Interview with Ashley Boynes-Shuck, author of “Chronically Positive”

A common misconception entwined with authors is that they are socially inept, how true is that?

This is patently untrue for me. I love meeting new people, making new friends, and attending social outings and events. I am pretty much a “social butterfly,” though I can be awkward at times. However, I also crave (need!) my alone-time. I suppose that I am an “extroverted introvert.”

Do all authors have to be grammar Nazis?

No. I do not think all writers need to be “grammar Nazis” – though many of us can be, by nature. Semantics and etymology often come into play, as do slang and regional dialect. That said, there is a time and place for everything. One must be grammatically-correct while writing, say, a resume or a research-based news article. On the flip side, in my opinion, it is okay for someone to be a little more casual or colloquial on social media, or via text message. It is important to note, however, that there is a difference between ignorance/lack of education and pure laziness or apathy. If you know better, do better. (This applies to language and all areas of life.) But a person with poor grammar cannot be ridiculed due to lack of education – that is unfair, in my opinion.

If you could have been the original author of any book, what would it have been and why?

This is a difficult question. For monetary reasons and the fact that it was both critically-acclaimed AND well-received on a commercial level, I would have to answer Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling. For more important, more thoughtful reasons, I would probably say The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. He’s a beautiful writer. I’d also be more than proud to have written Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, or anything by Jane Austen or Rumi, as well. Others that really captivated me in recent years include The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer, Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult, anything by Gillian Flynn, the Paris Wife by Paula McLain, and Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter. Oh – and anything by “Babe Walker” – she cracks me up!

What makes this particular genre you are involved in so special?

Since I write both fiction and nonfiction, they are both special to me. Fiction is special because it allows me to use my imagination and really get creative. It is inspiring when daydreams come to life via the written word. I have also published two nonfiction, memoir-type books in the health and wellness field. These ones are special to me because they are telling my own life story of overcoming illness, and by doing so, may help other people. If I can truly touch the hearts of my readers or help encourage them through a tough time, or if I can educate one person on the difficulties and complexities of invisible chronic illness, then my work has gone above and beyond its purpose and I will feel fulfilled.

When did it dawn upon you that you wanted to be a writer?

I knew I wanted to be a writer the first time I used a computer in 2nd grade, circa 1991. I was in the gifted (GATE) program for “smart kids,” and we were taught to type via a PAWS program on an old-school Apple Macintosh computer. I would write short stories nearly every day. But I was imaginative far before that, and an avid reader who was well ahead of my years with reading, writing, and language skills.

What inspires you to write?

Life. Life inspires me to write. It could be a sound, a song, a smell, an event, a vacation, or a book I’ve read – something is always motivating me to keep on writing, regardless of which genre it may be.

Do you have a set schedule for writing, or are you one of those who write only when they feel inspired?

I don’t have a particular set schedule, but I manage to write almost daily. If I’m not writing, I’m reading. That said, I do often write more when I’m feeling particularly inspired. If I go too long without writing, I feel anxious and on-edge, and sometimes lose motivation … so even though I’m not a “routine” person by nature, I still make time to write frequently.

How hard was it to sit down and actually start writing something?

It’s not usually very hard for me to sit down and write, motivation-wise. I always have the desire to do so. But, sometimes time constraints, prior commitments, or health problems hinder my plans. It was not hard for me to write my nonfiction books Sick Idiot and Chronically Positive, because I was telling my own story, and knew that it could help or encourage others. For my fiction novel, I had NaNoWriMo to help me along. (NaNoWriMo is the annual “National Novel Writing Month,” held every November. It was during this writing challenge that I completed my first draft of my novel To Exist.

Writers are often associated with loner tendencies; is there any truth to that?

Yes and no. I’m a social and friendly person, but I definitely love my alone-time. In 2015, I even took a solo writing trip to a secluded lakeside cabin in the middle of winter to work on editing and proofreading To Exist, and finishing the writing process for Sick Idiot. The fresh mountain air and snowy atmosphere offered the perfect ambiance. I love my husband and my pets, but seclusion and isolation was what I needed at that time. Since I work from home on a daily basis, though, I don’t like to get into the habit of being isolated too often. I don’t want to turn into a hermit, so I try to say yes to social activities outside the home!

