Describe your writing process, including schedule, environment, and inspirations material and intangible. What’s in your office? What’s in your head?
Oh, my head is a very dangerous place! Hahaha. I don’t have a physical office; our house is not that big. I tend to take over coffee tables with laptop, books for research, books for blurbing, books to be sent for marketing purposes. I don’t need a room, a view, a special pen, a desk. I can write on a train, at a café, or at someone else’s dining room table. I put in the hours wherever I am, and am not precious about conditions, ever.
Walk me through your publishing process, elaborating upon marketing and what you as the author do to promote your book. What surprised you about the process? What surprised you about your marketing responsibility? Honestly, not much has surprised me, because I work in marketing, and I was part of a vast writers’ community before publication, and I was warned! So all the things that may overwhelm others–build a website, participate in social media, book your own signings, etc.–none of that fazes me. I guess what surprised me though, was the lack of enthusiasm from a lot of bookstores and libraries. In many cases, no one gives a sh—t about your book. Doesn’t matter how big your publisher is, how many great reviews you got, or even if you wrote it in their library. If you’re not famous, many people just don’t care. They don’t want to put you on a panel, they don’t want to do an event, they don’t want your bookmarks, they’re like, meh. There are too many writers, traditionally published and self-published, and they are inundated, and they don’t care. That being said, some booksellers are wildly supportive. You have to focus on the positives, yet be prepared for the negatives. And not take any of it personally. The business, and the internet, have created a world where being an author is not that special anymore. Everybody’s an author.
Tell me about your support system online—how you became a Tall Poppy—and IRL, expounding upon the Liars Club and other organizations to which you contribute. Who are your biggest cheerleaders? Well, The Liars Club is an author support and mentoring group. It’s published writers helping the unpublished, and guiding them to resources. We run free monthly networking meetings in I think, at last count, maybe 15 cities across the U.S. We also run a weekly podcast, and interview all kinds of people related to the business, which is super fun. And The Tall Poppies are an author marketing collective, and that’s about marketing savvy and selling books in innovative ways. That’s about readers, and adding value. I also have a ton of writer friends from literary magazines, colleges, workshops, and writers’ conferences, who write in lots of different modalities–and I value those friendships dearly. When young writers say to me, what’s the first step? I always say, find community. Writing is lonely, and publishing is tough. You need drinking companions.
I think you are maybe on your third or fourth career; how have previous positions prepared you for the writing life. How does your writing influence your life?
I started out in journalism and swiftly made a switch to advertising, for financial reasons. I still work in advertising, for financial reasons haha, and weirdly, when you get published, there’s a sudden entrée to writing articles and essays, so there’s always a tad of journalism here and there. The deadlines and editing abilities from both advertising and journalism are excellent warm-ups for publishing. You just get on with it. You put your ass in a chair. You slash whole paragraphs and chapters to make something fit a space. You don’t wait for inspiration; it’s due tomorrow!
What do you love most about your creativity? I just enjoy making things. I always have. I liked art projects and high-concept things in school. I like to knit. I like to refinish furniture. My dad went to architecture school and built the house I grew up in; I know I get it from him. It’s satisfying to hold that book in your hand, just like woodworking or anything else. I’m a whittler!
Carrie Morgan turns back to her car after arguing with a parking attendant and finds her toddler Ben gone. Her story seems off to police, family, and friends. Over a year later, she finds him, in his crib, though he’s not aged a year. And he disappears again—from his crib the same night. Now husband John is in on the madness, which he spins into a possible, though improbable, story. An unlikely witness keeps Carrie’s secret, yet it eventually comes out. Carrie’s actions invoke suspicion and mental illness through ambiguous and incredible circumstances and revelations, and she reels from a long-held confession from her mother. Solving the crime may or may not absolve Carrie or prove her sane.
