use the word “underwear” whenever possible.
TBD: The Principal’s Underwear Is Missing: That may be the greatest title I’ve ever heard. How did you come up with it? And what was the inspiration for the story? Have you ever had underwear go missing? Have you ever been involved with principal’s underwear?
HK: I tried to invent the most catastrophic scenario possible for my heroines—and I think I found it. My approach to a story is always: what’s the biggest problem I could give this character? No, it’s not torn from my own life!
TBD: How do you capture the voice of the kids so well?
HK: Obvi it’s, like, crazy-hard. Some combination of subway eavesdropping, The Urban Dictionary website, profiles of twelve-year old YouTube stars, Seventeen Magazine, and Shop Jeen on Instagram gets me in the ballpark.
TBD: What was your inspiration for the story?
HK: I got the idea from Jeeves, the P.G. Wodehouse series about a rich, dimwitted young man and his very smart butler. I thought it would be fun to set the story in middle school, where a ditzy, super-popular 8th grader teams up with a 6th grade nobody. The Queen Bee has a habit of getting herself into trouble, and it’s up to her brilliant younger friend to get her out.
TBD: What’s this story about?
HK: Becca, a bookish 6th grader, accidentally zonks the school’s most glamorous 8th grader with a volleyball. To make it up to her, Becca tries to do Selfie a favor. But she accidentally grabs the wrong shopping bag—one containing a very personal item. Even that wouldn’t be so bad, if Selfie didn’t immediately lose it.
It’s the story of a friendship that holds constant surprises. It’s about exploring an off-limits older world, and finding out how it’s better (and worse) than your own. It’s about challenging the unspoken rules of middle school, and doing what’s right. It’s about losing the principal’s underwear.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers and illustrators?
HK: Billy Crystal’s ex-manager once told him to “leave a tip” with his stand-up act—to go deeper and more personal. After I finish a chapter, I go back and try to squeeze in an extra ten percent to make it funnier, weirder, realer. So my advice is to always give your work that extra push. You won’t be sorry.
Holly Kowitt has written more than fifty books for younger readers, including the Loser List series. She lives in New York City, where she enjoys cycling, flea markets, and West Coast swing dancing. Find her online at kowittbooks.com.
We’ve said it before, and will say it again: if you are writing for kids, or reading for kids, or ever were a kid yourself, it behooves you to be a member of the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). That’s where we met Josh Funk. Until recently, he was in charge of the annual conference, so we got to know him in an intimate yet thoroughly professional way. Josh is a bundle of creativity, imagination and good fun. And since his new book The Case of the Stinky Stench is out, we picked his brain about kids and books, and the strange and wonderful intersection of those two things.
The Book Doctors: Welcome back!
Josh Funk: Thank you so much for inviting me back, Arielle and David!
TBD: What books are you currently reading, and why?
JF: If it’s okay with you, I’m gonna answer the ‘why’ first. I recently returned home from a two-week tour celebrating The Case of the Stinky Stench, during which I went to 19 schools, a couple of public libraries, and over a dozen bookstores. Because of that, most of what I’m reading is based on bookseller recommendations – and I couldn’t have made a better decision to go that route. Booksellers know their stuff! So here’s what I’ve got:
Out of Wonder by Kwame Alexander with Chris Colderly and Marjory Wentworth, illustrated by Ekua Holmes – this one is so good, I often read a few of the poems contained within this book during my events (usually “How to Write a Poem,” “For Our Children’s Children,” and “Spin a Song”).
7 Ate 9 by Tara Lazar, illustrated by Ross MacDonald – to me, this is a perfect picture book. It’s overflowing with cleverness, exactly my kind of humor, gorgeous illustrations, a well-crafted story, and frankly, a solution I didn’t see coming (but I’ll bet some clever kids could figure it out). With six stellar picture books under her belt, Lazar is one of my favorite picture book authors today.
Stack the Cats by Susie Ghahremani – this book makes me chuckle on every page. I bought it for my 8-month old niece, and almost kept it for myself. Absurdist humor at its best. And a counting book (as a software engineer, I do love numbers!).
Timmy Failure #6: The Cat Stole My Pants by Stephan Pastis – this series is fantastic! I’ve read each book aloud with my kids and there are at least 2 or 3 times during each book when I have to stop cause I’m laughing so hard (it was Speedo Steve this time). I can’t wait for the movie!
