Collecting Oral History: Interview with Elizabeth Jacoway

Absolute Blank

By Mollie Savage (Bonnets)

2007 was an interesting year in Little Rock, Arkansas; it was the fiftieth anniversary of the Central High School integration crisis and emotions were high. Books were published reflecting every perspective of the issue. Among the many books I read and authors I met during the year, the most refreshing and honest was Betsy Jacoway. Her book, Turn Away Thy Son, approached the crisis via interviews with the myriad people involved. As a transplanted Northerner, the whole integration issue seemed foreign to me, and her book gave me a perspective I would not otherwise have had. When Betsy had a book signing at the bookstore where I worked, we clicked and became friends. I am delighted that she would share with all of us the process of collecting oral history.

Collecting Oral History: Interview with Elizabeth Jacoway

A Brief Bio

Turn Away Thy Son Elizabeth Jacoway grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas, where she attended the public schools. As a child she lived through the Little Rock desegregation crisis of 1957–1959, but wearing the blinders imposed on a privileged southern white female by the culture of segregation, she failed to “see” or to question what was happening in her community. Not until she landed in her first graduate seminar, conducted by George B. Tindall at the University of North Carolina, did she begin to examine the flawed and tragic history of her region. In the years since that painful introduction to the realities of her own past, her intellectual focus has been on the sources, dynamics and impact of racism in American life. After receiving a Ph.D. in southern history from the University of North Carolina in 1974, she taught at the University of Florida, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, and Lyon College. Married and the mother of two grown sons, she has lived for thirty years in the small, Mississippi-delta community of Newport, Arkansas. In 2007 she published the book about Little Rock that she had been working on for thirty years, Turn Away Thy Son: Little Rock, The Crisis That Shocked the Nation (Free Press).

Turn Away Thy Son won the 2008 Willie Lee Rose Prize, awarded by the Southern Association for Women Historians for the best book in southern history by a woman, and also the 2008 William Booker Worthen Literary Prize, awarded by the Central Arkansas Library System.

TC: Could you explain how one goes about collecting oral history, and how one does that in a sensitive environment such as race relations. Just your process will be fine.

EJ: In 1976, I was very fortunate to receive a year-long NEH [National Endowment for the Humanities] grant to inaugurate my study of the Little Rock Crisis. My graduate training had stressed the importance of starting with archival research rather than reading what other historians had written about my subject, so I simply dove into the papers of Daisy Bates (mentor to the Little Rock Nine) at the Wisconsin Historical Society, Brooks Hays (Congressman from Little Rock) at the JFK Library in Boston, and Dwight Eisenhower at the Eisenhower Presidential Library in Abilene, KS. At that time, these were the major collections that were available to researchers, and as you can imagine, at each of them I encountered dramatically different impressions of the same events.

By the summer of that year I was able to compile a list of over a hundred people who were still alive and who had played significant roles in the Little Rock story, and I started studying the available literature about how to conduct an interview. That process would have been so much easier if I had had access to the Internet! As it was, I was bound to the library and to correspondence with such organizations as the Oral History Association.

Just about that time, the Southern Oral History Program at the University of North Carolina invited me to do interviews with Daisy Bates and Vivion Brewer (President of the Women’s Emergency Committee to Open Our Schools), and so I prepared ferociously and jumped in with both feet. Both interviews turned out to be delightful and incredibly revealing, and I was hooked. I realized immediately that the interview was a potential source of information that could not be found in any archive or library, and that it allowed the researcher to ask questions about things that no one had thought to record. Of course the interviewee always has his or her own biases and agendas, and everything he or she says has to be checked against archival materials, but the interviewee also brings an immediacy and interest to the subject that newspapers, diaries, and secondary accounts fail to convey.

After my Bates and Brewer interviews, I began to prepare enthusiastically for what I could see was going to be the best source of information for my book. I had already initiated a spin-off project that focused on the role of the South’s white businessmen in the Civil Rights Movement (eventually published by LSU Press as Southern Businessmen and Desegregation), so for the remainder of 1976 I interviewed over thirty of Little Rock’s business leaders from the 1957–1959 period, and I also interviewed (because he happened to be in town) Harry Ashmore, editor of the Arkansas Gazette during the crisis.

I had grown up in Little Rock, and most of these men responded to me favorably because they knew me. This was just twenty years after the crisis, and many Little Rock people still felt a defensiveness about it and a reluctance to talk to outsiders about it. My being an “insider” helped me gain access to these people, but undoubtedly it also blinded me to some of the nuances I might have noticed if I had come from a different cultural milieu.

At this point, I talked only to white people (except for the commissioned interview with Daisy Bates)—in part because I was focusing on the business leadership, but also because I did not have access to the black community, and I did not feel that I understood the issues and the feelings across that racial divide. I felt very keenly my limitations in being able to bridge that divide, both as a white person and as a woman.

A series of events converged to take me away from my focus on 1957—marriage, motherhood, a move away from Little Rock, two other book projects—as well as fear that I had waded into a study that was going to make a lot of people unhappy (which it has). At length, however, the Little Rock project just reached out and grabbed me and wouldn’t let me go. To my great good fortune, my work led me into a friendship with Annie Abrams, one of Little Rock’s leading advocates of interracial harmony and an old friend of Daisy Bates. Through Annie, I developed routes of access into and a deepening understanding of black Little Rock. Also, Minnijean Brown Trickey (one of the Little Rock Nine) has become a real friend, as has Elizabeth Eckford (the stoic black child in the iconic photograph of Little Rock). I can’t pretend to understand the experiences these women have had, and an entirely different book could have been written from their perspectives, but through their generosity, they have helped me enormously to bridge the gap between my world and theirs. For me, it has been one of the most enriching experiences of my life.

TC: Betsy, this is great. I thank you.

Could you delve a little more into the actual process? From making contact, determining your questions, how you conducted the interviews—and if anyone said no (or just clammed up during the process) and how you dealt with that.

The actual interview process involves making contact, usually by phone, then followed up by letter with more of the specifics. I used to make extensive lists of questions before the interview, but I learned quickly that the interviewee will lead you off into uncharted waters and that the best approach is to let him or her run in the directions that suit them—at least until you have established rapport and given the interviewee a chance to get on record whatever he or she thinks is of importance.

The hardest part of the interview is to get your tape recording equipment set up quickly and as unobtrusively as possible, so that you and your interviewee can kind of forget about the fact that the tape is running (this always makes folks self-conscious). They will usually be nervous, so I always start with an open-ended question (one that can’t be answered with a yes or a no) and let them run with it as long as they want. Then I start to steer the interview into the subjects I want to be sure to cover. I save any delicate questions for the last quarter of the interview, and by then my subject is usually comfortable with me and willing to be forthcoming. Of course you never offer judgments on anything they share with you, you never contradict or correct them, and you never go off on tangents of your own (and sometimes that’s hard).

As a general rule, interviews should not last longer than an hour or so, because most folks get tired and lose interest in the process. The great exception to this rule is Justice Jim Johnson, who is now in his late eighties and who will still be going strong after three hours! I have interviewed him two dozen times because he is an absolute font of information, and also because he is incredibly honest with me—telling me the bad things about himself as well as the good! For my purposes, however, most people have told me all that I needed to know from them in about an hour.

Only one person has refused an interview with me, and that is Melba Patillo Beals, one of the Little Rock Nine. She wrote a powerful memoir titled Warriors Don’t Cry, and she thinks that’s all that needs to be said on the subject of the Little Rock crisis. She does not believe that someone who was not inside Central High School in 1957 could possibly have anything to say of value, but of course if she’s right, all historians would be out of business. I hope my book demonstrates that there are many perspectives on any historical moment, and that it broadens our understanding of the concept of “truth” to examine any incident from multiple points of view.

Governor Orval Faubus had been interviewed so many times by the time I sat down with him that I found his responses to be fairly rehearsed. I came back for a second interview ten or fifteen years later and tried to steer him away from some of the pat answers he had been giving for years. He said at one point “there are things that I know that I’m not going to tell you unless you ask me about them,” and of course this was very frustrating to me! Apparently he took many of his secrets to the grave.

The standard practice in the oral history business is for the researcher to have the interviewee sign a release form giving permission to quote from the interview and use it in subsequent printed work. Many presses require this legal documentation before agreeing to publish your work, and many libraries and archives require it as well before accepting interviews for deposit. After the interview, the researcher then transcribes the tapes (or pays someone to do it), and amazingly enough, one hour of tape requires about eight hours of transcribing. This is what makes oral history programs so expensive.

Ideally, the transcribed interview should be returned to the interviewee for editing and corrections, but since I did not have a staff to help me with this part of the process, I rarely returned my interviews for correction—and sometimes I did not even edit them myself. I conducted well over a hundred interviews, and maybe half of these yielded one or two tidbits each that found their way into the book.

The same is true of archival research. You might spend weeks in a particular collection and then use just one or two bits of information from that research trip. This can be very frustrating, but you have to immerse yourself in information to get a feel for how it all fits together. It is not unlike putting a puzzle together, or solving a mystery.

TC: This is wonderful, Betsy. What is your next project?

EJ: Well, my son is on the list for a kidney transplant and that is consuming all my time.

TC: You know our thoughts and prayers are with you. Thank you so much for taking the time for this interview.

Final Poll Results

All in a Day’s Work:
Should Writing be a Job?

Absolute Blank

By Erin Nappe (Billiard)

In On Writing, Stephen King calls writing “just another job like laying pipe or driving long-haul trucks.”

Some writers balk at that statement. Writing? A job? But isn’t writing supposed to be about the joy of creation? Following your muse? I think the answer is yes. And no.

Most of us have a love/hate relationship with writing. We want to create, but it can be tough to find the time/energy/persistence to actually do it. And whether you write fiction or nonfiction, a little or a lot, it’s a matter of deciding where you want to go with your writing. There’s nothing wrong with treating writing as a hobby, but if your goal is to make money as a writer, it takes discipline.

We interviewed three authors—two established, and one working hard to get there—to get their take on writing as a job.

Author John Scalzi has been a full-time writer since he left college, first writing for a newspaper, then as an in-house editor and writer for America Online. He’s been a freelance writer since 1998 and has published a dozen books. Two of those books, Old Man’s War and The Last Colony, have been nominated for the Hugo Award.

YA author Laurie Halse Anderson has been writing full-time since 2002. Her books, including Speak, Catalyst,and Twisted, have won numerous awards. Prior to being a full-time writer, she wrote early in the morning while working freelance jobs and other part-time jobs to make ends meet. “I made the transition the first time I got an advance that (with much penny-pinching) could support me for a year,” she says.

Seanan McGuire, a mid-level manager in a non-profit customer service center, is working toward becoming a full-time writer and recently signed with an agent. McGuire has been published, although “not, as yet, in my chosen genres (or that I’ll admit to).” She writes primarily horror and urban fantasy.

TC: Do you keep a regular writing schedule?

JS: Theoretically I write long-form work in the morning while my daughter is at school and short-form work after she comes home and wants attention. In reality, it all sort of mixes in together. I am trying to become more scheduled, however.

