Katia Raina

The Magic Mirror

So you think you’re done…

Or at least, well, that’s what I thought. Sort of.

When back in May, in my third semester,  I finished a new draft of a novel I had been working on for…ahem…a lot of years, I was ecstatic.  But the glorious feeling that yes, I got it, that I nailed it this time, lasted for about…oh, twenty minutes.

After that, doubts and questions flooded my mind. Was my main character active enough? What did she even actually do?

Still I sent it to my then advisor, and after getting back her insightful and encouraging comments I tinkered with the draft some more. Then I thought, I was really finished. Really, really. That one lasted a few months 🙂

I am just back from a family trip to the Italian Alps, so I can’t help but think in mountain metaphors. Because it just seems so similar! When you’re climbing and climbing for hours past all these clouds, bend by bend, turning and turning up into the gorgeous infinite sky, and your whole body is screaming SOS, I am so done here!, and it seems you will reach the destination just around the bend, but when you get there, new breathtaking views open up and show you the path keeps snaking on ahead, what are you going to do, turn around and go back?

Hiking with family in the Alps

Revisions can feel that way sometimes.

My new  fourth-semester advisor read the draft recently. She had some things to say, she had sharp questions; she had more insightful comments. She made me see things that I can’t now un-see. I am excited about the possibility of drawing more connections through my work, of making the story even truer. But you know how we all have that small chicken voice in our head? Well, the voice in my head wonders scared, is it worth it? Will I ever be done? 

The best way to shut up the chicken voice, in my opinion, is to focus on the work. But another fun way to do it is to write up a blog post about it. 🙂

Ray Bradbury and many others talked about the idea of 1,000 words a day, the idea that it takes that many failures to master anything worthwhile. Some writers come to that mastery through many abandoned books, first or second drafts, perhaps, that are their learning, their stepping stones. Beth Revis, for example, a NYT bestselling YA science fiction author, wrote ten “drawer” manuscripts before she got to THE ONE (Across the Universe, one of my favorite books).

Me? I have a few dead picture books in the drawer, a few false novel starts, a rough novel draft of maybe-something-we’ll-see. One fantasy YA manuscript I wrote was so bad I deleted it, with glee! But mostly, over the years, I have been revising two novels. Two stories of my heart that I just can’t seem to let go. This latest one has been getting better draft after draft after draft. There is no doubt about it: I have been getting closer.

But the busy worried little chicken wants to know, how can I know for sure when I do get it right? Will I ever know?

I am sure I am not the only one wrestling with such questions. So I figured that just for fun, I’d ask some others for their take on this.

Here is what they had to say:

From Trent Reedy, a YA author and a VCFA alumni:

“My dear Katia Raina, (almost) MFA, you are asking my all time favorite question. I used to ask this question ALL THE TIME. Seriously, I would ask every visiting writer at VC. I would ask it at every Q and A time at book shows. Because….if we accept that we as writers are always improving our craft, then it stands to reason that our current manuscript can be improved. How is a writer to know when to turn in the manuscript, when to submit it for representation and publication? My first novel, WORDS IN THE DUST is the only book I’ve ever sent to a publisher “complete.” With all others I have earned publishing contracts on partials, by sending up three chapters and an outline. How did I know WORDS IN THE DUST was ready to send up? I had, of course, the help of my VCFA advisors with that one. But even then, I graduated VC knowing that WORDS required at least one more significant overhaul and another polishing. I didn’t know what else could be done. I sent it to agents and one editor and one of those agents and editor rejected with the same, useful revision suggestion. I did that revision and tried again. It worked.

In short, for the writer to know when his manuscript is ready to submit for professional publication, he must read hundreds of books and learn all he can about craft. He must teach himself to understand how unready his previous manuscripts were. Then he must apply what he has learned about craft over and over again until he has exhausted the sum of his knowledge, until he has worked until he has dulled the tools in his writer’s craft toolbox. After that, he seeks out his writer friends so that he can use their suggestions to revise again. And when all that has been done, and the well learned writer has no idea what else can be done to improve the manuscript, then, MAYBE then, it is ready to submit for professional publication.”

And from Amy King, better know to the world as A.S. King, multiple award-winning author of contemporary YA novels and a member of the VCFA faculty, who writes one new book a year:

“The answer to your question really depends on the book. A wise friend of mine says that you know that you’re done writing a novel when you’ve revised so much that you hate it. In my experience, this has held true. However, I’ve also had books that I don’t hate when I’m done. I just know I’m done because after so many revisions and printed manuscripts and reads, there isn’t one more thing I’d change.”

Finally, here is perspective from my own advisor, Louise Hawes:

“I’m never finished, I’m always revising. Because as I pointed out, via Graham Greene, in my lecture on openings, you’re not the same person when you finish a book as when you start. Or a week after you publish as two weeks after that. So I’ve never read a book of mine at a bookstore or school or conference, that I haven’t “revised” for that reading.  As for when to quit “tinkering” with a manuscript and send it off to a publisher, agent, or competition, that’s another question. And the answer, of course, is different with each writer. For me, when I stop waking up wanting to fix this or change that, I know I’ve stopped living with a story. It’s time to send it out into the world to live with its readers!”

Whew, REALLY close now...

As for me, I love revision as much as I love the mountains. I am proud and excited and yes, nervous, too, to go back to the work, to see it again, with new eyes, then to delve in, and try to get even closer.  That’s my learning. That’s the fun of the writing life. I guess it’s never really over. Like Louise says, at one point, you just let your book go out into the world and focus on the next one.

When will I know when I get there? I don’t have my answer yet. All I have is trust that one day I will. Meanwhile, the winding journey is scenic. I might as well enjoy the views!



“Love. Fall in love and stay in love. Write only what you love, and love what you write.  You have to get up in the morning and write something you love, something to live for.”  Ray Bradbury


August 11, 2014 Posted by | Interviews, VCFA Adventures, What I've Learned Series, Writing Mirror | , , , | 12 Comments

Winner(s) And Last MG Giveaway/Interview: Stephanie Blake of The Marble Queen!

So sorry this post is a day late! MFA life is lovely, but sometimes all-consuming. Anyway, enough with my excuses and here we go.

The winner of last week’s giveaway for Nan Marino’s new book, Hiding Out In The Pancake Palace is…Rosi!

Email me, Rosi, at katiawrites (at) gmail (dot) com with your address! Woo-hoo!

But wait, I am not done. We have another winner.

Well, I couldn’t help it. When I saw how quickly and enthusiastically one of this blog’s loyal readers took up the call to spread the word about my little contest, I just had to order another copy. Had to.

The second winner of course is … Joanne Fritz!

Thank you everyone for participating!

Be patient with me, Rosi and Joanne, as you await your yet-to-be-autographed copies. Nan is busy traveling and promoting her book, but she will be back soon. I will plan a get-together with her and she will sign your books as soon as possible!

In the meantime, this being the last day of April, I would like to end my Middle Grade Month with one last giveaway and an interview with another great author, Stephanie Blake, of The Marble Queen. Published by Amazon in 2012, it is the story of a free-thnking girl in 1959 who faces hurdles in her desire to enter a marble competition and become the next marble king — or, well, queen.

