Recent Work By Susan Henderson

Say, you’ve signed with a literary agent. Congratulations! You are now in the hands of someone who wines and dines the very people who might buy your book. Some agents will send you a contract right away and some will never send a contract. Neither of these choices matters much at all because now is the time for the two of you to get your book ready to send out on submission.

I know, you thought you were done, but in all likelihood, there will be more edits–this time with someone who loves your work and knows the market. Don’t hurry this process. Do the hard work and get your manuscript right.

Once it’s ready, your agent will write a pitch letter.

This is where she says how much she loved your book or your narrator, a brief description of what it’s about, and any interesting biographical information about you–publications, writing awards and whatever makes you either stand out or look marketable. Do you have a blog? How many unique visitors do you have a month? Do you participate in any online communities? Do you have a job or hobbies that are related to the content of your book–do you read for the blind, counsel prisoners, run a farm?

This pitch letter will show off your personality, the essence of the book, and your agent’s enthusiasm. It then goes out to the editors your agent thinks will be a good match for your work. Sometimes your agent will take these editors out to lunch and do a pitch in person.

Let’s say the pitch works and editors begin asking for your manuscript. Many will only read partials (the first 50 pages) but some will read the entire book. Most will reject it. That’s just the nature of the business and the market. Every famous author you love has gone through this. The most profitable, beloved books you can think of were once rejected, and you will be forever bonded to other writers because of this awful thing you all have in common.

What’s really lovely about an agent is that, unlike when you submit your own stories to literary magazines, you don’t actually have to see these rejection letters. Tell your agent what works best for you. Some like to know every place the manuscript is being submitted and they like to see every rejection that comes in. Some prefer a gentle summary of the rejections. I’m one of those people who is totally debilitated by this kind of information and prefer to stay in the dark. Whatever your method, I strongly suggest that you use this time to work on the next book.

So what happens next?

One awesome thing that could happen, though it’s rare, is that your book could go to auction, meaning publishers are frantically bidding on it and the offer you and your agent like best wins.

More likely, you’ll wait anywhere from 3 weeks to a year and a half before an offer comes in.

Sadly, what happens to many books is they are what’s called “shopped-out.” The agent has submitted the manuscript everywhere she knows and there may be several close calls but no bites. If this is the case, your agent is going to tell you to move on to the next book. Do that. There are many, many instances of shopped-out books finding homes in the end, so don’t despair, but do move on to the next book and try to sell that one first. It’s the best use of your time. And work (at least for me) is the best balm for a wounded ego.

But let’s assume you’re one of those lucky writers who gets an offer. In all likelihood, your offer will be lower than you ever dreamed. For first-time authors, an advance will probably be in the $5,000 – $40,000 range (and tending toward the lower end). And you’ll say yes to this low figure because to not publish at all feels unbearable. In most cases, you’ll get the first half of that advance upon signing the contract. The second half they hold until your final edits are in. Sometimes, publishers divide the advance into three or four payments, just to hold on to your money as long as possible. There are many things that will happen along the way that feel as if someone is deliberately torturing you, and the great thing about an agent is you can express any frustration you have without damaging your relationship with your editor.

And so that’s really it in a nutshell. In my next post, I’ll talk about what happens between you and the editor as your book moves forward toward publication. As always, if you have anything to add or if you want to correct anything I’ve said, jump in!

Belle Yang has created a story that is both personal and multigenerational in her illustrated memoir, FORGET SORROW. We’ll talk about her story of fleeing abuse, of seeking shelter with her Old World Chinese parents, and the dedication required to see this book to publication. Please welcome Belle and feel free to join the conversation in the comments section.

Belle, your graphic memoir is stunning, and I know it took quite a long time to create. Talk to me about the process, and I’m curious about your endurance—the faith and the patience you needed to see this project through to the end.

I was a good sprinter but not a long distance runner. In my writing/painting, I’ve always told myself I have to run an emotional marathon. Forget Sorrow took 14 years to finish. And, yes, I worked 14 years, beginning the year 1996, because each time I received rejection and revision notes from my agent, I reworked the entire book, originally meant to be a prose novel with full color illustrations. My agent, who has a very strong personality—god bless her—the very person who gave me a chance at publishing nearly 20 years ago, became problematic, sending me off to find the holy chalice. Every time I received a NO from the world, I’d pass out on my bed for a day or two and then rose to begin the task of revision all over again. I was also ill for a couple years, from 1998 through 2000, but all the while I was in the hospital or at home in bed, I did not give up on this project. On the night I returned from the hospital, my great grandfather came in a dream as if to say, You have no excuse to be in bed. You have not sent my story out into the world. So, I got better and began rewriting the manuscript for the umpteenth time. Ultimately, I had to leave my agent and went to the East West Agency. I contacted my first editor, Alane Mason, who is now at WW Norton, and she suggested I turn the prose manuscript into a graphic novel. I spent a year drawing the first few chapters. Norton gave me a contract in the fall of 2007, and I finished the bulk of the work by the fall of 2009. And here we are, less than a week to the official pub date. I must say my former agent was very gracious. When she saw the starred Kirkus Review, she emailed me her congratulations.

Another aspect of my process was the boiling down of the prose into near-poetry, and I refer to poetry in words and pictures. I thought I’d lose a lot in the transformation, but what I learned was that the more I condensed, the more powerful the story became.

How is it to write a memoir? Because I know it’s one thing to reveal personal things about yourself, but a memoir requires you to also reveal personal things about family. Did you feel free to write whatever you wanted, or did you feel a duty to protect those you were writing about?

I had no trouble revealing family warts, because my father is ultra critical of his own family, especially of his dad. And then most of the people of his father’s and grandfather’s generation are long dead. As for me, tragedy plus time equals humor. The fights I used to have with my father have become family comedy, so I played on that in my graphic memoir. My father is currently reading my book with a Sharpie to make annotations. He is setting down his feelings about re-encountering the past.

So your story begins when, at nearly age 30, you must flee from an abusive relationship and find yourself living with your parents again. They are living a pretty traditional Chinese lifestyle, and you are westernized, used to your independence, and potentially trapped in this role of being the child again. But what I think is so unusual about your memoir is that it very quickly becomes a multigenerational story. Your story becomes an extension of a family fighting oppression and trying to weigh personal desire against family duty.

We forget that being staunchly independent is a particularly American phenomenon. Even in Italy, adult men live with their parents until marriage. In Eastern cultures, this is the prevalent way of life for men and women. I loved my independence, but returning after 3 years living with an increasingly cruel man, who expected me to run his business, be his gofer, truck building material throughout LA, move him out of his apartment, be his cleaner, washer woman and cook–boy oh boy–did becoming a child again feel like I’d died and gone to nirvana. Now I am parent to my father and mother. The roles have switched considerably over the course of 20 years. I am glad I am growing older right alongside of them. There is a lot of wisdom to be gained from elders through listening to old stories. I’ve learned to take a good care of myself, emotionally and physically, and how to intuit dangerous situations.

I was particularly moved by the story of Grandfather. Can you talk about what the label of “Capitalist” did to him and the family?

The label, in my great grandfather’s instance, was a sentence of death by ostracism. No one wanted contact with a former Capitalist. My great grandfather was evicted from his estate, the home he had built from decades of hard work, rising from the lowly position as an apprentice to the owner of his own grain brokerage (really, a bank of yore). Strangers and neighbors took over the units of his estate and abused him verbally and physically. Some stood up for him, recalling he was generous to the poor and the unfortunate. He was allowed to roam a beggar, but where was he to live when the populace at large depended wholly on the State for food and shelter. He sought warmth and a roof over his head with his spoiled Fourth Son and wife, but they rejected him time and time again. His favorite Third Son had been sent to a labor camp and had subsequently died for ill use. My great grandfather finally ended up at the doorsteps of his estranged First Son, my grandfather. He came feverish by train, and the railway workers pushed him to my grandfather’s house in a wheelbarrow. He was wanted here, taken in by all and comforted by my grandmother. But my great grandfather died within a week from hunger and disease.

Your story moves almost effortlessly between the stories your Baba tells of his ancestors and your relationship as you share this house together. And sometimes his actions are loving—planting prickly pear around the yard to keep Rotten Egg (the abuser) from coming close. And other times, he’s critical. We see him looking at your first attempts to write down this story and he says, “Here, illogical. This wrong, too.” Tell me about that tension and how it was to write about it.

By the time I was writing and drawing the graphic memoir, my father and I had become comrades-in-arms, best buddies. We’ve been “talking” stories for twenty years, so we had left the fighting far behind us. In fact, when I was typing up the script and then drawing the comic panel, I was often giggling, and impatient for my dad to see how I depicted him, depicted us. I was laughing, because I know he’d see the sense of humor in the steam blasting out of our ears. Dad recently asked for his very own copy of “Forget Sorrow” in which he could make annotations in pen. He laughs when he comes to the scenes of our flare ups. He’ll tease me about my immaturity and bad temper in my teen and twenties, and I’ll tease him about the things he would rather “tear off his head” than do, like turning one spare room into my studio. I am sitting in that very studio as I type.

There’s such detail and texture to this book. Some moments are as brief as a single drawing panel but stayed with me to the end: the children poking the swallow’s nests, the cut down maple trees, the short life of Little Autumn, the coat burned with cigarette ash, the husband putting up his wife’s hair after she sprains her wrist, and the young son whose duty it is to direct his mother’s soul to nirvana. Would you choose a single panel that is particularly important to you and tell the story behind it?

