How could two books be more different? Lisa Winkler’s success story

lisa author

Lisa Winkler has not one, but TWO books recently out on the market. And they couldn’t be more different. The first is a nonfiction story of one young man’s daring journey, and the second is a collection of essays from women bloggers who share their innermost thoughts and posts with the rest of us.

Here at Books New Haven, we’re always ready to celebrate books by local authors, and Lisa was born and raised in Killingworth, where her father was a poultry farmer and the entire family – Lisa’s mother, two sisters and brother – worked on the farm. After graduating from Vassar College, Lisa wanted to be a journalist. She worked as a reporter for the Hartford Courant and the Danbury News-Times, and then married and moved to London. She’s been a teacher and a writer, and is the mother of three children. And now that she’s also a grandmohter, she writes a blog at www.cyclingrandma.wordpress.com.

Welcome, Lisa, to Books New Haven.

tangerine tangocowboy book by lisa

Tell us about your new books.

Tangerine Tango: Women Writers Share Slices of Life is an anthology of short essays by women writers. Most of the writers I met through blogging and I invited them to submit essays, without giving them any theme. I received submissions that span the entire citrus spectrum, from sour to sweet. There are colorful slices of life: some sad, some nostalgic, and some humorous, about parents and parenting, childhood, food, farewell, jobs and journeys.

Where did the germ of the story come from? How did you first know you were going to write this story?

After publishing my first book, On the Trail of the Ancestors: A Black Cowboy’s Ride Across America, people asked me what my next book was about. I didn’t have one! Though I was looking for ideas. When I hit my one-year anniversary for my blog, Cyclingrandma, in April 2012, I thought it would be fun to put my favorite posts into a book. But that didn’t seem enough. So I invited several writers, mostly other bloggers I’ve befriended through blogging, to join the project. Along the way, a couple other writers contributed too.

Was the subject matter of the book related somehow to your regular job? Or is it
something quite outside your field that called to you?

My first book, On the Trial of the Ancestors, tells the story of Miles Dean, a New Jersey teacher, who rode his horse from New York to California to celebrate the contributions of African Americans to US history.

I met Miles Dean while working as an educational consultant in Newark and
believed Dean’s mission and message would make a compelling story. It’s a story that speaks to animal lovers, horsemen and horsewomen, armchair travelers, and with educators, parents and young people who are part of the African American community or connected with it. It’s available via my website: www.lisakwinkler.com, on Amazon, and in other book stores.

What did you most want to get across to readers that they might not have known about before you wrote this book?

As a teacher, I’ve witnessed how young people know little of history. In urban areas,
youth learn about slavery and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and a few more facts
during Black History Month in February. Yet they have little if any connection with
these historical figures. When I began my own reading after meeting Miles, I became
fascinated with these people whose contributions to the development of the US are
largely unknown. Most adults haven’t heard of these people. American history needs to
include all races and genders to truly demonstrate who built this nation, their struggles
and sacrifices and stories.  A cross country journey in itself is a story. From my research, I couldn’t find any other story of of other modern-day African Americans who have ridden a horse across the country with this purpose in mind. I loved the idea of this young boy
growing up watching western movies and television shows and dreaming that he too
could become a cowboy.

Did this book come to you easily, or did you have to wrestle it to the ground once or twice? Did you ever give up on it?

On the Trail of the Ancestors went through many drafts. It began as a first person
narrative and then I changed it to third person. After trying to find an agent and not being able to find out, I thought I should let it go. But something made me continue and I decided to self-publish the book. I felt it’s a great story that had to be told.

For Tangerine Tango, I really had a lot of fun collecting the essays and working with the
writers. Some were a bit more resistant to editing than others, but it all worked out.

Do you have a writing process you could share with readers, a way you like to proceed when you’re writing a book?
With any writing, you have to be passionate and committed to the process. With non-
fiction, I think you have to truly become obsessed with the subject to create a book. It’s
not like fiction—you can’t make it up! That said, I also believe it can happen—just don’t give up! It takes tons of patience, fortitude and sometimes luck to get published. With self-publishing there are many options to get your work out, but it’s a very tough (and can be expensive) road. Believing in your story is paramount. If you have passion for it, others will too. Also, there’s no “quick fix.” While an occasional book might sell hundreds of copies the first week, thousands the first month and so on, most don’t. I believe marketing really becomes a personal adventure: why would someone want to read my book? I view it as my journey: one sale, one reader, one book at a time. If you care about the book, you have to put effort into marketing it.

Was the research fairly easy to come by, or did you have trouble finding the sources you needed?

I ordered books from libraries and bookstores and read on the Internet too. I didn’t have
any trouble obtaining the resources. I reached out to several of the people Miles met and
conducted a few telephone interviews that helped my writing.

What has been the most satisfying thing about compiling this information and getting the book written?
For the first book, I truly believed in the story. I was (and still am) mesmerized by the
journey that Miles Dean took, and the history he brought to life in his travels.
With Tangerine Tango, it was just a fun project and has been a lovely gift book. The
proceeds are going to Huntington’s Disease.

What has happened since this book has been published? What kinds of reactions have you gotten?

The books have been well received and of course appeal to very different audiences. I’m
trying to get On the Trail of the Ancestors into schools. I’ve written a cross-disciplinary
Educator’s Guide that is free to download from my website. I taught these lessons to students when I worked in Newark and they were well received by students and staff.

What’s next for you? Will there be a follow-up?

At the moment, I’m not planning anything. I’m always looking for the next idea and
might do another anthology later this year.