Stephanie BlakeKR: Hi Stephanie! Can you talk about your writing journey? How did the story come to you and how long did it take for you to write it?

SB: The Marble Queen sat in a slush pile at Marshall Cavendish for the better part of a year! I had give up on trying to get published, so when my editor contacted me after all that time, I was shocked. I wrote the manuscript fairly quickly, but it went through several heavy revisions–I’d say 8.

KR: Was it the first book you ever wrote? (If no, what how many manuscripts have you accumulated? Are they all under-the-bed gathering dust? Or is there hope for some of them?) 🙂

SB: I have four other manuscripts “under the bed.” I don’t think any of them are viable. I have some regrets about that, but with every piece of writing I’ve done, I can see growth as a writer. Plotting is my weakness.

KR: What was the easiest, most accessible part of that story to you? Was it Freedom’s voice and personality? Or the story’s situation –the marble competition? Was it the time period? Or the ending? And alternately, what part of the story gave you most trouble, took the most figuring out?

SB: The Marble Queen is the book of my heart. I love Freedom. She’s a real person to me. Her voice and personality are very distinct in myThe Marble Queen head. The hardest part of telling her story had to be working on the marble competition scenes. No spoilers here, but my editor was the one who suggested the outcome of the competition. I’m happy how it worked out.

KR: Why did you choose this particular historical period?

SB: I chose 1959 because like Freedom who is coming-of-age, so was America. We were just about to enter the turbulent 60s and Freedom was about to have her eyes opened about her parents and about so many adult things. The time period really mirrored Freedom’s growth as a preteen girl. Also, it wouldn’t do to have modern children playing marbles. 🙂

KR: What’s your process like? Are you a plotter or a seat-of-the-pantster?

SB: I am a plotter of sorts. I like to use Excel to make sparse outlines. Usually when I start writing a book, the character is speaks to me first. I might think of a cool title or concept and it takes weeks and months to give the character a plot.

KR: Tell us about what having your first published book has been like. Tell us about the surprises.

SB: Just like having a baby, I’ve forgotten the struggles I went through with revisions and copy edits. About halfway through production on the book, my original publisher sold my title to Amazon Children’s. That was a big surprise. My experience as an Amazon author has been absolutely amazing.

KR: Finally, what’s next? What are you working on now?

SB: I am thrilled to say that The Marble Queen is a finalist for the Colorado Book Award. That’s been a trip! My editor has a proposal for a companion novel to The Marble Queen. That story deals with a character from The Marble Queen and is set in 1971. I’m also toying with a direct sequel and have some ideas about what happens next to Freedom. If I never sell another book, it will be okay. I’m just so lucky that Freedom’s story is out there in the world.

Thank you so much, Stephanie! So excited about all the new possibilities. I hope we all will be reading more from you soon!

Meanwhile, I’ve got some swag and a copy of “The Marble Queen” to give away. Let’s make this simple. To enter, leave a comment sharing the name of your favorite RECENT MG title and tell us why you love it so. (If you really cannot think of a recent title, mention your favorite middle grade novel of all time. One of my recent favorites is Breaking Stalin’s Nose by Eugene Yelchin, a spare, elegant book that manages to capture the spirit of the terrible 1930s in the Soviet Union, and end with hope at the same time).

The giveaway ends by the close of this Friday, May 3. I will be good and announce the winner next Monday, May 6. Ready, set, go!

April 30, 2013 Posted by | Interviews | , , | 12 Comments

Dana Walrath, Part 2: “Doubt Is A Natural if Not Vital Part Of The Creative Process

Dana Walrath in ArmeniaContinued from last week, I bring you more Dana Walrath, a Fulbright scholar, anthropologist, artist and author of the upcoming Stone Pillow, a YA novel about three siblings on the run in Armenia during the genocide of 1915. The story was recently acquired at an auction by Delacorte Press.

Can you walk us through your story’s evolution? When and how did you first conceive of it? How long did it take for you to write it? Was it the first story you ever attempted — the third — the tenth? 🙂  Dana Walrath in Armenia

DW: Evolution! One of my favorite subjects as an anthropologist! This story was a long journey. It was close to the first story I started writing but I was working on many other things simultaneously, perhaps a symptom of fitting my writing into hours stolen from other tasks. Originally what is now Stone Pillow, existed as memories within another story, Life it Gives, about a first generation immigrant in New York City, in the 1940s, whose parents both survived the genocide.  As that story came into its own, these memories became a separate story. It became clear to me that the father in New York City could not be the adult Shahen, I was coming to know through Stone Pillow. Separating them was the key to finding each story’s essence, but now they may well fit back together. While working on them, I also got through drafts of other very different stories which are in various stages of completion. For me, it has worked to have different projects ongoing so that I can return to something with a fresh eye and work on exclusively and intensively. It is kind of like the writing version of serial monogamy…

KR: I’d love to know more about your writing journey. When did you decide you’re a writer? When did you decide to attend Vermont College of Fine Arts and what prompted that decision? I am getting ready for my first residency, as you know. So of course, I am curious: how did your experience in Vermont shape your evolution as a writer?

Dana WalrathDW: I was always a voracious reader but never thought of myself as a writer until very recently. On the other hand I had  long thought of myself as an artist.  It was only the act of writing my dissertation holding that completed bound volume in my hands that made me think I might try some writing. I went straight for picture books because of my art background.  As I was working on those, snippets of the novels I now have in process began to seep out.  But still I didn’t think of myself as a writer till I went to VCFA in the summer of 2008, originally to do the picture book certificate program and to give myself some structure and support.  I had just taken a leave of absence from my work as a medical anthropologist at University of Vermont’s College of Medicine in order to care for my mother through dementia. The first days of that residency were transformative. I was overwhelmed by the quality of the lectures and the readings by the faculty not to mention those of graduating class. The community was open and without the competition of many learning environments. Instead everyone was unified and working towards getting more good books out into the world. Before 72 hours had even passed I was already working with the director to enroll in the entire program.  My faculty mentor in the picture book program, the wonderful Julie Larios, also looked at Stone Pillow and another novel, The Garbage Man, that I was just starting, as well as some extra literary criticism from me in order for me to make this path work.  Everything about VCFA exceeded my expectations. Each semester of working with a faculty mentor was a gift. Every residency I soaked up new approaches from lectures on craft and the writing life and workshops. The program equipped me with the tools and the support to push each story as far as it can go and to start thinking of myself as a writer. It was one of the best decisions I ever made.

KR: Can you tell us about your publishing journey? Did you snag your agent right away?

DW: This too was a long journey. Because I had so many different projects in the works, I was slow to get out there and only queried a very limited number of folks.  Good thing, too, because I made the classic mistake of sending things out before they were ready!!  Still I was lucky enough to have entered into revisions with agents on two different projects.  This took time, but I learned so much from the process.   To have someone take your work seriously and give you feedback is an incredible gift.

 KR: Was the book snapped up just like that, though?

DW: Once I signed with the wonderful Ammi-Joan Paquette, I did a final set of revisions with her guidance.  When she sent it out, the book was snapped up.

