Featured Member Interview – Annemarie O’Brien

Desire to Share Overseas Experiences Prompts Dog-Lover to Write

by Nita Sweeney, author of the running and mental health memoir, Depression Hates a Moving Target: How Running with My Dog Brought Me Back from the Brink

Each time I interview a WNBA-SF member, the opportunity reminds me how fortunate we are to be part of a group of such interesting women. I hope you enjoy this conversation with Annemarie O’Brien and learn as much from her as I did.


Nita Sweeney (NS): As a fellow dog-lover, I must ask about yours. Please tell us about your dogs.

Annemarie O’Brien (AO):  When I wrote Lara’s Gift, I had two borzoi, Zola and Zar. They inspired the key fictional canine characters in Lara’s Gift of the same name. Borzoi are also known as Russian wolfhounds. They were the dogs of the Tsar during the Imperial era and considered a national treasure. They are very tall, slender, super-fast dogs that belong to the sight hound group. The Tsar and his court used them to hunt wolves. Today, many Russians use them to hunt hare. Beyond the squirrels who dare to steal fruit from the trees in my garden, neither of my borzoi hunt. Unfortunately, Zola passed away two years ago. She was a sweet, outgoing borzoi with a golden retriever personality. To keep Zar company we now have a silken windhound named Zeus. This is a newer breed of sighthounds developed in California, I believe, that looks like a miniature borzoi. Both of my dogs like to go to Stinson Beach and play tag with other dogs. They are both loyal and great companions.

NS: Each of your dogs sounds lovely. I’m sorry to hear about Zola. Our pets are such gifts. Changing the subject a bit, can you tell us more about Lara’s Gift, perhaps something that isn’t in the blurb?

AO: Lara’s Gift is a girl empowerment, father-daughter, historical fiction, dog story for young adults. It is set in Russia in the early 1900s during the Imperial era. The main character, Lara, wants to breed borzoi worthy of the Tsar, just like her father and her ancestors have done for hundreds of years. Lara has a special gift, or sixth sense as I’d liked to call it, regarding the borzoi such that she sees things before they happen. I got the idea from my own sixth-sense sort of experiences I had with my first childhood dog, Emma. Once when she was at a kennel while we were on vacation, I had a strong feeling that she had escaped and was lost. I begged my parents to call the kennel to check on her, but they assured me that there was no way she could escape from the kennel. Sure enough, when we picked her up upon our return, they told my parents that she had escaped and had, indeed, been lost on the same morning I had felt that something was wrong. I have other examples I could share, but I think you get the point. Well, as I researched these types of things in Russia, I learned that there was no real word in Russian for ‘sixth-sense’ and that what was more common were visions. If you read Nabokov’s memoir, you will learn that he had visions. I have dozens of other sources of Russians during this period who claimed to have visions, as well. My choice to add visions to Lara’s story reflects what people in Russia believed at that time. It is not intended to be fantastical.

NS: How interesting that dogs have played such an important role all of your life. Your bio explains that you worked in Russia which inspired the setting for Lara’s Gift. Which part were you in? 

AO: I spent about ten years in Russia. In my early years, I worked as a consultant for Soviet small businesses interested in doing business in the United States and Europe. Because of all the contacts I developed, I started a venture capital group in Philadelphia with three other people that established one of the first oil and gas joint ventures. I also launched Bill Blass menswear in Moscow. It produced $25,000 in the first hour of opening at a time when hard currency wasn’t legal. 
When USAID provided technical assistance to Russia to set up a privatization and capital markets program, I joined the PriceWaterhouseCoopers team as an economics advisor to the Russian government. I travelled all over Russia to cities like Moscow, St. Petersburg, Petrozavodsk, and Irkutsk, as well as former Soviet republics like Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. During this time, I lived in Moscow, Russia and Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. It was the greatest adventure of my life.

NS: What was your favorite thing about the country?

AO: There are a number of things I adore about Russia. But my favorite would have to be the people. I have never met a more well-read, intellectual, resourceful, salt-of-the-earth group of people anywhere else in the world. When I lived there, so many people had PhDs and valued books and their friendships. Their homes (one-bedroom apartments) often consisted of one or two walls of floor to ceiling bookcases for their beloved books. In space that was limited a good chunk of it was reserved for books. Russians somehow found happiness without materialism and showed me what was important by the way they lived. Their values regarding education shaped me tremendously. A lot has changed since I lived in Russia during the 80s and 90s. I like to think that Russians still value books.

NS: Are there other things about the time you spent in Russia that inspire your life or work?

AO: I became a writer because of an experience I had in Russia. Lara’s Gift is the first part of the bigger story I want to tell from this experience. I don’t want to reveal too much about this experience or story just yet. What I can say is that it will be my best story because it comes from my deepest passion.

NS: Have you always wanted to be a writer?

AO: No. When I was in middle school, I took an aptitude test that pointed me to three potential careers: writer, veterinarian, and engineer. The veterinarian option seemed likely and was exactly what I wanted to be until I discovered I didn’t like blood and saw a veterinarian try to spay a male dog. That’s right, a spay, not a neuter. I come from a family of engineers so the engineer option didn’t seem far-fetched. But the writer option? I seriously thought that that had been a mistake. It wasn’t until decades later when I worked overseas that my interest in writing took root. It was because of these overseas experiences I was having and my desire to share them that turned me into a writer.

NS: What is the most difficult part about writing for you?

AO: Time. I work full-time for Bio-Rad in marketing where I create stories and the branding/communications for my division. I’m also a soccer mom with two daughters who aspire to play soccer in college. In the fall of 2020, my oldest daughter will play for the University of Portland where World Cup legends like Megan Rapinoe played. The dogs need exercise so it’s my job, despite promises from my kids, to walk them three miles every day. After I take care of everyone, it’s a challenge to carve out time to write. But I put it on my calendar and hold myself to it. Fortunately, I never get writer’s block. When I sit down to write, I know I have to use my time efficiently, so I don’t waste it. If I have a hard getting back into my story, I read and revise the last thing I wrote. It always jumpstarts the ideas and gets the fingers moving!

NS: What is the most surprising thing you discovered while writing?

AO: When I was getting my MFA, I attended a lecture about theme. The person giving the talk had said, “The theme of your story will often come well after you’ve completed your story.” Really, I thought? Wouldn’t I know the theme as I’m writing? I recall thinking this didn’t make sense until I was in the second round of revision edits with my editor at Knopf. That’s when it dawned on me what the theme of my story really was about: girl empowerment. 
In another lecture, the speaker stopped me when she said, “There’s a little bit of ourselves in the characters we create.” Even if I’m writing historical fiction, I wondered? My character, Lara and I had nothing in common besides our love of dogs. 
After I turned in my manuscript for publication it surprised me to discover how closely Lara’s struggle with her father mirrored my own childhood struggle with my father. Although my father always told me that I could do anything I wanted, if I put my mind to it, he also didn’t think I needed to go to college. He came from a generation that believed women got married and would be taken care of by their husbands. Luckily, I was able to persuade him that I had another plan and got to go college and get two master’s degrees.

NS: Do you have a personal writing tip you would care to share with the WNBA-SF members?

AO: Read like a writer, write like a reader. Read or listen to books on audio while you’re driving, exercising or doing chores every day. Put writing on your calendar and guard this time. Join a writing group. There’s nothing like community to help you develop your craft.

NS: That’s great advice. Thank you. Are you working on something new you would like to tell us about?

AO: I am nearly finished drafting a rhyming picture book. An early draft of it was a finalist at a recent SCBWI conference. 