LHA: I write minimum of six hours (this can increase to 16 when the deadline pressure is turned up) a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

SM: During the work-week, I write from seven to nine every day except for Thursday, when I have my weekly “girl’s night out.” On the weekends, I do two four-hour blocks, split between the two days. Sometimes more, if I have edits to process.

TC: How much time do you spend on the “business” of writing?

JS: I spend about an hour a day on it. It mostly consists of e-mailing my agent or editor or clients. Sometimes I have to travel for work, which of course takes up more time. but when I’m at home, and hour a day usually does it. It helps that my wife handles a lot of the financial end of things, because that’s what she’s good at and has training in.

LHA: At least 25 hours a week, often more. Correspondence with readers takes up the bulk of it. Preparing for travel to conferences (tons of email, plane and hotel reservations, correspondence with committee members, speech and presentation preparation) takes up a lot, too. I have cut way back on my travel, but still spend about 60 days a year on the road. Website updates, interviews, and research for new books also happen every week.

SM: Currently, about two to five hours per week are spent contacting agents, formatting submissions, and pursuing representation. It’s a small amount of time, but it’s a tiring one.

TC: Should would-be writers treat writing as a job?

JS: If people feel it’s best to pursue writing as a hobby or a part-time thing, who am I to try to convince them otherwise? Lots of very excellent writers held down other jobs or wrote primarily for recreation and enjoyment. Also, you know. Writing for a living is hard, and generally it doesn’t pay well.

LHA: A career in the arts is not for everyone. It’s more demanding and less financially rewarding than most people realize. If you love the work, you’ll get a lot out of committing yourself body and soul. But there is nothing wrong with making your writing into a piece of your life, instead of the whole thing.

SM: I find that writing is always work, if you want to get it right; it takes time, effort, dedication, and focus. I work harder at writing than I do at almost anything else, and I’d rather have the time I currently spend on other people’s projects to devote to my own.

TC: What advice would you offer to would-be writers?

JS: 1) Be aware of your audience. The vast majority of the time, when you’re writing professionally, you’re not writing for yourself, you’re writing for an audience—specifically (most of the time) an editor who is looking for writing of a certain nature or function, and in a more general sense to a larger readership that is looking for something specific… 2) You have time. So long as you don’t intentionally step out in front of a bus, chances are pretty good you’ll make it to 70 or 80 or some bone-deteriorated age like that. That being the case, what are you worried about? Enjoy yourself. Enjoy the process of writing. and 3) You’re a writer. Prepare to be broke.

LHA: Do it for the love, not the money. But if you decide to make it into your career, structure your life frugally, so the ups and downs of the unpredictable market won’t hurt as much.

SM: Learn to take critique, even when it’s hard. Learn to focus. Trust your story. Follow the market. Read. Write. Adapt. Also, you’re not as good as you think you are… but you could be, if you work hard enough to get there.

King’s On Writing has even more advice for any writer trying to make it. He says that all writers should have a private writing space, with the ability to shut out all distractions. He recommends sticking to a schedule, and setting concrete goals.

“The longer you keep to these basics, the easier the act of writing will become. Don’t wait for the muse,” says King. “Your job is to make sure the muse knows where you’re going to be every day from nine ’til noon or seven ’til three.”

And ultimately, figure out how you define success. Are you happy writing fanfiction to share with your friends, or do you aspire to the New York Times Bestseller List? Set goals that make sense for you, and stick to them.

Final Poll Results

Interview with Trenton Lee Stewart, Author of The Mysterious Benedict Society

Absolute Blank

By Mollie Savage (Bonnets)

There are many joys working in a bookstore, among them when an author walks in and asks if we’d like him to sign the books of his that we have on the shelves. That was how I met Trenton Lee Stewart, author of Flood Summer and The Mysterious Benedict Society. Trent is a local fellow. In his own words: “I grew up in Hot Springs, Arkansas, went to a small liberal arts school called Hendrix College, and finally attended the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I continued to live in Iowa City for several years while my wife finished work on her Ph.D., after which we moved to Cincinnati, where I worked at the public library and also did some teaching. Both of my published novels, Flood Summer and The Mysterious Benedict Society (a children’s novel) were completed while I lived in Cincinnati. Last year we moved back to Arkansas, where I now write full-time—most recently on a follow-up to The Mysterious Benedict Society due out in 2008.”

The Mysterious Benedict Society is hugely successful. Here’s an interview with him.

Interview with Trenton Lee Stewart

TOASTED CHEESE: How did you get your start as a writer?

TRENTON LEE STEWART: I wrote occasional stories and poems beginning in elementary school and continued until college, where I began to write fiction in earnest. Afterward I was accepted into the graduate creative writing program at the University of Iowa, spent a couple of years discovering how little I knew about craft, and then spent several years more working various odd jobs as I tried to figure things out. During that time I published several stories, but I also wrote a lot of fiction that would never be published. I suppose it all amounted, in the end, to a start.

TC: What’s the first thing you published?

TLS: The first thing I ever published was a story I wrote in college about a man who falls overboard, unnoticed, in the middle of the ocean. He is certain to die (probably by drowning, though he also fears shark attack), and the story deals with his final hours. I sold it for five dollars to a tiny amateur literary journal now long since extinct. The most interesting thing about this story, though, is that some years later, flipping through an anthology of horror stories a co-worker had pressed on me, I came across a story that was almost identical to the one I’d written. Though I was stunned by how similar the two stories were, there could be no question of plagiarism, because the anthologized story had been written almost a century before, and by none other than a young Winston Churchill. My wife said this just proved I have a great deal in common with famous world leaders.

TC: That’s a great story. Do you drink brandy every day like Churchill? 😉

TLS: I’m pretty sure that story was the only thing Churchill and I have in common. I like brandy, actually, but rarely drink it. My beverage of choice would have to be strong coffee with a little milk. That’s something I do drink every day, with the occasional latte thrown in for good measure.

TC: I’d like to add that you are most diplomatic, another thing you have in common. Moving on, tell us about your path to being published.

TLS: It was a fairly straight path, but with lots of steep hills. My early interest in reading, and in words in general, helped me to excel in my English classes. I received lots of encouragement about my writing from teachers along the way, which led me to focus on it as a possible vocation. I studied literature and took a couple of writing courses in college. After that it was a matter of applying myself relentlessly to writing, to sending out my work again and again, and to accepting innumerable rejections as part of the path.

TC: About your path to getting published—tell us more about the entire process.

TLS: I’ve sold all my short stories myself, but years ago a friend of mine referred me to a good agent, who liked my work and with whom I developed a rapport. He wasn’t enthusiastic about selling Flood Summer, though—this happens a lot, actually; an agent may like your work yet not be excited enough to commit to trying to sell it—so I ended up selling that myself (to SMU Press). But I got in touch with the agent again when I finished The Mysterious Benedict Society, and he loved it and sent it out right away to several different editors. It was a bit dream-like. Within a couple of weeks I was talking to editors—more than one wanted the book—and deciding which publisher I wanted to go with. A rare situation and certainly nothing like my previous experience trying to sell my work. And by sheer coincidence, both Flood Summer and The Mysterious Benedict Society were sold at virtually the same time (six weeks apart).

Both book editors wanted some revisions, so I was suddenly extremely busy. I finished Flood Summer first, after a few months of work, and it came out a year later. SMU is a university press without deep pockets, of course, so although they produce handsome, high-quality books, and are able to place some ads and send out review copies, much of the marketing ultimately depends on the author’s own motivation. I have writer friends who have arranged countless readings and signings at bookstores and universities and really get the word out there, but when Flood Summer came out I had two small children, a working spouse, and another pressing deadline, and I didn’t feel capable of more than a few readings and an interview or two. Still, I expected, or at least hoped, that it would receive some additional attention as a result of the publicity for The Mysterious Benedict Society (and it has).

The Mysterious Benedict Society was different. I spent a year, off and on, revising and editing it. The editors would suggest changes, and I would make changes, but the draft still wouldn’t feel quite right to everyone involved, and we’d go back to work. To be honest it was a very difficult process even though I liked my editors. Eventually it was finished, though, and Little, Brown put an enormous amount of energy and a lot of money into marketing it. Promotional mailings, websites, etc, and they sent me to do signings and meet prominent booksellers and librarians both before and after the book came out. I also was sent on a tour doing bookstore signings and talking about the book to students in schools.

TC: In Mysterious Benedict Society you use some delightful names that reflect the characters’ and places’ personae: Constance Contraire, Ledroptha Curtain, Nomansan Island, to name a few. Talk about your process of naming.

TLS: It began with wanting to make the names distinctive and memorable, then developed into an enjoyable exercise in making most of the names hint at or reflect something deeper, such as a personality trait or a thematic joke. I set out in writing this book to have fun, to give myself freedom to fool around and be playful, and the naming process ended up being part of that. A lot of minor characters would have mundane, place-holder names at first, but eventually most, though not all, of them earned a more interesting moniker.

TC: There are so many elements in creating an engaging story: plot, setting, character, theme, point of view, conflict. Where do you begin?

TLS: Most of the time I begin with a scene, or part of a scene, that has occurred to me and engages my interest—often it’s an unusual visual image or an unusual interaction between characters. I suppose conflict is at the heart of it, but it might be anything, really. If this scene or partial scene holds my interest, I’ll eventually start wondering what led to it, and what would follow it, and what kind of people would be involved in it. In other words, plot and character usually develop, more or less simultaneously, from some other element that drew my interest.

TC: Do you see writing Young Adult fiction as your future? Is Mysterious Benedict Society an ongoing series?

TLS: I see it as part of my future but not all of it. I’ve almost completed a second Mysterious Benedict Society book and intend to write a third (and final) one, and I would like to write still more children’s books, which afford their own particular pleasures. At the same time, I have always written fiction for adults and love doing that, too, so I imagine (and hope) I will continue to write both.

TC: Do you have a particular, or peculiar, writing schedule?

TLS: It’s shifted frequently over the years to fit my circumstances. I’ve stayed up late, gotten up early, whatever made sense at the time. More recently I write every weekday, usually starting in mid-morning and finishing in the mid-afternoon, with some breaks throughout.

TC: What do you most/least enjoy about your job?

TLS: I love writing the first draft of any project—from arranging ideas and scenes into a rough plot to the actual crafting of sentences—no matter how difficult. The second or third draft, whichever one requires the most destruction in service of producing a better work, tends to be my least favorite stage of the process. But on an everyday level, what I enjoy least about writing is having to stop.

TC: Have you ever experienced writer’s block? If so, how do you break through?

TLS: It seems to me that writer’s block is not so much a lack of ideas as it is a flare-up of perfectionism: the writer doesn’t want to put something bad on the page, and everything he or she can think of seems bad. When this happens to me (as it occasionally does) I remind myself that the act of writing is different from thinking about what to write, that if I will just start laying down prose I will probably discover something to help me move forward. I may need to discard what I’ve written, or it may reveal to me that I need to be writing something different, but one way or another the act of writing tends to eliminate the act of fretting before a blank page.

TC: Why do you write?