The “real” Frank Sinatra from the guy who followed him for 60 years

Sinatra and Me

Sinatra and Me

Okay, not many people were allowed inside Frank Sinatra’s inner circle. But Tony Consiglio–of Sally’s Apizza fame–was a boyhood friend of Sinatra’s who remained his friend and confidant for over sixty years. One reason Sinatra valued Tony’s friendship is that he could be trusted: Sinatra nicknamed him “the Clam” because Tony never spoke to reporters or biographers about the singer. From the early days when Sinatra was trying to establish himself as a singer to the mid-1960s, Tony worked with Sinatra and was there to share in the highs and lows of Sinatra’s life and career. Tony was with Sinatra during his “bobby-soxer” megastar days in the 1940s, and he remained loyal to Sinatra during the lean years of the early 1950s, when “the Voice” was struggling with a crumbling singing and acting career as well as his tumultuous marriage to Ava Gardner. Tony also had a front row seat to Sinatra’s comeback in the 1950s, starting with his Academy Award winning role in From Here to Eternity and a string of now-classic hit recordings. Tony’s friendship with Sinatra allowed him to rub elbows with the Hollywood elite, including Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, Sammy Davis, Jr., Peter Lawford, Kim Novak, Ava Gardner, and many others. It also brought him close to the political world of the early 1960s, when Sinatra campaigned for John F. Kennedy and then helped plan the Kennedy inauguration. Tony was even at the Kennedy compound in Hyannis, Massachusetts, when the election results came in. Sinatra and Me will shed new light on the real Frank Sinatra from the man who knew him better than anyone.

And who better to tell Tony Consiglio’s story than Franz Douskey, who has been published in over 200 publications including The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, and The Nation?  Douskey’s fourth book, West of Midnight, reached number 24 on the Amazon Best-Seller list in 2011 and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

SINATRA AND ME: THE VERY GOOD YEARS is the result of eight years of interviews and travels with Tony Consiglio who traveled and lived with Frank Sinatra from 1942 until Frank’s first retirement. The book is Tony’s memoirs of the Sinatra years, as well as never before published photos and letters.

To hear Franz Douskey talk about how he convinced Tony “The Clam” Consiglio to open up about Frank Sinatra, listen to this podcast. http://www.tantor.com/share/FranzDouskey_interview_final.mp3

And come to see Franz Douskey and hear a reading from the book at 12:30 p.m., Tuesday, March 13 at the Gateway Community College Library, New Haven, second floor.

Welcome to Books New Haven, Franz. Tell us about your book.

The focus of the book is Tony Consiglio, who co-founded Sally’s Apizza in 1938 with his mother and his brother Salvatore, then traveled with Sinatra, worked with Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr, worked on JFK’s campaign for president in 1960,  and the Inaugural Ball in January 1961, and was a regular visitor at the White House. On occasion he brought Judith Exner, who was having  simultaneous affairs with JFK and Chicago mob boss Sam Giancana. Tony was friends with with Pierre Salinger, Lou Gehrig, Muhammad Ali, Regis Philbin , Emeril LaGasse, Frank Sinatra’s mother, father, first wife and their three children, Nancy, Jr., Frank, Jr., and Tina.  Every story in the book is a first-hand account by a man who seemed to be everywhere and had the photos to support the stories.

What is your writing process?

I don’t have a writing process because I don’t do one kind of writing.  Early on I did travel writing to support my desire to travel.  Another aspect was a series of interviews with sports figures, such as Willie Pep, Bud Harrelson, Smoky Joe Wood, etc. Also published lots of short stories and some poetry.  When I’m working I’m in a place away from home where only a few people know where to find me.  That is essential.

Was the research for the book difficult?

The research was time consuming and entailed much travel, many phone calls and plenty of dead ends.  What I couldn’t verify didn’t go into the book.

What was the best part of writing this book? What did you enjoy the most?

The best part of working on the book was spending lots of time with Tony.  We visited Frank, Jr., Nancy Jr., we lectured at colleges, visited Emeril numerous times, and even wrote segments for Emeril Live! on the Food Network.  Tony was brilliant, and so much damned fun.  We had a great time together.  Two New Haven bums on the road together.

Did you come across any surprises in researching this book?

There were numerous surprises along the way, too many to mention.  Our early agents wanted us to put in large sections about Frank and the mob, Frank and Marilyn; you know, the usual stuff.  Tony wanted to tell the stories behind the music, behind the night life and the crazy stunts that Dean, Frank, Jimmy Van Heusen, Jack E Leonard and other pals would play on each other.  Also, there were stories Tony didn’t want in the book.  He had promised Frank that there were some stories that he would take to the grave, and he did.

How did you first know you were a writer?

I still have my doubts.  I don’t think of myself as a writer.  I’m just a guy who has had some very amazing experiences, so I have a lot to draw on instead of my imagination.

What have you been working on since the book came out?

Since the book has been published, I’ve been traveling, doing a lot of interviews.  One day there was a “virtual radio tour” and I did 24 interviews starting at 7:23 a.m. and ending at 7:45 that night.  Most of the interviews were live, and some were taped.  Oddly, for a person who likes to be alone, I like doing the interviews and the book signings.  The three that stand out are the Book Party at Sally’s Restaurant that was jammed.  Ruthie, Bobby  and Ricky went all out.  They were amazing.  Tony’s widow, Mary and their two sons, Anthony and Christopher were there and that was very important. But no Tony.  I really regret that Tony didn’t make it long enough to see the book published.

