5 Day Interview with Upcountry’s Author R.M. Doyon
It’s my pleasure to interview author R.M. Doyon. RM, or Rick as he is known to his many friends, is the author of UPCOUNTRY, an outstanding debut novel that brings to light many important issues people face today.
Please join in the discussion and ask your questions of this outstanding author. Leave some comments and, of course, buy the book. This is a very well written, interesting and thought-provoking novel that will hold your interest from start to finish. Welcome: R.M. Doyon:
Bio to introduce our author:
R.M. Doyon is a first-time novelist of Upcountry, a story based on a true event. Before co-founding the public relations firm High Road Communications, he was a reporter for the Ottawa Citizen and United Press International and worked in senior roles for the Canadian government, writing speeches for two prime ministers and for other high officials. He’s also the author of Pirouette, a stage-play on the life and times of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, and has co-written two screenplays (Shoulda, Coulda Woulda and The Last Carousel) with his wife Shelley Anthony.
1. Fran: Tell everyone about your career before becoming an author?
For as long as I can remember, I was enthralled by writing. First, by writing short stories in high school, and then working for my university newspaper at the University of Western Ontario. For a brief, fleeting and totally insane moment, I had considered a legal career, but, thankfully, they turned me down on the day before law school classes began, and that cemented my choice of journalism. So, after Western, I applied to Canada’s best journalism school, at Carleton University in Ottawa. From there, it was a career in words, first as a journalist, then a period when I wrote speeches for high officials in government, and then finally in public relations. But writing has been part of my DNA for 40 years.
2. Fran: Why did you decide to write Upcountry?
The genesis of Upcountry began more than eight years ago. That was after a serious conversation I’d had with a close friend, who related a horrific story about her sister’s abuse at the hands of an evil husband. So, after Shelley (my wife) and I had collaborated on our first screenplay, Shoulda, Coulda, Woulda, I began to think that this 2002 episode might make a good movie. At that time, the screenplay was entitled ‘The Last Carousel,’ which we began to market that to production houses with the help of our good, mutual friend, Marsha Casper Cook, an agent in Chicago.
But in the late spring of 2009, during a conversation with Marsha, I casually said to her, “this would make a decent novel.” And she replied, “Well, get busy. Maybe by writing the book, you might be able to sell the movie.” So, with the aid of a 120-page outline in the form of the movie script, I began putting together what became Upcountry. It was a very rewarding experience since it gave me the opportunity to flesh out my characters in a much deeper way than a movie can.
3. Fran: How did you create the character of Jane Schumacher?
Jane is a very complex, intelligent but ultimately conflicted and troubled character. She is also very savvy, strategic and, to the chagrin of my mother-in-law, often profane. She is a driven, powerful woman who is totally dedicated to the election of her boss, the governor of New York, as the next president of the United States. Since it is a contemporary story, with references to real political events in the last decade, people ask me when Upcountry takes place, and I tell them that I had the fall of 2006 in mind (and pre-Obama). When we started writing the movie version first, we wanted to buck the Hollywood trend and create a smart, sometimes sarcastic but motivated woman that both genders could admire, and even like. Bottom line, I think Jane is a very real person who is battling the travails of life, love and the question of happiness. And so I think we’ve succeeded in our goal since my readers came to love Jane as circumstances rapidly changed her life.
4. Fran: Does her career as a press secretary mirror yours in any way?
I was once offered a position as press secretary to senior Canadian politician but turned it down. It’s a thankless job filled with many minefields. But I knew what it took to be a successful one. As I counseled friends who became political operatives, I said it was more important to be respected than liked by the press–and I think this is the case for Jane. When we began creating Jane, I wanted her to hold an important and interesting job, using her intelligence, honesty and cunning to the benefit of her boss, the governor. Moreover, there are a lot of political junkies out there who I think liked the storyline. But in the end I’m like most writers. I write what I know.
5. Fran: Tell us about your career as a journalist, speechwriter, and veteran PR person.
Now I’ll show my age! My journalism career began in 1978 when I was hired to the summer staff of the Ottawa Citizen, the capital’s largest newspaper, covering the cop beat, the courts, business, and anything else the editors deemed necessary. But when that internship ended in September, I joined the Citizen’s crosstown rival, The Ottawa Journal, for a weekend and feature work. It was at the Journal that I discovered that United Press International was expanding its wire service offering in Canada, and I pestered the editor there so often that he had to offer me a job.
Later, he told me that I was hired because I “came cheap” and that I wore a suit to the interview! So, in the fall of 1978, on the day that the first Pope John Paul was elected pontiff, I joined UPI, and soon it became clear that our four-person staff had to cover everything we could in Canadian politics and government. That meant being assigned to two federal election campaigns, in 1979 and 1980, and covering two prime ministers (Pierre Trudeau and Joe Clark). I suppose that I impressed UPI on my reporting and writing because, two years later, they named me Ottawa Bureau Chief at the tender age of 27.
But a year or so later, at a time when some of my staff didn’t appreciate being told what to do by the youngest member of the bureau, UPI asked me to take over a bureau in western Canada. Or I could leave the company. I decided on the latter. This was a traumatic time, especially since we had an infant daughter. But in retrospect, I realized I had made the right decision.
Everyone should get fired from at least one job in their lives. Builds character, and a great life experience, if you survive. And I did, and it motivated me to move aggressively with my career, first as a senior speechwriter and communications specialist in two Canadian departments (Energy and Finance, the equivalent to the U.S. Treasury), and then in the private sector as a public relations consultant. Around the time that the first president Bush was taking on Saddam Hussein, I joined the mammoth PR firm, Hill & Knowlton, where I rose to lead the company’s high technology practice.
