The 5-Question Interview: Caitlin Kelly

The journalist gets specific about excellence, relationships + platforms and how fame without serious substance is a joke.

A veteran nonfiction writer, Caitlin Kelly is an award-winning journalist and former reporter at The Globe and Mail and the Montreal Gazette. She has also written for The New York Times, Toronto Star, New York Post, Wall Street Journal, Penthouse, Business Week, Chatelaine, and Family Circle, among many (many) others. She has been a Poynter Institute fellow, a fellow with Journalists in Europe, and at the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism, and has taught at NYU and Pace University. Caitlin is the author of Blown Away: American Women and Guns [of which Publisher’s Weekly said: her “interviews with improbable women gun owners truly fascinate”] and she blogs about firearms at The Open Case.

Meredith: As an author with many projects in motion, many platforms at work and many works in the public eye, how do you balance the left-brain activity of promotion with the right-brain activity of creation?
CAITLIN: I don’t see them as in conflict, which I think some writers do. With all due respect, I don’t even think about which side of my brain is working—as long as the whole thing is! I grew up in a freelance family; my father was an award-winning documentary film maker and my stepmother wrote for television and my mom was a journalist—so the notion of simply creating versus making sure someone pays you to create the project was never an issue for me. Excellence is the starting point; making sure the right people know you’re excellent ensures you’ll get to keep doing it. I seem to have a knack for finding ways to promote my work—when my book came out I presented the head of publicity at Pocket Books with my own pre-planned list of 21 events—so that’s not as much of an issue.

I think the key, and again this may go against the grain of writers who are very introverted or prefer to just write, is to create and sustain relationships. For example, my book came out in 2004, but I recently got it mentioned and promoted to a key conference in that field by reaching out to the organizer, who remembered me and respects my expertise. Every time you write a piece or a book, you need to think of every possible potential reader, listener and viewer. But you need to stay true to yourself and how you see the world. There are things I would never do and things I’m very comfortable with. They’re personal choices. The choice you simply can’t make any more is to hole up in a garret, create and wait to be discovered.

Meredith: Does the creative+platform process of expansion feel like you are moving forward on parallel tracks or is the process more unified and seamless?
CAITLIN: It’s sometimes really exhausting to promote your work when you need to be creating work. And you need to create great work, I believe, to promote it selectively and well. Not everything you produce (sorry!) is that fantastic. Some of it is done to pay the bills, reduce debt, get a new clip or contact—while the piece or even the book itself is so-so. If you rush out to promote it wildly, you might shoot yourself in the foot. So there’s a stop-pause quality to this: after you’ve created something you’re especially proud of, figure out who needs to see it and why they would find it especially interesting. If they are parallel tracks, and there are two trains, I’d say the production/creation side of it, for me, tends to take precedence to simply maintain cashflow.

Meredith: Is platform building an organic process, or is it something that has to be created—literally—from the ground up?
CAITLIN: Interesting question. I feel, and I’m an old-school, old-media, shoe-leather reporter who has written for pay since I was 19, it’s organic. It is an accretion of excellence over time. It takes time to get good, to be good, to be—most importantly—consistently good. How many promising, well-reviewed (if they are lucky enough to get reviewed at all) first novelists later stall out? So people who want to be famous right away, frankly, need to earn that right. Fame without serious substance is a joke. So, the ground is excellence. Not being good. Excellent. The measure of that? Peer respect, editorial praise, being asked to contribute to things—I was recently invited to join, a new, paid blogging community, because I bring a name and millions of readers who know and like my work from The New York Times, since 1990. In advertising, it’s said you have to repeat your message something like 27 times for people to even remember it. As a writer, remember that.

Meredith: What does beginning feel like? Look like? Does it scare or excite you?
CAITLIN:Beginning is terrifying, energizing, exciting—and necessary. It’s so easy and so seductive to think and ponder and worry and fantasize—or just keep doing the same old, same old. But you have to put out, baby! I’m joking in tone but deadly serious in content.

I recently started blogging and was absolutely terrified the first time. Why on earth would anyone want to listen to me? It takes real guts to decide to try something new because, of course, it’s new and unfamiliar and you could fail—and fail publicly. Well, what else are you going to do? I’m working on a book proposal with a new agent and that’s a process I have been through many times with four previous agents. But I have to come into this relationship with an open mind and a sense of optimism, or not do it.