These characters are less endearing than interesting. Simmons keeps readers guessing whether Carrie needs compassion or justice. Even John isn’t sure in what way he could best help his wife, her actions at times eliciting horror. The way that the two investigative cops work independently as a veteran and a rookie read as a transfer from old school to new, and emphasizes the rookie’s discreet gestures of compassion. Different points of view, from family to law enforcement to newly met neighbors offers a kaleidoscope of opinions, as in real life, where the more information one gets, the more confusing it can be. The mother’s revelation about Carrie’s father at the end cheapened her gift, clearly evidenced throughout the story, though perspective painted various pictures for everyone involved.
If you believe even a little that we might have extraordinary powers that lie latent in most, this book will fascinate you. If you believe that extraordinary events can occur through prayer (whatever that means for you), you will appreciate this story. Check out the author on her website http://www.kellysimmonsbooks.com/, where you can find links to purchase her books.
Penelope Dalton inherited a magical table that offers her special chocolate recipes for her chocolate cafe, including the Kismet hot chocolate for the Festival of Fate, a drink that offers townspeople a chance to redirect their fate. It doesn’t work for her little girl Ella, whose illness is fatal. The secret of her father’s identity is harder to contain when he returns to town to assist his injured brother run their bar Rehab. The secret of Ella’s imminent demise spills out of Penelope at a town meeting after she cancels the hot chocolate for the festival. At the same time, Sabine, her mother and business partner, seeks her deceased husband through a chocolaty, magically-induced memory loss. Penelope slowly learns to release her fears and open her heart.
The characters in this story are credible in their complex flaws, with good hearts and the best intentions that go awry. Crispell presents a town a bit magical in itself, the residents leaving notes outside Penelope’s home and cafe to get their point across and to show their support and love. Dialogue between the brothers is laugh-out-loud classic sibling repartee—insulting zingers and tough love. There’s a bit much back and forth between Penelope and Ella’s father on the impossibility of a relationship, and she and best friend Megha on his hotness level. The open ending lends itself less to speculation than a call for a realistic resolution. After all, magic has its limitations.
Readers who love the every day magic of life in a Sarah Addison Allen or Alice Hoffman story will appreciate Crispell’s work. Meet Susan on her website http://www.susanbishopcrispell.com/, where you will also find links to purchase her wonderful books.
When I inquired after authors of speculative fiction / magical realism in Tall Poppy Authors’ Facebook group Bloom, I was given Susan’s name. She immediately sent me her books to review and graciously agreed to an interview. Susan is unique in many ways and I’m excited to share her peek-behind-the-scenes magic with readers.
Describe your writing process—schedule, environment, strategies / techniques, and inspirations. What is in your office? Who is in your head? What are tricks that keep you writing?
Once I have the spark of an idea I’m excited to write, I brainstorm the characters, their motivation and stakes, and what their overall arc will be. I usually know the opening lines of the story before I sit down to draft, which helps set the tone for everything to come. Then I write up a full outline (I use Scrivener to plot out each chapter and scene description) and export the outline so I can put it in a workable format in Word. This outline changes a dozen or so times as I write, because I learn more about the characters as I’m drafting, but I can’t write without it!
My actual butt-in-chair-hands-on-keys writing process usually involves me getting up at 5:30 AM and writing for an hour and a half before working my day job. Some days, it’s all about fitting in writing time where I can. I try for 1,000 words a day and use Writeometer (a phone app) to track my progress and force myself to focus for 25-minute stretches. In the evenings, if I haven’t hit my word count, I write until I do. I also have playlists specific to each manuscript; I write and listen to that mix while I’m writing. Sometimes, I’ll listen to one song on repeat if it’s really connecting with the scene I’m working on, but most of the time, it’s just the whole playlist running quietly in the background to give my story a solid emotional base.
Detail the publishing process from final draft to final product, who does what along the way, and exactly what you contribute as the author to marketing your novels.
Each publishing house has their own intricacies, but I think they all follow the same overall process. Here’s how things went for me at St. Martin’s Press. After I sold my first book The Secret Ingredient of Wishes to St. Martin’s/Thomas Dunne Books, I received an edit letter and initial round of edits, developmental edits, from my fabulous editor, Kat Brzozowski. These were focused on overall character, plot, and pacing. Kat didn’t want any major structural changes, so it wasn’t as intense as it could have been. I worked through those comments in track changes in Word and replied to all of her comments within the document so she could clearly see the changes when I sent it back to her.