It was in 1996 that I felt I should go out on my own, and with a colleague, a superb PR woman, I borrowed heavily to launch High Road Communications. High Road is now one of Canada’s largest PR firms and is owned by another giant company, Fleishman-Hillard. Building a first-class PR firm was a highlight of my business career, but once I was able to leave the day-to-day business life, I knew I’d return to my first passion: fiction. And that’s what I’ve done.
6. Fran: As a political reporter you had to have met many important people and interviewed them? Can you tell us whom you met as a political reporter and Parliamentary Bureau Chief for United Press International?
The late ’70s and early ’80s were a very dynamic time in Canadian politics. By the time I arrived, Pierre Trudeau had been in office for more than 10 years and he was facing another election. So, by early 1979, barely nine months from journalism school, and still very green around the gills, I found myself covering Trudeau’s main Conservative Party adversary, Joe Clark, traveling aboard his campaign plane, and dropping into every city, town and hamlet for political events. Well, in the space of 18 months, Clark had won a minority government from Trudeau and became prime minister, only to lose a parliamentary vote that caused another election. Trudeau returned triumphantly and created a lot of news, energy wars with oil-rich provinces, fighting Quebec’s endless threats to separate from Canada and other events. I was fortunate to interview both Clark and Trudeau, and four other prime ministers during my journalism career. And throughout my time on Parliament Hill, I, of course, covered the official visits of many world leaders, including a G8 meeting of industrialized nations.
1. Fran: Which President of the US did you meet and under what circumstances?
It was Ronald Reagan. I had covered his official visit to Canada, in March 1980, and only weeks before the assassination attempt on his life. But in the summer of 1981, in advance of Trudeau hosting the G8 Conference, I accompanied the prime minister to the White House for a meeting, and that was when I was invited into the Oval Office as part of a small Canadian media pool, where I met the president. Reagan was very warm and friendly to all of us who had entered his office. It was just a fleeting moment, but one I’ll never forget.
2. Fran: Tell everyone about your public relations firm: High Road Communications and your role in the Canadian government.
My role as speechwriter and senior communications officer in two Canadian federal departments occurred before my entry into consulting, and the eventual creation of High Road. After my journalism career ended, in 1982, I joined the federal energy department in a communications role, where I wrote speeches for Energy Minister Jean Chretien (who would later serve as Canada’s prime minister for 10 years, from 1993-2003) and his officials. I also wrote an important energy-related address for Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, who was elected in 1984 after Trudeau retired.
High Road was created in 1996, after I had spent more than five years in the PR consulting world with Hill & Knowlton. My partner and I specialized in technology, and worked for many of the largest firms in the world, including Microsoft, NEC, AOL, Lucent, to name a few. Over the past 15 years, my partner and I were responsible for launching hundreds of fine PR careers, many of whom are the best in the business.
3. Fran: Before writing Upcountry what else have you written?
In the 1980s, I wrote a teleplay for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation but, unfortunately, it was never produced. When I retired from active PR work, in 2004, I began writing again; first it was a stage play called Pirouette, a story based on the life and times of Pierre Trudeau. I’d like that play to get produced some day, because one man on a stage (like the plays involving Harry Truman, Mark Twain, etc) is very compelling and enjoyable for audiences. Later, my wife Shelley and I collaborated on a romantic comedy entitled Shoulda, Coulda, Woulda, before we tackled a script for a very serious drama called The Last Carousel. (The Last Carousel became Upcountry, my novel).
4. Fran: How did you develop the characters in this book?
When we were planning what became The Last Carousel, Shelley and I set about creating the story first and then went about populating it with interesting players. In particular, we wanted our main characters–Jane Schumacher and her sister Joanne Lowry–to be complex and troubled, since their lives had not been easy growing up in northern New York. At the same time, since we pick up their story when they’re both 39, they had been estranged for many years, and we wanted to document what had happened to them since they were teenagers. Thus, they had to be intelligent and interesting, a couple of women that readers could come to like and love. Other characters, such as our sheriff (Brian Boychuk), the girls’ father (Hubie Schumacher), or Jane’s love interest (Roberto Alvarez), and even our motel owner (Matt Booker) are based on an amalgamation of many people we’ve known over the years. Character creation is a very enjoyable yet difficult exercise. A writer’s first responsibility is to be read, and that’s why we tried to make these people real and believable.
5. Fran: The issue of spousal abuse is on the news and an important issue: Joanne, Jane’s sister lived with Denny for too long and withstood his verbal and physical abuse: What made you create this character and allow her to withstand the abuse for so long?
Joanne, in many ways, is a typical victim of spousal abuse. Many women in her situation suffer silently. They come to believe their husband’s words, that they’re worthless and, indeed, unworthy of love and respect. They find themselves caught in an impossibly horrid life from which they cannot escape. People say, ‘why didn’t she just leave her husband?’ Well, as we tried to dramatize in Upcountry, it’s not that easy. They feel physically threatened. They’re fearful for their lives and the lives of their children. As you may know, Upcountry is based on a true situation that I became aware of more than nine years ago. The situation faced by Joanne, and the horrible dilemma confronting Jane, was based on a real-life event, although we went much further — in dramatic terms — with Upcountry than my real-life sisters did. In the case of Joanne, I give much of the credit of her characterization to Shelley, who was a marriage and family therapist for 15 years. Shelley helped many troubled women over the years, and from her experiences, came Joanne.
