Yes, indeed, I do! It just so happens I partner with two outrageously talented writers (Sharon Short and Kristina McBride) in a venture called Write Sisters Consulting. Check us out!
WHERE DID YOU GET THE IDEA FOR THE BLESSINGS OF THE ANIMALS?
All my novels center around a social issue I care deeply about. In this fourth novel, that social issue is marriage. Lots of people will probably assume I wrote about a protagonist getting divorced because I got divorced myself, but I was working on this novel long before my own divorce happened (Honest! Ask my ex!) The seed for the story was planted one day when I heard two radio stories back to back. The first story was a report on how marriage as an institution is becoming irrelevant in Western Society. If you look at the historical reasons that marriage has existed, it is true that those reasons no longer exist…but has marriage become unnecessary? My knee-jerk reaction to a radio story was, “Of course it’s necessary!” but I was troubled by the fact that I couldn’t think of clear support to articulate why.
Immediately following that story was a report on same-sex marriage and the Defense of Marriage Act. I was struck by the fact that here we have half of legal marriages ending divorce, fewer and fewer heterosexual people choosing to marry at all, the people who held the right to marry being awfully cavalier about it…and yet here was a group of people fighting to get the right. So many things interested me about the contrast. I found myself thinking about it often in the days that followed…and a new story started to take shape.
HOW DO YOU GET PUBLISHED?
I can share with you how I got published, but please remember there are many, many paths to publication. Here’s the short version: I’d been working on my first novel (Traveling Light) for many years. I’d attended classes and conferences, read every book on writing I could my hands on, applied everything I’d learned from those classes and books to my manuscript, and had revised the novel repeatedly. I’d found local writers with whom to workshop (share work and get feedback) and I’d polished the book to the best of my ability. I’d also read everything I could get my hands on about the how-to-get published process. I had finally (ONLY after feeling my book was finally as ready as I could make it on my own) begun to research and query agents.
It was during the summer I’d started sending off query letters that I found myself in the unusual position of having an editor interested before I had an agent. That’s not how it usually happens.
I was attending the wonderful Antioch Writers’ Workshop in Yellow Springs, Ohio—where they host at least one guest editor and guest agent each year. I attended the guest editor’s session and found her very bubbly and friendly, but because she said her publishing house only accepted manuscripts submitted by an agent, I thought, “Oh, well.” That evening I was selected by my fiction class to read the first chapter of Traveling Light to the rest of the conference. The editor attended that reading.
Oh, did I mention that I was a Work Fellow for this conference? I received free tuition in exchange for a certain number of hours of work for the conference. One of my jobs? Driving guests back and forth to the Dayton Airport.
The next morning, when I picked up the guest editor at 5:30 AM (after a horrific thunder storm the night before than knocked out power for most of the town), her first words upon getting in my car were, “I really liked what you read last night. Is that book finished?”
I said it was, she asked several questions about it, and we talked about my book most of the way to the airport. I thought she was just being polite and making conversation, (since we were at a writing conference it makes sense to be polite and ask about someone’s writing, right?). The drive was very foggy from the storm and sure enough, her flight was delayed. This was pre 9-11, so I could actually have breakfast with her while she waited for her flight. Before she finally left, she gave me her card and invited me to send her the manuscript.
I did, the next day.
Months later she called to say she loved it and that her publishing house wanted to buy it. “Do you have an agent?” she asked. When I paused, she said, “You shouldn’t have trouble finding one now.”
So, there it is. Not the usual path to publication, but a fun story. Some people are a bit dismissive of the story. Lots of people say, “Wow. You sure were at the right time and the right place.” I was with my editor once when someone said that. And she responded, “She was at the right place at the right time with a finished manuscript.”
That’s the moral of the story. THAT’S how you get published. Write a book you believe in. Do not hurry. Make the book the best possible work you can. Do your homework: there are a bazillion and one books out there about how to find an agent, as well as a bazillion and one blogs about how the publishing process works. There is no magic ticket. There is no mystery. It just takes research and preparation.