What, according to you, is the hardest thing about writing?

The hardest thing about writing for me is the “after.” Getting an agent is difficult, finding a publisher is difficult, deciding whether to self-publish or traditionally-publish is difficult, and things like editing, proofreading, and layout/design/formatting are tedious and can often be the most stressful part. Then, there is the whole “getting people to buy your books” part. Writing itself is easy and comes naturally to me. Tedious, chore-like work does not, nor does being a “sales person” or pushing a product.

Do you read much and if so who are your favorite authors?

I read all the time. My favorite writers are: Jodi Picoult, John Green, Neil Gaiman, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Jane Austen, Nicholas Sparks, Paulo Coelho, C.S. Lewis, Gillian Flynn, Elizabeth Gilbert, and Liane Moriarty. I love Rumi. I like Shakespeare. I seem to enjoy many books that Oprah recommends, and I often enjoy all of the “trendy” New Adult/Young Adult book series (think: Divergent, the Hunger Games, etc.) I greatly admire Stephen King and JK Rowling from a career perspective, too.

If you had the choice to rewrite any of your books, which one would it be and why?

I would rewrite some of To Exist, but I wouldn’t change much – I would have just elaborated upon some things a little further. That said, a lot of what I did with that book was very intentional, even if it may not seem like it right away. The ending is a little abrupt (or may seem rushed) because I was leaving it open for a sequel that would explore the span of time between the end of that story and the epilogue that takes place many years later. So, that was intentional, as were the long streams of consciousness. My main character Shelby is “in her head,” a lot, and her thoughts may seem rambling. However, that was very much on purpose. I wouldn’t have changed too much about that book, though I do recognize which aspects, if any, that readers may critique. The main thing I’d change about To Exist (other than providing a few more details surrounding some crucial elements) is the cover – I didn’t design it and I regret giving approval of it.

What is your take on the importance of a good cover and title?

A good title and a good cover are crucial. They have to catch the reader’s eye and pique their interest. They have to capture the mood of the book. Both the title and the cover have to give you a certain “vibe.” I like all of my book titles, and I love the covers for Sick Idiot and Chronically Positive. But, I have to admit that I do not like the cover for To Exist – and it’s my own book! Unfortunately, people really do judge a book by its cover, and this book is a lot more interesting than the cover would depict. I plan on (legally, amicably) parting ways with the publisher of To Exist, and launching a second edition … with a new cover.

How would you feel if no one showed up at your book signing?

Luckily, this did not happen to me at my first one, but if it did happen at any future book signings and no one showed up, I would feel disappointed and letdown, but not surprised. I feel that people are overwhelmed with social obligations these days, and that they would rather just order your book online than attend an event. I also think that social media can oversaturate the “book signing” field, among others. People are invited to fundraisers and book sales and parties so frequently on Facebook these days, that it is hard to get your event to stand out from the herd. Social media is the perfect way to get the word out about events, but it is both a blessing and a curse. In this day and age, a press release or a big event is less of a “big deal” than it used to be.

How much of yourself do you put into your books?

I put all of myself into my books. Obviously, my memoirs Sick Idiot and Chronically Positive are me, in a sense. And Shelby, the main character of my fiction book To Exist, is very like me in a lot of ways. I see a lot of my good and bad qualities reflected in Shelby.

What books have influenced your life the most?

Every book I’ve ever read has surely influenced me in some way or another. As far as memoirs go, Robin Roberts’ book Everybody’s Got Something and Paul Kalanithi’s memoir When Breath Becomes Air were fantastic. I like Elizabeth Gilbert’s work, too, and certainly enjoy the writing style of Jodi Picoult and John Green. But I don’t discriminate – I’ll read high-brow, low-brow, and everything in-between. I even enjoyed Khloe Kardashian’s latest book, Strong Looks Better Naked. While I was writing To Exist, I was more influenced by the YA genre — I like to say that the main character Shelby is a hybrid of Katniss Everdeen from the Hunger Games and Carrie Bradshaw from Sex and the City.