Another fine event was at R J Julia, let’s say the best bookstore in the USA.  We took the tour bus because we had a few friends aboard and it’s a great way to eat and relax while traveling to readings.  I thought there might be ten or twelve people at R J Julia but there were a lot of people, chairs set up in the aisles, and after I told a few stories from the book, people lined up and it took a long time to get all the books signed.  Was my hand tired? Never.  I enjoyed meeting people and listening to their stories about Frank Sinatra and music, in general.  The third best stop was to Imus In The Morning.  Very surprising.  I’m an unknown.  But I got a call and several emails from the producer.  Then Bernard send a great email telling me not to worry and be myself.  Well, I am usually myself, and I had a great time with Imus, Rob Bartlett and Tony Powell.  I had to be there very early.  I hate hassles.  The thought of finding a parking space at Union Station, then the train being on time, then wrangling over a cab contained too many “ifs.”  Just one thing going wrong could screw up the interview.   So, I called my favorite limo service and that was it.  Andrew came to the house in the dark, my wife Sarah and Tantor Vice President John Molish got in, no worries and we got there on time.  Beautiful.  There is no doubt about it, I may not be getting richer in my old age, but I’m certainly cutting down on things that can go wrong.

What’s next?

There are four books done and in line for publishing.  Tantor has rights of first refusal.  One book deals with Memphis, Tennessee, its music and musical icons, some of whom I knew and a few I still know.  There’s a huge book on the history of one year: 1968.  As mentioned those books are done, but I tend to never be finished with a book until it’s in print.  And there is one very intriguing project just being put together.

The Black Russian–a true story of a black American’s amazing adventures

The Black Russian

The Black Russian

Vladimir Alexandrov, of Hamden, grew up in New York City in a Russian emigre family and wanted to be a scientist from an early age. However, after getting Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Geology from Queens College and The City College of New York, he decided that he’d learned enough about the natural world but didn’t understand himself or other people. His solution was to switch to studying literature and the humanities, which resulted in his getting a Ph. D. in Comparative Literature from Princeton. After teaching in the Slavic Department at Harvard, he moved to Yale University in 1986, where he continues to teach courses on Russian literature and culture.

He is the author of a new book out this month, a book that is garnering plenty of advance praise. Booklist, in a starred review, called the book “magnetizing and unforgettable.” And Stacy Schiff, winner of the Pulitzer prize, said it was “a spirited tale of boundary-crossing and history-bucking, every bit as colorful as it seems improbable.

We are thrilled here at Books New Haven to welcome Vladimir Alexandrov to our pages, where he has graciously told us about the process of writing and researching this fascinating book about a character who was very real but whom most of us have never heard about.

Vladimir Alexandrov will be giving talks throughout the country. For more information about his interview schedule, click here for the events page of his website.

And now, Vladimir himself:

Tell us about THE BLACK RUSSIAN.

This is a biography of Frederick Bruce Thomas (1872-1928), the remarkable son of former slaves in Mississippi who became a millionaire impresario in pre-Revolutionary Moscow and was the first to import jazz to Constantinople. Although famous during his lifetime, he is now almost completely forgotten.

How did you come across the original story of Thomas, and when did you know that you were going to write his story?

Seven years ago, while preparing to teach a graduate seminar at Yale on Russian émigré culture between the world wars, I was reading the memoirs of Alexander Vertinsky, a singer who was very popular in Russia before the Revolution, when I came to a remark that made me stop. Vertinsky described how he landed in Constantinople in 1920, which was the first stage on the bitter road to exile for many Russians fleeing the Bolsheviks, and then began to perform in an entertainment garden that belonged, as he put it (I translate from his Russian), “to our famous Russian Negro Fyodor Fyodorovich Tomas, the owner of the famous ‘Maxim’ in Moscow.”

I remember that I was so surprised that I put the book down. I had never heard of this  “Tomas,” and the idea that a black man with a Russian first name and patronymic had been famous for owning an entertainment venue of some sort in pre-Revolutionary Moscow seemed wildly improbable. People of African origin were always very rare in Imperial Russia; in fact, the best-known one, Abram Hannibal, lived in the 18th century (and is well known because he was the ancestor of Alexander Pushkin, Russia’s great national writer). The well-documented visits by such prominent black Americans as the writers Claude McKay and Langston Hughes, or the actor and singer Paul Robeson, did not take place until the Soviet era years later.

Who was this “Fyodor Tomas” and where did he come from? Why did he go to Russia? How did he prosper there to the extent of owning what sounded like a theater? How did Russians react to his being black? How did he wind up in Constantinople? And why, if Vertinsky said that he was “famous,” had he been forgotten?

I started digging through Yale’s vast library, but after considerable effort came up with only a half-dozen brief and contradictory references to this black man. However, I was fortunate in having a year-long sabbatical ahead of me, and dedicated it entirely to a hunt for information through a labyrinth of archives and libraries in five countries.

What I found far exceeded my expectations.

But I didn’t know that I’d actually be able to write Thomas’s biography until I reached a  tipping point in my research—finding two dossiers about him in the National Archives in College Park, MD, after the archivists there had given up and told me that what I was looking for had probably been destroyed. These dossiers led me to sources about Thomas’s youth in Mississippi, and to archives in France and elsewhere.

What did you most want to get across to readers that they might not have known about before you wrote this book?

How a person refused to accept limitations imposed on him by others, and how he repeatedly reinvented himself in exotic settings far from home. How a black American could find acceptance in tsarist Russia at a time when Jim Crow was on the rise in the United States. How, in the end, the long arm of American racism did manage to reach Thomas in distant Constantinople after he had survived wars and revolution in Russia.

Did this book come to you easily, or did you have to wrestle it to the ground once or twice? Did you ever give up on it?

Searching for information about Thomas was fascinating because it was a detective-like hunt that took me to foreign countries. The process was also addictive because every time I found some nugget of information, the thrill of it made me want to re-experience that thrill again. I recall moments in various archives when I held a folder of documents in my hands that might contain information (I didn’t know for sure, but I was following a lead)—and savored the moment before opening the folder.