The Gardener by Sarah Stewart, illustrated by David Small – so this has been one of my favorite books for a long time (one of four books that I credit with making me want to be a writer). But while at Bookbug in Kalamazoo, Michigan, about 5 minutes prior to my event, the proprietor of the store came over to me and whispered, “That’s Sarah Stewart and David Small.” Long-story-short…ish – they’re regulars and it was just a coincidence they showed up. Nevertheless, I shared my love of The Gardener with them, at which point Sarah asked me why I felt so strongly about the book. I gave her my reasons and she responded with a hug. Then they signed a copy for me and posed for a picture. Needless to say I was giddy with excitement during the event.
Some other books I bought based on bookseller recommendation (but haven’t gotten to read yet) are:
- Real Friends by Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham
- The Lost Island of Tamarind by Nadia Agular
- Bull by David Elliott
- Goodbye, Columbus by Philip Roth
- Red Rising by Pierce Brown
- The Highest Mountain of Books in the World by Rocio Bonilla
- King of the Bench: No Fear by Steve Moore
TBD: If we’re not mistaken, this is your last year running the fabulous New England SCBWI Conference. What have you learned from all this, and are you ready to pass out?
JF: I was co-director of the New England Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) Regional Spring Conference in 2016 and 2017 – and yes, my duties are now complete. It’s been an incredible experience working with my co-directors Heather Kelly, Sera Rivers, and Marilyn Salerno.
The NESCBWI Conference is a three-day conference (Fri-Sun) that takes place annually in Springfield, MA in late April / early May. This year we had over 700 attendees for the first time ever (to be fair, last year was 699, this year was 703). Planning duties have included:
- Selecting and scheduling 100+ hours of breakout workshops led by about 75-100 faculty members (each year we get well over 300 workshop proposals)
- Arranging 3-4 keynote speakers and another 3-4 keynote panels
- Organizing bonus activities like our Portfolio Showcase, Illustration Challenge, and evening activities
- Arranging professional critique opportunities with over two dozen literary agents, editors, and art directors
- Countless (but necessary) logistical arrangements with online registration databases, convention/hotel/AV staff, travel-related activities, and delegation of duties to over 100 volunteers
- And probably a lot more that I’ve already forgotten
Everything went swimmingly.
Did a New York City subway power outage cause the charter bus carrying most of the agents and editors to arrive with only minutes to spare before critiques began? Of course it did!
Did it matter that the hotel overbooked conference attendees by 14 rooms? Absolutely not!
What have I learned? Two things:
- Relax, it will always work out.
- I never want to become an event planner.
I probably would have passed out for a month … but due to the unpredictable schedules of publishing, my aforementioned book tour for The Case of the Stinky Stench started just six days later!
TBD: Tell us about The Case of the Stinky Stench. Everyone wants to know, why is the stench so stinky?
JF: Have you ever opened the fridge and smelled something funny? Have you followed that up by taking out every item until you’ve found the stinky culprit, only to find that it wasn’t the obvious ‘spoiled cheese’ or ‘rancid meat’ – but it was the last thing you’d have suspected? Who knew an innocent zucchini would turn that color? Or so that’s what happens when you put mushrooms next to mustard! (That’ll teach me to organize my fridge alphabetically.)
Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast was a race for the last drop of syrup. In this sequel, I wanted to keep the setting and characters, but change up the genre. Maybe if there’s a third one it’ll be an action-spy-thriller (wink-wink).
In The Case of the Stinky Stench, Inspector Croissant (Sir French Toast’s nephew) joins the team and they travel through the fridge chasing suspect after suspect. Is it Baron von Waffle in his evil lair (Onion Ring Cave)? Could it be a fetid fish in Corn Chowder Lake – or is the fish a literal red herring? I won’t ‘spoil’ the ending for you (but I’ll give you a hint – it is spoiled food).
TBD: How did you manage to make Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast such a great success?
JF: Thanks for the kind words about Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast, but I really can’t take credit for most of the success that it’s had.
First off, it has incredible illustrations (thanks, Brendan Kearney) and the Sterling Art Department put together a fantastic cover design. When the art started making its way around the Sterling offices, it got the Marketing and Publicity teams excited enough to create a big promotional push – they even made tote bags to give out at BookExpo! All that helped the Sterling Sales Reps get the book into stores big and small across the country.
And let’s face it, I had absolutely no control over everything in the previous paragraph.
