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When I met first met Michelle Toth, a dozen years ago, she was pulling together a massive party to promote the work of her favorite artists – a writer, an architect, a photographer, and the wonderful independent filmmaker Shandi Garrison.

It was the first party I’d been to in which the whole point was to connect people to art. More than two hundred folks showed up. Everyone checked out the art. Then we got drunk and flirted and checked out the art some more. Some hooking up transpired.

In the ensuing years, Michelle has remained the busiest patron of the arts I know. She works insane hours as a consultant in New York City, travels constantly, and serves on the Board of Directors of Grub Street, Boston’s non-profit writing center.

To put it bluntly: if Michelle were elected president – and I would happily campaign on her behalf – artists would be accorded the love and respect we bestow upon athletes and movie stars.

I feel it necessary to make all this clear, because it begins to suggest how shocking it was to learn that Michelle has also, for the past decade, been leading a secret life as a novelist.

The only reason I know this is because, several months ago, she sent me a copy of her novel, Annie Begins, which had already received glowing reviews from Publisher’s Weekly and Library Journal.

It took me all of three days to read the book, a smart and funny romance that chronicles the life of 29-year-old Annie Thompson, whose brilliant professional decisions are matched by her dismal romantic choices.

Just as surprising was the fact that Michelle – a graduate of Harvard Business School – decided to launch her own publishing company to release Annie Begins, rather signing on with a traditional publisher.

We talked about all this, via the internet, from many different cities.

 

So the first thing I have to ask is pretty basic: When did you find time to write a friggin novel? I ask because my sense is that your “day job” eats up at least 60 hours a week.

It’s true that I have a demanding day job, but I’m a perfectionist who can procrastinate to a stunning degree in the absence of time constraints. So, my busy schedule helps me because my writing time is precious and stolen, and I tend to be far more productive than if I had more freedom. For Annie, I wrote late at night and in marathon chunks on the weekends, for ten or fourteen hours a day. That’s how I got the first draft done, and I loved nearly every minute of it. Then came revisions, which took, approximately, forever.  And was slightly less of a lovefest.

 

You’ve talked about starting to write Annie Begins as a screenplay. But at a certain point you had to commit to writing a real novel, and we all know how lonely and difficult that is. Was there a moment when you realized what you were up against? Did you ever consider quitting?

I never, ever considered quitting, but I was often at risk of not finishing (and there is a difference, right? One involves an actual decision, and the other is avoiding one).  I can remember talking to my earliest manuscript consultant, our mutual friend Eve Bridburg at Grub Street, and asking—hopefully, exhaustedly—if she thought I was close to done. She told me “No, I’d say you have three more drafts to do,” and I nearly wept.  I kept going, and by the end, I had fully utilized the Drawer Technique and put the manuscript away for quite a while, returning to it when I was ready to fall in love with Annie again.

 

You capture a bunch of dynamics in the novel incredibly well — the manic rhythms of working at a start-up, falling for an unavailable dude, etc. — so I have to ask: how much of the material in AB is autobiographical?

I’m a first-time novelist, so I definitely followed the mantra to “write what you know.” Annie and a much younger me have many things in common, and candidly that was a decision I made so I could focus on storytelling and not research for my first time out.  I did think it would be good to develop a character that was simultaneously talented in business and sometimes painfully misguided in relationships. To me, this is both semi-autobiographical and practically universal! I’ve gotten hundreds of comments on how relatable Annie is for being a smartypants who can’t always read the writing on the man-wall.

The most autobiographical part of the novel is the storyline about the little girl, who is modeled after my young cousin Kaitlin who became terminally ill, and before she died was determined to find me a husband. She is the one who inspired me to write, because I wanted to tell stories about how tragedies can, paradoxically, make our lives better because they tear into our soul and teach us who we are. And life is simply better when we know who we are.

 

Can you talk about how you decided to publish Annie Begins? (Specifically, why you started your own publishing company)

I briefly considered going the more traditional route, but waiting for weeks or months for overburdened agents to respond was just so depressing, and in parallel I was captivated by the way the industry is changing and wanted to be focused on the forward-moving part of that.  I talked to industry pros and did the math — in the time it would take me to find an agent and get the book sold and onto shelves, I could start a virtual company and have two years of experience in indie publishing and promotion to use for the benefit of my book — even if I did end up with opportunities in traditional publishing.  I was far more attracted and suited to the entrepreneurial path and liked the idea of eventually helping others to do the same thing.

 

Where do you see the publishing world moving?

With thanks to technology, the power is shifting toward authors and the industry is reorganizing itself to allow many more models for putting together books (and other formats of writing) and getting them to readers. The roles are morphing and blending: Author as self-publisher, agent as self-publishing consultant, retailer as publisher.

I think a big thing to watch is who holds the closest relationship to the reader.  With social media and good email list management, authors will be able to keep the emotional connection to readers while companies like Amazon.com will increasingly have the tightest commercial relationship because they have the most data and sophisticated analytics. Traditional publishers generally do not, and that has been a problem in terms of their ability to know readers.

As the significance of paper declines I don’t see how big publishing can avoid adapting their pricing and terms to be more writer-friendly, but I suspect they’ll do this as slowly as possible because they have such a high cost structure to support. Lastly, because of the ease of publishing there will continue to be a flood of books available, and therefore an increased need for unbiased resources to help people find good books that they like.

 

See, this is why I’m glad you became a publisher yourself – because you clearly understand the business side of things, but your heart lies with the artists. So what’s next for your house, sixoneseven?

I’ve been approached by a number of entrepreneurial authors about using sixoneseven to produce their own books, which I find exciting because we’d be inventing a new, more writer-centered way of publishing.  I’m also working on my second book, featuring several minor characters from Annie Begins which picks up a decade later, with a new family crisis. And if you’ll excuse me, it’s one AM so I need to go start writing now.

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STEVE ALMOND (www.stevenalmond.com.) is the author of three short story collections, most recently God Bless America.

2 responses to “Michelle Toth Begins: An Interview”

  1. Irene Zion says:

    “Annie Begins” got five stars on Amazon and can be downloaded onto Kindle likety-split. Just did it.

  2. Patricia Ann McNair says:

    A fascinating piece. Thank you. With publishers putting more money into best-selling choices, it is refreshing to find someone who is unwilling to let the big guys keep her from getting her work out in a timely and professional way.

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