Monday, October 31, 2011

Interview with Joni B. Cole

Joni B. Cole is an author with five books to her credit (all from different publishers, a fact that makes her feel both accomplished and paranoid). She is also a long-time writing instructor, who has shared her views on how to write more, write better, and be happier in her acclaimed book, Toxic Feedback: Helping Writers Survive and Thrive. Joni’s newest book, Another Bad-Dog Book: Tales of Life, Love, and Neurotic Human Behavior mingles low moments with high comedy, for a read that can be best described as humor that matters.

What was your path towards publication like?
I would describe it as a strange, twisted journey of self doubt and self importance—often at the same time. I imagine like many writers, each time I try for publication it takes a lot of deep breaths and fortitude for me to weather the inevitable nos.

None of my books have been an easy sell. But what has sustained me and allowed me to persevere (here comes the self important part) is that I really, really like my books. I worked hard on them. I didn’t cut any corners. I care about the contents. And that pride and pleasure I took in what I was trying to “sell” really helped me hang in there when I heard the book “wasn’t a good fit”… “wouldn’t attract enough readers”… “the numbers didn’t add up…” I’ve heard it all, almost.

And I have to say, while I totally understand that publishing is a business, it still really got to me when an editor recently professed to “love” my book, but couldn’t buy it because it wasn’t a “slam dunk”.

But let me soften that bitter undercurrent in the tone of the previous sentence with this... I have had huge lucky breaks in my career, in that with several of my books, I had the opportunity to talk directly with the skeptical editor. And with this opportunity, I was able to address her concerns, fill in blanks, and sometimes offset that “no-in-the-making” by convincing her I could deliver the book she wanted.


What is your biggest obstacle when it comes to pitching yourself as an author and what steps have you taken to overcome that obstacle?
I’ve faced lots of obstacles, but thankfully none of them have had to do with the quality of my work or professionalism. But speaking specifically about my new book, a collection of personal essays, the biggest obstacle was the fact that I’m not famous.

My own agent refused to represent the book because I wasn’t a big name. In her words, “It’s hard enough to sell a collection of essays these days, but next to impossible unless you already have a big following.” So there was that stumble I needed to somehow overcome (would that I was on a reality show or a royal!).

Regardless, I was eventually able to sell the book to a publisher on my own, partly because I hit hard on how I could overcome this “obstacle”. I convinced her I would work like a dog to generate attention for the book, and I would leverage the readers from my previous four books to help me spread the word. I know a lot of writers don’t like the notion of publicity, but I suggest if you are one of them, change your tune. It’s part of the publishing package these days.


How do you balance your life as an entrepreneur with your duties as a parent or spouse?
This can be tricky; sometimes I suspect I should compartmentalize more—either focus on not-working; or focus on working. But the truth is…or my truth is… I don’t mind blending life and work.

As a writer, it keeps me sharp, to always have that one “work” channel open in my mind. When the kids were younger (my daughters are now 14 and 12) this juggling act and working at home was MUCH harder, even while it was very convenient. But now, I have to say, balance comes easier because I have the house to myself more, and I’m more experienced as a writer and general human being.


What is your best advice for getting past writer's block?
Find or start a writing community. Don’t go it alone. Spend time with other writers. Swap stories-in-progress. Seek out readers during the creative process. Cheer on these other members of your writing community; whether we’re newbies or award-winning novelists, we all need support. Yes, writing is a solitary act, but it doesn’t have to be a lonely one.


What was the best writing-related advice you ever received?
Here’s one bit of very practical advice that I love, it’s attributed to William Carlos Williams: “No ideas but in things.”

At first, I didn’t even know what that meant, but then I figured it out. You can’t write about “love”—at least not in a way that’s going to resonate—but you can write about the locket your sixteen-year-old protagonist swears she’ll never take off after her rapper boyfriend gives it to her.

Similarly, you can’t write about grief, but you can write about that empty box of Kleenex, and how the grief-stricken mother can’t even muster the energy to leave the house and go to the store to buy another box. “Things” give us an easy entry into our stories…and allow us to capture the big ideas we want to write about in the most concrete of ways.


What do you feel is the single most detrimental thing a writer could do to destroy his/her career?
One thing a writer can do that is detrimental is focus too soon on publishing. Write the book first. Enjoy the writing process. Enjoy the company of other writers who can offer useful and inspiring feedback. Only when the book is solid should you switch gears and think about publishing. I say this because I believe that concentrating too soon on your book’s “audience” or “genre” or “agents” or “publicity” or anything publishing-related can pollute the writing process.


Can you tell us a little bit about your latest book?
I have a collection of personal essays coming out entitled Another Bad-Dog Book: Tales of Life, Love, and Neurotic Human Behavior.

The book falls into the “humor” category, but I like to think of it as humor that matters. My subject matter ranges from tracking down my secret crush in high school, to my over-attachment to my dog, to trying to talk (and talk and talk) my way through a mid-life crisis.


How did you come up with the idea for your book?
I think it was a combo of factors that added up to a book. I’ve always loved writing from personal experience. I love the “essay” form. I love observational humor. All that is part of my DNA. Then one year I was invited to teach at the acclaimed Erma Bombeck Writers Workshop, sponsored by the University of Dayton.

There, being surrounded by hundreds of writers who were focused on writing and publishing thoughtful, funny essays, I had an epiphany. I wanted to focus more on writing personal essays. So I did. And fairly quickly I got a column in a couple newspapers, and from there I was published in a few literary journals and got a Pushcart Prize nomination, and from there I set my mind on a book.


What was the most difficult aspect of writing this book?
When I was writing these individual pieces, I found the experience really rewarding, even when the writing was very slow going. But what wasn’t rewarding and what I had to work hard to silence was a bunch of crap out there in the “negasphere” that threatened to undermine my writing confidence.

Here are just a few of the refrains I had to shut up in order to write and enjoy the writing process: The world doesn’t need any more personal essays. Who cares what “ordinary people have to say? Nobody buys essay collections. Blah, blah. Of course now that the book actually exists, I can feel all the more satisfied and, dare I say it, smug.


Did you have to do any special research for your book?
Given that the book is a collection of personal essays, I had to do relatively little research, though more than I expected. For example, I wrote about a diner in my town in one essay, and needed to know more about its history. I wrote about an old high school friend I haven’t seen in thirty years, and needed to remember what he was wearing in his senior picture in the yearbook. That kind of thing. Perhaps research isn’t the right word; it was more like meticulous fact-checking to make sure I had certain details right.


If you could choose just one thing for your book to accomplish, what would it be?
To make people relate, laugh, and pick up a few insights into their own loves, lives, and neurotic human behavior.


What’s ahead for your writing?
Another collection of personal essays.

Learn more about Joni, her books, and her workshops at http://jonibcole.com

Order Joni's book, Another Bad-Dog Book, on Amazon for just $11.

You can also read Joni's past review, about Toxic Feedback, here.

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This post was sponsored by The Dabbling Mum.

For more articles geared towards authors and writers, check out DM's Writing Center.

1 comment:

Sammantha Ford said...

What I loved about this interview is Jonhi Cole's very realistic - but positive! - take on her career. A lot of her thoughts on blending home and work resonated with me.
Thank you!
Sammantha
http://washyourwords.blogspot.com/

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