6. Fran: After so many years Jane and Joanne finally bonded- Jane finally came full circle with her father too: Tell our readers what caused the rift between them to start?
From the beginning, readers of Upcountry discover that Jane Schumacher, at age 39, is a tough, savvy, sarcastic and often profane woman. She’s on a mission to get her boss elected president of the United States. But her personality was developed many years before as a teenager growing up in northern New York. Even then, she was a curious, knowledge-seeking young woman, and it was then that she concluded that her father was not a strong-willed man. In Jane’s eyes, he took too much abuse from his shrewish wife, Donna, and that created a lack of respect for the Vietnam veteran. In addition, Hubie never stepped in and stopped Donna from controlling the lives of Jane and her sister, and that was the basis of their relationship for many years. It was only after the life-altering events after their fateful Thanksgiving dinner that Jane and her dad signed a truce.
7. Fran: What role did her mother play and how?
The twins’ late mother, Donna, played a central role in Jane’s life, before and after she went to her grave at the age of 50 from cancer. Donna was a very troubled woman herself, and led a life filled with regrets. We meet Donna in various stages of her life, but the most important scene, in our view, was when she was a college student determined to get her degree and enter medical school. She wanted to be somebody, and to be independent. But events intervened, and she found herself pregnant with twins and living in some godforsaken town near the Adirondacks. As a result, she never recovered from that experience, and often took out her anger on her husband, and on Jane in particular, who, unlike Joanne, decided not to put up with her judgemental and cruel mother. It seems Donna blamed not only Hubie for her sorry lot in life, but her daughter as well. She was never a real mother in so many ways, and it’s sad.
8. Fran: Her close relationship in the past with the country sheriff was very dramatic. What part did their friendship play in his investigation?
Jane and Brian (the sheriff) were high school sweethearts. In Brian’s opinion, it seemed destined that they’d spend their lives together. But Jane abruptly alters that plan and, at age 18, leaves town for good, leaving a despondent Brian behind. Without contact, they go about their lives for the next 20 years; she as a journalist and then press secretary to the governor of New York, and he as a police officer. Following the events of Thanksgiving night, Brian takes the investigation personally. Perhaps due to his relationship with Hubie, perhaps because of his past affection for Jane, Brian is determined to see this through. Though they hadn’t seen each other for many years, it is clear that their lives had been closely intertwined. They have a history together.
9. Fran: Why did Matt help them? What happens when someone betrays his trust?
Matt is a kind and considerate motel owner who comes to girls rescue in a number of ways. There is something about the twins that made him want to help. Having lived a tough, grinding lifestyle for many years, and perhaps seeing a few parallels in their collective lives, Matt throws caution to the wind and comes to their aid. But he quickly discovers that someone close to him, jealous of his brief relationship with the twins, betrays both him and the sisters. This episode enabled us to bring an exciting journey to a close. But it’s clear that Matt is central to Upcountry’s theme of redemption and rebirth, giving Joanne in particular an opportunity to realize her potential as a human being.
10. Fran: Roberto is a wonderful character that is loyal to Jane and proves it throughout the story and at the end . Why does he remain true to her and her family throughout the novel?
Roberto Alvarez is, above all, a very patient man. As Jane’s lover and companion, Roberto is both smitten and sometimes traumatized by her. An Argentine immigrant, who had endured his share of prejudice, Roberto is a handsome and successful New York lawyer, who probably could have his pick of women in the Big Apple. Even as he is mistreated by Jane, and often, he sticks by her, especially when he discovers she’s in trouble. Why? Not only because of her stunning looks, which are important to him. No, it’s more than that for Roberto. I think he loves her for her strength, determination and intelligence, although he often questions why. By the end, he discovers what Jane is truly made of, and is determined to help her and her family.
11. Fran: You tell the story to the reader by allowing the reader to hear Jane’s inner thoughts and feelings: Why did you choose flashbacks and recounts as a way to link her past with her present?
Upcountry begins on an icy Thanksgiving morning in Albany, New York as Jane awakens from what was clearly a drunken stupor. She’s had a rough night. She’s angry. She’s cynical. With fortified coffee in hand, she rifles through the mail that she’s thrown around her condo to discover that her estranged father has sent her yet another holiday greeting card with a simple signature attached. ‘Dad’ is all he wrote. Right there, Jane abruptly decides to change her holiday plans with Roberto, her lover, to return to her upstate New York home. It is during this journey through the Adirondacks that she recalls the stunning events of the day before, which we bring to the readers in the form of a flashback. It is evident that she’s now on a mission, and that mission is to make amends with the family she had foresaken many years before. The opening scene provides readers with a glimpse into this vibrant yet shaken woman’s life, loves, family and career. A couple of well-timed flashbacks provide the context for her situation — and her dilemma.
12. Fran: Joanne relives and visualizes the many times she was victimized by her husband. What message do you want to convey to women who fall prey to violent men?
As I’ve noted, Joanne, at 39, is still young and could be pretty if she tried. But, to her, pretty is “way too much work” and, besides, there was no one around to appreciate it. This is the result of two decades of unhappiness and despair, as a result of her becoming pregnant by her high school boyfriend. She had succumbed to the pressures of motherhood and a bad marriage. Thus, the portrait we created was of an all-too-common victim of a violent and alcoholic husband. She is stuck. She cannot leave for many reasons; she feels she cannot support herself, and her son, Brent, and believes that Denny, her husband, would find her, and perhaps kill her. So, silently and alone, she puts up with his abuse. Unfortunately, since the FBI says that a woman is beaten every nine seconds by her male partner or husband in this country, the message we wanted to send was one of despair. Her situation is not uncommon. But, as we learn, she is soon joined by an estranged sister who discovers Joanne’s agonizing plight. And Jane takes measures to end Joanne’s horrible predicament.