The panel I would choose is the entirety of Page 11, where Rotten Egg is peeping into our house, while my parents and I are paralyzed and trapped inside. When my friend, the journalist Fred Hernandez, told me the image of the stalker looks like a big fat baby, I realize that I had indeed drawn the stalker as a baby. It was a moment of enlightenment: After 25 years, I had finally seen through this person, who once seemed much older, worldlier, and more powerful than me. In retrospect, I see that he was a big, bawling baby. When business went sour, when he was having trouble in the world, he’d take out his anger on me with his fists. Isn’t that what some misbehaving children do? They take it out on their mother? I think Rotten Egg was a big fat baby who needed a mother and a spanking.

You write in the book that you have tried to heal your father’s pain by telling this story. How so?

If you have ever been wronged—and I think all of us have—the telling of the pain and suffering is vastly therapeutic. It is a bringing of evil to justice. My father has nightmares. He mumbles. Sometimes I can make out words like “Execution!” or “You ate the best and gave us only sorghum.” I hope his nightmares have decreased, but I know he still has bad dreams about cruelty suffered as a neglected but a sensitive and intelligent child in a huge family. And there was the war he walked through and out of as a young man at the age of 17-18.

You managed to heal something in yourself, as well. How are you different from that time you spent in hiding? How has telling your story healed you?

I am wondering if other published authors feel the same empowerment I experienced in being able to send my words into the world. I feel protected by words, by my ability to cry out for help through the written language, to cry out against unfairness in society. I EXIST through my words and stories, whereas in the time of hiding, I was made so very small. Through the experience of writing to the sheriff, to the D.A, about my plight, then in getting proper responses from the world through the writing, I acquired a sense of my own solidity. I am gentle, polite, helpful, but if you are going to mess with me, I am someone who will surprise you in my strength to take the fight back to you.

I do understand about the empowerment, and even the sense that the words somehow mean that you exist. Thank you for being here, Belle. Xie xie.

I promised to answer your publishing questions so here are some thoughts about agents.

The first step to getting your book published is finding a literary agent. Why do you need one? Because agents know how to judge if your manuscript is ready to send out, and they know the editors and the publishing houses that are the best match for your work. Most of the big houses won’t even consider looking at a manuscript that does not come via an agent, so this is the place to begin.

So how do you find an agent?

The first thing you do is find the books (hopefully successful ones) that are most like the manuscript you’re trying to sell. Are you writing humorous essays ala David Sedaris? Are you writing literary fiction with Jewish themes ala Nicole Krauss? Are you writing teen vampire stories ala Heather Brewer? Once you find a stack of books that are most similar to your manuscript (i.e. you think you would share readers with that author), then turn to the Acknowledgments page. Sometimes it’s at the front of the book and sometimes it’s in the very back. This is where the author very likely thanked his agent for all of her help. Write down the name of the book, the author and the agent. And keep doing this until you have a list of 5 to 15 names.

Another way to develop this list of potential agents is to join PublishersMarketplace. I think it costs $20 a month, and that fee is definitely worth it at this stage in the game. Once you sign in, you can look up any author you want and find out which agent represents them. You can also see who else that agent represents and what they’ve sold.

Okay. You have your list of potential agents, so now what?

Now you send them a very short letter that gets them excited about your book and about you. Think about how you’d describe your book in a single sentence. And if asked for more detail, how would you describe it in, say, four sentences?

Here’s an example of a letter:

Dear Ms. Agent X,

I thought you might be interested in my newest manuscript because my writing has often been compared to your client, Christopher Marlowe.

I’ve just finished a tragedy called ROMEO AND JULIET about two teenagers who fall in love despite the fact that their families hate each other.

Set in Verona, Italy, young Romeo and Juliet fall in love against their family’s wishes and are secretly married by Friar Lawrence. Later, Romeo interferes in a fight between the warring families and ends up killing Juliet’s cousin, which results in his banishment. Friar Lawrence sets up a plot for them to get back together by helping Juliet fake her own death. Romeo thinks she’s died and kills himself. Juliet wakes up and sees that he’s died and kills herself as well. Their deaths unite the feuding families.

I run a theatre group. I have strong interests in ghosts and sword fighting. And I’ve published my poems in the local newspaper.

Thank you so much for your time, and I hope you’ll allow me to send you my manuscript.

Sincerely,

W. Shakespeare

Is it the best letter ever? No. In fact, it’s all off the top of my head, and I should sit with this for a week or two until I get it right. But it’s short and to the point, and it contains the elements that an agent needs to make a decision.

If you’re really good at these pitch letters, you’ll be able to capture your writing style in the letter. Someone trying to sell satire should have a punchier letter. If you’re trying to sell a horror story and manage to write a summary that gives the agent chills and makes her turn around to see if something is stalking her from behind, then you’ve done well. If you’re like most writers and your letter undersells your manuscript, then include the first two pages of the book in the letter. It won’t hurt, since it may be the poetry and the iambic pentameter that brings the agent to her knees.

And that’s it. You send out these letters, and see what happens. If agents start asking for partials (the first 50 pages), then you know your letter is working. If after reading the partials, you are asked for the entire manuscript or you get detailed rejections, you’re on the right track. If you hear nothing or you get form rejections, that’s a sign that either your letter or your manuscript (or both) need some more work before you continue.

Want to know more about agents? I interviewed mine here. Want to add to the discussion? Jump in!

So I’ve been doing this series called Evolution of the Book, which has primarily focused on the emotional process of writing, editing, and trying to sell my novel. Thanks to those who’ve stuck with me through the ups and downs, the rejection letters, the unraveling that happened to the book during the editing process, and the scary move of buying the book back from its first publisher.

Now, as many of you know, my book sold to HarperCollins and will be published September 21st of this year. Here’s the pretty cover:

I want to continue to make this series useful or interesting to you, and I’m happy to describe what happens behind the scenes. But there’s so so much… from pitch letters to titles to covers to blurbs to edits to copy edits to galleys to foreign rights to marketing to good and bad reviews. So I’m going to ask you for questions.

What would you like to know, either about this book or about what happens behind the scenes of a book getting published? Leave your questions here in this thread and I’ll answer them in upcoming posts. My hope is to take some of the mystery (i.e. terror) out of the process and to pass along any information that will help you make better decisions along the way. Thanks, as always, for being here!

M.J. Rose has one of the most inspiring stories in our business. From a self-published first book to a television series on FOX based on her latest psychological thrillers, she woke up the publishing industry to expand their thinking of defined genres, electronic books, and how they conduct their marketing. In this interview, we’re going to talk about that transformation, her new book, THE HYPNOTIST, as well as her work helping other authors through her blogs, Buzz, Balls & Hype and Backstory, as well as her company, AuthorBuzz. Please welcome M.J. and feel free to join the discussion in the comments section.

Your newest thriller series was just made into a television show (congratulations!!), and I think where I want to start is to have you look back at your career and describe the journey. Where did you begin? And what choices did you make along the way that you think helped you the most?

Thanks for having me.

Goodness, where did I start? I wanted to be a painter and went to art school. Then I got into advertising and started writing screenplays. That somehow led to a novel, a great agent and rave rejections.

Editors loved it but didn’t know how to position it or market it since it didn’t fit into any one genre.

My agent asked me to write another novel that would fit into a [specific] genre. I tried. She took it out. Same rave rejections for the same reason.

She asked me to write another. And I tried but it was still cross genre.

I had an idea. I’d been the creative director of a big NYC ad agency and I knew how to market stuff. What if I went online, set up a web site where readers could download the book for $9.95, and then seriously marketed the novel on the Internet? Maybe I could figure out if this kind of cross genre thing could sell. It was a marketing experiment, that was all. In no way did I intend to self-publish and bypass publishing forever.

My agent told me not to do it. That I’d never live down the stigma, and it was a mistake. But I couldn’t figure out what else to do.

The book’s website went live in December of 1998. The book, LIP SERVICE, did pretty well. After selling over 2,500 copies online, it was discovered by an editor at the LiteraryGuild/Doubleday Book Club. It then became the first e-book (back then it was called an electronic downloadthere really weren’t e-books yet) and the first self-published novel chosen by the clubs, as well as being the first e-book to go on to be published by a mainstream New York publishing house.

As for my choices. I guess I have to do it my own way, and while that’s hurt, it’s also helped. It’s easier for some reason for me to see the things I did wrong and how my career has suffered. I’m really an optimist but also a realist and I’ve made just about every mistake you can make in a career.

Isn’t it interesting how the same actions look so different to another set of eyes? You see the mistakes, but to me, your story shows resilience, creative prowess (how many people can just “write another”?) and pure bravery.

So tell me, did this send you into despair for some time? And where did you draw the strength and belief in your work to keep at it? Why was giving up not an option?

There were so many times in all this [that]I was in despair. And so many times I did give up. I just didn’t give up for all that long in the end.

Here’s what happened, time-wise.

When my then-agent asked me to write that third book and try to fit into a genre, it sent me into a real depression for about six months. It started in the summer, and I was a real mess. I’d been writing at that point for about six years, and it seemed a stupid and impossible goal after all. So I gave up and wound up getting divorced instead. And then I met someone. And that was heady. And then just when I was settling down with that, my mom got sick and then died. I spent a full year mourning herwe were incredibly close. At the end of that year, the man I’d met and was living with almost died.

During all thiswhich start to finish was three years, from the time the agent asked for a new book to Doug getting sickwriting was in the background. I’d failed at it. I knew I eventually I’d have to figure out what to do next, but I couldn’t. I could barely do the advertising work I had to do.

