Everyone’s journey to publication is different and unique. In Behind The Scenes, I interview writers who tell us how they started and got to where they are today. With the knowledge that comes from experience, they share their words of wisdom with us. If you’re a writer, I’d love to hear about your journey! Please contact me here if you’re interested in being interviewed. New interviews featured every second and last Monday of the month.
1. Tell us a bit about your writing journey. How did you get started, and how did you get to where you are now?
I always dreamed of being a writer, but work and family responsibilities got in the way.
When I was 45, my husband noticed an announcement about a writers’ workshop at the local library, and he encouraged me to enroll. So I started racing out of work early once a week to attend that workshop. And I loved it.
My husband knew of my dream; he had heard me speak about the first story I ever wrote, way back when I was in second grade. The other kids wrote a paragraph or two. I wrote ten pages about a dog named Magic. The teacher had me read my story to the class, and I loved being acknowledged for having written something worth sharing.
Fast forward a few decades. As a public school district program director, I found lots of excuses to write memos, which teachers said they actually enjoyed reading. Yes, I really loved writing –– and my big dream was to write a novel, to attract the attention of a reputable literary agent, and to get my book published.
With my husband’s support, I quit my job when I was not quite fifty to become a full-time writer. I enrolled in writing classes and workshops, and I wrote every day. I started with short stories and then went on to write the manuscript that became Danny’s Mom.
When a New York literary agent signed me on, I wrote another manuscript, which evolved into the novel Camp. And now I’m known as “the anti-bullying novelist,” with books that show what really can happen behind the closed gates and doors of our camps and schools.
2. Anything you would’ve done differently if you could do it all over again?
I wish I could do it all over again! I would start my “writing life” long before turning 50. I would figure out how to dedicate time to write even while working a full-time job…or figure out how to get by with a part-time job so I could have time to write. That said, I’m delighted to have the opportunity now to focus on writing, and I feel blessed that, at this stage of life, my work as “the anti-bullying novelist” is making a difference.
3. What advice would you give to new and aspiring writers?
My advice is to never give up. I know that sounds hokey, but I really believe it.
Never give up on a manuscript that you know is good –– even when agents and publishers say NO. I’m so glad I didn’t give up on Danny’s Mom and Camp. I knew they were good stories, so I revised and revised and revised. And when my agent said that editors loved the manuscripts –– the writing and the characters –– but that bullying was too small a story, I put my novels on the back burner, but I never took them off the stove. I revised yet again and found different ways into the stories. I never gave up. And when bullying finally made it to our national radar screen, my agent tried again, and both books sold quickly.
4. Is there any book you’ve written that is particularly special to you? Which one and why?
When people ask me which of my two novels I like better, which is more special to me, I sort of feel like a mother being asked which of her children is particularly special to her. Both Camp and Danny’s Mom are personal works: I wrote Camp to honor the memory of my mother, whose story as a survivor and an immigrant I can only imagine; I wrote Danny’s Mom to honor colleagues with whom I worked, teachers who went above and beyond for their students –– and for students who desperately need adult advocates and yet often have to face the perils of high school unprotected and alone. So, both Camp and Danny’s Mom are really special to me.
5. Who would you say is your favorite character(s) from your books, and why? What is it about this character that makes him/her tick?
I tend to be the champion of the underdogs, which is probably why Charlie is my favorite character in Camp and Liz Grant is my favorite character in Danny’s Mom.
Charlie is the protagonist’s kid brother in Camp. He’s on the autism spectrum (although in the early 1960s, when the novel takes place, he is labeled “handicapped”). Charlie’s mother is unduly harsh with him, and the only one who seems to understand him is his older sister, Amy, the protagonist. Charlie is petrified of dogs –– and, of course, a family with a large dog lives down the block. I grew to love Charlie during the two years in which I wrote Camp, and I sobbed (really, I did) as I wrote an important scene concerning Charlie toward the end of the novel. When you read Camp, you’ll know exactly when I cried.
Liz Grant, my favorite character in Danny’s Mom, is a troubled high school sophomore who suffers with anorexia. She’s an easy target at Meadow Brook High School, where mean girls practice bullying as if it’s a sport. Liz desperately needs adult support, yet her mother is convinced that the bullies will go away if Liz simply ignores them. The protagonist, Beth, a guidance counselor, tries to help Liz, but Beth is thwarted by school administrators who cling to don’t-rock-the-boat policies.
7. Tell us about your latest project. What are you working on at the moment, and what can we expect from it?
Currently, I’m working on a novel that’s much lighter than Camp and Danny’s Mom. It takes place in another dimension, and it’s kind of a fairy tale for adults. And, yes, there’s bullying in that other place, too –– because bullying seems to grow organically in everything I write.
I’m also working (with a film agent) on movie rights for Camp and Danny’s Mom…so stay tuned.
8. Are you self-pubbed or traditionally published? What made you go for this model? What advice/tips can you share with writers working towards the same goal?
I’m traditionally published. The truth is, I never considered self-publishing ¬¬–– although I have friends who have had positive self-publishing experiences. After I wrote (and revised and revised and revised) the manuscript that became Danny’s Mom, I researched literary agents and started the querying process. I was prepared to face rejections, and they came. But then a top New York agent signed me on. And the rest, as they say, is history.
My advice to other writers working toward being traditionally published is to never give up. Keep querying, and if you’re lucky enough to get feedback from agents who say “no thanks,” consider their comments, incorporate any suggestions that make sense to you, and rewrite and revise.
In order to be traditionally published, you need talent, perseverance, and timing. The bullying theme in Camp and Danny’s Mom was considered “too small” for traditional publishers when my agent first submitted the manuscripts. But when bullying became part of our national dialogue, both books sold.
And, finally, keep writing. Even if you don’t get an agent, keep writing. Even if you have an agent but your work doesn’t sell, keep writing. A writer is someone who writes. Being published is certainly great, but the act of writing is what’s important: it will keep you growing –– as a writer and as a person.
Author Bio: Known as “the anti-bullying novelist,” I write about what really goes on behind the closed gates and doors of our camps and schools. The issues I explore in my novels are those I am passionate about and know well.
I was a camper and camp counselor for many summers. When I entered “the real world,” I taught in public schools in California and New York. In my most recent teaching position, I served as a middle school and high school reading/language arts specialist, and then I became the district language arts chairperson. In that position, I designed and supervised reading/writing programs for students at all grade levels, facilitated reading groups and writers’ workshops, and selected books for classroom libraries as well as for ancillary and summer reading lists.
One of my greatest joys was getting wonderful books into the hands of students, teachers, and parents. In the time before Kindles, iPads, and Nooks, I spent countless hours stocking shelves with “good reads.” And I dreamed of seeing my books on those shelves. Now I’m thrilled that Camp and Danny’s Mom are there.
Although critics call my novels “mesmerizing” and “must-reads,” what pleases me more than great reviews is the fact that Camp and Danny’s Mom have given me a literal bully pulpit –– a platform from which to carry on the anti-bullying conversation so that, in concert with professionals, we will make our camps and schools kinder, more embracing communities for everyone. I’m committed to keeping this conversation going until the bullying epidemic ends.
My husband and I raised our children on Long Island, where in addition to teaching I was a co-facilitator of a writers’ workshop. Now we live in Northampton, Massachusetts, a community brimming with readers, writers, artists, and musicians. Shortly after moving here, I won a prize for short fiction (the perfect welcome for me). And both of my novels, Camp and Danny’s Mom, will be released in paperback in June 2015. Next up is a move to the west coast. California, here I come!