Eileen Joyce Donovan on Writing: “I Can't Imagine Doing Anything Else”

Eileen Joyce Donovan: “I Can't Imagine Doing Anything Else”

I’ve recently had the great pleasure to work and interact with Eileen Joyce Donovan, an accomplished author who came to writing late—at her late husband’s urging—and is clearly making up for lost time. That Donovan and her husband were bar owners in both New York City and upstate New York, that she had a whole life, career and series of adventure before she became a published author, and that she writes historical fiction, a genre that I feel I could not even begin to endeavor in myself—the research alone—has only made it more of a delight to support her efforts to promote her new novel, A Lady Newspaperman’s Dilemma, and conduct the following conversation.


Please tell us about yourself and what you want us to know about your book. 

I've had many different careers that range from publishing, advertising, owning pubs, to teaching college writing. I lived in six different states in both cities and extremely rural communities, including a few years on the Navajo reservation in Arizona. I didn't start writing fiction until I retired, and only then at the urging of my late husband. But I'm glad he pushed me to do it, because now I feel like it's become such an important part of my life that I can't imagine doing anything else. I guess what I'd like people to know about A Lady Newspaperman's Dilemma is that it's about a young woman's struggle to make her mark in a man's world in the 1920s and how little that differs from how women still struggle today. 

I want to circle back to your comments on the act of writing itself, but first I'm struck with your comment about how little things differ for women today, and I wonder if you would talk about the relationship between writing historical fiction and its ability to illuminate contemporary themes?

What I was referring to is the fact that as I delve into women in history and their struggles, whether based on one real person or a fictionalized version of a few, it's easy to see how similar those struggles are to the ones women face today. In A Lady Newspaperman's Dilemma, Alex writes a front page story about a shooting at the County Courthouse and does all the follow-up research needed to cover all aspects of the incident. She accomplishes this even though another reporter has tried to home in on her story and put her in grave danger. Alex feels she has a job to do and persists until she has completed the task. Yet, when a real blockbuster story occurs, her editor feels she isn't capable enough to handle it and tries to give it to a male reporter who has worked at the paper longer, even though that reporter hasn't gone into the field and reported on an event in years. In fact, the editor even thinks about doing the story himself, showing little, if any, respect to Alex and her ability to competently do her job.

'A Lady Newspaperman's Dilemma' is...about a young woman's struggle to make her mark in a man's world in the 1920s and how little that differs from how women still struggle today.

When I worked for an advertising agency, not all that many years ago, I was handed account after account to manage. Some landed in my lap because my supervisor left the agency, others because no one wanted them. One, which became the largest account in the agency, happened as a result of them buying a company I represented. Time and again, I took over the marketing plans and advertising campaigns for these clients. I traveled all over the country meeting with heads of companies, engineers responsible for developing the products being featured in our campaigns, and the clients' marketing executives. (My agency handled business-to-business accounts only.)

All this time, other Assistant Account Executives ran around the office acting as "go-fers" for their bosses. I usually spent Saturdays in the office catching up on paperwork that had accumulated while I was on the road. However, when the time came for promotions, these male "go-fers," who had never left the office, were all promoted to full Account Executives and I was not. Not being a shy, retiring type of woman, I demanded to be promoted the same way my male associates, who were doing one-tenth the work I was, were rewarded. I got the promotion, but I should not have had to fight for it. Management's excuse for not automatically giving me the title was that the agency had never had a woman Account Executive before. Not an acceptable reason, in my mind. As a result, other women soon joined the agency and became Account Executives. A fight we never should have had to fight, but we did.

Recently, a friend of mine (much younger than I) decided to search for another position since she was being asked to do so much more than her male colleagues and not receiving the recognition or respect she deserved. As a Vice-President of the company, she knew she needed assistants to work on some of the nitty-gritty of accounts so she could devote herself to the big picture. However, years of her asking for the necessary help got her nowhere. It wasn't until she handed in her resignation that the head of the company promised her everything she had been seeking for years. Needless to say, she declined his too late offer and left to start fresh with a company that values her expertise and has a whole team in place to work with her. 

In The Manhattan Girls by Gill Paul, she relates the story of Jane Grant, a reporter for The New York Times in the 1920s. Although Jane started out reporting the society news, she worked her way up to investigative reporting and other "hard" news of the day. However, her colleagues never stopped calling her "Fluff," a nickname they gave her during her early days at the paper.

When women have a chance to read about figures from the past who have been abused and abashed by male bosses and colleagues, but rose up from that toxic environment to achieve great heights, it gives them the impetus and, sometimes, the confidence to continue their own fight for equality in the workplace. Not all that much has changed since the 1920s. On the surface, it may seem very different, but women still struggle to achieve recognition and respect in the workplace. I hope by reading about strong characters from the past, they can find some solace knowing they are helping to make the road smoother for the next generation. 