Next came line edits. In this round of editing, Kat made suggestions and changes at the sentence level to help with clarity and word choice and flow, and I updated the manuscript as needed based on those notes. From there, the book went to the copyeditor, who went through the book with a fine-tooth comb, marking inconsistencies (for example, a character said something on page 10 but something on page 200 seemed to contradict it), places where I used the same word within a short span, questioning confusing/unclear sentences, and generally cleaning up anything that was out of place. After copy edits, I received my first pass pages, the typeset/designed book printed out for hardcopy edits. (At this point, it’s the last chance to make any changes to a book.) The production team incorporated my changes into the designed text and sent it off to the proofreader, who sent me a handful of final questions/clarifications before it was out of my hands for good.
With all the edits complete, it was time to shift the focus to marketing. The design team created a cover I adore. The only input I had was to tell them up front I wanted a pie on the cover (since the book involves magical, secret-keeping pie!). I’m sure they did a few mock ups of different ideas before deciding on the final one, but I did not see anything until the final cover. I worked with the marketing team to write a few articles that they placed with blogs and websites as part of a blog tour around my release date, and they designed bookmarks and social media teasers for me to use as well. They also hosted two 100-book giveaways on Goodreads, which got my book out there to bloggers, reviewers, and readers and generated buzz ahead of launch. Outside of their efforts, I hosted giveaways and created my own graphics to promote the book online and set up a local book signing.
For the marketing of my second book, Dreaming in Chocolate, I took a little more control and hired an outside PR company to help me. They worked with my internal team at St. Martin’s to coordinate reviews, placement of essays I wrote, and sending review copies to bloggers and readers.
Tell me about your support system online and IRL, including how you came to be a Tall Poppy (which is amazing to me!). Who are your biggest cheerleaders?
Writing is such a solitary activity, but being a writer is so much about the community! I have a small group of critique partners (CPs) who I’ve been connected with for about five years. We share our work, help each other through writing slumps, and cheer each other on. We’ve become very close friends over the years and I can’t imagine writing without them helping me through it.
Another group I am grateful for is the Pitch Wars community. For those who don’t know, Pitch Wars is a mentoring program, started by Brenda Drake, that matches unagented writers with more writers who are a little farther down the publishing path. I was selected as a mentee by the lovely Karma Brown in 2014, and she was instrumental in helping me turn The Secret Ingredient of Wishes into something an agent (and eventually an editor) would love. We spent two months tearing the manuscript apart and rebuilding it. I learned so much from her, it was literally life changing. Now, I’m about to start my third year of being a mentor and cannot wait to be able to help another writer on their writing journey.
Karma is also how I became a Tall Poppy. She was a Poppy at the time and though I had heard of them, I didn’t really know much about the group or the writers who made it up. But I was so impressed with this group of women whose main goal was to lift up and promote other women writers. It’s part social group, part marketing collective. And it’s 100% amazing. The industry knowledge within the group makes going through the ups and downs of publishing so much easier to understand. And these ladies are fiercely supportive, personally and professionally. It’s such an honor to be a part of this group and know that I’m not alone in all of this publishing life!
And our Facebook group, Bloom, is such a delight. We get to interact with readers, get to know them, and let them get to know us. We’ve made so many friendships within that group, and it’s incredible how the members of Bloom seem to love the community as much as we do.
How does your life influence your art and vice versa, and how did magic enter your stories? How are food and magic connected for you?
It’s impossible for me to write and not put some part of me on the page. Sometimes I do it deliberately, picking a friend’s last name to use for a character or having a barbecue festival occur in the story because I grew up in Tennessee with beef barbecue and sweet, tomato-based sauce but now live in Eastern North Carolina where it’s all pork and vinegar-based sauce. And other times, I don’t even mean to, but then I read back through I find hints of my life sprinkled throughout.
