Come Back is your debut novel. What’s it about?
Hope. It’s about hope and the courage that hope requires.
I didn’t set out to write a story about hope, but my female protagonist kept returning to that theme. Vi’s a woman with a past – and although she’s made a great life for herself, she’s pretty sure she can’t have what she wants most. But she can’t stop hoping. Vi reminded me that hope takes courage – especially when you can’t believe there’s reason to hope.
I’m the textbook definition of Oscar Hammerstein’s ‘cockeyed optimist’ so hope comes naturally for me – most of the time. My first husband helped me understand what it might look like to not see hope as natural. Dave, too, was an optimist by nature as you can surely see in My Uncle Dave, a children’s book with an adult message. A more upbeat and positive guy would be hard to imagine. But diabetes and the extreme toll the disease took on him made Dave a realist too. And left him little to hope for. In the seven years we had together, we had reason to praise – and damn – hope. And I learned a whole lot more about courage than I ever expected – or wanted – when diabetes won. I learned too, that it takes hope to heal.
Healing is part of Vi’s story too though much different than my own. She comes back to her hometown after ten years away, a far stronger woman than the girl who fled at seventeen. She doesn’t relish seeing her father and step-mother but is confident enough to handle herself around them. Accepting her aunt’s diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer’s is a lot tougher. Amid that turmoil, childhood friend Nate Barlow raises the specter of treacherous hope. Vi can’t believe Nate will want her when he finds out what she did those years away – so she tries to let hope die before it can take her under.
Hope takes more courage than we often realize. Dave showed me that, and Vi reminded me.
You mentioned My Uncle Dave and called it ‘a children’s book with an adult message.’ What do you mean?
My Uncle Dave was my second book – a short, illustrated story about what can happen when you mix a blind guy, three unruly dogs, and a swimming pool. It really happened – almost the way it does in the book.
Dave, the blind guy, trips over a dog and falls in the swimming pool. He’s scared – so he gets mad and it takes all evening before he regains his equilibrium when I can suggest that the whole thing was just a little bit funny. Thank heavens I was smart enough to wait! And then a week later, Dave falls headlong into the pool again. But this time, instead of getting mad, Dave treated it like the best joke!
Voila` the adult message. Dave and I thought it was a great example to show that
what happens in life matters a lot less than how we react to it. Same event – Dave falls into the pool. Different reactions – anger the first time, laughter the second – and you get entirely different outcomes. It’s been an important lesson for me to live by!
And I love what illustrator Ted Williams did with the book. I told him that all I cared about was that Dave looked like Dave – and Ted nailed it. I can almost hear Dave’s cackle as he squished through the garage with his sodden jeans and sneakers!
But you said diabetes won?
It did. Dave lived bravely with the insidious disease for over forty years, but it finally took him at age 53. We’d both faced the possibilities, but of course, anticipating loss hardly compares with the actual experience of grieving. It was a dull, dark time – the first year especially.
Writing our love story pulled me through the milestones of that first year. I’d started writing Find the Love of Your Life before Dave died. And self-published it – back in the pricey self-publishing days – just a little over a year later. The two of us planned the book because we thought it was important to share how we found each other and what we learned.
For the first time, I stopped looking for the perfect partner and focused on the relationship I wanted. Three weeks later, I met Dave. Had I focused on the partner instead of the relationship, I’d have been scared off by Dave’s blindness. But my goal never said the guy had to see. So I gave a relationship with Dave a chance to overcome my fears – thank heaven!
After Dave died and I worked hard to heal, I dusted off my relationship goal – tweaked to reflect what I learned from Dave. And it worked again. It took longer the second time, because I probably wasn’t yet ready, but eventually I found love again. It’s a much different relationship because we’re both different people. But those essential ingredients of growth, respect, and admiration I had with Dave, I have again – with the bonus of good health and playfulness.
Where can we get a copy of Find the Love of Your Life?
Alas, it’s out of print. But used copies do still show up on Amazon. I considered updating it, but dating life has changed a lot since Dave and I found each other – and even since I found my current partner. But the message is still important, no matter whether you’re looking online or next door. If you want a great love relationship, then start looking for the relationship and not the partner! And be brave – because finding a partner who wants what you want is just the start. It takes a LOT of work to make a great relationship! (Sorry for the soapbox, but when you experience a real life-changer, you feel compelled to share!)