13. Fran: Sisters have a special bond- I just lost my sister in July of 2010 and it has not been the same: do you think that Jane and Joanne would have stayed close had the ending been different? Why?
Yes. But Upcountry is more about an emotional journey that twin sisters took to rebuild their estranged relationship, even if the ending had been different. It is about redemption and rebirth. But the ending we devised was one that many families face in everyday life.
14. Fran: Why were they able to bond so quickly after being estranged for so long?
I like to think that their bond was stronger than either of them would have believed — at least when they greet each other in surprise just before Thanksgiving dinner. That dinner and its aftermath, of course, served as the catalyst to the rest of the story. It propelled them on their journey. But their bonding didn’t take place quickly; as siblings typically do, they had their fights, they had their disagreements throughout most of the novel. Once we got them to the small ski shop in Lake Placid, and then at the amusement park, we knew their bond was solid.
15. Fran: Do you plan to bring these characters back in a sequel? Is it your next project?
Absolutely, if for no reason other than to keep my friends and readers satisfied! Some have already coming up with story lines involving some of my characters. We really came to love our sheriff, and his daughter, for example, and we think they’ll play a large role in a sequel. Matt’s a dynamic character as well, and we think he’ll surface in some way. And, of course, Roberto. My female readers would be really ticked if I left him out!
So, a sequel, or perhaps more accurately, a ‘follow-on’ to Upcountry is being planned right now, and Shelley and I are brainstorming over plot, storylines, characterization, etc. I have to know the beginning, middle and end to anything I’m writing before I sit down at my laptop.
16. Fran: What advice would you give women like Joanne?
I’m hardly qualified to give advice to any woman in Joanne’s situation, but I suppose the one thing I would say is, ‘never say never’. It’s very difficult for abused women — or men for that matter — to find the necessary courage to make a change in their lives.
17. Fran: Why are carousels so special in this story?
The introduction of carousels in Upcountry is both incidental and central to the theme. Some of our sisters’ fondest memories as teenagers involved nights at the fair, and we wanted to use this memory as a metaphor for the state of their lives. When the ladies decide to “take in the fair”, they had reached a critical time in their relationship. It was an emotional moment for both, and eventually served as a reminder of their intense bond for each other.
18. Fran: How have you marketed and promoted your book?
It’s been a challenge, no doubt. Amazon currently has about 750,000 book titles for sale. Last year, there were three independent books published to every traditional book issued for sale. So, it’s hard to get noticed, especially as a debut author. I’ve attempted to make a splash for Upcountry in a couple of local markets, first in my home country, Canada, and in particular, my home town where I’ve had resounding success. Second, in upstate New York, where the story takes place, I have collaborated with the local NPR station to donate books for their membership drive, and hopefully that will result in a major, on-air review. I made outreach efforts to my two Canadian alma maters, the University of Western Ontario and Carleton University, where I hope I will get a book profile from each. I have asked my literary friends, with contacts in major newspapers, to petition the book editors to see if they’d agree to reviews. But, mostly, I am doing a lot of Internet-related work (with reviewers like you) to create some buzz for Upcountry, and hopefully drive sales. There are some fine bookselling sites, such as AuthorsDen, The Frugal e-Reader, AuthorsWorkShop, Goodreads, Reviewthebook.com, etc that have been kind to me. One well-known independent author, Joe Konrath, says distribution is no longer the enemy of writers….obscurity is, and he’s right. So, the battle continues and I’ll keep plugging along.
DAY FOUR (General Questions):
1. Fran: Why and how did you choose the subject and title of your book?
The premise for Upcountry began about nine years ago following a very disturbing conversation I’d had with a good friend. She had related to me a horrific story of her sister’s abuse at the hands of an evil husband. From there, I wondered aloud (mainly with my wife and collaborator, Shelley) what would happen if a sibling facing serious health issues decided to take justice into her own hands. From there, the story began, but as I noted earlier, we took that idea and expanded it dramatically — and the result was Upcountry. At first, we wrote the movie version of Upcountry, which was then entitled The Last Carousel. But I always felt this story would make an excellent novel, and that’s what I tried to do. Some people have noted that Upcountry is a combination of upstate New York and North Country, as the Adirondack region is often called. But as the editing for the novel came to a close, I noticed a billboard with the word ‘upcountry’ on it, and it seemed to click with me. It seemed both logical and enticing. Besides, I’ve always liked one word titles for novels (and movies). The new novel will have a one word title too, I think.