But I did what I could. I created a book trailer:
Yes, that’s me singing (I created the whole trailer on my iPhone using the GarageBand app and iMovie).
I spend a lot of time on Twitter @joshfunkbooks sharing writing tips, educators’ blogs, other people’s good news, and generally putting out positive vibes in the kidlit world.
I attended many other author events in the years leading up to Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast’s publication. Not only did I learn a lot about what makes great events, but I met lots of authors, educators, and booksellers in the process.
I’ve tried to give back to the writing community. I co-directed the NESCBWI 2016 and 2017 Regional Conferences. I’m on the board of The Writers’ Loft in Sherborn, MA (if you’re in New England and you haven’t been – you MUST visit). I even created a 12-Step Guide to Writing Picture Books on my website – it’s basically a high level brain dump of everything I’ve learned about writing since I started.
But I think more than anything, what’s made Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast a success is the readers. Enthusiastic booksellers across the country who handsell it daily, like those at The Novel Neighbor in St. Louis and Octavia Books in New Orleans. Teachers and librarians who exuberantly share it with their students. And folks like you, The Book Doctors, who invite me to chat about it here.
TBD: How did studying computer science help (or hinder) you as a writer?
JF: I’d like you to imagine (because it’s true) that I’ve been sitting at my computer thinking about this for a very, very long time. I typed a few paragraphs, and then deleted them (because they don’t really answer the question OR have a point). I thought some more, typed some more, and deleted some more. Lather, rinse, repeat. Ultimately, the answer to your question is as follows:
I don’t think it’s helped or hindered me as a writer. I’ve been a software engineer for almost two decades. And I enjoy the day job. It’s possible that I’d had a lot of creativity bottled up over that time which is finally spilling out at a rate faster than one might expect.
So maybe the answer is that at first studying computer science hindered me as a writer, but now it’s helping? I guess it’s a wash. (Ha! Lather, rinse, repeat!)
TBD: How did you come up with all the cool extra stuff for kids: activity kits, character cards, etc.?
JF: Once again, the activity kits were all thanks to my publishers and illustrators. For Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast and The Case of the Stinky Stench, Sterling’s Marketing and Publicity (and probably Art and Design) teams put them together. They’re incredible! Coloring pages, word searches, mazes, crosswords, and a whole bunch of other stuff – all free to download and print from my website on my ‘Stuff for Kids’ page!
As far as the character cards, I was just about to order some bookmarks back in the summer of 2015 when I saw the option of ordering Collector’s Cards. At this point I realized two things:
- I write picture books, which rarely require bookmarks.
- Collector’s cards can easily be used as bookmarks.
So I began designing collector’s cards. And I had a lot of fun with that! For Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast, I made one for each of the main characters. I made six different ones for Pirasaurs! (thanks to Michael Slack for his help designing those), and I made three more for The Case of the Stinky Stench.
I even made an online quiz to determine Which Pirasaur Are You?! – I’m Bronto Beard, in case you were wondering.
TBD: What are you working on next?
JF: It’s interesting that you ask! I just spent a few hours revising [REDACTED] based on my editor’s comments. As you know, I’m very interested in the topic of [REDACTED]. And I’m excited to dive into [REDACTED], that’s gonna be fun to work on. I’ve seen some of [REDACTED]’s illustrations and they’re perfect.
In the near term, I’ve got a book called It’s Not Jack and the Beanstalk coming out this fall (9.19.17), illustrated by Edwardian Taylor. It’s not just a fractured-fairy-tale – it’s a META-fractured-fairy-tale – one where Jack doesn’t want to do what the reader tells him to do. Trade his cow for five beans? That’s a terrible idea! Climb the beanstalk? But there’s probably a giant up there! This one will make for a hilarious reader’s theater – and it’s my first picture book that isn’t in rhyme. If you don’t follow Edwardian Taylor on Instagram, you’re missing out. He is an incredible character designer.
Then, in 2018 I’ve got at least two more books coming out. In the spring, it’s Albie Newton (about a genius’s attempt to make friends on his first day of school – and his classmate’s ability to accept his ‘quirks’). This one is illustrated by Ester Garay – and everything I’ve seen so far is beyond adorable!
Then, Lost in the Library: A Story of Patience and Fortitude is the first picture book in Macmillan’s partnership with the New York Public Library – and I got to write the story of the two lion statues (Patience and Fortitude) that guard the steps on 5th Avenue. When Patience goes missing, Fortitude must search the entire library to find him! I’d already been a fan of Stevie Lewis’ art, and when they told me she had signed on to illustrate, I couldn’t have been more thrilled.
