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Bold and Strong: Coffee Chat with Author Kris Spisak

Kris Spisak

While I do provide some grammar instruction in my English 10 courses, Kris Spisak wrote the book on it. Literally. Her first book, Get a Grip on Your Grammar, was published in 2017, and it is a handy and clever reference book for those who want more information or would like to double-check commonly confused words and phrases. It’s excellent, and I often use it for grammar icebreakers in my classes. 

Earlier this year, Kris published The Novel Editing Workbook (Feb. 2020), and this month, she is releasing her newest project. It’s such an exciting time for her, and I’m so happy to have Kris here for my November Coffee Chat. Fill up your mug, and join us as we talk about unusual jobs, grammar pet peeves, and claiming the title “writer” once and for all. 

Me: I may have assumed you were a coffee drinker. Are you?  If so, how do you take it?

Kris: I absolutely am. Coffee is my #5amwritersclub fuel. A natural vanilla creamer is my usual go-to.

Me: What is a job that you’ve had in the past that people might not know about? Any interesting stories from it you can share?

Kris: I’ve had way too many strange jobs, but it helps in the writer’s life, I suppose. I was a “security guard” in college. I worked the front desk of the kinesiology department building, ensuring no one unauthorized went into the labs where dissections took place—and, you know, making sure cadaver parts never left the building. That’s a bit strange when I look back on it, but it was a great place to catch up on my homework!

Me: Oh, wow! That was an interesting job!  In your newest book, you mention that many people are afraid to claim the title “writer.” When did you first consider yourself a writer? Was there a defining moment when you realized this is what you were meant to do?

Kris: Why is it that so many people are afraid to call themselves a “writer”? If you write, you simply are one. No publication credits are required.

My ownership of the “writer” title came through my membership and participation with James River Writers, an amazing writing community that has bolstered my personal and professional life for the past fifteen plus years. I remember sitting in the audience at one of their events years ago and hearing someone make this point. Prior to that evening, I had said that I “liked to write” or that “I wanted to be a writer,” but something in the air that night shifted my perspective. I stopped “wanting to be a writer” and simply owned the fact that I was one. And I haven’t looked back since.

Me:  What are some writing routines, quirks, or habits you have? What are some items you must have in your writing space?

Kris: As I mentioned in your first question, I try my best to make it to the #5amwritersclub on Twitter as frequently as I can. It used to be daily, and I’m working on getting back into that routine, though everything that is strange about 2020 has disrupted that regularity for me. Sneaking my writing time in first thing in the morning, when my house is quiet and my coffee is in hand, always improves the rest of my day. Plus, starting early in the morning when my coffee hasn’t yet kicked in lets me play a bit in my not-quite-awake, not-quite-dreaming state, where my creativity often flourishes.

What do I need in my writing space? Coffee just keeps coming up here, doesn’t it? And perhaps my cats. My family calls them my “gargoyles” since they’ve been known to perch on opposite sides of my desk while I work.

Me: What is your biggest grammatical pet peeve? Care to comment on “irregardless?”

Kris: “Irregardess” is simply not a word. I don’t care that they’ve added it to the dictionary. They’ve also added “literally” to the dictionary, meaning “figuratively,” as in the opposite of “literally.” There’s casual use, sure, but we all have our lines. “Irregardless” is absolutely past that line for me.

That being said, I’m not sure I have grammatical pet peeves, per se, anymore. There are so many details that writers and speakers just simply don’t seem to understand. An editor’s work is never done! But I’m of the school that we all need to support each other where we can. If people ask me for help, oh, I’m all in. But I’m never going to call out or correct someone’s mistake. That’s unnecessary.

Me:  What is your favorite word?

Kris: My favorite word is “posh,” but not for the reason you might think. The meaning of “posh” is fine and all—and who wouldn’t want to own that one?—however, for me, it’s my favorite because it’s the first word I remember learning the etymology story for. I remember the story hitting me, feeling startled yet wanting to learn more. When history meets language meets sociology, I’m fascinated every single time. I might have been around ten years old. I never would have guessed that my life would be shaped upon such language stories, but here we are—and I love my work so much.

Me: What are some of the pitfalls of knowing the rules of proper grammar?

Kris: Wait, there are pitfalls? Just kidding. Well, you could argue that I pay attention to language far more than I need to. For example, in this question, you used the word “pitfalls,” which has its origin connected with literally falling into a pit. I’m suddenly happy that I live in a world where I don’t truly have to be concerned with “pit falls” of that nature, only the simpler kind that might be referenced in a question like this.