 KR: Yay! 🙂 I know my readers are going to be intrigued by the fact that your story was sold at an auction. That must have been wild! Can you tell us about that experience?  Dana Walrath

The auction was very exciting but more than anything I was aware of what a privilege it was. I had the opportunity to speak with different editors about my story and get a sense of their vision of the book.  For someone to get inside of your manuscript and to think about it with you is such a generous act. I am so grateful to have been able to get to know these editors through the auction process.

KR: Have you at any point experienced any typical doubts and worries of a struggling writer who thinks she must be crazy to keep dreaming? 

DW: To doubt is a natural if not a vital part of the creative process. We open ourselves, make ourselves so vulnerable by sharing our deepest work.  Trust the worry and the doubt and the dreaming!

KR: Thank you, Dana, for the fascinating glimpse into your creative process, your search for your roots, your evolution as a writer, and so much more.

DW: Thanks so much for this chance to share my work with your readers!


December 24, 2012 Posted by | Interviews | , , | 2 Comments

Dana Walrath: Making Art And Writing Stories About The Home of Her Ancestors

Dana Walrath in ArmeniaDana Walrath is the most unique YA author I have come across so far: a Fulbright Scholar, anthropologist and artist, blogging about her mother’s dementia and working now in Armenia, a small mountainous country in the South Caucasus region of Eurasia and a former Soviet Republic. She is the author of the forthcoming Stone Pillow, a story of three siblings caught up in the Armenian genocide of 1915, to be published by Delacorte Press. I wish I could sit down with Dana and chat over tea for hours, about anthropology and writing, about her ancestral home of Armenia where she works with two different universities, and Vermont College of Fine Arts, where she received an MFA in writing for children and young adults in 2010. Instead, I bring you this Q &A, which consisted of several email exchanges over the course of the last two weeks.

KR: Dana, I am ashamed to say that even though I was born and raised in the USSR, I Armenia maphad never learned, read or heard anything about the genocide that is central to your story. I do know that Armenia and its neighboring former Soviet Republic Azerbaijan had longstanding conflicts, some of which have exploded into brutal bloodshed in the twilight years of the USSR. But what happened in 1915?

DW: The same was true of kids growing up in the US as in the USSR but for different reasons. Before getting to that, here’s what happened around 1915. As the Ottoman Empire was disintegrating the head of their government planned and completed the systematic elimination of the Armenian population from the land that now makes up the eastern part of the modern state of Turkey. Many were killed outright, and others were marched into the desert to die. Altogether 1.5 million people died. Those who survived lost their homes, their land, and all their possessions. After World War I Eastern Armenia, an area that had been alternately under Russian and Persian control, became a republic within the Soviet Union.

Henry Morgenthau, the U.S. ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1913-1916, (among others), documented these events and there was great public compassion and assistance at that time. But in the aftermath of World War I, as American foreign policy became one of isolationism, and the Ottoman Empire (who fought alongside Germany in the war) was partitioned and became the strategically important Turkish State, the Armenian cause began to fade. Indeed many scholars consider the lack of international response and sanctions after the Armenian genocide to have fed Hitler’s genocidal policy in Germany. Louis Lochner, Associated Press Bureau Chief in Berlin reported that in a 1939 speech to the Wermacht that Hitler said, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”

Armenian massacres at ErzinjanAfter World War II, Cold War politics meant that US history books stayed away from the Armenian question as Turkey was an important NATO ally. In recent years, Turkey’s strategic importance as a secular Islamic state has shaped the political discourse. But I am far from alone in believing that the health and safety in this region depends upon recognizing the truth of the genocide and finding ways to move forward.

There are individuals in Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and elsewhere, who are committed to reconciliation and peace.

As for the suppression of the history of the genocide in the former Soviet Union, it was very much in line with Stalin’s policies to separate and control ethnic groups and to suppress any notions of nationalism. The boundaries of individual republics were drawn to reinforce these policies. Historical events were suppressed.

Public recognition of the genocide by Armenians in the Soviet Union was prohibited until the 1960s.

KR: And the results of such policies, I am sad to say, lingered well into the 1990s. Even if more information became available after the 1960s, most of it never reached me (and I was born in 1977)! Why did this period interest you — and what is your connection to Armenia?

DW: Armenian is my mother’s first language. She grew up in New York City, the daughter of genocide survivors, but like many first generation immigrants, she did not learn English till she went off to kindergarten. My grandfather died when I was about 5 years old and my grandmother about 10 years before that. I only had the barest bones of their stories because many Armenian families do not talk about what happened. I only knew that after their parents and older siblings were killed that my grandmother and a younger brother and sister hid during the day and ran at night from their home along the headwaters of the Euphrates, to Aleppo, in present day Syria. That skeleton haunted me until I was able to flesh it out into story.

KR: On your other blog, where you talk about Armenia, a recent post about your identity as a “mongrel” really moved me. Your mother is Armenian, your father American. I felt this very same way about growing up a “half-Russian, half-Jew” in Soviet Russia, my Jewish nationality hidden also, under my light-haired Russian looks. So I get how unsettling and complex being a “mongrel” can feel. In a way, that feeling was what pushed me to write my own story.

DW: We mongrels have special strengths such as the ability to see many sides!!

KR: (smiles). Sounds to me like a lot of the themes “Stone Pillow” will be touching upon, are extremely relevant to me. Can you tell us a bit more about your story? Who are your characters, very briefly, and what do you find most endearing about them?

DW: The four main characters of my story are three of the Donabedian siblings (Shahen and Sosi, both young teens; and Mariam their five-year-old sister,) and an eagle, Ardziv, their guardian spirit. At the start of the story, Shahen dreams of joining his uncle in New York. Sosi, adores family life in their Anatolian village so much that she hopes he will never leave. Shahen is imaginative, a storyteller who invents games for little Mariam. Small for his age, he is quick to judge others and to see their flaws. Sosi is steady, hard-working, and sensitive to growing up ahead of her brother. The two of them share a streak of defiance. Mariam, like Shahan, loves imaginative play especially when she gets to be a bird flying into Shahan’s open arms. Together, these qualities along with Ardziv, help them survive the genocide.

KR: What age group is it written for — and what inspired you to write for that particular audience?

DW: I did not write with an exact age group in mind. War and genocide bring childhood to an end. They obscure things like literary categories. But as I said earlier, the skeleton of the story came from the imagined journey of my grandmother who was about ten during the genocide. I began with younger protagonists. But as I wrote and had to be true to the history of the events, the age of the reader drifted to older, as did Shahen and Sosi.

KR: I understand you’re in Armenia as part of your Fulbright Project. Please tell us more about that, and how that came about. When are you coming back to the US? Are you there with your friends — or your family?

Dana's art for her Aliceheimer's ProjectDW: My Fulbright project, “The Narrative Anthropology of Aging in Armenia” developed directly from my Aliceheimer’s series. Aliceheimer’s began as a set of white-heat drawings that I made in December of 2010 as part of the Brooklyn Art Library’s Sketchbook Project, shortly after we had to transition my mother from our home into a memory care unit. The response to the drawings and the overarching story prompted me to enter the blogging world to share this work with a wider community. Each image, in turn, inspired a story of its own and got me started on a separate graphic memoir.