Do you have a writing process you could share with readers, a way you like to proceed when you’re writing a book?

To make it easier to get started in the morning, I don’t stop work the previous evening until I’ve briefly sketched the next paragraphs in the narrative, or in the argument, that I’m fashioning. Rereading that on the following morning helps me re-saturate myself with the ideas, words, and phrases that filled me when I stopped, and functions as a kind of ski jump into the future passage.

If I’m writing a narrative, I put together a detailed chronology that is several hundred pages long, consisting of the events that are my focus, as well as whatever I am correlating them with from history. This linear “story” can then be rearranged into the book’s “plot,” or the actual sequence of events in the final narrative, which will frequently differ from the “story” (which can be useful to do for effect). But if I’m writing an analysis of literary works, or making a literary theoretical argument, I use hundreds of index cards that I sort into little stacks by category, and arrange on a large dining room table, in as big a grid as necessary. Then I shuffle, reshuffle, and rearrange the cards and stacks until the sequence works.

Was the research fairly easy to come by, or did you have trouble finding the sources you needed?

I searched everywhere I could think of, and often followed what seemed to be promising leads that turned out to be dead ends. For example, I asked or hired people to check archives for me in places as far flung as Rotterdam, Rio de Janeiro, and Ankara; and I was prepared to go there myself if it turned out that they had materials related to my quest (they didn’t). But by being as thorough as I could—by weaving my research net as finely as possible, and by casting it as widely and deeply as possible—I was able to enhance my own “luck” and found a lot of information.

Your book reads like a novel, and tells a story that most people never knew existed. How was that process of weaving together the facts to make a story?

It’s very gratifying to hear that readers find the narrative compelling, which was/is a very important goal for me.The abstract principles of building interest and tension are well known; but achieving this successfully in practice is difficult. It’s of course essential to suggest that something important is coming, and then to withhold the details to make the reader want to find out—in short, to create curiosity. It’s also essential to give the reader a sense of the people or person you’re writing about in a way that will make the reader care. This is also something that is easy to set as a goal, but hard to achieve. I also wanted to understand the kinds of cultural and historical forces that buffeted Thomas and that he had to overcome, struggle with, or escape. For example, I was able to explain why he chose to apply for citizenship in Russia in 1914 by looking at the reactions of Russians to the outbreak of the Great War during the summer of 1914. It was thus very important for me to grasp the timing of certain large-scale events through which Thomas lived.

What has been the most satisfying thing about compiling this information and getting the book written?

That I was able to bring back to public memory one of the most remarkable black Americans in history. And more broadly, that I was able to tell the story of a man who reinvented himself repeatedly in most unlikely locales in order to become himself as fully as possible.

Were there any surprises along the way—either in the research or in the writing? Did you find sources who were unexpected?

All the time. For example, just being able to find Thomas’s grandson in Paris was a surprise and an adventure. And so was discovering that much of what he believed he knew about his grandfather was sheer invention (probably by the grandson’s father, i.e., Thomas’s oldest son, who was born in Moscow). Another example of a surprise was when I went to the French Diplomatic archives in Nantes, hoping to find information about Thomas in Constantinople, and found a cache of letters from a lawyer who tried unsuccessfully to get Thomas to pay royalties for the French music that was played in his Moscow establishments. The letters showed how cunning Thomas was as a businessman who wanted to protect his interests (and how he ran circles around the lawyer).

When did you first know you were a writer?

“Publish or perish” has been the mantra of academics forever, so I’ve been writing ever since graduate school. However, what I tried to do in The Black Russian differs greatly from the kind of writing I did in my academic books and articles. I could no longer assume that my audience would be other academics with an a priori interest in what I wanted to say (if they were in the same field as me and wanted to “keep up” with the scholarly  literature in it). Now, I would be vying with all sorts of books trying to capture the general-interest reader’s attention. Trying to write in a way that would appeal to a general reader was a challenge, but an exciting and compelling one (even when I despaired that I wouldn’t be able to pull it off).

Kathy Czepiel’s beautiful new novel talks about sacrifice, women’s lives…and violets

A Violet Season

Kathy Leonard Czepiel is the author of A Violet Season, a historical novel set on a Hudson Valley violet farm on the eve of the twentieth century.

She is the recipient of a 2012 creative writing fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and her short fiction has appeared in numerous literary journals including Cimarron Review, Indiana Review, CALYX, Confrontation, and The Pinch. Czepiel teaches in the First-Year Writing Program at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, where she lives with her husband and their two daughters.

Photo by Chris Volpe

Come and hear her talk about the history of the violet industry and listen to excerpts from her novel at New Haven’s Mitchell Library in Westville on Monday, October 29th at 6:30 p.m.

Tell us about your new book.

A Violet Season is set on a Hudson Valley violet farm operated by three brothers at the turn of the twentieth century. Ida Fletcher, who is married to the black sheep youngest brother, has taken up wet nursing to help pay the bills, and her teenage daughter, Alice, has been forced to leave school for work. The novel tells the story of the increasingly great sacrifices that Ida and Alice make for their family’s survival, and the way those sacrifices unintentionally set them against one another and affect the rest of their lives. I wrote the novel in part because I grew up in the mid-Hudson Valley, which was once known as “The Violet Capital of the World,” though there is little remaining evidence of that industry today. I wanted to bring that piece of my hometown’s history back to life. But the story is also about women’s lives at the turn of the century, their relationships with men, their work, and the start of their journey toward more independence.

If you weren’t a writer, what job would you like to do?