Knowing how to actually use a semicolon feels like a super-power sometimes, but knowing doesn’t mean we should criticize or judge others. That’s the biggest pitfall I see in the grammar conscious. We all need to try harder (at so many things!) but the world would be better without the grammatical anger that’s out there. I try to avoid that at all costs.

Me:  What was the inspiration for your new book?

Kris: When my last book, The Novel Editing Workbook, came out, we had the idea about the next one in line. The original plan was going to be “The Memoir Editing Workbook.” Everything I focus on is about empowering our words and our storytelling, and this seemed to be the best next step. Yet as I created writing prompts in the spring of 2020, urging writers (whether they claimed the “writer” title or not) to write down their stories, because we were living through history, I was shocked by the response. People had so many tales that began pouring out of them—stories of 2020 but also stories of hard times in years past, both their own and their family’s.

Thus, my next project shifted, and The Family Story Workbook was conceived in its new form, designed for anyone who’s ever wanted to write their life story, anyone who’s wanted to connect with their family members in a new and profound way, or anyone who’s wanted to capture their family stories before they’re lost.

So many people want to write these stories, yet they never do. The Family Story Workbook is the tool to preserve these histories.

Me:  What is a family story you have that you want to make sure is never forgotten?

Kris: I think I’ve been trying to write one of my family stories since elementary school but never really found the right way to tell it. I’ve played with it in poetry, in short stories, in first-person narrative nonfiction, and in novel form. Hopefully, I’ll have updates on my most recent attempts at it soon, where I’ve pulled my family’s Ukrainian World War II stories into fiction. Stories of bravery, heroics, and survival can take so many forms. These are the family stories that impacted me young and still ring out so powerfully for me. Some stories are too meaningful not to share, but more on that soon

For readers interested in English language news and trivia, my monthly newsletter is packed, including the most recent updates on my writing tips blog and language-focused podcast, “Words You Should Know.” You can sign up and learn more about my books (Get a Grip on Your Grammar, The Novel Editing Workbook, and now The Family Story Workbook) at Kris-Spisak.com. The Family Story Workbook will be released November 12, 2020, and is available for preorder here.

***Purchase your copy of I Love You More Than Coffee

Bold and Strong: Coffee Chat with Connie Biewald

Connie Biewald, Author of Truth Like Oil

Most writers have been advised at one point or another to write the book they want to read. Connie Biewald, author of Truth Like Oil, did just that. Fill your mug with something delicious, and join Connie and me as we talk about balancing a writing life, the joys of publishing, and the complexity of motherhood.

Me: Are you a coffee drinker? What are your favorite drinks and snacks when you’re writing?

Connie: Yes! I don’t drink a lot of coffee, but I definitely need that one large, strong cup when I get up. I like salty snacks–chips and salsa, especially–and leftovers. I love leftovers.

Me: Describe your inspiration for Truth Like Oil. Why did you feel compelled to tell this story?

Connie: My fiercely independent, white, racist grandmother was laid up in a nursing home being cared for by people of color. This dynamic interested me. I began to write the relationship of Hazel and Nadine. I went to Haiti to learn more about Nadine’s background and culture and ended up going back multiple times over the next decade. At that time in my life (2005) my younger son began making some risky choices. I’ve always used writing as a way to explore human behavior and relationships. I realized Nadine and Hazel were also mothers of sons and Chance, Henry and Gary entered into the story. I wrote the book I wanted to read–about Nadine coping with the terrible feeling of helplessness, as her son, a young person she is responsible for, makes his own scary decisions, and about how, as parents, we inevitably have to accept that our children’s lives are their own, not ours. We can’t (and shouldn’t try to) make them bend to our will, especially when they’re adults.

Me: How did you decide on this title? Were there others that were in the running?

Connie: The working title right up until a few months before publication was Heart of the Yam, a phrase from another proverb, “Only the knife knows the heart of the yam.” A thoughtful friend of mine pointed out that if I’m concerned about being a white author writing a Black main character in this current social/political climate, I might not want to have the word “yam” with its strong African associations so front and center. Truth Like Oil, another proverb used in the book, works well, and I like the fact that it’s from a proverb used in many cultures around the world.

Me: Are there any parallels between your life and the characters in your novel?