TLS: It’s a natural outgrowth of something I’ve always done. Even before I could write—in fact even before I could read—I created elaborate stories in my head. I called it “thinking,” and I would shush my family if they were being too loud while I did it. I loved making up stories, then, and this led to writing them down, which (once I gained some competence) I also loved—and still do. If I didn’t love it I’m sure I wouldn’t still be doing it, because it’s a hard thing to do, with too many inconveniences, frustrations, and risks. So while it may seem too simple an explanation, I suppose the answer really is that I write because I love it.

TC: What is your advice for writers who want/hope to be published?

TLS: I can offer specific advice only to fiction writers, but more broadly I can say that nothing is more important than the writing itself, so you need to feel confident that what you’re sending out is as good as you can possibly make it. Beyond that, the key ingredient is perseverance, by which I mean insane stubbornness. You have to accept—even embrace—rejection as part of the process. If you can stomach that, and you work and work, your chances of eventually being published are helped immeasurably.

More specific advice for fiction writers: If you’re trying to sell short stories, don’t try to talk editors into liking your work. They’ll either like it or they won’t. Your cover letters should be professional and brief. If you don’t have any publications to your credit, fine: just say thanks for considering the enclosed story and be done with it. No gimmicks. The writing must speak for itself.

For book-length fiction, finding an agent usually helps, but you still have to send your very best writing, and you still have to be ready for rejection.

The Novel and Short Story Writer’s Market, Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market, and Guide to Literary Agents are all updated yearly and are a really good starting place for publishing information.

Final Poll Results

A Surreal Life:
Interview with Stephen W. Simpson

Absolute Blank

By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

“This is a huge honor. It’s also kind of surreal—I started posting my stuff on TC with my tail between my legs, feeling a bit unworthy.” This is how Steve Simpson prefaces his answers to the questions I posed to him in an email interview last month.

A few years ago when Steve a.k.a. Macfisto started posting at the Toasted Cheese forums, he was an unpublished writer working on his first novel—with all the typical insecurities that entails. He soon endeared himself to us with his consistently helpful posts at the forums and by writing a great article about finishing said novel. Eventually, we invited him to join the editorial board. For the past few years, Steve has judged the fall Three Cheers and a Tiger writing contest along with Boots and Ana.

These days it’s hard to imagine Steve feeling “unworthy.” In addition to his day job as a clinical psychologist, he writes two regular advice columns and recently had his first non-fiction book published. Two more are in the works. As if that’s not enough, he and his wife Shelley are also the parents of four toddlers.

Steve’s come a long way since his first tentative posts at Toasted Cheese and we at TC are immensely proud of his accomplishments. So when he said he was looking for a way to give back to the community, we couldn’t think of a better way than for him to share his journey and success with TC’s readers.

Toasted Cheese: I know you’re one of those Mac people. But come on, admit it, PC is funnier.

Stephen W. Simpson: The PC guy is funnier, but I bet it’s not so funny when you have to live with one of those skittish Windows boxes. At our last conference, Rick’s Dell wouldn’t play a DVD he needed to show. I handed him my Power Book and said, “When are you gonna learn?”

TC's Amazon Store TC: What’s not funny about tech snafus during presentations? That’s comedy gold!

Kidding aside, your first (published) book, co-authored with Ryan Howes and Richard Rupp, is What Wives Wish Their Husbands Knew about Sex: A Guide for Christian Men. Tell us about the process of co-writing a book. Who came up with the idea? Did you actually write together or did you each write different parts of the book? I think our readers would also like to know how you found your publisher and how long the whole process—from idea to print—took.

SWS: All three of us came up with the idea, because sexuality is a focus in our clinical work. I already had an agent shopping around another book, and he agreed to represent us for this. Then he went MIA for over three months. He didn’t return calls or emails and then his answering machine was disconnected. I thought we’d been duped. Then, lo and behold, he pops up again and gets us a contract two months later.

We each wrote different chapters, then all three of us worked on making sure everything hung together. At first, I thought working with two other authors would make the process easier. We got the first draft together pretty fast, but after that a lot of, um, “discussion” took place about what we wanted the book to be. We even argued over the cover and title options the publisher gave us. In the end, however, I think the book is better for it. None of us could have written it alone.

The whole process, from the idea to having the book in our hands, took about two years.

TC: What Wives Wish… came out in April of this year. You and your wife Shelley became parents to quadruplets in May 2005. So that means the writing of the book coincided with the first two years of your children’s lives. Tell us how you managed to write a book while parenting four kids under two and maintaining a private practice (and you were teaching Clinical Psychology for a while there, too, I believe).

SWS: By sleeping only four hours a night and mainlining caffeine. We proposed the book before Shelley was pregnant. Though I was ecstatic when we got the contract, it really couldn’t have come at a worse time. I usually started work after our night nanny came on duty around 11 p.m. I read a warning on a can of Red Bull that said you shouldn’t drink more than four a day, but I discovered that it’s no problem if you don’t mind the heart palpitations. At work, sometimes I’d shut the door to my office and pass out on the couch.

Steve_Family.jpgShelley and Steve with the kids earlier this year. By the way, Shelley’s also a psychologist—the kids aren’t going to have a chance with teenage angst!

TC: I guess that experience must have taught you a lot about time management. You currently write two columns—”Ask the Man Shrink” and “God on the Ground”—for Divine Caroline. Tell us about the columns and explain how you find the time.

SWS: “Ask the Man Shrink” is what Dear Abby would write if she were a man and a wise-ass. Divine Caroline is a women’s web site, so the idea is to offer the male perspective along with advice from a psychologist. “God on the Ground” is about finding God in places that you wouldn’t expect. It’s my favorite of the two, but the harder to write. It forces me to pay attention to my spiritual life, because, if I don’t, the next column will suck.

I don’t “find” time to write—I make time. I block off at least two hours every Thursday afternoon. It helps that they’re paying me.

TC: So that’s the secret. Speaking of payment, you’ve already got contracts for two more books. Your second book is about dating for Christian men. Tell us about it.

SWS: A few years ago, there was an “anti-dating” movement in evangelical Christianity that said a couple should remain friends until they’re certain they want to get married. My book is a bit of a reaction to that. It’s also a bit of a con in that the book’s not totally about dating—it’s about identity and self-esteem. A lot of men (and women) believe that love will fix everything. The first part of the book talks about getting a life before you try to get a love life. The last part of the book helps Christian guys—and I can’t think of a better way to say this—have more “game.”

TC: You recently got your third book contract after an editor read an article you’d written about the first year with your quadruplets and asked for a book proposal (very cool!). This one is going to be a memoir. What can you tell us about it? Have you started writing it?

SWS: The working title (which I’m sure the publisher will change) is Quadruplets and Accomplices: Tales of a Cynic Assaulted by Joy. It describes the spiritual journey of someone (me) who starts off passionate about his faith, becomes cynical and disillusioned, and then discovers God again. Unlike a lot of Christian memoirs, this book talks about how difficult it is to be a Christian because it means having a relationship with a God who’s mysterious and sometimes aggravating. Shelley’s pregnancy and the first year with the quads was the pinnacle of my confusion and frustration with God, but then he used the experience to help me rediscover joy. A lot of people who were once excited about their faith become cynical after having hurtful experiences with religion. This book is for them.

I just finished the first draft. It’s due to the publisher the day after Labor Day, so I’ll be rewriting the rest of the summer.

TC: Which of your writing projects (whether complete, published, or in-progress) is your favorite and why?

SWS: So far, this memoir. I’ve had more fun writing it than anything else. I also think it’s a paradigm-changing work of genius, but that’s only because I just finished the first draft. I’ll probably hate it next week. Other than that, my Three Cheers and a Tiger story has a special place in my heart. I remember writing it—it was one of those times when the adrenaline keeps pumping, filling your brain with ideas. It was also my first fiction publication, something I’d been chasing for years. When I got the email saying that I’d won the contest, I grabbed Shelley and started dancing around the house.

TC: The memoir sounds like it shares a lot of themes with your first novel, Playing in the Thorns, which you wrote an Absolute Blank article about finishing in November 2003. Playing in the Thorns was very much a classic first novel, in that it was based on your own teenage experiences. How important was it for you to write that story? What’s happening with that project now? And do you have any new fiction in the works?

SWS: It was very important for me to write that novel, but for different reasons than I thought at the time. It was a bit therapeutic, of course, but it also taught me a ton about writing and publishing. Since I received well over a hundred rejection letters, I learned to keep my expectations low after sending off a query letter. Just ask my co-authors—whenever a publisher would look at our proposal, I’d tell them, “Don’t get your hopes up. It’s probably not going to happen.”

I’m afraid that first novel is quite dead. It has its moments, but it kinda sucks overall. If I ever want to tell that story, I’ll have to start over from scratch.

As far as fiction goes, I don’t have much going on. Over the last few years I’ve had to accept the fact that I’m a better nonfiction writer. That’s my focus right now. But I have notes for a short story I hope to start after I’m finished with the memoir. I love the writing I’m doing now, but publishing a novel is still the big dream. However, I’m not going to try to come up with an idea for one anymore. If I write another novel, it will be because an idea whacks me on the head that’s too good to ignore.

TC: In “The First Novel Marathon” you said that both marathon running and novel writing require “set[ting] a schedule and stick[ing] to it.” You must be good at setting schedules: you ran five marathons and finished a novel while working full-time, and finished What Wives Wish… while parenting four toddlers. Tell us about your writing habits. And have you run any marathons since the quadruplets arrived?

SWS: I’ve heard a lot of people say that you need to write every day, but I can’t do that. I need a reason to sit down at the computer, even if it’s just a fleeting inspiration for a short story or an article. Once I set my mind to a project, however. I set aside specific times to work. When I’m doing a first draft, I need chunks of at least two hours. Of course, getting a contract helps. When I’m getting paid something—even if it’s peanuts—it’s easier to give up time that I could be using to see clients. I used to write at night, but that’s a lot harder nowadays. I’m too wiped out at the end of the day to do much more than veg in front of the TV.

Marathons? Bah! Running 26 miles is cake compared to parenting four toddlers. Only recently did I start running regularly again. And it hurts more now! So no more marathons for the foreseeable future, though I’d like to do a half sometime in the next year.

TC: In your Divine Caroline bio, you say your favorite mistake was “parking my car in the wrong place at a U2 concert and then running into Bono and the Edge when I went to move it.” So we have to know: did they say anything to you? (Or you to them?) I know U2 is your favorite group, but what other music do you like? Do you listen to music while you write? What would your “Writing Mix” playlist have on it?

SWS: They signed autographs but didn’t say anything. I was too dumbfounded to talk, so I can’t blame them. As they were walking away, however, I lost control and shouted, “God bless you!” The Edge shook my hand, though. Haven’t washed it since.

Right now, I’m listening to Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible over and over. It’s the best record I’ve heard in years. In general, I’m an out of control music fan. I have 7,000 songs on my iPod. When I’m writing, I listen to either baroque music or hard rock like AC/DC. If I’m working on a long section and I know exactly where it’s going, the hard stuff helps me pound it out faster. If I’m finding my way, I don’t want anything too distracting.