What else have you written?
I co-authored a book called Love Builders, with my friend and mentor Dr. Sidney Simon. It’s a book that looks at tools that can enhance any relationship. A lot of the basic ideas in the book come from Sid’s teaching, with examples how one might use those tools from my own life.
As a consultant to Cornell’s Division of Nutritional Sciences, I’ve done a lot of curriculum development writing too, for learning that happens when kids are out of school. Learning to write simple, clear instructions is a useful exercise – perhaps not as much fun as fiction, but a great way to hone the mechanics of language.
Who are you – when you’re not writing?
I am a conglomerate of so many people all mushed together in one body. I’m a swimmer, a reader, a sailor. I make wearable art with felt and beads, I garden, I teach, I do yoga (poorly), I kayak, I drink wine, and cook when I have no other options.
And while I’m doing all of the above and more – the sublime and mundane of daily life – I’m often writing a story in my head. As a novelist, I’m a ‘pants-er’ with little notion where my characters will end up. But they live in my head so that by the time I force myself to open the current project’s file, the characters usually reveal what will happen in the next five or ten minutes. And if they don’t, I poke and prod them in my head until I have a clue what to put on the next page.
So, I guess you might say I carry diverse personalities in my head and they all do lots of different things? It’s fun in there – if crowded at times.
What’s your writing routine?
I wish I had one. As per above, my work is character-dependent – and my characters are often not particularly reliable or time-focused. They certainly don’t conform neatly into a routine. Apparently, they’re a lot like me in that regard.
Have you ever written a character based on the real you?
Not intentionally! But probably all my characters have elements of their personalities that I could recognize in myself. (She squirms!) But what happens to them? Not so much.
In my debut novel, Come Back, Vi is an actress who sings. The closest I’ve come to that was make believe when I was a kid and a little amateur community theater. But how Vi got to that life? I was luckier than Vi and none of what she had to go through ever happened to me – praise Heaven!
The novel I’m working on now is set on the farm where I grew up. My female protagonist is trying to keep the land in the family, as I was not able to do. But she is not me and 98% of what happens in her life has not happened in mine. I hope she will be able to save the farm from its real-life fate as a golf course. But maybe she won’t. She hasn’t shown me how she’d do it yet, so I don’t know if she can.
Do you base other characters on real people?
Shhh…don’t tell. On second thought, never mind. They’ll never recognize themselves by the time I get done with them.
Most of my characters are made up out of thin air. But sometimes I’ll notice a quirk or mannerism in someone and build a whole persona around it. Sadie in Come Back was birthed from seeing a grown woman dressed as a cheerleader. Sadie’s confusion, the mood swings of early dementia came from my Mom In her last years. But I’d guarantee that my mom never wore a cheerleading costume!
What’s your day job? And how has it helped shape your writing?
Interesting. I’ve been an educator my whole life – but mostly in non-formal settings. See above comments about routine to understand why teaching in a school might make me itch. I’ve worked with and for young people in 4-H Youth Development, in camps and other out-of-school programming where the learning is often self-directed, hands-on, and intentionally designed to be fun. As a 4-H professional, I learned a lot about kids and their parents – and I learned to write crisply so kids and parents might read newsletters and such. They gave me lots of opportunities to stretch my empathy muscles too – always useful for a novelist.
Now I teach online college courses – about kids’ health and play, neither of which show up much in my fiction. Nonetheless, teaching online has certainly shaped how I think about writing and how I do it. Online courses are not for everybody! They work best for students who already have strong writing skills. They need to write well enough to convey logical thinking and deep learning – even when the topic has little to do with writing. Alas, too many of the students in my courses lack these skills.
I pull out a lot of hair as I struggle to give clear feedback that is also kind and encouraging.
I do a LOT of editing and teaching about writing mechanics – the kinds of grammar and structure I learned at the hands of my sentence-diagramming teachers. And in the process, I hone my own skills about mechanics, precision in word choice, organization, and clarity. And patience. Oh my yes. Patience.