As for the magic, I love the idea that there could be magic in the real world. And in a world that is so dark at times, I wanted an escape. I wanted to be someplace that was quirky and whimsical and full of awe. The magic is also a way for me to help my characters find themselves and their way home, where or whatever home may be. It offers a strange obstacle for them to go up against in pursuit of their true selves. And it’s a little bit of wish fulfillment for me because I get to play with the rules of the real world and see what life could be like if someone could make wishes come true just by thinking about them or making hot chocolate that predict the future! Combining food with magic just seemed to fit. They work so well together and writing about food is a lot of fun because it’s something everyone can relate to. We all have our comfort foods and meals that are part of the fabric of our families and lives. Food might be a basic necessity of life, but it’s also deeply connected to emotions, which help make my stories come to life.
What do you love most about your creativity?
I love that my creativity is always there, beneath the surface of my thoughts. It’s always watching and listening and soaking in what’s going on around me, and then suddenly one day it offers up a story idea that I am so in love with I can’t wait to start writing. That’s not to say, writing is always a breeze and I never get blocked, because I definitely do. And those days, I wonder if maybe everything I’ve done has just been a fluke. But I can almost always find my way back into the story or character after giving my creativity a chance to refuel itself.
Emerson, Georgia, and Marley meet at fat camp, quickly establishing lifelong friendships. Their weight reflects backgrounds of abuse, neglect, and unrealistic expectations, leading to self-sabotage. One friend’s tragedy spurs the others toward their authentic selves.
Higgins digs deep into the transference of emotions into weight, using journal entries for immediate empathy. Along the journey to keep their promise, the two friends follow a rocky path to become true to themselves. This story reaches beyond friendship, beyond body acceptance, exposing the body shaming culture of western society, the misogyny of determining a woman’s worth by her appearance, the invisibility of women who don’t fit the mainstream idea of what a woman should look like, and the self-fulfilling prophecy of buying into that idea. Feminism needs a huge boost in this society where a thin woman is treated better than one who is overweight—even a little bit of extra weight (according to whomever) places someone in the undesirable category; when woman starve themselves or gorge themselves, or accept society’s norms to feel inferior.
I was fortunate to receive a copy of this wonderful book from the publisher for an honest review. The pretty cover and oft sarcastically used phrase as the title belie the substance and depth of this novel. I recommend this to everyone for the insight into the damage done by social cues demanding that all women look one way. Life is hard enough without finding derision in place of compassion. Kudos to Higgins for telling what women are too ashamed to share and the hypocrisy of the fitness industry.
I met Kimberly through Bloom, the Facebook group for Tall Poppy writers and their readers. If you’re looking for reading material, this author collective has writers of many genres and styles. Since I love speculative fiction, I asked Kimberly for an interview and she graciously agreed to share a little peek into the magic that is writing. Enjoy! And join Bloom if you’d love to a part of a community of stories and supportive human beings.
Describe your writing process—schedule, environment, inspirations—and everything you do as an author beyond writing.
Almost always, I start with a place, because setting is so important in my writing, and a problem. I love the peculiar or unexplained. Outliers and underdogs are always my favorite characters and often a voice comes to me with a line or two of dialogue or narrative that will send me off to learn that person’s story. In fiction and in real life, I can’t stand not knowing why. I’m a bloodhound for the whole story.
In terms of my writing day, I’m not a morning person, so I usually work during the late morning and through lunch while my kids are in school. When I’m drafting a story, I can write through the day without realizing the hours have passed. I love research and I have to be careful I don’t get lost in it. I often go through many drafts of a novel before I find the real heart of what I’m trying to say and that means it takes me quite a while to complete a book. Luckily, I have an agent who encourages me to dig deep and likes being part of my process.
When I’m not writing–and trust me, I’m always writing–I spend my time with my family. I have three children–a daughter who is entering college this fall, a son who is a rising senior in high school, and a second son who is entering fifth grade. We have two dogs–a cairn terrier and a rescue dachshund. My husband and I love to cook and travel, and our favorite spots to visit are Savannah, Georgia, Charleston, South Carolina, and the occasional trip to the Pacific Northwest, where we lived early in our marriage. We’ve been to France a few times and lately we’ve been talking a lot about Cornwall and Wales. Maybe someday!
