Monthly Archives: June 2013

Writeliving Interview – Jane Smiley

Jane Smiley photo

When I think of the great American novel and writers equally adept at character development, sense of place, theme, and plot, I immediately place A Thousand Acres and Jane Smiley on a very short list. I couldn’t be more pleased that she took the time to share some of her writing life with us.

Martin Ott

Who has been a major influence on your writing?

There are lots of those! My mother was a newspaperwoman in the 50s, and she always had her portable typewriter on the dining room table. I also loved to read, so my first literary influences were The Bobbsey Twins (Laura Lee Hope) (The Bobbsey Twins) and Nancy Drew (Carolyn Keene). I also loved horse books–The Black Stallion series (Walter Farley) and a series by Dorothy Lyons. My experience is that series books get kids to read and read and read–and it doesn’t matter if they read the same books over and over, as long as they are reading. The first adult books I loved were David Copperfield and Giants in the Earth (Ole Rolvaag), but I was also fascinated by the Shakespeare plays we read in junior high and high school, especially Twelfth Night and Hamlet. All through junior high, I was an avid reader of Agatha Christie. In college, I became fascinated with the history of the English language, and so studied Old English, Middle English, and Old Norse. Out of my love of these languages came my interest in updating old stories (King Lear to A Thousand Acres, the Icelandic Sagas to The Greenlanders, The Decameron to Ten Days in the Hills).

Can you give us insight into your creative process?

My writing style is to work everyday, just it down and start, trying not to pay any attention to whether I like what I am producing or not. I find research inspiring because it spurs invention. I like to be accurate, and I am interested in socio/psychological issues, so I need to do a lot of research. My favorite thing is having a little grain of an idea develop into a thought, and then into a theme or a plot twist. I usual do some planning, but I love the sense of the unexpected entering the work–I think that gives it life and energy. Fiction is about how action, thought, and feeling connect, so my favorite bits are when an action has resulted in an observation which produces a feeling, which is then conveyed through a metaphor or an image–to me, that is the inner life becoming manifest. I also like unexpected events which, when you look back on them, seem inevitable.

How old where you when you first started writing?

17–I was a senior in high school. I was not an early writer.

Can you share an example of overcoming adversity to keep your writing dream alive?

No, because I have always enjoyed it so much that there wasn’t much of a chance of it dying. I think that a writer is better off if he/she enjoys or is fascinated by the process, because rewards are inconsistent, glancing blows, even good ones. Better to be focused on what you are doing because you can’t stop doing it, not because you hope for greatness.

How have the places you’ve lived shaped your creative work?

I have a strong sense of place, and every place is interesting. My best example is Ames, Iowa, a place that doesn’t have a reputation as a hotspot of literary dynamism, but for me, living there directly produced A Thousand Acres, The Greenlanders, and Moo. It also had great schools and child-care, and so other books that I wrote while I was there benefited from that aspect. There is much to be said, if you want to be productive, for living out of the way, and being able to focus on your work.

What project(s) are you working on now?

A trilogy called The Last Hundred Years, a story of a family that takes place between 1920 and 2019, beginning with the birth of the central character, and following the adventures of him and his siblings and children.

What is something about you that writers and readers may not know?

I have no idea!

About the Author

Jane Smiley is the author of  13 adult novels, 5 YA novels, and nonfiction, including a short biography of Charles Dickens, a history and anatomy of the novel, called Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel, and a book about the invention of the computer, called The Man Who Invented the Computer.

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How The American University was Killed, in Five Easy Steps

Very rarely has a blog post moved me as much as this. This is important to read for writers looking to join the rank of professors, writers looking to extend their education, and writers with kids facing the difficult choices of massive college debts looming ahead of them. – Martin Ott

The Homeless Adjunct

A few years back, Paul E. Lingenfelter began his report on the defunding of public education by saying, “In 1920 H.G. Wells wrote, ‘History is becoming more and more a race between education and catastrophe.’ I think he got it right. Nothing is more important to the future of the United States and the world than the breadth and effectiveness of education, especially of higher education. I say especially higher education, but not because pre- school, elementary, and secondary education are less important. Success at every level of education obviously depends on what has gone before. But for better or worse, the quality of postsecondary education and research affects the quality and effectiveness of education at every level.”

