I'm so used to authors responding upon receiving notice that their book review has been published. However, I encountered something different this time around: I didn't hear from Kathleen.
I had almost given up hope - wondering if the book review wasn't well-received - so I read it again (as if it was a review someone published concerning one of my own books) and didn't feel anything needed to be changed.
My mind went on another journey, reminding me that everyone didn't live in front of their computers - that people had lives including jobs, children and so on. It gave me a measure of comfort.
A few days later, I had an "ha ha" moment; I heard from Kathleen and her enthusiasm was no less than that of other authors I've interviewed. (Whew!)
Taking the opportunity while I had it, I invited her to answer a few questions so I could learn more about her and her journey as a writer. I'm pleased to share her answers below.
Norma: What does being an author mean to you?
Kathleen: Being an author means I have an opportunity to explore human complications - the way people set out to do things one way, but then life happens and they find themselves behaving in ways they never believed possible. People are so interesting because their personalities are made up of so many layers and sides, and exploring those in characters is fun.
I also love the historical events and perspectives which form my novels. For example, with The Last Letter, some women (especially mothers) have said that Jeanie's actions aren't believable to them because they would never do what she did. BUT, historically speaking, Jeanie's actions were common and, as mentioned earlier, complications change the way people behave. That doesn't satisfy every reader, but I feel confident that Jeanie's actions are a reflection of complications none of us ever want to face.
Norma: When did you first realize that you wanted to write and publish a book? How old/young were you at the time?
Kathleen: I've always wanted to be a writer. I've always observed and noted, been amused, and mesmerized by the way people interact, speak, hide their feelings or let them out full force. I didn't write my first novel until I finished my dissertation 13 years ago and got that off my plate. The PhD process made me confident I could write anything.
The stories that had been brewing in my mind were ready to come into the light...and then I shoved them, and that book, under my bed and wrote six or seven more before self-publishing, The Last Letter.
I had an agent who couldn't sell my women's fiction and didn't want to take on more, so I searched for other agents and publishers until 2010. At Pennwriters that May, I met successful self-publishers and listened, yet again, to agents on a panel critique query letters. They all agreed they would turn away one author's query because she used the phrase "amateur detective" in the letter. I thought, geeze, that could be the greatest mystery ever written but because they didn't like one phrase in her query letter it's a no??? Well, that realization, years of rejection and the growing market for self-publishers collided to convince me it was time to go out on my own. So, May 1, 2011 The Last Letter was released.
Norma: I'm so glad it was! I really enjoyed reading your book and it seems unimaginable that agents couldn't sell it. Speaking as a person who has read approximately 4,000 books by mainstream fiction authors, I must admit that I'm enjoying the books I'm reading by self-published authors.
Granted, my longtime favorite authors will remain but I'm discovering that many of the books I now read are introducing me to other genres (which I might not, typically, read) and I've added a few favorite authors to my list. It's a pleasant experience, indeed.
I must admit, though, to being curious. What spurred you to keep pressing on when you were met with one rejection after another?
Kathleen: On one hand, I was confident I was a good writer, but the experts kept saying it wasn't good enough (or however they phrased it) and I would swing back to the thought that perhaps I was wrong and deluded.
But, after years of hard work, listening to critique, going to workshops, really finding the balance between smart feedback - re: what to change and what I wouldn't change - the underlying feeling that I had written books people wanted to read was always there.
The other writers I've met along the way - such giving and honest people - have been incredibly encouraging; they are the highlight of the process.
Norma: Are you currently writing another book which you hope to publish at some point? If so, we'd love to hear more about it.
Kathleen: I'm releasing my next novel in May 2012. It's historical fiction set in 1948, Donora, PA. The story (tentatively called "After the Fog") is set against the week known as, "The Five Days of Fog," in which the steel mill fumes became trapped in a stagnant weather pattern and killed 20 people, sickened 6,000 and eventually killed more over time as some did not recover from the event.