I'm so moved by that answer, especially because I had a conversation this past week with an old friend who just left her job of 22 years, in advertising no less, for the reasons cited in your response. Which is not a question, I know. Nor will I ask you to solve the problems of gender equity here today. Though I would welcome that. What I will ask you in reference to this answer, and your comment on "solace" is, do you believe literature, and art for that matter, can have a positive, and even political, impact on the world when so little else can seem like it does? 

I don't know if literature can have a positive or political impact on the world, or even if it should. In fact, right now, I don't know what could impact world politics today. It seems no matter what happens, nothing really changes. But, I do think that literature can expand people's minds to think about topics they have not considered before. Or at least think about a topic from a different perspective. Maybe even do a little research to find out more about a subject they've never considered before.

On the other hand, I think that reading about an incident, subject matter, conflict, problem the reader has experienced can either confirm their belief in their actions, or make them pause and look at it differently. Guess I'm saying the same thing as I stated previously, but on a more personal level. When I wrote A Lady Newspaperman's Dilemma, I hoped to encourage women of all ages to pursue their dreams against all odds and show them that, even 100 years ago, a woman could succeed if she was determined enough in her goal. If my book strengthens one woman's resolve, I'd be very happy. 

When I read the phrase "Maybe even do a little research to find out more about a subject they've never considered before," I started thinking about all the research you must have to do to write a book such as this, and then I thought, what do I know? So, did you have to do a lot of research to write this book, and the others you've written, and if so, what did, and does, that process look like for you?

Research! The bane and godsend of all historical fiction writers. I know some historical fiction writers focus on one time period and set all their books there. After a while, they become an expert in that era, and, I imagine, writing becomes somewhat easier for them. Unfortunately, I haven't found one historical period that interests me that much. I focus on an event, usually, and build my story around that. As a result, every novel means new research. And since twice now, I've changed the era of a story, it's double research. But that's my problem.

Anyway, for me, the first thing I do is find books, internet articles, library documents, anything at all that's somewhat related to my subject matter and read them. Sometimes, the book will only have a paragraph about the topic, but that can be a crucial paragraph and fill in one little hole that was empty. Like finding the one piece of the jigsaw puzzle that's missing and driving you crazy. Then, I read books that were written during that period. Books that would have been contemporary at that time. They give me a flavor of the language, slang, sometimes even customs or the period. So, I basically read and read and read some more. With each book, it seems I go further down the rabbit hole and, since we all know rabbit holes have many nooks and crannies, one venture leads to another and another and so on. In fact, sometimes, I get so far removed from where I started that I become completely lost. (As other historical fiction writers have told me, they do too.)

Only after I've exhausted all possible sources do I start to write. And even then, as I write, I find holes and need to research some more to find answers to questions I didn't think of when doing my original research. In all, I'd guess my research takes as much, if not more, time than writing my book. And since I don't outline, my writing process is pretty long. Then there's editing, and double checking some research because there are always certain phrases or words that seem out of place. "Did they really say that in the 1800s?" And there's a whole new rabbit hole to explore. It's a long and extensive process, but hopefully it pays off in the end by producing a book with no errors, or maybe only a few minor ones.

Guess that's why I have about two bookcases filled with "research" books. And, believe me, history was not one of my favorite subjects to study.

"Only after I've exhausted all possible sources do I start to write..." Heard. Now please talk about your writing process. What does it look like?

My writing process, if I may be so bold as to call it a process, is pretty simple. Once I've thought about where I want my next chapter to go, and I usually write one chapter at a time, I write it in longhand. Usually in the morning, but that seems to be changing. Then I type it, print it out, and let it sit for a day. The next morning, I read it, revise and edit whatever I think it needs and start the process all over again. Of course, that doesn't happen every day. Life has a cruel way of interrupting by way of emails, chores, appointments, and random thoughts that won't let me focus on my writing. Eventually, when I finish my first draft, I print the entire manuscript, let that sit for a week or more, then read it again, hopefully in one sitting, depending on the length. But however long it takes, I don't let anything else interfere with reading that manuscript. The really hard part of revising and editing starts before I submit it to beta readers. My critique group has already been through it bit by bit in our meetings. After beta comments, I live with them for anywhere from a week to a month before tackling the manuscript again. Then it goes to a professional editor for one last round before submitting or querying. 

Moving from process to motivation, I want to circle back to your first response and your comment about the start of your fiction writing career, " I didn't start writing fiction until I retired and only then at the urging of my late husband. But I'm glad he pushed me to do it, because now I feel like it's become such an important part of my life that I can't imagine doing anything else," and ask what prompted your husband to urge you to start writing fiction then, and had you thought about writing fiction before that?