NS: Congratulations! Any other projects in the offing?

AO: I also co-wrote a young adult/crossover book that’s on submission. It’s about a Thai girl who is sold into slavery by her uncle and how she escapes and starts a new life. I spent some time in Thailand and feel very strongly about empowering girls and preventing human trafficking. My co-author is a Thai-American writer who works for a non-profit that helps to educate Thai girls that are at risk of trafficking. It was wonderful collaboration. 

NS: What a worthy cause. You stay busy. Any others?

AO: I am currently working on a middle grade novel, the one that inspired me to become a writer.

NS: I look forward to seeing that as well. Thanks so much, Annemarie, for taking the time to share your experiences and insights.


  1. Annemarie O’Brien writes books for young adults. She is the author of the debut middle grade novel, Lara’s Gift, published by Alfred A. Knopf of Penguin Random House with subsidiary rights to Scholastic.  Lara’s Gift is a girl empowerment story set in imperial Russia. It is also a dog story inspired from a former life when Annemarie worked in Russia and was gifted her first borzoi puppy.  Lara’s Gift has received starred reviews from School Library Journal and Kirkus Reviews among other accolades.

    Annemarie grew up in Northampton, Massachusetts, attended the University of Massachusetts at Amherst where she earned a BBA in marketing and economics, and studied Russian at Smith College. She later earned an MBA in international business from the University of South Carolina and an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Today, Annemarie lives in the San Francisco Bay area with her family. She is a global marketing manager and teaches writing courses at UC Berkeley Extension, Stanford Continuing Studies, and Pixar.

    Connect with me on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/AnnemarieOBrienAuthor/), Twitter (@AnnemarieOBrien) and LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/in/annemarieobrienauthor/).

    Learn more about Annemarie O’Brien by visiting her website. (www.AnnemarieOBrienAuthor.com )

Featured Member Interview – Geri Spieler

Self-Proclaimed “Political Junkie” Reveals Her Writing Secrets

by Nita Sweeney, author of the running and mental health memoir, Depression Hates a Moving Target: How Running with My Dog Brought Me Back from the Brink

The members of the Women’s National Book Association of San Francisco come from a variety of backgrounds and careers. I’m grateful for the opportunity to ask questions of smart, successful authors like Geri Spieler. Every interview provides splendid takeaways. I hope you enjoy the ones I heard in our conversation.


Nita Sweeney (NS): I have to start by asking about the ten chickens and 19 fruit trees . . . in Palo Alto. Surely there’s a story there!

 

Geri Spieler (GS): Ha. There is a story. As for the fruit trees, we live on a double lot on a corner so we have some room. The house came with six fruit trees. It was wonderful to be able to go outside and pick fruit, so I started planting additional trees with different fruit. I kept adding until now, we don’t have any more room.
As for the chickens, my husband can’t tolerate any kind of dander in the house. It’s way beyond allergies. I was raised with all kinds of animals and need them to define myself. Chickens produce amazing fresh, organic eggs, I don’t have to walk them and I can pick them up and cuddle them. They get to know you and respond. We started with three and it’s grown to ten. I take their welfare seriously because they are vulnerable to predators. 

NS: What draws you to the type of writing you do?

GS: I’m strictly nonfiction. Fiction is much too difficult for me. I’m sure it has to do with being a newspaper reporter and total political junkie. My book, Taking Aim at the President: The Remarkable Story of the Woman Who Shot at Gerald Ford, was written in the creative nonfiction genre. It was very difficult for me to write it the way I wanted–like a novel but, entirely nonfiction. I took writing courses to understand things like “scene.” I hired a number of editors along the way.

NS: Your publication credentials are impressive. Please tell us how you got started and what helped you land those projects.

GS: Thanks. My interest in writing started with an awareness of news and politics. My grandmother was a Holocaust survivor in that she realized early on things were going downhill for the Jews in Poland. She left before it got really bad and tried to convince her siblings to come with her to the states. They thought she was over reacting and hence were killed by the Nazis. She taught me early on to pay attention to the government because things can get very bad and you need to be alert. My mother was a political junkie and she taught me the same lessons. 

I realized pretty fast that if an event did not get covered in the press it might as well not have happened at all. I wanted to have that control, so to speak. I was always interested in news and politics. 

Landing projects was sheer chutzpa. I often went after jobs and assignments by pushing my way into a role. I always say that I wanted something so bad I had fire in the belly. It takes that to make a success in any form of writing or job. You have to want something and do whatever it takes to “get it.” I talked my way into many of my news jobs and did whatever I had to do to get published. It’s all about clips.

NS: Taking Aim at the President has been optioned for a major motion picture. How did that come about and what has that process meant for you?

GS: I need to remind people that I didn’t write the screenplay or do anything but research and write the book. It was published by Macmillan in 2009.

My fabulous literary agent, Sharlene Martin, worked very hard to get the attention of the movie and cable industry with no luck. I did a lot of outreach at first but slacked off after a while. I had people approach me to who wanted to make a documentary about Sara Jane Moore, others who said they would make a movie, but nothing ever came of it.

So, when I got the contact from my website from some guy named Andrew Logan, I passed it along to her as usual with no thought that it would not go anywhere. Half an hour after I sent her the note, she called. “Geri, these guys are the real deal.” It took nine months to negotiate the contract, so that gives you an idea of how long it takes to make a major motion picture. 

These are the screen writers for the movie, Chappaquiddick, so, have a track record. They won several awards for their screenplay for that movie. They didn’t even start working on the Taking Aim screenplay for two years. Nothing in the contract says they have to consult with me, but they have involved me in writing the screenplay. They are super nice and very generous with the process. 

The movie is still on track, but I don’t think about it. Who knows how long it will take? I know everything could fall apart at any time. However, it really is a kick to have my book optioned for a movie.  

NS: Do you have a writing quirk we wouldn’t know by reading your biography? If so, do you feel it helps you in some way? 

GS: I have a timer on my desk set for 45 minutes. I can do nothing except my writing task during that time frame. After about 45 minutes I get up or check email for just 5 minutes, then go back to work. Our best attention span is somewhere between 11 and 20 minutes at a time. I also organize a ShutUp & Write one night a week. I get a ton done during that one hour. I always have some kind of assignment that I need to accomplish at the MeetUp. I don’t recognize myself if I’m not writing. That’s why I have a blog, contribute to Medium, and link the piece to LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter.

NS: What are you currently reading and why did you choose it? 

GS: Co-incidentally, I’m reading Joan Gelfand’s book, You Can Be a Winning Writer. It’s been on my shelf for many months, staring at me. I need a lot of reinforcement. I need to surround myself with confident and accomplished writers. Her book is helping me a lot. Also, coincidentally it was Joan who encouraged me to join WNBA. 

NS: If you could offer our WNBA-SF members a bit of writing or marketing advice, what would it be?

GS: Never give up and never listen to naysayers. Some people will tell why you won’t get published or why you won’t succeed. Don’t listen to them. Again, I call it the “fire in the belly” syndrome. Believe in yourself. It will happen. 

NS: Do you have any tips as to how you manage what sounds like a full and productive life?

GS: Deadlines. It’s all about deadlines with me. Self-imposed and outside deadlines. Deadlines are what drives my work. I must admit as we don’t have children in the house any longer, it’s a lot easier to control my time. There is always a reason you don’t have time to write today. The old adage that even 15 minutes of writing is true. When I look back, I was working on my book even though I had a full-time job. I was able to have control. Also, I guess I “wanted it” enough to find time. It’s a cliché, but it’s worked for me. Everyone has inside and outside obligations. Each of us has to look at our lives and obligations to see where there are corners one takes.