It was in that year, 1998, while Doug was sick and waiting for an organ donor, that the idea to test market LIP SERVICE came to me. I don’t think it was for some lofty reason. I just didn’t want to leave the house. I remember thinking that if I could  get the book published, finally I could make my living without having to leave him.

You know what they saynecessity is the mother of invention.

Well, I have so much respect for your ability to weather through and then stand up full again. It’s easier to talk of this kind of pain when you’re on the other side of it and you can see what you were able to accomplish. Six months in the big picture sounds like something you can live through, but when you’re in it, each day can be so very painful and you don’t know when (or if) it’s going to end, or if there’s any point.

Which brings me to this question. There must have been something inside of you (your story, your voice, your vision?) that was stronger than the pain you were experiencing, stronger than the discouragement, stronger than the cruel reality of the publishing business. Tell me about the part of you that yearns be heard.

You ask great questions. More than that, you are making me think about things I’ve never thought about before.

This one was hard. I’m not very conscious of myself as a writerI’m too busy trying to make it all work and deal with surviving as a writer. Your question really stumped me, and it’s taken a while for me to figure it out.

My parents and my grandparents were very creative. My mom was a photographer, my grandmother a painter, my grandfather was in advertising and one of the people who helped turn brainstorming into a formal construct, and my father was in the toy business inventing and creating new toys.

I had all that around me and can’t remember not reading or painting or making dolls’ clothes or writing poetry or keeping journals. Expressing myself was who I was. At the same time, I was one of those kids [who was] happier with adults than other kids. I didn’t fit in, and books were my friends. They were my delight, my escape, and my salvation.

As I said before, I didn’t set out to be a writerbut a painterthen wound up in advertising. And while I was in advertising, in my late 20s, I started writing a novel. This was not an effort at art. This thing I was writing had one purposeit was the only way I could think of to communicate with a man who I wasn’t with anymore but was still very much and very desperately in love with. I thought that if I wrote it and it got published, he would read it. And read between its lines. That I could reach him that way.

Yeah, a phone call would have been easier. This was a crazy, lofty, romantic, 19th-century way of reaching out to him. To be with him. On paper if I couldn’t be in life.

Well, in the process something clicked. When I was writing, I was gonemy reality was on the page; I was lost in the story. And I loved the feeling. More than that, even when I wasn’t writing, when I was just thinking about the story, I was happy. A better kind of happy than I’d felt in a long time. Being lost in a novel, I discovered then and it’s still true, is when I am the least unhappy, least neurotic, least worried about life and the people I love.

Writing, like reading, became an escape for me. And a drug.

Getting published wasn’t ever the original goal for me. To keep writing was. But being an ambitious person, getting published became part of the goal. And then, once I have any goal, I’m too stubborn to let go. So I had to keep trying.

Voice? Message? My stories? Nothing so lofty. I was reaching out to a man I was in love with and had lost; and in the process, saved myself and found a way to stay sane.

I’m absolutely choked up with this idea of writing a book to try to let a man know you love him. There’s a vulnerability and a guardedness about it that’s so very tender and moving to me.

Okay, so being a stubborn person myself, I’m still determined to find this “thing” that drives your writing. Think through your body of work. Are there themes or issues you keep coming back to? Because my own impression is that you have a willingness to embrace characters who are often ashamed, consumed with regret/guilt, or living with secrets. You walk the reader into the dark and slowly bring light into that space.

Another question I’ve never deliberated for any time.

Anyone who knows me knows I am forever asking too many questions. I’ve always been fascinated with people’s psychology. For a while there, I thought about leaving advertising to be a therapist. I think my characters are all people who’ve cut themselves off emotionally for one reason or another. As a result, they’re not living complete lives and haven’t individuated. My novel starts with them in that place you so poetically call the dark, and then by the end of the story they have been brought into a place of some light. I am consumed by secrets—I want them like chocolate. I hate knowing someone only on the surface and not knowing who they are underneath. As a result, I’m very bad at small talk and cocktail parties.

I think that’s something all of my favorite writers do. They drop you into a world of secrets—not just the things people won’t share in regular company but the kinds of secrets people won’t even share with their closest friends. I love when an author isn’t afraid to take you there and to slow down enough to unpack those secrets and those feelings, because it’s when they’re brought into the light that you discover the humanity there, and it’s suddenly not so easy to judge a person.

And so let’s talk about your newest book, THE HYPNOTIST. You’ve truly created a world full of secrets! Describe this world a bit. And I’d also love to hear you talk about your moody protagonist, who’s haunted partly because he can’t shake an event that happened years before.

Lucian Glass is an FBI criminal art investigator. He surfaced as a minor character in my last book and I fell in love with him. I realized half way through that book he deserved one of his own because his damage was so very deep and disturbing to me. As a college student, he and his girlfriend were involved in a robbery. She was killed and he was brutally stabbed as he was trying to save her. It was the defining event of his life and changed the course of his future. He gave up on the idea of creating art in order to try and save art.

Now 20 years later, he’s called in by the Metropolitan Museum in New York City to investigate the mutilation of a stolen painting, and that sets his story and the plot of the book in motion.

The world of this book is one I’m intimately familiar with—which isn’t always true in my work. But I grew up in New York City, across the street from the Metropolitan, and then moved back to that same neighborhood as an adult. The museum has been almost a temple to me my whole life—certainly a refuge and place of inspiration—and it was wonderful to write about it in such detail. I once figured out that, except for the years I was in college, I’ve never gone longer than six weeks without visiting the Met.

I love knowing that about you and the Met. And that you’ve taken your love for art and placed it right at the heart of the book.

But let’s stick with this idea of being haunted by past events for a bit. Because the sense of haunting extends beyond this lifetime. Reincarnation is also at play here and adding a layer to the urgency and the grief of your characters. Certain souls, it seems, remain connected across time, and events in past lives press upon today. Talk to me about your understanding of reincarnation. And I’m curious if you have a sense that you were once someone else?

I don’t have any actual past life memories. I’ve been hypnotized quite a few times while doing research but never cold dredge up a cohesive memory. The only thing that ever happened was a flash of walking on a stone path, walking toward a house on a cliff that might have been in New England. I could see my feet and [I] was wearing pilgrim shoes. All I learned was, even in my past life, I was a shoe whore.

But I believe I had past lives because of certain connections I’ve had to people and places. Deep, deep meaningful connections that were immediate and spontaneous in a way that would be impossible to explain if not for reincarnation.

It’s been a lifelong fascination, and early on in my life as a writer, an area I always though had amazing dramatic possibility and resonance. And I started doing research into reincarnation when I was in my late 20s and trying my hand at screenplays.

When I write, I often feel I’m channeling other people and their lives… I suppose, in a sense, that has some roots in the idea of reincarnation. But you’re being more thoughtful about all this than I am. I overthink everything in the whole world except why I write, what I write, and how I write. All the things you’re asking me to look at.

Already in the two days we’ve been going back and forth with this interview, you said something that gave me a great insight into a character I was having trouble with. So I think I’m getting way more out of this than you or your readers, and for that I apologize.

\"This is a photo I have over my desk - its so much a writer\'s world  - the way I picture what goes on in our heads. Its by Jerry Uelsmann - one of my favorite photographers.\"

I’m thrilled that our conversation gave you insight into a new project. It’s done the same for me!

I’m on the fence about whether having flashes of a past life would give me a wonderful feeling of connectedness to another time or if it would be more of a frustrating, Alzheimer’s-like feeling—a sense of something important that is always out of reach. Although I suppose that emotional conflict is what makes it such a powerful thing to write about.

Do you know if there’s anything in the real world that’s the rough equivalent of The Phoenix Foundation, the organization dedicated to the study of reincarnation?

The Phoenix Foundation doesn’t exist but I was inspired by the amazing Dr. Ian Stevenson who did past life regressions with over 3,000 children at the Division of Personality Studies, which he founded and ran for 40 years at the University of Virgina. When Stevenson died in 2007, Dr. Jim Tucker took over.

Stevenson traveled and researched extensively for most of his adult life, investigating cases that suggested to him the possibility of past lives. He believed reincarnation was the survival of the personality after death.

I just wiki’ed him. Fascinating stuff about perceptual studies, psychosomatic illnesses, and the locked cabinet!

So, I find this interesting that you have a series of books featuring this mythical Phoenix Foundation. And you have another series featuring the mythical Butterfield Institute. Typically with thrillers, the reader follows a particular protagonist from one book to the next, but with your series, the continuity seems to be thematic. Would you talk a little about that choice?

To answer that I think I need to first explain that I don’t think I write true thrillers. In fact I don’t think I clearly fit in any one genre—which is great for me creatively but bad for me, sales-wise. The business works in genres and I don’t make things easy for my publishers. So I wind up in thrillers because I fit better there than anywhere else.

And the reason I don’t quite fit in thrillers is similar to the same reason I didn’t choose to write a continuing character.

My books are as character-driven as they plot-driven. And when I write about a character, I work out their issues with them over the course of the novel. Each novel has a lot of symbolic therapy sessions in it. The therapist in me would feel like a failure if my characters didn’t evolve and find some resolution.

But with that resolution comes a cessation of a lot of the kinds of conflict that lead to great drama. Or it leads to a continuing character who strains my credulity in book after book when they attract personal crisis after personal crisis without ever evolving.

So I chose to create a worlds which give me the freedom to bring in new main characters full of angst, needing help in finding a new path.