Beginnings, if you’re lucky, come to you when people invite you to work with them. When you have to cold-call and jump-start, it’s quite wearying and scary. But be strategic about them. I’ll give you one example. I wanted to meet a very senior network television news executive. She spoke recently at a NYC networking breakfast. That meant walking into a room full of people I did not know, hoping there might be an opening to say hello to the speaker and, perhaps, find some work as a result. It worked out and I’m now waiting to hear, what, if anything, will come through. If nothing else, and it’s a lot, she now has my book on her desk and knows its value when the next news story about guns comes up. It will. I just took a chance and followed through.

Meredith: Where does the process of creativity start for you?
CAITLIN: Great question. Most of the time, it’s doing everything but writing. It’s walking by the reservoir (where the name for my blog, Broadside, came to me), or playing softball or going to a museum or listening to BBC World News, which I do for an hour every morning. My goal as a writer is to connect the dots; I work in nonfiction and news journalism and I want to head away from the pack, off the big story and sniff around where no one else is right now. I liken it to an astronomer who’s looking at the night sky. A writer who is not creative sees a bunch of stars. A creative writer sees constellations—patterns and shapes and linkages between interesting ideas. But you have to imagine they are there and you can only start to see them, I think, by paying attention—as with any galaxy—across a very wide spectrum, or a very narrow one. You have to be really thoughtful in your choices of how you spend your time and attention: junk TV or a PBS DVD, 18th-century novel or a manga, Redbook or the National Review—or both?

I’m not sure what “creative” means. If it means I am constantly creating, that’s probably true. I hold that word to a very high standard; what haven’t I read before? What are you telling me I don’t know? In a new way? So I look far and wide to others I find creative—in art, design, architecture, fashion, dance­—to see what choices they’re making and why. I tend to stay away from other writers in this respect. I think true creativity involves risk. And risk is frightening. So that’s a powerful emotion you have to be aware of and manage. Failure isn’t terminal! If it’s chronic, though, you have a problem.

Born and educated in Canada, Caitlin lives in the New York City area where she’s currently at work on a book proposal. Read more about that at her website and about her by checking out her blog at True/Slant.

The 5-Question Interview: Liz Holzemer

The writer on never writing religiously, learning to stop and what surviving brain surgery has taught her about editors.

Liz Holzemer is the author of Curveball: When Life Throws You a Brain Tumor. She is also the founder of the nonprofit Meningioma Mommas [among her creative pursuits: raising $1 million for meningioma research]. She is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, the Denver Woman’s Press Club and Colorado Authors’ League. She has appeared on the Discovery Health Channel and the Today Show, among many many others, and was a “Tim Gullikson Spirit Award” recipient for community service.

MEREDITH: When you received your diagnosis, what happened to your creative voice?

Liz: My creative voice went absolutely numb like the rest of me. To be told over the phone I had a brain tumor was completely paralyzing. When I was informed of all the surgery risks, my greatest fear was the possible reality I may never write again. In fact, it took months before I found my voice again, let alone its creative side. I couldn’t focus on words nor write them as clearly and coherently as I once did. I prided myself on always being an excellent speller, but lost some of that ability. Journaling helped tremendously during my recovery. Eventually, I found my voice again, albeit a newer version of its former self.

MEREDITH: Is the narrative of your physical life—the one tied to your illness and now your wellness—a mirror of your writing life? How or how not?

Liz: I’d say my illness has certainly shaped me in terms of developing that “platform” writers are always told to have. Whether subconsciously or consciously, I do find I’m always weaving some aspect of my brain tumor journey and ongoing experiences into my writing. [when-life-gives-you-lemons-make-lemonade alert:] You’d be amazed how you can work brain tumor into all genres of writing, not to mention conversation.

MEREDITH: The brain is about words and language, and you’re a writer. So tell us about your relationship with a brain tumor—your brain tumor—and how it affects the creative process, how it affected yours.

Liz: Even though it’s been nine years since my surgeries, the residual aspects of meningioma are always with me. The major change for me is related to my daily struggle with fatigue and epilepsy. Luckily, I’ve never been one of those writers who religiously write every day at x time of day for x number of hours because I’ve had to accept that my writing is very closely tied in with my energy levels. It almost sounds manic—when I’m up, I crank; when I’ve hit rock bottom—good luck finding a spark of creativity.