Connie: Yes–many, many parallels. As I said, I can certainly relate to the stresses of parenting.  When I sat in a courtroom with my own son who is white, I saw a room full of people of color, including many who appeared to be recent immigrants. I thought about my own struggles navigating the system and wondered what it must be like for someone who doesn’t speak English fluently or feel as comfortable and privileged in the dominant culture. I have two sons and am always marveling at the complexity of their sibling relationship. I’m also dealing with an aging mother living in an assisted living situation. Then there’s the setting of Cambridge, MA. When people think of Cambridge, they often think Harvard and MIT and all that goes along with those institutions, but there’s so much more to our city. After setting my last three novels in a version of the Connecticut mill town where I grew up, I thought I should write about the city that’s been my home for the last 30 plus years.

Me: What has been your favorite part of this publishing journey?

Connie: My work with the developmental editor was very satisfying. She helped me cut 60 pages and the edits made it a much better book. Another great moment was when I first saw the cover design. I think it’s beautiful! I also appreciated reading the endorsements people wrote for the book–very affirming.

Me: What has been the biggest challenge? 

Connie: The biggest challenge for me isn’t as much about publishing. It’s always how to keep the world at bay enough to sit down and write and to quiet the voices in my head that question the value of a  writing habit. I spend hours and hours and hours and end up with a decent book, but I know I’ll never be a great writer, like the writers I admire. Shouldn’t I be doing something else with all that time? Yet I always come back to the reality that when I am writing regularly, I’m a happier person and more productive in all areas of my life.

Me: How has this differed from publishing your other books?

Connie: This was my first traditionally published novel. I self published my three previous novels with iUniverse. They did well enough, even won awards, but I always felt I hadn’t “really” been published.

Me: How do you juggle teaching, writing, and family obligations?

Connie: Grace Paley, my most important writing mentor, says that there’s no such thing as balance when it comes to these things, which takes some of the pressure off. During the school year it’s harder to carve out writing time. During the summer I might go to a residency where I can write all day. When my kids were small, I had one morning a week for writing, and I used it well. Now they’re grown. In theory I could write every morning for an hour or so since I only have to worry about getting myself out the door. Still, there are some stretches of time, when I can’t get myself going. I hope to establish a morning routine that will take me through this next school year. A daily habit keeps the characters and the book alive in my mind so that my subconscious is working on it all the time.

Me: What is the most helpful writing advice you have received to date?

Connie: Grace, again, said, “Keep your expenses down and never live with someone who doesn’t support your writing.” That advice has worked for me.

Me: What is a piece of advice you ignored in life that you are glad you did?

Connie: This is a very interesting question and I’m having a hard time thinking of an answer. I’ve always loved traveling and when I was younger and adventure was way more important than comfort, I took chances that now I might want to advise a young person not to do, but I don’t remember anyone actually telling me not to travel with barely any money, climb mountains in gold sandals, accept free meals from any religious cult that offered, bicycle alone down the Oregon and California coasts (no helmets back then), etc. No doubt there were people who would have advised me not to do this sort of thing, but they probably knew not to bother. I wouldn’t have listened.

Me: Is there anything else you would like readers to know? How can they find you?

My website is:www.conniebiewald.com

A short interview with me about Truth Like Oil is available in the Here and Now archives.

https://www.wbur.org/hereandnow/2021/06/16/truth-like-oil-connie-biewald

Bold and Strong: Coffee Chat with Author Libby McNamee

Libby McNamee, Author

This month I am thrilled to be chatting with my friend and fellow Bookish Road Trip administrator, Libby McNamee. Libby is the author of Susanna’s Midnight Ride: The Girl Who Won the Revolutionary War and the newly released Dolley Madison and the War of 1812. Join us as we chat about Libby’s writing life, research process, and plans for future writing projects! Huzzah!

Me: How often do you drink coffee? What is your favorite beverage?

Libby: I drink coffee every morning, but rarely ever finish a full cup.  Although I love the aroma, taste, and ritual itself, it bothers my stomach, so I’ve got to pace myself. My favorite drink is seltzer water, any flavor, but I especially love grapefruit. At night I love an oaky (is that a word?) chardonnay.

Me: What about Dolley Madison? Would she have had coffee with us?

Libby: Oh yes, absolutely! Dolley loved socializing more than anything else in the world and believed in “politics by people.” Back during the War of 1812, America boycotted British tea for years, the second time around after the American Revolution. That is how coffee became firmly established as our national drink of choice! Huzzah!

Me: Tell us a little about your new book and how this time around feels different from your debut. Or does it?

Libby: When I wrote Susanna’s Midnight Ride, information on 16-year-old Susanna Bolling was extremely limited. However, there were tons of books on the American Revolution. With Dolley, it was the exact opposite. There was lots of information about her and fewer resources about the War of 1812. It was much easier to learn about her and put her in the context of the era in which she lived. 