A good example of great characters who can sustain a series are Lee Child’s Jack Reacher and Carol O’Connell’s Mallory. Interestingly, in both those situations, we’re reading about deeply damaged characters who are frozen in their psychosis. I love those characters as a reader—but as I writer I would need to help them work out those issues, and then I’d ruin the series.

Yes, you’re definitely straddling genres with your books. I find that exciting as a reader, but I know publishing houses are often concerned about things like what shelf to put you on at the bookstore. Pull the curtain back, if you don’t mind, and show us something of the business and the marketing from behind the scenes. How, for example, did they decide to position this book, and how do you know your book is being “marketed” rather than simply “printed”?

I wish I could share what goes on behind that particular curtain but I don’t get to see it. I’d give my right arm to sit in a positioning meeting with the sales force and really understand the choices that are made.

As for how to know if you are being printed or well-published?

There are so many levels of being well-published. Just being published by a quality house will get you more attention by booksellers and librarians and reviewers than you will get if you are, say, self published. Yes, in some cases, all an author will get in terms of marketing is co-op [i.e., table space at bookstores]. But co-op is expensive and it’s critical. So even if it stops there, you are 100% ahead of at least 750,000 other writers a year. (That’s the number of self-published books there were in 2009.)

The real issue here is expectations and how to manage them.

I think our jobs as writers is to keep writing the best books we can until we write the right book at the right time—the one the publisher can get behind and give that magic push to.

For some of us that will be our first novel; for others, our 10th; and some of us will never get it—not for lack of trying or talent, but rather, because our timing just doesn’t sync up.

So I don’t think we should compare ourselves to each other. That’s just inviting madness. Who gets the push is all too often not about talent at all but rather the fit of the book and the market and what the stores say they want and the fads and foibles of the day.

That said, usually if you are getting a good push, you know it. In fact, I’ve never met an author who was getting it who didn’t know it. But I have met hundreds of authors who weren’t getting but didn’t know what was happening.

The business is a strange one. We, the writers, are treated in so many cases, like children. We’re trained to feel lucky we have contracts at all, that we should be grateful and quiet and let the grown-ups work it out. We’re left out of most conversations about the fruit of our labors. That’s fine conceptually—I love the idea of just sitting in a room and writing, or being the “artist” and letting everyone else worry about everything else.

But all too often, if you do that, you wind up wishing you hadn’t. I’ve tried it both ways, and not knowing has seriously screwed up my career more than once.

No one in publishing, it seems, wants to tell the writers the truth. But editors will tell agents the truth—or at least most of the truth. So I believe the key relationship to having a successful career is having the right agent. And I think your agent is the best person to ask whether you are being printed or published—if you are being treated right or not.

All that said, here are some signs that signal you’re being published versus printed. Please understand, too, that this varies house to house.

Are there a sizable number of ARCs being printed? (And sizable has to be compared to other books at the house.)

Is there a serious effort to get reviews?

What kind of pre-pub marketing is being done to the trades? Ads in PW? Shelf-Awareness? Bookselling this Week?

Are you getting to meet any of the players in marketing, sales and PR at the house?

Going to any trade shows or library shows?

If the house does actual tours, are you getting one? If not, are you getting an Internet tour? How big?

Are they giving you and your agent a marketing plan? Sharing advertising? Is there advertising at all?

If the house sends authors to meet accounts, are you going to meet them?

What kind of bells and whistles are going to surround the book?

What kind of co-op is the book getting? Will the book be on tables at the superstores? End caps? 20% off?

Is there a publicist working with you?

I’m sure your answer is setting off all kinds of anxiety for the authors who don’t see that happening as their books move toward publication. And we all know that excitement from the publishing house and, then, word of mouth is what sells books. So let’s talk about what authors can do beyond what they’re given from their publishers. And would you describe your company, AuthorBuzz, and how you think it can help a writer?

I was in the unique position of being the creative director of a top ad agency before I got published and then got into the business at a very strange time. A friend joked it was like becoming a Russian princess on the eve of the revolution. Books were suddenly in competition with the burgeoning Internet, cell phone, and video/CD market. It was harder than ever to get attention for a book and it’s only gotten more difficult in the ensuing ten years.

Once in publishing, I realized that for the most part, no one really had the time or money to do serious advertising for most of their titles; and so when they did, they didn’t have a great grasp of its potential.

85% of all books published by traditional houses get less than $2,000 in ads/marketing, outside of co-op. To put that in perspective, it’s not unusual for a top-10 NYTimes times book to get $250,000 and up in marketing. And to put that in perspective, the last product I advertised was a new perfume. Our budget to introduce it was 40 million dollars.

It’s not that publishers don’t want all our books to succeed. Of course they do. They wouldn’t buy our books if they didn’t. But they simply don’t have the time and the money and the manpower to treat every book the same way. It’s not personal. And, again, it’s not even about talent. It’s about being the right book at the right place and at the right time.

I realized early on that there were things I could do as an author to help my books. Not to make them giant bestsellers—you can only do that with a publisher behind you—but I could help keep myself alive and keep my sales solid enough so I could keep getting published until the day I had that right book, right place, right time.

I started writing articles about the things I was seeing and what I was doing about it and speaking out at conferences.

In 2000, I teamed up with my friend Doug Clegg—a brilliant author, marketer, and idea person. We started teaching a class called Buzz Your Book—all about what we can do to help our books, especially with things publishers can’t do for us even if they want to. The class led to us writing a book, Buzz your Book. And then that led to consulting work. (I still teach an online class at Backspace.org every January for six weeks.)

And then two things happened almost simultaneously.

I’d always said that the day a publisher or agent suggested I change what I was writing to meet the market I was going to go back to advertising where I could make money without compromise. That happen in 2004. So rather than change what I was writing, I started looking for a day job.

At the same time, I was noticed while teaching Buzz your Book that even though there are a million things authors can do to help our publishers market out books, most of our students don’t have the time or the inclination or the spirit for it. Many had day jobs and/or families and/or too many books to write. They wanted to do something for their books but not do it themselves.

So I came up with Authorbuzz. The first ad agency for authors. Marketing solutions at reasonable prices for authors. Solutions publishers would feel comfortable about their authors buying because I’d market in places where publishers would be comfortable. So I made deals with Shelf-Awareness.com and DearReader.com to market books to booksellers, librarians and readers.

Since 2005, we’ve added Bookmovement.com for bookclub readers. And we added ad campaigns and creative consulting, as well as KidsBuzz.

Even though the service was created for authors, we do about 50% of our work with authors and the other 50% with publishers—some publishers use us as their ad agencies.

But the thing that I’m really proud of is that over 70% of our business is repeat business. Authors and publishers come back all the time. And we keep hearing how our authors’ books have better sell-through—that more titles go back to print than expected—and occasionally we even help someone make a bestseller list.

What we do isn’t magic.

Going back to your question, nothing sells books like word of mouth. But how do you get word of mouth started? How do you get the first 300, or 500, or 2,000 readers?

No one ever buys a book they never heard of. No one walks into a bookstore or a library and says “I want to read a book you never heard of and I never heard of.”

So how do you get people to know about your book?

There are many, many ways. Authorbuzz is one of the easier and more affordable ways.

I feel like I just completed a master class in publishing, and thank you for this—for sharing your vast knowledge of this business and what your journey as a writer has been like. But most of all, I’m glad to now know you as a painter, as the young girl who made dolls’ clothes and had books for friends, and as a writer who finds her characters in the dark and can’t stand to leave them there, damaged. Thank you for all of that, and for being here.

Well, here’s a picture I should be too embarrassed to post:

This is me having a big old time at patrol camp. This is back in the days my dad still cut my hair on the kitchen stool, and obviously I didn’t bother to dry my hair for the photo. Maybe you can tell by the Billy Idol sneer how I take to dressing up in paper headbands and feathers.

I went to patrol camp the summer before sixth grade to become “an officer.” This selection means I was misunderstood to be a child who would not light her patrol post on fire or try to send kids across the street when they were most likely to get run over.

In the mornings, the girls stood near the flag pole outside of our cabins to do exercises. All the excercises had accompanying chants, and the one I did with great seriousness was the “we must increase our bust” exercise, when we all stood with our arms like chicken wings and tried to touch our elbows behind our backs. “The bigger, the better, the tighter the sweater, the boys depend on us.”

When you look at least four years younger than your classmates and people regularly mistake you for being a boy, camp is just one more place to feel different and alone.

By the end of my week there, it seemed camp had improved some. I’d kissed and slow-danced with one of the camp counselors and was glad to finally be noticed and included. Okay, sure, this sounds like pedophilia now, but I didn’t know better at the time and spent the rest of the summer searching for his phone number so I could hear his voice and then hang up.

 

All these years later, as I do readings and meet with agents and editors and marketing teams, I still feel like I’m the kid with the feather on her head, just wearing a nicer t-shirt. Maybe that’s why I like hanging out with other writers so much. I prefer to spend my time with fellow misfits.

Here’s what I like best about our community: You can take off your mask and let down your guard. And when you discover you’re still accepted, and that some of your peers dare to think more of you than you think of yourself, you start to dream bigger dreams, take risks, create bolder art, and care about others’ work and success as much as your own. I can’t help but imagine what a better summer I would have had if we’d all been at camp together, but at least we’ve made our own camp right here in the present.

Here’s a rejection I got once: “Not for us, but cool stamp.”

I used the Animal stamp, which, I agree, is pretty cool. The story was picked up elsewhere, nominated for a Pushcart, and reprinted in a second magazine. Submitting stories is like that. It’s all about one person’s (or one small group of persons’) opinions. That is not to say that there weren’t plenty of rejections I received that had some hard truths in them – stories that weren’t ready, stories that were never going to be ready, and stories I should feel grateful are not out there, representing my body of work.

