This interview was done with Alice Klein in December 2007 and is online at www.simegen.com.
What did you do before you became a writer?
I've been a writer since I was 10 and have always written stories in one form or another. My first short story was written with my childhood friend Kathy Kellogg McCalla (we're still close friends to this day) and was about a lost dog. I went on to major in journalism in college and wrote for school newspapers in college and law school. In the 1990s I concentrated mostly on short stories until I began my first novel, Uneven Advantage. The book Bitter Tastes came out of one of those short stories.
How long have you been writing?
Since I was 10.
What led you to pursue a career in writing?
It was December 2002 when I received two important letters on the same day: one from an agent who wanted to represent me and another from a correspondence course on copywriting. I pursued both of them. In May 2003, I had the chance to leave real estate law and go after writing full time. While the money isn't as steady as a semi-monthly paycheck, I've never had a day where I didn't want to write.
Do you write full-time or do you support yourself with another job?
While I consider myself a full-time writer, I do have a 2-day a week part-time job. It's nice because it gets me out of my solitary little writing hole and has me interacting with people. That's a good thing for an extrovert! It's also helped me land some copywriting assignments and book signings with schools.
How has being a lawyer and a copywriter influenced your writing?
When you go to law school you're taught to think differently. It's a much different course of logic and it has helped me puzzle out whether a particular story line would be believable. For writers, especially children's writers, the story must be believable. I have a wonderful fiction student who is writing her first novel. The biggest challenge she has is to make the details believable to her age range. Harry Potter was instantly believable because the kids are in a setting other kids understand: school. A class is a class whether it's in magic potions or math. Copywriting helps me remember to keep it tight: say what you have to say in as few words as possible while still creating the urgency and uniqueness of your own voice.
You enjoy writing for kids. Do you intend to keep writing exclusively for them or broadening your writing into other areas?
I love to write. Right now I'm on my kid's series but I'll always have a fondness for adult protagonists too. I didn't want to say "adult fiction" - you never know how that might be construed! My first novel was for adults but I've had kids read it. Part of the reason I started writing for kids is that my sister-in-law, upon reading Uneven Advantage, said "You write so clean! You should write for kids!" The sequel to Uneven Advantage is called Debits&Credits and is in a drawer right now. I started it years ago but it wasn't going anywhere - I felt like I was struggling just for the plot line. That's when it's time to put it away for a while.
The Kathy & Martha Mystery Series with Stargazer Press is going to be 5-6 books. I'm currently in the weeds with my final plot twist on the second book, Mudder - an elaborate treasure hunt at a sleep-over camp - that unveils the thief. The third in the series is Legally Blind and that hasn't even been plotted out yet. Then I have a whole new direction to go in: an historical novel for kids.
My biggest challenge will be to write Helen's Gift, a book I've been thinking about for a while. It's about Helen Stamm who finds out who she is by learning who she isn't.
Who or what has influenced you the most in your writing?
My parents, particularly my Mom. I wrote Uneven Advantage under a pen name as a tribute to her: Toria Gaunt. Gaunt is my Mom's maiden name. She was a voracious reader - mostly mysteries - but loved the written word. She encouraged me to write stories.
How long did it take before you were published?
Well, I was published as a journalist long before I was published as a short story writer or novelist. I decided to bring out Uneven Advantage as a POD or print on demand book. It's a way for authors, new and veteran, to publish something themselves without paying huge bucks.
Then I have the glorious job of being senior editor with Stargazer Press. It's a thrill for me to help other writers shape their stories. When Robyn Whyte asked if I'd written anything, I sent her Bitter Tastes and she put me under contract.
Where do you get the ideas for your books?
Everywhere. Mudder sprang from watching my then-puppy, Emma (she's now almost 7) play and wondering what would happen if she had a disability. Bitter Tastes came out of a short story I'd written years before that I adapted to a kid's mystery. Ideas are all around you; you just have to decide which ones you're interested in and go forward. Lack of propulsion is a writer's death knell.
Where do your characters come from? Real life? A conglomerate of people you know?
Definitely conglomerates of people I know. I try to make sure they can't recognize themselves, though. I've had friends read my stories and say, "Oh, that's me, isn't it?" It might be. Characteristics come from real life: someone who chews their nails or are superstitious and wear nothing but turtlenecks, that sort of thing.
Do you do a lot of research before you write?
It depends on the story. For the historical novel, yes, I'll be doing tons of research. For Bitter Tastes, I put it in a setting I'd visited many times before: Ocracoke Island, North Carolina. Only I called it "Warner". I think the amount of research is tailored to the story and habits of the writer.
Is there any other genre you want to expand to? Which one?
I think the only other genre besides mysteries I'd be interested in getting into is literary fiction. That's a big, fat, broad genre and one that not many write in, really. Helen's Gift will be literary fiction. For the most part, I write what I read: mysteries.
Do you have a special place you like to write?
I write mostly in my office at home but I also like to go to a local library and snag a study room. That prevents me from being pulled away by laundry or dogs or the phone. I also write every first draft in longhand so all I have to take is my notebook. I've had lots of people be astounded at that factoid. But the physical act of putting pencil to paper connects me to every word.