Networking doesn’t hurt! Putting yourself in the position to meet agents and editors is always helpful. Go to conferences! Meet people. Make connections.
But remember, my editor’s first question was, “Is that book finished?” She admitted later that had I said no, she probably wouldn’t have asked any more about it.
So the first step toward getting published? Write the book! Revise the book. Have a polished, workshopped, interesting book you’re passionate about.
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO ASPIRING WRITERS?
To write your book. I don’t mean to be flippant, but there’s a great Isaac Asimov quote: “It’s the writing that teaches you.” Once you have a story actually on paper, you can then begin to edit and revise and learn from it. As long as you’re talking about a story as an abstract idea, you’ve got nothing.
Also, start writing NOW. Don’t wait for some ideal day when you’re going to have a giant chunk of time fall into your lap. If your life is anything like mine, then that’s never going to happen! I wrote the first draft of Traveling Light in two hour slots on Saturdays over the course of two years. I told myself that every single Saturday of my life, I could find two hours that were mine that I could carve out as writing time. It was difficult, and sometimes those two hours were found in the wee, wee hours, but I did it. A few Saturdays fell on holidays so I “made up” those hours on other days.
Soon, I discovered those two hours a week were not enough and I became more creative and flexible at finding more time. I compare it to being in love. You know when you meet someone new and you’re in that breathless, exhilarating, all-consuming stage of a crush? You will do anything—rearrange schedules, skimp on sleep, overcome impossible logistics—to be with that beloved person? Well, you need to feel that passionate about what you’re writing. If you’re not (if I’m not, anyway), you shouldn’t be writing this particular story.
Also—honor your apprenticeship. Care about craft. Learn everything you can about good writing. Don’t be in a hurry. Remember that all of the other art forms or sports take years of practice and exercising of your skills. If you care about good writing, and you truly study the craft of writing fiction, and you make your goal to write the best story you can possibly write as opposed to making your goal simply “to get published,” you will be a better writer. And a better writer will have an easier time getting published.
WHERE DID YOU GET THE IDEA FOR THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS?
The seed of the story came when I met a ten-year-old boy who was HIV+ during one of my school residencies. His birth parents, now in prison, were a white couple from an affluent suburb who had prostituted him for drug money; he had contracted the virus from this abuse. His story devastated me, but his personality, resilience, and great, sly sense of humor inspired me even more. He had been adopted by a wonderful new family. Although this novel is not his story, he was the genesis behind it. I hope the novel captures the strength and triumph of his life.
When I started researching this novel, I was horrified to learn that his story was not at all unique. I became aware of how common child sexual abuse was, and I was angry that I had never heard anyone discuss this or ways to prevent it.
HOW CAN I BECOME MORE EDUCATED ABOUT CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE?
I highly recommend you become acquainted with the amazing organization Darkness to Light. They say, “Preventing child sexual abuse is a job for grown-ups. There are things we can do to protect our children. Start with this free booklet: ‘Seven Steps to Protecting Our Children from Sexual Abuse.’ You’ll learn how to prevent, recognize, and react responsibly to child sexual abuse. To view it right now, download the information at the website: www.darkness2light.org.”
ARE THE PERPETRATORS IN THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS BASED ON ANYONE REAL?
No. The book is entirely fiction. But the perpetrators could be based on any one of thousands of cases that happen every day to children in our country.
WHY DID YOU CHANGE OAKWOOD TO “OAKHAVEN”?
Many Dayton-area readers recognize that the small, lovely, affluent suburb of Dayton called Oakwood was the thinly disguised model for the fictional Oakhaven of The Kindness of Strangers. I changed it for the sole reason that I wanted the freedom to be fictional instead of tied completely to facts, especially since I had scenes set in schools.
The location is in no way meant to be a slam against Oakwood (where I was once a very happy resident), but a slam against the crime—and the fact that this crime happens even in the most seemingly safe of places.
I’ve had lots of people ask if anyone in Oakwood was ever offended by the book, and I’m happy to report that although I’m asked that question very frequently, I have never ever heard from any Oakwood residents who were unhappy with the book. I’ve attended dozens of Oakwood book clubs to discuss the novel. I believe anyone who actually reads the book recognizes that the community is presented in a very positive light.