Then as anthropologists started to find Aliceheimer’s, soliciting articles, invited lectures, and reviews, I realized that all the various threads of my life were integrated with this work. The imagery subconsciously referenced Armenian manuscripts. I had used cut text from Alice in Wonderland for my mother’s bathrobe in every picture. The work was filled with anthropological themes. This is when I decided to apply for a Fulbright to come here to make art and write stories about growing old here, in the home of my ancestors.

KR: Where in Armenia are you staying? (The only Armenian city I’ve ever heard of is Yerevan :)) Can you tell us about the place you’re at? What is it like? What is the view from your window? 🙂

DW: I am living in Yerevan the capital city. As a New Yorker who now makes my home in the mountains of Vermont, it is great fun to be in a bustling city, filled with museums, galleries, delicious foods, people, and events. I love walking everywhere! Last week I figured out a series alley ways that let me walk from my apartment right near a beautiful old Sourb Zoravor Church, past the Toumanyan Museum (a museum for the beloved writer Hovaness Toumanyan) up to the American University. From one set of windows I look out to Mother Armenia and a Ferris Wheel.

Each morning as the sun rises, I look out over the wide street tree tops and roof tops to where the colors peeking through the spaces between the “monoliths” that were recently erected. Yerevan is loaded with buildings like this: built as folly, incomplete, largely empty, and wildly unsafe in an earthquake zone. Construction standards are not regulated here…Yerewan_with_Ararat

KR: What was Armenia like the last time you were there, compared to today. What has changed?

DW: The last time I was here was 1977 the thick of the Soviet period before perestroika. I was a teenager travelling with my family supervised by the Soviet In-Tourist people. I spent a night with my relatives, who were not among the elite. A large family shared 3 rooms one of which had mattresses stacked up that were then dealt out like a deck of cards onto the floor at night-time for everyone to have a place to sleep. The country and I have both changed considerably since then. It was summer and I remember the abundant fruits and sunlight streaming into the big central market building. It has now been taken over by some business venture. We were only allowed to travel to Etchmiadzin the center of the church on that trip. This time I have been all over this small beautiful country. Mountains make for big climate changes across small spaces. I especially loved a place called Khundzoresque with a landscape reminiscent of Dr. Seuss!

KR: What about Armenian life and culture is dearest to you?

The sense of belonging here is overwhelming. People meet me with open arms. To be here now doing creative work is such an honor.

KR: What about it do you love the most? And will we see that aspect of it in your story?

I love the food, the music, the language, the stark beauty of the mountains, the flowers, the fresh fruits, and the dancing. They all make their way into my story. I’m also loving the humor here. I’ve recently connected up with the Comics/Cartoon community. We’ve started to plan a 24-hour comic event (participants gather in a place and agree to create 24 pages of comics in 24 hours) here in Yerevan with simultaneous events in Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. I hope that Stone Pillow, like the 24-hour comic book event, will contribute to dialogue and peace in this region.

I am so thrilled about your important book, Dana, which will be bringing awareness of the Armenian culture and history to the world so shortly. I can’t wait to read it and tell the readers all about it, right here on the Magic Mirror. But first, look for part 2 of this interview next Friday, where Dana and I talk writing and publishing.

December 14, 2012 Posted by | Interviews | , , , , | 8 Comments

Q & A with emily danforth: “Start with Story”

After I contacted emily (and yes, she prefers her name in lowercase letters,) and initiated this exchange with her, I could see a little bit better why someone like her would come up with an amazing, eye-opening, stereotype-shattering book like “Cameron Post.”

I hope that after reading her answers to my questions, you will see that’s just the way emily comes across: like a wise, humble and original person, just like her character Cameron.

I learned so much from reading emily’s book and from “talking” to her. I hope you will too.

KR: Can you tell us about your discovery that you’re a writer? Was it sudden or was it gradual? Can you walk us a bit along your road toward writing “Cameron Post?” How many drafts did it take? Was it your first manuscript? How long did it take you to write the book? (I told you I had many, many questions).

emily: Well, like a lot of writers I’ve been at this since I was very young—writing weird little short stories and hand-illustrated books and plays, you know, a little of this and a little of that—much avid reading thrown in, too. Then, in college, I took several creative writing classes and began to “own” the identity of writer a bit more. (Well, writer of short stories, anyway). Then I took a couple of years “off” between undergrad and enrolling in the MFA program at the University of Montana-Missoula. I wanted to see if I would take the time to write on my own, to make it a priority, while not in school and thereby “forced to write” for a workshop or a grade.

I did do some writing during those years (while working a full time job as an Aquatics Director at a YWCA, actually) and I eventually decided that I was serious enough about my writing to dedicate myself to properly learning technique and analysis (and just to being around other serious, dedicated writers—which is absolutely one of the benefits of an MFA program) for a couple of years. During my MFA I learned what it means to “read like a writer,” to read a piece of fiction and carefully consider its construction, the various elements of craft used to render it as a whole. I also wrote a whole lot more short fiction, which was essential in terms of allowing me to try out various modes of storytelling, to experiment with form and style, and then to move on to something new.

During the first year of that program I wrote some short pieces toward such a novel, things here and there, but didn’t really have a voice or a main character that I was satisfied with until I wrote (for the fiction workshop of the wonderful visiting writer Danzy Senna) what I thought was a completely unrelated short story about a girl from eastern Montana who ends up working at this nutty maternity mannequin factory in Pasadena, CA. The story was called “Lucky Human,” because that’s the name of a real (and somewhat well-known) mannequin factory in China that, in my story, had a business relationship with the California factory.

Anyway, the character from that story became, after lots more writing and rewriting, Cameron Post. In writing that story I’d stumbled upon her voice, just not her past, the things that drove her to eventually working at this weird job, cut off from her family. I remember Danzy actually saying, in her response to “Lucky Human,” that the piece didn’t really work yet as a short story (for all kinds of reasons), but that she wondered if it was from something longer, maybe from a novel I was working on.

So I continued to work on pages toward this novel without knowing much more, really, than that it would be a coming-of-age story and that the protagonist would be orphaned early on. (I was also reading a lot of sentimental women’s fiction—novels of instruction—from the 19th century at this time and I wanted to play with some of those themes/tropes).

In 2006 I finished my MFA and then continued on to get my PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Importantly, I was also able to carve out time during my PhD to complete (and even to workshop portions of) that novel I’d started during my MFA—the book that would become The Miseducation of Cameron Post (which was then called Lucky Human, actually). I didn’t really have a solid draft until the end of my third year in the PhD program, and even then I was still revising fairly significantly. (Though of course I wasn’t working on this novel exclusively, either—I was writing short fiction and completing coursework and teaching).

All told it took me about 4 years to get the book to a place to secure an agent and start the ball rolling toward publication. And yes: it was my first novel-length manuscript. I’d written and published short fiction in a variety of journals, and had also completed a fairly terrible collection of short stories as my MFA thesis, but this was the first manuscript that I’d really call a proper book.

