We met Barry Lyga when we were waiting to sign books at the (thoroughly awesome) New England SCBWI conference. Turns out we are all Jersey-crowd–the Garden State representing! We had a funny chat, and then we checked out his books. This guy is a powerful writer. His new book, Bang, is out, so we picked his brain about books and publishing and whatnot.
The Book Doctors: Who were your favorite authors, and what were some of your favorite books when you are a kid?
Barry Lyga: I had such eclectic tastes as a kid! I loved old classics like Poe and Milton, but I was also obsessed with modern sci-fi authors like Joe Haldeman, as well as comic books by the truckload. Paul Levitz and Alan Moore were two of my favorite comic book writers. I read Haldeman’s Dealing in Futures short story collection over and over as a kid — those stories really opened my mind as to what was possible in storytelling. Oh, and I can’t forget to mention Ken Grimwood’s classic Replay. That book blew my mind. I re-read it every year, and it still knocks me down every time.
TBD: How did you learn to become a writer?
BL: I sort of figured it out on my own, really. I knew at a very young age that I wanted to tell stories, and I was manic in my reading. I read constantly. Every chance I had, I would have my nose in a book. So I sort of absorbed a lot of the lessons and the rhythms of writing and internalized them subconsciously. Which isn’t to say that I was a great writer the first time my fingers touched the keyboard! Hell, no! I still had to practice and hone my craft, which took literally decades. But no one ever really sat me down and taught me how to start — I figured that out on my own and then just kept iterating and trying until things started to click.
TBD: How did you find your first agent, and what was your road to publication?
BL: I met Kathy Anderson at a writers conference in early 2005. I had won the Editor’s Choice award at the conference, so she was looking for me. And I had seen one of her lectures the day before I won the award, so I was looking for her. And then it turned out I was scheduled for a pitch session with her! So, it was a fortuitous meeting.
She read the manuscript I had at the time, which was my first YA novel: The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy & Goth Girl. After a couple of weeks, she offered me representation and I accepted. Then we talked about the book a little; she had some suggestions and I took ‘em. About five months later, she sold that book and my next one at auction. We haven’t looked back since!
TBD: Do you ever get pushback for writing books for teenagers that are so full of darkness?
BL: Not from anyone in the business. Occasionally there are people out there in the wider world who take issue with something I’ve written, but they are — thankfully — a minority. I think most people recognize that my books aren’t promoting the darkness or proselytizing for it; they just reflect it for the reader.
TBD: What did you learn about writing while working in the comic book business?
BL: I worked in comics on the distribution side, not the creative side. So honestly, the most important lesson I learned was that I wanted to be on the creative side!
But there WAS writing involved in that old job; it just wasn’t creative. It was a lot of marketing copy and so on. I did learn a substantial work ethic from that. I learned how to edit myself. I learned how to heed the sanctity of a deadline, which has stood me in good stead — in 12 years as a professional author, I think I’ve missed exactly one deadline. Thanks, comics!
TBD: Tell us about BANG.
BL: BANG is the story of Sebastian. Ten years ago, when he was four years old, Sebastian was playing with his father’s loaded handgun. It went off. And killed Sebastian’s four-month-old baby sister.
Now, ten years later, he’s still living with the guilt, the horror, the shame, and he’s decided he doesn’t deserve to live. How can you find forgiveness for something so unforgivable? How can you atone for a mistake you made before you even knew what a mistake was?
And there’s pizza. Believe me — the pizza is important. It’s a pretty dark book, so the pizza matters.
TBD: What are you working on next?
BL: I wish I could tell you! I have two projects in the hopper right now, but contracts have yet to be signed, so I’m not supposed to say anything about them. They’re both dream projects, for completely different reasons, and I’m so, so incredibly excited about them. Stay tuned!
TBD: What do you love most about being a professional author? What do you hate most about it?
BL: I love the freedom. I don’t mean the freedom of dictating my own hours and days (which is amazing; don’t get me wrong!), but rather the freedom of knowing that I am the one deciding what I do next. No one comes to me and says, “OK, your next book is about a kid who can talk to chickens…but he has a poultry allergy! Make it so!” I have the freedom to decide what stories I will tell. Some of them succeed; some of them don’t. But they’re all mine.
As to what I hate… I really hate the uncertainty. Which, of course, is the flip side of the freedom! There’s no way to know which, if any, of the stories I decide to tell will strike a chord with the reading public. If you made a graph of the sales of my books, it would look like a cardiac patient’s EKG. It’s all over the place. There’s nothing you can do about it, of course, but that doesn’t stop me from hating it!
TBD: You’ve written some pretty grim books on some really difficult topics. How does that affect you personally?
BL: Until recently, it didn’t! I mean, I wrote a book about child abuse (Boy Toy) and a whole series about serial killers (I Hunt Killers) and it never bothered me. I slept the sleep of the just every night, no matter what horrors I’d conjured during the day.
But BANG was different. Maybe because I was a new father. I was writing about a dead four-month-old baby while my own four-month-old baby was sleeping in a bassinet next to me. This book really, really got its hooks into me, and while that bothers me, I hope it will get its hooks into readers, too.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?
BL: I always tell writers: It’s OK to suck. It’s OK to look at something you’ve written and not like it. That just means that you’ve grown as a writer, developed better taste and better instincts, in the interim. So, take that new perspective and write something new. Inevitably, you’ll look back on that in a little while and think that it sucks, too! But that’s all right. That’s progress. One of these days, you’ll write something that only half-sucks, and then you’re on your way!
Called a “YA rebel-author” by Kirkus Reviews, Barry Lyga has published seventeen novels in various genres in his eleven-year career, including the New York Times bestselling I Hunt Killers. His books have been or are slated to be published in more than a dozen different languages in North America, Australia, Europe, and Asia. Lyga lives and podcasts near New York City with his wife, Morgan Baden, their nigh-omnipotent daughter, and their preternaturally chill son. His comic book collection is a lot smaller than it used to be, but is still way too big.
We’ve been fans of Todd Colby for a long time. He’s one of the most creative people we know. He’s always making something: art, poetry, mayhem. So when we saw that his new book, Time for History, is out, we picked his fertile brain.
The Book Doctors: Why the heck did you decide to become an artist, of all things?
Todd Colby: The alternative is just, well, boring. Why not live in a state that allows me to pay attention to the world a little closer and then celebrate or mourn the delicious and repulsive state we’re all in?
TBD: For as long as I can remember, it seems people have been talking about the demise of art. And yet, we seem to be in a moment right now where poetry is flourishing. Why do you think that is?
TC: When the going gets tough, like right now, people need a lot more than the latest news cycle whopper to inspire themselves, at least the people I like to be around. They need some depth, something that lasts, or makes them laugh or cry or recognize their own lives in a new light. Movies can do that, music certainly, but poetry has that special distillation of language, rhythm, and meaning that is reassuring and makes me more mindful when it’s really working right.
TBD: How has your career as a poet influenced your career as a visual artist?
TC: They’ve always worked hand in hand for me. In fact, I feel little distinction between the two and shift from being a poet to a visual artist with great ease. I mean both arteries of expression come from the same “Todd,” and that goes for my musical excursions with my old band, Drunken Boat. At the same time, different things that I need to express require different modes. It’s really nice to have options. I feel lucky that way. I will say that when I’m painting or making any kind of art, time moves in very odd chunks. Hours will go by and suddenly I’ll realize it’s dark out or that I haven’t peed for a very long time. That sort of concentration in almost any form is just beautiful.
TBD: What was the inspiration for your new book?
TC: I was doing an artist’s residency on Governors Island provided by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council during the winter and spring of 2015. A friend had given me a huge stack of antique linen postcards as a gift. I brought them with me to the island thinking I could do something with them. One day while strolling around Governors Island I thought, “There are no monuments to poets here!” So, I began altering the postcards by writing captions in oil markers over them. I made a lot of postcard monuments to Arthur Rimbaud, Charles Baudelaire, Gertrude Stein, James Schuyler, James Baldwin, Emily Dickinson and many more. I still feel compelled to make them. It is enormously satisfying to rename monuments that celebrate poets and writers I love.
TBD: How would you describe the art you’re doing in this book?
TC: Time for History is an expansion of the themes I explored on Governors Island. There is some political and social commentary that comes through in a few of the pieces that I made after Trump was elected. And oddly, there’s a narrative that emerges as one goes through the book in sequence.
TBD: How did you go about getting this particular book published?
TC: My dear old friend and frequent collaborator, the artist Marianne Vitale approached me with the idea of putting a selection of the hundreds of postcards I’ve made into a book. We’ve done collaborative books together over the years, so she knew what I was capable of, believed in me and the project and helped get the whole thing moving along. She introduced me to a book designer she works with, Nicolas Borel. He designs with a very keen eye and understanding of a book as object and then he subverts that expectation and expands the notion of what a book is, and what it can be. He was a joy to work with.
TBD: Who are some of your favorite artists, and why?
TC: I love Joe Brainard and George Schneeman. They both lived in NYC, and had close ties to the Poetry Project (where I also serve on the board of directors) and they both collaborated with a number of poets I respect and admire, like Ted Berrigan, Alice Notley, John Ashbery, Bill Berkson, and so many more. I also love the painters Amy Sillman. Jack Whitten, Louise Fishman, and Sue Williams; all of them are very different from one another, but they are all fierce, agitated, funny, precise, and driven. All of these artists occupy distinct thrones in the palace of my artistic loves.
TBD: Do you think working in a bookstore has influenced you as someone who does art and puts it into a book?
TC: Yes. As the manager and programmer here at 192 Books, I have been able to meet a wide variety of incredibly talented and creative people. People who I’ve admired so greatly over the years come into the store and talk about their art and their lives. Interacting with them, asking them questions, and getting to know them has been a real life changer for me.
TBD: Do you make something every day?
TC: I do. I try to make or write something a few times a day, even while I’m at work.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for artists?
TC: Keep doing it. It’s important that whatever you want to do gets done. Don’t fall into line. Don’t do what you think other people want you to do because that is just a giant bummer for you and everyone else.
Todd Colby is the author of six books of poetry, most recently of Splash State (The Song Cave, 2014) and Flushing Meadows (Scary Topiary Press, 2012). He was the editor of the poetry anthology Heights of the Marvelous: A New York Anthology (St. Martin’s Press, 2001) and serves on the board of the Poetry Project. He was the lead singer for the critically acclaimed band Drunken Boat.
