Craft, Career & Cheer: Kerry Madden

Learn about Kerry Madden, and read her LJ. Kerry’s books include Harper Lee (Viking, 2009).

Could you tell us about your writing community—your critique group or critique partner or other sources of creative support?

I attended the first meeting of my writing group in spring of 1991. My son Flannery was two-and-a-half, and my daughter Lucy was six-months-old. It was a Thursday evening, and I felt like I was sneaking out of the house with illicit behavior in mind. After all, who would put the babies to bed? Their father, my husband, would, of course (and did), but could I really be gone from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. with a group of women I hardly knew? Wasn’t I being just a little selfish to go out on a weeknight to a writing group when I was hardly a writer?

Two little ones, and I had published nothing. I was teaching ESL in East Los Angeles everyday at Garfield Adult School. My only produced work had been bad, static plays at college with winning titles like “Tea Time,” “All You Can,” “Make Me A Sacrifice,” and most evocative of all – “Colors.” I’d never been published in anything except the “Daily Beacon” newspaper at the University of Tennessee.

I would be among “real” writers who knew so much more than I did, and maybe it would be better for everyone if I turned around and went back home to help get the kids in bed and cleaned the kitchen. But I didn’t turn around. I found the address on a winding Silver Lake street in the days before MapQuest or Google. I went to that group.

I found an impressively clean bathroom with candles, an equally impressive clean kitchen with tea and coffee, a huge dog named Atticus, and a room of women writers.

It’s 2009, and I am still going to that writers’ group. Only a few of us were published back then, and now we’ve all published in our different genres. But more than publishing and more than the honest and incredibly insightful reads and critiques they have given me over the years, I found my best friends.

I found a place to bring work in when it was a mess, and I found a place to share work when it was finding its legs. I learned so much about writing and teaching by listening to these smart women who left their kids at home for one night every two weeks to workshop stories.

I wrote Offsides (Morrow, 1996), my first novel, with the help of this group. My Maggie Valley characters (Viking, 2005-2008) were first tried out in living rooms of the different writers in my writing group.

I would tell any new writer, full of doubt, full of fear, to silence all the naysayers and find a writing group that works for you.

Find one that “gets” you and your work even when it’s raw and new. Find a group where the members rejoice in your success and you rejoice in theirs too. Show up at their readings and buy their books.

I almost turned around that night in 1991. There were a million reasons not to go. But I am so glad I didn’t.

I needed the support of a group and deadlines and focus in the chaos of raising babies and teaching. I felt like a writer again that night, and maybe it was the first time I knew I was in it for the long haul no matter what.

If you were writing your recipe for success, how would you proportion out the time and effort you spend researching, writing, marketing manuscripts, dealing with business correspondence, doing online promotion, doing real-space publicity, speaking at events, and/or teaching/critiquing? What about this combination works for you?

This is the hardest of all for me, especially as of late. I think I have the reputation of doing it well. I blog, I post kids’ stories on my blog, and I love doing so. I set up my readings as writing workshops for kids. I love the connection with young writers and getting them to write stories.

But I am going to be honest here: In the world of publicity and promotion, I have, at times, felt like an Appalachian Willy Loman, hawking books at the Pancake House or reading over the loudspeaker to drum up sales at bookstores or sharing the stage with Clifford, the Big Red Dog and/or the Care Bears.

If I were to be completely honest, I would have to say that I have reached a screeching roadblock with PR and book promotion. My agent tells me that very few of her authors work as hard as I do in promotion. The publicity people at my publishing house said they needed to take a nap after reading one of my tour schedules. They have asked me to write up promotion tips for their new authors, and I have done so. I have hired booking people for schools visits (Winding Oak, and honestly, they’ve been a big help) and I have hired freelance publicists, too, who are also terrific. I have financed my own book tours, bookmarks, postcards, and done many free school visits.

The reason I’ve been so gung-ho is that in 1998, I watched my first book, Offsides, go out of print, and I vowed I wouldn’t let it happen again. I thought if I did it all myself and proved I could do it all myself without whining or being difficult, then I could keep my books in print and begin to make a living as a writer.

And after five years of the dance of promotion and writing, I’m stepping back. I’ve told my editor, and I have her full support. I don’t know how far exactly I’m stepping back, but I know my energy needs to be about writing first, and second, connecting with the kids, teachers, and librarians. If I don’t do the first, then the second isn’t necessary. That is what makes the most sense to me.

I think what I’ve learned and what every author needs to learn is that we need to find a balance and to be comfortable doing what we can reasonably expect of ourselves, and every writer has his or her own threshold. So with that in mind, this is what I feel I can do and not lose my mind in the publicity blitz.

a. I will continue to do a few free school visits with kids who would otherwise never get to meet an author.

b. I will send out postcards, give out bookmarks, donate books, and keep my website updated.

c. I will continue to keep posting stories from children who want to be “Writers of the Day.”

d. I will continue to support other writers, because I have been so incredibly and lovingly supported in this writing community, and it’s vital to do so.

e. I will carve out time at least once a week to do PR and updates, but I will not let it take over my life, which it has threatened to do in the past.

f. I will continue to do all my readings and workshops at indie bookstores because they are the reason my books are still alive–the indie booksellers rock, and I will be forever grateful to them.

And I am sure I will do other things…but what I won’t do?

I won’t read on stage with Clifford or the Care Bears or the Wolf Man (a mountain man who does a show with live wolves at “Ghost Town in the Sky” in Maggie Valley–okay maybe I’ll read with the Wolf Man, but definitely not Clifford or The Care Bears). I probably won’t do a book trailer, though, I know I should, and I am in awe of those who do such beautiful book trailers. I won’t do PR and book promotion before I work on my new novel.

PR and book promotion must come after the writing, never before. With PR and book promotion, it will never ever be enough, so as writers, we have to define what exactly is our “enough” and accept it and get back to the business of writing our stories.

What can your fans look forward to next?

I wanted to do something completely different from the Maggie Valley Trilogy, and the Harper Lee biography, so I’m having a great time working on a new novel called The Fifth Grade Life of Jack Gettlefinger. I began working on it in earnest at Kindling Words West in 2008 and received terrific feedback.

My son Flannery gave me his journal from that time, so it’s a valentine to my own kids. Jack is a boy who loves costumes and characters and wants to produce “The Werewolf Hamlet” at his school in order to leave a legacy in the 5th grade. This is a brief section from chapter one:

My mom is mad because I missed the first day of fifth grade. Hello, I am sick! Very sick! But my little sister Sidney still brought me my school journal, and I have been commanded from Fifth Grade Headquarters to think of a name for it.

And so right in the middle of watching the classic 1941 “The Wolf Man,” starring Lon Chaney Junior, all the sudden this journal gets shoved right in my face. I hate it already.

Why are teachers always forcing kids to write? I have nothing to write about, but I do have a name in mind for this school journal. I am going to call it: “The Fifth Grade Life of Jack Gettlefinger.”

I could add the following words: “Forced against his will to keep a school journal.” It’s very tempting. But I don’t think my teacher, Mrs. Tucker, would like it so much.

Cynsational Notes

The Complete List of Links to the Penguin Blog of Harper Lee Research..500 word stories of Monroeville and Gee’s Bend. See also Monday, Miss Alice Lee; Tuesday, Mr. George Thomas Jones; Wednesday, Jennings Carter; Thursday, A.B. Blass and the Christmas Parade; and Friday, Gee’s Bend, Two Alabama Girls.

The Craft, Career & Cheer series features conversations with children’s-YA book creators about positive aspects of their creative and professional lives.