Saturday, September 3, 2011

Interview with Dorothy McMillan, Author of Many Mysteries

Hi readers and writers,
I'm pleased to bring you an interview with someone who has published several books, and whose inventive mind enables her to create puzzling mysteries.  Enjoy!   Cheers Laura

Dottie, how did you get interested in writing?
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love to write.  When I was in the fourth grade, I wrote dozens of ghastly horror stories and sold them to the kids at school for a dime each.  That was a lot of money way back then.  Finally, irate parents told the principal, and I had to stop writing the stories, and give back all the money.  My first rejection.  But hardly my last.  At least with my professional writing no one has asked me to give back the money. 

What kind of books do you most enjoy reading?

    Just about every kind.  However, my favorite authors are Bradbury, Steven King, Ann Tyler, Mary Stewart, Mary Robert’s Reinhart, and Clive Cussler (who was in the same writing class as I was in college).  An odd mixed bunch, aren’t they?
How many books have you published to date?

To date, I’ve had seven books published.  Two non-fiction: “Creative ways with Polymer clay” and “Artful ways with Polymer clay” under the name Dotty McMillan.  And five novels under Dorothy McMillan.  “Blackbird” “Soul Crossed” “Vile Acts” “Deadly Urges” and “The Devil’s Bell.”  Two of these books were optioned for film, but, as usual in Hollywood, they never were filmed.  But I got to keep the option money!  Deadly Urges is now on the Kindle for a pittance.  Fortunately, it’s getting some great reviews.  I just wish I had more time to do some PR for it.  Besides books, I’ve written five screenplays.  Early on, I sold two of them.  Again, they never got made.  This is the toughest field of writing to try.  I only do it because I enjoy the process and at times need a break from the novel writing. 
Are the books all similar or are there different series of them?

All of the fiction books are in the same genre, that of Suspense Thrillers.  I would love to venture out into other areas such as fantasy and sci-fi, but my agent doesn’t handle these.  In the past he sold “Logan’s Run” but hasn’t handled that type since. Even so, I’m still working on a fantasy book during those days when I need to let the suspense thriller rest for a day or too.

Do you enjoy writing conferences?  Any advice for newbies about going to writing conferences?

 I love going to writing conferences, and I used to attend all kinds of them.  I also taught at some of them.  However, due to a variety of life things, I haven’t been able to do that much during the past few years.  Nevertheless, they were extremely valuable in many ways.  One of the best things about them is that they help to stimulate your creative nature, and can give you that push we all need, to make time to write, and keep at it.  It’s also good to be with people who love the same thing that you do.  Writers work alone so much, that getting out of the house and in contact with other writers is a healthy way to spend some time.
For years, I went to every conference where Ray Bradbury was speaking as he had such a powerful message for writers.  On one occasion, after a conference was over, he was walking in the same direction I was, and he noticed I had some papers in my hand.  He asked if they were something I had written.  I said yes.  He asked if he could read some of it.  In a state of total panic, I handed him the pages.  He read all of them.  Then he looked up at me and said, “Don’t you ever quit.  You are going to make it!”  At that time, I was actually ready to take up basket weaving instead of writing!  We walked together to the corner of the street where Ray was to wait for his ride home.  He has never learned to drive!  I thanked him, hugged him, and as soon as his ride arrived, I made my way home in a daze.  Those words of his stuck to me, as if crazy-glued, for the rest of my life.  When my first book was published, I sent him a copy to say thank you for his encouragement.  He wrote back and said he read it, his wife read it, and so did his daughters. He said it was fantastic!  From that day on, we exchanged Christmas cards, our successes, and our failures.  I’m not sure what I would be doing today, without his kindness and encouragement.  Probably basket weaving.

How do you get the ideas for your books?  Based on real experiences or your own great imagination or both?

     I wish I didn’t have so dang many ideas for my novels.  I have dozens of summaries, starts, and idea pages for future novels.  They just pop into my head and won’t go away until I record the idea.  It would take two lifetimes to write them all.  They are always based on some facts.  Then I go nuts from there and add all kinds of wild and dark things.  In one book, a character in the book is actually a written description of my mother.  Not what she looked like, but what she was like.  A little skewed, a lot off kilter. 
     My non-fiction writing is always about the art of working with Polymer Clay, something I’ve done, and taught for about twenty years.  Each of these books took a full year to write and photograph. Not as much fun as writing fiction and a lot more work.  However, selling non-fiction is usually easier than selling novels.  My agent handles more of that now, than fiction.  It’s especially good if you are able to write about something, in which a lot of people are interested. 