NS: What is the most interesting writing project you have done to date and why? 

 GS: I’m a full-time freelance writer these days and only to take assignments I like. I love research and also teach Internet Research skills. So far, I have loved writing for Truthdig.com, a news and opinion website, much like ProPublica. Their stories require a lot of research. I’ve a written a number of fascinating assignments. They are great to work with. But I haven’t done anything for the past several months as I’m “heads down” working on my new book.

NS: What’s next for you? Tell us about the new book!

GS: I never thought there would ever be another book. I always said and still do, books take too long to write, and they are very difficult. Taking Aim was brought about by circumstance. There wasn’t going to be a situation where I knew a potential presidential assassin for 27 years. However, as it happens, I am working on a new book, again, due to circumstance. My husband, Rick Kaplowitz, is my co-author. The working title is San Francisco Values: The Real Story. This book began when Bill O’Reilly said, “Al Qaida, you can come and bomb Coit Tower and no one will care.” San Francisco Values became a pejorative. I will counter that with San Francisco Values as American values.

NS: Is there anything else you would like to share with the members?

GS: I think it’s important not to compare yourself to others. I have to be careful not to because I’ll come up feeling “less than.” There are always others who are more successful, better marketers, and seem to have it all figured out. The truth is, I could never write your book and you can’t write mine.  I’ve learned it’s important to surround yourself with other writers. I owe a ton to my branch of the California Writers Club, San Francisco/Peninsula. I learned a lot from them and they were there for me in every way. I’m reaching out now to WNBA—long overdue for me.

NS: Thanks so much, Geri, for the inspiration.


  1. Geri Spieler is a former contributor for the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle and has written for Forbes. 

    She was a research director for Gartner, a global technology advising company and edited two technology publications for Philips Publishing in Washington DC.

    Also, she is a past president of the San Francisco Peninsula Branch of the California Writers Club. She also is a member of the Internet Society, the Society of Professional Journalists, Author’s Guild, a reviewer for the New York Journal of Books, a member of the National Book Critics Circle and a regular contributor to Truthdig.com, an investigative reporting website. She is also a Signature Blogger for the Huffington Post and a member of Women’s National Book Association.

    Geri is the author of a creative non-fiction book, Taking Aim at the President: The Remarkable Story of the Woman Who Shot at Gerald Ford, which was published by Macmillan/St. Martin’s Press and has been optioned for a major motion picture by the award-winning screenwriters Andrew Logan and Taylor Allen.

    Currently she lives in Palo Alto with her husband, ten chickens and 19 fruit trees.

    Contact Geri at gspieler@gmail.com

    Facebook https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100009876341086

    Twitter https://twitter.com/home

    LinkedIn https://www.linkedin.com/in/geri-spieler-32675391/

    Blog https://gerispieler.com/blog/

Featured Member Interview – Sheryl Bize-Boutte

A Rich Retirement: Sheryl Bize-Boutte Proves It’s Never Too Late for the Write Words

by Nita Sweeney, author of the running and mental health memoir, Depression Hates a Moving Target: How Running with My Dog Brought Me Back from the Brink

One of the many joys of participating in the Women’s National Book Association of San Francisco is the opportunity to learn from talented, successful authors such a Sheryl J. Bize-Boutte. As could be expected from even a quick review of her work, Sheryl provided generous, insightful answers to my questions.


NS: You enjoyed a rich work-life before you turned to writing full-time. Did your work experience prepare you for this phase of your career?

SJBB: The two things my work experience did for my writing career were 1) to provide a nice retirement with freedom to write and 2) to let me know that I could write in many different forms. In those ways the career off-ramp was totally worth it. Although I wrote a bit now and then throughout my government career, my work-related writing was often lauded and I became the “writer” in the office. I once wrote a section of congressional testimony for a cabinet level secretary that was delivered to the House without one word being changed. That sealed it for me. I knew what I would be doing in my retirement!

NS: Your work has won some impressive awards. Have those helped further your writing career?

SJBB: Awards are impressive to some and I am sure have caught the eye of readers and some important people in the writing game. But I have found that much of my recognition and furtherance as a writer has been a result of my readings, involvement in the writing community and face-to-face casual literary encounters out there in the world of writing. I don’t write for the award of it. I write for the love of it. I think people feel my love of the writing and sometimes that alone makes them want to hear and see more of it.

NS: You have been described as a “talented multidisciplinary writer whose works artfully succeed in getting across deeper meanings about life and the politics of race and economics without breaking out of the narrative.” What did you think when you read this review?

SJBB: I can only surmise that this is what she received from reading my stories. I will say that since an African American mother who was often treated badly because of her skin color, and a Creole father who was often mistaken as White raised me, some may view my writings about my observations of the differences as artful, but for me they are what my life was and is made of. I had an “inside view” so to speak of what it meant to be treated as Black as well as White in Oakland as well as in the South, and since I was an extremely nosey child who listened to and looked closely at everything, I remember it, I kept it and I can write it. As far as the narrative part: My favorite writing form is the short story. I learned a long time ago that be to an effective short story teller one must make each sentence a story in itself, have very few characters and stay on point. 


NS: Which of your many publications made you the proudest and why?

SJBB: I am most proud of my first published story, “Dead Chickens and Miss Anne” as it was the first short story I wrote after I retired and was published by the first and only place I submitted it. In addition to that, the comments about the story included that people felt I had found my voice, but in fact I was humbled to know that I had never lost it.

NS: Much of your work is set in Oakland. Can you talk about why this suits your work?

SJBB: I think Oakland is one of the most vibrant, creative and artistic cities on the planet and I am so fortunate to be here. As I have watched it change, grow, shrink, and morph, it has informed and nurtured my writing from the day my 12-year-old self wrote a story on my new Smith Corona, to now and beyond. My real memory and imaginary muse have their base in Oakland and both remain solid and rich with many more stories to tell.

NS: You successfully write in many genres. Are there common threads among these works?

SJBB: I think the common thread is my unique voice. My way of expression that is just me. I see things in a different way than some. I write with that difference.

NS: Crowds have enjoyed your readings, which were said to “bring down the house.” To what do you attribute your success at such events?

SJBB: I come from a family of voracious readers, storytellers, singers, poets, writers; you name it. One of our favorite pastimes as children was to act out scenes or mimic favorite characters as we told stories. I still do that. I find myself changing tone, pitch and voice when reading, especially poetry where there may be more than one character or message. Audiences are tickled and sometimes enthralled by that or perhaps how much I seem to like what I am saying. But the bigger attribution comes from the fact that I do not see myself as separate from the audience. I am not a presenter. I am a person sharing my life and work with people who have been gracious enough to sit quietly (until the end, hopefully when they applaud raucously) and listen.

NS: Do you have a go-to writing technique that you would care to share with the WNBA-SF members?

SJBB: I am not much on technique but I do have a few habits I follow. I am not afraid of breaks in writing. They provide rest for the imagination and allow words to just “fall out” when they are ready. I do not use $50.00 words when $5.00 words will convey my message and allow me to read it without stumbling. I limit the number of characters in my short stories. If there are too many, then it is easy to “fall out of the narrative” and end up with dribble.

NS: Are you working on any new writing projects?

SJBB: Yes, I am about 75% through the writing of my first novel, “Betrayal on the Bayou.” I am having a blast doing it and even I am wondering what will happen next.