There are days when I desperately want to write, but as a mother of two young children, by the end of the day the tank is empty and that is very frustrating. And when I do write, rather than being too consumed with making every word count like I did before my surgeries, now I’m not as hung up on structure and nailing it the first time. [a-ha! alert:] I’ve learned I can’t force the flow—it will come when it’s ready.

MEREDITH: When it comes to writing would you describe your mind as a friend or foe?

Liz: Both. Mostly friend because I’ve long since proven to myself that I am still a writer. Like a great and supportive friend, my mind gives me that extra kick or shove I need on the days when I’m really struggling with the creative process or when I hit that proverbial writer’s block wall—I’ve learned to stop. There’s no sense beating my head and forcing the issue.

MEREDITH: How has becoming a voice for cancer awareness changed you as a writer?

Liz: It’s forced me to break out of my genre and comfort zone. I take greater risks. [perspective alert:] I figure if I can survive having my head carved into twice, I can approach any editor even if I get the door slammed in my face.

It’s also allowed me to use my writing to be a voice and convey the message that we are our own best advocates. This is especially true for women who put everyone and everything else in their lives at the top of their “TO DO” lists.

Liz lives in Colorado with her husband, Mark, two children and their lipoma-laden lab, Koufax. Now that Liz is in her forties, she hopes to learn how to dive and drive a stick-shift car. She finally got over never making her high school tennis team and recently picked up her wooden Wilson again. Get to know her better at her website and about Meningioma Mommas here.

The 5-Question [Author] Interview: Alexis O’Neill

The writer lets us in on trimming excess, cutting to the chase, pushing through weeds and the strange dichotomy of promotion.

Alexis O’Neill, a multi-award-winning author, is hard at work writing children’s books in every genre. With four picture books published (Loud Emily [about which Publisher’s Weekly (starred review) wrote: “O’Neill crafts a charmer…Emily’s quest to find her place in the world without altering herself in the process, will encourage anyone who has ever felt different from the crowd.”], Estela’s Swap, The Recess Queen and The Worst Best Friend), she’s one genre down and many more to go. Alexis is on the road a good portion of the year doing school visits all over the country, meeting and making fans. In addition to writing for children, she pens a column for the SCBWI Bulletin called, “The Truth About School Visits” and is regional advisor for SCBWI in the Ventura/Santa Barbara region of California.

The Writer’s Journey: Is voice, to you, a constant? Has yours as a writer evolved over the years? Or have you just gotten more confident in using it?

Alexis: To me, “voice” is the [I-get-it alert:] voice of the story that needs telling—not my own personal voice. My tall tale and folk tales have a different syntax and flavor than my contemporary picture books. My magazine articles, of course, are different still. But what has evolved over the years is my ability to cut to the chase of a story. Trimming excess is probably the most difficult part of writing for children—especially in picture books. I love words, but I have to think like a poet and choose the right words (the only words) that will unlock my story. My first drafts always are terribly overwritten. The fun comes in cutting and shaping.

The Writer’s Journey: Why is telling stories so much fun? I ask because I believe it satisfies a need we all have to connect with others. How about you?

Alexis: My family is Irish and Scottish. To us Celts, with a bardic tradition ingrained in our DNA, telling stories is the same as breathing. The memory of our culture depended on shaping facts and emotions through stories colored with sensory images and sharing those stories from village to village. Today the tradition lives in print. And what could be better than having others love your stories and pass them on?

The Writer’s Journey: Do you wait for the muse, or do you see writing as a job to be done whether the muse is in or not? By the way, what is your muse?

Alexis: My muse? She never sets her own alarm, and is very undependable. So, as a full-time working writer, I have to wake up my muse every single day and tell her to get busy!

The Writer’s Journey: Taking the stance that creativity is a natural state, why do we get stuck?