Tell us about your latest book.

The novel I’m working on now is “The Gray-Green Underground.”  Did you know that underneath Tokyo there is a large farm that grows all kinds of food crops?  Did you know that in the U.S. there are old mines where all kinds of things are being grown underground?  Did you know that many of these growing things have been bio-engineered and could be deadly to mankind.  Surely there has to be a book I could write about all this, one filled with murder, mayhem, and madness. 
         A strange little hunchbacked man named Hagan Poole built a strange stone castle as his home over a hundred years ago.  Today it still sits like a stone fortress in a wild little canyon in the San Gabriel Mountains of Southern California.  Shadowed by dark stands of pines, it gives one a creepy skin prickling sensation on first sight.  This is the setting for the book.  A place like this actually did exist.
Through lonely years after Poole’s death, the hallways of his stone castle collected giant tangles of hoary spider webs.  Slime-green fungus and powdery white mold oozed from the blushing Tutor brick that lined the enormous kitchen.  The entire place reeked of a syrupy dampness and a putrefying mushroom smell.  Abandoned and forlorn, the place languished silently.  Forgotten.
  Forgotten, that is, until twenty-eight year old Isabel Warren received the unexpected phone call from her dead husband. 
There the story begins.  There the terror and fear attack.
Do you have an agent?  How do you feel about agents?  Are they necessary today?

A short time after Ray Bradbury encouraged me, my writing instructor at Orange Coast College gave a hard copy of my novel to Mike Hamilburg, an author’s agent who resides in Beverly Hills.  Mike called me a few days later from the airport and said “I have your novel with me and I’m on the way to New York.  I would like to represent you and try to shop it.  Would that be okay?”
When I was finally able to talk I said, “You bet!”  So, off he went, and about four months later, he had it sold.  That began a long and wonderful relationship, with one of the nicest, most honest, and helpful agents anyone could have.  It was just one of those fantastic lucky things.  
Today, it is possible to sell a novel without an agent.  But it is a lot better and easier if you can find one who will represent you, that is if you want to get a traditional paper book publisher.  They will not represent a self-published writer unless it looks as if their book might take off and make a lot of money. Some of these do.  Most do not.
 There is a huge list of authors agents online.  They usually say what type of writing they represent.  You can send a good query letter to all of them to see if they are interested in working with you. 
Publishing is in such a wild state today.  No one knows how it will all turn out. Before now, I have always been against “self-publishing” because I’ve seen so many problems with doing it.  So many friends ended up by paying for hundreds of their books which ended up in their garage, and no way to distribute or advertise them.  However, this is changing.  You don’t have to pay huge amounts to self-publish now, and can buy one or two of your books at a time.  The major problem however, is getting out there and doing all sorts of things to publicize your book.  All the things that a paper publisher does for its writers. It takes a great deal of time and effort.  

Do you usually publish through the same publisher?  Does that make an agent less necessary?

No, unfortunately, I’ve had different publishers.  You wouldn’t believe the things that have happened with my work through the years.  Way too many things to mention.  But I would just say that if you are lucky you will sell to a publisher who won’t merge with another publisher, won’t go out of business, and who won’t give you an editor who says he doesn’t believe that a woman can write a successful suspense thriller, and the worst, a publisher who decides that Robin Cook’s new book should be the lead novel instead of your novel which was slated for that honor.  All because Cook didn’t meet his deadline for the month before. Despite all this, however, my books have always sold extremely well, no matter what house published them.  If you are lucky, as some of my writer friends have been, and have the same publisher for all your books, an agent is still very important.  Mine not only works to get a book published, but also takes care of the contract to make sure you are not getting stiffed some way.  One publisher demanded the movie rights in my contract.  My agent made sure that didn’t happen.  There are dozens of things that need careful perusing.  An agent takes care of all that, and is well worth his percentage. 

What else would you like to share with the blog readers?