Rejection letters are part of the life and character of any writer brave enough to put his or her work out there in search of a larger audience. These letters also prepare you for those single-star Amazon reviews once your book is published.

*

Like my recent LitPark guest, Jessica Keener, I’ve been on both sides of the rejection slip. I know some of you who read my blog have rejection slips signed by me, and I know that even when an editor tries to be gentle and even when a writer tries to have a thick skin, these little letters can hurt. They can chip away at your confidence. They can make those around you question why you stick with it.

When I was reading 25, 50, 100 stories a week, the main thing that struck me was how few stories got me where it counted – wowed me with every sentence; took me somewhere I didn’t expect to go; made me forget I was working; made me forget my phone, my email, the other stories waiting in the stack; left me utterly buzzed, emotional or changed. I never wanted to settle for an excellently-crafted story; I needed to be brought to my knees. (Think William Maxwell, Tim O’Brien, Nicole Krauss, Cornelius Eady, Donna Tartt, Virgil.) To be a great editor, you have to toughen up and say no to anything that falls short of that standard, knowing all the while that your standard is completely subjective.

What I hope I never did, however, was crush the spirit of a writer. Even a bad writer. This doesn’t mean I’m in favor of giving false encouragement, but it does mean that I’m in favor of remembering the impact of words, particularly to people who are feeling vulnerable. I talked about this extensively with Wayne Yang over here.

With experience, we all get better at judging when our stories are ready to send out, knowing what markets to target, and building those relationships with editors. But mostly, I think writing and becoming published is a game of endurance. If you think you have “it,” then you have to be bold. You have to write and write and write, revise and revise and revise, send and send and send. Some of us can only make our skin so thick, but you have to get your work out there because, unless you’re writing purely for therapeutic reasons, it’s not really a story until it has a reader.

I like this NPR piece about some of the famous writers who were rejected by Knopf. It puts these little slips you hate to get in perspective. And I think I’ll end on that note.

Lac Su left his homeland of Vietnam under gunfire, and at age five, began his life in America in an apartment teeming with drugs and prostitutes. His memoir, I LOVE YOUS ARE FOR WHITE PEOPLE*, tells the story of his search for a sense of worth and belonging from a violent father and local gangs. It’s a harrowing story, but told with heart, humor, and wisdom. I’m glad to have Lac here to discuss his book, and I hope you’ll leave him a comment at the end of the interview.

*LitPark encourages you to buy books from your local independent bookstore. Click here to find the store closest to you.

~

Your wife was pregnant with your first child when you decided to write this book. Talk to me about what it’s like to have the pain from the past collide with your hopes for the future.

It feels like I’m running in place, like someone fashioned a rope around a boulder and tied the other end to my waist. The only way I can break free from this rock is to cut the rope. The only way I can do this is to face my past, come to terms with the baggage I’ve been carrying with me for so long and learn from it. Writing I LOVE YOUS ARE FOR WHITE PEOPLE—plus therapy—helped. I sought therapy for the first time in my life while writing the book.

I was half way through the third chapter when reliving my childhood turmoil became unbearable. Gentleman Jack found his way onto the table beside my computer during my late night writing sessions. The book was dragging me back into a dark place where I didn’t want to go. I tried to convince myself that my life was different now. My hard work was beginning to bear fruit—all the blessings that would make a man feel content with life. But my soul had not rest. Unresolved issues left me like an agoraphobic trapped inside his home; he looks out the window, sees a beautiful spring day, but is unable to set foot outside and enjoy it. It was dangerous and unhealthy to continue living this way.

So, I tried therapy. The biggest thing therapy taught me was that I’d been living my life in denial. I always figured if I didn’t think about my past, it would just go away. But on a subconscious level, old memories that were out of sight and out of mind affected me far more than I realized. The embers of pain were still smoldering deep inside me.

“Please make him smarter so he doesn’t have to endure any more beatings. That’s all we ask, great ancestor of ours.” She looks desperate and distressed. I try to make her feel better by staring straight down at my paper, with my pencil poised. (I LOVE YOUS ARE FOR WHITE PEOPLE, p. 63)

You were raised by a survivalist—a father wanted by the communists, who once had to eat insects and tree bark to stay alive. How did his perspective on the world shape you?

My world still revolves around this tiny man. In spite of 25 years of bad health, he’s still alive and kicking. He’s even smaller now—doesn’t stand more than 4’ 8”. He molded and shaped the man I’ve become. It was in college that I first began to challenge his perspective on life. College taught me a lot of things that contradicted what my old man had plastered onto me through the years. At first, I didn’t trust what the professors or books were telling me—they were all lies. I remember reading in a child development class about the importance of demonstrating affection. In my father’s house, I love yous are for white people.

My father is a hard man; he’s lived through a lot. Many of his lessons contain grains of truth, as long as you can sift through the twisted parts. Let’s see…a perfect example of this is in the Alhambra chapter when he decided as a 13-year old it was important that I know that, “Money and women are the two most wicked things in the world. The sanest person you know will become lost and irrational the moment he sees cash or smells pussy.”

I walk into the kitchen to tell Pa I’m home. The four beating sticks on the table are various sizes and shapes. One of them is new—a three-foot section of eucalyptus tree branch that’s a good inch thick. (I LOVE YOUS ARE FOR WHITE PEOPLE, p. 194)

Talk to me about what it’s like to live in a country when you don’t understand the language or the culture.

Overall, it was a fun experience. The confusion and frustration that I carried bred curiosity, which forced me to look for answers. My parents didn’t provide answers for me, so I had a lot to figure out on my own. People-watching is still a favorite pastime. As a kid, I would sit by the window or on my porch and just absorb the happenings of street life. It was the 1980s in Los Angeles—there was never a dull moment on Sunset Blvd.

English was my fourth language. My father spoke two Chinese dialects to me, and my mother spoke to me only in Vietnamese. I had friends who spoke Armenian, Swahili, Spanish, Spanglish, and Ebonics. Yes, it was perplexing at times. I learned quickly to read body language. Sometimes, words that I understood didn’t have to fall from my friends’ mouths for me to know what they were saying.

Our trips in Pa’s little red Chevette are conducted in the bike lane on the far right side of the road. They are marred by a merciless barrage of honking cars. Pa yells and curses back at them, convinced that he’s done no wrong. He stops every few blocks to check his map—a tattered little number that’s dotted in the red ink he uses to earmark the route. Pa can’t read the English street signs, so the map isn’t much help. (I LOVE YOUS ARE FOR WHITE PEOPLE, p. 134)

So much of what’s happened to you is devastating. But there’s a surprising sense of humor in this book (albeit bittersweet)—a little boy chewing on thrown away condoms, the inevitable teasing of Phat Bich, scamming the YMCA Santa, and your uncles—just having emigrated to the U.S.—breaking the necks of geese down at the local park and bringing them home for a feast. When did you start to find the humor in your story?

I started to see the humor in these stories when sharing them with a white friend of mine. As I said before, many of these events I’d never shared with anyone, but as I was writing my memoir I had a friend I’d tell the stories to, just to see what he thought of them. I actually found it funny the way he thought my stories were funny. I find that when you put people from different cultures into one place, you will often get a humorous, dynamic, and irreverent exchange. I hope I was successful in capturing this in my book.

Finally, Ma comes to the table with the main course, a huge glass dish holding the roasted geese. The birds’ heads are still attached, and the birds are so large that their necks hang down over the side of the tray. (I LOVE YOUS ARE FOR WHITE PEOPLE, p. 210)

You were taking your family’s food stamps, selling them for well below their value, and also stealing money, and this resulted in a brutal and humiliating punishment. But it’s the reason for the stealing that’s so utterly devastating—to try to buy friendship from someone who gives nothing back. If you found a kid today who felt worthless, hopeless, without a sense of belonging or purpose, what do you think might make a difference to him?

I’d write the kid a letter—a letter that I wish someone would have written to me when I was that kid.

Dear Kid,

The world is not like what you see on television. Things don’t always turn out OK. Real people sometimes feel lost, hopeless, and sad. The pain you feel makes you real. I think you would have a bigger problem if you weren’t feeling what you’re feeling under the circumstances. The psychology books call these people “crazy.” So, be glad you’re not crazy. There are reasons why you feel this way; don’t ignore them.

How much do you hate your life right now? I ask because the feelings weighing you down will remain if you don’t do something about what is causing them. What can I do about them, you ask? There are two important things for you to do:

1. Surround yourself with smart people. I mean really smart people. Learn from them. Soak up everything they have to teach you. Ask them a bunch of questions.

2. Keep these three phrases on the tip of your tongue: “I am sorry.” “Will you teach me?” and “Thank you.” There’s actually another phrase to hold close, but you can’t use this one unless you really mean it. When you do, you better damn use it: “I love you.”

Good luck, kid. You can turn your T.V. back on. Actually, turn off that T.V. and read a book.

Love,

Lac

“Do you remember how to get back to where we were, Big Head?” Pa asks.
“No.”
“Why didn’t you keep track?”
“Because I’m sleepy.”
….”We’re almost there at the old trash bins. You know how I know?”
“No.”
“Because of that big number eighteen on that wall. That’s how I get around. Remember things that pop out at you. Are you listening to me?”
“Yes, Pa.”
“Okay, now you can walk home alone without me. I’m leaving you now.” (pp. 38-9)

You joined a gang when you were a teenager, and I was very, I don’t know, I think the word might be touched to find out it was a graffiti art gang, and all these little thugs had sketchbooks. What’s the connection for you between art and healing?