Alexis: Wow. Who said creativity is “a natural state”? While I do think that we’re all born with creative sparks that can take many forms, I also believe that creativity is something that needs to be nurtured in order to grow and thrive. We need to try our hands at new forms and stretch out of comfortable habits. I think that the perfect antidote to “stuckness” is to take a class, try a new art form, put heads together with others to solve a puzzle, take a trip, or read a stimulating and challenging book. More than getting “stuck,” I think we get “stopped”—mostly from laziness or an unwillingness to push through the weeds of horrible drafts toward the meadow beyond. And there is always a meadow of green beyond—we just never know how long it’s going to take to get there and are tempted to give up short of the destination.

The Writer’s Journey: As a children’s book author with many books in print, how do you balance the left-brain activity of promotion with the right-brain activity of creation? Or do you experience them as unified?

Alexis: Here’s the problem. Promotion is a monster that often sits on the heart of creation. Right now, I have countless projects I’m working on. When story creation is in full gear, I’m in the zone and on a high. My heart races. I write lines in a rush of “Yes! That’s it!” I’m excited. Pure joy! I lose track of time. I have lots to tell my husband at the end of the day. I can’t wait to get back to the story. But then as I reread my story, the promotion monster whispers in my ear, “Will it sell? What’s the hook? Who will buy this? It’s a nice story, but is it a necessary story?” That monster is always lurking. I know he’s necessary to the success of my works, but it doesn’t make me any happier to have to share a room with him. So I have to feed the monster a bit, then hush his voice and get back to story-making for the pure joy of it.

Alexis lives in Simi Valley with her husband, David (an airplane-building, computer-savvy, good-natured  writer and-cat-loving guy) and his very huge extended family (but not all in the same house or no writing at all would ever get done!). Act like family over here.

The 5-Question Interview: Greg Hardesty

The writer gets to the point about tension, narrowing in and finding a story just about anywhere.

Greg Hardesty
is a staff reporter for the Orange County Register where he often must turn around stories quickly and make them interesting, relatable and memorable. But a personal essay he wrote earlier this year about his teenage daughter’s astronomical tally of text messages–14,528 in a single month–not only landed him [and his daughter] on Dr. Phil and Rachel Ray, it had colleagues the world over writing about him. Greg teaches journalism at California State University, Fullerton. He is also a distance runner [of very, very long distances], and I was interested, among other things, to hear how the sport [passion] nourished his creativity.

The Writer’s Journey: How and when do you know in your gut that an idea is viable and worth following? Is there a telling moment for you?
Greg: Oh yes—a bell goes off when, more than anything, I feel a strong sense of curiosity: How did this person do that? What does this person’s wife/husband/child think of this? A key ingredient in any good story is a sense of tension or of a person overcoming odds or an obstacle, or a person with a reasonable amount of complexity; someone with shades of gray instead of black and white.

The Writer’s Journey: When it comes to writing would you describe your mind as a friend or foe? What’s his/her/its voice like?
Greg: Oh, it’s a friend—but one with a very demanding sense about what holds interest. My friend has ADD and if I can’t grab your attention at the beginning of the story, I am dead. My friend inside my head demands that a story be as interesting as possible. [dig this alert:] If I, the writer, am bored, the reader will have no change. My friend usually says, “Think cinematically. Think of the most compelling scene, and go from there.”

The Writer’s Journey: Taking the stance that creativity is a natural state, why do we get stuck? How do you overcome “stuckness” if you encounter it?
Greg: I reinterview people when I feel I do not have enough material. I go over notes again and again. [wow alert:] I rarely get stuck. There’s always some way to get into a story. The challenge really is, what is the most interesting way? To overcome stuckness, I walk away from a story and do something else and come back to it with a fresh mind/eyes.

The Writer’s Journey: Jackson Pollock said, “The painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through.” Using his model for creation, how do you, as a feature writer and reporter, let a story come through?
Greg: It’s sort of an instinctual process. I let the person or subjects of the story rattle around in my head for several hours while I do something else. Then they usually speak to me in the sense that a clear picture of the essence of their story emerges, and then a specific scene that makes the essence of the story clear.

The Writer’s Journey: You’re a (long) distance (trail) runner. Does running fuel your writing? Can you describe what fuels your writing, if not, or in addition to running?
Greg: Running fuels my mind and spirit and absolutely helps my writing. It forces me to live in the moment, which makes me a more attentive person when I do an interview and allows me to focus more sharply when I review notes and sit down to right. Running supercharges my mind with a flood of endorphins and all that energy allows me to bust through the color and narrow in on a subject, much like I narrow in on where my feet land on the trail.