2. Fran: Where did you get the ideas and was this subject your first choice or did you ponder with others first?
The premise for Upcountry has been circulating through my creative brain for many years. We started writing The Last Carousel in the fall of 2008, and it evolved over the next year or so. One of the real pleasures in writing this story was that once we settled on a basic premise — in our case, trying to answer the ultimate ‘what if?’ question — the rest came naturally. That is not to say easy, since I often found myself asking, ‘where am I going with this?’ (and that’s where Shelley’s creative genius came to my rescue). But if you have the story in your head, you simply get down to hard work. Thus, we knew we’d have a couple of estranged, fraternal twin sisters as our lead characters, with their haunted pasts re-surfacing often. We knew we’d have an abusive husband, a widowed father (and a victim himself), a former love interest in the form of a police officer, a current love interest and piller of strength, and a series of other characters who make, and push, the story forward. Our goal was to create a fast-paced, riveting suspense drama, a page-turner that readers can enjoy. I don’t think I can ever aspire, or achieve, the status of a so-called ‘literary’ fiction writer; instead, I’d like to be known as a decent story-teller who readers can admire. Besides literary fiction writers, even the most famous of such authors, often have hit-and-miss careers, and to be honest, live off their laurels. With their talent, many will write a hit novel or two, and for that I applaud them. (Nothing succeeds like success). Some of my favorite authors are in this category. But all too often, their subsequent work is sub-standard, difficult or frustrating to read, even turgid. But because of their famous names, they attract a lot of attention and achieve considerable sales. The challenge, of course, is to write both a critical and financial success. Not easy.
3. Fran: What genre did you pick for your book or books and why?
I’ve always been a fan of fast-paced, suspense fiction, both in books and movies. Upcountry was first a movie script, under the title of The Last Carousel, and one that we think worked as a riveting, visual story. So, this is the genre in which I’m most comfortable. Whether my readers agree with me, I’m not sure. But most who have ventured an option have said Upcountry is one hell of a good ride. Those who have read it and have chosen to remain silent likely have another view of the book — and are too polite to tell me it wasn’t their cup of tea. That’s fine, since my book will not appeal to everybody. However, we are encouraged by the growing number of readers who have said they liked it, and why. Very gratifying, since the writers’ first responsibility to be read.
4. Fran: Who is your target audience?
That’s a difficult question because this book has appealed to a broad range of readers. I’ve had men who have said they cried when they read the book, and women who have acted indifferent, even disdainful, to the story. And vice versa, since many of my female readers have absolutely gushed over the story. In addition, I’ve had men say that it is unique for a male author to write about two women in crisis, but that I seemed to have found their voice. Once again, I credit my wife Shelley; she is my collaborator, plot developer and voice coach. Often, I’d ask her, ‘is this the way a woman would say this?’ or ‘would a woman think or act this way?’. But, jokingly, I’ve said in other interviews that if 100,000 women bought my book and only 12 men, I’d be ecstatic! I can only dream of such success.
5. Fran: What inspired you to write your first book?
The story behind Upcountry first evolved from a screenplay entitled The Last Carousel, co-authored by myself and my wife, Shelley. We started the story-boarding of The Last Carousel in the fall of 2008, and had a marketable script for sale by mid-winter of 2009. However, in conversation with our agent, Marsha Casper Cook in Chicago, we were told that few movies were being bought these days, even though there are many, many good scripts out there. I casually noted to Marsha that this script would make a good novel, and she simply said, “well, get busy…if you can write a good book, you might be able to sell it as a movie.” And that’s how it all began, and in the summer of 2009, using the 120-page outline from The Last Carousel, I began crafting what became Upcountry. It took 14 months from the time I started writing to the day it was published. A very satisfying yet difficult exercise.
6. Fran: Were you always an author? If not what was your first career and what made you decide to write? Tell everyone about your career in government.
At the risk of aging myself terribly, my career began over 30 years ago when I became a journalist in Canada, first for the Ottawa Citizen and eventually as bureau chief for United Press International. After my journalism career ended, I spent nine years in the Canadian government, first as speechwriter to senior officials, ministers and in some cases, prime ministers. Then I opted for the consulting world, and joined the large PR firm, Hill & Knowlton before venturing out with a partner and creating High Road Communications, one of Canada’s best-known and successful firms. But I had always considered myself a fiction writer, and have written teleplays, one stageplay, and two movie scripts with my wife, Shelley, before I wrote Upcountry, my debut novel.
7. Fran: How much of what you write is realistic?
My stage play, Pirouette, is a one-man story based on the life and times of Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau. Our first screenplay, a romantic comedy entitled ‘Shoulda, Coulda, Woulda’ was based on experiences that Shelley and I had in Los Angeles, and a fun-filled tour of movie stars’ homes in Hollywood. Our lead character, Marco, was real. He was our bus driver who toured tourists through Beverly Hills, showing us the homes of movie stars, and a very entertaining guy who could do many impressions of famous people, dead and alive. He also told us how one of his tourists, at nine months pregnant, was minutes away from having her baby, and so we made that scene the subject of plot point one in our movie. But from our experience that day, we thought a funny and amusing story could emerge where Marco, who we find out later spent a couple of years in medical school back east, is forced to deliver the baby on the lawn of a famous actress. And that’s the premise of Shoulda, Coulda, Woulda, and it was based on reality. The Last Carousel, the screenplay version and forerunner to the novel, Upcountry, is based on a true-life dilemma faced by friends of mine more than nine years ago.
8. Fran: What are your current projects?
Shelley and I currently mapping out the characters and plot of a follow-on novel to Upcountry. I had originally wanted to do a novel about another true-life murder, this time set in the early 1960s, but have postponed that project. As in the case of most writers, I got caught up in all of my characters in Upcountry, and–like many of my readers–wanted to know what becomes of them. So, we’re working on a follow-on novel to Upcountry, which will bring back a number of the characters in another crime situation.