Donora's Smog Museum's tagline is, "Clean Air Started Here," because that event was the first that the government studied and it's what brought about the Clean Air Act of 1955. That's the back drop for Rose Pavlesic: community nurse, mother, and wife whose career collides with her family life during that week of killing smog. Rose is the kind of person who harbors secrets, doesn't forgive herself for past mistakes and only wants the best for her family...unfortunately she isn't so great at letting people live their own lives. The small-town setting with big-time steel playing a part in decisions made should make readers feel as though they're reading about their hometowns even if the slang and language patterns are different than their own.
I'm now researching a prequel to The Last Letter. Its events will start where the 1888 timeline left off and show two or three of the 17 years that separated the 1887-88 and 1905 timelines in The Last Letter. The prequel (not a true prequel since it sits inside two timelines, but it's the closest descriptor) will be set in Des Moines so it involves all new research and, luckily, another set of 200 family letters written by the real Jeanie and her children when they lived in Des Moines. These letters will again help shape the novel's language, character development and events.
I've asked readers what they'd like to see played out in this book and have gotten incredible input! I have to say, the people who loved the book have been so kind and enthusiastic; I feel fortunate to have readers like that!
Norma: Who has been a major source of inspiration for you as a writer/author?
Kathleen: Inspiration - everyone I've read - John Steinbeck, Geraldine Brooks, Elizabeth Strout, Anne Lamott, Steven King, Sara Gruen, SK Mclafferty, Melissa Foster, Madhu Wangu, PhD, John Irving, Kate DiCamillo, David Laskin, and Janis Cooke Newman.
Norma: What is your ultimate dream, in terms of being a writer/author?
Kathleen: I don't really know at this point. All I ever wanted was to have readers beyond my friends/colleagues; at over 50,000 books sold since May 2011, I'd say I achieved that. I've won 8 awards and have more books on the way - even one of my women's fiction books coming soon! I guess, I want more of that same success.
There's a part of me that still yearns for the traditional stamp of approval, but that pales compared to having readers. I want each book to be better and hope that my access to readers isn't hindered by my self-published status...so the ultimate dream is to write better and reach more readers!
Norma: What is one of your favourite quotes?
Kathleen: I hate to say this, but I think the best quote in the world is Nike's, "Just Do It." And then do it again and again until it's the best it can be. I know that's not literary in the least, but sitting around hoping any dream will make itself happen is just nuts. Hard work makes everything happen, even good luck.
Norma: Tell us a little about your life. What does an average day look like?
Kathleen: My typical day revolves around my son and daughter. Whether getting them off to school (and after school events) or spending days off with them, the day starts and ends with them! My husband travels for work so we plan around him, too. I have MS so that shapes my days as I never know if I'll feel crappy or really crappy. My standard of feeling good has changed so I deal well with not feeling great - much better than at first.
Writing has saved me from complete depression at having this disease that changed everything about my life. Writing (articles for local magazines and papers, Chicken Soup for the Soul, and novels) and working from home has allowed me to reshape my work life from research at the University of Pittsburgh to something that is valuable, but completely different. I also consult as a language arts coach at a school in the city of Pittsburgh, but much of that work can be done from home, too.
I am lucky to have so many choices. When I'm not at my school, I'm at home writing - and exercising. Besides the weekly injections for MS, my treatment is exercise and rest...hahaha, you can imagine my response to that when I was first diagnosed, when my children were nine months and two-years-old and neither would sleep for long - and my husband was traveling for work!!! My typical day is boring but very, very good. I recognize that and feel very fortunate.
Norma: What are three of your favourite hobbies?
Kathleen: running/walking, swimming, reading
Norma's closing thoughts:
Kathleen, I must admit I'm thrilled that you're on the NYT bestseller list! I had no idea until you just mentioned it. I do wish you continued success as an author and in your family. You take obstacles lying in your path and, not only do you conquer them, you make them quiver because of the strength you possess. You are certainly a blessed woman, Kathie Shoop.