First, I would like to remind them that you will never have time to write, you have to make time.  It means giving up a lot of things you might rather do.  If that makes you unhappy, then stop writing and do the things you’d rather do.  If writing is your life, then realize that you will have to spend a lot of that life putting words together to create stories, articles, whatever it is you like to write.  
          Second, don’t spend hours and hours on the first few chapters of your book, trying to make them perfect before you move on.  Just jump in and write the whole darn book.  My routine is to write like crazy in afternoons and late nights.  Then I clean that writing up some in the morning, and then write new chapters all afternoon and night again.  One you hit that last page of your book, put it away for a week or so.  Then, take it out and read, polish it, and make it the best you can.  Then get it out there and sell it.  Get an agent if possible.  Or start out by putting it on the Kindle, IPod, etc.  Who knows, it might just take off and make you a zillion dollars.  I sure hope so! 



Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Interview with Charles Strozier about Until the Fires Stopped Burning

Dear writers and readers,

I had the pleasure this past summer of taking Historical Narrative workshop at the Norman Mailer Writers Colony at Provincetown, MA with Chuck Strozier.  His comments about his work-in-progress, based on psychological interviews of New Yorkers concerning their 9/11 experiences, really aroused my enthusiasm for this book.  So, here, for your enjoyment, is an interview with him about writing and about his new book!    Cheers,  Laura

How did you get interested in writing, Chuck?
Almost as soon as I could read I began to write. In fact, writing has always intrigued me more than reading.  In 4th grade I was absorbed with Jack London novels and fell in love with wolves, dogs, and all kinds of canines.  I wrote a 40 page story about “King, The Story of a Dog” that my father typed up for me as I dictated from my scribbled pages.  A novelist friend of my father (Billy Hagood) said when he read it that I would be a writer.  It was a kind of blessing.  More than once in school I had the curious experience of a teacher not liking an essay but giving me what the English call a left-handed compliment that it was well written.
What was your first success?
I think my story of “King.”  My first adult success in writing came with the reception to my first book, a psychoanalytic study of Abraham Lincoln (Lincoln’s Quest for Union).  It was 1982 and I was 38.  The book was reviewed on the front page of the Times and called “surpassingly eloquent.”  It was startling for me, and it changed my life.
How hard was it to persist writing the biography of Kohut  in spite of family opposition?  Did you put it aside and then go back later, or keep working sub rosa?
That book took me 19 years to research and write (1982 to 2001), though, because of all the opposition I encountered from the family and many of his protective colleagues, I did do other projects along the way.  There was, for example, a delay in the early 1990s in my gaining access to some crucial archival material.  But there was nothing sub rosa about my work.  I just pushed on, kept interviewing, talking about my work, learning more and thinking more deeply about what I knew.  And, frankly, I found the gossip and mean-spiritedness steeled my resolve.  I am stubborn in that way.  It was a welcome vindication to have the book so well received.
  Do you enjoy writing or is it hard for you?  Describe what your writing process is like.