CAN YOU SHARE THE RECIPE FOR THAT FABULOUS CAKE DANNY IS MAKING IN THE OPENING AND CLOSING CHAPTERS OF THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS?
With pleasure! This is the great buttermilk chocolate cake my friend Bill Anderson, a great cook (and the best damn pie baker in all of West Virginia) made for me years ago.
1 and a half cups sugar
2 Tablespoons Crisco
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups flour
1 cup HOT water
2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 cup cocoa
1 cup buttermilk
Black or red raspberry preserves
-Cream 1 and a half cups of sugar with a stick of real butter and 2 Tablespoons of Crisco
-Add 2 eggs and one teaspoon vanilla
-Sift 2 cups of flour in a different bowl
-in one cup of HOT water, paste 2 teaspoons baking soda and 1/2 cup of cocoa
-start beating flour into creamed mixture, and alternate between flour and cocoa paste
-add 1 cup buttermilk
The batter will be THIN
Pour the batter into two 9-inch layer pans—buttered and dusted with cocoa
Bake 30 minutes at 300 degrees
After the cakes have cooled, sandwich with raspberry preserves (black or red). This cake is best served the next day, when the preserves have really “invaded” the cake.
BROWN SUGAR FROSTING
Cream 1 cup butter and 1 cup dark packed brown sugar—melt the butter, then add sugar and bring to a boil for two minutes—keep stirring!
Add 1/4 cup milk
Add 1 and 3/4 cup powdered sugar
The frosting will be almost fudge-like. You can thin it with hot water. You just glop it so it runs down the sides of of the cake. It’s not necessarily pretty, but it is as close to culinary ecstasy as is possible! Serve with homemade vanilla ice cream
WHAT MADE YOU WANT TO WRITE TRAVELING LIGHT?
I have lost friends to AIDS and those losses were the seeds of the story. My helplessness at the deaths led me to the AIDS Foundation Miami Valley (now the AIDS Resource Center). I wanted to get myself into a Buddy Program but the good people at ARC were more interested in the fact that I was an educator. They trained me for their Speaker’s Bureau and I began talking to high school and college groups. Sometimes I led an “AIDS 101″ class and sometimes I led workshops on what it was like to live with chronic illness.
I was teaching high school at the time, and the novel began to take shape out of my desire to put a human face on AIDS for my students.
The novel started as a short story-the hayloft scene where Summer discovers that her brother is gay. When I shared the story at a writers’ conference, half the readers said the story ended where it should begin, and the other half said they wanted to know these people more before they could care about this event. So, I started expanding the story in both directions. I find it interesting that that chapter is now in the middle of the novel. At first the book was from the brother’s point of view. But as I immersed myself in reading every AIDS memoir and novel I could get my hands on, I realized that Todd’s story had already been told. Almost every work I could find that dealt with AIDS was from a gay male perspective. Those stories had been told and told beautifully. I couldn’t hope to add to that. After much struggling and rewriting, I changed the viewpoint of the novel to Summer. What I could offer was a character who could be a point of entry to an AIDS story for a reader who might find the gay male perspective a barrier. I wanted to create a book that would be accessible to readers with views like my former students, as well as ones who would be interested in a story that had gay characters and strong gay relationships. That was my goal-to touch both of those audiences
Many people have asked if the work is autobiographical. Of course I wrote about things I knew well—teaching, horses, ballet. But the actual people and story are completely works of fiction, and even the things that are from my own life are altered. Summer, for instance, was a fabulously talented ballerina and I…was not. I studied ballet seriously and was wildly in love with it (and still am), but I never had the right body shape or any real promise for it. One of the (many) joys of fiction is taking something from your own life and changing its outcome.
The only characters that I can say are based are actual, living beings are the cat, Cooper, who is shamelessly based on my own cat and writing assistant, Montgomery (who passed away in March of 2004), and the mare, Chaos, who is my former mare, Trilby—red and fiery and from the track. She taught me much about patience. All the human characters, though, are completely made up.