Greg lives in southern California in a canyon where it’s hard to get a cell phone signal. He was out running at the time this went live. Get to know him here:

The 5-Question Interview: Bill Squier

The writer contemplates hooks, indistinguishable voices and indulging at the beginning.

Bill Squier is an award-winning musical theater writer who says his proudest accomplishments include writing an Off-Broadway play, a musical for Disney World and an essay that appeared in Newsweek. He’s won numerous grants and awards, including an Emmy for Unusual Phenomena. Together with Jeffrey Lodin, creative work ranges in style from traditional Broadway sound to songs that are eclectic and contemporary.

The Writer’s Journey: What does beginning feel like? Look like? Does it scare or excite you?
Bill: As a musical theater writer, I’m always on the lookout for stories that will benefit from being told through a combination of scene, song and movement. One of the way that I know I’m onto something is when ideas for songs seem to jump out of a potential project. That can be very exciting. In general, though, rather than feel scared or excited, I’d have to say that I look for a story that will fully absorb my attention–really suck me in. That’s when I know that I’m at the beginning of a writing project that will be worth pursuing.

The Writer’s Journey: Do ideas come to you in words or images, sounds or something else?
Bill: I look for hooks. In musical theater terms, a “hook” is really two things. First, it’s literally the title of a song–a repeated phrase that distills an aspect of the story that you are trying to tell: an emotion felt, a change of attitude, an advancement of the plot, etc. Second, it’s the organizing principle on which you “hang” specific moments in your story–the themes that help you to determine what to keep and what to edit out. The best hooks in any musical manage to serve as both of those things at once. For example, the opening number in “Oklahoma”: “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” tells us a lot about how the character of Curley is feeling at that particular moment (upbeat, playful), what his attitude about life is like in general (optimistic) and it sounds one of “Oklahoma’s” themes (America is on the verge of something new)–it accomplishes a lot in the first 2-1/2 minutes of the show!

The Writer’s Journey: How did you know when you found your voice? And once you found it did you trust it immediately?
Bill: Many of the projects that I work on involve collaborators. I don’t write music, so there’s always a composer. Rather than develop a distinct voice, much of the writing that I’ve done has involved figuring out how to make my voice indistinguishable from those other the writers. That’s the only way that a musical theater piece involving collaborators can work as a whole. One of the delights of working in musical theater, however, is that I also get to adopt the voices of the characters that I’m attempting to bring to life, in both their dialogue and their lyrics. That opens up all sorts of possibilities for work that feels, to me at least, authentic and unique. It can be a slow, painstaking process to accomplish all of the above. But, once I do, I know it and trust myself to continue on successfully.

The Writer’s Journey: When you write and compose does your mind wonder first what you would like, or what others would? Do you think about pleasing the crowd when you’re first beginning?
Bill: I have to say, quite selfishly, that I write to please myself in the earliest drafts. I’ve never been able to sit down with the intention of writing a “crowd pleaser.” I tend to lose interest in projects like that far too easily. Fortunately, since most of what I write is intended to be performed live, I get to spend time with the audience for my work. There are plenty of opportunities to adjust the material so that it appeals to the widest possible crowd–or not, depending on the piece. So, I feel that I can afford to indulge myself at the beginning. All that said, there are certain rules of musical theater that generally need to be honored (like not having the same character sing three power ballads in a row!) These are kind of second nature to me by now. So I don’t really think about them. They just happen.

The Writer’s Journey: When you’re in love with a particular idea so much, how do you know when enough is enough–for example: notes in a melody, words in a verse, or the length of an entire show?
Bill: That’s when an audience can be extremely helpful. When you sit in the theater with an audience as it is experiencing your show, you literally can feel, from moment to moment, when they are engaged by your work and when they are not. Once you sense that, you really have to work pretty hard to ignore the truth. Not every audience is the same, however. So, you have to repeat the experiment a few times before you can make any decision. But, if the reaction is consistent, and it isn’t the one you want, it’s time to figure out what’s wrong and either rewrite or make cuts.

Bill says that he is perhaps proudest of all of his refusal to patronize any film where the dog dies at the end. He stands by his values in Connecticut, where he lives with his wife, the personal essayist Beth Levine. Check him out here.

