10 Questions with 'The Moment Before' Author and LitReactor Instructor, Suzy Vitello
Maybe you first saw Suzy Vitello's name in the acknowledgement section of any number of Chuck Palahniuk books. Perhaps you read about the "den mother" of "the hottest writing group in Portland" a few years ago in The Oregonian. Or, maybe you first learned of Suzy here on LitReactor when you took one of her in-demand writing workshops.
Suzy Vitello is no stranger to the deep, dark trenches of craft. For 20 years and countless workshop hours—locally, nationally and internationally—Vitello has been discovering, uncovering, and earning her voice as a masterful storyteller. This fall she signed her first book contract with Diversion Books for her YA novel, The Moment Before.
In this two-part interview, Suzy gets very real about finding her voice, her path to publication, and gives some sage advice to writers.
This fall you received your first book contract for The Moment Before. Congratulations, Suzy! How many years have you been writing and how long did it take you to write The Moment Before?
Well, Erin, thank you for that congratulations. I’m always eager to answer this question, because when people talk about tenacity being more important than talent, um, I’m the object lesson for that. I’ve been writing since third grade. I wrote my first novel in 1994. That’s right, 1994. So, I’m not really good at math, but at a glance you can see that it’s taken me twenty years to get a book published.
That said, The Moment Before (originally titled, Raising Cheer) took just over two months to write.
That’s amazing, Suzy! Aside from sheer persistence, what are a few of the most important lessons you’ve learned as a writer during those twenty years?
The most important lessons have to do with transcending my natural insecurities and shyness at a granular level, on the page. And to resist apologizing for what gets uncovered. And by apologizing I mean either overwriting so it’s rendered invisible, or deleting it altogether.
Years ago, I took a weekend Gordon Lish class, and he lived up to those legendary stories where he figures out a person’s weakness and sets about exploiting it. He said to me, “You seem to be obsessed with your cunt. So write about that.” He seriously said that! There we were in this dismal room sitting in a circle of folding chairs. I had no idea that I was obsessed with my cunt. But really, what he was getting at is that I was holding back on the page. That I resisted giving myself over to my deepest fears. So, I guess you could say the big takeaway from my decades of writing is that you’re never as deep as you think you are. Go deeper. Get realer. Go to the raw, ugly, scary thing (especially if it makes your heart race) and rip it open like there’s life-blood inside it.
I had the pleasure of reading an ARC of The Moment Before and felt you created a strong, realistic YA heroine in Brady Wilson. She’s not afraid to follow her intuition, come face to face with reality and deal with it. How was this character born?
Brady came to me like a bullet, but I think she’d been stewing inside of me for a long time. I love that you brought up the intuitive aspect of her, because that’s what’s most heroic about her to me. When you’re a teenager, fighting for authenticity is hard. The culture wants to shape you, feed you easily digestible nuggets—wants to turn you into a Lunchable, you know? Everything acts against forming a truly unique soul. So in the wake of tragedy, I’ve found that people (teens in particular) either give up the fight and allow themselves to be absorbed by normative culture, or go the other way. Strike out on their own. Take more and more definitive steps toward self.
Brady is a more pure version of myself, in that, after the death of my first husband, when I walked those same hills as Brady as a young mom in my twenties, I had to move far away from everyone I knew in order to hear the voice inside me—to know what I believed.
That’s such an important ability for anyone to realize, especially a writer. Tell us more about that. During your twenty years of writing, navigating what works and what doesn’t work, markets, and now with all the advice for writers out there, how important was using your own intuition in your craft and path to publication?
Today is my oldest child’s birthday. Becoming a mom was the interface of young adulthood into true adulthood for me. It was the very first time I experienced real authority. My body produced another human. It did that! So with writing a book, it’s not as organic, but the act of taking elements and breathing life into them until they crystallize into something that lives outside of you, is similar. It’s somewhat divine—which is why so many writers throughout history were persecuted. I mean, the hubris!!
So often who we are at the PTA meetings and the soccer sidelines flies in the face of who we are on the page. And when you spend the majority of your waking hours in the normative world being a helper-bee and a smile-and-nod face, it’s hard to retool and get back to writing based on authentic experience and intuition. To say the unsayable. To risk upsetting your granny.
With workshops, too (or any critique), it’s so important to know when advice will help, and when it won’t. One of the most useful reasons for developing a daily or regular writing practice is to build the relationship with your inner voice, so it doesn’t get scared off by any suggestion that wafts your way.
When it comes to sending queries in an agent search, authentic voice is more important than anything. Remember, these people are sometimes wading through a hundred or more query emails a day. If you want yours to not be dismissed at the level of SPAM, you have to make an impact. How? By being exquisitely yourself.
And what do you hope readers will take away from Brady’s story and The Moment Before in general?
I hope that the story invites the reader to explore his/her own sense of authenticity. I hope I’ve made a case for grief as a continuum, as something that, ultimately, can take a person to a higher spiritual place. Also, just because a loved one isn’t physically on earth anymore doesn’t make them not a part of your world, you know? Your relationship with a sibling, a parent, a child, a spouse, can continue to be dynamic, to evolve, even after they die.
Let’s shift to the mechanics of publishing and promotion for a bit. Pre-pub promotion is so important to a book’s launch. What are some of the things your publisher, Diversion Books, is doing that have been effective?
The team at Diversion is really well-connected with on-device placement, and they are a well-oiled machine, setting up blog tours, getting the word out on NetGalley, establishing Goodreads giveaways, getting the book reviewed by bloggers and online book folk.
This is all in prelude to launching with good positioning for discoverability and interest from online retailers such as Amazon, Kobo, iBookstore and Barnes & Noble, and subscription services like Oyster and Scribd.
They are also very hands-on with spreading the word via social media. Especially Twitter and Google+.