It feels easier in some ways because I am familiar with the process, but I find it just as anxiety-producing. Three years have passed, and things have shifted with the pandemic, so it’s been a much slower process, requiring a lot more planning and coordination. This time I am also releasing a Study Guide at the same time and including a number of blurbs at the front of the book, so that’s been a lot more to juggle. 

Me: What was the research process like for this book?

Libby: It was fascinating!  I never knew much about Dolley or the War of 1812, so it was quite eye-opening to learn about life in brand-new Washington City and the many challenges facing the Early Republic, only thirty years after the Battle of Yorktown. 

I loved reading about Dolley and the time period, but I also had a blast visiting many historical sites–Montpelier, the James Madison Museum, the White House, the Octagon House, Fort McHenry, the Daughters of the War of 1812 Headquarters, the Navy Yard, Fort Washington, Scotchtown, Riversdale, and the Flag House Museum, among others. 

Me: Why Dolley Madison? Why did you decide to write about her? What did you learn that surprised you? Is there anything you would still like to know about her?

Libby: I attended a lecture at the Virginia Museum of History and Culture on Dolley Madison given by the CEO of Montpelier, and I was hooked!  Of course, I had always heard about her legendary hospitality, but I never realized her brilliance in dealing with politics at a time when women’s roles were so limited. She was so much more than just a sociable wife. In fact, President Polk coined the term “First Lady” to describe her enormous role while giving her eulogy at her funeral.

Me: What age group are your books geared toward? What do you like about writing for younger readers?

Libby: My books were originally geared to upper middle grade (4th grade through 7th grade), but I’ve found they appeal to history-loving adults just as well. I only discovered my love of history when I was in my 40s, so I write for younger readers to draw them in at an earlier age. I want to show them that history can be very exciting and suspenseful. It’s not all boring memorization of dates, places, and people’s names.

Me: Tell us a little about your earlier experiences with writing. What did you work on before Dolley and Susanna?

Libby: I’ve always loved to write! Before writing full-time, I was a practicing lawyer. I served in the US Army JAG Corps for six years, living in Seoul, Korea and Tacoma, WA, with a stint in Bosnia. Then I worked in a large firm, a small firm, and a corporation before becoming a freelance writer. I wrote a traveling-with-kids column, as well as humor and cooking columns, along with lots of feature articles.

Me: What are your favorite snacks to have when you are writing? Do you keep a regular writing schedule?

Libby: Great question! I usually drink water (preferably seltzer) or Gatorade and eat fruit. Then when I take a break, I raid the pantry! Watch out, chocolate, here I come!

Me: What is a time period or individual from history that you would like to know more about?

Libby: I would love to know more about Elizabeth Van Lew, a high-society woman from Richmond, Virginia, who operated an extensive spy ring for the Union Army, reporting directly to General Grant during the Civil War. She also helped Yankee prisoners escape the notoriously horrible conditions and even hid them in her home, losing her fortune and becoming an outcast. She will be the subject of my next book!

Me: What are your favorite genres to read?

Libby: Historical fiction is definitely my favorite genre, followed by contemporary women’s fiction and literary fiction. When I’m craving some lighter reading, I love to escape into cozy murder mysteries.

Me: How can readers learn more about you and your books?

Libby: The best way to keep in touch is through my newsletter, Libby’s Monthly Dispatch, which has historic tidbits, quotes, recipes and reading recommendations.  Please sign up on my website,  www.LibbyMcNamee.com. I’m also on Facebook at “Libby McNamee Author” and on Instagram @LibbyMcNameeAuthor.

Order your copy of Dolley Madison.

Purchase I Love You More Than Coffee by Melissa Face.

Bold and Strong: Coffee Chat with Author Jenny True

Jenny True, Author of You Look Tired: An Excruciatingly Honest Guide to New Parenthood,

When Jenny True’s book was still in pre-order status, my friend Patty reached out to me and said, “I think you should check this book out. Looks like a great fit for your blog.” I reached out to Jenny and found that not only is her book hilarious, but she’s just a really freaking awesome person. 

Jenny writes an advice column for Romper which led to the publication of her book, You Look Tired: An Excruciatingly Honest Guide to New Parenthood. Fill your mug with coffee (or tea) and join Jenny and me for a quick chat about breastfeeding, hiding from your kids, and why it’s not your fault that you feel overwhelmed and exhausted as a new parent.

Me: Are you a coffee drinker? Describe your caffeine habit.