KR: You pursued not only graduate degree in creative writing, but you went for a PhD in it as well! That’s quite a gutsy-crazy-wonderful decision in my opinion. Was the decision a hard one for you? Why did you go that route and what have you gained from it?

 emily: It wasn’t a “hard” decision at all to pursue graduate study in creative writing (getting in can be tricky—I had to apply twice to MFA programs—but not, for me, anyway, wanting to go.) But I want to be clear that I chose to enroll in an MFA program because I wanted to surround myself with a community of serious writers and do nothing but eat, sleep, and drink (a whole lot of drinking, actually) literary fiction writing/reading/craft-based analysis for two years, which is pretty much exactly what I did. I didn’t necessarily have dreams of getting an agent or selling a novel (or even writing a novel) or landing a teaching job (or even wanting one) as a result of completing a two-year MFA program. I was surprisingly realistic, I think, about the venture.

It was during the MFA that I discovered I really loved teaching creative writing (I had the opportunity to co-teach a creative writing workshop during the winter session) and so I decided to apply for PhD in Creative Writing programs (there aren’t nearly so many of those as there are MFAs). I did this not just to receive additional graduate level instruction in the craft of fiction writing, but also to gain experience teaching in the college classroom, to develop my pedagogy, and to commit myself to scholarly work in the analysis of contemporary fiction—specifically the recent American novel and LGBTQ fiction.

In other words: I discovered during my MFA that I didn’t just want to be a fiction writer, I wanted to be both an academic and a fiction writer (or an academic fiction writer) and specifically to teach creative writing and contemporary literature courses at the college level.

My standard “advice” about graduate level creative writing programs (particularly full-time, residency programs) is that—unless you’re independently wealthy—don’t enroll if you’re not offered some source of funding (other than student loans). You might get a fellowship, or a partial fellowship, or a research assistantship, or a teaching assistantship (which is crucial—if you ever plan to go on the academic job market—because it helps you gain necessary classroom teaching experience), or any combination thereof. But without those sources of funding, I’m just not sure that racking up significant debt to earn an MFA is “worth it.” Though, ultimately, I guess it all depends on the program, your intentions, and how you make use of your time there. (There are also lots of great low-residency MFA/MA in CW options now, too.)

KR: As I said in my little book review of Cameron Post on this blog, the thing that struck me the most about your story was its freshness and authenticity. If you reflect on it for a moment, what would you say helped you achieve this? Did some of the unique detail come from people you had known and some of your own life experiences? Or was it something more?

emily: Thanks so much for saying so. Certainly I drew from parts of my own “coming-of-age” as a closeted lesbian teen in cowboy country Montana to inform the novel. I’ve mentioned in other interviews that I think of this book as an autobiographical novel, but what I mean by that, what I’ve really pulled from my own past, are the details of time and place.

In terms of setting, specifically, anyone who has any familiarity with Miles City will recognize some of the local attractions—the swimming hole, the Bucking Horse Sale, the Montana Theater, etc—but each of those locations has also been fictionalized. Also, I did an incredible amount of research into conversion/reparative therapy: from routinely visiting chat rooms and blogs and websites of organizations associated with Exodus International (the umbrella organization for many of these churches and groups) to reading books and other materials by proponents and practitioners of said therapies, to seeking out residence “rules” manuals and other materials specifically from live-in facilities, etc.

While lots of that research just didn’t actually “make it to the page” for various reasons, it absolutely informed my writing of the entire God’s Promise section of the novel and I think maybe/hopefully speaks to some of the “authenticity” you mentioned in your review.

KR: Even though, again, in my opinion, the book is compassionate to the players on all sides of the homosexuality issue, I would imagine this story pissed a lot of people off and had to have touched a nerve. Did you have issues with censorship, calls to ban your book, etc.?

 emily: Well, no, not really, not yet, anyway. Certainly no one from my publishing house ever made any moves to censor or “tone down” any aspects of the novel. I have received some strange, unfortunate, angry emails from various people who’ve read about the book (but, interestingly/unsurprisingly—have not actually read the book—just read/heard about it) but no, to my knowledge, larger calls to ban it.

However, it has only been out since February so it may just be that it’s not been around long enough to inspire this kind of reaction.  (Or maybe, hopefully, it’s just not going to get that reaction.)

Also, while it’s larger boycotts or book burnings or what-have-you that make the news, much more often it’s just one librarian or teacher or a small staff of individuals deciding not to order or include a particular title for their own reasons; and yes, sometimes those reasons might in fact be bigoted or homophobic or just overly-cautious/sensitive about what is and isn’t “appropriate” for a YA novel. It’s not always the big flashy school board decisions to ban certain titles that ultimately “count,” it’s when, quietly, this local library and that school library and this indie bookstore, etc, simply decide not to have a book on their shelves—not to make it accessible to teenage readers for “moral” reasons.

KR: What’s next? What are you working on now?

emily: I’m working on a couple of novels, actually. One of them follows one copy of the infamous and frequently banned novel, The Well of Loneliness, from the day it comes off the production line in London in 1928, to the day it—well, I can’t say what happens to it, but suffice it to say that we follow this copy of the book as it passes hands from one character to the next for 100 years. The characters are mix of fictionalized versions of “real people,” like actress/provocateur Tallulah Bankhead, and also those who are complete inventions.

The other is a contemporary YA (with interspersed historical sections) that follows the very exciting exploits of some adolescent actresses (and a college-age writer who’s too cool for school) on the set of a controversial film. I won’t tell you anything more (yet) other than that, in my dream world, it will be published under the title CELESBIAN! (All caps with the exclamation point).

 KR: What’s your writing day like? And do you write every single day, no exception? Do you ever get stuck? What comes easy for you, and what have you really had to work hard to master? (Yeah, many questions, and I am trying to restrain myself here, really really trying….)

 emily: I do not write every single day—during the academic year I simply cannot make that happen. (Well, at least not this year—my first as a full time assistant professor.) However, when I’m deep in a project I sometimes write for 14 hours a day. Really. And I’ll do this for weeks and weeks—maybe not 14 each day, but 7, 10, whatever—long, long days really getting material down on the page. I tend to revise sentences (I think of them as lines—though I’m not much of a poet) as I go—and then start out the next day again revising the material from the day before, so this all takes quite awhile. I sometimes think I’d like to be a writer who works each day, but it’s just not a method that serves me well at this point in my career. (But ah the joy of summers “off!”)

When I’m invested in a project I rarely get “stuck.” I mean, I might get confused about how best to write a scene, or just what scene I need, or where I need to “go with” a character or a situation, but I don’t see those moments as getting stuck so much as just part of the writing process. That’s what the “work” of it is—figuring that stuff out. If I feel myself losing motivation for a project for too long that typically tells me that I’m just not invested enough in that project to sustain it (at least for right now).

KR: Let’s conclude this interview with a word of advice for us writer types. What do you think you did right up to now?

 emily: Well, shoot, since you’re asking me to toot my own horn here. Um, how about this: I think I focused, first and foremost, on the craft of fiction writing (and before that—on the active, active reading of fiction) long before I worried, or even thought, about possible publication. I always tell my students to read everything they can get their hands on–especially the books that confuse, confound, and surprise or challenge them—those that push against their expectations for what a novel is or might be, or what a short story can or “should” do. And then I tell them to write and write and write.

I also ask them to remember that wanting to publish is not the same thing as wanting to write—and that neither of those things is the same as actually sitting down and writing. After that, it’s really about devoting yourself to your craft and to finishing particular projects.