NS: Is there a question I didn’t ask that you would like to answer?

SJBB: No. I think you covered it and I thank you very much.

NS: Thanks so much, Sheryl for your time, insights, and for a behind-the-scenes look at your process!


  1. Sheryl J. Bize-Boutte was born in Berkeley and raised in Oakland, California. Her first published writing experiences began while she was a student at the prestigious Mills College in Oakland as a columnist for the College’s newspaper, and as the youth editor for a local magazine called “Jump Bad.”

    After college she embarked on a 30- year management career with the U.S. Government where she tried to satisfy her need to write by becoming the “go to” person for writing and communication. When that didn’t totally scratch the writing itch, she turned to helping her math-oriented daughter with all of her school writing assignments. During this time her poem “That House” was published by the Poetry Guild’s “Gallery of Artistry.”

    Mercifully, retirement provided the freedom to engage that creative writing gene again, resulting in contributions to Harlequin anthologies “The Dog With The Old Soul” (her story, “The Green Collar”, received a positive mention from Publisher’s Weekly) and “A Kiss Under The Mistletoe”; and, the award winning “The Walrus- A Mills College Literary Journal.”

    Oakland often serves as the backdrop for her always touching and frequently hilarious works. Her first book, A Dollar Five-Stories from A Baby Boomer’s Ongoing Journey (2014) has been described as “rich in vivid imagery”, and “incredible.” Her second book, All That and More’s Wedding (2016), a collection of fictional mystery/crime short stories, is praised as “imaginative with colorful and likeable characters that draw you in to each story and leave you wanting more.” Her latest book, Running for the 2:10 (2017), a follow-on to A Dollar Five, delves deeper into her coming of age in Oakland and the embedded issues of race and skin color with one reviewer calling it “… a great contribution to literature.” In Summer 2019, Medusa’s Laugh Press published her fictional story, “Uncle Martin,” and MoonShine Star Company (Bradford Productions) will publish two more of her short stories in 2020. She is a contributor to award-winning author Kate Farrell’s upcoming book “Story Power,” an anthology on how writers build and create their stories, and has a novel in progress titled “Betrayal on the Bayou,” slated for publication in early 2020.

    An expressive and exciting reader, Sheryl has participated in readings and presentations for the Bay Area Generations literary reading series, the California Writers’ Club, Authors Large and Small, Hayward B Street Writer’s Collective, The Mechanics Institute Library, The Oakland Octopus Literary Salon, and the Mills College annual Writer’s Salon. In 2017 she was selected as the ongoing MC and co-curator for the annual Montclair Library (Oakland) reading and celebration of National Poetry Month, and proudly serves on the board of directors of the Women’s National Book Association-San Francisco Chapter.

    Contact Sheryl at Bize11@Mac.Com

    Follow her blog at http://sjbb-talkinginclass.blogspot.com/

    Check out her author profile on Amazon

    http://www.amazon.com/author/sheryljbizeboutte


Featured Member Interview – Nita Sweeney

Q&A with Brenda Knight, WNBA-SF Chapter President and Nita Sweeney, WNBA-SF member

  1. Brenda Knight (BK): When did you know you were a writer, Nita?

    Nita Sweeney (NS): Way to lead off with a stumper! Did I know I was a writer in 5th grade when I held the one and only copy of my “first” book, Sheshak the Wild Stallion, which I both typed and bound myself as a class assignment? How about in 1996 when Dog World published my first feature article or when Dog Fancy published my cover article? Definitely in 2019 when Mango published Depression Hates a Moving Target, my first actual (not typed or bound by me) book and I held it in my hands.

    Still, self-doubt arises again and again. I have befriended it. Part of me may never think I’m a “real” writer, but I don’t let that deter me from writing.

    (BK): Runner biographies and memoirs are a “thing.” Did you ever think you would write one? (or did you?)

    (NS): At 49, when I took up running, the last thing on my mind was writing a running memoir. I just didn’t want to be miserable anymore and hoped exercise would help me crawl out of an emotional black hole. Soon, friends and my mental health providers began to comment about my improved mood. They saw it before I did.

    But I’m always writing something. So, in 2011, after my first half marathon, I used National Novel Writing Month to record how this middle-aged woman leashed up our dog and went from eating Hershey bites on the sofa to running a half marathon. It took another year and a half for me to realize I wasn’t writing about how I took up running. I was writing about saving my life. That’s when I knew I had a story.

    (BK):What is your favorite memoir, running or otherwise?

    (NS): Chris McDougall’s Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen enjoys a cult following among runners. I’m proud to be part of the fan club that finds it so inspiring. The book is memoir-ish but also includes copious research. And, it reads like a novel. I’ve stayed up all night reading the physical book and been dismayed to arrive at my destination while listening to the audiobook in my car.

    (BK): You have received several impressive awards for your prose; has that helped your writing career?

    (NS): Thank you for mentioning these! Awards provide a sense of legitimacy. I’m an anxious person full of self-doubt. Having well-respected strangers say I write well boosted my confidence. I also believe those external stamps of approval helped Mango decide to give this first-time author a chance. Hopefully the awards entice readers as well. 

    (BK): What advice do you have for aspiring authors who hope to have a first book published?

    (NS): Pitching to agents and editors is like dating. You don’t need every single person to love you. You just need one person to fall in love with your book and hopefully you will fall in love with them too. I’m so grateful to have found Mango when I did. I was ready. They were ready. The world was ready.

    (BK): What has been the single most satisfying part of your publishing journey?

    (NS): Needing to move the tissue box closer to my laptop. When I receive a note about how a reader relates and that the book gives them hope, my heart bursts. 

    Recently, a virtual book club picked up the book and the administrator messaged me a screenshot of a post. A woman’s teenage son who struggles with depression saw the book on their coffee table and asked if he could read it. Then, her daughter, not to be left out, asked if she could read it too. In her post, the mother explained they were reading the book as a family. She hoped it would open a much-needed dialogue about her son’s issues. There is no way I could have imagined that kind of scenario when I started jotting down the random thoughts that eventually became this book.

    On a lighter note, one woman posted that she was creating a design to have the “Depression hates a moving target” tattooed on her arm. I haven’t seen a photo of an actual tattoo yet, but that was a pretty good day as well.

    (BK): Do you have any trade secrets to your writing craft you could share for the Women’s National Book Association?

    (NS): I swear by Natalie Goldberg style “writing practice.” Set a timer and go. Her admonition to “keep your hand moving” and the idea that you often have no idea what you’ve written until after you’re done gets me through. Yes, I edit, study craft, and revise. But nothing helps me get the work done better than a digital kitchen timer.

    (BK): Who gives better critiques on your first draft – your husband or your dog?

    (NS): Clearly my husband. Scarlet, the #ninetyninepercentgooddog, just shreds everything!

    Seriously though, when I was working on Depression Hates a Moving Target, Ed read every stinkin’ draft, and there were many. And then, when we received the author copies, I came home one day to find him on the sofa with a copy of the just-published book, reading it again from page one!

    (BK): Any new projects up your running jacket sleeve?

    (NS): Yes! I’m writing a proposal for a book of simple, daily meditation “practices” to promote living in the moment. The book is in the standard 365-day format, but each page includes a teensy exercise to promote mindfulness in daily life. Many people don’t realize you don’t have to sit in silence to meditate. You can meditate all day long. This book will help them learn how.

    (BK): What question do you wish I asked and what is the answer?