TC: Baroque or AC/DC. That is a truly awesome juxtaposition.

In your TC bio, you say you were inspired to write by J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Have any other writers inspired you since then? What current writers do you enjoy?

SWS: My favorite writers actually discourage me. For example, I love Robert Penn Warren and Orson Scott Card, but they leave me thinking, “I couldn’t write like that if there someone held a gun to my head.” Lately, because of the stuff I’m writing, I’ve been reading a lot of Anne Lamott. There’s also a guy named Rob Bell who writes about faith from a perspective similar to mine, except that he has about a hundred times more depth and wisdom. Every sitting with either Lamott or Bell includes moments of delight alternating with pangs of envy.

TC: In “The First Novel Marathon,” you mention Stephen King’s On Writing. What other resources (books or otherwise) have helped you with your writing?

SWS: Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird is a good resource. Stunk and White’s Elements of Style is good to have on your shelf. Other than that, it’s all Toasted Cheese, baby.

TC: I can’t argue with any of those.

When you wrote your first (vampire!) story in seventh grade your teacher said, “Keep this up and you’ll write a novel someday.” You’ve said that her words “haunted” you, so you wrote a novel. How important was your teacher’s encouragement in terms of your writing? Has anyone else acted as a writing mentor for you?

SWS: If Mrs. Travis hadn’t said that to me, I don’t think I’d be answering your questions right now. It was the first time anyone ever said anything good about my writing. My handwriting was (um, is) atrocious, and that doesn’t go over well in grade school.

I’ve had several writing mentors—Miss Keen, my high school journalism teacher, had a huge impact. Some other friends and professors have been important. But Theryn Fleming [I did not pay him to say this. –TF] and the folks at Toasted Cheese have done more than all of them combined. I’m not even saying this to butter you up or plug TC—you guys changed the way I think about writing.

TC: Aw, thanks. It means a lot to hear that. Now, since I’m a little verklempt, let me turn it back to you.

You have an interesting and varied background: you started college with an interest in journalism, but ended up with an M.A. in Theology and a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology. Somehow you’ve managed to combine all three. There’s lots of advice out there for people writing “on the side,” that is, writing while working at an unrelated day job. What advice can you give people who are trying to combine writing with another career?

SWS: Four things: Structure, patience, passion and being open to feedback.

You need to make writing a structure in your life, even if it’s just a couple hours every week. Anne Lamott says that if you write just one paragraph a week, you’ll have a book in two years. You just have to be consistent. I’ve met so many people who say they want to write a book—and have the talent for it—but it never happens because they don’t make the time. If you have a career, family, school, etc., time to write a book isn’t going to suddenly materialize. You have to be intentional about it.

You also need patience. Expect rejection notices, especially at first. You also have to be willing to write for free. When you do get paid, it won’t be very much. Along these lines, you have to be passionate about writing. It almost needs to feel like you don’t have a choice. A lot of the publishing game is about perseverance.

Finally, you have to listen to what other people say about your writing. It’s great to hear compliments and praise, but constructive criticism is what makes you a better writer. Stephen King says that if ten people read your work and they all have different feedback, you can ignore all of them. But if five of them are complaining about the same thing, you need to fix it.

TC: Great advice. Well, that about wraps things up. Well, except for one final question…

(Steve and his co-author Ryan Howes host a weekly podcast at their website Fun Christian Sex. The week I tuned in, they were bemoaning the lack of hymns about sex. So, of course I had to ask…)

TC: Will you write us a hymn about sex? There don’t seem to be any.

SWS: Actually, Ryan is working on one. At our seminars, he plays a blues song about the traditional Christian view of sex. It’s titled, “No, no, no, no, no, no, no.”

TC: Thanks, Steve.

Final Poll Results

Interview with Brian Koscienski
and Chris Pisano,
The Drunken Comic Book Monkeys

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

There’s a scene in This Is Spinal Tap when Nigel Tufnel shows director Marty DiBergi his guitar collection. The exchange is:

Nigel: Look— still has the old tag on, never even played it.
Marty: You’ve never played…?
Nigel: Don’t touch it!
Marty: Well I wasn’t going to touch it. I was just pointing at it.
Nigel: Well, don’t point! It can’t be played.
Marty: Don’t point, okay. Can I look at it?
Nigel: No. No. That’s it. You’ve seen enough of that one.

The first time I encountered a true comic geek was in my dorm room in college. Brian Koscienski was dating my roommate and he brought over a prized comic. I can’t remember why. He insisted it be handled in a certain way. We should set it on some kind of clean, natural cloth. We use tweezers or tongs to turn the pages, if we must turn the pages. That we not breathe on it too much or speak when looking at it for fear that we might get a drop of spit on a page. We shouldn’t even look at it too much or expose it to light. As I sat with the comic on a pillow and turned the pages with a Kleenex, I realized he was the Nigel Tufnel of comics.

His obsession paid off. Today he and his writing partner Chris Pisano are successful independent comic book writers and publishers. They also churn out a print literary journal that has gotten some very good reviews. Fifteen years after he accompanied me to my first comic book store, Brian and Chris were kind enough (or intoxicated enough) to grant a joint interview to Toasted Cheese about comic writing, collaboration, editing, publishing and drinking. Mostly drinking.

The Drunken Comic Book Monkeys

TC: What do you write individually?

BRIAN: Not much, any more.

CHRIS: He won’t let me.

B: Actually, it’s more like we just don’t have time.

C: Yeah, that’s it. He makes me write haiku against my will.

TC: How did you decide to collaborate on the comics?

B: Well, that’s an interesting story.

C: Actually, it really isn’t.

B: Yeah, you’re right. I’ll try to make it as painless as possible. About five years ago, we decided to collaborate on a novel. Until that point, we’ve known each other for about ten years, but didn’t know either of us were writers.

C: We’re men. We share feelings as often as Britney Spears wears underwear.

B: Exactly! Well, I started reading comics when I was six, but stopped during the nineties. But three years ago, I happened to pick one up for the heck of it (Alias #1) and saw how far they had come along since the last time I read one. I then went to Marvel’s website to find out more about the series and stumbled upon one of their imprints called Epic, which put out a call for writers. So, I discussed it with Chris…

C: He threatened to put limes in my beer

B: …and we decided to write some scripts for them. Epic folded, but we decided to start writing scripts with our own stories and characters.

C: I thought you said you were going to make it painless?

B: Fine, smart guy! You get the next question.

TC: Tell us a little about how your collaborative process works. Like do you write separately and combine or do you write together from word one?

B: This isn’t going to go well.

C: Well, it depends on the project. If it’s a short story, we discuss some loose ideas, then one person writes it while the other fills in the holes. If it’s a comic book script, one person usually handles it, but with a ton of input from the person. If it’s a novel, he’ll bang out 1500 words, put the characters in an impossible situation, hand it to me and say, “Your turn.”

B: Oh, I’ve only done that once!

C: Yeah, once per chapter!

TC: How does the other guy respond to criticism?

B: Very well. That’s one good thing about knowing each other for so long; we know what to say to each other and how to say it.

C: Translation—I make him cry. A lot. But, all in all, we both want to put the best story out there, so we know that we each need to make concessions for that to happen.

TC: Are your styles different or similar? How do you think that affects the process and the final product?

C: Our styles are very different, but very complimentary. I’m a student of gothic literature while Brian has a more straightforward business approach.

B: Chris is by far the better writer, but I’m the better storyteller. We just focus on our strengths and everyone’s happy. Okay, next question before I start singing Partridge Family tunes.

C: He’s the Dean Koontz to my Henry James…

B: If only we were that good.

C: True.

TC: Tell us a little about your comics (the stories, the backstories of the ideas, where they go next).

C: We have about 14 or so in various stages of completion, so I guess we should just stick with a couple we have in Fortress Presents #1?

B: Yeah, unless you want to be the one to type the 100,000 word epic saga.

C: I think I’ll pass. Probably the most popular of the book is “Gladiatrix.” As one would guess by the title, it’s about female gladiators. However, instead of taking a sleazy T&A approach…

B: Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

C: …we decided to do a lot of research and make it historically accurate. One of the things that caught our interest was the fact that when women stepped into the arena, they did so of their own free will. We wanted to really explore that type of personality. Our main protagonist, Leona, participates in the games hoping to some day win the freedom of her brother, who is also a gladiator.

One of the other stories in FP #1, one that we broke out into its own publication, is “Thought & Control.” We’ve been getting a lot of positive feedback from this story, especially by “non-comic book” people. Basically, it’s a story about siblings, Jason and Jessica. Jason is telekinetic and Jessica is telepathic. Instead of putting them in spandex and having them fight crime, we put them in the real world. They aren’t hyper-righteous, determined to rid the world of evil. Nor are they evil themselves. They’re simply using their abilities to better their own lives.

B: Of course, once word leaks out about them, there are quite a few people interested in exploiting them. Lots of action and guns. Of course, the best way to learn about the stories from Fortress Presents #1 is to pick up a copy at

TC: How do you find artists for your books?


B: We pretty much have to make ritual sacrifices and regular deals with Satan. Actually, finding artists is no problem; the Internet makes that very easy. However, finding ones willing to work for the pay we can offer is quite a challenge. That’s one huge downside to being small press—we have no money and can’t afford anything.

C: So, if there are any artists reading this and would like to submit something to us, you can at iliveforcomics at As stated, we can’t offer a lot of money, but we’re fun to work with and we do work hard.

TC: When you write a comic, do you write what you want the art to be for a certain panel or do you give the artist complete freedom?

B: We write in full script format. We give the number of panels per page and detail the action in each panel.

C: However, we trust the artist’s vision. If he/she sees something different, then they have a lot of freedom to implement those ideas.

TC: When it comes to writing comics, did you learn by doing or did you have a teacher of some kind (for example, a course in comic book writing or books on comic writing)?

C: We’ve both taken writing classes in school. General stuff, mostly short stories and whatnot.

B: And I go to a monthly writing group, which helps for receiving feedback.

C: And I’m just blessed with natural talent.

B: Is that what it’s called? I thought it was bad enchiladas. Anyway, comic books are just like any other medium—you need to learn story telling, plot, characters, etc… first before you can really start.

C: And, it doesn’t hurt to have been reading comics for 30+ years either, old man. Or an addiction so bad that you buy at least ten titles each week.

B: True. As for script style, I happened to find a sample script online and just adopted that style of formatting.

TC: Could you give us an idea of the process of creating a comic?

B & C: Alcohol!

B: It’s like anything else; you do what you’re comfortable with. If you like to go freeform, then just come up with a general idea and start typing. For me, I like to outline the whole issue first. For comics, it’s pretty easy to do that, since each issue is typically twenty-two pages long.

C: Nope. For me it’s alcohol. And trips to Hooters.

TC: Tell us about your upcoming anthology project.

C: What project?

B: It’s still in the embryonic stages. We’ve recently had the pleasure of working with a group of editors who have done a similar anthology and approached them about doing one for Fortress.

C: We did?

B: Right now the working title is Cry Havoc and it will be a collection of short stories.

C: When did this happen?