The 5-Question Interview: Allegra Huston

The writer confides about being afraid of being wrong, not starting at the beginning and surprising and unexpected gifts.

Screenwriter, editor and author Allegra Huston’s book Love Child: A Memoir of Family Lost and Found (Simon & Schuster) begins when she is a little girl. That is when her mother dies and she is introduced to an intimidating man wreathed in cigar smoke—the legendary film director John Huston—and told he is her father. She is shuttled to the Huston estate in Ireland, then to Long Island, and to a hidden paradise in Mexico. Time is also spent at the side of her older sister, Anjelica, at the hilltop retreats of Jack Nicholson, Ryan O’Neal, and Marlon Brando. Then at twelve, Allegra is, introduced again to her father—her real one—the British aristocrat and historian John Julius Norwich. About the book, Publisher’s Weekly writes: Where many memoirists compete to see who’s had the most outrageous life, this story stands out in its quiet poignancy—and gave it a starred review. Kirkus Reviews wrote: A graceful, surprisingly tender account of a life lived at the edge of fame, and Her story is about finding her place within this glamorous family, where she was too often an afterthought to the monumentally self-absorbed adults charged with raising her.

The Writer’s Journey: You’re a writer, but where does the process of creativity really start for you?
Allegra: Lying in bed in the morning, half awake and trying to make the waking as slow as it can be – that’s when ideas come to me and I think about what I want to write.

The Writer’s Journey: The child development writer Joseph Chilton Pearce said: “To live a creative life, we must lose our fear of being wrong.” When you write do you encounter “rights” and “wrongs”? What happens?
Allegra: So true. I spent much of my life being afraid of being wrong. Overcoming that was the crucial step in becoming a writer. As an editor I learned that nothing beyond the technicalities of grammar and spelling is really right or wrong – but some things work and some things don’t. To become a writer, I had to learn to let go even of that. I separate my work into the “writing” stage and the “editing” stage. When “writing,” judgment is not helpful: nothing is right or wrong, it only has energy or it doesn’t, and the trick is to spark your imagination so you get something with energy on the page. You don’t need to judge; you feel it. However rough it is, I’m happy that it has energy and I figure I can fix it up later, if it has a place in whatever I’m writing (perhaps it’s the beginning of something else entirely). So I do all kinds of disposable ten-minute exercises to jog me out of trying to Write Well – things like comparing people to animals, describing places only by smell, putting music to something in my head, and so on.

The Writer’s Journey: Does your creative process come from a place of something that scares you or from a familiar place of strength?
Allegra: The blank page does scare me – though not as much as the blank 300 pages! So if I focus on just the one page, I’m better off. When I wrote Love Child I deliberately didn’t start at the beginning. I just filled notebooks with everything I could remember, in whatever order, and then sorted it out. By that time I had 300 pages, and I could think of the rewriting as “editing” so it wasn’t so scary. I like cheap notebooks; they don’t pressure you to write something “good” in them so I can think of what I’m writing as just “notes” or “rough material” – and the result is writing with much more energy and specificity.

The Writer’s Journey: How do you not hold on so tight to a piece of writing that isn’t working (that you wish would work) and let go so you might discover what will work?
Allegra: I try to come at it from odd angles. The disposable writing exercises help a lot here. If there’s more than one person in the scene, I tell it from a different point of view. If it’s a memory, I question the veracity of everything. If what isn’t working is structural, I’ve learned that the problem may not be right there; it’s probably 10 pages back (in a screenplay) or further in a book of prose.

The Writer’s Journey: Does inspiration feel like something particular or specific to you?
Allegra: I’m not sure I know what inspiration is. I get excited about the possibility of telling a story, but from there on it’s really just the determination to do it, and showing up every day – whether that means sitting down to work on it, or just mulling it over as I’m driving or doing laundry or, best of all, lying half-awake in bed.

When I get something good – a phrase, an image, a moment of plot – it usually comes as a surprise, and feels like a gift. From where, or whom? Who knows? I don’t have a way of cultivating those gifts, other than showing up for the work. I feel very lucky when they come.

Originally from London, Allegra lives in New Mexico with her partner Cisco Guevara and their son, Rafa. Share here stories here.