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Archive for February, 2010

Author Interview with Jessica Conant-Park

Monday, February 1st, 2010

Special thanks to PBS member Lori Gondelman (thebookpimp) for obtaining this author interview for us.   Tune back in within the next couple of weeks as Lori interviews Jessica over the phone as well.

Jessica Conant-Park

Jessica Conant-Park

We would also like to thank author Jessica Conant-Park for the interview.  Please visit Jessica Conant-Park’s website to read her full bio, find a full list of books by her & her mom (Susan Conant), join her newsletter,  enter contests and much more!

Now on to the interview!

What’s your writing day like? Where do like to write (office, in front of the TV, in bed)? How long does it take you get finish a book?
It’s very glamorous. I begin the morning by donning my handmade silk robe, flowing through the house towards the lavish office, and seating myself at the mahogany desk. The maid serves me fresh coffee and eggs Benedict. Once fueled, I begin. I draw my quill from the ink well and instantly pen page after page of witty and moving prose, usually completing the manuscript within a week.

Cook the Books

Oh, you mean how do I really write? I stumble around the house in the morning, slugging coffee and getting the kid off to school. I do very important research (also known as wasting time of Facebook) and occasionally peek at the document I have open. Then I bang my head a few times and get going. Generally I write in bed. (No this part is true. Stop laughing.) Not like under-the-covers in bed. Actually sitting up. Part of the reason I work in the bedroom is that it’s in the basement of the house where it’s warmer in winter and cooler in summer. I have very particular temperature needs. Some days I write better in the first part of day and I’ll work until two or so, and other days I really get my flow around noon and will work until six or seven, depending on what’s going on with the kid after school. Sometimes he needs eighty-seven snacks and sometimes he’s pretty self-sufficient.

I go through phases where trying to write is a total nightmare… I’ll get one page done in four hours. (Speedy, huh?) My biggest challenge is starting a new book. I hate writing the first forty pages. Laying the groundwork, giving back story, setting up characters and settings. I want to jump right in. I want the fun dialogue, the silly scenes, I want all the action! The romance! The lust! The tearing off of clothes and heaving bosoms! (Oh, wait. I don’t really write those kind of books…) But with the Gourmet Girl books, this process actually got faster with each book and I wrote Cook the Books in about seven weeks.

The non-mystery book I’m working on now, though, is a whole new battle. I really froze up for a while with this one. I have a great outline and know exactly what I want to do, but the hitch has been all the pressure I’ve been putting on myself. I’m worried that the actual book won’t match up with the one that’s in my head. The initial pages are extremely important and there is a lot of information that needs to be delivered to the reader in an interesting, natural way. I remind myself repeatedly that nothing is set in stone: I have a malleable, open, working document and after I finish the rest of the story and really, really know my characters, I can go back to early pages and make whatever changes I want. And yet I hate writing thinking that I’m just inserting placeholder after placeholder. But I’m plowing through.

Once the groundwork is set, there are days that I don’t want to do anything but write. My agent is shopping a YA novel I wrote last year, and that one took me about three months to write. I had many ten or twelve-hour days on that book and will admit that the state of our house was none too impressive over that time period.

Did you always want to be a writer? If not, what else did you want to be “when you grow up?”
My original goal was to be Wonder Woman but that horrid, selfish Lynda Carter just wouldn’t give it up. Actually, it had never occurred to me to be a writer. I wasn’t the high school student that wrote for the paper, I didn’t major in creative writing in college. I didn’t have notebooks filled with poems or short stories. I was a good writer when it came to academic papers, etc. but was never the person whose head was exploding with wild stories that had to be told.

I thought there was a good chance that I’d go into psychology, like my father, but once I suffered through social work school (see hatred for sw school in Gourmet Girl books 1-5) I gave up the ridiculous notion that being a therapist was my field. While I think I actually could have been a very good therapist, I found that my interest was much more academic that practical. I was crazy (pardon the pun) about learning about all sorts of interesting disorders and psychopathology, but I just didn’t care to do much with it. An expensive error. Ahem… moving on.

How did you and your mom start writing together? How does that work?
We started writing together because I was a nutcase after my son was born. He was an awful baby. No, he was. Fussy, cried all the time, exhausting, draining, difficult. (Don’t call social services.) I love that kid to pieces, but my God, he was demanding. Very interesting baby and toddler, though. So my profound fatigue coupled with a lot of time alone with a baby led me talk to myself. (Again, no social services, please. It gets better.) I talked to myself and baby Nick all the time, narrating baby events and funny episodes, writing my mother long funny e-mails, humorous mostly because sleep deprivation can make anyone punchy and silly. My chef husband was full of tales of the outrageous things that go on at restaurants and, after the millionth e-mail, my mother (already a prolific author herself) insisted that we write together.