I don’t believe in arbitrary, one-size-fits-all approaches to novel writing—any rules that I might give you about how to approach your material or how to sell your novel will undoubtedly have lots of good/important exceptions. What I’ll say is this: you can’t focus on publication from the outset; I just don’t think that’s any way to develop as a writer. Focus on story, focus on characterization and the nuances of language—focus on your fiction. And then revise. And then get some people to read it. Then revise some more. After that: start doing the necessary research into publication (and it does take some research.) But don’t start there: start with story.

Thank you emily, not only for the time and thought you have put into these answers, not only for the sage advice, and for sharing the details of your journey, thank you for the inspiration — and, as I said before, thank you for your book.

May 28, 2012 Posted by | Contemporary History, Interviews | 2 Comments

Let’s Talk About Writers And Social Media

I attended this workshop at my local library last week in which a marketing and PR consultant talked to writers about navigating the brave new world of social media. And do you know what everyone said at the end of the guy’s talk? How informative it was.

Well, of course it was informative. The insane array of resources that are available to us writers (and also are waiting to suck our time) — that explosion of information and connectivity — yes, there is a lot to talk about there, for sure. And I don’t care how comfortable you think you are in the world of Web 2.0, or how often you blog, or how many followers you have on twitter, if you are a writer, I guarantee, you could pick up a whole bunch of tips from this guy.

So with that, I present to you, Don Lafferty, a Pennsylvania-based social networking guru. Let’s talk about writers and social media!

Don, in my opinion, success for writers in publishing and in reaching many readers takes some sort of a combination of the following:  a) talent, b) tapping into some sort of a right vein in the public consciousness and c) promoting your work. Don’t you agree? I mean, I’ve heard and read stories of authors who had no online presence whatsoever who hit it big, and I’ve also heard of people who marketed like crazy only doing so-so. (I’ve also heard of authors whose marketing and promotion work really carried them through!) So… in your (very) professional opinion, where does the truth lie? How much of a difference can marketing make in an author’s career?

Don: The need for talent is a given, and will never change. Marketing has always made a difference in the success of an author whose work possesses all the right stuff. And while a big marketing and PR budget can indeed vault a debut author to great heights, the Internet has “democratized” the marketing component of publishing, enabling every author to identify and engage readers, colleagues, booksellers, and media types in a way that was once practically impossible. With the advent of digital publishing, the former model of success is officially a thing of the past. Writers today have more opportunity than ever to publish and find their readers through online channels including social media.

KR:  You speak of having a “social media time budget” — a time limit to dedicate to your marketing and promotional activities. I love this idea! It seems so obvious, and yet, how many people actually do it? But what would you recommend as the ideal “time budget” time per day — something that would allow an author/writer to hit all the sites and still get her work done?

Don: Once a writer’s online platform is built out, the amount of time she spends engaging in social media marketing activities depends on her position in the publishing cycle. An aspiring writer’s objectives are slanted more toward platform-building while she’s writing her book. At this time the writing should take priority, so self-promotion time should be budgeted to a reasonable number of minutes each day. During the “hot zone” starting about a month before book launch and extending two or three months after, the author will spend the most time promoting. Some days, all her time will be wrapped up in promotion. 

KR: You also talk about having something useful and unique to offer readers on your blog or your site. But what can it be? What could writers blog about except . . . um, writing — or worse, talking about themselves all the time? Could you toss some examples our way?

Don: While many aspiring writers provide book reviews, I don’t recommend it. Writing a negative review benefits nobody, and writing a bunch of good reviews can make the writer look like a shill. I recommend doing short, informative interviews of the authors who write books in the author’s market space. This serves several purposes: it’ll likely teach the aspiring author a thing or two about craft and the business. It also gets the attention of the subject author’s readers where they have an opportunity to meet the aspiring or debut author – somebody who writes just the kind of books the reader likes. And while there are thousands of blogs about writing out there, the writer’s journey from aspiring to published and beyond is a very unique experience, one that other writers might find interesting and informative. Always keep it positive and don’t succumb to the temptation to pursue justice when you feel wronged. Burning one bridge in the publishing industry can flag an aspiring author as a prima donna, which no agent or publisher has the time or energy to deal with.

KR: During your talk in Barnegat last week, you discussed a heating oil businessman for whom you created a Facebook button with a picture of a cat — and suddenly, people started clicking like crazy, where before they didn’t seem too interested. Can you share an example or two of one of your client authors do something off-the-wall like this that worked?

Don: Brands and businesses face a much greater challenge in connecting with people on a personal level than authors do in a social media environment. Readers are passionate about the authors they read, and are always thrilled when their favorite authors are “present” in social media. Consequently, all an author usually has to do is reveal a more personal side of themselves in their social media channels to elicit a response from their readership. Author Jonathan Maberry is my poster child for authors who have fun with social media. Maberry writes books in the Young Adult (Rot & Ruin), the Thriller (Patient Zero), and the Horror space (Ghost Road Blues), and his social media presence taps into his well-tuned sensibilities for all three of these diverse readerships. But it was his recent post of a picture with him and his new rescue dog, Rosie, that generated the most action on his Facebook page.

Author Kelly Simmons has a sharp sense of humor, so when she began tweeting her thoughts about everything from The Bachelor to her “Seasonal Rules” series of tweets, the Twitter community embraced her with open arms.

This, as you might realize, is only scratching the surface. For more super-handy social media tips, check out the article I wrote about this for Patch, and then go to Don’s website and download even more here.

April 20, 2012 Posted by | Interviews, Writing Mirror | 9 Comments

New Blog Spotlight: Introducing Bree and “The Magic Attic”

I decided to do something different this week. Instead of interviewing an author, reviewing a book, or sharing another glimpse into my writing journey, I would like to present to you a teenaged blogger from California, who goes by the name of “Bree,” at least online, reads YA books by the hundreds (well, she says she’s up to about two hundred so far), and blogs about books and authors.

She only started her blog in March of this year, and just last month the blog got about 7500 hits, with editors and authors sending her all those shiny ARCs.

“It’s been really, really fun!” Bree said. “I’ve met all kinds of wonderful book lovers and amazing authors both through the screen and at bookish events that I never would’ve met if it wasn’t for book blogging.”
As for the ARCs, “I’ve just received Tempest by Julie Cross, Darker Still by Leanne Renee Hieber, and Touch of Power by Maria V. Snyder,”  Bree said. “They all sound extremely good, and I can’t wait to read them!”

Oh, the joy of receiving a fresh-smelling, shiny-looking ARC [Advanced Reading Copy] to review! 🙂

In general, Bree loves books across genres. Her most favorite genre, is YA romance, still she loves fantasy, paranormal and dystopian fiction most of all.

“I love books that take me to a different place,” Bree said. “Forget time traveling machines. I love how I can just crack open a book and travel back however many years I was to whenever the story takes place.”

But what about historical fiction?

Bree said she preferred books taking place in the past that have an element of magic, science fiction, or fantasy.

(That was the other list I was going to compile for you guys on this blog, btw. Soon, soon, I promise!)

Bree talked about “steampunk” novels like “Clockwork Angel” by Cassandra Care, and “The Girl in the Steel Corset” by Kady Cross.