I’m also a teacher, and I love teaching. For the past nine years I’ve taught in the First-Year Writing Program at Quinnipiac University. I don’t have aspirations of becoming a full-time writer because I think I would get really bored and lonely working independently at home all of the time. But if I weren’t a writer and a teacher, and if I were talented enough, and if such a thing still existed, I would play cello or French horn in the pit orchestra of a Broadway show. Or I might be a landscape designer and work outdoors all of the time, except in the dead of winter, when I would go cross-country skiing and read lots of books.

What’s your favorite, and least favorite, part of the writing process? One writer describes the “sticky phase,” when everything you see and hear seems destined to slip into your novel somehow. Does that happen to you? Do you love the first draft, or prefer the last revision?

My favorite part is the inbetween, which is where I am right now with my second novel. No one has imposed a deadline on me yet, but I have a full draft, so I have something to work with. I’m rocking back and forth between research and writing, so there’s some variety, and the work isn’t linear. I can dip into any part of the manuscript and work on it, now that I can see the big picture. I find first drafts terrifying because it’s just me and a blank page, and what comes out on that page is mostly garbage, and I know I just have to keep going to make something. Final revisions are kind of a drag, the point at which I’m studying every single conjunction and semicolon.

Do you procrastinate? What’s your favorite mode of procrastination when you’re supposed to be writing?

Making a cup of coffee and a chocolate chip cookie. My husband often mixes a big batch of cookie dough and leaves it in the fridge—very dangerous.

What about being a writer has made you truly happy?

I’m so lucky to be living my childhood dreams. So many of us leave those behind, and for a long time I did, too. When I think of my ten-year-old self writing stories after school and submitting them to Cricket magazine and telling people she wanted to be a writer when she grew up, I’m really happy because I’ve made that kid’s dreams come true!

How do you get yourself to write when you don’t feel inspired? Is there anything that can  bring that mood, or voice, back to you?

I treat writing like a job, because it is. There are days when it feels a lot like work. When you have a “real” job, with a boss and colleagues and a location not inside your house, you might wake up in the morning and say, “I just don’t feel inspired to work today,” but you get up and go to work anyway. Writing is no different.

What do you tell people who want to be writers, too?

That depends on what kind of writer they want to be. Lots of people are happy writing for themselves, or for their close friends and family. To them, I say: do it! Maybe take a class which will teach you to do it a little better. And don’t let anyone else tell you what you should be writing; write what you feel strongly about.

To the people who have aspirations of wider publication, my advice would be a bit different. Those writers have to take classes—lots of them, whether in a school setting or in professional conferences and workshops. They can’t compete in the marketplace without treating their craft seriously, as something that must be learned and practiced. And then, they must be extremely persistent. They must keep showing up, keep studying and reading and writing and sending their work out there despite all the rejection and discouragement. There’s no denying that luck also plays a role in becoming a published writer, but the persistent writers will be there when luck turns up.

PJ Sharon offers a glimpse of dystopian teenage life in trilogy

PJ Sharon is the author of several independently published, contemporary young adult novels, including Molly finalist, HEAVEN IS FOR HEROES, FAB Five finalist ON THIN ICE, and SAVAGE CINDERELLA, Golden Palm and Sheila finalist.

On the road to publication, PJ decided that indie-publishing was the best fit for her books. They fall outside the norm for YA fiction in that they are geared toward 16-22 year old readers, a market considered risky with traditional publishers. Hers, however, aren’t your average high school stories. Instead, they are portraits of the real life issues of older teens and their struggles with family, friends, and the guys they fall for. Although the themes are mature, evoking plenty of drama and teen angst, PJ writes with a positive outlook and promises a hopefully ever after end to all of her books.

P. J. Sharon

Tell us about your new book.

WANING MOON is Book One in THE CHRONICLES OF LILY CARMICHAEL. The trilogy is about sixteen-year-old lily Carmichael, living in the year 2057. She is the first generation of genetically engineered children bred to survive the plagues that wipe out three quarters of the Earth’s population. Her genetic modification not only makes her resistant to the plague, but gives her the ability to heal quickly and an intuitive ability to heal others—everyone except her uncle and her brother. Their blood ties make them immune to each other’s abilities. Her thirteen-year-old brother, Zephron, has the opposite capability which is to take life with just a touch. Their mother died during Zeph’s birth and their father was killed by a government agency called the Industry, an organization trying to capture these EVO kids. Sam raises Lily and Zeph as his own, determined to keep them hidden in the Northeast hills, but when a young drifter named Will falls into a trap on their property and Lily decides to heal him, their secret is bound to get out.

Waning Moon

Where did the germ of the story come from? How did you first know you were going to write this story?

There is so much concern today about where our world is heading. People live in fear of what will happen if our economy collapses or we have a climactic event that changes the landscape of our planet. Kids and teens especially, are both terrified and fascinated by dystopian stories of post-apocalyptic survival, making books like The Hunger Games or television shows like Revolution part of the new pop culture. I live in a small remote town with neighbors who love living in the woods as much as my husband and I do. We often get together and talk about current events and contemplate our survival strategies. We aren’t quite as bad as the Doomsday Preppers, but we do try to prepare for whatever the future holds. Humans are the most adaptable creatures on the planet, and in keeping with my “hopefully ever after” philosophy, I wanted to show how we might survive if life as we know it took a turn for the worse. As for how I knew I was going to write this story, it’s always about the characters not leaving me alone until I put their story on the page. If I don’t listen, it gets very crowded in my head.

Did this book come to you easily, or did you have to wrestle it to the ground once or twice? Did you ever give up on it?

I struggled with this book more than my others. Partly because it is so different from my contemporary stories, but also because it is the first book in a trilogy and I’m not a true plotter, so I had to be very careful about where the story line went, making sure I planned properly for the next two books. It was also challenging because I was in the midst of promoting my other books and had very little time to write—a frustrating place to be for a writer. The story came in fits and starts and finding my creativity to imagine a future world was a big challenge.