Jenny: I hate to admit this, but I’m a serious tea drinker, and my go-to café drink is a latte — so it’s coffee-adjacent! During pregnancy I tried to abstain from caffeine but found it harder than abstaining from alcohol. Then I read Emily Oster’s Expecting Better and said, fuck that! Bring on the caffeine. During the pandemic I switched from one to two cups a day to one to two pots. Thanks, 2020.

Me: Describe your writing process. Any particular requirements for your space? What time of day are you most productive? What’s your favorite snack to eat while writing?

Jenny: I’m definitely most productive first thing in the morning, more so when I’m well rested (of course!). My head is not yet filled with distractions, and I can plow through entire drafts. If I have something complicated that needs my undivided attention, I set my alarm and make sure to do it first thing when I wake up.

I got my book deal in April of 2020, after California was in lockdown, so I wrote the whole thing during the pandemic. I wrote from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m., and my partner did morning child care to make it happen. I wrote on my laptop on the couch because I didn’t have a desk yet. I wouldn’t recommend it, but it worked!

I drink lots of tea, of course! PG Tips with whole milk and honey from the bees in our backyard.

Me: Your book title: How did you decide on it? Did someone actually tell you that you looked tired?

Jenny: I am so pleased to say that I hired my co-worker, an excellent copy writer, to brainstorm ideas, and she came up with it! I knew it was the one. So funny and relatable. I get comments on it all the time. Women laugh. Men: Crickets.

Me: Describe when you realized you needed to write this book.

Jenny: I’ve always wanted to publish a mass market book — I just thought it would be my novel. I stopped working on it when I was 39 and started blogging about my path to motherhood, which happened the next year. Through my blog, I got a job writing the pregnancy and parenting column for Romper, where I realized I had a platform that would make me more attractive to publishers. I thought, Now’s my chance! I really was motivated to finish a book proposal while I had that column (which I still do).

That’s the mercenary answer. The other answer is, I read a lot of baby books when I was pregnant and a new parent. They all gave the same kinds of information, although a lot of it was conflicting, and they all centered White, cisgender, heterosexual, married, middle-class women. WTF, I thought. At the same time, I was knocked on my ass by a ton of things I hadn’t learned from those books that apparently was common knowledge. My book is meant to be an antidote to that.

Me: Your subtitle is “An Excruciatingly Honest Guide to New Parenthood.” How is your book different from other parenting guides? 

Jenny: Intentionally, I don’t address any of the issues the other guides do. There’s nothing about sleep, or breastfeeding, or bonding with your baby, or “getting back in shape.” I talk about the crime that is maternity wear, how sanctimonious other parents can be, what the squeeze bottle they give you at the hospital is for, how to react when someone touches your belly without asking. It’s meant to be funny, and a relief, and readable, and it’s full of charts and quizzes.

Me: What is one piece of advice you can offer parents?

Jenny: I’m an advice columnist, so what advice wouldn’t I give? Seriously, though, I want to tell U.S. parents that the system is stacked against you and it’s not your fault you’re exhausted and anxious and overwhelmed. You’re doing nothing wrong. The expectations on you are unreasonable. 

Me: What is the worst/most obnoxious thing you were told when you were pregnant? As a new mom?

Jenny: I think the worst thing was what I wasn’t told. I wasn’t told about dysphoric milk-ejection reflex, for example, a breastfeeding condition that is not that fucking rare but that no one has invested money into studying, no one tells pregnant women about, and is so miserable it leads some women to quit breastfeeding. Also no one told me that postpartum anxiety is intense and more common than postpartum depression. I could have used a leaflet on both instead of multiple leaflets on postpartum depression, THANK YOU VERY MUCH KAISER.

Me: You wrote, “pregnant people’s bodies belong to everyone.” Why do you think people find it acceptable to touch a pregnant woman’s belly?

Jenny: I have to be honest: Even though I write about it in the book, I did not have a bad experience with this, because of my relationships with the people who did it. The problem is that a LOT of people really hate it, and other people need to err on the side of asking first, if they really, really for some reason want to touch your body. It’s especially layered when you get into people touching Black bodies. Why do people do this? Female bodies, and especially Black female bodies, have been seen as property since the beginning of time. You can’t extract that from the culture.

Me: Describe your research process for this project.

Jenny: I looked back at three years of blog posts for chapter ideas and anecdotes. I interviewed a midwife and talked to a doula, but mostly this is not a research-heavy book. It’s not even a real guide. It’s meant to make pregnant people and new parents laugh with the validation of being seen.

Me: You mention freezing in place when you hear the “pitter patter” of little feet. I won’t lie. I’ve hidden in the bathroom (more than once) to eat a candy bar. Have you done something similar?