IF I WANTED TO DO SOMETHING TO HELP FIGHT AIDS/HIV, WHAT COULD I DO?
AIDS Service Organizations always need financial assistance and volunteers. Even if you cannot give money or supplies, you can probably give your time. Most ASOs have volunteer training and need people to help in a variety of ways—from helping with fundraising and awareness events, to basic office tasks, to providing services to clients. One way that everyone can help is to correct misinformation about HIV and AIDS and to speak up when people don’t know the facts (…so it goes without saying, know the facts, right?).
Entering “AIDS Service Organizations” on an internet search will give you plenty of information. TheBody.com is a particularly thorough site that lists hotlines, service organizations, and hospitals and clinics state by state (and also has Canadian and International listings) to help you find an ASO near you.
Of course, an ASO close to my heart is my own local ARC Ohio, where I used to work and still volunteer. You will find the most amazing, generous, hardworking people there:
AIDS Resource Center Ohio
15 West 4th Street
Dayton OH 45402-2051
WHERE DID YOU GET THE IDEA ABOUT ANIMAL COMMUNICATION FOR TWO TRUTHS AND A LIE?
Be warned—this is a long story! Years ago, I owned a mare and boarded her at a great place called Rocky Point Farm and several other boarders there had started talking about animal communicators (actually some people were using the term “pet psychic” but that’s not really accurate). I was skeptical, but the writer in me was very curious. A few friends of mine at the farm had used the communicator Dawn Haymon in Clinton, NY, who runs Spring Farm Cares, a rescue operation for abused and neglected animals. My friends claimed that Dawn Haymon could communicate with their animals over the phone which I found—at the time—simply absurd. I found out it cost $25 for twenty minutes and my curiosity overwhelmed me. I figured that $25 was a small price to pay to satisfy my curiosity and the worst that could happen was that I would make a donation that might buy some poor old racehorses some bails of hay. I made my appointment.
When I called Dawn, I was determined to be a skeptic. I didn’t want to volunteer any information. My mare, a fiery chestnut named Trilby, was retired from the track and very, very “energetic.” I was attempting to learn dressage and attempting to teach it to Trilby, and meeting with much frustration. I didn’t tell Dawn any of this. All she asked for was what kind of animal Trilby was, her name, and her color. Dawn said, “Okay…yes, I think I’ve connected with her. Okay, what would you like to tell her or ask her?”
“How can we get her to relax?” I asked. That’s it. That’s all I provided.
Dawn said, “Well, she thinks you’re the one who needs to relax. She seems a little offended by this. She doesn’t know what you want from her. She can go fast, but you won’t let her. She can go lots faster than you allow her to. She used to get rewarded for going fast at the track, so she’s not sure what it is you want her to do.”
I was surprised, my interested piqued.
“Wait, wait,” Dawn said. “She’s not paying attention. Okay, I’ve got her back. She says you don’t make it very clear what you want from her. There’s a man who rides her. The man she understands. Do you want her to do what the man asks her to do? Am I getting that right? Is there a man who rides her?”
I was floored. “Yes. A former Olympic rider who comes and trains us once a month.” Of course Bill Fields, as experienced as he was, made it clear to Trilby what he wanted. I’m certain I was sending Trilby horribly confusing signals as I didn’t really understand the dressage lessons myself.
Dawn gave me suggestions about “visualizing” Trilby and I both doing exactly what I wanted. She encouraged me to do this in Trilby’s stall before I rode her. Frequently, Dawn would say, “Oh, wait, she’s not listening. Just a second.” This seemed to fit Trilby’s personality completely, as we’d often joked at the barn that if Trilby were a person, she’d be a sophomore cheerleader with ADD! I wish I’d been able to see Trilby while Dawn communicated with her, so that I could see exactly what was distracting her during the conversation. But I had called from home and was sitting on my bed, with my cat, Montgomery curled up asleep at my feet.
We had only used half of the time so I asked Dawn if I could switch to another animal. She warmly welcomed me to do so.