We first met Julia Kite many years ago, when she won one of our Pitchapaloozas (think American Idol for books, only kinder and gentler). She pitched us a fantastic story, full of fantastic characters. It’s been a long haul, but her book, The Hope and Anchor, has finally found a home, so we thought we would pick her brain about writing, authorship, books, and all things publishing.
The Book Doctors: Why did you decide to become a writer?
Julia Kite: I never decided on it— it simply happened. I learned to read at a very young age, starting in a curry house where the owner gave me a calendar to play with because the food was all too spicy for me and I had nothing else to do. I made my parents read it to me until I memorized what words looked like, then I figured it all out from there and ever since then I haven’t stopped. Eventually I realized that if I was reading books that other people wrote, then I could write them as well. I was often bored in school and I needed some quiet, unobtrusive way to pass the time without getting in trouble. Turns out if you look like you’re working on an assignment or furiously scribbling notes, you can get away with actually writing a story. To this day, I’m a wimp who can’t deal with anything hotter than chicken tikka masala. It’s sad. I know.
TBD: What where your favorite authors and books when you were a kid, and why?
JK: I always liked the realistic stories of other girls’ lives— Beverly Cleary’s books were favorites of mine, because Ramona was so relatable in her mischief and her well-meaning imperfection. I saw a lot of myself in Harriet the Spy, wanting to know everything about everybody and write it down in a book, and I must have read Matilda a million times. It didn’t hurt that when the film adaptation of Matilda came out, I looked like Mara Wilson with a bigger nose. What fiction did to me was give me aspirations— look at these fascinating lives other people are having!
TBD: How did you learn to be a writer?
JK: I got there by first reading everything in sight, and then by being constantly observant of the world around me. I strongly believe that there’s only so much you can directly teach someone when it comes to writing. Being able to write is the function of being able to read, listen, interpret, synthesize, and abstract. These are skills you can only refine by going out and living in the world. You learn by doing. To be honest, eavesdropping on trains and in cafes probably taught me more about dialogue than any how-to book. Strange as this may sound, boredom also has had a lot to do with it. When you’re bored, you think a lot about other people’s lives, about things you’d rather be doing, places you’d rather be sitting at that exact time. You imagine that everything else in the world is so much more intriguing than what you’re stuck in at that moment, and you imagine being a part of it, what you’d do if you were someone else. And that’s the bedrock of fiction.
While I love being able to learn everything about anything at any time using my smartphone, I worry that if I’d had one when I was younger, I wouldn’t have had the opportunities brought by boredom and letting my mind wander. I think that’s a necessity when you’re young, and if people lose that because there’s just so much stimulation, their creativity is going to suffer.
TBD: How did you find a publisher for your debut novel?
JK: What a long, bizarre, maddening trip it has been. The Hope and Anchor is actually my second novel. My first novel was called The Results and it was about two sisters in Liverpool who start up a betting ring, choosing people in their neighborhood who they believe deserve a bit of joy in their lives, based off one girl’s unwanted knack of correctly predicting how every soccer match is going to end. They end up in too deep and realize the only way they can make a clean break with their pasts is to con everybody on the night of the Cup Final, making themselves rich and everybody else an enemy so that they can really never come back. The kitchen sink meets magic realism. I pitched it at your Pitchapalooza competition when I was living in San Francisco back in late 2011 (bloody hell). I ended up winning Pitchapalooza and it was a massive boost to my confidence, which was in the basement, because a year earlier I had abandoned my perfectly lovely life in London to move to California and study for a PhD, which turned out to be a disaster, to put it lightly. Within the course of one year I had gone from living the dream as a financially independent young woman with a decent job, a nice flat, a loving boyfriend, and one hell of a cute pet bird, to an anxious and depressed wreck running into bureaucratic brick walls with my research, earning barely above minimum wage, living in a neighborhood where I couldn’t wear sandals for all the used needles on the pavement, essentially undergoing massive culture shock in the country where I was born. California and I didn’t get along. I couldn’t even watch my beloved Tottenham Hotspur thanks to the eight-hour time difference, and if that means nothing to you, suffice it to say that is a very big deal. The one thing I still had was my writing. No arrogant professor or unhinged person screaming under my window at 3 AM could take my imagination away from me.
After Pitchapalooza, I was convinced my luck was going to change, and I would finally be getting somewhere with my writing. And despite a significant number of rejections, for a moment it looked like that was going to happen. I began working with a well-established agent in England who helped me edit The Results. He really liked it, but explained that unknown new authors of literary fiction are difficult to sell. If he was going to take me on as a client, I had to prove I had more than one book in me. So I wrote The Hope and Anchor…and it didn’t do anything for him. We parted company. I read the writing on the wall and put The Results aside.
After realizing there was a reason average time to degree in my department was nine years, and recognizing there’s definitely something wrong when blood-soaked clothes on the street no longer faze you, I found the courage to quit my PhD and I moved back to the East Coast. While I worked on rebuilding my interrupted policy and research career, I went back to the drawing board with pitching The Hope and Anchor and followed all the directions, writing personalized query letters to agents, double-checking their guidelines, making sure I was doing everything they wanted. I had quite a few agents request my manuscript. Unfortunately, none of them bit. I received many rejections with zero feedback— the most common response was, “I just don’t love it enough,” and variations on that theme. It was frustrating to me, because there’s no way to improve without clear feedback and concrete criticism. It almost would have been more reassuring to hear that they thought I had some kind of deficiency of skill, because at least then I would know what I needed to fix, where I needed to improve. You can learn to improve your mechanics, but you can’t force somebody to fall in love.
There was one agent who replied to my query with incredible enthusiasm and asked for the full. A few days later, she wrote me a bubbly email about how she was halfway through and absolutely in love with the book, and she would get back to me the following week. I was on cloud nine but I knew I needed to be patient, so I waited. And waited. A week passed. Two. Three. I didn’t want to be an annoyance, but after a month of no contact I finally sent her a polite check-in and she rejected me with zero feedback. I asked her if she would mind telling me what hadn’t worked for her in the second half of the book, essentially what had cooled her enthusiasm, but I never got a response. And I was utterly gobsmacked. I understand that the sheer volume of manuscripts literary agents have to deal with precludes detailed feedback, but I felt that I had been strung along and that I had the right to be miffed about a process that put me on ridiculous emotional roller-coasters. That was probably the moment when I first considered that maybe my book wasn’t the problem, the industry landscape was.
At the same time, I was trying to learn as much as possible from people in publishing, and from authors who had found mainstream success. Yet every time I went to a talk by an agent or an editor or an author, I left feeling utterly despondent. An agent spoke to my writing group, gave us all kinds of advice for landing someone like her, then revealed that in the past year, she had signed exactly one new client out of a slush pile of over 400. Then an author with her literary fiction debut published by one of the Big Five told us she had spent most of her modest advance on hiring a publicist, and my jaw hit the floor and stayed there far longer than could possibly be sanitary because I thought the entire point of signing with the Big Five was that they took care of publicity for you in-house. A member of my writing group landed a top-notch agent, then found out that they wanted him to completely change the genre of his book before editors would consider it. I saw people get agents who didn’t sell their books, and they’d part a year later, back at square one. At a certain point, the practical part of my brain intruded and said, “You’re a complete unknown writing literary fiction, and every indication is that the odds are stacked against you, no matter how good a writer you are. Why are you making yourself miserable, trying to do the impossible?” In my day job I’m a very analytic person, very evidence- and data-focused, and all the statistics were screaming that continuing down the same path was not going to magically make a door open. It would only make me bitter.
Friends asked me why I didn’t self-publish, but I knew that was a road I didn’t want to take. It can be fulfilling and occasionally lucrative for genre fiction, but that’s not what I write. Then one day in my Facebook feed, a friend had shared a link to a book one of his work colleagues was funding on a website called Unbound. The author was Gautam Malkani, and I recognized the name— he had published an acclaimed book called Londonstani several years earlier, and was now crowd-funding his second book after parting with his publisher. I knew that if a writer as talented as Gautam was going this route, it had to be legit, and that if his publisher had dropped him, then clearly there were issues with traditional publishing. Friends of mine in music were going their own way, recording brilliant songs and releasing them independently, and I realized that publishing needs to innovate just as the music industry has done over the past decade. Clinging to romantic notions of an industry that has changed almost beyond recognition would not get my book into the hands of strangers, but trying something new and exciting just might. I vetted Unbound very carefully, then submitted my manuscript.
I know now that “I just didn’t love it enough” can mean, “It’s good writing, but it’s not going to sell a million copies, and I need a book that will sell a million copies for this to be worth my while.” It’s business, not personal. But I believe there’s still space for good writing that’s not necessarily going to have wide enough appeal to be a summer beach read— and fortunately Unbound does, too.
It’s funny, you work for years to get anywhere with your book, and then two offers come along at once. I turned down an offer from a literary agent on the day I signed with Unbound. I didn’t want to go through any more of the craziness.
TBD: What is your book about?
JK: The Hope and Anchor is a story about love and loss, at its very core. Not only the actual disappearance of a beloved person, but also coming to terms with how your life isn’t going to turn out the way you had always planned, and the need to put old dreams, as lovely as they may have once been, to rest.
Our protagonist is Neely Sharpe, a woman in her late twenties who once believed that as soon as she moved to London, she would be somebody. She figured her life would take off and she would have the bright, exciting future she had always wanted growing up in a satellite town. She figured she had done everything right: being middle-class, highly educated, and ambitious. On paper, it seemed like the city should have been hers for the taking. Unfortunately, the recession took the shine off her big dreams, and so she finds herself working a dead-end job and living in a scruffy, downmarket part of West London. The one bright spot in her life is her relationship with her girlfriend, a local woman named Angela Archer. Angela’s upbringing couldn’t have been more different from Neely’s: nothing much was ever expected of her, particularly after her mother died and her troubled older sister moved away. She has epilepsy, but insists on not being treated differently. Her job at the local leisure center is never going to bring in a living wage, but to Neely she seems happy.
Neely, in her increasing dissatisfaction with life, is prone to making foolish and self-destructive decisions. The morning after one of those bad decisions, she stumbles home hungover and finds Angela is gone. And she’s not answering her mobile phone. Oh, and the medication Angela should have taken yesterday is still sitting in its little box in their kitchen.
Doubt and self-loathing leave Neely unsure of what to do. Locals who have known Angela since childhood tell Neely not to panic, and not to treat her girlfriend like she’s fragile or stupid. Neely, meanwhile, fears Angela may have left deliberately, perhaps knowing more than she let on about Neely’s drunken hookups with a mutual friend— but then there’s the matter of that medication. She finally goes to the police, but not until after making a few more potentially unwise decisions along the way.