The beauty of art is that you can dump your negative energy into a medium and make it beautiful. It’s called “channeling”, I think. I understand how the most tortured and grieved writers and painters can create such beautiful masterpieces. When you look at a Van Gogh or Pollack, those intricate scribbles, patterns, and colors come from somewhere. Writers, like painters, tell stories with emotion. For a long time, I had a lot of negative emotions that I kept bottled up inside. Being able to release these bad vibes and make art out of it is soothing. Art says things that you’re unable to otherwise express. Writing is cathartic, and you hope that someone will connect with your art. For someone to say, “I know what that’s like,” serves as a form of healing for me.

My newborn brother never made it home from the hospital. The doctors said the Raid was the culprit. The crib that Pa pulled from the Dumpster—and was so careful to fix and polish to perfection—sat in our apartment collecting dust for nearly two years, until the day that Vinnie came home. (I LOVE YOUS ARE FOR WHITE PEOPLE, p. 74)

The scene of you rubbing Tiger Balm on the wounds you gave your little sister was a really pivotal moment in the book—a wake-up call that you didn’t want to become what you hated. But where does all that rage that was inflicted on you get released? How does your mind find peace when you carry such memories of fear and shame?

There are two things available to me: a quick fix and life-time maintenance. When I was younger, I wrote poems and drew pictures. These days, I paint and garden. Music has always been soothing. These are quick fixes—a bandage to cover my pain. (This is a great question, Susan. I’ve never really thought about this.) For the long haul, the way I heal and reconcile my past is to love people—and do things differently than what my father did to me.

Sometimes, in the midst of revising my novel, I was consumed with the terror of uncertainty. If I made this one big change to the text, would I be able to handle its ripple effect throughout the book? Would I ever get this right? Was this even a story worth telling? And I crawled deeper and deeper into what friends call my “writer’s cave,” sometimes so focused or in such a funk that I’d forget daylight.

Here’s a story I call on again and again to give me perspective…

I used to babysit every single day, for years and years, for a little girl who had a brain tumor – from age four when her parents first noticed the weird way her eyes would twitch and cross and how she’d bump into the door frame rather than walking cleanly through, to the surgeries and the horrible things that happen when you take away pieces of a person’s brain, to bike lessons and swim lessons and special schools and vacations (like the one in the picture; that’s me holding the baby bottles).

This is about a family who had every right to be stressed and focused solely on that tumor – killing it and saving the girl.

But that’s not how they did it. In this family that shouldn’t have had time for me or for each other, they read my dumb poems and stories, watched the skits and fake-Olympics I helped the three kids put on, listened to bad knock-knock jokes, and tolerated Vanilla Ice dance-offs. They always made sure there was enough food so I could stay for dinner. And one winter, in the middle of the worst of it, their father taught me to waltz.

The lesson I learned? There’s time. Time, even in the midst of a crisis, to give attention and show love. And there’s room for joy. There had better be. Or the cancer and wars and other things that are out of our control win it all.

So, for those of you in the throes of anxiety and uncertainty, know this: First of all, your story matters or you wouldn’t be fighting against such odds to tell it. Keep writing, a little every day, and you’ll get there. But also remember to let in the sunlight, walk with a friend, hold the ones you love, watch those crocuses come up, and dance. Because now matters, too.

Around the time I was still being congratulated for landing my first book deal, and for landing it at a big house without an agent, things started going downhill.

I’d been feeling under the weather ever since I received the edits on my manuscript. I always get a little tender when people strike out favorite passages, or write “NO!” in the margins, but I expected that. I even swallowed down the idea that this editor planned to market my book YA so many of the edits were about dumbing down the language and adding training wheels to the storyline. But what was breaking me was something that, in retrospect, I should’ve spoken up about. The editor had asked me to change the voice of the story, to have the character see the world differently. And for me to do that, every single sentence of the book, and every single action taken by this character would have to change.

I never spoke up. Never defended my position. I didn’t want to be one of those difficult types. I remembered what it felt like to have no book deal, and who was I to complain?

So I was driving my kids to a local amusement park, where they were supposed to sing with their school and then enjoy the rides. It was my first real day coming out of the fetal position. (You think I’m kidding.) And halfway there, I got a call from the editor who asked if I could get these changes to her by the end of the month. I pulled over on to the side of the road and just started sobbing with my poor, confused children looking on from the backseat.

A few weeks later, I was on a panel at a conference and had lost so much weight, friends wondered aloud if I had cancer. Against all instincts and without a plan, I had dismantled the entire book and had no idea, and no interest, in how to put it back together. The despair I had felt in trying to get this book published didn’t come close to the feeling of overseeing its destruction. After the conference, I went out to dinner with some writer friends (Patry Francis, Tish Cohen, and Bella Stander). It was a delicious African-fusion meal, and afterward, we went to a writer’s party, though I wasn’t in the mood.

At the party, my friends introduced me to Dan Conaway, who changed everything.

The last person I wanted to meet was an agent–I was that fed up with the business–but we got along easily, talked the next day, and eventually (though I fought hard against the idea at first), I signed with him. Over the next several months of working with him, we broke contract with that publishing company as I went to work finding my way back into the novel. I no longer had a book deal, which was scary, to say the least, but I was going to get this book right. Gradually, my body got healthy again, I rediscovered the joy in writing, and I am ever so grateful for that chance-meeting!

I didn’t tell a soul that we’d canceled the book deal. I didn’t want to invite the kinds of questions or tell the kinds of stories that would bring me down again. I just got to work.

In Danielle Trussoni‘s ANGELOLOGY, a young nun who’s been living in a convent since she was twelve years old, finds herself at the center of a battle between fallen angels and the scientists who’ve uncovered their secrets. It’s a thriller with literary appeal. There are chases, murders, and puzzles to solve—all testing humanity’s power over evil.

In this interview, Danielle and I talk about the process of writing and selling this book, including the fascinating tidbit that she didn’t set out to write about angels at all. Hope you enjoy our talk, and please feel free to jump into the conversation.

 

I want to talk to you about the dreaded unknown in this business. Our books were on submission at the same time, and I remember talking to you during that nervous wait. Everyone was saying the publishing market was at it’s worst, and I think both of us wondered if we’d just spent a lot of time writing books that wouldn’t sell. Talk to me about that process and how you coped with the wait and the self-doubt.

There is no doubt that writing is a labor of love. Every day that one goes to the desk and writes without a contract (or even an agent for many of us) is an act of faith. I have been doing this, however, for years and years and so perhaps the anxiety is something that I have gotten used to. I understand what it means to work on a book that doesn’t make it into the world. I went to the Iowa Writers Workshop in 2000 and graduated in 2002 with a manuscript (a novel) that was never published. It was heartbreaking, but I kept trying and eventually wrote FALLING THROUGH THE EARTH, my first book, which was a memoir.

I began to write ANGELOLOGY—my debut novel which was published on March 9th—without any real sense of what the industry was going through. I knew, of course, that novels are often difficult to sell. But I knew I wanted to write this novel and so I went ahead anyway. I quit teaching and worked full time on ANGELOLOGY.

And then, in the midst of all the awful publishing news, your book went to auction, and you had serious interest from both publishing and film companies. Tell me what was happening behind the scenes.

I was actually helping with a family emergency when the book went out to publishers and so the whole thing was a little surreal. Luckily, we had a lot of interest in the book almost immediately. My agent set up phone interviews and soon I was speaking with a number of incredibly smart editors about how the book could be edited and shaped. Then, a few days after ANGELOLOGY sold to Viking, there were three offers to purchase the film rights. It was surprising, especially because the film agent I had for Falling Through the Earth had passed on representing ANGELOLOGY and so I thought that the film rights would be more difficult to sell.

 

 

I was pretty shocked when I read this book. I wasn’t at all surprised at the marvelous writing, but I was surprised how different this book was from your first. FALLING THROUGH THE EARTH was an unflinching look at being raised by your father after the damage he was dealt as a Vietnam War tunnel rat. And now, you’ve not only moved on to fiction, but an intricate thriller, at that. Where did the idea for ANGELOLOGY come from, and do you see a connection in these two books?

I am the kind of writer who takes inspiration from a million places and then just begins writing. I discard a lot of material and rewrite endlessly. I started with Evangeline (who is the heroine of ANGELOLOGY) and I knew that I wanted to use certain settings—a convent, World War II Paris, the mountains of Bulgaria) but I didn’t have the central concept of the book until after I began writing. I went to a convent and stayed there for some time interviewing nuns and doing research in the archives. While I was there, I came across a lot of books about angels and became incredibly interested in the idea of the role that angels have played—their placement between heaven and earth, the ethereal and the material, their function as messengers of the divine. I came to love the ambiguity of their position and the possibility they offered narratively.

Fascinating that you didn’t begin with angels at all! Tell me about writing this book. How did you balance research (WWII, the legend of Orpheus, Paradise Lost, Rockefellers, convents) with story? Tell me something about your daily discipline, where you got stuck, how you got unstuck.

Reasearch was a huge part of writing ANGELOLOGY. I spent lots of time in the library, but I also went on research trips. I revisited the mountains in Bulgaria, went and found locations in Paris and spent a lot of time in museums studying Renaissance paintings of angels. The visual component of my research was probably the most rewarding, and also helped me to find the right physical descriptions for the creatures in my book. There is a gorgeous, eerie quality to the way angels have been traditionally represented. It makes our contemporary images of angels—especially the cute cherubs—seem utterly silly.