Who are your books mostly dedicated to?

My books are most frequently dedicated to my husband, my family, my friends, and everyone dealing with an illness. My most recent book Chronically Positive was specially-dedicated to my beloved grandfather Leon Louis (a.k.a. “Bups,) who unexpectedly passed as I was writing it.

Poets and writers in general, have a reputation of committing suicide; in your opinion, why is that the case?

There is a fine line between being a genius and being what the public or society would refer to as “crazy.” I think that the stigma of creative types being “crazy” or somehow mentally ill or unstable is harmful and unfair. I do think that writers and creative types (myself included) tend to be eccentric, though, and often more empathetic and sensitive than the average person. Sometimes, we have too many feelings to contain. Some of us find an outlet and a certain satisfaction in the cathartic nature of the writing process. Others find that their art will never quell their thirst or fill whatever hole they have inside them. It is important for writers and creative people – artists of all kinds – to know the balance between relying on their work as an outlet, and using it to create something beautiful or useful, versus hiding behind it and using it as a crutch instead of addressing real mental health issues or emotional problems. But I don’t know if the actual rate of suicide and depression/anxiety is higher in the artistic/creative population, or, if we just express our emotions more freely, so that it may seem that way.

They say books die every time they are turned into a movie; what do you think?

I think they are just reborn with new life and from a new perspective – sometimes better, often worse. A great book is still a great book whether or not it was turned into a crappy movie. The movie may not always be as good as the book, but if the original book was good, it always will be.

Name one book that you like most among all the others you have penned down.

I’ve written three books, and all are of equal importance to me. I was so passionate about each of them. It’s like asking a mother to choose a favorite child: I can’t do it. I love them each in different ways. I’m a little partial to Sick Idiot because I think it best captures my true personality, and I think Chronically Positive will be well-received because it is so inspirational and moving, but I so desire for To Exist to get its moment in the sun! I want to see that baby shine! It is an outcast just like I was as a kid, and I just want it to have its moment of glory. A lot of blood, sweat, and tears went into that one!

What is your view on co-authoring books; have you done any?

I am fine with co-authoring books either for exposure or pay. Yes, I co-authored a book called Empowered in Pittsburgh with several other writers from my hometown, thanks to Councilman Tom Baker and his Baker Leadership Get Involved movement.

What do you do in your free time?

I have 3 dogs, and 2 cats, so they take up a lot of my time. My husband and I like to travel. I do a lot of advocacy and volunteer work. I enjoy reading, watching TV, and going to the movies. I’m really into pop culture and fashion, and I love going to concerts. Camping, astronomy, and boating are also up there on my list of interests. I am also involved in my church and I try to exercise regularly. I’m very close with my family and friends, as well.

How do you feel when people recognize you in public and appreciate your work?

I have to admit that I love it. Attention doesn’t bother me, and for better or for worse, never really has, though I’ve accepted that with being in the public eye comes negative attention at times, too. (Bullying, internet trolls, haters, naysayers, etc.)

Do writers become narcissists once their book starts to sell?

No, most of us writers are narcissists way before that! (haha.) I think that many artists are narcissistic or “in our heads” to a certain level just by nature, but don’t get me wrong: that doesn’t equate to being selfish or pridefully arrogant or conceited. By the account of many who know me, I’m one of the least selfish people out there. It just means that we are a little neurotic and that we think highly enough of ourselves and our writing to want to share it with the world. In Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Big Magic she called it The Arrogance of Belonging. It’s not a bad thing for a creative person to possess. You can be a little narcissistic and still be humble and gracious at the same time. (There’s a meme that says: “Humble with a hint of Kanye.” So there you go.)

If you were to rate your best work, how would you rate it?

I feel I could always grow and be better, but all of my books have 4-or-5-star ratings on Amazon and Goodreads, and Sick Idiot was positively reviewed by several newspapers and media outlets, so I have an inkling that my work is good, though I’d feel very uncomfortable assigning a number to it. I’d be harder on myself than most of my readers would be, I’m sure.

Have you ever written a character based on the real you in some part?