And yes, both Albie Newton and Lost in the Library are in rhyme.
TBD: How did you come up with your very entertaining live show? What have you observed that writers who present well do in common?
JF: Attending all of those author events before I released a book certainly paid off! I ‘spied’ on so many different author presentations! I learned what worked well with different ages and audience attention spans. And I definitely learned a thing or twelve from amazing performances by the likes of Ame Dyckman, Kate Messner, Tara Lazar, Bob Shea, Anna Staniszewski, Lynda Mullaly Hunt, Jarrett J. Krosoczka, and many others kidlit stars.
But it really comes down to one thing: know your audience. I’m reading to kids ages 0-10(ish) and their caregivers. I’ve got to be entertaining and enthusiastic for those two groups.
Not all crowds are the same. Some jokes work better in one situation vs another. But I always try to have fun – and I hope that’s what lasts in the minds of the readers.
TBD: Why is Twitter your social media platform of choice?
JF: Twitter is a great way to interact with readers. I’ve become e-friends with many educators, booksellers, writers, illustrators, and booklovers of all sorts on Twitter. And in many cases I’ve ended up getting to hang out with these folks in real life because of Twitter. I schedule most of my classroom Skype visits with teachers and librarians in Twitter chats. Sometimes teachers tweet me questions on their students’ behalf.
I’ve even attended several conferences that stemmed from Twitter relationships. This summer, I’ll be attending my third nErDcampMI, a national literacy conference for educators started by the founders of the Nerdy Book Club. The Nerdy Book Club is blog with daily guest posts (mostly by educators and authors), but it is also an unofficial ‘club’ that is open to anyone who loves books (especially those written for children). These nErDcamps are popping up everywhere (New England, Long Island, Kansas, New Jersey, Pacific Northwest, soon in North Carolina) – and they’re an amazing place to for educators to connect with each other and with book creators.
Just like most of the kidlit world, the kidlit Twitter environment is incredibly welcoming and supportive.
TBD: We hate to ask this, but what advice do you have for writers?
Outside of that, my best piece of advice is to keep writing new things – especially when writing picture books. This is for a couple reasons:
- The first story you write is unlikely to be the one that sells. Get it critiqued. Revise it. It’ll be a great learning experience. But don’t revise it to death. Take what you learn from writing that first story and write another.
- A literary agent will want at least 3-4 picture book manuscripts they think they can sell right now before they’ll sign you – which means you probably need 6-8 that YOU think are complete.
The more you write, the better writer you’ll become. Just like I tell students during school visits – it’s like playing sports and instruments – the more you practice, the better you get. The stories I’m writing today are better than the ones I wrote two years ago, which are better than the ones I wrote two years before that (at least I think so).
So keep writing!
Thanks again for having me! I wish you a wonderful summer of reading!
Josh Funk writes silly stories and somehow tricks people into publishing them as picture books – such as Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast and its sequel The Case of the Stinky Stench along with Pirasaurs!, Dear Dragon, It’s Not Jack and the Beanstalk, Albie Newton, Lost in the Library, and more coming soon! Josh is a board member of The Writers’ Loft in Sherborn, MA and was the co-coordinator of the 2016 and 2017 New England Regional SCBWI Conferences. Josh grew up in New England and studied Computer Science in school. Today, he still lives in New England and when not writing Java code or Python scripts, he drinks Java coffee and writes picture book manuscripts.
Josh is terrible at writing bios, so please help fill in the blanks. Josh enjoys _______ during ________ and has always loved __________. He has played ____________ since age __ and his biggest fear in life is being eaten by a __________.
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We recently attended the annual New England Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Regional Conference in Springfield, Massachusetts, and one of the things we love about that conference specifically, and great writers conferences in general, is getting to sit in on lectures and talks by people we don’t know, but should know. One of those people is Dana Meachen Rau. David happened to stumble into her class and ended up learning so much about how to create memorable and complex characters, how inanimate objects can be used to help communicate the emotional state of our characters, and so much more. Now that the dust has settled on that conference, we thought we would pick her brain about books, writing, and all that jazz.
The Book Doctors: How did you become interested in writing and drawing as a kid? What were your early inspirations and why?