9. Fran: How do you promote your books? What can you tell other authors about getting books published and promoted?
Well, I’ve been a PR and marketing guy for a long time, and have attempted to get some news for both myself in a few key areas and the premise of my book (spousal abuse). The strategy was to start with my hometown, since media in those towns are always interested in what their former residents are doing. So, I’ve done both radio and newspaper interviews there. Part two was to promote the book in the geographical region of the nation where Upcountry is located, and in this case, upstate New York. Part three involves a select number of national, mainstream media who might be interested in the issue, and my take on it. And finally, and perhaps most importantly, my strategy was to get Upcountry well-publicized across the Internet, among bookselling sites such as AuthorsDen, Shelfari, Goodreads, AuthorsBookShop, ReviewtheBook, IndieReader, Smashwords, etc. It is also very important to convince independent reviewers (like you, and many others) to sit down, read the book and provide a literate, interesting and hopefully supportive review. Despite the success that many independently published writers have had, it is very difficult to convince the mainstream media to look at their books. Right from the start, many declare, “we don’t review self-published books,” which is a myopic and narrow point of view, in my opinion. Granted, there are many lousy self-published books. But there are many gems as well, and book editors for newspapers and national radio networks should get over this bias. Besides, over the past couple of years, I have opened and shut many tradtionallly published books with big-name publishers behind them, simply because they were inferior works. If any writer fails to nail me by 100 pages or so, I’m gone. I’m just too impatient, and won’t give a writer the time to convince me by page 400. This year, however, there was one exception to that rule — and it was for the latest Oprah pick from Jonathan Franzen: Freedom. I slogged through that book simply because I didn’t want to be the first person to buy it and not finish it. But it was painful. Oprah is losing her touch, I think. Freedom’s full of insipid, unlikeable characters. His story is weak and the dialogue is dreadful in many places–you name it! Just for curiosity’s sake, I went on Amazon and checked out Freedom’s reviewers, and found that Franzen had more one-star reviews than he had five stars. That says a lot about a book. Amazon’s readers are the real critics out there. And they were accurate in this case. So, not all traditional books are masterpieces, and not all independent books are inferior.
10. Fran: How did you or will you try to get a traditional publisher?
I have mixed thoughts about that. If you listen to Joe Konrath, who has sold gazillions of e-books, you’d say no. Traditional book royalties have been, and remain, terrible for writers. But it’s not just the royalites, which are nice to receive. But the book industry is a slow-moving (yet shrinking) entity; it still controls the book review editors. The book publishers, by virtue of their bank accounts, can print thousands of hard-cover books and send them out to Borders and Barnes & Noble on consignment. If they don’t sell, the chains ship them back. But there is also a lot of bribery going on in this industry. Big publishers will pay mightily for that floor space in Barnes & Noble, so the unsuspecting buyer will gravitate to their books immediately upon entering the store.
Now, distribution is really no longer the problem for writers, since they can get their books up on ebook sites quickly and start selling right away. As Konrath says, the true enemy for most self-published writers is obscurity. It’s very difficult for a new writer to gain traction with his or her book. There are too many celebrities getting book contracts and taking up space. I just heard that Florence Henderson, of the Brady Bunch TV show of the ’60s, just landed a contract for her autobiography! Florence Henderson??
11. Fran: What was your biggest obstacle in writing your books and getting them published?
Getting published with an independent company, like CreateSpace, is easy, provided you have a few dollars to spend. The risk, in other words, was all mine. The biggest challenge facing all writers, independently or traditionally published, is to write a good book, and one that people want to read.
12. Fran: What message do you want to convey to your readers in your writing?
My message is simple: read Upcountry if you want to read a good story about two sisters on a very emotional journey. Of course, the premise of the book is abuse, and how they overcome that scourge, but it really is about their journey together.
13. Fran: What advice would you give to children who aspire to become authors?
My advice is always the same: READ! The only way a young person can become an author, and a successful one, is to read as much as they can. I have learned my craft by being a voracious reader, and so can they.
14. Fran: How did you get your book signings and where?
Book store signings, at least with chains such as Borders, are very difficult to land. They want to know how many people YOU can bring in. They want you to do as much advertising and publicity as possible and take most of the risk. Of course, they want to sell books and if you can prove to them that you’ll sell 100 books in a three-hour signing, that’s great. But if you’re a first-time novelist like me (and my name is not Grisham), convincing the chains to hold a signing is hard. Smaller bookstores are more receptive, however. But then you run the risk of nobody showing up, or worse, not caring if you’re there at all. Bookstores everywhere are having a hard time. They are losing to Amazon and the e-tailers in a big way. That’s why their stores are about half filled with books and the other half with gifts and other bargain goods. Why do you think they’ve partnered with Starbucks? To bring the latte consumers into their stores. Trouble is, there are too many tire-kickers in bookstores today; those who browse around, often reading a book a day, and not buying.
So, for independent writers, a good strategy is to go where there is little or no competition, and a good place to start is your local grocery store. They have tons of traffic, particularly on Fridays and Saturdays. Talk to the manager, give he or she a percentage of sales, set up a poster of your book, offer a discount from the sales price of your book, and see where it goes.
15. Fran: Did the press ever interview you? Which one and how did you get the interview?
Yes, a number of times. Not the New York Times, mind you, but a couple of local media outlets in my hometown. With every media outlet, you need a hook. You need to convince them that you’re a good story before they’ll agree to do an interview. And then you have to make sure you give them the goods; good quotes, advice for authors, etc. All the better if your book is controversial. In my case, Upcountry is based on a true story, and involves a serious issue, spousal abuse. Now spousal abuse is, unfortunately, very common. But if I can inform and educate my readership to its horrors, if I can convince ONE woman that she is not alone in her struggle, and that there is light at the end of the tunnel, then maybe I’ve done some good. But my real job is to write a good, entertaining story. All good novels involve good stories. If you don’t have a riveting, page-turning story, then you won’t attract readers.