Yes, Shelby Weiss from To Exist is a lot like me, but not completely like me. (She’s annoying at times, and hopefully I’m not quite as annoying, though I suspect some people may find me to be so.) Of course, my other books are memoirs so this question has an obvious answer for those two.

Can you tell us about your current projects?

To Exist is my debut fiction novel – it is a post-apocalyptic action-adventure love story. It’s pretty dark and gritty but also very modern and with some touching and humorous parts. Sick Idiot is my humorous nonfiction health memoir about life with chronic illness. It looks at life with illness in a funny way, and is my real life, broken up into a collection of short stories. Chronically Positive is a companion book to Sick Idiot, of sorts. It is a collection of my most popular and well-received Arthritis Ashley blog posts and looks at life with illness from a little rawer, sometimes more heartbreaking, but always still overarchingly positive, perspective. It is more serious than Sick Idiot, but possesses similar content.

You don’t have to be a writer in order to be an author – how true is that?

Very true. Anyone can self-publish a book. I read a blog about a guy who took a photo of his foot and had it published. Not everyone is meant to be an author, though I think everyone can write if they so wish.

If you were given the opportunity to form a book club with your favorite authors of all time, which legends or contemporary writers would you want to become a part of the club?

The same writers who I’ve already mentioned, particularly: John Green, Jodi Picoult, Liane Moriarty, Gillian Flynn, Neil Gaiman, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Elizabeth Gilbert, Rumi, Paulo Coelho, C.S. Lewis, Nicholas Sparks. Toni Morrison and Sue Monk Kidd, too. Stephen King. That would be an interesting bunch! I’d like to have Maya Angelou and Sylvia Plath join us, Jane Austen, Oprah, JK Rowling. Ann M. Martin. Oh, the list goes on!

Which genre of book do you think should be most adopted for kids in school?

I think that it’s important to keep the arts in the schools. When I was in high school, we read and (I enjoyed) books like 1984 and Brave New World and Huckleberry Finn and Animal Farm. These days, every book is scrutinized or banned or deemed politically incorrect. However, that said, we should have more diversity in what is read in schools: more multicultural books, books written by minority authors, diverse genres and topics, but let’s keep books and the arts in our schools. Kids need imagination and creativity – sometimes you’ll learn more from a fiction book than a textbook, anyway. I’d like to see authors like Toni Morrison and Sapphire and Langston Hughes and Rumi and Paulo Coelho and Zora Neale Hurston read at the high school level. Let’s get some Sue Monk Kidd in there. Mix it up.

Is privacy an issue for you?

Sometimes. I think because I share so much online and in my books, that people think they know me and know my whole life, but they don’t. I only share and reveal what I choose to share and reveal. I’m very transparent and am an open book – but there are still things I keep sacred and private.

Is there a genre you absolutely despise, or are written pieces all pieces of art and demand to be respected equally?

There is no one genre that I despise, but there are books/book series which I just can’t get into. All art is worthy of respect. Someone out there likes it, and someone out there worked hard to put it out into the world.

Do you enjoy discussing upcoming ideas with your partner? If yes, how much do you value their inputs?

I value my husband Mike’s input very much. He offers a lot of valuable feedback, sometimes helps proofread, and even helped me come up with the title for Sick Idiot. (The title is explained in the introduction of the book.)

If you were given a teaching opportunity, would you accept it?

I completed half of my grad school requirements towards a master’s degree in teaching. While I’d love to teach at some level (particularly high school or college,) I don’t think my unpredictable health would allow me to do so. I have tutored a Korean student in English as a Second Language, though, and worked with preschool kids at an after-school program. I was also a school secretary at a private school while in graduate school for teaching. And I married a teacher. And my best friend is a teacher. So I respect it, but I don’t know if it’s for me. I’d probably prefer more of a mentor role or a temporary teaching gig.

What is that dream goal you want to achieve before you die?

Be on the New York Times Bestsellers List. I’d also love to travel the world. Attend the Oscars and/or the Grammys. Go to New York Fashion Week. Meet a sitting President. I’d love to get healthy and see a cure for many of the awful disease out there.

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