We meet Andy, Angela’s older sister, who thought she had left behind her difficult upbringing when she married a middle-class man, moved to the suburbs, and had children. With Angela’s disappearance she gets pulled back into a life she never wanted to see again. Neely’s search for Angela, meanwhile, is interspersed with flashbacks of Angela’s teenage years, where one particular event left her determined to never leave this particular corner of the city. Little by little, Neely finds out just how little she really knew about her girlfriend. It shatters her self-image as someone who should have been smart enough to not end up in this mess, but also gives her greater clarity about her situation. She has to get a grip, get a clue, and come to terms with how little she knows about life, love, and London.
Without giving away too much of what happens, Neely ends up scouring the city, from pubs, to parks, to the sewers in a snowstorm, ending up far more immersed in her girlfriend’s history than she ever imagined. The only shot she has at finding answers is to risk losing all the illusions she ever had about what her life would be like.
I want the reader to be left wondering how much of one’s past you can really leave behind, and whether it’s wise to even try to do so.
TBD: What inspired your novel?
JK: I used to ride my bike along the towpath of the Grand Union Canal in West London, usually going all the way from my flat near Paddington Station out to a suburb called Greenford. When I traveled along the bit that runs beside a railway depot and a nature reserve, I was struck by how much it didn’t feel like the city out there. It was wooded and quiet and it felt a million miles from the council estate where I was living at the time. I thought—and don’t take this the wrong way— that if anybody wanted to get away with hiding a body, they could probably leave it there and nobody would find it for quite some time. I really don’t know why I thought that. I’m not a morbid person. But it planted the seeds of this book in my head. After I moved to California, writing vividly about a place I missed so much helped keep alive my plans to eventually get back the happiness I’d had in London; I suppose it was a grieving process, really, for the life I thought I would have. I picked the title as the name of a fictional pub, a complete wreck of a place, not really realizing at the time how well it fit me when I was writing the book. While Neely is definitely not based on me, I can certainly empathize with her situation where her best laid plans have gone astray and the world is passing her by. Had I not been so miserable in California, she probably wouldn’t have been so rich a character, so you have to take the good with the bad.
The imagery of the Grand Union Canal, which runs through Neely and Angela’s neighborhood, is constantly present throughout the book, as is the London transportation network. They link Angela’s past with her fate, Neely’s dreams with her reality, and Andy’s old resentment and shame with her determination to have a better life. Angela’s father is a Tube driver on the Circle Line, which, unfortunately, was re-routed a few years ago so that it’s no longer a circle, so that kind of wrecks a bit of imagery, but oh well. My day job is in transportation policy, and I’ve always been intrigued by the topic. Most teenagers wanted their own cars but I just wanted to ride the train to the end of the line, looking out at different neighborhoods, watching people come and go and wondering about their lives. In that aspect transportation has been an oddly massive part of my development as a writer, even if I’m the first to admit it’s not exactly sexy. My background in urban policy and planning has taught me that the only constant in any city is change, and the corner of West London captured in The Hope and Anchor is no different. I knew I had to get my book out in the world before the neighborhood morphed beyond recognition. Whenever I go back there, it seems like another pub has closed, another new development I could never afford is rising. It’s already too late for the police station that features throughout the story… it has been turned into luxury flats.
The strangest thing happened the last time I was in London, last year. I went for a walk down the Harrow Road like I always do, but when I passed by the building I had chosen for Neely and Angela to call home, I noticed the door leading to the flats above the shop was on the latch. Not wide open, just a crack. I pushed it open, walked into the hallway, and it was exactly how I had imagined it, with the mail on the tile floor, even though I’d never set foot in that building before. In the book, the light in the corridor has long burnt out and Neely always has to feel her way up the stairs to her flat. Well, I tried hitting the light switch— and just as I had written it, it was burnt out. I kind of freaked out and ran back to the street at that point. It was just a bit too eerie.
TBD: Tell us about your publisher; they’re quite unusual.
JK: Unbound uses what is essentially a modernized form of subscription publishing, which was popular with everybody from Samuel Johnson to Mark Twain back in their day. Authors essentially crowdfund a certain amount in pre-orders of their book, with different rewards for different levels, much like Kickstarter but without the risk. Once the author hits their funding target, full production of the book begins, like at any other publishing house, and the books land on shelves in brick-and-mortar stores as well as online. Everybody who pledged gets their name in the book as a nice thank-you for helping it come into existence.
The Unbound model makes a lot of sense from a practical standpoint. I’m an unknown with a literary fiction debut. Most unknowns with literary fiction debuts don’t make heaps of money for their publishers. In fact, a few years ago the New York Times said that seven out of ten books overall don’t earn back their advance. These more “niche” books are essentially subsidized by the big bestsellers. What I now realize, after my long experience trying to get a literary agent, is that someone like me is simply a bad risk from a business perspective.
Fortunately, Unbound realized that, too— and made room for people like me. By essentially outsourcing the risk to me, they can bring my book into physical existence without worrying that they’ll pay out thousands in an advance, spend lots of money on production, and then potentially not recoup their investment. You wouldn’t be in business very long if you kept doing that, no matter how skilled your authors— hence the Big Five’s focus on the celebrity clients and proven best-sellers over debut literary authors. I first prove that I can bring in an audience, and then Unbound goes ahead and invests their time and money in creating the physical book to be marketed and sold like any other. The pre-orders show there is a market for the book, as well as provide a financial cushion prior to the full print run. I don’t get an advance, but books sold in shops or online after hitting the target net a much better royalty rate than most authors typically see.
Unbound also gives me as an author a bit more control than a traditional house would. For example, I deliberately chose to not do a hardcover. That’s for a very practical reason: I live in a small Manhattan apartment with another voracious reader, and bookshelf space is at a premium! While I love the look of hardcovers and they certainly give you that “I’ve made it” feeling, I rarely buy them because they’re expensive, heavy, and difficult to shove into a handbag to take on the subway. Producing one would have meant a higher funding goal as well. Paperbacks and e-books are what I like and what are going to sell more effectively than a hardcover, so that’s what I’m going to have.
Unbound is not a vanity press, nor are they a self-publishing service. What I love about them is that they seem truly dedicated to getting an audience for quality writing. For a house that has been around only six years, they’re punching above their weight; they had a book longlisted for the Booker Prize a couple years ago.
TBD: How do you plan to promote and market your book?
JK: Social media is a huge part of this. I’ve had my Twitter account (@juliakite) for… oh god, more than eight years now. You bet I have chronicled the long, long journey to publication, and my followers have been along for the ride, so it’s great to finally be able to have something to show them for it. To find people outside my immediate network, I think about what aspects of the book might interest people who have never heard of me. Number one is the setting. It’s massively important to the story, so I’ve been a bit cheeky and searched for tweets mentioning the Harrow Road and the Grand Union Canal, and reached out to clubs and businesses in the neighborhood. I cringe a bit sending unsolicited messages, but the worst that can happen is that someone calls me annoying and then I move on. I also made an author page on Facebook and ran an ad targeted specifically to people in London who listed reading and novels as an interest. While it wasn’t hugely successful, I did get a few pledges, and when you’re completely unknown, every new person reading your book matters. I’m not the best at self-promotion, but I need to learn if I want this to be successful! I’ve made a video, which is on my Unbound page, featuring a lot of my photography. I think that helps humanize the project a bit, even if my hard-to-place American accent might come as a bit of a shock to some…
A few months ago I was on Jeopardy, where I lost spectacularly on the final question after leading for the entire game, but had a great time regardless. The Jeopardy contestant community is surprisingly close, and it includes several bookworms. I’m also fortunate to be part of a writing group called the Columbia Fiction Foundry, which is hosted by the Columbia University Alumni Association. All of us have the goal of being commercially published, and so we support each other. We’ve got a considerable mailing list that hopefully I haven’t completely irritated yet. The members of the workshop have seen this book come together over the past couple of years, and I hope that when they finally have copies in their hands, they’ll know they were an important part of it.
Several Unbound authors already have established careers in journalism, TV, or music, and many have successfully published before. Readers pledge to their projects knowing it’ll be something they will probably like. Me, I’m a complete unknown! I’m asking people to take a leap of faith, and it’s difficult to get a complete stranger to part with money when they’re not familiar with my work other than the excerpt on my Unbound page. I’m ridiculously grateful to everybody who has pledged, but especially to the people who don’t know me at all, because they’ve put their confidence in me. I really hope they’ll enjoy The Hope and Anchor.
TBD: What is your next project?
JK: Oh, wow. I feel like I haven’t had time to think about the next project because technically this first one isn’t finished! Sometimes I consider reviving The Results, but it may be time to simply let that one go. I feel like my next book will have to be set in New York City, as it’s a place I know as well as London and there’s infinite possibility for the kind of stories you could write about here.
I’ve been toying with the idea of writing about the aftermath of a fatal car crash, focusing on the surviving driver. In my job, we insist on saying car “crashes,” not car “accidents,” because even if it wasn’t deliberate, it’s down to the actions a person chose to take and which they could have prevented, rather than an act of God. That distinction is very fascinating to me and I think the exploration of personal agency versus chance is a pretty fertile seam to mine. But I’m still in the very, very early stages.
TBD: What advice do you have for writers?
JK: Be Patient. This was a difficult trait to cultivate in myself. I’m still not the world’s most patient person. If I had told 18-year-old me that I wouldn’t have a book deal until my early 30s, I probably would have torn my hair out. NaNoWriMo is great for motivation, but you shouldn’t expect a novel in one month. Not even the bad bare bones of one, if you have a day job. I’ve found that some of my best writing has come from times when I wasn’t expecting to generate anything substantial. I just started thinking, started writing, and what I created was far better than I expected. If you pressure yourself by putting time constraints on your writing, you miss out on the serendipitous joy of an idea simply popping into your head after ages of long slog.
Similarly, accept that writing the book is the easy part. You should expect to spend far, far more time editing and revising than you did actually getting the words onto the page. And it’s worth it. There’s no substitute for slow, deliberative, quality work.