Dana Meachen Rau: Truly, I don’t remember how it all started. My parents always encouraged my early attempts at writing and drawing. Creative expression is empowering, especially to a little kid. I do remember a lot of play. I had a brother who was always a willing participant—he’s blind, and together we invented whole worlds that neither of us could see, but that felt completely real. Instead of a sandbox in the backyard, we had a dirt hole, where we planned to dig a tunnel to a multiple-room clubhouse. (Imagine a time before apps when kids played in dirt holes!) The clubhouse never happened, of course, but that didn’t seem to matter.
As a reader, I didn’t devour every shelf of the library. Instead, I had a few well-worn books that I read countless times—Charlotte’s Web, Encyclopedia Brown, and my absolute favorite and forever inspiration, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. When I reread it recently, I tried to pinpoint what drew me in so passionately as a kid. It must have been the visuals, the silly language, and the underlying creepiness. It was subversively magical.
TBD: How did you get a job editing children’s books, and what did you learn from this that you could apply to your own writing?
DMR: After college, I wanted a job with a tangible end product, and that led me to publishing. Luckily, instead of having to move to big and scary NYC, I landed a job at a small children’s publisher in Connecticut—and I mean small. I was the only member of their editorial department, so I communicated with a bunch of freelancers—authors, illustrators, editors, consultants, designers. It was a crash course in children’s publishing. I moved on to Children’s Press, where I edited early readers and school-and-library nonfiction until my son was born and I began freelancing.
My editorial work laid the groundwork for my writing career in ways I didn’t anticipate. It taught me the value of feedback and revision. I can self-edit while the manuscript is in my hands, but I can also let it go to all the fresh eyes that have a stake in the process. Everyone wants it to be the best it can be.
TBD: Do you think it’s important to write every day?
DMR: I suffer from journal envy. Many writer friends pour out their thoughts onto pages daily, and I’ve tried to be like them. But all I have to show for my efforts is a pile of journals with “Finally, I’m going to start writing a journal!” scrawled on the first pages followed by a bunch of empty ones. I just can’t make it happen.
But it is important to write every day, and I do in some form. Often, it’s related to my current project. But sometimes it’s a lesson plan, a random idea for the future, a quick poem, or even an email. The purpose of all writing is to effectively communicate an idea or image. That’s an important skill to practice. That’s what writing every day is…practice.
Even if I don’t have hours or even minutes to work on my latest project, at least I’ve been maintaining my writing skills. Then muscle memory kicks in when I have more extended time to write.
TBD: How did you become a writing teacher, and what effect has that had on you as a writer?
DMR: I developed a 10-week creative writing class for the Warner Theatre Center for Arts Education (Torrington, CT), to hone in on the basics of creative writing. I tested out writing exercises (some sane, some wacky). It was a chance to experiment. I realized I craved an extended relationship with students, so I sent out my resume to local colleges. When the University of Hartford needed an adjunct to fill out their Fall 2016 schedule, I jumped at the chance.
I teach rhetoric, the art of persuasive writing and speaking, and while it might not seem to apply to creative writing, it has most definitely fed my work. I keep persuasion in mind every time I draft a scene between two characters who are manipulating each other. I think of rhetoric when trying how to sway a reader toward a certain understanding. The intentionality of each word choice applies to both rhetoric and creative writing.
I’m still trying to find that perfect balance, though, between teaching and writing. My current work-in-progress novel has been pushed to the back burner while I navigate my way as a professor. But the benefit of the back burner is that the story is still stewing. Because time is more precious, my chances to write have become a treat to look forward to. When I do have time to write, I’m amped up, eager, and ready to dive in.
TBD: What’s it like writing books for the wildly popular Who Is (Was) … series? And why are their heads so big?
DMR: Out of the blue in 2013, I got a call from the Who Was editor. She had been reading a biography I had written more than a decade before, and thought my voice would be a good fit. Since then, I’ve written six books for the series, with another one waiting on my desk.
Who Was has been one of the most fun series I’ve ever worked on. The process starts with full immersion. I surrounded myself with research, absorb it, map out a plan, and get writing. I don’t work linearly—each manuscript is like a sculpture. First I build the armature, then I slop on lumps of clay. I mold here, shape there, take bits away, add elsewhere. Each book has its own process and personality. Eventually it all comes together under the helpful guidance of my astute and savvy editor, Paula Manzanero.