At the time, I was reading some Victorian fairy tales. I've always loved fairy tales and this was a book I picked up years before, but had never read. These stories were much longer than the ones we were told growing up. Some were chapter books and all were anywhere from thirty to one hundred pages. I fell in love with them and was telling my husband about them one night and how sad it was that they had been lost over time. I felt they had disappeared because the writing was archaic and the sentence structure too convoluted and lengthy for today's children. Think Dickens and Trollop. I realized they would have to be rewritten for a 21st century child if they were ever to resurface. 

That's when he said, "Why don't you do that? You teach writing to college students, why not do some yourself?"

At first, I dismissed his idea as absurd, but the more I thought about it, the more I warmed to it. So, I started to rewrite one of my favorites. It was hard work and involved lots of research about the meaning of certain ancient words, but I fell in love with the process. And the result. A small indie publisher accepted three of the rewrites. Contracts signed, illustrators chosen, I was thrilled. Two of the stories got all the way to ARCs before I got the news that they would not continue to publication. Needless to say, I was devastated. But by now, I had been bitten by the writing bug, and couldn't give it up. I tried writing some other children's books after that, but couldn't get an offer, either from an agent or publisher. I eventually realized I was only reading historical fiction, so I decided to try my hand at that. And I'm glad I did.

As for the other part of your question, I had written some tiny stories that I would send along to my nieces about the previous lives of the dolls or stuffed animals I sent them for holidays, but they were for family only, never to see the light of day outside my sister's house. Aside from that, I never wrote fiction or even thought about it.

As we start to wind-up, I want to pause first to take one more swing at your earlier response, specifically your comment on writing, "I feel like it's become such an important part of my life that I can't imagine doing anything else." I know that feeling, a lot of us do, and it's such a great sentiment, I'd be thrilled for you to take another beat on that. So, can you please further describe the feeling of not being able to imagine doing anything else?

I guess when I said I couldn't imagine doing anything else, I meant that I get such a thrill out of creating my books that I can't imagine not having that as part of my life. I remember during the isolation of COVID wondering what my non-writer friends could possibly be doing every day. I could disappear into whatever world my characters lived in, but they couldn't. No wonder there was such a feeling of desolation throughout the country! But aside from the isolation therapy writing provided, I truly enjoy my vicarious lives. I love seeing my characters face problems and solve them, confront adversaries and win or learn something from the confrontation, and generally live lives we can only imagine in another time period. It's fun, exciting, and a real adventure. Right now, I'm working on a contemporary novel, and I initially wondered if I would get the same pleasurable feelings from it, since it's present day life. But, I have to say, I'm having a lot of fun writing it. No research. No fact-checking. Just my imagination. We'll just have to wait and see how it all pans out in the end. But it's still something I look forward to every day when I wake up.

A good penultimate question tends to be, and what are you working on now, something you quite conveniently just touched on. So, anything else you want to tell us about this new book you're working on and/or about the book set for release in 2023?

As I said, right now I'm working on a contemporary romance, which is a completely new genre for me. Although all my short stories are contemporary, so maybe it's not such a stretch. But a romance is definitely a stretch. I think it will be a frenemies to lovers story, but that's yet to be determined. I'm having a lot of fun playing with this genre.

The next book, The Campbell Sisters, is scheduled for release in March 2023 from DX Varos Publishing. It's a historical novel set in the 1950s and tells the story of three sisters living in New York City. They're all in their twenties and just starting their adventures in the adult world. The eldest, Helen, wants the typical female role of the time — becoming a wife and mother. The youngest, Peggy, is in medical school and wants to finish and become a doctor practicing in the neighborhood where she grew up. A very unconventional role for women, even in the fifties. The middle sister, Carolyn, wants nothing to do with conventions and sets out to become the toast of New York. She wants to become the most desired, sought-after woman in the city with men begging for her hand, showering her with gifts of furs and jewelry, and escorting her to the best parties, premieres, and restaurants. And she feels she's gorgeous enough to do just that.

And finally, thank you for your time, what questions have I left out or what else do you want to be sure to share with us before we go?

I guess, all that's left to add is that if people want to find out a little more about me, they can go to my website, ejdonovan.com. There they can sign up for my monthly newsletter and receive a free copy of my novella, The Crossing. It's a historical tale of an Irish family’s Atlantic crossing and the beginnings of their new life in New York City in the late 1800s. As a final word, I'd like to thank you for this opportunity to let folks learn a little about me and my books.


Get A Lady Newspaperman's Dilemma at Bookshop or Amazon

Ben Tanzer

Interview by Ben Tanzer

Ben Tanzer is an Emmy-award winning coach, creative strategist, podcaster, writer, teacher and social worker who has been helping nonprofits, publishers, authors, small business and career changers tell their stories for 20 plus years. He is the author of the soon to be re-released short story collection Upstate and several award-winning books, including the science fiction novel Orphans and the essay collections Lost in Space: A Father's Journey There and Back Again and Be Cool - a memoir (sort of). He is also a lover of all things book, taco, Gin and street art.

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