Be judicious when incorporating autobiography. Remember that above all, your novel must be a work of fiction, and if you are constraining the possibilities of what you’re writing in order to match reality as you lived it, then you’re doing it wrong. Of course, you can lift scenes or character traits from your own life— if something interesting has happened to you, then why not? But be very careful. Your audience of complete strangers wants to read a good story, not your therapy session. They care about whether you can write an interesting, gripping book, not whether everything you’re writing about actually happened in real life. For example, I dropped out of a PhD, and I made Neely someone who has done likewise because I knew I could write really well from the emotional perspective of having derailed what you thought was your surefire plan in life. But the similarities largely stop there. Likewise, there are a few scenes where I’ve lifted the bare bones of the action from real life, but I fleshed them out with imagination. My bike rides along the Grand Union Canal are not Angela’s, even though we traveled in each other’s wheel ruts and looked at the same scenery. She can’t possibly be seeing things the exact same way I did, because she’s not me; she’s had a different life, a different perspective. The magic of fiction is that you get to create these characters who are nothing like you. You get to play God of your own tiny world in a way you can’t do anywhere else in life, so why force yourself to stay within your own experiences? That would be a failure of imagination. Why limit yourself to characters who only tick the same identity boxes that you do? That defeats the purpose of fiction, in my opinion.
I’ve found it’s quite obvious when fiction is really thinly-veiled autobiography. It’s difficult for your peers to critique honestly, because it feels like saying anything negative is casting disapproval on someone’s actual life. But without honest critique, you won’t have a decent book. If your real life is interesting enough to be fictionalized, you might as well write memoir, but remember that unless you’re Malala, Madonna, or Maradonna, few people outside your circle of friends and family will find it interesting.
Get a group. Writing feels like a solitary activity, but you must, must, MUST have readers giving you constructive criticism. Without the Columbia Fiction Foundry, The Hope and Anchor would have been a much weaker book. Your friends and family are lovely people, but they can’t always give you the tough critique you need to grow as a writer. As writers we pour our heart and soul into our work, so criticism can sometimes feel like an attack, but you have to force yourself to get over it. It’s medicine: taking it feels absolutely awful, but it’s what you need to get any better. In a good workshop environment, you’re all going to want each other to succeed, and that means hard truths and hard work, so remember that the people reading your work are just trying to make it the best it can be. Which brings me to my next point…
Don’t take it personally. This applies whether it’s a critique from a workshop or a rejection from an agent. Your work is separate from who you are. Someone not liking your story doesn’t mean they don’t like you. Someone thinking your book isn’t ready for publication doesn’t mean they think you’re talentless. It’s difficult, but you need to remember that writing this specific book is something you do, not something you are. You will fail at individual tasks— that’s simply part of learning and growing— but that does not make YOU a failure.
Cut, but don’t trash. For The Hope and Anchor, I created a Word document I titled excisions.doc, and I put in it everything that needed to be cut for the sake of the story, but which I felt was too well-written to simply throw away and get rid of forever. It functioned as a holding pen for good writing that simply wasn’t right for the moment. It turned out to be a wise idea; while doing a major revision, I found that lots of great lines that I had to cut from Andy when I made her a less central character were easily adaptable to Neely.
Don’t read the comments. Good advice for life, that.
Julia Kite lives in Manhattan, and calls New York City and London home. She is a graduate of Columbia University and the London School of Economics. Obsessed with cities and the people in them, she started her career researching housing and urban regeneration, and she now directs policy and research for Transportation Alternatives, New York City’s advocates for walking, biking, and public transit. Before she began working to make New York City’s streets better for cyclists, she was taking long rides along the Grand Union Canal in West London. She is a member of the Columbia Fiction Foundry, an alumna of quiz shows The Chase and Jeopardy, an urban wildlife rehabilitator, a keen amateur baker, and the owner of an opinionated parrot. The Hope and Anchor, currently funding on Unbound, is her first novel, a work of fiction about a very real place she holds dear.
We first met Kris Spisak at the awesome James River Writers Conference. (Yet another reason to attend writers conferences!) We were immediately impressed by her professionalism, generosity, goodwill, and great hair. She’s been at this for a long time, and now that her book Get a Grip on your Grammar: 250 Writing and Editing Reminders for the Curious or Confused is out, we picked her brain on what it takes to get successfully published.
The Book Doctors: Why in heaven’s name would you want to become a writer?
Kris Spisak: There’s not a question of wanting to be a writer. Everyone these days is a writer. Whether you’re writing the next bestseller, an email to your boss, a manifesto on social media, or a note to your child’s teacher, you are a writer. Communication is a part of our everyday lives, whether we appreciate it or not. I contend, no matter how it is that we use our written words, it’s time we step up our game.
TBD: When you were a kid what were your favorite books, grammatically?
KS: I didn’t care about grammar when I was a kid any more than anyone else. If I was a kid in today’s generation, maybe I’d simply appreciate the semicolon for its versatility in winky-faces. Coming to appreciate the subtleties in language arose somewhere later around a fascination with what a single writer can achieve with well-designed words. I wanted to see how that was done.
TBD: What inspired you to write a book about grammar?
KS: Words matter. You could argue that how we use our words matters more today than ever before. Everyone has a voice, so why not use it? And if you’re going to use it, use it well.
So many books about business writing etiquette, bettering communication skills, and grammar rules are as dry as we remember from pre-adolescence. I wanted to create a writing resource that was jargon free, easily digestible, and written with a sense of humor. Get a Grip on Your Grammar is a writing resource for those moments of temporary bewilderment and for those moments we all want to show off our absolute best.
TBD: Why is grammar important?
KS: Grammar is important because clarity is important. The world will never know the brilliance inside your head unless you can craft it with precision. This is true for fiction writers, journalists, composers of academic essays, and business communicators alike.
Grammar ignorance isn’t bliss; it can be devastating. A weak understanding of English language use is the cause of missed job opportunities, lowered grades, love poems gone wrong, and certainly rejection letters from publishers. Getting a solid grip on your grammar can impact a life for the better. Even being a writer and an editor, I don’t think I’m biased when I say that.
TBD: What are some of your grammatical pet peeves?
KS: Of course I have personal pet peeves—“further” versus “farther,” for example, or “nauseous” versus “nauseated”—but I’m not one to go around correcting people’s English unless they are asking me to. When they ask me to, oh, I can have some fun, but no one likes to be torn down for simple mistakes.
TBD: What do you want people to take away from this book?
KS: Grammar isn’t something to be intimidated by or to be snobby about, and it certainly isn’t something to fight over. There are simply lessons that remain untaught or unsolidified in people’s minds. English might be our native language, but that doesn’t mean we understand it as well as we should. We are all human, and the English language is hard. We rush our communications because we live busy lives; however, what is more important than our expressions of our ideas? Personally, professionally, and creatively, there’s room for us all to do so much better.
TBD: What effect has Twitter had on grammar?
KS: You can look at Twitter and text messages and see the downfall of grammar and punctuation, or you can realize that people are communicating more than they ever have in human history.
TBD: Does being a grammar expert help or hinder you as a creative writer?
KS: As a fiction writer, I leave my editor self behind as I craft my early drafts. If I worried about perfection with every word and squiggle of digital ink, I would never get to that final page. When I do get to the editing, my process may be meticulous, but forcing myself to pay attention to every single word choice creates a manuscript that is fine-tuned when I get there.
TBD: What is your next project?
KS: The project that became Get a Grip on Your Grammar has had an interesting journey from a weekly writing tips blog to an indie published ebook to the literary-agent-represented, traditionally published book that it has become. That weekly writing tips blog continues on kris-spisak.com, and I’m having more fun with it than ever.
As for other projects, I have two novels in the works, which I hope to find homes for in the near future, and I don’t think my non-fiction side is anywhere close to finished. I have a new grammar-based project that’s bubbling in the back of my mind, as well. Stay tuned for that.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers, and for the grammatically challenged?
KS: No matter how well educated or how confident we may be, our writing skills can always be better. Writing is a craft to practice and improve. The more we draft our written words, the stronger that they will become. And if someone happens to be looking for a resource, Get a Grip on Your Grammar: 250 Writing and Editing Reminders for the Curious or Confused is now available from your favorite bookseller.
With degrees from the College of William & Mary and the University of Richmond, Kris Spisak began her career as a college writing instructor; however, after six years in the classroom, she transitioned to professional writing and editing. Helping writers sharpen their craft was the driving force behind her book, Get a Grip on your Grammar: 250 Writing and Editing Reminders for the Curious or Confused (Career Press, 2017), and the creation of her writing program, Grammartopia. Kris is also pursuing the publication of her first novel and is the co-founder of Midlothian Web Solutions.
Anna Staniszewski is one of our daughter’s favorite authors. Our daughter is nine, with great taste in books, so we always pay very close attention to who she’s loving as a middle grade reader. We were all lucky enough to meet Anna at least year’s New England SCBWI Conference and had the chance to pick her brain after about writing, writers, MFA programs, kids’ books, and whatever else spilled out of our collective heads.
The Book Doctors: I’d like to start with the MFA programs, because we hear such conflicting things, particularly for children’s book writers. What are the benefits of going to a program like the one at Simmons College where you teach?
Anna Staniszewski: I hear that question a lot. For me, I think that it comes down to two things. If you want to be a published writer, you have to put in the work. Some people need a structured environment like an MFA program. I know I did. For other people, they can do it on their own. Another benefit of having an MFA program is the community aspect of it. You have this network that you’re part of—people with similar interests and goals. Some say you can’t be taught to write. While I think ultimately the actual storytelling voice is hard to teach, I obviously believe that you can teach someone to write, because I attended an MFA program and I teach in one.
TBD: What kinds of things do you actual teach in an MFA program for children’s literature?
AS: When the students come into the MFA program at Simmons, we really break down the basics. We look at character, plot, structure, setting, all those things, which seem really basic because we do so many of them by instinct, because we see how they work in other people’s stories. But if you really break down how they work, then you can take them and use them in your own story. The more aware you are of the different building blocks of fiction, the more consciously you can use them to benefit the story that you’re working on.
TBD: What was the transition like going from student to published author to teacher?
AS: When I first started at Simmons, I originally went for the MA of Children’s Literature. I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do. I thought I wanted to go into publishing. But my first semester there they were just launching that MFA program–this was over ten years ago–and so I thought that’s exactly what I want to do, I want to do both those things. Once I knew that, I was really focused throughout that program on wanting to be published when I graduated, and then when I finished, I actually applied to the Writer Resident Program at the Boston Public Library and, miraculously, got it the next year. Right after I graduated I was a writer-in-residence at the BPL, which was amazing. I think that really gave me such a boost of confidence that writing could be a real job for me! Right after I finished at the BPL, I went to teaching. Originally, for the first year that I taught, I taught all over the Boston area. I was really lucky when an opening popped up in Simmons, where they needed someone to teach in the MFA program, so I was able to do that right around the time that I got my agent. That was interesting to go through the submission process all while I was teaching other students who were trying to get to the same point.