The best part of writing this series, though, is the reaction from kids. They love those big heads! All the covers (more than 150!) were illustrated by Nancy Harrison, but the idea for the big heads (and for the series) came from editor Jane O’Connor. She says the big heads were inspired by the caricatures that used to appear on the cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review. She thought they would have fantastic kid-appeal.
She was right. When I visit schools, the kids can’t hide their excitement over what they call the “Bobble-Head Bios.” Almost everyone has read at least one, some kids collect them, and they all have their favorites.
TBD: Tell us about your road to publication and how you navigate the stormy seas of the book business. And how in God’s name does one person write 340 books?
DMR: As I mentioned above, I started my career as an editor, and my first few books were for the companies I worked for. When I went freelance, I continued writing for them and for other school and library publishers. Books for the school and library market are often work-for-hire assignments, so my “day job” for the next 15-ish years involved taking on as many assignments as I could to earn a steady income (thus so many books!). I wrote for a variety of age levels on all sorts of topics—roller coasters, cupcakes, sneakers, ladybugs, aliens, suffrage, rocks and minerals, robots, planets, brains, sandcastles, rock climbing. You name it, it’s very possible I’ve written a book about it! Meanwhile, I was also working on picture books and middle grade novels, submitting them to publishers, and marking off rejections on my spreadsheets. So, while I passed the 300 mark for published books, I also passed the 300 mark for rejection letters. (It’s all part of the process for authors writing and submitting over so many years!)
In 2013, I got the itch to become a student again, so I enrolled at Vermont College of Fine Arts to get my MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults. Coming out of that program, I secured an agent, who’s currently marketing a middle grade and a picture book while I work on a YA novel.
Through the years, no matter what the project, I grew as an author. I’ve also realized that there isn’t, nor should there ever be, a point of “arrival.” It’s healthy to give yourself goals along the way, but success is more about the development, patience, and perseverance of the journey.
TBD: What is an objective correlative, and why is it so important?
DMR: I first learned the term objective correlative in graduate school from author Tim Wynn-Jones, and it sounded so academic and important. But it’s quite a simple concept, at least how I interpret it—an author can use an object (setting or event) to correlate to an emotion. In other words, you don’t have to name an emotion to communicate it to readers, you can show it through sensory description. Suzy doesn’t have to say she feels neglected. Instead, Suzy can be looking at a dying, cobwebbed-covered plant on the windowsill that never gets any sun. That says neglected more than the word “neglected” ever could. The plant becomes shorthand for the emotion, so when the plant is reprised in the story, we feel “neglect” again. And then, if that same plant is thriving and blooming by the end, we feel the significance of that change, too.
TBD: How do you inject emotion into characters in a book?
DMR: For me, it all comes down to empathy—getting the reader to feel the same feelings as your character. I think of emotion as the engine of the story. A character’s wants and desires will drive what the character does (action/plot), what the character sees (setting), what the character says (dialogue), and what the character remembers (flashback). Everything in a story has to be in service to the emotions.
To get readers to empathize with characters, the author has to empathize with his or her characters, too. If you can tap into your own authentic, vulnerable, core emotions when writing, then those emotions will show up on the page and transfer to the core of your reader.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?
DMR: This is a great question! Lord knows I’ve needed all the writerly advice I could get my hands on through the years.
Write what scares you…We often say we want to be bold and brave, but that’s not possible without fear. If you don’t think you’re a poet, write a poem. If you don’t think you could ever write YA, try it. You have nothing to lose, but everything to gain. You’ll most likely surprise yourself by easily conquering what you thought impossible.
Find a community… Often the people in your immediate circle (spouse, kids, family, every day friends) don’t understand the writer part of you. You need to find a team. Teams have teammates, of course, who understand the game. But they also have cheerleaders to spur you on and coaches who offer advice to help you become the best version of yourself. Join a critique group, join the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, find your people.
Give yourself permission to play…for so long I thought I needed to be efficient with my writing time. But when I experiment, I create an unexpected (and better) result. Turn off the side of your brain that tells you your writing must have a purpose (and even worse, that it has to be good!). In other words, dig in the dirt hole. You never know what you’ll discover.
Dana Meachen Rau is the author of more than 340 books for children and young adults, including early readers, biographies, history, science, cookbooks, and craft books. Her most recent titles include Who Was Cesar Chavez? and Who Are the Rolling Stones? A graduate of Trinity College in Hartford CT, and Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier, VT, she currently teaches writing at the University of Hartford. To find out more about her books and her blog, visit www.danameachenrau.com.
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.