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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org