I was too tired to say no, thus the birth of the Gourmet Girl mysteries.

After collaborating general ideas, she writes the outline for us, usually a detailed twenty-five pages with major events and necessary plot points. I write the bulk of the manuscript off of that, but she leaves lots of room for side stories and romantic entanglements. Then she does a lot of the editing (blech) and tries to sneak in words I don’t know. (This is unfortunately true. I was flipping through an early copy of Cook the Books and caught sight of some word I had never heard of. I can’t remember what it was, but if you see a word you don’t understand, that’s it!)

What do you love the most about being a writer? Hate?
I love creating characters and imaginary settings and when I’m on a writing roll, I can get totally lost in another world. I remember feeling almost heartbroken when I finished writing my YA. I missed the father in that story and finishing the book actually left me depressed. I didn’t want to leave him and my other characters, but that’s the kind of attachment that really drives me to write.

The community of writers and readers is almost unbelievably wonderful. I had no idea that other authors would be so generous and supportive… despite tough markets these days, I have yet to meet an author that has demonstrated any sort of selfish or competitive spirit. I’ve made great friends, many of whom I’ve never actually met, and authors have been so willing to give me blurbs, help me with plots, get me through writer’s block, etc. I knew something was missing with my most recent outline, and author Heather Webber read through it and immediately picked up on what needed to be done. She was amazingly helpful! Karen MacInerney is now my writing buddy and we check in with each other via e-mail and phone calls to report on our progress and help keep each other get motivated. Michele Scott is an unfailing source of encouragement and an overall energizing spirit. And the readers? I love my readers. Love, love, love my readers. Getting positive (and unsolicited!) feedback from fans is just… well, there’s nothing like it. I had one woman who wrote me to say that one of my Gourmet Girl books got her through a terrible day at the hospital while her husband was there having a litany of tests. She said that if it weren’t for the laughs she’d had, she wouldn’t have made it through the day without coming unglued. I love that.

What are your thoughts on the state of the book industry today. How is the kindle/e-reader affecting you as a writer (sales/being published at all, etc.)
Oh, God. Am I allowed to swear here? No? Hm… Okay, I’ll try not to. The entire publishing industry is a mess. More and more series are getting dropped and publishers are giving out new three-book contracts to new authors at near miniscule rates. The ones that really take off will be renewed, and others will be dropped faster than you can say filing for bankruptcy. Everyone is sick of hearing about the economic crisis in this country (yeah, I’m waving my hand too!) but it’s just a fact that people are buying fewer books, or at least are less likely to buy authors they haven’t read before. I doubt the James Pattersons of the world are hurting right now, but the rest of us (demeaningly known as “mid-list” authors) are being hit hard.

It’s a very interesting time in the writing world and I think we’ll see some incredible changes over the next five years. The self-publishing craze has taken off and while there are downsides to this (any yahoo can now publish whatever unedited junk he or she wants), authors who have solid readerships have potential to make some decent money. It’ll be fascinating to see what happens in terms of opportunities for distribution with self-pubs. And the e-book market is exploding. Absolutely exploding. I should check my contract (!) but I believe that e-book sales dole out roughly the same royalty rate as paperbacks, so buy up, people! I think sites like PBS are great because they keep people reading, which is what we all really want, but as an author who’s career depends solely on sales numbers, I’m required to tell you to keep buying books by authors you love or you’re likely to find their careers flailing.

Who has mostly influenced you as a writer?
Huh. I don’t know that I’m terribly influenced by other authors… As much as I love reading, I keep my own writing very separate from what I take in with other stories and styles. There are plenty of cozy authors that I adore, but when I’m writing a cozy I actually read much less than usual because I don’t want to be influenced. I want my books to sound very me. From the non-cozy world, I am absolutely crazy for Elinor Lipman, Brendan DuBois, Mameve Medwed, David Sedaris, and Stephen McCauley, and in my dreams I can write as well as they can!

Do you draw on your “real life” for your book ideas?
Oh, yeah. Although less now than in the earlier Gourmet Girl books. But while comparisons can be made between me and Chloe, she is really her own character. I am more likely to use real life events rather than people. So many of the kitchen stories (nightmares) came from chefs and other hospitality workers and I used to have piles of notes floating around the house with funny restaurant anecdotes.