Do you have a writing process you could share with readers, a way you like to proceed when you’re writing a book? (Some authors say they write the first draft out in long-hand, on yellow legal pads, with a special, sacred pen, after throwing salt over their shoulders and repeating an incantation…while others say they write the first draft in a two-week-long fever and then spend the next two years revising. Others don’t even begin until they know the whole story).

Hahaha, I’m not nearly as interesting as that. I write the story my characters tell me to write and I don’t stop until their story is on the page. I let the first draft flow as organically as possible and then go back at the end and revise the heck out of it. I do have critique partners who help a lot with plot holes and character details that always seem to keep me on track. I typically write a chapter at a time and then go back over it before proceeding to the next chapter. Kind of a two steps forward and one step back approach.

Are you a “pantser” (writing by the seat of your pants, discovering the story as you go along), or do you have the entire plot outlined before you begin? Or something in between? 

I’m a pantser by nature, but I’ve learned the value of planning judiciously. If I plotted the whole story out, there wouldn’t be much point in writing it, but I do like to understand my characters before I get going. I want to know what their goal, motivation, and conflict are, what they are most afraid of, what their fatal flaw is, and what they will have to sacrifice or learn to get what they want in the end. Also, if I know the major turning points in the story, it gives me a direction to write toward. Whatever happens in between is up to the characters and boy do they take me to some interesting places.

What’s your favorite, and least favorite, part of the writing process? One writer describes the “sticky phase,” when everything you see and hear seems destined to slip into your novel somehow. Does that happen to you? Do you love the first draft, or prefer the last revision?

My most favorite part is the beginning. I can sit down and write the first fifty to a hundred pages of a story and be so excited about the journey, I forget to eat, drink and sleep. But then I get toward the sagging middle. That place where there are lots of words getting onto the page and the story seems to be going nowhere. I hate that part! I’ve learned to step back and reassess my character’s goals at that point and check in with my pacing of the story. It’s usually the time where I need to blow something up or get the characters kissing. Although I don’t have everything slipping into the book, I’ve been known to hear another author’s voice and fear I’m writing a lot like someone else. As far as first drafts or revision, I consider myself a reformed first draft addict. I wrote four full length manuscripts and kept moving on after the first draft because I didn’t know how to revise. Once I learned the art of revision through some very good workshops, I found that I loved the process of refining my work to make it shine. It always feels like a monumental task to revise after that first draft, but the work is always worth it.

Readers tend to think that everything authors write is autobiographical. How do you handle those sorts of questions—people assuming that everything in your book really happened to you?

I say that all of my characters are me and none of them are me. How’s that for ambiguity? I have written stories where my characters have gone through things that I myself have experienced, but it’s not my story. And I can honestly say that no, I’ve never been a kidnap victim, nor have I lived in a dystopian world of the future. Although I’m writing fiction, I can’t help but draw from my own experience. It’s kind of an alternate universe that I create where I get to imagine, what if that event had happened this way, or what if I’d known someone like this in my life? How would things have been different? Especially in writing for the YA market—it’s like I get a virtual do-over in a completely new world.

Do you procrastinate? What’s your favorite mode of procrastination when you’re supposed to be writing?

Housecleaning. If I’m avoiding writing for some reason, I feel justified cleaning the house since it’s a necessity and it still feels like I’m working. My house is usually very clean during that “sagging middle” stage of the process.

What about being a writer has made you truly happy?

Exploring my creativity in a way that gives me joy and brings joy to others is the ultimate reason I write. There are moments when a line or a paragraph comes together in poetic perfection that just makes me giddy. And I love those aha moments when a character learns something really valuable that I ask myself, where did that come from? I learn something new about myself every day when I’m writing.

What do you tell people who want to be writers, too?

I tell them that it isn’t as easy or as glamorous as they imagine, but if they have stories to tell, they shouldn’t let anything stand in their way.

Guilford author Barry Schaller writes about about veterans and PTSD

Barry D. Schaller of Guilford is the author of VETERANS ON TRIAL: THE COMING COURT BATTLES OVER PTSD, published by Potomac Books, in June.

Schaller is a clinical visiting lecturer at the Yale Law School, where he received his law degree, after graduating from Yale College. He also teaches undergraduates and graduate students as an adjunct faculty member at Trinity College and at Wesleyan University, in the Graduate Liberal Studies Program. He received a book award for excellence from Quinnipiac University School of Law for his first book, A Vision of American Law. He holds an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Quinnipiac School of Law. He is a Charter Life Fellow of the Connecticut Bar Foundation, and a member of the American Law Institute. He has served on all of Connecticut’s statewide courts. Since retiring from the Connecticut Supreme Court, he actively continues his judicial service. He lives in Guilford, Connecticut.

He will be reading at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 2 at the Guilford Free Library.

Tell us about your new book.

Veterans on Trial deals with the problem of post traumatic stress disorder from the ground up, starting with the issues and obstacles that returning veterans and their families face. When they leave the battlefield to become civilians again, many military personnel are not prepared or are unable to cope successfully with the challenges. Their compounded anxieties often result in serious trouble – marriage breakup, unemployment, homelessness, substance abuse, suicide and even criminal actions. The book explains how PTSD as a mental disorder developed, what causes it, how it will affect the courts in the next decade, and how it can be prevented or alleviated.

Where did the germ of the story come from? How did you first know you were going to write this story?

