Interviews conducted by Jennifer Maritza McCauley
Top agents and writers from the Miami Writers Institute (October 2012) and beyond discuss the writing process, critiquing, dealing with success and getting that first book published. Popular novelists Cathy Day and Marc Fitten also discuss doomsday book choices and reflect on why they chose the writing life.
Johnny Temple is the publisher and editor in chief of Akashic Books, an award-winning Brooklyn-based independent company dedicated to publishing urban literary fiction and political nonfiction. He is also the chair of the Brooklyn Literary Council, which works with Brooklyn’s borough president to plan the annual Brooklyn Book Festival in September. Temple is the editor of USA Noir: Best of the Akashic Noir Series.
JM: Your city noir series and Adam Mansbaugh’s Go the F*** To Sleep are huge hits. Are there any upcoming or lesser known Akashic books you are excited about? Any tips for beginning writers on getting those query letters accepted?
JT: One author who we at Akashic are particularly proud to publish, and who will be at the Miami Book Fair this year, is Robert Arellano, a Cuban-American novelist who we have been fortunate to work with on several books, including his most recent novel, the brilliant, Curse the Names. This book is part mystery, part horror, part literary character study, and written with language as clear and precise as Stephen King. It is set in Los Alamos, New Mexico and revolves around a journalist who is uncovering some terrifying information related to a potential nuclear catastrophe, and yet his revelations are obscured by a mounting paranoia. His previous book, Havana Lunar, a literary crime-fiction novel set in Havana, was an Edgar Award finalist. One of the most exciting aspects of Arellano’s work is how each new book builds upon the last, and the reader never, ever knows what to expect from him.
With query letters, we look for a writer’s understanding of the type of books Akashic publishes, a familiarity with our particular tastes. One concrete example is cutting-edge Caribbean fiction, one of several areas where I feel we excel. So if a Jamaican or Trini or Haitian writer is sending us a query letter, he or she should let us know in the first sentence or two about any Caribbean heritage.
M.J. Rose is the international bestselling author of Lip Service, In Fidelity, Flesh Tones, Sheet Music, Lying in Bed, The Halo Effect, The Delilah Complex, The Venus Fix, The Reincarnationist, The Memorist, The Hypnotist, and The Book of Lost Fragrances. Rose has appeared on The Today Show, Fox News, The Jim Lehrer NewsHour and has been profiled in Time, Forbes, The New York Times, Business 2.0, Working Woman, Newsweek and New York Magazine.
JM: You are a prolific writer with 12 novels in print and translation. Can you tell us about your challenges in getting your first book published?
MR: Getting published has been an adventure for me. I self-published my first novel, Lip Service late in 1998, after several traditional publishers turned it down. Editors had loved it, but didn’t know how to position it or market it since it didn’t fit into any one genre.
Frustrated, but curious and convinced that there was a readership for my work, I set up a website where readers could download my book for $9.95 and began to seriously market the novel on the Internet. I had been the creative director of a 150 million dollar ad agency, so I had a lot of ideas about how to do it differently.
Those were early days for e-books. No one had e-readers. People had to download a PDF and read the book on their computer or print it out.
After selling over 2500 copies (in both electronic and trade paper format) Lip Service became the first e-book and the first self-published novel chosen by the LiteraryGuild/Doubleday Book Club as well as being the first e-book to go on to be published by a mainstream New York publishing house.
Hugh Howey is the author of the science fiction series, Wool and Molly Fyde. Movie rights to the Wool series have been bought by 20th Century Fox.
JM: Your popular book series Wool has accrued a growing fanbase. How does it feel to have what every writer wants—loyal readers?
HH: It’s incredibly humbling. I wake up every morning to a new batch of emails from readers, and I never take it for granted. I wrote for years with a very small audience, and so to discover that so many strangers are now devouring my stories—it feels surreal. I hope it never feels normal.
It’s also easier to write every day when you know so many people are waiting on the next story. When I wrote my first book, it was my wife cajoling me for more pages. She read my rough draft as I was writing it, coming home every day asking me how far along I’d gotten. Having a wide readership begging for the next book is a wonderful motivator. Though it does trouble me that people can read in a day what I took months to produce. And then ask me how far along I am in the next one! 🙂
JM: Many series writers know from the beginning they have too much material for one book. Did you always plan to extend Wool into a book series?
HH: I didn’t have specific plans to extend the work, no. I always wish I could write more in every story. It’s so difficult to abandon the people and places we fashion from our imagination. I could easily write sequels for every book I’ve ever written, but you have to know where to end the work, where to wrap it up so you can move on to other things.