TBD: One thing that we run into all the time is that people think that it is easier to write a children’s book than an adult book, particularly when it comes to picture books, and what I find amusing, in terms of length of time, is that it takes longer to publish a picture book than it does any other kind of book that I’ve ever seen.
AS: Absolutely! I sold my first picture book in 2011, and it is coming out in 2017. It was a long process! (Even though book publishing is a slow process, it’s rare for a book to take this long.) I think because there are so few words, you have to pick the exact, perfect words for every spread. And then there’s this whole other element if you’re not the illustrator and you just have to wait and hope that it all comes together! Writing picture books is such a specific craft, I was actually a little bit intimidated by it for a while. For me, writing a novel somehow feels less scary.
TBD: For those writers out there who really know nothing about the craft of picture books, do you have a few tips?
AS: I would say the big thing is thinking about what would you like to see illustrated because I think a lot of times you’ll have a certain idea of “wouldn’t this be cute” and “wouldn’t this be fun,” but then you really have to think, “Can I get several illustrations out of this?” Then there are the parts of your book that not only could be illustrated, but also are begging to be illustrated! That’s why you need to find an idea that doesn’t just resonate with people, but that’s demanding to be illustrated.
The other thing I often tell students, because this is true of my own experience, is that an idea is not a story. The picture book I mentioned that’s coming out in 2017–the one that took six years–that was one where it took me a good year to find what I was actually trying to say. I came up with the idea, “Oh, wouldn’t it be fun if a boy turned a dog into a dinosaur?” And so I kind of played around with it, and it just wasn’t really working. I think part of it was because I wasn’t really thinking about the illustration potential. But I think a bigger part of it was that while it was a fun idea, it wasn’t really a story. And so I had to really dig into it. It took me a while to find what it needed to be about, which was the relationship between the boy and what turned out to be just a dinosaur.
Probably the most important thing in a picture book is the emotional component to the story. Because picture books are so short, there’s so little time to get the point across. You need something readers can really connect to on an emotional level because otherwise it’s just a fun story and you forget about it. But if there’s that deeper emotional layer, then readers will come back to it over and over.
TBD: We love that last one! We do a lot of work with writers to try to help them figure out how to pitch their books, and many writers have tremendous difficulties doing this. We get so many pitches where we don’t see an emotional connection with their main character. They just have an idea, there’s no actual plot or story there.
AS: It’s true, because by the time you finish reading a story, if there’s no emotional component and there’s no real plot, you find yourself asking, “Why did I just read this?” There has to be something there, even if it’s not a traditional story arc. My picture book, Power Down, Little Robot, is not a traditional story arc. It’s about a robot that doesn’t want to go to bed. It tries out all these different things to prevent going to bed, so it’s more like a list-type story. But I really try to highlight the mother-son relationship there. I hope, by the end, readers feel changed by the story, even if it doesn’t have a traditional beginning, middle, and end.
TBD: It’s confusing to many people who are starting out in the field what the category Middle Grade even means–the age range, where it diverges from early reader, how it stretches up to YA but doesn’t cross over into it. Can you give us your thoughts on this?
AS: I get this question all the time as well. I think people define it slightly differently, but this is how I think about it. I think the characters are typically between the ages of eight and twelve or thirteen. There are also early chapter books, and I do include those in early middle-grade, so in early chapter books, the protagonist can sometimes be in second grade or age seven. But a lot of early readers of chapter books are very much riding that line between picture book and novel. So I look at early chapter books on a case-by-case basis to know where exactly those fall. I feel like once you get into high school, that’s where it gets tougher. In my novels, most of my characters are thirteen or fourteen, which is at the upper end of middle-grade, often referred to as “tweens.” And even fifteen years ago, those would have been published as YA. Because YA has aged up so much, middle-grade has had to expand a little bit and the characters have become a little older.
While part of the way I define middle grade is by age, part of it I define by focus. It’s not only the content, but also how you deal with the content. So in middle-grade, if it’s younger middle grade, you might get away with a little bit of romance, but there are a lot of kids who don’t want that in their books. Whereas if it’s upper middle-grade, you might see a little bit of romance and you might see some darker things like war and death. With the latter, they tend to be handled a little bit more in the background or off-screen, so they are certainly there and they’re impacting the main character, but not in a direct way. For example, if there’s a character with something very serious going on in her life, maybe that’s not happening to the main character, it’s happening to the main character’s friend or somebody else in the family. In middle grade, you’re still kind of discovering what the world is like, whereas in young adult, I’d say it’s “Now that I know what the world is like, how do I fit in?” In YA, the focus is more inward, where middle-grade is more outward.
TBD: In your bio you write, “When she’s not writing, Anna spends her time reading, daydreaming, and challenging unicorns to games of hopscotch.” We thought this was so funny, and it’s just the sort of thing our nine-year-old daughter would love. Speaking of our nine-year-old daughter, she loves your books so much and just had the experience where she sat down with The Dirt Diary and couldn’t get up until she finished. You captured something that felt grounded in reality yet she could fantasize. How do you come up with your stories? Are they things that just come to you, or are they things you’ve been thinking about since you were little?
AS: I feel that I never have a lack of ideas. I feel like my brain is open, that it’s always asking “What if this happened?” I’m always kind of twisting the things that I notice, and thinking about “What if I told it this way?” Then it’s just a matter of figuring out what am I most excited about, and that’s what I decide to write about. But sometimes I feel like the process is a little bit mysterious. With my first book, My Very UnFairy Tale Life, I was working on something completely different. I was working on a sort of depressing book that ended up not going anywhere, and I needed something fun to work on. So I sat down and I just thought “Okay, I’ll just write a fun scene, just for myself,” and I wrote a scene about a girl who came home from school to find a talking frog sitting on her bed, and if that was me, I would have screamed and run out of the room, but she was so annoyed at the sight of the frog, and she actually grabbed that frog and she threw it out a window. I thought, “Who is this character? I need to know more about her!” I would write a chapter or two every once in a while, just for my own amusement, and that’s how that book came about. With my book The Dirt Diary, I heard a story on the radio about a girl who used to work for her mom’s cleaning business and a bell went off in my head. So for me, the premise comes first a lot of times, but it’s not until I connect with the characters that I go with it.
I feel that what you were saying about being rooted in the real world with a little bit of fantasy or magic, those are the kinds of stories I’ve always loved the most, and so I feel like that’s what I most enjoy writing as well.
TBD: We were impressed with how you dealt with class issues in The Dirt Diary. Our daughter happens to be in a public school that is very mixed, class-wise, from the very top to the very bottom. We were happy to see her reading a book that made her think about class. Speaking of which, your dedication may be our favorite ever: To anyone who has ever had to clean a toilet.
AS: I always thought I’d write fantasy. I wasn’t sure I had realistic fiction in me until I started writing it. For me, I guess what helped me was that I felt like my entire middle school existence could be summed up in the word “embarrassed.” I was nothing but embarrassed all the time. I also needed to know “Where do I fit in?” So a lot of those class issues are things that I experienced in school, where there were kids who lived in the big fancy houses and their families had big fancy cars, and then there were the rest of us. There was a lot of pressure no matter where you were on that hierarchy, and I thought that was something worth exploring. It also felt very true to my character because of the situation I put her in, and it also felt very true emotionally for me. A lot of people ask me how much of that story comes from my personal experience, and it’s very little. I did not clean houses for a living. I try to avoid cleaning houses at all, even my own. But I feel the emotional element is very true to life, and so I feel like I took a character who is very shy and very awkward, and took those qualities from myself when I was her age and amplified them by ten.
TBD: Something we run into every day with clients trying to get children’s books published is the desire tell us what their book is trying to teach. I would love for you to say something about the didactic nature of children’s books, and what do you advise on that?
AS: I think the important thing is telling a good story, and if there’s something that comes out of that for the reader, that’s fantastic, but if that’s the aim–if you go into it looking to teach something—it will show. The story always has to come first. When I set out to write a book, I’m not thinking what I want the reader to learn, or what do I want the character to learn, I just focus on something much more simple, like how does the character change. I try to think of it in a very specific way. With The Dirt Diary, for example, it’s about a character finding her voice. Though that may imply that maybe she learned some things along the way, that’s not what the story is really about. I think about: “Where does she start?” She’s shy, she can’t speak up for herself. “Where does she end?” She comes out of her shell a little bit, she speaks up for herself, at least when she really needs to. I’m not just trying to hit the reader over the head with a lesson or a moral. As a reader, I like to be able to think about the book myself and also feel like I have grown and changed along with the character; that’s more valuable than having a very obvious and concrete lesson.
Anna Staniszewski is the author of several tween novels, including The Dirt Diary and Once Upon a Cruise, and the picture books Power Down, Little Robot and Dogosaurus Rex. She lives outside of Boston and teaches at Simmons College. When she’s not writing, Anna spends her time reading, daydreaming, and challenging unicorns to games of hopscotch. You can learn more about her and her books at www.annastan.com.
Since David was a screenwriter for many years, he’s fascinated by the difference between writing for the screen and writing for between the covers. He’s also quite fascinated by pain, how we use it, how we avoid it, and what we can learn from it. So when he came across Jamie Mayer’s wonderful new novel Painless, we decided to pick her brain about books, screenplays, and pain. Which all seem oddly related somehow.
The Book Doctors: What were some of your favorite books as a kid and why?
Jamie Mayer: I think some of the books that make the biggest impression are the ones that help you learn about things you really want to know but no one is telling you, so stuff like sex (Judy Blume, my parents’ old hippy-ish copy of The Joy of Sex), magic (Half Magic, Dragonsong), or the mysteries of older, cooler kids (The Outsiders, Judy Blume again – my friends and I had a well marked-up copy of Forever, her “adultiest” one).
I also loved stories about kids who did things they weren’t supposed to be able to do, like living in a museum (From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler), or solving mysteries (Harriet the Spy, Encyclopedia Brown).
TBD: How did you learn to be a writer?
JM: I always wrote short stories for myself, but never really considered writing as a career. In college I studied film, photography and documentary film. I later decided that if I wanted to direct films, no one would let me unless I also wrote them, so I started writing screenplays – and then it turned into my primary career.