B: The basic premise is man vs. machine vs. monster. We will definitely keep everyone posted on its progress.

C: Except, apparently, me!

TC: Tell us about Blue Line Star, your book, including how to pronounce “blue line” ;).

B: Well, this is really my fault.

C: So is the deteriorating ozone layer, thanks to your penchant for Taco Bell and Corona.

B: We stumbled upon a short story contest, the typical “write a story about this picture” kind. Well, the picture was a girl sitting on a robot. As a side note—my muse is a total insufferable witch, with a capital “B”! The type that wakes me up in the middle of the night demanding me to write, or making me start another project as I’m waist deep in others. So, Blue Line (pronounced Bluh-leen) is a sci-fi story about my muse. I have no idea how I came up with the name or title. Like I said, it’s all about my muse. However, I have noticed that now I’ve written a story about her, she lets me get some sleep.

C: However, his muse now keeps me awake at night, wondering what insane plan she’s coming up with next!

TC: You guys write a lot of weekly columns, for Silver Bullet Comics, Comic Avalanche, Absolute Write. Where else?

C: There have been a few others like and Pandora’s Gate. Even more, but unfortunately the websites have folded.

TC: Do you also keep a blog?

B: My muse won’t allow us.

TC: How did you get involved with writing all these columns?

C: It started with just chronicling our experiences of starting our own publishing company. We were rather surprised that there were no good, all-inclusive resources. There are a few books about self-publishing, but nothing truly personal from people who have done it. We just wanted to fill that gap.

B: It just snowballed from there.

TC: On to your journal, Trail of Indiscretion. How did you get the name? Why did you decide to start a journal?

B & C: Alcohol!

C: Sadly, that’s not an inaccurate statement.

B: And I still can’t spell “indiscretion” without spell-check.

C: Well, we were at our Happy Place, the one place where the pure esthetics brings out our most creative nature—that place being Hooters—and we just brain-stormed over a pitcher or two or five of beer and came up with Trail of Indiscretion.

B: That seems a bit anticlimactic, I know.

TC: What do you publish?

B: Well— if it’s a story about a 13-year-old girl named Mary coping with the change to womanhood while poignantly reflecting on the recent passing of her favorite aunt Gertrude, we don’t want it! Now, if Mary is the 13-year-old daughter of a vampire cowboy who stumbles upon a government conspiracy involving aliens and unicorns while investigating, hard-boiled style, the grisly murder of her favorite aunt Gertrude, then we’ll take a look at it.

TC: What are your plans for the journal?

B: We recently upgraded the printing, so it’s a square-bound book now.

C: Within a year, we hope to push it into an 8.5 x 11 format, as well.

B: And we are applying for an ISSN number. Hopefully, we can incorporate a barcode, too.

C: Then we can begin to infiltrate the world!

TC: Why did you decide to create Fortress Publishing, Inc. and how did it get its name?

B: I did a great deal of research on the various types of businesses out there and a corporation seemed most suitable to us.

C: He was worried about being sued!

B: Who isn’t?

C: As for the name—Marvel Comics is commonly referred to as “The House of Ideas.” Well, after getting another story idea rejected by them, Brian in a drunken fit blurted out, “If they’re the House of Ideas, then we’re the Fortress of Ideas!” And the name “Fortress” just stuck with us.

B: I drink. A lot.

TC: Tell us about your logo and who created the art.

C: I’ve done work before with the standard coat of arms and thought that would look cool. Unfortunately for the world at large, I was encouraged.

B: I’ve always been fascinated with heraldry and was sort of thinking along the same lines anyway.One of our artist friends agreed that they work really well.

C: And Dirk said he’d do it.

B: There is that. One of the artists we work with regularly, Dirk Shearer, who drew our comic book covers and did the interior art for “Gladiatrix,” among other pieces, worked up the logo for us. We loved it! He sketched it on a napkin for us. He was talking about making changes when I gave Chris the signal.

C: Which is when I snatched up the napkin and ran for the door. Dirk’s fast for an artist, but when he caught me I chastised him for not finishing his beer, so after distracting him, I made a clean get away. We’ve used the original piece ever since.

TC: What’s next for Fortress Publishing?

C: World domination, of course!

B: Well, once we get the anthology ready and revamp our magazine again, then hopefully we can get a distributor and start getting merchandise on the bookshelves of America.

C: I’m thinking our future will probably hold more beer and hot wings.

TC: Who are your favorite comic and graphic novel writers and artists? How do you discover new or new-to-you comics?

B: My favorite writers are Brian Michael Bendis and Brian K. Vaughan. And I like them for more reasons than just having a great first name!

C: I’m not entirely sure I have a favorite, but I do enjoy some of Vaughan’s work. As far as discovering new comics, I just let Brian do that.

B: Yeah, if there’s something new on the shelves, I’m addicted enough to pick it up and try it out.

TC: As comics and graphic novels have become more mainstream, have you noticed a change (for better or worse) in the quality of the work?

B: Absolutely. I think once the cover price moved away from what kids with $10 a week allowances could afford, comic publishers realized only adults could afford them, so the story telling is geared more for adults. Spider-Man is not for children anymore.

C: Not only that, but technology as given more creators access to each other as well as the means to produce some very nice works. I mean, if schlubs like us can do it, anyone can!

TC: I hear that you’re minor deities in the comic world, or so it seemed at the Pittsburgh Comicon last month (there was a line at the table). Are you always that popular at cons?


C: I didn’t know having one customer raised our status to “deity” level.

B: We have a good time at cons. We go to meet people and have fun. We’re excited about our work and I think people see that, which gets them interested in what we have to offer.

C: Plus, we have haiku for a nickel. Seriously, who can resist that?

TC: How many cons a year do you attend and how far from home do you travel for a con? What is the con experience like on your side of the table?

C: For 2007, we have five lined up. Not only the Pittsburgh Comicon, [which was] in April, but we’ll be at the Baltimore Science Fiction Convention in May, another one in Pittsburgh called Confluence in July and then back to Baltimore in September and October for The Baltimore Comic book Convention and The Small Press Expo. We’re hoping to attend more in 2008, maybe hit ones in Ohio and Jersey.

B: We did go out to the San Diego Comicon last year. Had a blast and discovered our new favorite city—Tijuana.

TC: What is your most cherished comic? You know, the one you store in a museum sleeve and handle with white cotton gloves and special tongs.

C: Well, Fortress Presents #1, of course, because I’m one of the writers of it. I have no shame. I should, but I don’t.

B: From a collector’s stand point, I’d say Tales to Astonish #44—the first appearance of the Wasp. From a reader’s view, I’d say the 1985 miniseries Squadron Supreme, which really laid the groundwork for some of today’s storytelling, by putting real word sensibilities in with the super heroes. And Avengers #158 for nostalgia purposes—my first.

TC: Can you be bribed by aspiring writers and/or fans? If so, with what?

C: Pffft! Oh, hell yeah!

B: Well, not when it comes to magazine submissions. We accept stories based solely on the quality of the story. However, the turnaround time and level of detail in the response we give can be swayed.

TC: What advice do you have for anyone who wants to start a journal, comic or small press publishing company?

B: You need three Ps—planning, perseverance and patience. Even if you describe yourself as a person who crashes through life with reckless abandon, you need to plan. Plan what to do, plan contingencies, then plan for everything else. And make sure you have a plan for when all those plans blow up in your face. It’s tough and that’s why you need perseverance. Things will go wrong. You need to buckle down and fight your way through the tough times. And success doesn’t come overnight. The lottery does but the Fates are the ones who determine which blessed few win. Odds are, it ain’t you. Stick with it, and be patient. Come up with plans for this, year, the next year and the year after. Just because you don’t need a college degree to be a writer doesn’t mean you shouldn’t treat it as a job. And, of course, have fun with it.

Final Poll Results

Au Paris: From Blog to Book

Absolute Blank

By Mollie Savage (Bonnets)

Au Paris - Rachel SpencerThis is a story about serendipity. A young woman bored with work lands a dream job as a summer nanny in Paris, her previous employer allows her to blog about her adventure on its website, a book editor reads the blog, a little over a year later a book is published.

Au Paris is Rachel Spencer’s memoir about her whirlwind time as a Parisian nanny. In Rachel’s words, here is her story of blog to book.

“Why don’t you write for us?”

I had been working in the advertising department at the Houston Chronicle for about three years when I decided to resign from there to pursue graduate studies at the University of Arkansas, with a summer in Paris in between. It was May 2005 when I resigned. The day I told my manager my plans to leave, she told her boss, Stephen Weis, who is now the Executive VP/GM of

When I told Stephen I really wanted to write—and I had even thought of trying to get a travel column going through the Arkansas Traveler, my school paper—he suggested I write for the Chronicle instead. I remember his casual, can-do, energetic but laid-back expression when he said, “Why don’t you write for us?” as if writing for one of the nation’s largest newspapers was something anyone off the streets could just take a stab at.

I laughed a little but he assured me he was serious. He told me to contact Jeff Cohen, the executive editor, and tell him my plans. Mr. Cohen, as I called him, was kind and witty and rather prompt in his reply. He’s a jovial, flirt of a guy who wears bow ties regularly and in doing so, manages to look both debonair and astutely academic. He directed me to Scott Clark, the only VP of at that time, who was strictly editorial. Scott came from the print side where he was the Business Editor. I would have much rather exchanged ideas with Mr. Cohen.

Scott’s right-hand man and the technology columnist, Dwight Silverman, was in the early stages of developing blogs on There were just a handful then, all written by editors of the paper and maybe one or two in the archives from reporters who had gone to some offshore destinations.

Dwight and Scott were skeptics—and they had to be. But Dwight was thirsty for hot online content and, as much of a tech geek as he is, is a real romantic. I think he applauded my gumption to quit my job, flee the country temporarily, and return to my first love (writing). So I persuaded Dwight, and Dwight stroked and courted the idea to Scott. I don’t think I ever had a face-to-face conversation with Scott until after Dwight had already, unofficially, granted me permission to write a blog on

It took a series of “interview” posts and a series of critiques and second chances from Dwight, but eventually, they said yes. Scott was still skeptical whether there would be any reader relevancy, but they took the risk. The opportunity to even write for and hold my own blog—the first by someone other than editorial staff—was a huge dream come true for me.

“I think your blog is amazing…”

Au Paris (the blog) did well, and exceeded expectations. It often ranked number one above the other blogs and received daily comments from readers worldwide. I was on a combined high from writing, living in Paris and fulfilling dreams by the end of the summer.

Dwight took me to dinner when I returned to Houston; I was leaving for Arkansas the next week to settle in before grad school started. We sat at Maggiano’s Restaurant and talked about future plans. He asked me if I could do anything after the unexpected success with the blog, what would it be. I told him I wanted to write a book based on the blog and include all of the things I just couldn’t fit in while I was in Paris busy taking care of the kids.

Dwight looked doubtful, but encouraged me nonetheless. He told me to high tail it to New York City and just start voraciously reading anything and everything. I left dinner with stars in my eyes, no doubt. So much of what I’d always wanted had already happened and I felt satisfied and inspired.