“I have a cat. He’s ginger and white. His name is Montgomery,” I said.
Mind you, the cat was sound asleep.
As Dawn said the words, “Oh, yes, I think I’ve connected with him,” Montgomery jumped up, puffed out his fur like a porcupine—the way cats do when they’re startled—then sat down and began to purr loudly. He continued to sit at attention and purr while Dawn communicated with him.
“I think I’ve connected with him,” she said.
“Um, yes, I think you have.”
“Now, is he the only cat—” she started to ask, then immediately said, “Oh, yes, he’s the only cat and he’d like you to know that he doesn’t want any other cats, but he’d really like you to get him a dog.”
Montgomery had spent nearly the first year of his life at Rocky Point Farm, wrestling and playing with a motley band of dog friends at a rare time of only one other barn cat (a barn cat, Henrietta, who had routinely kicked his butt).
“Well, we can’t have a dog in our apartment,” I said. “Is there anything else he wants?”
“Actually…he says he likes music. And you rarely play music, but Scott does, and Scott’s been gone, so maybe…hmm,” she said. “I think he’d like you to leave the radio on for him or put some music on. Am I getting that right? Is there a Scott?”
There was a Scott then. We have since divorced (by strange coincidence, within a year of Montgomery’s death).
“That’s my husband,” I said, goosebumps prickling my arms. And Scott had been away for a week on a trip for work. It was true that he usually put on music when he was home, but when I am home alone I do not. I prefer to write in silence.
I promised to begin leaving music on for Montgomery and eagerly asked, “What else?”
She informed me his favorite toys were the birds, but that sometimes Scott and I forgot to put the birds out and he wished we’d remember. Our apartment had wide window ledges and Scott and I had purchased window feeders, which we were not very vigilant about keeping filled.
“Well…” I sensed an awkwardness. “He really, really likes a game you play…but I’m not sure…it’s something about the bed going fast?”
I laughed. I sensed her slight embarrassment. “I know what he means and it’s not that!” Actually, Montgomery was very prudish and left the room in a huff at the first sign of any romance. I explained to Dawn that my mother had made Montgomery a cat bed that he adored. Montgomery, Scott, and I often played a game of tag and Montgomery was clever enough to understand the concept of “you’re it.” When he wanted to play tag, he’d walked by, box you on the ankle, and take off running. If you managed to tag him, he’d reverse the game and start chasing you. He would happily play this as long as we lasted, and I’m sure it was much to his chagrin that we always were ready to quit before he was. Well, one day, Montgomery and Scott were playing tag, and Montgomery ran from Scott and dove into his cat bed. When Scott tagged him, Montgomery just looked up at him as if to say, “You can’t tag me. This is safe.” So Scott picked up the cat bed by the handles—with Montgomery in it—and began to spin in circles, swinging the cat bed.
“Stop it! Stop it! Put him down!” I screamed. “He’s going to fall out!”
Scott did—since I was yelling at him—but Montgomery just looked up, purring, clearly delighted.
From that day on, our game of tag was changed. No more chases through the house. A box on the ankle was followed by a sprint to the cat bed, where Montgomery would brace himself into the bed and look up begging us to spin him.
I explained all this to Dawn. She laughed. “Yes, yes, that’s it. And he says Scott does that better than you do.”
I’m sure that was true. I was always afraid he would be flung from the bed and injured, so my spinning was very cautious.
But Dawn was able to know things that she could not be able to know any other way. Even if she had researched me before the appointment, there was no way for her to learn the information she had obtained. I became a believer.
I began to read everything I could get my hands on about animal communication. I studied the books of Penelope Smith—Animal Talk and Animals: Our Return to Wholeness. I was heartened by the shared belief of communicators that this was not some special skill for a gifted few. This was a skill anyone could acquire—or rather, reacquire as most communicators believe that all children possess this skill, but lose it as language garners most of the praise and attention in our culture.
I attended workshops on animal communication and learned that this skill required a quiet mind and practice.