TBD: What was the inspiration for Painless?
JM: I read a newspaper story about a young boy with the same disorder as Quinn, the main character in Painless. It’s a neurological condition where you literally can’t feel pain, and his parents were beside themselves trying to live with this kid who had no natural fear of pain and thought nothing of doing things that would hurt himself or others. And I wondered what living like this would do psychologically to this boy as he grew older – if he grew older, because lots of people with this condition don’t survive to adulthood.
TBD: Why did you choose to write a Young Adult novel?
JM: The story of Painless originally took the form of a screenplay, one of the first I ever wrote. I came close to directing it as a film, but when that fell apart, I put it in a drawer and tried to forget about it – but the story still wasn’t done with me somehow. My mentor Holly Goldberg Sloan, the screenwriter/director-turned-best-selling YA author, suggested I try writing it as a YA novel. And that idea just breathed new energy into it – as I expanded and developed it into novel form it took on a whole new life!
TBD: We live in New Jersey, and we wonder what it was like for you growing up in the Garden State?
JM: I always like to stick up for New Jersey, which is really such a beautiful place but gets a bad rap!
My parents lived in New York City before I was born, but when I was still a baby they hit the suburbs of central New Jersey. It was a great place to grow up, just an hour’s train ride from New York – and we visited often to see family, go to museums or theater, etc. – but it really was this smallish town, where kids wandered freely, disappearing into the woods to play and collect tadpoles or whatever for hours without grownup supervision. At the time I thought it was a little boring, but in retrospect, it was pretty awesome. Plus Jersey corn and tomatoes. Plus Springsteen. Plus Jon Stewart. Come on.
TBD: Why did you pick someone who can’t feel physical pain to be your book’s hero?
JM: There are upsides to feeling no pain, but obviously there are downsides too. Around the time I wrote the original story, I was dealing with the long illness and death of my father (who was a wonderful guy, by the way, nothing like Quinn’s dad!). And like anyone who’s experienced the death of a loved one, or a terrible romantic breakup or even unrequited love, I thought to myself, “Wow, this feels horrible. Maybe if I just never care this much about anyone ever again, I’ll never feel this bad again!” Of course, that’s a terrible idea if you want to be even remotely human – if you want to feel the good stuff, you’ll also be vulnerable to feeling the bad. So this physical condition struck me as a perfect metaphor for how people sometimes close themselves off from connection and love, becoming emotionally “painless”. And I wanted to write a story about someone who comes to realize that to make life worth living, he has to open that door a crack.
TBD: How does your process for writing a novel differ from writing a screenplay?
JM: Screenplays are so much about structure and clear character arcs – which are also really useful in writing a novel. But where screenwriting style is usually very spare and external, only describing what you can see, a novel can be more descriptive and internal, so I needed to consciously remind myself to widen the palette, and that was really fun and liberating! Also, in a screenplay you don’t have to choose between first and third (or second!) person POVs, so that created a whole new facet to the process as well..whose POV are we in when, and why, and how?
TBD: What are you working on next?
JM: I just wrote and directed a short coming-of-age film called Crowbar Smile that you can watch on TheScene.com. I’m hoping it will become a full-length feature film soon. I’m also writing several new film and television scripts. There may be a new YA novel brewing as well, but it’s too soon to talk about it!
TBD: If time had split and you were living another, parallel life, what would it be?
JM: I would be a large animal veterinarian. As a kid, I loved biology and animals and was always bringing random animals home. I wanted to go to vet school and interned in high school with my local vet, where I even got to scrub in and assist in the surgery to spay my own kitten! In college, I discovered a love of film and photography, and somehow never got around to all the pre-med classes I would need for vet school. So in my alternate timeline I am a horse doctor, driving from farm to farm with my muddy boots on…
I know it seems unrelated to my current career, but my interest in biology and things medical makes me especially interested in story ideas like the one underlying Painless!
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?
JM: Write – which seems obvious, but lots of people don’t do. There are a lot of bad drafts that have to happen on the way to accumulating 10,000 hours of practice! And learn to re-write – which I think is a different, and in lots of ways harder, process, which involves evaluating and incorporating criticism and notes and being willing to tear up things that you might be very attached to! These things are simple to say but not necessarily to do – and I think every writer grapples with both these processes every day.
Screenwriter Jamie Mayer is venturing into prose with her debut YA novel Painless. Born in New York City, Mayer grew up in New Jersey and graduated with a degree in Visual and Environmental Studies from Harvard University. She now lives in Los Angeles with her husband, son and a neurotic-but-good-hearted rescue dog. More info at www.jamiemayer.com.
We’ve known Kate Forest for many years, and it’s been a joy to watch her come into her own as a writer. She has an unusual book out now, and we wanted to pick her brain about how she came up with this fascinating twist on the classic romance.
The Book Doctors: Why did you do something as silly as decide to become a writer?
Kate Forest: I wish I weren’t a writer. I’ve always been the storyteller of the family (some of the stories were even truthful). I felt compelled to write them down a few years ago. I didn’t have plans to publish at first. But I’m also too ambitious for my own good.
TBD: What are you reading these days? What were your favorite books growing up, and why?
KF: Growing up was tough in terms of books.I didn’t learn to read until I was about 11 years old. Not only did I miss out on all the Judy Blumes, but school was a very painful place. I had the fortune of getting some extra help in 6th grade. One day I looked around the reading group I was in and noticed I was with the smart kids. I immediately went to Sherlock Holmes (still some of my favorite stories).
Now, I love reading romance of any kind. Devouring Amanda DeWees, Veronica Forand. And I love non-fiction. Isaac’s Storm by Erik Larson is on the top of my Kindle now.
TBD: How did you learn to be a writer?
KF: Trial and error. My sister, Andrea Pyros, is the real writer of the family, and she was kind enough to not laugh too hard when I said I was going to write a book. I took classes at my local community college, read books, and attended conferences, online classes, and workshops. I came from a place of knowing that I didn’t know anything and felt no shame in starting from scratch at 40 years old.
TBD: What drew you to romance writing?
KF: I need a happy ever after in my fiction. Because of my work as a social worker, I’ve never been able to read those wonderful weepy Oprah Book Club books. When Precious came out, I couldn’t look at that as entertainment, since foster care was my day job. Fiction, for me, needs to be an escape. And I’d better be emotionally satisfied at the end or I’ll hurl the book at the wall. For non-fiction I can be forgiving.
TBD: Tell us what your new book, Standing Up, is about.
KF: It’s the classic nerd/jock story but with a twist. Mike was the star football player in high school. A car accident lands him on crutches in excruciating pain, and he elects to have his legs amputated below the knee. Jill is a woman determined to get to NASA but finds it hard to stand up for herself in a man’s world. It’s more a story of finding your identity than a straightforward romance.
TBD: They say, “Write what you know,” but you’ve never had an amputation. How did you get into the mindset of someone missing a limb? There’s so much attention being paid to ensuring that genuine experience dictates the content of books like this. How did you make sure that your writing was real?
KF: If I only wrote what I “know” all my characters would be middle class Jewish cis-gendered women. I am in complete agreement that representation matters. We need diversity in books, not just in the characters depicted, but also among the authors. That said, I think I did my due diligence. I interviewed amputees and people with disabilities. I met with a prosthetics expert, had sensitivity readers, and relied on my professional experiences. This story is not going to be true for everyone with limb loss because not everyone with limb loss has the same experience. But it could be true for some. And not everything the characters think and feel will sit well with everyone. Just because one of my characters says something insensitive doesn’t mean that it’s my personal belief. I hope people see the evolution of the characters.
TBD: It’s unusual to see an amputee in a romance novel. What prompted you to write something like this?
KF: I was tired of all the “perfect” characters in romance. Their only flaws being they are “too smart,” “too wealthy,” etc. I meet people all the time who find true lasting love, and they are far from perfect. We all need love stories. We all deserve a happy ever after.
TBD: How did being a social worker impact how you wrote this novel?
KF: I’m a storyteller, but I’m also a listener. If I had a superpower it would be empathy. It takes a lot out of me to sit with someone through their pain. To be present and hold them in that space. That’s the job of a good social worker. To offer the non-judgemental support and advocacy. I’ve been telling people’s stories through court reports, case files, and hospital notes, always with the conviction to get the person what they need.
TBD: How long does it take you to write a book?
KF: Too darn long. I am a painfully slow writer and an even slower editor/reviser. I can’t plot a book at the beginning. I have some vague idea of what will happen. Mostly, I have a clear idea of who these characters are. I just let them play on the page. I end up deleting many, many wonderfully written pages that are absolutely useless.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers? For romance writers?
KF: A good story has terrible conflict. You can’t be afraid to put your characters through hell. They should be at the place where everything is hopeless. It’s really hard to go there. None of us want to think about being hopeless. But that’s the desperation the characters need to feel. Otherwise, the story isn’t compelling.
Author Kate Forest has worked in a psychiatric hospital, as a dating coach, and spent a disastrous summer selling above-ground swimming pools. But it was her over 20-year career as a social worker that compelled her to write love stories with characters you don’t typically get to read about. She lives in Philadelphia with her husband, two kids, and a fierce corgi. Learn more at kateforestbooks.com.
We first met Joan Garry through Susan Weinberg, the publisher of Perseus Books Group. Joan was whip smart, pistol sharp, savvy, funny, altogether awesome, and shockingly humble. We would never have guessed that she is a top dog when it comes to consulting with nonprofits. And her website is of-the-charts excellent. It almost didn’t matter what her book was, we knew she had the goods necessary for success. Now that her book Joan Garry’s Guide to Nonprofit Leadership is out, we wanted to pick her brain about books, writing, and nonprofits.
The Book Doctors: There are other books on the subject of nonprofit management. Without an apparent hole in the market, how did you distinguish your book from what was already out there?
Joan Garry: You’re absolutely right – there are plenty of books about nonprofit management, but none that focus on what I call “shared leadership,” which is a challenge and opportunity quite unique to nonprofits.
What I mean is, there are books written for staff executives and resources galore for board leaders. But the reality is neither can be effective without the other. Nobody else has written about them as co-pilots of the same jet. If we don’t treat board chairs like they are in the cockpit, they won’t lead. This book is written for nonprofit leaders – the paid AND the unpaid.
I also found that a number of important topics were conspicuously absent. For example, storytelling plays an absolutely critical role in successful nonprofit leadership. A nonprofit ambassador who can tell a compelling and emotional story can invite folks to know more and do more. Crisis management is another missing topic. Far too few organizations are ready should a crisis strike.