Some of this book is so horribly, deliciously dark. Even from the very beginning, when we learn about the young girl the convent was named after. Would you tell the story of Rose, and did you make that up, or did you pull from history?

The story of Saint Rose is real or, at least, it is considered real by those who venerate her.

Although she knew she risked being late, Sister Evangeline paused at the center of the hallway. Here, the image of Rose of Viterbo, the saint after whom the convent had been named, hung in a gilt frame, her tiny hands folded in prayer, an evanescent nimbus of light glowing about her head. St. Rose’s life had been short. Just after her third birthday, angels began to whisper to her, urging her to speak their message to all who would listen. Rose complied, earning her sainthood as a young woman, when, after preaching the goodness of God and His angels to a heathen village, she was condemned to die a witch. The townspeople bound her to a stake and lit a fire. To the great consternation of the crowd, Rose did not burn but stood in skeins of flame for three hours, conversing with angels as the fire licked her body. Some believed that angels wrapped themselves about the girl, covering her in a clear, protective armor. Eventually she died in the flames, but the miraculous intervention left her body inviolable. St. Rose’s incorrupt corpse was paraded through the streets of Viterbo hundreds of years after her death, not the slightest mark of her ordeal evident upon the adolescent body.

I want to finish up with some fun movie gossip. Who bought the rights to your book, and what can you say about the movie version so far?

Will Smith’s production company ended up buying the rights. Marc Forster—who directed the last James Bond film—will direct and Michael Goldenberg, who adapted Harry Potter for the screen—will adapt the screenplay. I know that they are moving forward quickly and that the screenplay is being written. I’m meeting with Michael Goldenberg this week to talk a bit about the adaptation and the sequel to ANGELOLOGY called ANGELOPOLIS. I’m really excited to see how the film reinterprets the book.

Can’t wait to see it! Thanks, Danielle, for your time and for your books.

 

***To read an excerpt from Angelology, please click here.

 

 

Here’s something that gnaws at most writers, whether they’re writing fiction or memoir: How much are you allowed to tell? Who owns our truths?

For several years I was a sexual abuse therapist. And what you learn right away, if you haven’t already learned it elsewhere, is how trauma is exacerbated by silence. Trying to fake that you’re fine, trying to keep a trauma a secret, trying to protect a family system or an abuser you also love – these are emotions that eat at the heart of a survivor. So why not just tell, right?

Not so fast. The moment you tell, you have also exposed a slew of others. You’ve exposed a family system and an entire network of secrets. And maybe worst of all, you’ve opened yourself up to the problem of all problems: whose perspective is right, and whose memory contains the real truth? Rarely, when a survivor speaks up, do others agree that the survivor described what happened accurately. And rarely is speaking up met with hugs and apologies.

Truth is a slippery thing. Let’s stay with the example of the survivor a little longer. Surviving a trauma involves many things including denial, dissociation, and possibly some coercion to process the abuse in some alternative way. A survivor who’s been abused by a family member may feel a number of emotions besides the fear that you might expect. They may like the attention of the abuser. Their body may react positively to the abuse, regardless of how their head responds. The abuser may have many likable traits, and the survivor may have many unlikable traits. This starts to make a mess of the survivor’s head because we don’t have a black-and-white situation anymore. Instead you have complicated and layered characters in a complicated and layered relationship. So the moment this survivor speaks up, there is plenty of room for others to argue the truth of what’s been said.

One advantage to writing essays or memoir is that you can speak your mind without interruption. You can tell the entire scope of a story or paint as large a picture as you need in order to express what you need to express or discover what you need to discover. It can be like traveling through hell to find truth or peace or order, but it can free you from the past, make you wiser, and allow you to connect with others who have no voice for their experience. Say, then, that you’ve done it, you’ve said what you needed to say and said it lovingly and yet fearlessly. Now is when you hope the real people within your story understand the way you see the world, they “get” you, they value your experience and how you’ve become the person you are and why you think or feel the way you do.

Ha ha! You know why I’m laughing, right? Because now your memory is out there for others to question and judge. What is true to you is not necessarily true to the other players in your story. And why is that? For starters, there are mistruths in even the most careful of memoirs: misremembered events, dialogue re-invented years or decades after the fact, things left out because they don’t seem important or because you wanted to quicken the pace, not to mention the blind spots we all have from seeing the world through our own lens for so long. And the final kicker: others don’t want to know or believe your truth because it would be disastrous to their psyche and their paradigm about how they fit into the world.

So, given that others are naturally intertwined with the stories we want to tell, where is that balance? I think the answer is different for each of us. And, of course, it’s complicated when you’re telling things that are true about your heart and your emotional experience of the world through fictional writing. But I’ll answer this question for me: I won’t read tepid writing, and I certainly don’t want to produce it. I like writing that goes where we’re afraid to go and says what we’re afraid to say in our real lives. Salman Rushdie says it better: “One of the things a writer is for is to say the unsayable, speak the unspeakable and ask difficult questions.”

Your thoughts?

Continuing my series, Evolution of the Book, this is a story of the all-consuming edits I began just after I got my first book deal. This is when everything still seemed salvageable.

Just back from vacation, and a lot of people have asked me, “How was Paris?” And while I had a fine time, my memory of this vacation has been all about editing my book. I got my edits back two months ago. And several weeks later, when I was able to pull myself out of the fetal position, I went to work, unstringing all the beautiful sentences I thought were finished to do the tough work of trying to make the book bigger and better than the original.

Editing a piece of writing is very much like taking a knitted sweater and having someone say, “Only small changes, really. Just re-do this bit in the shoulder. And maybe use an alternating color every other row.” And you know very well that this means you’ll have to unravel the entire sweater to make those changes, and once you have a pile of yarn, you have to trust that it will be a sweater again. That it will be a sweater that blows the original out of the water.

Luckily, while I was still in shock and calling myself stupid, failure, mediocre, and other favorite pet names I like to use, Mr. Henderson built me the most awesome, secret office, where I am typing this very blog and also rebuilding the sweater, so to speak.

To get to my office, you have to go through a wisteria tunnel.

The office is hidden in ivy.

And it has a door that’s hard to come across.

Here’s the inside. That’s Jack, one of my dogs. I should straighten that lampshade, I guess.

Maybe you noticed the doll in the window. It’s my first Barbie doll ever, and I got it this summer from the very awesome Heather Fowler. She sent outfits, too! I have to say I was tempted to cut Barbie’s hair and see what happens when you unscrew her head and stick firecrackers inside. Maybe this is why no one bought me a Barbie as a kid.

I sit at this desk for hours and hours every day. My desk is usually messier than that. And when I’m on a roll, there will be balled up pieces of paper all over the floor. (Man, I need some artwork on that wall. Over the couch, too.)

My mouse pad is a Roget’s thesaurus. I’ve had this one since high school and it’s falling apart.

I have the coolest view ever out this window. I should probably wash the window, huh?

There are little boxes all around, filled with whatever. This one has rattlesnake tails and bullet shells. Some have tampons and ponytail holders and gum.

This is a tricky section of the book, all laid out so I can see where the problem is. I keep that little bat-girl nearby because I think she’s made of the same stuff as the narrator of my book. I’ve tried to buy that print, but it’s sold out, so I’ve got my eye on Ray Caesar, and next time I love something, I won’t be so slow about it.

There you go – a quickie office tour. Mr. Henderson built the whole thing and painted it and put up the molding and sewed the curtains. It’s an absolutely awesome gift, and now I need to make good use of it and edit this little book the best I know how.

A story of what happens when you tell people you’re a writer before you’ve actually published anything…

Once, when it was career day at the elementary school, Mr. H and I were invited in to talk about our jobs. I went first and talked about my love of reading and the process of writing and editing. And then I asked the children if they had questions.

“Did you write Harry Potter?”

“No.”

“Did you write The Cat in the Hat?”

“No.” This was only funny maybe the first or second time and then it wore off.

Finally the teacher stepped in to help – “Mrs. Henderson, tell us what books you did write.”

Too embarrassed to tell the truth, that there was no book to buy, I answered cryptically, “They’re not really for children.” This forever after branded me as an assumed writer of erotica.

Then Mr. Henderson entered the classroom to discuss costuming actors for plays. He used my son as an example of an actor – creating fake bruises and cuts on him to look like he’d been in a fight.

He was supposed to wash off the make-up but he went home on the bus all beat up. I asked him, “So, how do you think it went today?”

“Great,” he said, “Everyone in my class wants to be a costume designer.”

Pierre Berg spent 18 months as a prisoner in a Nazi death camp, and wrote down his story not long after his escape. In his first-ever interview, Pierre gives his unromantic view of survival, tells how he makes use of the serial number tattooed on his arm, and hopes to find a publisher for his memoir, SCHEISSHAUS LUCK: THE REMEMBRANCES OF A FRENCH TEEN IN AUSCHWITZ. Here’s the opening to his book:

If you’re seeking a Holocaust survivor’s memoir with a profound philosophical or poetic statement on the reasons six million Jews and many millions of other unlucky souls were slaughtered and why a person like myself survived the Nazi camps, you’ve opened the wrong book. I’d be lying if I said I knew the reason why or if I even believed there is a reason I’m still alive. As far as I’m concerned it was all shithouse luck, which is to say – inelegantly – that I kept landing on the right side of the randomness of life.