In addition to being a passionate reader, Bree is a writer, with some short stories published in an anthology, but she dreams of publishing a YA novel one day. “I really want to walk into my local Barnes and Noble one day and see my book on the shelf among the other amazing, published books,” she said. “That was actually one of the goals I had when I was little. My teacher asked me to write down some of my goals, and I wrote: ‘Write a book and buy a copy for mommy and daddy.'”

On her blog Bree calls herself a “shy teenager, bookworm, reader, book blogger, field hockey lover, hopeless romantic, figure skater [and] dreamer” who “uses way too many smiley faces in her writing, and laughs at the randomest things.” She has been competing in figure skating since the age of three, and just recently fell in love with field hockey.

In fact, a lot of the reading Bree does happens while waiting for her turn at the field hockey rink, Bree said.

I hope you will stop by her lovely looking blog, “The Magic Attic!”

Good luck, Bree, and I hope we’ll be seeing your name in print some day! (And if that happens, be sure to send me a shiny ARC!) 😉

October 14, 2011 Posted by | Interviews, Writing Mirror | , , , | 13 Comments

“So” Contemporary: A Book Impression, An Interview and A Giveaway

Not all YA trilogies have to feature bleak dystopian futures, fantastic beasts and golden compasses.

In the process of expanding my reading horizons, I stumbled upon an excellent contemporary “So” trilogy by Kieran Scott. Okay, so it’s not my usual literary fare. But let me assure you, it’s a very fun read — and the story is done well.

 The first book, “She’s So Dead To Us” (Simon & Schuster 2010), sucks the reader right in with a really intriguing premise. Imagine a rich girl living in a wealthy section of a town divided sharply along both geographical and money lines. Imagine the said girl keeping close friendships with her rich and troubled neighbors. Now imagine it all crashing down when her dad not only loses their family’s fortunes, but loses the fortunes of his (former) neighbors and friends by giving them investment advice that turned out to be rather . . . um . . . unfortunate. Now imagine the girl disappearing for two years, then coming back to the town she grew up in, only now having to move to its other side, the “have-nots” side. Imagine facing her old friends at school. What happens next? Maybe the book’s title can give you a clue of what the heroine is up against.

This is just the beginning, there is way more in this book, and the next one, “He’s So Not Worth It.” Kieran Scott definitely delivers — not only rich, subtle characters, but also a great voice (especially the girl narrator’s — there are two viewpoint characters, a girl and a boy). I also loved the novel’s vividly imagined setting.

Just one word of warning: the first book has a cliffhanger ending. No peeking — and don’t get upset when you get to the end — you’ve been warned!!

The third and final book in the trilogy, “This Is So Not Happening” will be released in May. In the meantime, I spoke to Kieran on the phone last week, and wanted to share some amazing bits of info and Kieran Scott trivia.

1. Kieran published her first book at the age of 24.

2. She has written more than 100 books (okay some of them are things like movie tie-ins and non-fiction, but still… Incredible, no?) Check out this picture she sent me of two shelves in her house that contain the books she has published, “well, the important ones, anyway,” she says.

3. Kieran is definitely a heavy outliner. When I asked her how detailed she gets, she said it all depends. “In one scene I could be putting down lines of dialogue,” she said, “in another I could just have something like, ‘Chloe goes to a store.'” Some writers claim outlining too much can be a bad thing. I must admit I am one of those writers who need to know where they are going, but at the same time are a little bit afraid of killing the story by writing it down in outline form. “It doesn’t stifle my creativity,” Kieran says. “I don’t hold myself to it. It’s more of a roadmap, but it’s definitely helpful to have.”

Heck, it worked for her. Just take another look at that bookshelf!

4. Kieran takes about six months to write a first draft, then goes through about two or three drafts revising. She writes about a book a year, not counting the shorter movie tie-in projects, etc.

5. Kieran worked as an assistant editor, and then an editor for a book packager. Publishers sometimes hire book packagers to put together series and all kinds of other projects for them. The job not only taught Kieran some important writing lessons, it led her to her first publishing contract!

“I think working as an editor definitely taught me to really look at things in a different way,” Kieran told me. “I know when a tory isn’t working, I can just feel it, because I have read so many stories so closely.”

Here is some more information about book packagers. Not a bad way to break into the business, now that I am thinking about it: http://www.underdown.org/packaging.htm


6. One of Kieran’s most favorite books right now is “The Summer I Turned Pretty,” by Jenny Han, who happens to be Kieran’s friend — and an internationally bestselling author. That book is the first in another contemporary YA trilogy, by the way. Something else to add to my long “to read” list, I guess.

Want to find out more about Kieran? Check out the profile I wrote about her for one of my local Patch.com sites, right here:


Finally, to celebrate the expanding of my literary horizons, I am hosting a grand giveaway of Kieran’s first novel, “She Is So Dead to Us” as a thank you gift from me for being there.

In addition to this, you will get a signed copy of the second book “He Is So Dead To Us,” a gift from Kieran!

Just leave a comment here to participate. The giveaway ends Monday, October 10th. Good luck!


October 3, 2011 Posted by | Book Impressions, Interviews | , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Marc Acito: “A Poster Child for Misfits and Oddballs”

 Yep, that’s Marc Acito and me, in his midtown apartment — an island of mirrors and glass —  complete with head-spinning cityscape views. Marc calls the place a  “sanctuary” from the craziness that New York City can be.

[“One of the most important lessons I’ve learned as an artist is to slow down,” he tells me right off the bat. “Something that’s very hard to do here in the tri-state area.”]

[Tell me about it Marc. I am the quintessential speed junkie from New Jersey]


He greets me with water and  peanut butter-chocolate candy and mint tea with milk — all very elegant, very relaxed and very English. But I barely have time to swallow the tea — and I never even get to finish that single candy. Most of the time I am there, my pen is running across my notebook with dizzying speed, as I transcribe a stream of wisdom from this multi-talented artist, an enthusiastic writing teacher, a brilliant author — and, most inspiring for me, perhaps — a fellow misfit.

Just in case you haven’t heard of his cult classic “How I Paid for College: A Novel of Sex, Theft, Friendship and Musical Theater,” and a sequel “The Attack of the Theater People” (which is on my “to-read” list), here is my little book impression:



 He grew up  in the crazy 1980s (the decade he calls “corny” and “douche-bag-y” in Reagan America). He spent most of his childhood in a small sleepy town of Westfield New Jersey, pretty much like the fictional Wallenford where “How I Paid For College” is set. As a kid, Marc says he was “a misfit and a sissy and a brain.” Always the top student in the class and “completely unathletic,” Marc, who now measures an ordinary 5’8 was “freakishly tall.” He was also “the most effeminate boy” in his class.

Now he laughs: “There was no going under the radar.”

Being called a “fag” every single day of school isn’t something that can ever become background noise, Marc says. Rather, it was something he braced himself for — every day.

Edward from “How I Paid for College” is bi-sexual (or, according to Marc, what people call “bi now, gay later –” the same route Marc took in his teens). But the comic novel focuses on neither the pain, nor the bullying.

Still, “Art so frequently comes out of personal pain,” Marc says, “because pain makes you pay attention.”