Finally, I tried to bring a real sense of humor to the book. A lot of the book touches on personal experiences I had as a nonprofit Executive Director, a board leader, a donor, and a volunteer. I just had so many great stories to share and these stories are what make the book unique and fun to read – not just practical, though it is that too.
TBD: One thing about your book that’s different from the others out there is your voice. Why is the voice of your book important? For others writing books based on their business, what advice can you offer about bringing your voice into your book?
JG: I’m lucky. I write the way I speak and so folks say reading my work is like hearing me chat with them. My voice is informed by having played every position on the nonprofit field, so I have stood firmly in the shoes of my readers. I have personally experienced many of the same issues and concerns they have – good and bad.
Most nonprofit leadership books tend to be pretty clinical and instructive. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but that’s not the book I wanted to write. I wanted to demonstrate the joy that the best leaders bring to their work. And it’s a short ride from joy to humor. And there’s plenty of humor in my book. I just think that makes it a lot more fun to read, which ultimately makes it easier to absorb the material.
TBD: You have an incredible team that works with you. How did this team help you get your proposal, book, and your marketing done? Why is it important to have a team?
JG: Some people have a family business – I call mine a ‘chosen family business’ – a small team of colleagues who are smart and dedicated to the work we do. Each of us is clear that we are advocates for the success of nonprofit leaders and we always keep our eye on what we believe would be most helpful to the folks we serve – staff and board leaders. We each brought something different to the development of the book proposal to chapter editing to marketing the book. The brand, the audience, the strategy to reach that particular audience, the content. Each of us were advocates in each of these areas. There’s no way I could have done all this by myself.
TBD: When we first met you, we were really struck by your website. We’ve continued to be so impressed by all your social media — particularly your newsletters. How did you develop your digital platform? What are some things that have worked, and what are some things that haven’t?
JG: I started to build my digital platform in late 2012. One of the best business decisions I ever made was hiring my digital strategist, Scott Paley at Abstract Edge. When I first reached out to him, based on a recommendation I got from somebody else who had worked with his company, I told him I needed a new website for my consulting business. That’s all I thought I needed. What did I know? In our very first conversation, he gave me a vision for what could be – a much bigger vision that I had imagined.
That conversation ultimately led to my blog, my social media, my podcast, my gig as a panelist on NBC’s Give (the first network TV reality show about nonprofits), my upcoming online education platform, and even the opportunity to have a major publisher interested in publishing my book. Now, whenever I write something online, tens of thousands of people read it! Not surprisingly, my consulting practice completely took off. It’s just amazing.
The biggest thing about this platform is that I just focus on helping people. I recently had Adam Grant on the podcast. He’s the author of a best selling book that’s all about “givers” and “takers”. His philosophy has been a big influence. Everything I do online is about giving. I never worry that I’m giving away too much. I really think that’s been the secret.
Most of what we’ve tried has worked very well. The one exception was a couple years ago we built an area on my website called “The Couch.” It was a place where nonprofit people could anonymously vent about their frustrations and others could sympathize. After a couple of months, we realized that it was too negative and we shut it down. But I don’t view that as a failure at all. It taught us a lot about what “Joan Garry” stands for as a brand and how important it is for all of our media to be on brand.
TBD: What did you find challenging about turning your business into a book?
JG: So much of what I do with my clients is teach. I’m an educator. I think writing the book was easier for me because of that and because of how much I’ve already written on my blog. The blog is a place where I can formulate my ideas and get them down in writing and get feedback from literally thousands of people who understand exactly what I’m writing about. The blog is an amazing crucible for me in that sense and the outcome of all that thinking and all that feedback is this book. Without that, it certainly would have been much more challenging to write.
TBD: Did you find that writing a book helped you with your business?
JG: I’ll let you know in about 6-9 months. J
But I will say that the process of writing the book has helped me to organize some of what I teach my clients in new ways I hadn’t previously considered. So in that sense, absolutely it has helped.
TBD: Your book is officially published on March 6, but you’ve been so successful in garnering pre-orders. Can you tell us a little bit about how you did this?
JG: Largely this was also the work of Scott, my digital strategist, and his team at Abstract Edge. They created a gorgeous website for the book (www.nonprofitsaremessy.com), but more importantly they put together a plan that really leveraged the audience we’ve built up over the last 4 years.
We’re offering valuable book bonuses for pre-orders. We developed a really smart rollout strategy that includes the blog, the podcast, my email list, and social media. We organized a volunteer “launch team” to help spread the word. Created a Thunderclap, which will help spread the word even further on launch day. We’ve given copies of the book to some well-known folks in the nonprofit world who are saying lovely things about it and telling their networks. All of that has led to a much larger volume of pre-sales than the publisher was initially anticipating.
I’ve been absolutely thrilled by the response.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?
- Make sure you have something unique to say and can say it in a way that sticks.
- Be absolutely clear about who you are speaking to and be as specific as possible. You have to really understand your readers’ concerns and issues.
- Be passionate about ensuring that the maximum number of those people have the opportunity to buy it. And be ready to invest time, energy and money in reaching them.
Widely known as the “Dear Abby” of nonprofit leadership, Joan Garry works with nonprofit CEOs and boards as a strategic advisor, crisis manager, change agent and strategic planner. Her nonprofit blog at joangarry.com reaches leaders in over 150 countries and she hosts a top nonprofit podcast on iTunes: Nonprofits Are Messy. Joan also teaches at the University of Pennsylvania with a focus on nonprofit communications and leadership.
Jonathon Keats on Buckminster Fuller, Being a Critic, a Writer, and How to Get Unusual Books Published
We first met Jonathon Keats many years ago, and we were immediately struck by what an eclectic set of interests he had, and what amazing bowties he wore. He’s working on a couple new projects, and his book You Belong to the Universe: Buckminster Fuller and the Future came out this year, so we picked his brain about philosophy, lighting, publishing, and how to get strange and beautiful books published.
The Book Doctors: First of all, tell us about your new book.
Jonathon Keats: I’ve written a book that explores the legacy of Buckminster Fuller, a visionary inventor and architect who styled himself as a comprehensive anticipatory design scientist. Fuller spent much of the 20th century striving “to make the world work for one hundred percent of humanity.” His visionary thinking led most famously to his invention of the Geodesic Dome, but I believe his deeper legacy was as a pioneer of what we now refer to as world-changing ideas. Many of these – such as visualizing global resources and gaming world peace – were not possible in Fuller’s lifetime but have become feasible since his death in 1983, and are now urgently needed to meet the growing demands of an exploding world population.
My ambition with this book is to revive Fuller’s comprehensivist approach to framing and addressing colossal problems. Along the way I delve into his life story and personal eccentricities. This is a man who seriously proposed to make cars with inflatable wings and to build a dome over Manhattan. He was equal parts genius and crackpot, and I believe we need to consider all aspects of his character if we’re going to responsibly revive comprehensive anticipatory design science in our own time.
TBD: How exactly does one go about becoming a professional conceptual artist and experimental philosopher?
JK: It happened by default. I studied philosophy in college, but ultimately found it too stiflingly academic. So I sought ways in which to do philosophy in public, engaging the broadest possible audiences in questions that ultimately concern everyone: questions about what we value in life and what kind of future we want.
For instance, I recently designed a camera with a hundred-year-long exposure. Hundreds of these devices have been hidden in cities worldwide. You might think of them as surveillance cameras, invisibly watching over the decisions we make. They’ll reveal our activities to future generations that have no way of influencing us yet will be impacted by many of the choices we’re making today.
I’ve found the art world to be the most permissive realm in which to undertake these large-scale thought experiments. If I’m a conceptual artist, it’s really a matter of convenience. Conceptual art provides cover for doing what I’ve always done, which is to systematically question everything.
TBD: What has being a critic taught you about writing?
JK: Criticism keeps me honest. It exposes me to other work and helps me to examine my own work at a distance.
TBD: How did you go about getting your book published?
JK: This is my third book with Oxford University Press. My first book was about language and my second one was about forgery, and before those I wrote a collection of stories inspired by Talmud, which was published by Random House. My interests are eclectic and my writing reflects that. I suppose it can be a liability in terms of getting published, since publishers may be unsure of how to define me, but at a certain point, the eclecticism became a defining characteristic. My books all have in common the fact that they have nothing in common except my eclectic sensibility. Somehow it seems to work – and eclecticism turns out to be a good starting point for writing about a comprehensive anticipatory design scientist.
TBD: What do you want people to take away from the book?
JK: I want people to understand Buckminster Fuller’s way of thinking. Equally important, I want people to appreciate the limitations of his worldview. Fuller was a techno-utopian who believed that all problems could be solved by engineering. This assumption has become mainstream as companies like Google have come to dominate the planet. By seeing the ways in which Fuller failed – and there were many – we can be smarter about technology and how we engage the new economy.
TBD: Tell us about the global warming ice cream project.
JK: Maybe I should blame it on Fuller. He was obsessed with data visualization. Toward that end, he invented the Geoscope, a vast animated globe intended to reveal patterns ranging from cloud cover to human migration. While the Geoscope never got built, visualization has subsequently become increasingly mainstream. We’re increasingly immersed in big data, and we increasingly rely on visualization to model complex systems.
Yet for all the benefits of visualization, we remain incapable of understanding many phenomena, from the accelerating expansion of the universe to the intricacies of climate change. So I started thinking about whether visualization was the only way of examining complex patterns, and I realized that there was another option. Instead of visualizing complex systems, we could gastronify them. In other words, we could eat our data.
The human gut turns out to be a remarkably intelligent organ, second only to the brain in number of neurons. The enteric nervous system is also manifestly unlike our gray matter, as is suggested by talk about ‘gut feelings.’ By representing scientific models with digestible biochemicals instead of colored arrows, it’s possible to expose scientific phenomena to the alimentary canal, where they may be understood in terms that elude the brain.
Over the past year, I’ve been developing a chemical language based on the effect of substances like vanillin and capsaicin on receptors lining the intestine. Practically any phenomenon can be represented, but I’m initially concentrating on global warming, transforming the carbon cycle and albedo effect into edible feedback loops. My gastronification of the global climate will be presented next month at the STATE Festival in Berlin, where it will be consumed not only by climate scientists but also the general public.
I’ve chosen to serve the climate feedback loops in a specially-made sorbet, since ice cream seems to be universally popular and is bound only to become more so as the planet warms. Unlike the conundrum of dark energy, climate change needs to be understood by everybody because we need to act on it as a society. By consuming my sorbet, people may internalize the problem, emotionally confronting climate change through the enteric nervous system.