With Wool, readers didn’t want me to move on just yet. The response to the first novelette was intense, with readers and reviewers clamoring for more. So I wrote what has now become the Omnibus, a collection of five stories that comprise a thick novel when put together. This is what readers helped to create. And it’s as a single novel that Random House will publish in the UK and abroad. I believe we have 17 countries now that have picked this up, which shows an amazing interest in the story.
Lisa McCourt is an award-winning editor, writing coach, and best selling author of Juicy Joy. She has also written a number of children’s books and been included in the Chicken Soup for Little Souls series. She has been featured in Publisher’s Weekly, PBS’s Between the Lions and has appeared on CNN’s Showbiz Today.
JM: You write a great deal about embracing “radical authenticity” and the constant need to evaluate and critique ourselves. What is the most memorable criticism given to you as an author?
LM: When I was in elementary school I was painfully, painfully shy, and terrified of any form of self-expression. My teachers were always asking me to speak up, complaining that they couldn’t hear anything I said, though it felt to me as if I were shouting. Whenever I did any writing in school, it was so faint no one could read it. My mother would be called in and shown what appeared to be basically blank pages with barely-visible pencil marks all over them. (I swear, I felt like I was pressing as hard as I could.) So the most memorable criticism I’ve been given came from all those frustrated elementary school teachers energetically screaming, “Express yourself, damn it!” LOL. Today I write and speak on stages for a living. Getting here from there has been quite a ride!
JM: I’d like to stay on the subject of “radical authenticity.” Why is it so hard for men and women in our culture to show the world our authentic selves?
LM: We’re tribal creatures by nature of our humanness. We come into this world wired for meaningful connection. But from the second we arrive here, we’re programmed to judge others, be judged by others, and continually question our inherent lovableness. Our whole culture is set up to teach us that who we authentically are is not enough, and we need to project an amplified version of ourselves in order to secure the attention, love, and connection we’re naturally wired to crave. It’s heartbreakingly ironic that the basic human desire for connection is what fuels inauthenticity . . . yet our inauthenticity is the thing that ends up preventing us from ever having those deeply meaningful connections we long to create. I wrote Juicy Joy out of my own monumental struggle to excavate and begin living as my long-buried authentic self.
Author Roundtable Part Two
Marc Fitten was born in Brooklyn in 1974. He spent much of the 1990s living and traveling in Europe, while being based in Hungary. He has been published in Prairie Schooner, The Louisville Review, The Hogtown Creek Review, and Esquire.com. His latest novels are Valeria’s Last Stand and Elza’s Kitchen.
Cathy Day was born and raised in Peru, Indiana, which is best known as a circus town, but is also the birthplace of Cole Porter and the Spanish hot dog. She is the author of two books. Her most recent work is Comeback Season: How I Learned to Play the Game of Love (Free Press, 2008), part memoir about life as a single woman and part sports story about the Indianapolis Colts Super Bowl season. Her first book was The Circus in Winter (Harcourt, 2004), a fictional history of her hometown.
In the spirit of popular culture’s obsession with the end of the world, McCauley asks novelists Cathy Day and Marc Fitten about their doomsday book choices. Plus, they answer the all-important question: why do you write?
JM: It’s the end of the world. You have to stick one book in a time capsule for future generations. Which book do you choose?
MF: I would choose The Brothers Karamazov. No hesitation. No quibbling. I would choose it because it is the book that inspired me to become a writer, and when I finished reading it, I remember feeling like I had done something significant with my life. I was fifteen, but to this day, Dostoevsky is what I think a novelist should aspire to be—triumphant! His book is a saga that touches the lives of fully imagined characters in a place so real, that though I’d never seen Russia, I felt like I knew it. The Brother’s Karamazov is the one book I place in the capsule because it is the standard by which I judged everything I read after. It’s the foundation of my aesthetic.
CD: Andre Dubus’ Selected Stories, because they are about the problem of being a human being.
JM: The ever-asked, simple yet pithy question: Why do YOU write?
CD: Because it’s what I do with the stuff in my head, and because I want to create the kinds of reading experiences for others that changed everything for me when I fell in love with stories.
MF: God knows why I write! If I had any sense, I’d learn to code and start making apps. I write because I can’t stop wanting to. But if I look at it rationally, I suppose it’s because I have some artistic inclinations, a little bit of skill, the desire to connect with people through imagination and creativity, and a whole lot of luck.
The Miami Writers Institute will resume in May 2013 with new authors. Visit http://www.flcenterlitarts.com/site/programs/writing/writers-institute.html for more details.