You sound like the grammar police. Do you think most writers are obsessed with grammar?
I’d bet most good ones are! In any craft, doesn’t one have to master basic skills before taking on advanced challenges like piecing together a whole story or fleshing out characters that live, breathe, and walk off the page?
Certainly, I don’t want my readers to pull their hair out and feel like they need to police the grammar in my work! So, yes. I’m picky about writing mechanics – except when castrating the English language fits a character.
I had to laugh at one review of Come Back. It said, ‘Decent story, annoying grammar.’ The reviewer objected to Tammy and Ben’s use of ‘would of’ instead of ‘would have’ in their first-person narrative chapters in Come Back. I sympathize! But don’t you know people who talk like that? I cringed at every ‘would of’ too, but I hoped their messed-up grammar would reveal these characters’ lack of education and make them more real. Characters won’t always have a good grasp of the basics, but I couldn’t effectively portray them if I don’t.
So, do you edit your own work?
I do. Painstakingly. Over and over again. As you probably already gathered, I hold a rather high opinion of my mastery of grammar. I’m certain that my writing is clean and will require little for an editor to do. Scratch that. I used to be certain…
Even after my sixth or so set of revisions, I still found errors in Come Back. Early readers caught errors I didn’t see. I did another set of revisions. I proofed the copy again. I uploaded the document and ordered a proof copy – and found more errors. Even my second proof copy bristled with sticky notes marking errors. When I corrected those, I sat with my finger hovering until I could muster the courage to click ‘send.’ And still, my partner – a grammar police chief if ever I met one – found two more typos (which have also now been corrected.)
Oh my. Will you put yourself through all that again?
I’ll definitely hire a copy-editor for the next novel. But…I know myself. I’m compulsive enough when editing someone else’s work. When it’s my own that needs polishing, I’ll still be in there up to my armpits. But I might prefer to do laundry.
How about your book cover? Did you do that yourself too?
Not a chance. I fiddled a little and realized right away that I do not have the talent to transfer images from my head into anything that would look professional. Luckily, Karen Sorce who is a member of my writers group is also a talented graphic artist. I LOVE the cover she designed and am in awe of her ability to take a terrific photo and punch it up so the cover zings!
I’m also in awe of her patience with my compulsive self. You wouldn’t believe the string of niggling details we hashed over and out. She probably wanted to pull out her hair too – but you’d never know it. ‘You want a font change, Sally? Okay. You want the title to squeeze a little to the right? Can do.’ She was amazing! I am beyond lucky to know such a wonderful and talented friend.
What advice would you give to a budding author?
Write. There’s no way to know how to do it well till you botch it up entirely. And then you do it again. And again.
Stifle your inner editor. I posted a sign in my office that says, ‘Write one bad page every day.’ (Apparently, I do long for a writing routine.) I don’t write a page every day. And I don’t always succeed at keeping my compulsive editing in check. But when I do get started and just let it flow without judging its quality, the work is usually better than I thought at the time I wrote it. Let your writing be bad so you can find your way to the good.
Another writer shared a strategy he learned from still another writer – not to stop at the end of a chapter. Stop in the middle – sometimes even in the middle of a sentence. That way, when you begin again, you’re not starting from scratch. You have something to stare at besides the blinking cursor. It’s easier to pick up the thread of the story again. I use this strategy faithfully. When I leave a scene hanging on the page, the characters move into my head and nag at me to figure out what happens next. And as soon as I do, I’m usually ready – and so are they – to keep going till the middle of the next chapter.
And one more thing – read! As if your life depends on it.
What do you like to read?
I’m a fan of novels though I also enjoy non-fiction when it’s written as a story. I’m drawn most to character-driven stories that are rich in the challenges, joys, and hardships of relationships. I love to learn about places, circumstances, and people whom I might otherwise never encounter as well as characters who feel like they might live next door.
My favorite novels are populated by people I’d like to hang out with. A good villain like Snape or a curmudgeon like Ove intrigue me too. But if I can’t find any redeeming value – something to like – in at least one character, the book might not be for me. I never used to give up on a book, but now I wonder why I’d invite a whole cast of despicable characters into my head when I’d never let them in my house. I’m pickier now and less likely to waste time with crappy books when there are so many other wonderful books with complex, interesting, and likable characters.