Walk me through the publishing process from final draft to final product, everyone involved, and what you do yourself to promote your new books.
I think my experience in publishing is pretty typical. I spent many years at work on multiple manuscripts, submitting queries to agents and entering contests. I was very lucky to sign with an agent, but I sold my first novel on my own to a small press and it was a lovely experience. My editor and I and a copy editor worked together to get the book in the best shape possible before it went to press.
After the novel was in the world, I went to work making use of all the networking I’d done over the years prior to publishing–relationships I fostered with generous book bloggers and fellow writers–and I sought out every way I could find to put the book in front of as many readers as possible. The novel won the Georgia Author of the Year award, and I went on a book tour across the southeastern US and visited as many independent bookstores as I could. They are the fairy godmothers of authors and readers!
You are a member of the Tall Poppies author collective. Tell me how that happened and about your support system online and IRL; who are your biggest cheerleaders?
A few years ago, Orly Konig invited me to lead a workshop for the Women’s Fiction Writer’s Association’s first retreat. Over that weekend, I learned about the Tall Poppies from author Kathryn Craft and got excited about the group. I had lunch with Amy Impellizerri before we left the airport and I absolutely adored her, too. I was delighted when they invited me to be a part of this inspiring group of women authors. They are absolutely my support system online AND IRL!
Patti Callahan Henry and Amy Nathan have been longtime supporters and friends. Outside of Poppies, Allison Law, Joshilyn Jackson, Sally Kilpatrick, Nicki Salcedo, Heather Bell Adams, Gina Heron, Reta Hampton, Shari Smith, Marybeth Whalen and Ariel Lawhon have encouraged me so much along the way. Emily Carpenter and MJ Pullen know where all the bodies are buried. There are so many more! I know I’m leaving so many people out.
The short stories on your website evoke your Southern Gothic style; they are a wonderful introduction to your writing. How does your life influence your art—and vice versa, and how did speculative elements find their way into your storytelling?
Thanks! The short stories are like little treats for myself that I hope readers enjoy. In them, I allow myself to just play with the magical elements that I love in my favorite stories. My novels aren’t so heavy with magical elements, although they are most definitely present. I love the inexplicable.
I think my world view comes through in my writing and my choice to always force characters to examine what they think they believe and especially what they are willing to accept without concrete evidence. I like to challenge black and white ideas and I’m interested in what exists in the gray areas. I grew up and have lived most of my adult life in the South where ghosts and spirits, religion and superstition are a part of everyday conversation. I’m a very intuitive person. I think I could hardly write anything else.
What do you love most about your creativity?
Over the years, I’ve heard so many writers lament a loss of creativity in their lives. I don’t adhere to that idea. I believe that people are inherently creative by nature. Like any other natural ability, we have to be healthy in other areas of our lives in order to function at our best and creativity is no different. There are months when my creativity seems dormant, but it’s easy to know why if I look at other areas of my life–my physical or psychological health.
The most amazing thing I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older is that the answer to reviving my creativity is engaging in creativity. It’s self-healing. The more I allow myself to be freely creative, the more my physical and psychological health also improve. If I neglect my creativity, everything else goes downhill with it. It’s imperative for a full life.
I started the Tinderbox Writers Workshops, which led to an annual retreat, based on these ideas and my own experiences. Every year, writers meet on the South Carolina coast for a week of inspiration, friendship, writing and transformation. It’s one of my favorite things and truly the most rewarding part of my writing journey.
Sarah’s mother resented her existence, never failing to make her aware of the obstacle she is in life of a woman who believes she gave up fame to be a mother. So she may have been primed for kidnapping a little girl whose mother treated her in a similar manner. After a month on the run with the child, with all that entails—lying to friends and family, shifting work priorities, constant fear—Sarah’s conscience shifts. Coincidentally, her own mother contacts her after a lifetime of absenteeism.