Jenny: Oh, god, yes. I never, ever jump up to open the door when I hear my partner on the porch with my kid. I don’t want them to get inside the house any sooner than they need to. I go into battle station: closing any video window on my computer my son might beg me to watch, running to the kitchen to fill up my water or shove my tea in the microwave so I won’t have to talk to them while doing it when they’re inside the house. 

Me: What’s a new mom product you wish you had been given? What was perfectly useless?

Jenny: I can’t think of a single product that was indispensable, but I did have to get a really good water bottle when I was breastfeeding because I was thirsty as fuck all the time. Someone gave us a side sleeper, one of those massive things you attach to the side of your bed that affixes under the mattress. It was huge and my kid didn’t like it. So that went into the garage until my neighbor got pregnant and I gave it to her. Same with a crib someone gave us. I hate to admit it, but we took it to the dump because we never used it, and you can’t resell those things or give them away to someone you don’t know because of liability and safety issues.

Me: Talk to us about work/life balance (can you hear me howling??). 

Jenny: Never heard of it.

Me: Next project?

I want to write a funny book about menopause, but I haven’t gone through it yet, so I think I have time to rest on my laurels (famous last words!).

Jenny: How can readers find you?

So many places! They can sign up for my newsletter at my website, follow me on Instagram and Facebook, and read my column, “Dear Jenny,” on Romper.

***If you would like your book (or one you represent) considered for an upcoming Coffee Chat, please email melissaface2008@gmail.com.

Purchase a copy of I Love You More Than Coffee.

Bold and Strong: Coffee Chat with Author Gail Ward Olmsted

Gail Ward Olmsted, Author of Landscape of a Marriage

In her novel Landscape of a Marriage, Gail Ward Olmsted (Yes! A relative of THE Frederick Law Olmsted) quotes Fred as saying, “…in a civilized country, no man should be expected to walk, let alone interact with others before consuming a sufficient amount of coffee.” I have never felt so close to someone I’ve never met before! But unlike Fred, I do not typically have black coffee and pickles for breakfast. Perhaps that is the secret to years of enjoyable and productive work?

I am honored to have Gail with me for this month’s Coffee Chat. I hope you will pour a cup of coffee, however you enjoy it, and join us as we talk about the research process for an historical work, why it’s important to keep the reader in mind, and Gail’s definition of literary success!

Enjoy!

Me: Are you a coffee drinker? What is your go-to beverage when writing?

Gail: I adore coffee, black and strong! I would drink it all day long if I could, but these days if I want to get a decent night’s sleep, I switch to decaf or water by early afternoon. I usually keep a Yeti mug of water nearby at all times.

Me: When did you first feel like a writer?

Gail: My first book is titled Jeep Tour, set in beautiful Sedona, AZ. I started writing it on a lark following a trip there with my family. It took me years to really focus and get it published. When that first shipment of printed books appeared on my doorstep, I knew I wanted to have that amazing feeling again and again. It never gets old!

Me: Describe your writing process. Do you outline? Does it change depending on the project?

Gail: Landscape is my fifth novel and the first historical work I’ve written. Since I was telling a story about real people set in a time I knew little about, I was very careful to learn what life was really like in the second half of the 19th century. I researched everything, and I created an outline to plot out the story –  to keep it moving as it spans more than 40 years. 

Me: In this book you give voice to a character who was hidden in the shadow of her husband. What was the most interesting thing you learned about her?

Gail: There has been very little written about Mary Olmsted, so I chose to create a compelling main character who could keep up with her workaholic visionary husband, give birth to seven children and figure out how to thrive in such a chaotic time. Landscape of a Marriage is the story of Mary’s journey which begins with a marriage of convenience, borne of duty and obligation, not romantic love.  I needed to reveal her strength and compassion and love for her family and friends. I wanted to give her the passionate union that I felt she deserved. 

Me: How long did you spend researching this project? What was the process like? Did you ever consider putting it aside?

Gail: I read every book and article I could find about Frederick Law Olmsted, and there are plenty. He wrote several himself! I tried to focus on his personal life but as he involved his family in everything he did, it was impossible to not get caught up in all of his professional accomplishments. I found myself writing a scene (actually a chapter) then going back to research the details- what Mary would be wearing, what the family ate for dinner and how they spent their time. Then I would make the needed changes or enhancements and move on to the next chapter. I never put it aside for more than a day or two for nearly three years!

Me: In your Author Note, you mention “writing the book you want to read.” Is the final product what you intended, or did some aspects change along the way? What is it like to read your own finished book?