    (NS): You’ve asked great questions, but I wish people would ask about my favorite stuffed animal. No one has asked that since I was four. At that time, it would have been a stuffed red dog I still have. But now my favorite is a stuffed Capricorn goat I bought after Ed and I began dating. Ed’s a Capricorn. I still adore both of those Capricorns.

    Nita Sweeney is the author of the memoir, Depression Hates a Moving Target: How Running with My Dog Brought Me Back from the Brink, which was short-listed for the William Faulkner – William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition Award. Her articles, essays, and poetry have appeared in magazines, journals, books, and blogs including Buddhist America, Dog World, Dog Fancy, Writer’s Journal, Country Living, Pitkin Review, The Taos News, Spring Street, Pencil Storm, WNBA-SF, It’s Not Your Journey, and in several newspapers and newsletters. She writes the blog, Bum Glue, publishes the monthly e-newsletter, Write Now Columbus, and coaches writers in Natalie Goldberg style “writing practice.” Nita has been featured widely across media outlets about writing, running, meditation, mental health, and pet care. She was nominated for an Ohio Arts Council Governor’s Award and her poem, “Memorial,” won the Dublin Arts Council Poet’s Choice Award. When she’s not writing or coaching, Nita runs and races. She has completed three full marathons, twenty-seven half marathons (in eighteen states), and more than eighty shorter races. Nita lives in central Ohio with her husband and biggest fan, Ed, and their yellow Labrador running partner, Scarlet (aka #ninetyninepercentgooddog).

Featured Member Interview – Sheila Murray Bethel, PhD

Interview by Susan Allison

sheila murray bethel PhD

A member of  WNBA and The Author’s Guild, Sheila Murray Bethel, PhD is recognized internationally as an expert in leadership. She is a successful entrepreneur, bestselling business author of five books, and a Hall-of-Fame speaker. She has given over 4,000 presentations to over two million people in 20 countries. Her latest published work, A New Breed Of leader, 8 Qualities That Matter Most In The Real World, What Works, What Doesn’t and Why is published in English and Chinese and is winning global praise. She has also written for such publications as The Washington Post, The San Francisco Examiner and USA Today, to name a few. 

When asked about her earliest writing experiences, Sheila remarks, “I am always impressed when I hear about women who knew they wanted to be a writer as a child or they talk about writing stories and plays or poems in school. I never did. I came to writing late in the game, as a necessity that turned into a passion. As a beginning professional speaker, I realized that I had to write articles, training materials, and most of all, a book. To have credibility in the marketplace, I needed a traditionally published book, and preferably one that did well.” 

In her thirty-five years as a professional speaker, Sheila wrote two compilations with other experts, and three books on her own on the subject of leadership. Her first solo book was a best seller in a large niche market; the second was a national bestseller, published in several languages and took her, as she describes, “around this wonderful globe of ours, speaking to fascinating groups of people in a myriad of organizations in fascinating venues.” It was the longest selling business book in her publisher’s history, with twenty-three printings in the U.S. The third book was a follow up to the second and again sold in many languages and countries. 

When asked to share her publishing experience, Sheila has sound advice for every writer: “Don’t Give Up!!! Publishing is one of the hardest things I have ever done. You will encounter nay-sayers and negative people who don’t believe in you or your work. You will get your feelings hurt, shed a tear, and even want to give up during the process. Please don’t. If you feel like quitting, call me and I’ll give you a pep talk.” 

Based on her years of experience, Sheila has three key tips about publishing:

      1. Once you have finished your book, take your ego, wrap it carefully in a piece of lovely soft velvet, and put it in the closet. From now on look at your work as a Product (not you personally). That is the only way you will survive what it takes to see it through to publication. 
      2. The hardest thing to do is to understand that rejection, or constructive criticism, is not personal. It is not you that is being rejected; it is your product. Take a deep breath and get feedback on why it is not being received as you had planned. Ask yourself, what can I learn/do to make it better or more appealing. A caveat here; ask advice from those who are as successful or more so than you. While it is generous of others who are not yet published to help, odds are they won’t be able to give you the hard news you need to make your book publishable.
      3. Get an agent! Will it be easy? No. Is it worth it? Yes! Research the net for the agents that work in your genre. Their website will tell you all you need to know about how to approach them and what they will and will not accept, and how to give them what they want; i.e., synopsis, longer outline, several chapters and so on. Get to know the books they represent and with which publishers they work. It is key to be informed about them before you try to submit your work. It pays off! I’ve had three non-fiction agents; two I enjoyed working with, one I did not. Will I go through it all again for a fiction agent? Yes. I will be right there with you on this journey to have a published book!

    Currently, Sheila is writing a work of fiction, and is drawing on so many inspiring writers for inspiration: “Early on I read the classics; Virginia Wolfe, the Bronte’s, Toni Morrison, Willa Cather among others. Their artistry was the basis and inspiration for my writing. They made me laugh, cry and come to realize how much their words empowered me and allowed me into other worlds. My current fiction project is greatly influenced by Australian writer Colleen McCollough, author of The Thorn Birds. She was a powerful storyteller, a true genius of the written word. She would create a broad scope of time and place and characters and then skillfully and artistically bring it down to one place in a specific time with a detailed group of characters.”

    Now that Sheila is retired and is “no longer a road warrior,” she has the luxury of flexibility and can write anywhere, from her desk, to BART, in a park, at the library, on a plane or in a hotel room. What works for her is to write in two-hour segments, take a break and then come back and finish or edit what she has written: “I often take what I have written ‘for a walk,’ meaning that I go out to one of my favorite walking trails and read and edit as I walk. Nature inspires me and frees my mind. I always come back with better material than when I began.” Sheila’s debut novel is half-finished, and she is “enjoying the challenge.”

    In her parting words, Sheila Bethel inspires us to believe in ourselves and to keep writing: “Congratulations and good for you! There has never been a better time for women writers. The global awareness of women’s issues, as well as the rights and contributions we have made, make it a pivotal time in literary history. Your words and ideas are important!”

    Sheila would love to hear from you. Find out more about her and her work at:

     sheila@smbauthor.com

     www.smbauthor.com

     https://www.sheilamurraybethelauthor.com/sheilas-books-in-order-of-publication/

Featured Literary Agent – Jennifer March Soloway

Interview by Susan Allison

Most of our feature-articles have focused on women authors and their journeys from early writing experience to publication. In this article we are able to glimpse another part of the publishing world through the life and words of literary agent, Jennifer Soloway.  

Jennifer March Soloway is an associate agent with the Andrea Brown Literary Agency. Although she specializes in children’s literature, Jennifer also represents some adult fiction, both literary and commercial, particularly crime, suspense and psychological horror. Regardless of genre, she is actively seeking new voices and fresh perspectives underrepresented in literature. 

When asked how she became a literary agent, Jennifer responds, “My path to agenting is a little different from many other agents. I studied journalism in undergrad and then went on to work in public relations and marketing in a number of industries, including banking, health care, and toys, and except for the banking, there was always a focus on kids.  When I worked for the toy company, I managed all the public relations, wrote and produced their catalog, and ran their annual kid inventor contest. I was also the toy inventor liaison, which meant several times a year I would travel around the country to meet with toy inventors, who would pitch their toy ideas to me. It was the coolest job!

Selling an invention to our company was tough. We had a very strong internal design team, and we almost never bought outside ideas, so it was difficult to place with us. But every once in a while, I would find an invention that was perfect for our new line. It was my job to then negotiate the terms and the contract with the inventor. Sounds a bit like agenting, doesn’t it? 

