STILL BREATHING: Author Interview for Acorn Publishing (11/14/2018)
Q: What was your inspiration for writing Still Breathing? Why did you write this book?
I carried the beginnings of this story in my head for many years. At one point, I wrote it out as the opening scene for a screenplay. In it an older woman sits alone at the bedside of her comatose husband. He becomes conscious long enough to tell her he’s sorry for not sharing the decisions in their life. It’s his biggest regret. He asks her to choose to do something, after he’s gone, that she’s always wanted to do. He begs her not to worry what anyone thinks. Slipping back into the coma, he never speaks again. A few days later, he’s dead. I could never quite decide what the wife would choose to do, so I put it aside and wrote a different book.
Years later, I challenged myself to write women’s fiction. Not just any women’s fiction—I wanted to write a novel with a mature main character. It seemed to me that most main characters in women’s fiction were young and beautiful. Oh, a few were muscular, imperfect, or foul-mouthed, but most were still knock-outs and under thirty. I wanted to write about someone significantly older: a woman with wide hips and grey hair, someone sensitive but not sappy, big-hearted but seasoned. Since I’m the wrong gender, I wondered if my character would ring true enough for women to identify with her. Now, if I could only find a story.
Thinking about how this book came together is a little like finding puzzle pieces. The final keys to this puzzle were an orphan home for street boys that my little church funded in Kampala and the fact that my son traveled there to assist them. His efforts not only helped the orphans but they won him a lovely Ugandan bride. Remarkably, they also provided me with the unlikely destination for my mature woman character.
Q: What was your favorite part of Still Breathing to write?
I like to write the moments in a story where there’s heavy action or deeply felt emotions—most writers are probably built that way. The hard part is setting everything up; the fun part is paying it off. My characters made sure that there was plenty of both in the story.
Still, one of my favorite sections to write began the moment my mistreated main character, Lizzie, wakes up after being drugged. She finds she’s lying in a trash strewn alley on the bad side of Kampala. Her story takes a massive turn here. All her plans are for nothing. Her future is doubtful, her very life dependent upon a wily, fifteen-year-old street boy named Dembe. It was great fun to create the perilous journey of a street-wise, homeless kid guiding an older white American woman as they sneak across the night slums of an African city. This section becomes the heart of what drives the rest of the book. It’s the moment when Lizzie’s trip becomes an adventure, and it’s this incident which will utterly transform her life.
Q: Have you ever been to the parts of the world where Lizzie travels?
I’ve been to Schiphol Airport in the Netherlands many times to change planes and head off to somewhere else. So, Lizzie and I share that location. However, even though I’ve flown to many countries I’ve never visited Africa—at least not physically. My son, Alex, has gone numerous times. He shot a feature length film there about the plight of Kampala’s street boys. For months I helped him edit it. After a while, it felt as though I was vicariously living in Uganda.
If you’re curious, Alex’s foreign language film is called Abanunule. Here's the official poster with it's significant festival awards noted.
Thanks to my Ugandan friends who live here in Minneapolis, some of whom were former street boys, and thanks to my Ugandan daughter-in-law, who grew up there, and my wife who visited there, I feel as if I’ve almost traveled there.
The greatest help for me in capturing the physical feel of the city was the wonderful tool that is Google Earth. What a boon for authors! You’d think that a remote place like Kampala would have scant coverage, but surprisingly, there must be a vast army of those little cars with the roof-mounted cameras scurrying about. I discovered I could go nearly anywhere in the city and look around. I became adept at the movement tools. I zoomed in to little shops, read signs, studied normal people going about their day. Sometimes I peeked over walls, peered through windows, checked out passing cars, tracked the loads on trucks and followed along next to motor bikes. Open markets presented a goldmine of imagery. I felt invisible, almost god-like. I found clean water sites where people filled jerry cans, I spotted bars and hangouts. No one saw me as I slipped down alleyways and climbed the high roads onto hills that overlooked the countryside.
For days, I travelled virtually everywhere in the city. I took copious notes, left behind virtual stick pins at key points and found actual locations for every significant moment in the book.