The next day, I went to the Chronicle to say farewell to friends and to thank those who helped with the blog. As I was stepping on the elevator, my cell phone rang. It was Dwight. He wanted me to come back in his office.

When I rounded the corner to his office, his face looked aghast. I wondered if some reader had posted an inappropriate comment or something. But then, why would Dwight need to show me that to me?

He called me to his desk. “Look at the screen,” he said. “Read that.”

The screen was indeed displaying a comment from a reader, but it wasn’t an inappropriate one.

I used to have it memorized verbatim, but the comment went something like this:

Hi, Rachel. My name is Danielle Chiotti. I’m an editor with Kensington Publishing in New York. I think your blog is amazing and I’d love to talk to you about book ideas. This is the only way I could find to contact you. Please feel free to contact me at…

Before I could say anything, Dwight read my mind and said out loud, “I didn’t write that!”

“Is this a joke?” I said, still stunned.

Dwight was just as stunned. Instinctively he began googling “Danielle Chiotti” and “Kensington Publishing New York.” We were both amazed to find real results. This was a real editor at a real publishing company and, we thought, we hoped, she really wanted to talk to me about a book deal.

Dwight, being the overprotective father-type by that stage of our mentor/student relationship, told me to let him handle the initial contact, and I was fine with that. I was too shocked to know what to say.

I had an official book deal.

In a matter of days after Dwight’s contact with Danielle, I was on the phone with her myself. I don’t remember much—it was one of those adrenaline-pumping moments when sheer elation blurs the memory. I do know that very quickly, I was agreeing to a 65,000-word non-fiction manuscript with a December 15, 2005 deadline. (It was early August.)

Dwight handled the agent part too and within a couple hours of his first email to an agent he knew, I was on the phone with the agent, giving him a fax number where he could send the author-agent agreement form.

I moved to Arkansas despite the new whirlwind turn-of-events, but I was quickly moving further from thoughts of sitting in a classroom. It was August ninth when I moved to Arkansas and I hadn’t registered for classes. I wasn’t going to grad school, but I hadn’t said it out loud yet.

On August 23rd, I received confirmation that I had an official book deal. In the days in between Danielle had pitched the idea and my platform to her boss and company. I had no other work but my blog, so I know she had to pull some strings and beg a lot of people to trust her. That same day, Danielle was named a Senior Editor of Citadel Press—the imprint on my book within Kensington Publishing—and my book, Au Paris, was her first under her new title.

The agent negotiated my contract, the advance, the royalty percentages, etc. I was in complete trust of a stranger because I had neither the knowledge nor the legal resources to find out on my own whether his negotiation was fair. (It was; it’s a first
book—you can’t complain!)

The whole process was an extremely personal, risky, emotional process for both Danielle and me. We had a very close working relationship and both learned a lot along the way. I missed the December 2005 manuscript deadline and several other deadlines after, but we still made the publication date. The book was released in December 2006.

What were the challenges of turning your blog into a book?

The contract for the book stated that all work must be previously unpublished material, based on the blog. There were a couple of occasions where I used sentences or perhaps even paragraphs from the blog simply because I had already written exactly what had happened, but the book is actually quite different. Not to mention that I think maybe one or two sentences total in the published edition of the book survived without any editing.

Two things made writing the book extremely difficult: one, chronology, and two, that I was living in Fort Smith, Arkansas at the time I was trying to mentally, physically, and emotionally place myself in Paris and then in several places throughout France.

The chronology part is difficult, I’ve heard, for any writer and requires quite a bit of training to master. My editor was constantly correcting my tense and reminding me that, for instance, if I arrived in Paris yesterday on a Saturday, today cannot be Monday morning with three family dinners under my belt. Things like this are very difficult for me to sort out and place correctly and accurately in the writing. This inhibited my writing more than I expected.

After you had the contract with Kensington, what was the editing process like?

Rough, but fantastic. I couldn’t have had a better editor. (Well, obviously. She is the reason I have a book published!) She was extremely patient, motivating, and honest with me. I could have stood for her to have been even more honest, as I was regularly begging for someone else besides myself to tell me how wretched my writing was. There was a lot of insanity while working on this project—besides the fact that I’d never attempted a book before, we were editing the manuscript as I was writing it. I now know that if I really want my style and voice to shine through, I need to have a finished manuscript before any editors snatch up my work. Of course, that is the normal process.

Danielle had to work very hard with me to extract action and sequence of events and plot from my overly descriptive, and often passive, writing. We referred to Stephen King’s On Writing to work through the passive voice mistakes, and I wished I could have read and studied that well before we began the book.

Additionally, my book was Danielle’s first project as a senior editor at Kensington, so we were both invested emotionally and personally throughout the writing and editing process. The success of the book was just as important to Danielle—if not more—as it was to me. Working with someone whose stakes were as high as my own was the foundation I needed to accomplish the often-intimidating challenge of writing my first book.

In brief, I wrote the first seven chapters of the book to meet my first deadline. I think I had about three months to do this. About three weeks went by before I received the first round of edits back. Almost every word on every page was red-lined, if that says anything about the editing process.

A few words from editor Danielle Chiotti:

Blogs are not often cohesive narratives. Rachel’s blog was not the bulk of the book. After I received a chapter from her, I would line edit and send it back to her. We talked over each revision.

What I liked about her blog was that it was not forced; it showed she was having fun, yet was a fish out of water. There was a realness that every woman could relate to.

Read Au Paris:
Au Paris Blog
Au Paris: True Tales of an American Nanny in Paris

Final Poll Results

Interview With Kevin Brockmeier

Absolute Blank

By Mollie Savage (Bonnets)

Kevin Brockmeier is the author of two novels, The Brief History of the Dead and The Truth About Celia, a short story collection Things That Fall from the Sky, and two children’s novels, City of Names and Grooves: A Kind of Mystery. His stories have appeared in many publications, including the New Yorker, McSweeney’s, the Georgia Review, the Carolina Quarterly, The Best American Short Stories, The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, and multiple editions of The O. Henry Prize Stories anthology. He has received the Chicago Tribune‘s Nelson Algren Award, an Italo Calvino Short Fiction Award, a James Michener-Paul Engle Fellowship, three O. Henry Awards (one, a first prize), and an NEA grant.

Kevin was born in Hialeah, Florida and moved to Little Rock, Arkansas with his family at the age of four. He attended Parkview Arts Magnet High School, earned a BA in Creative Writing, Philosophy and Theater from Southwest Missouri State University (now Missouri State University) with a year at University of Ulster in Coleraine, Northern Ireland, and an MFA in fiction writing from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, University of Iowa. Kevin is 33 years old.

I met Kevin shortly after I began working at an independent bookstore in Little Rock, Arkansas. As I was ringing up books on the cash register, my co-worker Georgette said, “This is Kevin Brockmeier; he gets an author’s discount.” We chatted for a bit, then he and Geo talked about the movie club they belong to. What a friendly fellow—I figured he must work for one of the local newspapers or magazines. Wrong! We had two of his books in the fiction section. Now we sport three and his current young adult title (City of Names is out of print). When his two recent books came out this year, we were lucky to host his first Arkansas book signing, and all it took was a phone call to Kevin: “I’d be delighted. I’ll let my publicist know the date.”

When it became apparent that my turn for an Absolute Blank article was due, I knew what it would be. When Kevin stopped by the store, I told him about Toasted Cheese and that I’d like to interview him. Even though we both live in Little Rock, and essentially in the same neighborhood, we decided on doing the interview via email.

Toasted Cheese: How did you get your start as a writer?

Kevin Brockmeier: As a writer or as an author? These are two separate questions. I suppose I got my start as a writer when I was seven years old, putting together mystery stories during my spare time at school. In these stories I was always the detective, and one of my classmates would disappear under suspicious circumstances, and I would solve the crime to the applause of my teacher and all my friends. They had titles like “The Case of the Missing Eric Carter” and “The Case of the Missing Miss Vinson.”

I got my start as an author, on the other hand—by which I mean to say a published writer, a writer with an audience larger than his own circle of personal acquaintances—when I was twenty-four and a story of mine, “A Day in the Life of Half of Rumpelstiltskin,” won something called the Italo Calvino Short Fiction Contest and was printed in a small magazine called Writing on the Edge.

TC: Do you have a particular, or peculiar, writing schedule?

KB: The writers I know have adopted such diverse tactics when it comes to their routines—or if not routines, then impulses—of composition that it would be hard for me to say there’s any such thing as a peculiar writing schedule. I myself try to treat writing as though it were something like a regular nine-to-five job, with the difference that I write every day of the week until I am finished with a project (or with some discrete portion of a project, if it’s a novel) before I give myself a break, rather than taking a two-day break every weekend. I find that it’s difficult to get the engines running again after even a short vacation, and also that my own sensibility changes by small increments when I take time away from my writing, so I’m hesitant to pause in the middle of a piece of work for fear that I’ll ruin it by subconsciously shifting my approach to the material.

I think it’s best to write when your mind is at its sharpest. For a long time, that has been the middle of the day for me, but lately I’ve felt myself perceiving things more acutely in the evening, so it might be that I’ll have to change my working hours soon.

TC: Tell us about your path to being published.

KB: After my first story was printed in Writing on the Edge, I continued publishing stories in literary magazines and a variety of other venues. I was working as an adjunct English composition instructor at a pair of local colleges, as well as running errands for a property management company, but I spent much of my spare time writing. I got a couple of grants that allowed me to work on my fiction a bit more diligently, and in time I managed to complete a story collection, a novel, and a children’s novel.

Then what happened was this: A friend of mine from graduate school had become a literary agent. He wasn’t my agent at the time, but we were still in touch. One day, he was having lunch with an editor from Random House and asked her if she had read any new authors she enjoyed recently. She said that, yes, she had read a story called “These Hands” in the Georgia Review by a writer named Kevin Brockmeier, and though she had never heard of him before, she really responded to what he was doing. My friend said, “I represent Kevin Brockmeier.” And that’s how I fell blindly backward into acquiring both my first agent and my first editor in the course of a single lunch meeting.

This will be of no help, I realize, to anyone seeking practical advice on finding a path to publication, but it is what really happened to me.

TC: What do you most/least enjoy about your job?

KB: I enjoy many things about writing, not least of them the pleasure of communicating some part of my vision of the world to other people and the simple experience of tinkering with words. What I most enjoy, though, I suppose, is the day following the moment when I finally reach the last sentence of a story. There’s a brief window of time when I know that I’ve satisfied the pattern I set out to create and I’ve not yet started to sift through a story for its flaws that is tremendously gratifying.

What I least enjoy about my job—hands down—is the traveling involved with the publicity phase. I like visiting bookstores, giving readings, and meeting people who have read or are interested in reading my books. But I travel very poorly. I quickly become exhausted when I have to spend time away from home, from my bed and my familiar routine. I start to degrade, both physically and psychologically, and I cease to feel as though I’m experiencing my life as much more than a passive spectator. If there were a way for me to step out of my door and simply appear in whatever city I was visiting, then step back home at the end of the night, I would be much happier. What I need is a Star Trek-style matter transporter.