I did have an old college friend call me up once to complain that she didn’t like how she was represented in the book. She thought Naomi was annoying and went on to pitch a total fit about how vegans are not annoying. I repeatedly tried to explain that she was not the model for Naomi, nor did Naomi represent all vegans… This dreadful conversation went on for way too long until I finally hung up on her. So there are moments when nobody will believe that an author actually just came up with an idea on her own…

How hard was it to “retire” Chloe? Did you feel like you were leaving a part of yourself behind?
I miss her. But it was time. I had five Chloe books in me, and I think more would have been pushing it. I hate when a series goes on and on and the characters become caricatures of themselves by book ten. Some authors can keep a series going without losing any steam, but I just knew I was ready to stop. I’d done what I wanted to with Chloe and was really ready to move on.

Any tips for new writers?
This is going to sound rather obvious, but: Write. Sitting around thinking about what you’re going to do is not going to work out well. Don’t be afraid to write and hate what you’ve done. It’s okay. That’s what the delete button is for. I like an outline because it gives me a clear understanding of where I’m going. Other authors never write from an outline, so you’ll need to decide what you style is. But be careful that you don’t write yourself into a corner you can’t get out of. Even experienced authors do this, so be warned!

Show your work to people. You have got to be willing to have people read what you write. Holing up in isolation and keeping your book a secret with the thought that only your agent and editor will look at until it’s published is a bad idea. You’ve got to be willing to take criticism along with praise, and the help you get from others is truly invaluable.

Which book in the series is your favorite?
I’m not just saying this because it’s coming out in a matter of weeks, but Cook the Books really is my favorite. It’s clean and focused, funny, and full of the Josh/Chloe romance that I’ve had such fun with.

What is your biggest writing joy? Disappointment?

My biggest joy is when people send me things. I like free stuff. A lot. Lori sent me a Dunkin’ Donuts gift card last summer and that is the main reason we became friends. Also received a lovely Glee chain in the mail from a FB fan. It’s all about the swag, kids, so bring it on.

Okay, I’ll be serious (ish). The people I’ve met and the friends I’ve come to love. Really. And then it’s those “firsts.” The first time I saw my book in a bookstore was just amazing. Getting my first review from Publishers Weekly, getting nominated by RT for “Best Amateur Sleuth.” Oh, and most importantly, the first time Harriet Klausner reviewed my book and misspelled all the characters’ names and gave away the ending and made bad puns and… Oh, you all know the drill.

The biggest disappointment? Finding out how rude and nasty a few people are. It’s the negative side of the Internet. Any idiot can write whatever they want about you. I don’t expect everyone to like my books. I don’t. But I cannot understand what possess someone to go to Amazon or a blog and behave like a damn monster. I’ve had my share of crummy reviews, but the ones that sting are the ones that hit below the belt. I had someone on Amazon question my relationship with mother; she wondered what kind of mother would write such smut with her daughter! Although I was amused that she was so offended by the idea of a twenty-something woman ever having sex that she only read five pages before she was so horrified that she had to run to the computer and type of something obnoxious. And it’s not just my reviews. I’ve seen so many cases where a “reviewer” clearly has no compassion, or maybe no understanding, that authors read their reviews. Authors actually have feelings and are not here just for you to insult. I know, shocking, right?

What’s up next for you?
I have my fingers crossed that my YA will get picked up because I totally drowned myself in writing that and am dying to get it out to readers. I’m also working on another stand-alone novel now. I’m nuts about this story and if I can get it on paper the way I see it in my head, I think it will be really good. We’ll see… you never know what’s going to sell these days!

Now for some fun things that readers should know about you J

Coke or pepsi? Diet Coke. Or preferably a Coolatta. No whipped cream.

Skittles or sprees? Blech. Reeses. Or Bugles, which are the most underrated snack ever.

Hardcover or paperback? Both. Unless it’s a big fat book, like one of the Harry Potters. Wish I had a Kindle for those monsters.

Early bird or night owl? Both. More of a night owl at this stage, but when the kid was younger I was always up and functional by six in the morning. I can still do it if I have to.

Football or baseball? I’M READY FOR SOME FOOTBAAAAAALLLLLL! (The Patriots’ Wes Welker is my secret hottie boyfriend. He’s mine! Everyone back off!)

Chocolate or vanilla? Chocolate. All the way.

Rick Springfield or anyone else? (Hee hee) I don’t think this is a funny question at all, Lori. Making fun of my Rick Springfield obsession is just rude. I think you’re jealous that he and I have a soul mate type connection that you don’t have with him.

Pen or pencil? What the hell is a pencil?