Gail: I originally wrote Landscape in the third person, but I found I connected so much better with Mary and her life by rewriting it in the first person. I also edited the final manuscript and reduced the final word count by about 10%. I’ve since read sections or individual chapters, but never the whole book from start to finish. I am fairly certain that I never will. 

Me: What other books do you want to read? In other words, what are some stories you still need to tell?

Gail: I’m working on a contemporary story about a disgraced assistant district attorney. She is attempting a career comeback as a legal advice blogger and is about to host her own daytime TV show. I love stories about redemption, second chances.  This will be my sixth book and all of my main characters share that goal, that search for their ‘happily ever after.’

Me: If you could have coffee with Mary Olmsted, what would you ask her? 

Gail: That would be a wonderful conversation! I would ask her to share some of her memories of traveling and some of her favorite places. She spent a good deal of time in  Europe, went to California during the Gold Rush, and to Chicago for the World’s Fair in 1893. She lived in New York, Washington DC, California, Maine and Boston, moving her growing family along with her each time. I would ask her,  ‘Where did you get your energy? How many cups of coffee did it take?’

Me: If you could offer your younger self some writing advice, what would it be?

Gail: I would remind myself to always keep my focus on the reader. At the end of the day, it’s all about them- their enjoyment, their connection with the characters and the story. Save the self-indulgence for journals and diaries, I would advise myself.  Tell the story you want to tell, but make sure it’s one your readers will want to read!

Me: What is your definition of literary success?

Gail: For me, success is not about sales or rankings or how much money I earn, although I’ve got no problem cashing royalty checks. I do love to read a good review from a reader who ‘gets’ me and I have this fantasy that I’ll be sitting somewhere on a plane or a park bench and I’ll look over and see a total stranger reading one of my books and smiling. That would be fabulous!

Purchase Landscape of a Marriage by Gail Ward Olmsted (Available July 29, 2021).

***Authors and publicists: if you would like a book considered for an upcoming Coffee Chat, please email melissaface2008@gmail.com.

Order I Love You More Than Coffee by Melissa Face.

Bold and Strong: Coffee Chat with Author Katherine St. John

I am thrilled to be chatting with Katherine St. John, author of The Lion’s Den (June 30, 2020) and The Siren (May 4, 2021). Katherine has led a varied career including working in the film industry for more than a decade. Join us as we talk about compliments from readers, writing what you know, contending with the blank page, and some of Katherine’s recommended vacation spots.

Me: Are you a coffee drinker? What is your go-to beverage when writing?

Katherine: Yes! I am an iced latte drinker. I like a double espresso with either coconut or almond milk over ice. Rarely do I drink it hot, I much prefer it cold!

Me: How old are your children? What do they think about your writing? 

Katherine: I have two girls, ages 5 & 7. Though they are much too young to be allowed to read my books yet, they are my biggest fans and convinced I am the greatest writer in the world, bless their little hearts. I have caught the 7-year-old sneaking off with a copy of The Siren or The Lion’s Den multiple times, trying to read it without my knowledge. I have promised her when she’s sixteen, she can finally read my books. 

Me: Describe the feeling of holding your book(s) in your hand for the first time.

Katherine: Holding my books in my hands for the first time is such a feeling of accomplishment! The finality of it is satisfying as well. As an author, you do so many edits, and seeing the book in print you know that you’re finished with this one and can finally let it go.

Me: With The Siren following so closely on the heels of your debut novel, this process must feel like a whirlwind. Can you describe what some of these months have been like for you? How do you transition from the “writing” part of your work to the marketing aspect?

Katherine: It’s interesting because while it has been somewhat of a whirlwind timing-wise, it’s all taken place during Covid-19, so I still haven’t gotten to do any live events or have a launch party. Los Angeles, where I lived until recently, was so locked down that I never even got to see The Lion’s Den hardcover in a store! The other day I went into a bookstore to sign copies of The Siren, and it was the first time I’d actually signed in a store. It felt so great to be in the same room with the booksellers. I’ll tell you, signing books in my living room to mail back to stores was pretty anticlimactic. I’m super grateful for the online community of readers I’ve found on bookstagram, who have been so enthusiastic about the books and generous with their reviews. As for writing vs. marketing, because I’m writing a book a year, I am always doing both. I definitely have to devote more time to marketing around launch, but I always make sure I have at least a couple of hours to write every day. It’s how I stay sane.

Me: I love reading an interesting author biography, and yours definitely is. Of your previous professions, have any made their way into your novels? Aside from writing, what is the most interesting job you have held?