Q: What sort of research did you do for Still Breathing? How long did you spend doing research for this book?
When I think about it, I guess I spent a great deal of time researching but it depends upon how you compute the effort. Life itself often provides primary research. For example, my best friend died from the effects of Early Onset Alzheimer’s. As I watched him fade, I read everything I could get my hands on about his disease. At the end, I spent time with him in hospice. So, when my first scene takes place in hospice with a dying Alzheimer’s patient, is it the result of research or of life’s experience?
Once I’d decided to write the book, I recorded interviews with Ugandans here in Minneapolis, I visited Americans who’d recently visited Kampala, and I exchanged emails with the founders of Home Again, a group who rescues street boys.
I gathered and reviewed numerous materials from many sources dealing with Ugandan history, tribalism, clans, family names, gender issues, their educational systems, the police and the courts, cultural conflicts, native and outside religions, the military...well, you get the idea. I developed a set of folders so I could quickly find the right information when my characters ran into something in the story.
I enjoy research and often discover key plot points or story twists directly out of some factoid or another. For example, the scarcity of copper in Uganda, the way boarding schools work, the corruption of customs officials, the perils of marriage for women, the new way to send money from the U.S.—these all came out of the research.
I peppered the book with quite a bit of local language and flavored it with open markets and native foods. Many of these elements came directly from long talks with Diana, my Ugandan daughter-in-law. Luganda, the language of the book, is the main dialect in Kampala. Mercifully, most Ugandans can speak some version of English.
Q: Has any one person influenced or been an inspiration for any of the characters or situations in your book?
I would have to say that my wife, Jane, was the most influential person in helping me give breath to Lizzie, my main character. Jane is also a writer and my first editor, my grammarian and, in this case, my guide to making sure Lizzie stayed true to her gender. Jane was my translator for all that was woman in my story.
It was a fascinating experience for me to get into Lizzie’s mind and heart and really try to see the world and other people solely from her perspective. Slowly, I think, I began to get the hang of it. I suspected this only because Jane’s corrections grew fewer and fewer. By the end, we were on the same page with Lizzie’s characterization and that of the other women in the book. In fact, I’m hopeful that I surprised her by a few of my insights later in the book when Lizzie finally meets Dembe’s mother.
Q: When did you first feel that Still Breathing was a story? Was it after writing a specific point or did it always feel like a story?
STILL BREATHING became a story the moment I knew where Lizzie would decide to go. Once I had the answer to those first scenes, I was set. I didn’t know all that would happen to her on her journey, but once I knew where she was going, I knew I had the story.
As you can tell, I tend to write by the seat of my pants and let my characters tell me what comes next, but I’m enough of a plot and outline guy to limit their scope. Still, my characters often surprised me with many things I hadn’t planned, and more than once, they revealed secrets I didn’t know. I find those moments in a story to be the most gratifying part of novel writing— when characters talk back, or refuse to say lines, or do the opposite of what you ask. It’s why I laugh when people say a writer’s life is so lonely. No it’s not! It’s stuffed with noisy imaginary people who interrupt each other and argue and laugh and cry and are certain of their own opinions. Just like the everyday world.
What was the easiest/most fun part to write in Still Breathing? What was the most difficult?
For me, the most enjoyable parts to write in STILL BREATHING were the terrorist scenes and other action scenes such as the ride in the truck or the wild motorcycle taxis. I also love creating dialogue, so the arguments were great fun for me, especially since I like to check the flow by reading the lines out loud. In this novel, I had the added consideration that most of the characters were non-native English speakers. Finding ways to make the dialogue feel natural while preserving their more formal style was a fun task for me.
On the other hand, the most difficult scenes for me to handle were the ones that had a lot of information to impart. I struggled to keep them lively. The meeting with the travel clinic consultant was one of my most difficult assignments. Yes, the information was important, and it even set up a couple of major plot points, but it ran the risk of becoming dreary. I probably revised that section more times than any other part of the book.
Q: What made you decide to work with Acorn Publishing?