When Marc became a teen, he started attending drama camps and other such events, and found others like him. “Everything changed when I found my tribe,” he says. “I became that kid in legs warmers and capezio dance shoes, and the thrift store vest with all the buttons, the flock of seagulls haircut, the fedora and the high top.”

If you know Ducky from the 1986 movie Pretty In Pink — well, then you can picture Marc as a teenager.


He didn’t know he was going to be a writer. But, being a child of a jazz musician father and a visual artist mother, the fact that he wanted a life in the arts was always a matter of genetics to Marc.  “It was just a question of what,” he says.

First Marc thought his fate lay in acting. Then, after getting kicked out of acting school, Marc built himself what he now describes as a “mediocre” opera singing career, “scratching my way to the middle,”  playing secondary roles of “hunchbacks and drunk best friends.” By the time he hit early 30s, Marc realized, however, that what he really wanted to do was “build his own worlds.” So he dropped his opera career, started a “signs and graphics” selling business to make a living (which he hated), and in spare time (leftover from 60 hour-working weeks), he started to write. [Read more about his epiphanies here: http://www.powells.com/taae/acito.html]

So he wrote short stories. Columns for his local gay newspaper (which happened to be in Portland, Oregon, and which eventually got him noticed by Chuck Palahniuk, the bestselling author of “Fight Club” who recommended Marc’s first manuscript to his agent and editor: see Marc’s website for the complete story: http://www.marcacito.com/aboutmarc.htm

[Both on his website and in the interview with me Marc offers tons of great advice for writers on getting ahead. He teaches story structure classes in NYC — and he seems like such a TEACHER: he doesn’t need prompting to  share his hard-earned knowledge. He stresses this advice for writers: get your name out there. Write for anything and anyone you can. You never know where it can lead.

“It isn’t who you know,” Marc says. “It’s who knows you.”]

Now, fifteen years after his first conscious decision to write, Marc stops telling the story for a moment (allowing me to take a sip of that tea). He is so overcome with emotion, he freezes, then leans forward on his seat. It seems, he needs a breath or two before continuing. When he is able to, he explains how it just hit home, while he was talking to me. The realization that he has always wanted to do this — to make a life in the arts. And that finally, he had. He is — making it.


He is “shopping around” the third book that continues the adventures of Eward Zanni, the hero of “How I Paid for College” and “Attack of the Theater People”  — and a memoir he has just finished “about the strange and mystical death of my mother.”  Reinventing his career, slowly transitioning from West Coast/ East Coats living (half the time he still resides in Portland, Oregon,) Marc is planning to eventually settle here in NYC — still the theater capital of the world — full-time. He is working on THREE musicals at once (see more info here: http://bastardjones.com/ ), writing columns and performing “singing commentaries” on NPR’s “All Things Considered.” As for “College,” it is in development by Columbia Pictures with Laura Ziskin, the producer of the Spiderman movies). But underneath all the busy-ness and the near-fame and the acclaim, Marc is still in some ways that geek kid from Westfield New Jersey. Even as an artist, Marc admits — not without a certain pride — that he is — “a poster child for misfits and oddballs.”

“I am an offbeat writer,” he says. “I am always surprised to hear when people tell me that my writing is unconventional.” But that’s okay, Marc says — more than okay — “it’s part of the adventure.”

Originally having written his first books for the audience of “male gays and the women who love them,” Marc had been surprised to discover all kinds of people loving his work. “What sorts of people?” I ask him.

But even before he starts speaking, I pause my pen, because , having fallen in love with his book, I already know.

“The artsy people,” he says.

“The freaks,” I say, smiling. “The oddballs.”

“The fun people,” he says. “The most interesting people in the room.”

November 29, 2010 Posted by | Contemporary History, Interviews, Writing Mirror | , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“No Country Is Safe From Totalitarianism:” An Interview With Author Gloria Whelan

The most amazing thing to me about Gloria Whelan is her incredible versatility and productivity. She has written dozens of books set in times and places as varied as Vietnam, Communist Russia, 19th century Michigan and ancient China. Through all that, her writing is never bogged down in research. Her stories are first of all that — stories. And she tells them well 🙂

You set many of your books in exotic locales — other worlds, other times. Is this your way of satisfying your own curiosity?

GW: No, a story appeals to me and I follow the story.  Sometimes it leads me into exotic locales, sometimes as in my next young adult book:  SEE WHAT I SEE, out in December I write about my own hometown of Detroit.

You have set a series of stories in St. Petersburg, Russia, too. When you researched and visited the country, what did you think?

GW: It was not difficult to choose Russia.  I did visit St. Petersburg, but I’ve always been fascinated with Russia.  When I was a student at the University of Michigan I took two years of the Russian language.  I had two professors.  One Russian instructor taught us Red Army songs and the “International,” while the other Russian instructor told us how the Bolsheviks had murdered her husband and son. I believe there are many young readers with no knowledge of Russian history and its profound influences on our own country.

So, what was your visit like? And what fascinates you about Russia? 🙂

GW: I was there for three weeks in the 90’s while Yeltsin was president.  I love the expansiveness and the tortured personality of the Russian people who seem to feel life one hundred percent more than most of us.  I am fearful for Russia.  The country suffered so much during those years when it lost its freedom, it concerns me to see some of those freedoms, like the freedom of the press and the freedom to demonstrate, taken back as they have been these last years.

As far as your writing goes, what is your research process like? How do you know when you get enough of a feel of a country, or a time period? How close do you think a fictional portrayal can ever come to the actual historical truth?

GW:   I try not to write the kind of historical fiction where the history is the tail that wags the dog.  I hope that in the books I have written, books set in other times and other places, it’s the story that is the important thing.

The poet, Yeats, said, “The facts don’t give you the truth, a fact is not a truth until you live it.”  That, I think is the key to writing fictions set in other times and places.  The writer can’t write from the outside, looking back, the writer must live in that time, and that place, and to the extent that the writer is successful, the book will be successful.  I don’t mean facts are unimportant, for the facts are the underpinning of the story, but they are never the whole story.

Imagining ourselves into the lives of others is not unique to authors.  It’s something we all do every day.  Without our identification with other people, without being able to imagine how others feel, there would be no compassion.  That imagining ourselves into the lives of another is what makes life tolerable and makes us all human.

I have counted about forty books under your name since you broke in with “Silver” in 1988. You have published ten books since 2007, four of them just in the last year! Are you one of those writers who, upon typing “the end” for one of your books, opens up a new file and writes chapter 1 for the next book? 🙂 What is the secret to your great productivity?

GW: I like to write and I do it every day.  Many of my most recent books are picture books requiring less time; they are like poems, few words, but each word exactly the right word.  My young adult novels take at least a year.

I have really enjoyed your book “The Disappeared.” 


You have set two other Russian books in the time of a dictatorship as well. And your beautiful “Homeless Bird” (a 2000 National Book Award Winner) set in India deals with restrictions that society places on its citizens. Through your research and the writing of these books, what have you noticed about the effects of cruel totalitarian government on its people? Our American kids today are so removed from it all. Why do you think they need to know?

GW: No country is safe from totalitarianism, not even ours.  Totalitarian governments don’t just happen.  Liberties are given up one at a time.

September 3, 2010 Posted by | Contemporary History, Interviews, Politics and Religion | 3 Comments