TBD: How does being a visual artist influence you as a writer?
JK: I really don’t differentiate between the two modes of expression, at least at the outset. In some cases ideas are more effectively explored through narrative, while others can be examined more incisively through an object or installation. So for any given project, I decide on an approach that I think will be most generative. There are countless considerations – such as the trade-off between control and flexibility – but ultimately I work on instinct.
And I’m also pretty promiscuous. Over the years I’ve made numerous artist’s books, and my installations inevitably involve language. Just consider all the words I’ve used to talk about data gastronification – and I’m only getting started.
TBD: What were some of your favorite books as a kid, and why? What are you reading these days?
JK: My favorite books as a child are still some of my favorites, and remain some of the most profound influences on what I do every day. Harold and the Purple Crayon showed me how to create an imaginary world with the simplest imaginable materials. Goodnight Moon taught me philosophy. (What to make of the page reading “Goodnight nobody”? I’m still trying to figure it out.) The light touch of the best children’s books allows them to probe deeper than most anything else ever written. In everything I do, I strive for that lightness. I have yet to achieve it.
The books I’m reading today are often those that I’m reviewing. (The most recent is Time Travel by James Gleick.) Then there are new books by friends, such as Damion Searls’s excellent forthcoming history of the Rorschach Test, The Inkblots. And finally there are books I find myself rereading on a regular basis, always finding something I hadn’t previously noticed. One of those is Five Hundred and Seven Mechanical Movements by Henry T. Brown. (The title pretty well encapsulates what it’s about.)
TBD: How would you improve the English language?
JK: I think we could benefit immeasurably by adding to our relatively meager stock of tenses and moods. One addition that comes to mind in this election season is the faithful. It would work much like the conditional, only instead of indicating statements of possibility, the faithful would mark statements of belief. (Present: I have, you have, s/he has. Conditional: I would have, you would have, s/he would have. Faithful: I believe I have, you believe you have, s/he believes s/he has.) The widespread adoption of the faithful tense – especially the first person faithful – might lead to greater accountability not so much because politicians would actually use it but because we’d be more attuned to what they were avoiding.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?
JK: The virtues of procrastination are greatly underestimated. I tend to do my most interesting work when I’m working on too many things and alternatingly procrastinating on all of them. Projects get mixed up in my head. Serendipitous connections occur to me. And serendipity is a pretty good proxy for creativity.
Jonathon Keats is a writer, artist and experimental philosopher. He is recently the author of the story collection The Book of the Unknown (Random House), winner of the American Library Association’s 2010 Sophie Brody Medal, as well as Virtual Words: Language on the Edge of Science and Technology (2010) and Forged: Why Fakes are the Great Art of Our Age (2013), both published by OUP.
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Selling your First Novel, Maximizing Writers’ Conferences and Making a Living While Writing
We are lucky to live in a town called Montclair, New Jersey. We had no idea when we moved here how many amazing writers would live within a stone’s throw of us. One of them is Christina Baker Kline. We got to know her before her New York Times best-selling novel, Orphan Train, was published. She was at the center of the writing community in Montclair, helping writers both published and unpublished to get their foot into the door of the book biz. It often seems like a bestseller comes out of nowhere, fully formed like Athena springing from the head of Zeus. But as you’ll see from our interview with Christina, a groundbreaking novel, like Rome, is not built in a day.
The Book Doctors: You were a writer for many years before you had a mega bestseller. Take us down the path of your decision to become a writer, the arc of your career, and how it led up to your most recent success.
Christina Baker Kline: I have always been a working writer, by which I mean I was a scrappy kid. I was raised by professor parents who had no money. My mother taught at a community college. When I was about 11 or 12, she put me in charge of cooking, and she put my sister Cynthia, who was about 18 months younger, in charge of laundry. She had to stand on a box to do laundry. And so we became quite self-sufficient. We also took care of our two baby sisters. We called them The Babies until they were 12. And I remember one of my sisters saying, “You have to stop calling us The Babies. We’re not babies anymore.”
In college, I majored in English literature. I did a Masters of Arts in literature for graduate school, and then I did an MFA. For me, as it so happened, English was a marketable degree, even though people might not think of it that way, because that’s where my skills lie. My masters in English literature helped me get teaching jobs. For my MFA, I knew that I could stave off student loans for two more years, and I also wanted to write a novel, but I knew I would never be able to do it if I was working full-time. So I applied to ten programs. I got full fellowships at two, Michigan and The University of Virginia, to, as far as I was concerned, write a novel. They didn’t know I was going to write a novel. MFA programs are not set up to write novels. But I was very directed. I had one shot, and then I was going to be repaying student loans and working. I wrote my first novel in two years while pretending to be writing short stories. I kind of handed in little bits and pieces and old stories.
I also was an entrepreneur, and I had a company called Writing Works, which I started with another grad student. We edited Guggenheim applications, professors’ essays, and letters. Books even. Then I came to New York and continued that little company. I’ve always set up a life in which I was working as an editor and teaching.
I’ve always assumed I would have to make a living in addition to writing. I have ten books, and I’ve always gotten reasonable advances. I broke six-figures once in that period of all those books, but I always had high five-figure advances. Sometimes I could support myself for a year, and sometimes I couldn’t. But the big picture is, I always knew that I wanted to write, and I always assumed it would also entail making a living in some other way as well. So I never expected to write a book that would mean I wouldn’t have to do other jobs.
TBD: What happened to that first novel?
CBK: For my first novel, I got $7,500. It was the little engine that could, and it far surpassed my modest expectations. We sold rights in other countries. We sold film rights, first serial rights. It was a Reader’s Digest Condensed Book. For $40,000, Reader’s Digest bought it. That was huge because the book had earned out way before it came out. This led to a bidding war for my next novel. Of course, that’s how I thought it would continue forever. But the second novel did very poorly, and I had gotten a big advance. So I sold my next novel for a reasonable amount and got myself back on track in terms of publishers not being terrified to take me on. And then my next book was much darker, more serious. That didn’t do so well. My career was very up-and-down. That brings us to Orphan Train.
TBD: It’s interesting that you’ve never really experienced full-on rejection in the way that most writers have. Despite the ups and downs, it sounds like a really nice run!
CBK: Not exactly. I have been protected a bit from rejection. But I went through one very dark period. I had this wonderful experience with my first novel. I had a lot of interest in my second novel. But the editor who bought it was a celebrity editor; she was not hands-on. She took on a lot of writers like me, paid them well because she had a big budget, and then waited to see who would rise to the top. She’d tell me she read the manuscript but didn’t seem to know the story. Her assistant would call and say it was in the pipeline, and I would know it wasn’t. Crazy. I had just had my third child, my second book had done poorly, and my life was kind of a shit show.
TBD: You’ve written many different kinds of books. Now you have a huge bestseller. Do you feel pressure to recreate Orphan Train?
CBK: As you said, all of my books are really different from each other, and they probably always will be. I don’t feel constrained by the weight of Orphan Train. I feel freed by it in a way. Nobody ever thought Orphan Train was going to be a bestseller. There are these books–Eat, Pray, Love, or Water for Elephants, or The Lovely Bones–that writers publish and then have respectable careers, but they don’t repeat that level of commercial success. I fully intend to be that kind of writer. I don’t plan on having another one. I’m not a writer like Stephen King whose books will always be at the top of the bestseller list. And I don’t feel bad about it.
Look at a writer like Claire Messud, who made a big splash with her novel The Emperor’s Children. That was her big book, and she’s very respected. But if you read her other novels, they are very dark and intense. It’s who she is and what she does, and she’s not trying to write to an audience.
My next book is quiet and interior; it’s about a woman who essentially never leaves her house.
Another thing: after I handed in Orphan Train, before it came out, I called everyone I knew in publishing and asked for jobs. I thought, “I have to get a full-time job as an editor. I can’t do this anymore. This book is probably just going to fail.” I was editing 50 manuscripts a year and teaching. It was grueling. I had several interviews, and they all basically said, “You’re too old. There’s no way we’re hiring you as an editorial assistant or anything else.” They didn’t say that, but it was clear. I thought, “What am I going to do? Just work at Starbucks or something?”
TBD: You still teach at writers’ conferences. I see you’re going to be at the Kauai Writers Conference in November. (So jealous!) What impresses you when you come across someone who has never been published when you’re in this environment?
CBK: I was reading The New York Times on the plane yesterday, and there was this person talking about what leads to success. He said there’s an equation, which is Talent + Work = Skill. Skill + Work = Success. But Big Success is when you have a vision of how what you’re doing makes the world a better place. So what I guess impresses me is when they have the talent, the work ethic, the willingness to read a lot, and are willing to edit their own work–a lot of people aren’t. To me, editing is the secret to writing. I edit so much, and I think it’s very important. In literary stories and novels the sound and rhythm of words matter. But understand that even if you want to write a literary novel, plot and structure are incredibly important.
TBD: And on the flip side of that, what do you see people doing that’s a turnoff
CBK: If people want things from me but they don’t know my work, or they haven’t read it and have nothing to say about it, then I’m as anonymous to them as they are to me. If I don’t feel they have any particular reason for approaching me, I don’t have any particular reason for helping them. But if a writer knows my work and has some kind of connection to it, I’m open to being approached. I love discovering and championing great new writing. It’s one of the best things about this writing life.
TBD: We can’t wait to read the next book, Christina!
Christina Baker Kline is the author of five novels. Her most recent novel, Orphan Train, has spent more than two years on the New York Times bestseller list, including five weeks at # 1, and has been published in 38 countries. More than 100 communities and colleges have chosen it as a “One Book, One Read” selection. Her other novels include The Way Life Should Be, Sweet Water, Bird in Hand, and Desire Lines. Her new novel, based on the iconic painting Christina’s World by Andrew Wyeth, will be published in Winter 2017.
In addition to her five novels, Kline has written and edited five nonfiction books. She commissioned and edited two widely praised collections or original essays on the frist year of parenthood and raising young children, Child of Mine and Room to Grow, and a book on grieving, Always Too Soon. She is the coeditor, with Anne Burt, of a collection of personal essays called About Face: Women Write About What They See When They Look in the Mirror, and is co-author, with her mother, Christina Looper Baker, of a book on feminist mothers and daughters, The Conversation Begins. Her essays, articles, and reviews have appeared in The New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, Money, More, Psychology Today, among other places.