Katherine: Oh yes! Acting, which was what I studied in college and spent most of my time and energy on before I began writing, has obviously made it into both The Lion’s Den (Belle is a struggling actress) and The Siren, which takes place on a movie set. I find my training as an actor indispensable as an author, often using acting techniques to get into a character’s head and write from her point of view. 

I’d say that my most meaningful job outside of acting and writing has been as a yoga instructor. I am a strong believer in the power of yoga and being able to help other people find joy and freedom in their practice was really rewarding. 

At the opposite end of the spectrum, I also worked as a bartender for Redbull, which could mean getting splattered with mud while mixing Redbull vodkas at motocross races, or trying not to act starstruck while backstage at Coachella mixing drinks for the bands.  

Me: So far, what is the best comment or compliment you have received from a reader?

Katherine: Oh man, I am so grateful for any compliment, but I think the one that gives me most pleasure with this second book coming out into the world is when people say that I’m an “auto-buy” author for them, because it means they liked the stories I’ve told and my writing enough to trust me to take them on the journey of the next book, whatever that may be!

Me: Writing instructors often advise writers to “write what we know.” What did you already “know” when you began writing The Siren? What did you discover along the way?

Katherine: Having spent over a decade in the film business, both in front of and behind the camera, I knew the film industry incredibly well, and also knew so many different personalities and issues that fit within that world. A film set can be so insular with everyone working long hours with a common goal in a remote location, and that can be either great or awful, depending on the people involved. Add secrets, lies, and ulterior motives, and you’re bound to have an interesting story emerge!

Me: How do you choose character names? Do any of them hold personal significance for you?

Katherine: I put a lot of thought into character names, whether to make them meaningful or simply to make them memorable enough that the reader doesn’t get confused, which can be a challenge when you introduce as many characters as I do! To that end, sometimes I choose names with alliteration (Summer Sanderson in The Lion’s Den) or that make the character easier to remember (Amythest in The Lion’s Den has amethyst eyes). In The Siren, Stella means “star,” Cole is similar to “coal,” a color that represents him I think, with the last name “Power,” for obvious reasons. Felicity means luck, and the name she was born with, Phoenix, is the mythical bird that rises from the ashes. 

Me: If someone close to you said that they were going to begin working on a novel, what advice would you give them?

Katherine: To quote Nike, “Just do it.”

If you spend too much time thinking about it, you’ll never do it. That doesn’t mean that every idea is worthy of an entire novel (believe me, I have a folder full of ideas that didn’t make the cut), but once you have a story you are passionate about, a story you really want to spend the time and energy to turn into a book, stop thinking and write. There’s something to be said for “destroying the power of the white” by putting words down!

And hold off on self-judgment. Some genius once said that “writing a first draft is like scooping sand into a sandbox knowing that later I will make castles.” I love that because any time I’m writing a first draft I always think it’s garbage. Then I go back and reread and edit, and discover it’s not garbage at all, but clay that I can shape into something beautiful.

Me: Who are your major literary influences?

Katherine: That’s a tough one because I’m such an avid reader that my influences are always evolving! I am a big fan of Hemingway’s bare bones style of writing. For thrillers, I love Ruth Ware, and for romance, Abby Jimenez. Other favorite authors include Joan Didion, Brit Bennett, Sarah Waters, Jack Kerouac, Celeste Ng, and Margaret Atwood. 

Me: As a former travel coordinator, what are some must-see locations? What about specifically in the Caribbean?

Katherine: I have missed travelling over the past year and can’t wait to get back to it! Some of my favorite places in the world, in no particular order: Mykonos, Greece; Bellagio, Italy; Koh Samui, Thailand; Palm Springs, CA; Puerto Vallarta, Mexico 

I’ve spent a lot of time in the Bahamas, and really love Harbor Island. Getting there requires a tiny plane or boat (there’s a ferry from Nassau), but the pink sand beaches and quaint little town are totally worth the trip. 

Me: What are your literary goals and how do you measure your own success?

Katherine: I don’t have specific numbers or anything, but I want to share my stories with as many readers as I can reach! Like every other author on the planet, I would love to hit the NYT bestsellers list, and to see my books made into movies or whatever would be cool, but really I just want to keep writing. I feel so fortunate to get to do what I love for a living, and hope I can continue to do it for the rest of my life.

Purchase a copy of The Siren; it’s the perfect summer read!

***If you would like your book (or one you represent) considered for an upcoming Coffee Chat, please email melissaface2008@gmail.com.

Purchase a copy of I Love You More Than Coffee.