Do you write without fail every day? Or loads at once?
I write 5 days a week. I do try to reserve the weekends for play except when the muse is dancing on my head - then I write 7 days a week.
How much do you read?
I read a lot. Right now I'm reading 3 books: Rescuing Sprite by Mark Levin, The Best American Short Stories, and Abiding Shepherds, a Jan Karon Mitford Christmas book. Every good writer needs to be a great reader.
Who are your favorite authors and why?
For juvenile fiction I love Scott O'Dell who wrote Island of the Blue Dolphins. I think I fancied myself, in 5th grade, a girl who could survive on an island, swimming in the clear blue water (even though the Pacific Ocean isn't clear). His imagery spoke to me. I also had the joy of reading Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants by Ann Brashares last year. Fantastic!
For adult fiction, I love Lisa Scottoline, Kathy Reichs, John Grisham, David Baldacci.
What are your feelings toward reviewers?
Many artists say they don't read reviews but we all do at some point. It can be really hard to read a negative review and just toss it off. Humans aren't hard wired that way. I love it when someone enjoys one of my stories and try to remember that any artistic venture is subjective and not everyone is going to like what I do.
What are your feelings toward today's publishing industry?
It's getting harder and harder to get a foot in the door. I spent years running after big time agents and publishers and finally stopped. Not because I'd failed but because I was finished with that exercise. If I had my pick of agents it would be Molly Freidrich of The Aaron Priest Agency in New York. Even her rejection letter was wonderful!
There are so many more options for writers today than ever before. Don't be afraid to experiment and don't put blinders on to smaller publishing houses and presses.
What are your thoughts on e-books versus printed paperbacks or hard cover? Are they the wave of the future?
Oh, there's a big part of me that never wants to see the demise of the printed book. There's something comforting about holding a book, sipping hot chocolate in front of the fire on a snowy, cold night. It just doesn't feel the same sitting at my computer.
But I also write and sell ebooks as part of my garden writing business, www.myfrugalgardener.com http://www.myfrugalgardener.com as well as with my business partners in 3 Chix Seminars, www.3chix.com <http://www.3chix.com>. So I can't say that I don't participate in that venture.
Is it the wave of the future? I'm hoping that print and virtual books can occupy the same space for a long time.
How do you feel about self-publishing?
I think self publishing is the way to go to have a product out there. I wouldn't go the vanity press route where you're required to put up sometimes as much as $10,000. I'd go POD where you pay a small set up fee and then get paid royalties. Books are printed as they are sold.
I think self-publishing gets a bad rap. Like it's the ugly step sister of publishing. It's not for everyone but if you're an unknown, it's a good way to have an actual book to show an agent or publisher instead of just a manuscript. It also teaches you invaluable lessons about marketing.
What advice would you give someone just starting out?
Write, write, write. And try not to write with dollar signs in your head. Do it because you love to do it.
What books do you have planned in the near future?
Well, I need to finish Mudder and get it to my publisher. Then comes the historical novel for kids and after that Legally Blind. That should cover me for about the next 5 years or so. It really takes a long time to write a solid novel. Tons of rewrites. I love to take old manuscripts to schools where I speak so kids can see what a novel looks like before it's in print. Most are amazed.
Could you give us a brief preview of the next one?
In Mudder, Kathy and Martha attend a summer sleep-over camp in Western North Carolina. It's the story of Kathy, who desperately wants to rescue a lost Golden retriever and catch the camp's thief but can't when she becomes a prime suspect herself. She names the Golden retriever Mudder because he's filthy from nose to tail when she first finds him - and he has a disability just like she does.
Do you have any book signings/appearances in the future?
I don't have anything formal set up but I'm supposed to go to some schools and speak after the first of the year.
I love that you donate a percentage of the money from the sales of your books to local literacy projects. Share a little about that with us please.
I think part of being a writer is being able to give back. I know that seems to be a celebrity mantra these days but it's true. I regularly donate a portion of proceeds to literacy projects and, my fave donee, public libraries. More and more kids are reading below grade level and part of the reason, I think, is because everything has become so visual. When I was growing up in the '60s, my parents read a lot and inspired me to do it too. In the summer, we would pick books to read together and it helped me read at higher levels.
I've been known to challenge parents to read with their kids and talk about the books. It takes time and effort but it's well worth it.
An ice cream flavor named after you? Great. Tell us about that.
Actually, the ice cream flavor was named for Bitter Tastes when I did an appearance at Short Lane Ice Cream Company in Gloucester, Virginia this past summer. It was the featured flavor that week: Mystery Mint Twist. It was a mix of lemon and peppermint that was delicious and sold quite well. Kim Williams makes her own ice cream at Short Lane and it was such an honor to have her make a flavor for the book.
In what kind of venues can we find your books?
You can find them in Borders, on the web at my website,http://www.vbrosendahl.com and, of course, on my publisher's site, http://hwww.stargazerpress.com. If you order through my site, you can send me an email if you'd like it to be autographed for someone special.
Is there anything else you would like to mention that I haven't asked about?
I coach fiction students and have some openings for 2008. If anyone is interested, please go to my website, http://www.vbrosendahl.com and click the fiction coaching tab.