It was at one communication workshop where I heard someone tell a story of robbery that was solved by communicating with horses. A farmhouse had been robbed when neighbors called the night watchman to tell him that horses were loose on the road. After the watchman rounded up the three horses, he returned to find the house and safe broken into. When the owner—a communicator—returned, she asked which three horses had been loose, and then “asked” them who had let them out. She received the same image from all three horses—a relatively new barn employee. When police questioned this employee, he confessed in minutes.
This story first gave me the inkling that animal communication certainly had story potential. This same summer was the summer of the O.J.Simpson trial, and I was intrigued by the report of Nicole Simpson’s howling dog the night of the murder. I became fascinated by the idea that what if the only witness to a crime or mystery was a non-human animal? Was there a way to glean the information, the eyewitness account, from that animal?
HOW CAN I FIND AN ANIMAL COMMUNICATOR?
Penelope Smith’s website animaltalk.net includes a state-by-state directory of communicators who have trained with her. This field is gaining more respect and awareness and now several nonfiction books are available to give you more information. Again, I recommend Penelope Smith’s books, Animal Talk and Animals: Our Return to Wholeness.
WHAT MAKES YOU CHOOSE SUCH DARK TOPICS?
One woman at a writing conference asked about my (then) upcoming second novel. When I told her it was about communication and centered on alcoholism and addiction, she said, “Why do you want to write about that? You seem so nice.”
In a class taught by the wonderful poet Colette Inez, Colette advised us to make a list of our obsessions. She urged us to list every single thing we caught ourselves spending time thinking about, reading about, fretting about. We were to include everything, no matter how shameless or embarrassing. She said these were the things we should be writing about. Writers must pay attention to their obsessions. Use that passion. My list included things like vampires, Robert Downey Jr., and tango…but I also realized it included many social issues. AIDS. Addiction. Treatment of animals. Our prison systems. I’m drawn to these issues. I wish I knew what to do to “solve” them, but I don’t. But, I took Colette’s advice and paid attention.
I knew I wanted to write a book that dealt with AIDS. But I had to find the characters to tell a story about AIDS. I didn’t want to just lecture the reader, “here’s what you should think about AIDS.” A novel is not a forum for a lecture. A novel must, above all things, tell a story.
There is a beautiful, beautiful quote (and sadly, I do not know its source) that says: “A novel should not be a message clamped to a passenger pigeon’s leg. A novel is the process of watching that pigeon fly from here to there.”
I don’t want to tell the reader what to think about these issues. I want to ask the reader to think about the issues…and I want to entertain them at the same time. I figure I’m just trying to aid and abet awareness of the issues that obsess me.
WHEN AND HOW DO YOU WRITE?
My writing life just changed dramatically and I couldn’t be happier! I USED to teach full-time, and when I did, I rose at 5:00 AM and wrote for two hours before getting ready for school (I lived four minutes from where I taught). I know that sounds awful, but it was well worth it. Mornings are my most productive time, and got much more done in those two hours in the morning than I did in four evening hours after a school day.
When I left full-time teaching, I kept my school schedule as my writing schedule. On writing days, I get up at the more civilized hour of 6:00 AM, am at the desk by 7:00, and work until lunch on fiction. The afternoon is devoted to marketing, research, editing, and other writing related tasks. Around 3:30, I workout or run to “get out of my head” and then am “off work.”
I don’t need anything to write except silence and my computer, but my ideal writing mornings include good coffee, dark chocolate, and fresh flowers in view. The purring cat who usually sits in my lap is just icing on the cake.
IS THE RESTAURANT EL MESON REAL OR FICTIONAL?
Lucky for you, it is real, and if you haven’t been there you should do yourself a favor and go as soon as you can! This is the restaurant Summer and Jacob go to in Traveling Light. In The Kindness of Strangers, Courtney and Sarah go there in the first chapter. In The Blessings of the Animals, Cami and her friends have a Girls Night Out there. In Reasons to Be Happy, Hannah and her Aunt Izzy take a salsa dance class there. It is my favorite restaurant of all time, and I was honored when El Meson hosted a reception for the release of Kindness. Check it out for yourself at www.elmeson.net.