After my last book, about bioethics and law, I was planning a book on neuroscience – looking into the human brain — and what it would mean for life in our society. An unexpected opportunity came along at that point when I was asked to be the “legal” member of a multi-disciplinary working group on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder at the Yale Bioethics Center. By the time that project came to a close some two years later, I had become so interested in PTSD arising in the military that I got in touch with the editor with whom I had worked on my bioethics book. The publisher accepted my book proposal. The steady stream of first-hand reports from Iraq and Afghanistan about mental health injuries in soldiers and veterans had gotten my attention. There was a great deal of PTSD being reported. It was clear that we were in for a siege that would go on long after all our troops were home. I wanted to write about what combat PTSD is, how its symptoms were dealt with in previous wars, what its destructive effects are, and why everyone – civilian and military leaders, courts, and citizens – should be aware of it and work to minimize it in the future.

Is the subject matter of the book related somehow to your regular job? Or is it something quite outside your field that called to you?

There is a connection between my writing and teaching and my career experience. The connection is not simply deciding cases that involve a subject that I’ve written about or taught. Judges have to decide a wide variety of issues arising from all kinds of situations, affecting all kinds of people. It’s very important that judges get to know about all kinds of human relationships and events, especially those outside their personal experience. They need to understand life in our society in the broadest sense. In individual cases, they can’t decide based on their own personal experience but it is important that they understand life in our society. Every individual’s experience is necessarily very limited, no matter what it is. If we broaden our knowledge, work at understanding other people — especially those different from us — we should be able to gain a broad perspective and workable understanding of people and events.

What do you most want to get across to readers that they might not have known about before you wrote this book?

There are several messages. PTSD is a psychiatric “construct” or creation that has important social and legal implications. Although the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual) diagnostic criteria govern treatment and insurance coverage, the DSM is really just a general guide to PTSD. There is no uniform set of PTSD symptoms or conditions that occur in all cases. PTSD has many different causes and many different manifestations. It can cause behavior ranging from extreme anxiety or dysfunction in relationships to violence and even suicide, which is on the increase in the military. PTSD is often associated with depression and substance abuse. It can arise in civilian and military settings. Within the military context, it is clear that all wars have produced psychiatric injuries but only recently have its full implications been acknowledged. The present PTSD formulation didn’t arise until after the Vietnam War. Mental health consequences still are not taken into account when political decisions are made to go to war. Another message concerns special courts for veterans. Many cities and states around the country have set up special criminal courts for veterans with mental health problems. There is no doubt that veterans need help from the government but courts should not bear the primary responsibility. Courts are bound to make opportunities available to non-veterans as well in order to guarantee equal protection of the laws.

Did this book come to you easily, or did you have to wrestle it to the ground once or twice? Did you ever give up on it?

The book arose quite naturally from my prior work with the subject of PTSD. I’ve always had a strong sense of urgency about my work. Once I’m engaged in it, I can’t stop until it’s finished. That may be a blessing or a curse. On the practical side, I get an early start every day. By the time 9am comes around, I’ve probably put in 4-5 hours of research or writing. My three books all deal with the role of law in our society, each relating to a different aspect of American life – cultural issues, bioethics, war and mental health. I didn’t plan a “trilogy” of books on the role of American law in our society. Each one came about for different reasons. But I believe that the books as a whole present my view about what our society is and how I envision it should be. I believe it is part of the judicial function to educate and inform the public about the role of law in our society. Although judges are restricted by the Code of Judicial Ethics, there is ample room for expressing views and engaging in educational activities.

Do you have a writing process you could share with readers, a way you like to proceed when you’re writing a book?

When I have a serious idea for a book, I begin a personal brainstorming process. I write down my thoughts whenever they occur to me and then, from time to time, I organize the notes. Basically, I let my mind run free, realizing all the while that much of what I put down will have to be refined later on. Writing for me is integrally related to thinking. I begin researching the ideas. Once the topic is reasonably well formulated, I want to find out what has already been written and said about it. While I draw on that information, my goal is to go beyond it and get deeper insights, farther-reaching thoughts, solutions that have not been formulated yet. My goal is to do fresh thinking and advance the thinking about a particular subject. And so the process of researching, thinking, and writing goes on together for weeks and months. Once I have a sense of the entire work, I prepare a book proposal. That process usually helps to shape it further into a coherent and worthwhile project. The research, thinking, and writing do not end there, of course, and further change and reshaping takes place. Writing a book is a dynamic process and change is inevitable. Given the nature of my method, many drafts are inevitable. I write and rewrite until I have the finished product.

Was the research fairly easy to come by, or did you have trouble finding the sources you needed?

The problem was not too few, but rather too many sources and too much information. I read a vast amount of material and had many conversations with a great many people, including veterans. I had to keep my focus on what I could contribute that was new, insightful, innovative, and above all the plain truth. In this particular field, the networking with others was phenomenal. I found many people who were willing to talk to me, to share their information and ideas, and to help find resource materials.

What has been the most satisfying thing about compiling this information and getting the book written?

Interviewing veterans of the Vietnam, First Gulf, Iraq and Afghanistan wars was the most interesting part of my research. Beyond that, studying how mental health problems arose during previous American wars and how they were dealt with turned out to be fascinating. Trying to imagine what future wars involving ground troops (and mental health problems) might look like is intriguing – but elusive. The nature of war changes in unpredictable ways.

When did you first know you were a writer?

Writing has been very important to me throughout my life. During high school, I wrote for the school newspaper. In college, where I was an English literature major, I was a member of the Yale Literary magazine board. That gave me the opportunity, not only to write, but to meet writers like Robert Penn Warren and scholars of American literature like Cleanth Brooks. In the late 1980s, I started teaching a law and literature course, among others, for state court judges on behalf of a national judicial education organization. This involved teaching about the role of judges by using stories, novels and plays. Before deciding to go to law school, I had planned to do graduate study in literature and go on to teach. About 20 years ago, I wrote a law review article about Faulkner’s use of law in his novels and stories. That got my writing career going again and led to my first book, A Vision of American Law: Judging Law, Literature, and the Stories We Tell, which was about how cultural ideas central to American life have played out in American literature and law.That, in turn, led to my book about the relationship between bioethics, law and our culture, Understanding Bioethics and Law: The Promises and Perils of the Brave New World of Biotechnology.