In the last few years, conversations have been growing like gathering storm clouds about the ways in which our universities are failing. There is talk about the poor educational outcomes apparent in…

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Publishing Spotlight: Interview with John Pitts

Writing has a lot of facets, and one of them is the brand you build as you look to find an audience for your work. The publishing landscape is shifting, and can be confusing. I’m glad to be able to share an interview with one of the best and brightest names in publishing: John Pitts.

Martin Ott

How did you first begin your career in publishing?

They used to call publishing the “accidental profession” and there’s some truth to that in my case.  I joined the Peace Corps right out of college and taught high school level EFL in Niger.  When that ended after two years, I moved to Boston with half an eye to getting a job at one of the publishers there.  It took nearly two years but I got my foot in the door at Houghton Mifflin as a publicist and then moved to Doubleday two years later, eventually making the switch to marketing.  It’s a very rewarding career that I highly recommend to anyone who likes the company of books.

What is the biggest challenge facing the publishing industry today?

I would say eBooks are challenging in a number of ways.  The downward pressure on price threatens the profitability of publishing for both traditional houses and for authors.  Just as journalism as a career is being threatened by the expectation that news and similar content be basically free, so are author/publishers threatened by the expectation that eBooks be very inexpensive.  Also, for obvious reasons, self-publishing an eBook, or publishing directly with a retailer such as Amazon, is a much more viable option for writers these days.  I still firmly believe that publishing houses offer a tremendous amount to authors in the form of editorial, sales, marketing and publicity value.  A lot of resources and “man hours” go into the successful publication of a book in a very competitive market.  All that said, we are selling a lot of eBooks.

What attributes are most helpful and least helpful in an author when you are working with them to market a book?

These days, authors have to do more than just write the book and turn it in.  It helps tremendously if they understand and embrace social media, if they have a presence on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest, GoodReads, etc.  Plenty of the older authors don’t have any interest in playing this game, and that’s fine, they’re established.  But up and coming writers can really benefit from being a player.  It really enhances the marketing process if we feel that the author is our partner in the effort, working with us to solve the problem of reaching the right audience.  Least helpful?  Some writers come with the pre-conceived notion that publishers don’t know what they’re doing and I can sense that right off.  Not at all helpful.

How do major publishing houses look to capitalize on eBooks?

We publish eBooks right alongside print books and we’re selling a growing number.  One of the great things from the author/publisher perspective is that readers of eBooks read more books, in part because they’re less expensive but also because they’re so easy to acquire.  So we welcome the challenge, and it appears that, at least for the moment, we have risen to it.

How has the decline of the brick and mortar bookstore affected publishing and marketing trends?

The #1 problem is “discoverability.”  The common assumption is that as much as 1/3 of book sales have traditionally come from people browsing through a bookstore and making unplanned-for purchases.  So as the number of physical stores declines (for example, Borders went bankrupt a few years ago and, poof, 500+ stores disappeared, and nearly 20,000 people lost their jobs) the opportunities for serendipitous purchases also declines.  We spend much less these days on point of sale material, for obvious reasons.  Additionally, much of marketing and publicity takes place in the digital space because that’s where the audience is. We still take out ads in newspapers and magazines, run TV spots and send authors on book tours, though less and less.

How has the popularity of young adult titles with mainstream audiences affected the book industry?

I don’t handle young adult titles, so I don’t have first-hand knowledge, but I have seen anecdotal evidence of this sort of cross over.  For example, I market John Grisham’s adult titles, but not his Theodore Boone books, which are aimed at the YA audience.  Many of his adult fans also enjoy the YA novels and they’re quite vocal about it on Facebook.  I’m so impressed by the quality of YA literature these days and my assumption is that it nurtures good readers who will continue the habit as adults.

Any advice to writers looking to publish their book?

Persevere. Believe in yourself. Write every day. Work on your craft.  Get an agent.


John Pitts photo

John Pitts is Vice President, Director of Marketing for Doubleday, a division of Random House. Inc.  He has being plying his trade for more than 25 years, marketing the works of John Grisham, Walter Mosley, Gore Vidal, Chuck Palahniuk, Thomas Cahill, and Margaret Atwood, among many others.  He lives in Manhattan with his wife and daughter.

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