The decision to work with Acorn Publishing seems simple, on the surface. Holly Kammier saw value in my work and asked me to join—that’s it. This happened last year at the San Diego meeting of the Southern California Writers’ Conference.
However, I need to explain a little of my back story. I spent two years writing STILL BREATHING and then another six months researching agents and querying. I was determined to get representation, this time around. You see, my first book, a Sci-Fi novel called NOW & AGAIN, was self-published in 2013. I worked hard at promoting it: Giveaways on Goodreads, blogs, business cards, Facebook, tons of emails; you know the drill. The book received excellent reviews but not enough, and never broke out of the internet noise. I didn’t want to go through that again.
I felt STILL BREATHING was a better book with a wider appeal. It was women’s fiction. The story dealt with women’s issues and aging, discrimination and abuse. Most of the action took place in the third world. It featured cross-cultural friendships, bombs and danger, tears and hope. What was not to like?
Yes, I did all the agent things that everyone suggests you do: I found perfect matches, I followed their rules, I revised, I endured query critiques, I was professional, stayed positive, remained patient, and on and on and on—trust me. Result? 140 form rejections or silence. No personal responses. Not one. No requests for pages. Nothing.
I decided to attend the San Diego conference as a kind of last angry gasp. Still writing, I was deep into my third book, WHITE EYES. I knew it too had a solid story but I held little hope for its future. I signed up for an Advance Reader Session. This allows you to submit the first ten pages of your WIP ahead of the meeting to a professional writer or agent and get face-to-face feedback during the conference. Going by the profile descriptions, I chose Holly as my reader and glumly sent off the pages. She contacted me before the meeting to say that she had not read anything so good in a long time. She wanted to know if WHITE EYES was done yet so she could help me get it published. Utterly floored, I admitted that it was still in progress but that I had another finished manuscript. To be honest, after all the rejections, I really didn’t know how to respond to praise. She briefly explained Acorn’s hybrid publishing approach, and my excitement waned. I realized it was self-publishing again; yes, guided and supported, but clearly not the ring I so desperately wanted to grab.
Her affirmation felt great but I kept a wait-and-see attitude. I attended the conference. I listened to their presentation. I met with Holly and her partner, Jessica, and gave the matter serious consideration. A month later, after two more agent rejections, I took the plunge and signed on.
Q: So, after eight months working with us and with your new book ready to be released, what do you think of working with Acorn Publishing now?
I’m exhausted. It's been a busy time. Yes, if you’re going to self-publish, Acorn is the group you want to work with. They’re supportive, responsive and have acquired a staggering amount of valuable expertise. They share their hard-won best practices with their authors in a documented, step-by-step process delivered in timely, actionable bites. It’s good. It’s very good. It’s also exhausting, since carrying out the actions falls entirely on your own shoulders.
My book goes live this month and I live in fear that I haven’t done enough. When I look at the glittery novels distributed and promoted by the Big Five houses, I feel like David with a slingshot. I worry every day that this book will be lost in the noise, just like my first one.
Q: What are you most grateful for in your writing? Is it a person? A support group? A favorite writing snack?
Most grateful for? I am most grateful for my beta readers—all women. I depended upon them to be honest with me. Especially in this case, with my concerns about creating an authentic female character. They were so helpful and supportive, I couldn’t ask for a better set of readers. They quickly fell in love with Lizzie and her story, and they didn’t hold my gender against me. In fact, it was their eagerness to learn what finally happens in the story that gave me the passion to keep writing to the end.
Favorite writing snack? How funny that you should ask. I have to admit that during the writing of this book I discovered Peanut-Butter M&Ms. What a fabulous aid to writing! What a waistline destroyer! There were many days when I dangled those beauties in front of my mind, while I negotiated.
“If you finish this paragraph, I’ll let you eat one.”
“Hey, make it to the end of the chapter, you can choose three.”
“Wow, cool dialogue, have a candy.”
“Look, solve this plot problem and...”
I’m sorry to say that I now buy reclosable bags in the red share size but I don’t ever share them with anyone.