Another wonderful thing (that paid off tremendously), was getting the book into the hands of major influencers. Diversion sent an ARC to Junior Library Guild, who acts as a major vetting and gatekeeper tool for libraries, and they selected the book!
And what have you been doing to help promote the book before publication?
I have the great fortune of having worked with some very talented folks in communications and marketing, and my daughter-in-law, Katie Soulé, has been my go-to graphic design person for all sorts of things. If you go to the home page or The Moment Before page of my website, you’ll see there’s a bunch of messaging and links to a variety of launch/publicity goodies. I also have an evolving events section on my site, and the obligatory blog, so as things crop up, it’s easy to refresh.
Also (and this is something I’m really excited about), through the holidays, there will be a “free” short story that acts as a teaser prequel to the novel. I was flirting with a story idea, thinking, wouldn’t it be interesting to have a kind of backstory stand alone that would feature the relationship Brady had with Sabine before Sabine’s death as well as function as a teaser for the book, and then I ran across this amazing photo by this photographer, Jessica Drossin, and I approached her for its use, and we struck up a deal!
Another promotional piece I did with the help of a good friend and former business partner, Laura McCulloch, was a book trailer using photographs I’d taken as well as stock photography. Having worked in brand development for years, I am a big believer in finding images that evoke an emotional sense of the work, so this aspect of marketing has been hugely rewarding for me.
Obviously, opportunities like this and other interviews have been golden. I’ve been setting up readings around town, and a real exciting one in Seattle that I’ll be able to talk more about soon. Then there’s the sending of ARCs to influencers and Rolodex contacts, which, since I have been writing for 20 years, is actually the most painless aspect of pre-pub promotion. Everyone has been so generous and kind.
What’s hard for me is the actual focus on, what my friend Averil calls, the pasties and sandwich board part of the deal. You know, where you’re Tweeting and Facehooking, and otherwise shouting me! Me! More me!
Are there any self or book promotion activities you’d steer newly signed writers away from after your own trial and error? What are they?
Beware of ads, or auto-posts. Anything that detracts from the “you-ness” of you as an author. Anything filtered through a third-party ad-voice. Remember, you’re an author. Language is your medium. Again, hone that "exquisitely you" persona.
I would also stay away from making any public/online statements that fly in the face of your authenticity or artistic integrity. You know how when you’re fresh out of college and trying to get a job and you don’t want pictures of you wasted at keggers on Facebook? Well, make sure you mean what you say, and can stand behind whatever you post online. That doesn’t mean you should sugarcoat anything, just be as real as you can, because, my friends, you are in the public eye forever on these here interwebs.
Okay, reviews. How do you deal with sending your baby out into the world and hoping your readers will see what you see?
Honestly? It’s really, really, really hard. And perhaps the single biggest reason why it took so long for me to get a book out. I’m most comfortable quietly observing life invisibly. I wanted to be an anthropologist for goodness sake! Plus, I’ve never seen something of mine in print and not wanted to revise it. The finalness of putting a book out is scary on the commitment continuum.
Also, my book is being marketed to teens and I was an awkward loner type of teenager, so that population is relationally tricky for me. Unlike most teenagers, I lived in my head way more than I lived in my body. When I (against the advice of my peers and pubbed friends) read a meh or bad review of my book, it feels like the time I was sitting in math class in 10th grade and some dude who’d tried to twang my bra strap announced to the entire class that I didn’t even have one. I was a flat-chested, flannel shirt-wearing geek girl. Frizzy hair, braces, weak squinty eyes. Brady isn’t exactly who I was as a teenager, but she feels a similar sort of alienation, so when a reviewer says something like, “I don’t understand why Martha is her only friend and Martha’s such a bitch,” it does this PTSD thing to me.
You’re in “the hottest writing group” in Portland, if not, the country. With all the published vets in your writing circle, I imagine they’ve armed you well with guidance, advice, etc. What’s something new you’ve learned or have had to face that maybe your writing mates haven’t come across yet?
Well, first, I realize that half the (male) fanbase of LitReactor would sever a testicle to be able to sit next to Chuck Palahniuk every week in a workshop, let alone have a giving-and-receiving writing feedback relationship with him, so I certainly don’t take that for granted. And the other half might be willing to part with a piece of their person to swill Scotch with Lidia Yuknavitch while delving into the abyss of gonzo characterization, metaphors and thematic layering.
Chuck, Chelsea, Cheryl, Lidia, Monica – yeah, they have been stellar and generous with their shortbus-riding den mother. I mean, there’s late bloomers, and then there’s those errant rose bushes that finally wake up and push one out just as the frost sets in.
As far as I know, none of my mates have pubbed a book that’s being marketed primarily to teens, so there’s that. And since Diversion is primarily an eBook publisher, there is an emphasis on things like blog tours and giveaways and on-device placement—which is different than the way it works for my more traditionally published buddies.
Also, there are some kinks in the print-on-demand (POD) model when it comes to booksellers. Availability, returnability, pricing, discounts—all of these issues have come up in trying to set up traditional bookstore events, or even getting a bookstore interested in putting my book on their shelves. Without going into too much boring detail about percentages and what-have-you, the numbers are tricky, and the bookstores will only work with me on a consignment basis. Fortunately, in our case, we had a large order from Junior Library Guild, which justified an offset print run. Because of this I’ll be able to purchase a bunch of copies of my book to consign to various independent bookstores at a nice discount. In the long run, the numbers should pencil out, and, because I’ve now got my own warehouse (basement) of stock, availability won’t be an issue.
Big thanks to Suzy for taking time out of her busy holiday/pre-book launch schedule to share her story with us. We'll discuss book launch, book publicity, dos and don'ts and more in January upon the release of The Moment Before, on the 14th.
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