16. Fran: What is your favorite genre to read?
I’m all over the map when it comes to genres, since I will bounce from historical fiction to suspense thrillers to family dramas, depending on the quality of the writing. I will also attack a good non-fiction book as well; right now, I’m reading ‘Colonel Roosevelt’, the third and final chapter on the life, post-presidency, of Theodore Roosevelt.
17. Fran: Do you have a favorite author?
I suppose my favorite authors are a pair of ‘Johns’, notably John Irving and the late John Updike. Irving is a creative and masterful writer. He has penned 12 novels now, and my favorites have been The World According to Garp, The Cider House Rules, The Hotel New Hampshire, A Widow for One Year, and last year, a very good one, Last Night in Twisted River. He’s very quirky, and a bit odd in his stories and characterizations, but a very good writer.
Updike was a writer who should have won the Nobel Prize during his lifetime, but did not, probably because of the Nobel Committee’s unwritten bias against American authors over the past couple of decades. His works were magnificent. He had no peer, in my view, especially as he explored the human condition found among many ordinary people, and their often-mundane lives. Wonderfully funny yet poignant stuff, particularly his Rabbit Angstrom series (Rabbit, Run to his last novella, Rabbit Remembered, and all in between).
18. Fran: What do you think it is about your book or books that keeps the reader turning those pages until they get to the end?
If I heard it once, I heard it fifty times — “I just had to get to the end and find out what happens!” Or, “I was ready to put it down for the night, and just HAD to read another chapter!” This is very gratifying for a writer to hear anecdotes like that from readers. The secret to Upcountry, if you will, is based on its quick back-and-forth style, with short chapters (under 1,800 words mostly), and engaging characters in pursuit of a goal. I have also heard that our characters are well-developed. Readers can identify with these people, since they are imperfect and very real. They have their strengths and flaws. But overall, I think readers identify with Upcountry because it’s a good story.
19. Fran: What is your website? Who has reviewed your books?
My website is www.upcountry-the-novel.com where prospective readers can review the content for themselves. There’s my bio, a Q&A, and most importantly, a section containing what I call “Rave Reviews from Readers Like You.” (Readers, if they wish, can go on Smashwords and read the first 25 percent of the book for free, and then make a decision whether or not to buy the rest).
I have received four independent reviews to date. One, from an important, UK-based book blog called “Mostly Reading YA”, was very good. Four stars. Through a web contest on a site called “GuysCanRead” based in Dallas, I received a very positive review. A couple of weeks ago, I got a wonderful review from Glenda Bixler, a retired book reviewer in Pennsylvania, and a prominent booklover with many Facebook friends.
But your review, last October, giving my book “Five Wonderful Carousels” was my first. It was much appreciated. You also named Upcountry as one of your Top 25 Novels for 2010, a wonderful accolade. I am expecting at least two, and perhaps five, additional reviews over the next two months.
20. Fran: Where can we buy your books and when is your next one coming out?
Readers can buy directly from my website (www.upcountry-the-novel.com), Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble.com, and Smashwords for e-readers. It is also available on Kindle.
21.Fran: What advice would you give a new author that is just starting out in this field?
Stick with it. Hone your craft. Strive to get better. But as I said earlier, read as much as you can, and let your imagination run wild. But don’t try to overwrite either. As Elmore Leonard once said, and he’s published more than 80 novels, “if it looks like writing, re-write it!”
22.Fran: Do you have a mentor or mentoring group or community of writers to support your writing?
As a former journalist, I do have many friends who are great writers. One, Les Whittington of The Toronto Star, and a guy who has been a reporter and editor for more than 40 years, helped me immensely in the content and structure of Upcountry. His advice near the end was invaluable. Another close friend, Andrew Cohen, who has published five non-fiction books, was very supportive as well. And my editor, Corien Kershey, taught me a lot about the English language that I thought I already knew — but didn’t. But my greatest supporter and fiercest critic is Shelley, my wife. She is a great story editor, voice coach, plot developer and dialogue creator. I couldn’t have written a word without her!
23. Fran: Do you feel that writers in any genre owe something to their readers? Why or why not?
I think every writer owes it to him or herself to put out a product of which they can be proud. As I’ve said, it’s the writer’s duty to be read. If he or she cannot sustain a reader with good work, then they should do something else. But if you’ve written a decent book, and you’re now attracting readers from around the globe, you should strive to write an even better book next time. This happens with many of today’s successful writers, including many big names in the business today. Writers like John Irving are loyal to their readers. His books are consistently good. But others, and there are many in this category, rest on their laurels. Their subsequent works are often inferior, and it is their readers who pay for it. Their big name will ensure sales, but it won’t ensure a reputation.
24: Fran: Do you hear from your readers and what do they say? What type of feedback do you get?
I hear feedback every day from my readers, some of whom I know, or met at one time, and others who are total strangers. The feedback, in over 90 percent of the cases, has been very positive. There are others, including friends of mine who have the courage to speak up, have told me that my book is not for them. Some have even gone further; they nitpicked the book in many places to find faults in the writing or story, which I found very amusing and informative. If someone I know has read the book and reserves comment, it usually means they didn’t like it, and don’t want to hurt my feelings. Well, I’ve always had broad shoulders. I can take criticism if it’s constructive. Writers can learn a lot more from their failures than their successes.
25: Fran: Has the Internet boosted your career in writing? How?