About that time, though, I had always loved literature—especially YA—and I wanted to give writing a try. I quit my job and got a MFA in English and Creative Writing with an emphasis on young adult literature. Then I was introduced to the Andrea Brown Literary Agency at the Big Sur Children’s Writing Workshop, and on a whim, I applied to be Executive Agent Laura Rennert’s assistant. I was still thinking about going back into marketing, but the more I assisted Laura, the more I loved the work. I was her assistant for three and a half years and then was promoted to become an agent in mid-2016. I love this job. It’s been an exciting ride!”

Jennifer’s enthusiasm for agenting is palpable as she exudes, “I find the publishing industry fascinating. I enjoy reviewing contracts and thinking strategically on behalf of the clients. I love writing pitches and connecting with editors. I even like reviewing royalty statements. Most of all, I love editorial. It gives me great joy to help writers find their story. I love to champion others. Perhaps the best part is when I get to tell a client they’re going to be published.”

Even though Jennifer loves being an agent, she also has experienced challenges in her profession as well as changes over the years. “There is a lot of rejection in this business at every level, and agents get rejected all the time, too. It’s frustrating when a terrific project doesn’t sell right away. However, I don’t get discouraged; in fact, just the opposite. Every time I get a rejection, I see it as an opportunity to learn more about the market and what works or doesn’t. If I am lucky enough to get feedback, I then have the opportunity to strategize next steps.” Jennifer laments that there are fewer and fewer bookstores, noting that the big chains like Borders have closed. She adds that people are still buying books and reading, but the sales channels have changed.

In terms of advice for women writers, Jennifer becomes specific, and offers helpful guidance for everyone, from beginning writers to a seasoned authors:

Authors deserve quality service from an agent, but not all author needs are the same. Consider what you are looking for in an agent:

  • Do you want an experienced agent with a strong deal track record and lots of best-selling clients? Or would you consider working with a newer agent with less experience but perhaps more time to devote to your projects? 
  • Do you want a big agency with many resources, or a smaller boutique agency that might offer customized service?
  • Are you looking for an agent who will work with you editoriallyWhat communication style works best for you?
  • Go to writing conferences where you can meet agents. Attend their sessions. Read interviews. Listen to podcasts. Follow them on social media. Who seems like a good fit? Why?
  • When querying, be professional and research your options. Follow submission guidelines for each agency. Many have different requirements and are fairly strict about submissions. Some agencies allow writers to resubmit if a step was missed, but many agents, especially those who already have a full client list, will not accept anything that doesn’t follow their guidelines.
  • Most importantly, believe in yourself and don’t give up. Agents reject projects for many reasons—changing trends in the market; because they already have something similar on their list; because they know of similar published or forthcoming titles; because something isn’t right for them; because although something may be strong, well-written and even publishable, they didn’t fall in love with it. A rejection doesn’t mean your project won’t sell.”

I commented to Jennifer that today’s projects seem to be more promotion driven and writers must do the driving. She responded with a positive message, “Number one is to write a terrific book that people want to read. I also think a strong, positive platform is always a plus. Some of our clients write articles and op-ed pieces for media that relate to the topic of their book, which helps to build name recognition, etc. It also helps to do bookstore events. Even if no one shows up to a reading, the author can still sign copies and connect with the booksellers, who might hand-sell their book to customers.”  

It is clear that Jennifer is passionate about being an agent, and is also so supportive of women writers. She ends her interview with these inspiring words, “Don’t give up! Keep writing. Keep revising. Keep querying. Allow yourself to experience the process and make mistakes. Learn from your mistakes. Celebrate and enjoy your victories, the large and the small. Best of luck!”

Jennifer is actively building her client list and welcomes queries via http://QueryMe.Online/JenniferMarchSoloway.

To learn more about Jennifer, follow her on Twitter, @marchsoloway, and find her full wish list at www.andreabrownlit.com.

Featured Member Interview – Joan Gelfand

Interview by Susan Allison

What inspires me most about WNBA featured writer Joan Gelfand is her tenacity, her willingness to do whatever it takes to be a successful author. Her honesty is refreshing when she says, “I became determined to get a book out-and it takes determination! My publishing experience has been that every book has taken tremendous effort.”

This effort actually began at the age of eight when she enjoyed reading and writing school-book-reports, and was writing poetry by the age of fifteen. As a young writer, she most admired the styles of Collette and Simone de Beauvoir. As an adult, she credits ee cummings, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Yoko Ono for inspiring her. More recently, novelists such as Richard Powers, Michael Chabon and Zadie Smith have influenced her style. Joan has also studied with Kathleen Fraser and later with Chana Bloch and Sandy Boucher, and says of her mentors, “They were patient, compassionate teachers who encouraged me to keep going.”

Joan began as a poet “submitting massive amounts of work to journals and online magazines, and then to contests.” Her hard work paid off and she now has published three full-length poetry collections with small presses. Currently, she has published five books, including the three poetry collections, an award winning chapbook of short fiction, and her newest book, You Can Be a Winning Writer: the 4 C’s of Successful Authors: Craft, Commitment, Community and Confidence. This work was published by Mango Press in July and hit #1 on the Amazon best sellers list. Joan is excited about her latest novel, Fear to Shred, set in a Silicon Valley startup, which will be published in the fall.

Joan is very frank about the publishing world, “Most publishers require that you already have a history of publication. Just to get a list of publications takes a long while. Fortunately, I have met or was connected to five of my six publishers through people I met at the WNBA!”  She adds that there are two proven paths to becoming a successful author: a writer’s resume of publication credits and getting hundreds of thousands of followers on social media. To build a resume, Joan says to start small by submitting to online journals and lit magazines and eventually to nationally known publishers. Joan believes that building up a resume is the more reliable way to go, but “some people get lucky” on social media.

Joan has followed her own advice and has been rewarded as the recipient of numerous nominations and honors. Her work appears in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Rattle, Prairie Schooner, Kaliope, The Meridian Anthology of Contemporary Poetry, the Toronto Review, Marsh Hawk Review, Levure Litteraire, Chicken Soup for the Soul and many literary magazines and journals.

Currently, Joan is working on another poetry collection and a memoir, and of course, looking forward to her novel being published later this year.

You can contact Joan or receive coaching here:

@joangelfand – twitter

http://joangelfand.com

joangelfand – Facebook

joangelfand – Instagram

Featured Member Interview – Judy Bebelaar

Interview by Susan Allison

WNBA Featured author, Judy Bebelaar, has been writing for seventy-two years. Yes, that’s right, seventy-two years! She remembers writing her first story in first grade and then a poetry collection in third grade. Judy loved her teachers so much that she decided to become one. She taught in San Francisco public high schools for 37 years, especially loving smaller classes and encouraging her students to publish their creative writing.

Judy invited many poets from California Poets in the Schools into her classrooms, and she wrote with her students when she could. She believes she is the only classroom teacher to be named an honorary CPITS Poet Teacher. For twenty years Judy produced a multicultural literary arts calendar with her students, as a way of helping them publish their work in a way that people would read. She always published their poems in the school arts magazine, which was enjoyed by students, teachers and parents.

On a national level, Judy has received recognition for her success in helping students find joy in writing. Her students won many awards, including eight from Scholastic Magazine on the national level. Judy was honored on the national level as well, by State Farm, the Good Neighbor Teacher Award in 1996 (one of 8 nationally); by Business-Week/McGraw Hill in 1994, for innovative practices in teaching; and by Scholastic, The Whitehouse Women’s Leadership in Teaching, in 2002. For ten years she has been co-host of a reading series, Writing Teachers Write sponsored by the Bay Area Writing Project at UC Berkeley, which partners writers from the Writing Project with those from the Bay Area Writing Community and beyond.