Describe the town you grew up in, and what your life was like before the Nazis occupied France. What had your attention, what did you dream of becoming, what did you cherish, what did you worry about?

I grew up in Nice, which is on the Mediterranean coast. At that time it was the fourth largest city in France. I was going to school and doing as much fishing as I could in my spare time. I was 14 when the war started, so I’d have to say girls and politics occupied most of my attention at that time. It was hard to think about any long-term, future goals when Hitler was causing such confusion in Europe and the French government was so unstable. At that time I entertained the thought of going into the Navy so I could see all the French colonies.

What did I cherish? Like a typical teenager, the neighborhood girls.

What did I worry about? As 1939 approached I worried more and more about the possibility of a war in France.

Pierre Berg, one year after WWII

Most of us are familiar with the yellow triangles Jews were forced to wear on their clothes. Why did you wear a red triangle? And how did you end up at Auschwitz?

A red triangle was for political prisoners, basically anybody who wasn’t a Nazi. When I was picked up in 1943, the Gestapo and collaborating millice were at times almost randomly picking up people to use them as slave labor for the Nazi war effort. I was picked up because I stopped to visit a school friend whose house was being raided by the Gestapo. Somehow they had found out that he had a shortwave radio, which he and I used to entertain our school friends. I knocked on the door and found a Luger in my face.

I was going to be sent from a camp in Paris, Drancy, to another camp in France, but I made the mistake of asking for the return of my confiscated money. What I didn’t know at the time was that the Gestapo were occupying my parents’ house and cleaning it out.

Tell me what was happening to your parents at the time.

My father had leukemia and a couple of weeks before I was arrested my mother escorted him to a hospital in the French Alps. When they arrived back in Nice the Gestapo officers were living in our house. My mother said they were walking up our street and could see an officer in the window, so they stayed with friends and relatives until the Allied troops pushed the Germans out of France. When I arrived home almost every piece of furniture, paintings, and family heirlooms were gone. The Nazis had even found a box of my mother’s jewelry that I had buried in our backyard.

It was my Dad’s leukemia that brought us to the United States. He had heard that there was a doctor in Los Angeles that was using the fall-out from hydrogen bombs on cancer patients. It was an experimental treatment and it more or less quickened my father’s death.

Is there a person or an image or a sound or smell from your time at Auschwitz that you can share with me?

The way you phrased this question, asking if there was a smell from my time in Auschwitz made me remember something that isn’t in my memoir. I was on a work detail digging trenches and laying pipes at the massive IG Farben chemical plant. A co-worker went to use the toilet, which was an open ditch with a plank over it that you would perch yourself on. The plank broke and he was floundering in a stinking, gooey pool of human waste. He couldn’t climb out and we were trying to pull him up with our shovels when a SS guard came over. He asked why we weren’t working and we pointed to our comrade down below, who was clinging to one of the shovels. The guard said, “He’s too messy. He’s not worth cleaning.” He then shot him and chased us back to work. Witnessing SS guards shooting prisoners was a common occurrence in my 18 months of captivity.

Tell me about your tattoo. Do you remember who gave it to you and the context of getting tattooed? What was your feeling then, and what is it now, to carry that mark?

This is from my memoir:

“At the first table, a son of a Warsaw haberdasher sewed the number, 172649, onto my jacket and pants. I sat down at the next table where a German prisoner wrote my name and serial number on a card. From the corner of my eye, I watched alarmed as the man next to me got tattooed. The bleeding numbers were taking up his whole forearm. The German processing me grabbed my left arm, dipped his pen into his white, porcelain inkstand and attacked my forearm with fast, little jabs. I clenched my teeth, but the physical pain was less than the stinging realization that the numbers 172649 meant I was now officially property of the Third Reich.

“Will this ever come off?”

He shook his head. “It’s permanent.”

Considering that I’m stuck with my tattoo, I put it to practical use. I’ve used it as a PIN number and I play the lottery with it. Matter of fact I need to walk down to the liquor store and buy a ticket this afternoon. I won’t allow myself to look at it as a negative.

How does a healthy teenager stay sane in the midst of such horror? Did you vacate emotionally? Did you create some kind of meaning in your days there? Did you hold to anything specific from the past or the future to get you through?

On a daily basis I disassociated myself from what was happening around me. I did not allow myself to dwell on the cruelty that I witnessed, and that was a constant, minute-to-minute struggle. There are certain events that are fresh in my mind… No, really it is people’s faces that are vibrant in my mind’s eye as if I had seen them a half hour ago.

I would self-hypnotize myself to think I was standing on the warm shoreline of Nice while I was ankle deep in icy sludge. There was one person I did think about a lot and hoped to see again when I was free. While in the camp in Paris I met and fell for a 16 year old red head, Stella. We were both transported to Auschwitz and my memories of our times together helped keep my morale up.

Do you know what happened to Stella?

Susan, I don’t know how to answer that without giving away the ending of my memoir. Hmmm…

While I was in Wustrow I stayed with a German ex-Communist truck driver, who the Red Army made the mayor of the town. Because I could speak four languages, he asked me to be his police officer. Wustrow was getting an influx of displaced people, the majority of them former concentration camp prisoners, who came to our one room city hall seeking help. Most wanted information on how to get home, but there were many women who came to report being raped by Red Army soldiers (There were also many Germen women in and around Wustrow who were coming in to report being raped, too). I always asked the former female prisoners if they ever came across a young French woman with red hair.

One day a group of displaced women were gathered in the center of Wustrow. By the striped pajamas a couple of them were wearing I knew they had been in Auschwitz. I asked if they had known of a girl named Stella. One of them said that they had left a handful of sick women at an abandoned farm and thought that one of them was French and named Stella. I went to the farm, which was in reality a hunting lodge. I found six bodies in a chicken coop. One of them could have been Stella, she had red hair, but I’ll never be 100% sure.

I’m not sure how to word this question but I desperately want to know if you sang while you were there, or if you created any sort of art or anything at all.

I didn’t sing this song, put I did hum it in Auschwitz. I don’t remember the title of the song, but I can give you a verse of it in French: “Terre enfin libre ou nous pouvons reviver aimer, aimer” – “Place where we are free to live and love, love.”

We were singing this song when we left France for Auschwitz.

I had my friend, Kevin Dolgin, track down and translate the song for me. Here is a link to an MP3 of it. It’s called, “Le Chant des Marais.”

In the portion of the memoir you sent me, you said that the false identification papers you gave up when you were captured made it impossible for your parents to trace you. Did you see your parents again? And if so, what did they believe happened to you when you had gone missing for over a year?

Even if I had handed the Gestapo my true papers there would have been no way for my parents to trace me to Auschwitz. The Nazis kept detailed records, but it was for their own benefit. For everyone else it was a secret. Neighbors informed my parents that I had been picked up, but they had no idea where I was or what I was going through until I returned home. For those 18 months They had no idea if I was alive or dead.

How strange was it to try to return to a normal life? Where do store that trauma?

I spent 6 weeks in Wustrow, Germany at the end of the war recovering so I could have enough strength to walk to the American lines, which were on the other side of the Elbe River (about 300 miles). Then I had to take a train to Paris and was in a military hospital for 5 weeks before I took a train home. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I had time to adapt to my newfound freedom before I arrived back home. The only thing I found difficult to adapt to was school. I just couldn’t concentrate and maybe that was because of trauma. I have to admit I never gave it much thought.

This photo comes from the Holocaust Museum.

Tell me the meaning of “Scheisshaus Luck” and how you chose it for the title of your memoir.

Scheisshaus Luck translates to shithouse luck, which means a lucky coincidence, and it was lucky coincidences that kept me alive for those 18 months. While I was working with Brian he commented one day that I always joked that it was shithouse luck that I survived, and he thought it would make a good title for my memoir. I agreed.

You and Brian have chosen to tell your story as close to the point of view as you journaled it as a teenager. Talk to me about that decision, and why your insights all these years later were not a part of this memoir.

At 83, I don’t feel I have any new or fresh insight on the Holocaust; on why it happened and what can be done to prevent it from happening again. Seemingly we haven’t learned a thing and there have been so many books published and monuments built. Genocide has continued to happen constantly on this planet since the end of WWII.

I wrote my original remembrances two years after the war and Brian and I decided that we didn’t want to give a history lesson and that placing the reader in my 18 year old shoes would have more impact then listening to an old fart pontificate. In my original remembrances, which I wrote when I arrived in Los Angeles with my family, I left out many events to spare my Mother who was typing my hand written pages. I wanted to spare her, censoring myself in a way I guess.

Given what you’ve lived through, have you any thoughts on what is happening in the world today? Any wisdom or opinion you’d like to share?

Like I said before, sadly we haven’t learned a thing. People still will follow dictators. I don’t want to sound completely negative because the response of my friends on MySpace gives me hope that maybe some day as a human race we will wake up.

Tell me about your life now. What are you passionate about? What do love? What hurts you? What do you want to give or receive in this half of your life?

I usher at a couple of theaters here in Los Angeles and that keeps me busy and happy. You meet a lot of different people that way and I get a lot of cigarette breaks (I’ve been smoking since I was 10 years old).

What do I love? I love my girlfriend of 35 years. What hurts me? Neo-Nazis and skinheads who say the Holocaust never happened.

At my age, I’m running out of time but I’d like to see peace on earth, or at least see more of us treating one another with kindness. And I’d like to see my memoir published.

Thanks for being here, my friend.

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You can visit Pierre on MySpace. Thanks for stopping by!

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Postscript: Pierre has now published his book, SCHEISSHAUS LUCK. Please check it out!