For writers, their present and future IS the Internet. It has the ability to create legions of readers around the world. For example, I just learned that my book is available in India! www.uread.com. If you can write a book that appeals to readers everywhere, then your world is an oyster. That’s why the book industry is in full revolution. The traditional book business just doesn’t know how to deal the new world. They are losing the cosy hold they’ve had for generations and they don’t like it. But who appointed them arbiters of good writing? Is an agent the only person who can judge a good book? Are the decision-makers in the Big Six publishing houses in New York the only people who have the power to publish a fine story? No, I would argue. The publishing industry is moving in the direction that independent movies and music have already moved, but at a much slower pace. For now, the hard cover book is surviving, but it won’t be long before it’s obsolete. I think there will always be trade and mass paperbacks, but Kindle, Nook, Kobo, and Sony readers are rapidly gaining traction.
26: Fran: Why are reviews important and where do you post them?
Reviews, if they are positive, of course, are important since they validate your work. An independent reviewer who has read and commented on your novel tells other readers that it’s worthwhile. Mostly, I post them on my website (www.upcountry-the-novel.com) but I like to see them posted on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc. Amazon will ‘push’ your book to readers in the same genre, and that’s based on good reviews that book has received. Thus, it’s important to create a viral movement for a good novel, since most people buy books on the recommendations from their friends or family. If I can receive favorable reviews from reviewers like yourself, and from readers, then the book has some hope in selling.
27: Fran: Did you create a chapter outline or plot outline before writing Upcountry?
Yes. As I’ve noted, Upcountry came about as a result of our screenplay on the same topic. It was called The Last Carousel, and it served as a 120-page outline for the book. But as I began adapting the script to a full novel, the story and its characters became much fuller and fleshed out, and I was able to take literary license with the plot. A first draft came easy — only four months from start to finish — but it was the next 50-60 drafts of Upcountry that was the difficult part.
28. Fran: How did you feel when you received your first five star reviews?
Wonderful! When I received your review in October, I was just getting off a plane in western Canada and had turned on my Blackberry. I think I stopped in the middle of the hallway to read it, annoying other passengers! It was very gratifying and a validation of my work. It’s one thing for friends to comment on your book; it’s another to have an independent voice.
29: Fran: What stumbling blocks, if any did you face when publishing this book?
It’s a very slow and methodical process, from the choice of cover to the choice of font. But the biggest hurdle is to create a well-edited manuscript before it goes to the presses. Since publishing Upcountry, I have told people that I’d make a few changes here and there, perhaps reduce the number of words as well (from 102,000 to about 95,000). But, live and learn. It is a debut novel, after all, and one that has been well-received by a vast majority of readers. I think the goal of any writer should be to be patient with his or her work. Make sure it’s the best possible product before you leap into the independent publishing world.
30: Fran: What is your next project and when can we expect a second novel?
Our next project will be a follow-on to Upcountry. Not necessarily a sequel, but readers will recognize many of the characters in Upcountry. I’m hoping that I can have a readable draft by the end of 2011, but more likely the spring of 2012.
31: Fran: What are some websites to help women who are victims of spousal abuse?
My material came from many sources, and no one site in particular. My greatest resource was my wife Shelley, who was a marriage and family therapist for 15 years in California. She dealt with all these issues many times over, and helped me immensely on how to deal with them. Not all professional therapists would agree with my solution to the problems posed in the novel, but then again, this story was based on a true situation faced by a couple of sisters I know. This story nearly happened for them; we just took the premise much farther.
32: Fran: Would you consider writing Joanne’s story from the beginning or a sequel to include her and Matthew?
I’m not sure at this point, and that’s why I characterize my next project as a ‘follow-on’ to Upcountry, rather than a sequel. A sequel is where you pick up the story where it was left off, and I don’t want to do that. While I have decided to bring back my sheriff (Brian Boychuk) and his daughter (Makenna), and other supporting characters, I’m not sure what is in store for Joanne. She will be there, but in what capacity, I’m not sure yet.
33 Fran: As an avid reviewer of many books Upcountry was a definite page turner. What about your book do you think keeps a reader and reviewer’s interest from waning?
Our story, or at least 80 percent of it, takes place in about five days, surrounding Thanksgiving. It is not only a geographical journey, but an emotional one as well. Relatively short chapters (less than 1,800 words, generally), and switching back and forth between major characters and what they’re doing, creates fine suspense (in my view). I think readers and reviewers alike have enjoyed Upcountry because the action is always present, with new details (and secrets) emerging with each chapter. If readers tell me they couldn’t put the book down, well, I’ve done my job.
Fran: What message do you want to convey to your readers? What do you want them to come away with after reading your novel?
There are many messages contained in Upcountry, but the primary message has to be that life is short, and family relationships matter. And that life can indeed begin at forty!
34: Fran: Spousal abuse is serious and the way you presented it was really quite outstanding. Do you see yourself writing other novels about this issue? What other issues are you passionate about and might include in future novel?
Spousal abuse is a horrifically serious issue. As the FBI says, a woman is beaten by her husband or partner every nine seconds in the United States! But I’m not sure I’ll tackle that issue, at least in the follow-on to Upcountry. Now, there is a story I’ve begun researching–a true murder case that occurred in the early 1960s–that involves abuse on many levels, and it is intriguing. It might be the subject of a third novel.
Thank you so much for agreeing to do this online interview with me. Fran Lewis
It has been my pleasure, Fran. Thank you for everything you’ve done for me!
It is my pleasure to work with such an outstanding author and professional.