           I love writing.  I do it every day.  I warm up with emails and then get down to it.  My only     frustration is that I have to do all these others things—teach, run a research center, raise money, see patients, and generally earn a living—that crowd in on writing.  But the trick is not ever to let being busy prevent you from writing.
What kind of books do you most enjoy reading?
I read mostly nonfiction works of history but I also usually keep a novel going (my favorites are Henry James, Virginia Woolf, and William Faulkner and, among more recent writers, David Grossman, Don DeLillo, and of course Norman Mailer).  My hobby is photography, and I have a rather elaborate project right now to photograph in medium format, black and white negatives the bridges of New York that I then enlarge in high contrast.  I am about 2/3 of the way around Manhattan and hope in some future year to mount an exhibition.  My visual sense carries over to my writing.  I am less interested in the sentence than the paragraph.  I can see the paragraph when I enter into it with a lead sentence.  I imagine it before I write it.  I love the shape of a good paragraph and its transitions from what comes before and what follows.  A good transition thrills me.
 What kinds of things do you write?  Just books, or do you also write articles, stories, poems? 
I write mainly my nonfiction books but also lots of articles, which I actually don’t like very much and have cut back on in recent years.  I wrote two volumes of poems to the love of my life 30 years ago when I was courting her.  It was a good move, as we are still happily married.
 How did you get the idea for your current book on 9/11?
I was standing in Greenwich Village watching the disaster happen.  It was shocking but I also felt I had some understanding of what was behind it in light of my scholarly involvement in the 1990s with what I then called the “new terrorism.”  I felt a certain mission to study the disaster I watched unfold in front of my eyes and began my interviewing at the start of the second week.
 Will people turn to your book to get help with their remaining 9/11 fears and other reactions?  If they do, will it help your book or hurt it?
I suspect those with lingering fears of attacks or with residual traumatic reactions to 9/11 will have contradictory reactions to my book.  On the one hand, the details of the stories—and for better or worse I am a story teller—may evoke memories and feelings that can be disturbing.  On the other hand, my book provides context for such feelings and I hope puts the disaster into perspective and explains it in meaningful ways.  It is the only overall interpretation of 9/11, and I think we do better psychologically with things we understand than living with the dread.
Do you have an agent?  Tell us about your experiences with/without agents.
I have had two agents in my life.  I stumbled into publishing with my first book, which thankfully Basic Books was willing to take on cold.  The book then led to a top agent (Charlotte Sheedy) approaching me.  She helped me then secure a wonderful publisher (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) for my Kohut book and various other projects.  We then didn’t see eye to eye about my 9/11 book and parted ways.  Some two years an agent, Richard Morris, from Yanklow and Nesbit Literary Agency, picked me up for the 9/11 book.  Both agents were crucial for me and helped me enormously.  It is awful in publishing these days.  Without an agent, trade presses won’t even answer your inquiries.  The good news is that university presses still can be approached without an agent.  There are also many other outlets for one’s writing, including blogs, a format I am coming to enjoy a great deal (note “”).
  What are your thoughts about marketing?  Do you have any great tips on how to do it well?
I have a blog for my book (just mentioned) and a Facebook Author Page.  Each links to the other.  They have proven very useful for promotion.  Any number of journalists who have read my blog have been calling for interviews.

If you could achieve one marketing coup for your current book, what would you like it to be?  Interview with someone?  Special review location?
I would love a good Times review.  I may still have an NPR interview with Scott Simon and something is cooking with ABC.  We will see.  The trick, I think, in marketing is to throw a lot of balls in the air and see what comes down.
  If you could go back in time and start over, tell us one thing you have learned that would help you to succeed better/faster/with less struggle.
Personally, I wish I had married my current wife at 22 and not gone through the agonies of my first marriage, the divorce, and the years of single parenting.  I lost time and suffered much heartache.  In terms of my writing, I have had lots of ideas about 9/11 in recent months that I wish I had put in the book.  Why couldn’t the tenth anniversary be in 2012?
  Any other thoughts to share?
Thank you for this opportunity to enter into your world in this way.  These were good questions.

Visit Chuck's blog about issues raised in his new book here:

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Dick Cheney Saves Paris...Interview with Ryan Forsythe

Hi writers,

This interview kicks off a new series of author/writer interviews on the blog.  If you are interested in being interviewed, please email me asap at  Ryan Forsythe's book is a novel about Dick Cheney and time travel, being released the same week as Cheney's own memoir.  Read below to learn more about Ryan and his book.


Ryan, how did you become interested in writing?

In college I was disappointed with the majority of my classes. I asked all my friends to recommend one decent professor, and I almost signed up for an engineering class (I was a psych. major at the time). At the last minute, a friend recommended Michelle Herman's fiction workshop. I signed up, and on the first day of class—just my luck—learned she was having a baby and would be out all semester. The replacement teacher wasn't very good, but I enjoyed writing the short stories so much that I kept adding writing classes (including Michelle Herman's the following year). Soon I added a creative writing major. Been writing ever since.

What was your first success?

My first writing success was having a travel story selected for an anthology published by Lonely Planet. It paid $100! But it was also an odd start to my writing career, as they made me sign a contract giving them all rights. When it was published, major parts of my story had been changed—including actual quotes. This was nonfiction, mind you, so it was odd that my name was still attached to it, yet I don't believe that the events happened as noted in the final draft. But they bought it—it's their story, and so can apparently change it as they see fit. I will say that since then I've certainly paid much more attention to contracts. Also, I now rarely submit stories to publications seeking all rights.

Do you enjoy writing or is it hard for you?  Describe what your writing process is like.

The hardest part is finding time. When I have the time and space to write and revise, I find it fairly easy and enjoyable. My process is usually to try to get as much down as possible—typing as fast as I can, with almost no editing at first. Sometimes this includes just describing what I want to write, like "insert here a part about how they drive across the state" and then I'm on to writing the next scene. Once I have something to work with, I find I constantly move around from part to part. I might spend an hour working on the first page, then jump to the end for ten minutes, then jump to the middle for five minutes or thirty. In that way, I'm kind-of revising the entire thing at the same time. Eventually, each part feels "finished" and I know the whole thing is ready to share with others for more feedback.