TC: Have you ever experienced writer’s block? If so, how did you break through?

KB: I’ve certainly experienced times when I wasn’t writing, but I think that’s natural—and that it can, in fact, be productive for a writer to let his mind lie fallow for a while. I believe the best thing to do during those periods is read, tinker with the stories you’ve already written, and work on other types of writing, more personal and less rigorous forms like letters and journal entries.

That said, I write very, very slowly when I’m engaged in a project, and I’m not sure how easy it would be for me to distinguish writer’s block, whose most salient feature, as I understand it, is the long gap between one story and another, from my actual process of writing, whose most salient feature is the long gap between one word or one sentence and another.

TC: Why do you write?

KB: For me, the most honest answer to this question would be that I write out of gratitude for all the books that have spoken to me over the years.

TC: You said you sift through a story for its flaws. What is your sifting, or editing, process?

KB: Most of my editing takes place as I’m working through my first draft, though to call it a “first draft” is something of a misnomer, since I tend to revise each sentence many times before I move on to the next, each paragraph many times before I move on to the next, and each page many times before I move on to the next. I progress very slowly to the end of the story, in a series of tiny overlapping waves.

Because I work that way (a method I don’t recommend, by the way, since it’s very slow and painstaking, but one that I haven’t been able to avoid), my stories have usually reached a state that’s fairly close to their final form by the time I complete the last sentence. My final editing process, then, involves reading back through them to look for any infelicities, imprecisions, or contradictions I might have missed along the way.

When I first pick up a finished story for that last edit, after a day or two of rest, I usually see nothing but such problems and wonder what on earth I’ve been doing with my time. My way out of this is to search through the story for some one sentence that seems fixed in a kind of beauty. Once I find it, the rest of the story seems to crystallize out from that still point, and I’m able to look at it with a more generous, less jaundiced eye.

TC: This year you had two novels published in the same month, a novel called The Brief History of the Dead and a young adult novel called Grooves: A Kind of Mystery. How did you juggle writing the two? Or was it just your agent’s work, in order to maximize publicity and save you from two tours?

KB: I always follow up each book for adults with a book for children, but I’m never actually working on the two simultaneously. I’m the type of person who finds it hard to set one project aside (or even one sentence aside) until I feel that I’ve made it what it can be. That said, both of my thus-far-published children’s novels (there’s a third that still hasn’t made its way into print) have been released immediately following a novel or a story collection. In part, this is because it’s taken me longer to sell my children’s fiction. But at least in the case of Grooves, I suspect it’s also because my editor sensed that The Brief History of the Dead was going to garner a certain amount of attention and felt that that attention would help the sales of Grooves. My children’s publishers have never had the money to send me on an extensive tour, in fact, but I’ve made it a point to publicize those books independently whenever I’m on the road.

TC: There are so many elements in creating an engaging story: plot, setting, character, theme, point of view, conflict. Where do you begin? Does it vary with each project?

KB: Someone else asked me this question recently, so I’ve given it some thought. I believe I begin each story first and foremost with an idea. Sometimes that idea is an element of the plot, sometimes it’s the psychology of a certain character, sometimes it’s a metaphor or symbolic device, sometimes it’s a particular narrative strategy—anything at all. It might sound as if I’m ducking your question, but I mean it when I say that when a story truly begins to take shape, and more than that to excite me, it always presents itself to me above all else as an idea I feel compelled to explore, even when that idea is something as amorphous or continually shifting as a character or a sequence of events.

That said, I’ll never actually begin writing a story until I’ve devised a title to place at the top of the first page. I once heard somebody describe the title as “the target toward which you shoot the arrow of the story,” and that’s a notion that makes a lot of sense to me. Without a good title, I feel I don’t know what a story is supposed to be. Sometimes I’ll even formulate the target before I’ve got the arrow, which is to say that an intriguing title can occur to me months or even years before I understand what sort of story it’s meant to accompany (as was the case, for instance, with “Love Is a Chain, Hope Is a Weed,” the last section of my novel The Truth About Celia).

TC: You’ve taught writing in many venues, including the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. What advice do you offer to beginning writers?

KB: The advice I offer usually arises naturally—or at least I hope it does—from the stories we’re discussing in any given class. A couple of ideas I’ve been mulling over recently, though, are (1) that any narrative (or any piece of writing at all, really) will either adopt the sentence or the paragraph as its smallest unit of complete meaning, stacking one on top of the other to make the steps by which it moves forward, and it can be useful to determine which sort of narratives you’re most comfortable with or skilled at producing, and (2) that every writer of worth places his concern in at least one of these three things: in fidelity to the language, fidelity to his own obsessions, or fidelity to the human experience. Many of the best writers locate their faith in all three to varying degrees, but as long as a writer is sufficiently devoted to at least one of them, he’s doing the kind of work that I can respect.

TC: When you have a signing you often share your favorite books and I think movies. Would you share your top ten of each with us?

KB: Gladly. My top ten of each (in no particular order) are as follows:

Ten Favorite Books

  • The Baron in the Trees by Italo Calvino
  • Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
  • All the Days and Nights: The Collected Stories by William Maxwell
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  • Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars by Daniel Pinkwater
  • A Death in the Family by James Agee
  • The Complete Short Stories by J. G. Ballard
  • The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
  • Orthodoxy by G. K. Chesterton
  • The His Dark Materials Trilogy by Philip Pullman

Ten Favorite Movies

  • Ponette
  • City of Hope
  • In America
  • On the Waterfront
  • Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
  • Elling
  • Running on Empty
  • The English Patient
  • Frankenstein
  • The Muppet Movie

Some other time, you can ask me for my lists of favorite albums, songs, stories, foods, beverages, restaurants, words, human beings, states of being, years of my life, topics for lists, etc.

TC: Thanks, Kevin. I owe you a large ginger ale… Canada Dry, Vernor’s, the organic one Georgette loves, or other? Vernor’s is my fav.

KB: Let’s go with the Vernor’s.

TC: There will be a six pack of Vernor’s at the bookstore with your name on it Tuesday.

Yes, he came in on Tuesday: “I’m here for my ginger ale 😉 and to order some books.”

Final Poll Results

Grabbing a Bite
with MaryJanice Davidson

Absolute Blank

By Erin L. Nappe (Billiard)

What do you get when you cross Buffy’s attitude, Angel’s “vampire with a soul” schtick, and Carrie Bradshaw’s designer shoe fetish?

Well, you might get something like Betsy Taylor, the heroine of MaryJanice Davidson‘s popular “Undead” series.

For those not familiar with the series, here’s a quick overview: 30-year-old Betsy is hit by a car and wakes up in the morgue. She discovers that she is a vampire, but a strange one… sunlight doesn’t hurt her, she can touch crosses and other religious articles without pain, and she isn’t consumed by the urge to feed. As it turns out, these are the very things that make her the prophesied Queen of the Vampires. She teams up with “tall, dark and sinister” Eric Sinclair, a sort of vampire king, and you can guess what happens next.

Davidson is incredibly prolific, having published 26 books in four years, with 7 coming out in 2006 so far. (“I type fast,” she says.)

Undead and Unpopular, the fifth book in the series, was released this month, and we here at TC had the chance to pick Davidson’s brain.

Toasted Cheese: How long have you been writing professionally?

MaryJanice Davidson: I quit my SDJ (Stupid Day Job) three years ago and have been writing full time since. It was frightening to contemplate, since I’ve had “real” jobs since I was 16, and Minnesota was in the midst of a terrible recession at the time, and my SDJ was a good one (Ops Manager). Everyone encouraged me to keep my job and keep writing at night, except my husband, who told me to go for it. And once I did it I never looked back. And once my editors knew I was writing full-time, they went out of their way to try to find me lots of work. They knew I had a family to feed.

TC: What’s the first thing you ever wrote? Published?

MJD: The first book I ever wrote was The Adventures of the Teen Furies and, coincidentally, it was the first book I published (the e-publisher HardShell Word Factory bought it, and it’s still in print, both as an e-book and as a paperback).

TC: How long did it take you to get published?

MJD: Years and years. I’ve been writing since I was 13, submitting since my early twenties, and I’m now 36. I have a stack of rejection letters from just about every romance publisher out there: Harlequin, Silhouette, Warner, Avon, Little Brown, Dorchester.

TC: What writer (or writers) do you admire? Is there anyone in particular that inspired or influenced you?

MJD: Stephen King (I love his rags to riches story), John Sandford, Laurell K. Hamilton (another rags to riches story, plus she was a single mom for quite a while), Carl Hiaasen (funniest writer ever), Ann Rule (amazing depth of research for her true crime stories), Charlaine Harris (just an outstanding writer in general, and such a nice lady in person, a total sweetheart!). I’m pretty eclectic; I read across genres. Frankly, I admire any writer who managed to get published; it’s a tough business.

TC: What about the “paranormal romance” genre interested you?

MJD: I love vampires, werewolves, fairies, witches… the idea of having “super powers” is just fascinating to me. What must it be like to be immortal, to be super strong, to see in the dark like a cat, to do magic? Fascinating.

TC: Was there any real life inspiration for Betsy?

MJD: I guess, maybe me. I’m six feet tall, like Betsy, and a jerk, like Betsy, and self-absorbed. I didn’t want a “Mary Sue” heroine, the type who can do no wrong. What I like about Betsy is that not everybody loves her; in fact, she irritates the hell out of a lot of people. Also like me!

TC: What are you currently working on?

MJD: I just finished SLEEPING WITH THE FISHES, my new paranormal series about a grumpy mermaid who doesn’t like to swim and is allergic to shellfish. And I’m working on another Alaskan Royal book, THE ROYAL SURPRISE. (What if Alaska was never bought by the US, was its own country and had its own royal family?)

TC: Can you tell us what’s next for Betsy and Sinclair?

MJD: Well, the wedding (if all goes well). Betsy really wants an “official” ceremony as opposed to the Book of the Dead simply stating she and Sinclair are mated for a thousand years. Whereas Sinclair thinks the idea of a ceremony is just ridiculous; they’re already husband and wife according to vampire lore. And Betsy badly wants a baby, which is a little tricky, since her ovaries stopped working the day she died. And she still has a lot of vampires to win over; many of them think Sinclair is the real power behind the throne, and she’s just a fluke. When, frankly, it’s the other way around.

TC: Do you have any advice for our readers?

MJD: Never ever ever give up. If I had quit submitting any time during those 15 years, I would never have made the New York Times list. I’d never be writing full time and, frankly, I wouldn’t have gobs of money. It’s a tough business, but persistence is definitely rewarded.

Billiard Recommends: Undead and Unwed

More MaryJanice Davidson:

Final Poll Results

Writing Flash Fiction:
Interview With Brevity Editor
Dinty Moore

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

The new interest in flash is due mostly to the emergence of e-zines and other online publications. People are also buying more anthologies than in days past. Most e-zines accept flash; many specialize in flash or are flash-only. You can write flash in any genre from sci-fi to erotica. You can also write flash that’s non-fiction or creative non-fiction.