In terms of publication, Judy’s poetry has been published widely in magazines and online, and has won many awards, most recently a first prize, two thirds, and the Grand Prize in the Ina Coolbrith Circle Poetry Contest. Her work is also included in many anthologies, among them The Widows’ Handbook (foreword by Ruth Bader Ginsberg) and River of Earth and Sky. Walking Across the Pacific is her first poetry chapbook. Judy’s poetry evokes myriad feelings in its beautiful simplicity:

The Moon and the Room and the Windowsill

that September night as we lay sleepless,
the moon spilled into the room,
soaking the rumpled clothes on the floor

so that hard words spoken
melted as we did, into one another

and the moon and the room
and the windowsill
and us there, still breathing

Her highly regarded non-fiction work, And Then They Were Gone: Teenagers of Peoples Temple from High School to Jonestown, is about the students from Peoples Temple that Judy and co-author Ron Cabral came to know before most were sent to Jonestown. Of the 918 Americans who died in the shocking murder-suicides of November 18, 1978, in the tiny South American country of Guyana, a third were under eighteen. More than half were in their twenties or younger.

And Then They Were Gone begins in San Francisco at the small school where Reverend Jim Jones enrolled the teens of his Peoples Temple church in 1976. Within a year, most had been sent to join Jones and other congregants in what Jones promised was a tropical paradise based on egalitarian values, but which turned out to be a deadly prison camp. Set against the turbulent backdrop of the late 1970s, And Then They Were Gone draws from interviews, books, and articles. Many of these powerful stories are told here for the first time. In recognition of their work, co-authors, Ron and Judy, were recently honored as Library Laureates of 2019 by the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library.

Now that Judy is retired, she misses teaching and her students at times, yet remembers that she was often too busy to write. Now she can focus on her own work, and also has suggestions for other women writers, “In terms of publishing poetry, I’ve found submitting to anthologies is a great idea, and connects you with writers (and readers) who care about what you care about. Poetry readings can bring lots of people, too.” For every genre, Judy suggests joining a group, “Fellow writers in the many writing and response groups I’ve been in – or hosted myself – gave me good feedback and encouragement.”

And finally, Judy offers her truly sage advice: “I think for all writers I’d say: Don’t give up if it’s something you care about passionately. Think about your reasons for writing a piece or a book. Many times during the twelve years Ron and I worked on And Then They Were Gone, I thought it would never be published. But because I wanted to honor those young people who died, and those that had the courage to go on living in spite of great tragedy, I kept on.”

Judy has kept on the writer’s path as well. She is currently sending out a poetry manuscript and doing readings and talks with book groups for And Then They Were Gone. She will be moderating a panel, “Turning Tragedy into Hope: Teaching Transformation Through Writing,” at the 2019 AWP Conference in Portland, Oregon, Friday, March 29 at 10:30. The panelists include three other writers and survivors of Jonestown: Deborah Layton, John Cobb and Jordan Vilchez, as well as renowned educator and writer Herb Kohl.

Find out more about Judy Bebelaar at:
www.judybebelaar.com

Featured Member Interview – Kathleen Archambeau

Interview by Susan Allison

WNBA featured author, award winning and successful writer, Kathleen Archambeau, has a storyteller’s ear, and has loved to listen and record the stories she’s heard since childhood: “I grew up in an extended Irish Catholic family in San Francisco, which gave me a head start on my love of words and stories. I distinctly remember visualizing myself when I was twelve, writing at a round oak table with a flood of light on a blue vase of flowers. Until college, I mostly listened. Everyone had a story to tell, like my grandmother, who was out dancing until 5:12 a.m. when the 1906 Earthquake hit, to my mother who played Judas Iscariot as a sympathetic character to a standing ovation.”

Kathleen not only loved hearing family stories, but found herself fascinated by the tales of co-workers at Hewlett-Packard where she was Employee Editor. “On many cross-country business trips, I began writing my first book, Climbing the Corporate Ladder in High Heels, published in 2006. I had the good fortune of securing endorsements from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Chair of BareEscentuals, Leslie Blodgett. My publisher, Career Press, hired a Boston agency and garnered coverage in Fortune magazine, more than 15 NPR radio stations, Dallas Morning News and more. The book sold well for a first-time nonfiction author whose name was not Michelle Obama.”

A year later, Kathleen was asked to contribute to the collection, The Other Woman, edited by Victoria Zackheim. Her essay, “Seized,” ran alongside Pulitzer Prize winner Jane Smiley and other famous writers, leading Publishers Weekly to comment, “The main attraction…is the top-drawer writers….”

Despite not having time to write the great American novel due to a demanding day job, (writing audio, video and Web content, marketing and advertising copy, writing executive speeches and traveling extensively), Kathleen enjoyed a creative and far-ranging career in the written word. This helped her when she could finally put down the corporate scepter and pick up the pen full-time. She was used to deadline pressures and editorial constraints, so being a full-time published writer felt normal to her. During her corporate career, she fed her love of words by studying poetry with Adrienne Rich, Elizabeth Woody and Derek Walcott. “In various workshops, conferences and classes, I honed my craft. And always, I read and read and read.”
In 2016, at a WNBA pitch event, Kathleen met Brenda Knight who asked to publish a collection of profiles she was writing. In 2017, Mango published her book, Pride & Joy: LGBTQ Artists, Icons and Everyday Heroes. This book benefited from a Foreword by Dustin Lance Black, Academy Award-winning screenwriter of Milk. This compilation tells stories of success, happiness and hope from the LGBTQ community, stories that comprise the best of LGBTQ history ─ stories of queer citizens of the world living life OUT LOUD. The press release states: “Not like the depressing, sinister, shadowy stories of the past, this book highlights queer people living open, happy, fulfilling and successful lives.”

Eric Rosswood, one of the gay parents in her book Pride and Joy, asked Kathleen to collaborate on a new YA book called, We Make It Better: The LGBTQ Community and Their Positive Contributions to Society. It continues the important work of Pride and Joy, illustrating that LGBTQ people have always played important roles in society. They have served their country, served in office, pushed forward human rights and have impacted all fields of study, sport, art and industry. We Make It Better offers biographies of some of the more famous thinkers and changers in history from Alan Turing, Bayard Rustin, Leonard Bernstein and Dr. Sally Ride, to present day innovators and world changers like Ellen DeGeneres, Tim Cook, Beth Ford, The Wachowski sisters, Ricky Martin and more.

Kathleen not only collaborated with Eric Rosswood on We Make It Better, but received his valuable coaching: “From this Millennial/GenX author, I learned the power of social media and have begun using it to bolster pre-sales of the book. We Make It Better has been an Amazon #1 New Release in five categories and comes out Jan. 15th 2019. “For all my in-person readings, book tours, college presentations, LGBTQ center appearances and collaborations, ten minutes on Facebook and Twitter encouraging a birthday pre-order of our new book garnered more sales than months of time-consuming and expensive appearances. Verified Amazon purchases and reviews drive even more sales. Great lessons for selling books in the digital age.”

And what might Kathleen be working on currently? “Now, I am finally, as I near my seventh decade, working on a rewrite of the Great American Novel, Liberty Street, a story of love and transformation with a queer theme. Since I still so value the written word, I’ve enlisted the support of an amazing writing coach, accomplished novelist and professor, Carolina De Robertis.” As always, Kathleen has her eye on the details that make her writing a success: organization, hard work and collaboration.
Finally, Kathleen has this solid advice for every woman writer: “Write as if no one is watching, write because you love to write, write your own story in your own voice. Then, the joy is yours no matter what the sales figures say or who publishes your work.”