As though laying out with tweezers the contents of her life, Frey carefully portrays a mother who never wanted to be a mother in a way that even the most hardhearted reader can squeeze out a bit of sympathy for her. Confused, overwrought, overweight (the character focuses on this fact about herself excessively), she’s suspected of murdering her own child on circumstantial evidence she can’t refute. The fact that the mother wishes to improve herself redeems her, if only just. The child, however, seems way too well-adjusted and mentally healthy for the childhood she was enduring when she was taken. There was no groundwork laid to show her easy ability to make friends or readily accept changes not easily understood by small children. Even severely abused children cry for their mothers, and this one reached for hers after the mother’s hateful words of not loving her, so that completely assimilating into a new life, even a more positive one, so quickly seems to be less than credible. Furthermore, after the surprising turn of events at the climax, the father’s character inexplicably fades away.
This novel raises the question of who we really are to ourselves, as Sarah repeatedly states that she is not a kidnapper, though that is exactly what she is. It also points out the challenges of a legal system that cannot, for practical purposes, factor in emotional abuse of children in removing them from the home, though this seems irrelevant here. It seems unlikely that Montessori school officials would not have notified authorities regarding the bruises that covered the child’s arms and legs. Such obvious signs of physical abuse countered Sarah’s sense of morality. Without that aspect of the mother’s bad parenting, this story would have made more sense.
I was fortunate to receive an early copy from the publisher through NetGalley.
Joe Lynch espies his wife in a heated debate with their friend Ben at a hotel restaurant after his son sees mommy’s car and they follow her to say hi. After she leaves too quickly to follow, Joe confronts Ben, who laughs off his suspicions. His wife explains away the argument as Ben’s obsession with her; then Ben disappears. Suddenly, Joe is being framed for Ben’s murder, seemingly by Ben himself, so that Joe must find the purposely evasive man to clear his name.
Logan deftly weaves in and out of the fast lane, with Joe’s wife Mel explaining away everything that Joe uncovers, to allay his fears until the next bombshell. The scene of resolution contains the dreaded trope of criminal shows, where the villain’s motivation and MO are thoroughly laid out—by the villain. The reveal explains questionable character actions that should have been questioned by Joe, but weren’t. All in all, the biggest bombshell will expose some readers’ unintended biases, and that’s okay. It’s good to shine the light into the nooks and crannies that seemed of no concern before, as uncomfortable as that can be, in order to become a better person. This book is a fast, fun read, and not soon to be forgotten. I was fortunate to receive an early copy from the publisher through NetGalley.
Rave Wayne meets the grandfather he thought was dead, and he comes to appreciate the solidity and sincerity of Tuck Wayne, who does his best to convince Rave to forgive his drug addict mother. While settling into a new life in a small town with his grandfather, disruptions force Rave to grow and learn unconditional love as he plans a war memorial in tribute to his veteran grandfather.
Though a bit repetitive throughout, this is a touching story of complex family relationships, where ties are severed, dynamics shift, and regrets are lived out. Burch’s writing flows like rich hot chocolate, assuring the reader that no matter what the circumstances, warmth will bring the characters home, where they belong. Fans of feel-good, coming-home-to-roost, family-oriented stories, with emphasis on military veterans, will enjoy this book and this author’s work.
I received this heartwarming novel from the author for an honest review.
Adrienne leaves an abusive relationship and divorce in Chicago and buys a fixer-upper in Florida, where she starts her new life of independence on the Gulf. A box of eloquently written letters from a WWII soldier in her attic sets Adrienne on a journey to friendship, potential romance, and matchmaking. She exposes decades-old secrets, changing lives and mending relationships while building strong bonds with her new “family.”
Burch’s novel reads like a Lifetime or Hallmark movie, with the romance of a soldier’s yearning juxtaposing the horror of his experience in war. The story veers away from the trope of the emotionally intelligent woman succumbing to the stubborn man, when Adrienne informs the romantic interest that his controlling behavior isn’t acceptable, a feminist move proving she learned from her previous relationship. Adamant in this assessment, she continues to nurture the friendships of (his) family. Read this novel to discover a treasure chest of secrets and to find out if the romantic interest redeems himself. I was fortunate to receive a copy from the author for an honest review.