Are there authors who are particular favorites?
Yes! And thank for not asking me to pick just one – or three – or five! There are dozens of authors I love, many, many books I wish I’d written! I also wish I’d kept a comprehensive list of books I’ve read so names and titles would be always at my fingertips. I’ve been trying to fill in gaps of memory on Goodreads, but I feel sure the missing books still outnumber the 378 on my current ‘have read’ list. But I digress.
A few of my favorites are:
Mary Stewart – I adore her exotic settings, the unexpected crises that ordinary but wonderfully real characters fall into, the subtlety of romance and shifting lives she can portray.
Jodi Piccoult – I’m in awe of the research that makes her characters so authentically themselves whether in a courtroom, hospital, elephant reserve, or white-supremacist rally. And I like her use of alternate points of view.
Elizabeth Berg – Hers are the characters that might live next door and whom I might see as humdrum until Berg’s light uncovers myriad ways their lives are extraordinary.
Kent Haruf has much the same skill as Berg, giving us glimpses of remarkable drama in what might look like a mundane small town.
Richard Russo can go from eye-popping misery to laugh-out-loud funny.
You’ve self-published all your work. Why?
Impatience. I do not wait well. Never have. Doubt I ever will.
I have sent out queries for representation in the traditional publishing world, and I will likely return to that process again when my next novel is ready. But I won’t be surprised if I find the wait for replies to be untenable.
I want my work out there in the world. I don’t see this as a virtue. But it’s how I’m built. And fortunately, Amazon and others have made the self-publishing process much easier and less costly than it was when I brought out Find Love and My Uncle Dave.
So, does that mean you market your own books too?
Alas, I do. And scaling the steep learning curve of book marketing is not for the faint of heart – especially when you’re a new and unknown author. I spend a lot of time reading and exploring marketing strategies – and experimenting.
What’s working for you?
My best sales – and the most fun – have come from book clubs who chose to read my book. And if I can actually visit – in person or online – with the club, it’s wonderful! I’m always more than a tad terrified, not because I expect people to tear me or the book apart. I’ve found readers – especially those who value reading enough to join a book club – to be exceptionally kind. They seem to respect a writer’s process, and to like getting a behind-the-scenes peek into a writer’s brain. I enjoy their curiosity – even as I find it unsettling to be so much the center of attention at their gatherings. See my blog at healthypeoplelearn.com for accounts of early book club experiences. My very first was with my own book club – one of the scariest things I’ve ever done because I know and respect these readers so deeply. It was also an exhilarating evening that’s lodged in a permanent shrine of my memory! So, if you’re in a book club – schedule a visit! I’d LOVE to talk with you!
Free Kindle promotions have also been helpful to launch my novel. Every month or so, I offer a chance for free downloads which has helped spur a following bump of actual sales and more Kindle Unlimited readers each time – along with a few more reviews.
How do you split your time between writing and marketing?
Scheduling – as much as an anti-routine person can stand it – is a work in progress. I’d like to spend more time writing, and less marketing. But since I’m a newer newbie at marketing, everything I do takes more time – including staring at my computer wondering what I should do next! My goal is 60-75% writing, 25-40% marketing – while squeezing in my day job too. I’m not close to that yet, but the cockeyed optimist in me says hope on, hope ever!
When will we see your next novel?
I hope to finish my first draft on Home Place, this summer, and have it ready for publication in 2019. As of this writing, I’m about 75,000 words into it, and if the characters would just stop going off on tangents, we could wrap it up in another 10,000 words. But every time I sat down to write in the last couple weeks – thinking I knew exactly what they’d do in the next five minutes – they changed their minds! Pesky characters!
And then? Do you have other novel ideas lined up?
A few do lurk in the recesses. I try to keep them at bay, so I can stay focused on Home Place. But the next novel after that is already nagging at me. There will be a return-to-the-scene-of-the-crime theme, and I think it will take place at a winery in our Finger Lakes region of New York State. Stay tuned…