What has happened since this book has been published? What kinds of reactions have you gotten?

The response has been overwhelming. I’ve gotten a great deal of positive feedback, not only from people who have experienced war and the mental health problems of war, but from experts in all the fields that I draw upon – the military, government, mental health, and law. Another result is that, as with my first two books, people are asking me questions that reach beyond the confines of the book. I find myself grappling with issues that I discussed at some length but also some that I merely touched on. In addition, I am asked to talk about issues that have arisen in the months since I submitted the manuscript for publication. I find all this fascinating and challenging.

What’s next for you? Will there be a follow-up?

Several projects appeal to me for the future. I haven’t written yet about what judges experience in the course of decision making. I’ve had experiences – and observed others – that I’ve never read about anywhere. I want to share those experiences, most likely through fiction. Judges usually feel appropriately reluctant to reveal the emotions that occur in the process of making decisions. Judging impartially requires suppression of emotions, beliefs, personal experiences in deciding cases but those are essential parts of all human beings. Writing about neuroscience developments and its potential impact also interests me. I’ve done some teaching about discoveries that will have a big impact on the way we live in American society. I’d like to explore some of these subjects. And I have much more to say about war, mental health and law.

Lucy Burdette (aka our own Roberta Isleib) reveals the secret of where books come from

Ohhh, Luuuucy!

(That’s our best Desi impression, and it’s appropriate here because Lucy Burdette, who is in real life our own successful mystery writer Roberta Isleib, has written a delectable, delicious brand new book, and it’s out now–and she’s coming to R. J. Julia Booksellers on Wednesday, Sept. 5 at 7 p.m. to read from it.)
She’s here on Books New Haven to tell us the real mystery behind her mysteries: how does she think them up? That is, after all, what everybody always wants to know from authors: where do ideas come from? And Roberta/Lucy has a wonderful answer:

 

How a Book Might Get Written by Lucy Burdette

 

Though it’s hard for me to believe, my tenth book, a Key West food critic mystery called DEATH IN FOUR COURSES, has hit bookshelves this week. Lots of new writers, and people who don’t write, and even those who do but who imagine that someone must know an easier way, ask me about my writing process. Though it’s an ugly, tortured path, I did think of a couple of things that dependably move my stories forward.

The first is no revelation: Plant butt in chair and write. Remain there until I hit my predetermined word count. Lately I’ve been trying for around a thousand words a day. If it takes two hours to write those words, then YAY!, I have time to do other things that all sounded more appealing as I fended them off while writing. On the more painful days, especially when I don’t know where I’m headed with the story, it might take seven or eight hours because I’ve checked my gmail inbox every five minutes. And then remembered there must be some urgent laundry to do or the dog needs walking or I can’t go one more minute without organizing that messy kitchen drawer. But I try to stick with it and to ignore the voices in my head telling me this is the worst dreck I’ve ever written. Because I know I can always (almost) fix it later. As my good friend Hallie Ephron famously tells her students: “Hold your nose and write!”

The second important part of my process is visiting the scene of the crime, either before or while developing the story. (And I’d be the first to admit, this is no hardship when it comes to Key West.)

Could this be “Marvin” with Lucy Burdette?

A research outing might go like this: As I’m wandering through the crowds at the Sunset Celebration at Mallory Square on the Key West harbor, I spot a tarot card reader set up at a card table, wearing a deep blue turban with an enormous teardrop rhinestone bisecting his forehead. My mind begins to spin. What if my protagonist, aspiring food critic Hayley Snow, is addicted to having her cards read because she’s insecure about making her own decisions? And what if her tarot reader sees a card scary enough that even he gets rattled? And what if Hayley uses what she thinks she sees in his reactions to dig herself into deeper trouble? And so Marvin the card reader is born as a character. Only then one of my pals says ‘who’d go to a psychic named Marvin?’ So I change his name to Lorenzo, but later he admits that he grew up as Marvin but who’d want their cards read by a guy with that name?

Then, as I’m walking and biking around Key West, I notice that homeless people are everywhere, including perched on the stone walls around Mallory Square watching the performers and the tourists. After all, if you had to spend your nights outdoors, you might choose the tropics too. And I think about how they blend into the scenery, but probably notice all kinds of things that visitors wouldn’t see. And so Turtle, the homeless guy, is born into the story. One cool night once the crowds have thinned down at the Old Town Harbor, he notices two men arguing. When there is a man found hung in a sailboat’s rigging later, he doesn’t connect the dots. Or maybe he does, but he would never voluntarily go to the police with this information. But Hayley might worm it out of him.

And then suppose, while I’m attending the Key West Literary Seminar on food writing, that I get the idea that the keynote speaker for my fictional writing conference threatens to tell everyone’s secrets. Because secrets are caustic. Hmmm, how many people would kill to protect their interests?

So with those ideas and story fragments, I go back to my desk and apply seat to chair again.

Isn’t it a miracle that books get written as often as they do?

 

Lucy Burdette is the author of the Key West food critic mysteries, most recently DEATH IN FOUR COURSES. She also wrote 8 mysteries as Roberta Isleib. You are invited to follow her on twitter (www.twitter.com/lucyburdette) or facebook (www.facebook.com/lucyburdette) or check out her website (www.lucyburdette.com)  where the artwork is gorgeous and the recipes to die for.