What kind of books do you most enjoy reading, Ryan?

I get bored easily and so I like authors who take changes and try new things. I particularly enjoy novels that play with the idea of genre. Three of my favorites are Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves, and Mark Leyner's Tetherballs of Bougainville, though my favorite author is probably Percival Everett. I appreciate that he seems to cover new and different ground in every book—whether western, sci-fi, political satire, epistolary, children's book—you name it, it's always something different. By the way, you didn't ask, but my least favorite books are self-help books.

I may still have one of Everett's novel's I borrowed from you, have to check around and see.  Do you just write books, or do you also write other kinds of things?

I used to write mainly travel stories—even had a newspaper travel column for a bit in Oberlin, Ohio. But I don't travel as much anymore, so my focus has shifted to fiction—both short stories and novels. I've also written a few "children's books for adults"--books that look and sound like children's books, but which cover adult themes. I published one a few years ago, titled The Little Veal Cutlet That Couldn't. It's about the happy cow that goes to the slaughterhouse—told in rhyme with full color illustrations. I have a few more I'd like to get out there, but lately I've been putting all my attention on the novel. I don't do poems.

How did you get the idea for your current book?

I wrote the first draft in 2006, when Cheney was V.P. One day I was thinking of all the things he'd done in his life, wondering what would make a person, for example, vote against a resolution calling for the release of Nelson Mandela. For some reason I pictured Cheney as a time traveler, stuck in our time and doing what he had to in order to get back home. Soon I had a rough draft, which sat in my computer for years. When I found out Cheney's memoir would be coming out this year, I decided to revisit the book. Since his has the subtitle "A Personal and Political Memoir," I decided to add a similar subtitle to mine. In order to make mine more "personal and political," I added the parts to my book about my own history with politics, as well as my thoughts on politicians and their memoirs.

Will people confuse your book with the book by your subject, Dick Cheney?  If they do, will it help or hurt your book?

I don't think anyone will confuse Cheney's memoir with my novel. If they do, I think it would just draw attention to the book, which certainly won't hurt.

Do you have an agent?  Tell us about your experiences with/without an agent.

No agent. For people really trying to sell the next bestseller, agents are probably necessary, but given the tiny market for the type of things I write, I don't see the value. Or rather, I don't think they'd see the value in having me as a client. Really it's not something I spend any time thinking about.

What are your thoughts about marketing?  Any tips about how to do it well?

A lot of authors seem to hate that part of the process (or say they do), but I enjoy having different things to work on—website or ad design, writing press releases, contacting newspapers, and so forth. It's not my favorite part of writing, but more and more often, independent writers have to manage all aspects themselves, and I'm comfortable with that. As for tips on marketing, I would probably suggest authors try to have more than just the book to discuss. It could be an event or a giveaway, but I think having something extra can help draw attention. For example, With Dick Cheney Saves Paris, we have a soundtrack due out the same day as the novel. It's been fun putting together, and I think the songs fit well with the book. But it's also one more avenue for getting the word out on the book.

If you could achieve one marketing coup for your book, what would it be?

I would love to see a book review somewhere that examines both books side by side, but I'm not convinced a review in the New York Times or someplace similar would help the book reach its true audience. For me, the ideal mention of the book would probably be by Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! or by Rachel Maddow on her show, or perhaps a review in Mother Jones. Anywhere that will help the book find an appreciative audience would be great.

If you could go back in time and start over, tell us one thing you have learned that would help you succeed better/faster/with less struggle.

One thing I've learned is the necessity of the struggle itself—in order to grow as a writer, one needs the many moments of doubt and pain, as well as the small successes along the way—all are part of the process.

Any other thoughts to share, Ryan?

As I note in the book itself (it is a meta- novel, after all), I hope the book will not be taken as simply a joke. Yes, it is an absurdist time travel tale about Dick Cheney. But part of my point is that we need to more deeply examine memoirs written by those in power, and not blindly accept their versions of events as the true story. At the end of the day, it's possible that an absurdist sci-fi novel is just as true as a memoir.

To preview an excerpt of the novel, visit