You can best contact Kathleen on her Website:
www.kathleenarchambeau.com
Her Twitter account is: twitter.com/KATHLEENARCHAM2

with the hashtag: #WeMakeItBetter

Featured Member Interview – Marylee MacDonald

Interview by Susan Allison

Recently, I have been in conversation with WNBA member, Marylee MacDonald, award winning author, writing coach, and caregiver advocate. I’ve been most impressed by Marylee’s refreshing honesty. Whether she is talking about her personal life, her writing career, or the current state of the publishing industry, she tells the truth.

Marylee grew up as an only child living with four adults—her parents and grandparents. Her mom was 41 when she adopted her, so that meant her grandparents were in their seventies. Because of this, Marylee says her role was “to be seen and not heard.” If she wanted to ask a question at the dinner table, she needed to raise her hand. 

Once a week Marylee biked to the Redwood City Library and checked out a bike-basket’s worth of books, “loving the experience of getting lost in worlds and families other than my own. Reading was my salvation.” The Redwood City Tribune published a story she wrote from a school assignment when she was in fourth grade. “This experience did show me that a story of mine could eventually make its way into print.” 

As an undergraduate at Stanford, Marylee majored in English, yet didn’t think to enroll in Creative Writing, even though Wallace Stegner and Nancy Packer taught there. She says she knew she wanted to write, but didn’t realize that universities could be places to learn the craft. She changed her mind when her high school friend Tom Cuthbertson got his Master’s degree in Creative Writing at San Francisco State.

Tragically, before she could enroll, her husband was killed in a car accident in Germany when Marylee was pregnant with her fifth child. It was the insurance money from the accident that allowed her to enroll in graduate school. In the midst of this crisis and while raising five children, Marylee still pursued her dream of becoming a writer. She studied with Kay Boyle, Wright Morris and Ray West, knowing her passion was for fiction, yet working many years as a journalist for Sunset and other magazines.

Between 1971, the year of her husband’s death, and when her youngest child graduated from college, she wrote very little, but never gave up. During these years, she was raising children, running a construction company, switching jobs to work at the University of Illinois, and eventually following her second husband to his new job at Northwestern University. This move allowed her to stop working for a paycheck and pursue her writing career. “I had just turned fifty and threw myself back into fiction. I was eager to make up for lost time.”

She attended a weekly short story workshop with Fred Shafer, who mentored many Chicago writers. With his support, Marylee began to write and publish short stories for literary magazines, and she began winning prizes for her work. Eventually, she published her stories in an anthology, Bonds of Love & Blood. Her short stories have won the Barry Hannah Price, the Jeanne M. Leiby Memorial Chapbook Award, the American Literary Review Fiction Award, the Matt Clark Prize, the Ron Rash Award, an Illinois Arts Council Fellowship in Fiction, and multiple awards in the Faulkner-Wisdom Competition. (If you love short stories and would like a free digital copy of Bonds of Love & Blood, you can download it from this BookShout link.)

Just when her writing was going well, her son-in-law was diagnosed with ALS, and she became his caregiver. Marylee was determined this time not to give up her writing, and though sleepless and exhausted, she wrote her first novel, Montpelier Tomorrow. She realized that she was too close to the story and had to do about thirty rewrites until “what really happened became what might have been.” Her novel portrays a family under extreme stress, immersing readers in “what it is like to be a caregiver, sleep-deprived for months, while caring for a patient who isn’t especially noble or grateful.” In 2014 an independent press in New England published Montpelier Tomorrow. Her first novel won the Gold Medal for Drama from the Readers’ Favorites International Book Awards. It was also a finalist for the Bellwether Price, the Eric Hoffer Award and the Indie Next Generation Book Awards.

Marylee is currently writing The Vermillion Sea. This latest work is a historical novel set in 1769 about a young French artist who follows a famous astronomer to Baja California for that year’s Transit of Venus observation. For the past few years Marylee has spent hours doing research in the French Archives, holding ancient books and letters in her hands. Like all her stories, what the main character finds is not at all what he expected or deserved. “At the heart of this novel is the question of the lenses through which we view the world.” She hopes to finish her next draft by the end of January. She says, “I love revision because it forces me to ‘re-vision’ the action, to look for deeper meanings and to tie together the threads of plot.”

In terms of authenticity, Marylee is the most forthcoming about being a woman writer, especially past midlife, trying to publish her work. She says, “The hardest thing for any writer or any woman, for that matter, is juggling the desire to write with the need to earn a living and be there as a parent. For many years I beat myself up because I couldn’t do everything. I wasn’t writing enough, earning enough money, or spending as much time with my children as I might have wanted. However, I took inspiration from anthropologist Margaret Mead who said that women in their fifties would suddenly find their time unencumbered. She believed that women had a different life pattern from men. Women experienced a surge of energy and career focus in their fifties and sixties, and that’s often the time men are winding down their careers.”

I especially appreciate what Marylee shares about getting an agent and publisher in today’s market: “Finding an agent and publisher has never been harder. That’s because there’s been so much consolidation in the industry. It’s especially hard for women over fifty to get an agent. I’ve had well known agents tell me to my face that I’m too old. They want to ‘take on’ someone in their twenties or thirties. These young writers can help ‘fund my retirement’ one agent told me. At an Arizona writers’ conference, an agent bragged that he’d signed one writer who had just turned seventy. That writer had already published nine books. The agent’s idea was that the author could be repackaged—have his website spiffed up, have new covers put on his books—and that might make the agent’s investment of time worthwhile.”

Marylee asks, “Who is getting published?” And answers, “Sports personalities. Movie stars or late-night TV hosts such as Trevor Noah. Past presidents, such as Bill Clinton, especially when he’s collaborating with James Patterson.” “Can books by late-life authors outsell books by celebrities who already have built-in fanbases, aka ‘author platforms’?” “Very unlikely. Traditional publishing is all about who can sell books by the truckload. For a perspective on the industry changes that have gotten us to where we are now, I highly recommend Brooke Warner’s Green Light Your Book: How Writers Can Succeed in the New Era of  Publishing. The author is one of the founders of SheWrites Press, and she tells it straight.”  

As you can tell, Marylee is a veteran writer with years of experience who wants to assist other writers through her blog posts and coaching: “My blog posts strike a balance between craft issues — meaning how to deal with plot or character — and marketing issues. Marketing is so important. Writers don’t like to push themselves forward, but marketing is not ‘being pushy.’ The real goal is to find readers who will enjoy our books. Knowing readers are out there increases a writer’s motivation to finish the next one.”

Marylee is hard at work finishing her next book, The Vermillion Sea, and getting in great shape to hike Yosemite. Let her be an inspiration for us all, that we may lose people we love, find ourselves caring for family, or working hard to make a living, while at the same time, determined to write our next poem, our next story, our next book.

The many ways to get in touch with or find out more of Marylee’s fascinating life are: 

Website: https://www.maryleemacdonaldauthor.com

Email: mm at maryleemacdonald dot org

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/macdonaldmarylee/

Facebook: https://facebook.com/MaryleeMacD

Twitter: https://twitter.com/MaryleeMacD

Her anthology of award-winning short stories: http://bit.ly/BONDSOFLOVEANDBLOOD

Her award-winning novel: http://bit.ly/MONTPELIERTOMORROW