In searching for markets for your flash, look for related terms like sudden fiction, micro fiction, and postcard fiction. Brevity editor Dinty Moore says, “For fiction, I prefer sudden fiction, and for nonfiction, I am using the term short-short or sudden nonfiction. I suppose the terms don’t really matter, but what I want to get away from is the idea that short works come out in a ‘flash,’ or as mere sparks. They take development and they take time.”

Misconceptions about flash

Flash is easy. Flash is hard, harder than longer fiction to write. Writers who enjoy a challenge should tackle flash. “Making something so short a complete literary event takes skill, care, and attention,” Moore says.

Any short-short is flash. This is the most common misconception about flash. Flash is not about length alone. There is no set word limit for flash. If you’re writing for a certain publication, follow their word limit guidelines. I’ve published flash ranging from 100 words to 500 words. Some journals allow flash that’s close to 3k.

An excerpt from a longer piece, if short enough, is flash. “One of my pet peeves is the writer who sends me work and says, ‘Here is an excerpt from a longer piece that might suit.'” Moore says. “First of all, that phrasing shows a lack of confidence. Second of all, I don’t want an excerpt, I want a whole.”

Flash differs in its style, structure, word choice, etc. from longer fiction and an editor can spot a excerpt from a larger non-flash piece. If you’re looking to meet a word count, you’d be better off shortening a piece originally written as flash.

Flash is flexible in terms of storytelling conventions. Even though you’re writing flash, you still need to tell a complete story in terms of structure, character development and resolution.

Dashing off flash pieces will give you a greater quantity of stories to submit and a higher number of credits. This may be true but just because a piece is short doesn’t mean it requires less time to write. Poetry writers can attest to this. Just as a good poem can take years to finish, a flash story can take more time than a novel for a writer who’s particular. You may get immediate gratification from finishing your flash sooner than you would have finished a short story but you may take longer to edit the piece, rework your word choices or simplify your storyline.

How to approach flash fiction writing

Word economy

It’s no wonder that Ernest Hemingway wrote flash; his economic style was perfectly suited for it. One of his most famous is only six words long: “For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.”

The most important aspect of flash is word economy. This is another example of how poetry techniques are important tools for all writers. Not only does word economy allow you to convey your ideas within your word count limits, it adds to the flash feel of your story.

Word economy is not about fitting your story into word count parameters. It’s about making choices that keep the writing tight and brief.

Moore says, “The successful short essay starts fast and moves quickly, but doesn’t sacrifice vivid language to do so.”

The help of a crit group or writing buddy can be invaluable for the flash writer, especially when first getting into flash. Often we pare down our stories to what we think are the bare bones only to have a friend return a critique with another couple dozen words trimmed off the count. For example, “blue-green” could become teal. “A worn pair of jeans” could be “worn jeans.” This kind of editing gets easier as you practice it, It will also help you tighten your longer fiction and make it more compelling.

Your story idea

“Often, the essay centers on a single significant moment (or idea, or metaphor).” Moore continues. “‘Single’ is important, because if there is a single significant element in the essay, that element can be explored and illuminated in 750 words (the word count limit at Brevity). If there is too much to say, nothing is fully drawn.”

Like any creative writing, you can begin with a story idea. Maybe your idea is based on a character, a bit of dialogue or a “what if?” scenario. The key to using your story idea in flash is to keep it small. A good rule of thumb is the bigger your idea, the bigger your work should be. Some story ideas are conducive to a novel, some are better suited to a short story. Write first, think about your length later. If your flash idea needs 5k to be successfully told, maybe it was never meant to be flash.

Better left unsaid

One trick of flash writing is knowing what not to say. Assume your readers will fill in the gaps. Leave off backstory and superfluous details. Make sure your connections flow and make sense without telling us what fills in the blanks. Moore says, “Some writers, perhaps frightened by the stingy word count, fall into the bad habit of preaching and explaining.” Show, don’t tell: the writer’s mantra.

Other tips

  • Begin with action; drop the reader into something already happening.
    • Ideas:
      • In the middle of a robbery.
      • During the fight that ends a marriage.
      • An elephant breaks loose at a circus.
  • Shock or surprise your reader. You only have a line or two to grab a flash reader, whereas a novel reader might keep going for a full page. Human nature guarantees that sex and/or violence should work.
    • Ideas:
      • Make a character nude—in public.
      • Open a box that contains a body part.
  • Push your reader hard toward the story’s end. Don’t give your reader a chance to stop and think about things. To paraphrase the King Of Hearts in Alice In Wonderland: Begin at the beginning, go on until you come to the end, then stop.
  • Don’t hold back. Say everything you need to say in your story. Don’t let the word count stop you from communicating. Use the restraints to present just what is necessary. Think of it like watching a magician. Instead of the old “nothing up my sleeve, nothing behind my back, nothing in the hat” spiel, you’re just saying “Voila! Rabbit!”

Words of wisdom

Moore offers this advice to writers who want to try flash: “Don’t write one short piece and hope it is wonderful and makes your reputation. Write ten rough drafts of ten different ideas; save one. Write ten more, save two. Then develop those three and see what you learn.”

Markets for flash writing

Dinty Moore’s next book is a the memoir BETWEEN PANIC AND DESIRE: NOTES FROM A SERIAL PROJECTIONIST, which “journeys from 1962 to 2006 in twin strands: my pathetic life, and major cultural moments.” He has also published Toothpick Men: Short Stories (now in a new expanded edition available from the author), The Truth of the Matter: Art and Craft in Creative Nonfiction, The Accidental Buddhist: Mindfulness, Enlightenment, and Sitting Still, The Emperor’s Virtual Clothes and edited Sudden Stories: The Mammoth Book of Miniscule Fiction. His personal site is

Final Poll Results

On the Art and Business of Writing:
An interview with Wendy Corsi Staub

Absolute Blank

By Erin L. Nappe (Billiard)

Last year, I picked up a new novel in Harlequin’s “Red Dress Ink” line titled Slightly Single by Wendy Markham. I was intrigued by two things; the author’s light, witty style, and the fact that the main character was from the geographic area I now call home.

I learned that Wendy Markham was a pseudonym for writer Wendy Corsi Staub, who grew up in Dunkirk/Fredonia, N.Y.—about 40 miles from Buffalo. I was soon captivated by another one of her books, In the Blink of an Eye—a thriller set in the nearby spiritualist community of Lilydale, N.Y. When I finished, I was inspired to write to Wendy and tell her how much I enjoyed her writing. Luckily for me, and for all of you reading, she graciously offered to chat with me.

Wendy majored in English with a minor in Creative Writing at the State University of New York. She sold her first novel at age 27, and she has published in several genres including historical and contemporary romance, television and movie tie-in, biography, suspense, and horror.

She is the author of more than fifty novels, published under her own name and three pseudonyms: Wendy Markham, Wendy Morgan, and Wendy Brody.

TC: How long have you been writing? How did you get your start?

WCS: When I was in third grade I wrote an essay about Abraham Lincoln and my teacher, Janet Foster, thought it was so good she read it aloud to the class, telling me I had real talent. I was encouraged by her reaction and went home and told my mom I was going to be an author when I grew up. I never wavered from that goal, believe it or not. I read everything I could get my hands on as a kid, and I’ve been writing “books” since elementary school, though I never finished one until I was in my twenties. I used to scribble chapter after chapter in longhand on that colored notebook paper that was so popular in the mid-seventies, ambitiously thinking that I would be the youngest bestselling author the world had ever seen. At least half that dream came true. I became a bestselling author…but not until I was in my thirties! I worked in a bookstore during college and moved to NYC right afterward, where I worked for several book publishers-always with the goal of networking and learning the book business inside out.

TC: When was your first publication? How long did it take you to get published?

WCS: Not counting the local newspaper column I wrote in high school and for my college newspaper, my first “real” publication was a poem in Seventeen magazine when I was twenty. They spelled my name wrong and I earned only $15, but I was thrilled.

TC: I noticed that you write in several different genres…do you have a favorite?

WCS: To be honest, while I love creating chick lit, romantic comedy, and young adult, suspense is my absolute favorite thing to write. I’m itching to finish my current project and get back to the new suspense novel I started a few months ago, because my books tend to be page-turners as I write them, not just as readers read them. Even though I know whodunnit, I can’t wait to see how, or why.

TC: A lot of writers have a hard time with the “business” of writing. Do you have any advice on the practical side of publishing?

WCS: If you’re going to write purely for your own pleasure and for the sake of art, then you can afford to think of your work as art. But if you’re going to write for publication, you have to think of your work as a product, which requires a certain level of professional detachment. Remember that you are a salesman, not an artist. You must have a thick skin. If a salesman’s product isn’t marketable, he doesn’t take it personally. He also should not be opposed to tweaking it until it works and should accept constructive criticism gracefully.

Too many beginning authors make the mistake of becoming too emotionally attached to the project they’re trying to sell, stubbornly refusing to adapt and write for the market’s needs, and then wondering why they’re not making progress. Pay attention to what’s on the bookstore shelves. More importantly, pay attention to what’s flying off the bookstore shelves. I’m not urging writers to engage in plagiarism, but it’s a good idea to note what works and what doesn’t, and which publishers are having success with which genres. Do your homework. Nothing turns off an acquiring editor more than a clueless or a cocky novice. I used to be an editor and I encountered more than my share of both.

TC: What writer (or writers) do you like to read?

WCS: I’m a big fan of nonfiction-biography, history, true crime. I have to read a lot of nonfiction as research so I rarely have time for pleasure reading. But I’m also a big fan of pop culture stuff and humor. Not cartoon humor, but humorists like Dave Barry. When it comes to fiction I love suspense—to name a few favorites: Harlan Coben, Lisa Gardner, Patricia MacDonald, Joy Fielding, and Tom Savage.

TC: Do you have any writing “rituals”?

WCS: Absolutely. I can’t produce fiction anywhere other than on my own laptop, on Word Perfect software, in my office at home. I can’t be wearing shoes, I must have a cup of coffee at hand, and one leg is always tucked beneath me, the opposite foot up on my chair in a comfortably contorted position. I write best when I rise at four or five in the morning, before the pressures of the day can “taint” my mindset. And when I’m on a deadline-which I always am lately-I have to have a set number of pages I’m going to accomplish that day. I don’t stop until I’m done. If I finish at noon, great. If it’s eight o’clock and dinner is over and I still have four pages to go, guess who has to miss Must-See TV?

TC: What advice would you offer to those writers struggling to balance writing and “real life”?

WCS: Discipline is the key. You have to treat your writing as responsibly as you’d treat an obligation to an employer. I would love to sleep in every morning and lounge around watching Matt and Katie till ten, but I make a point of hauling my butt into my chair without fail every weekday morning and most weekends. Writing is a fun and thrilling career, but it takes hard work to remain successful. I try not to answer the phone when I’m working, and I try not to let e-mail become a distraction. The one exception is my young children. If they need me, I drop everything. If they have a little league game or a cub scout program or school trip, I’m there, regardless of deadline pressure. They, and not my career, are “real life” right now. I love being a writer but Mommy is the most rewarding job of all.

Learn more about Wendy Corsi Staub and her writing at

Final Poll Results