Therese Fowler has believed in the magic of a good story since she learned to read at the age of four. At age thirty, as a newly single parent, she put herself into college, earning a degree in sociology (and finding her real Mr. Right) before deciding to scratch her longtime fiction-writing itch. That led to an MFA in creative writing, and the composition of stories that explore the nature of our families, our culture, our mistakes, and our desires. The author of two novels, with a third scheduled for 2010, Therese lives in Wake Forest, NC, with her supportive husband and sons, and two largely indifferent cats. You can visit her website at www.theresfowler.com or her blog, www.theresefowler.blogspot.com.
Welcome to Beyond the Books, Therese. Can you tell us whether you are published for the first time or multi-published? Can you give us the title(s) of your book(s)?
Hi, and thank you! I’m the author of two novels so far. The first is Souvenir, which came out in 2008 and was released in paperback this spring, and Reunion, which came out in late March.
What was the name of your very first book regardless of whether it was published or not and, if not published, why?
The first novel I wrote was titled True North. I consider it my “practice novel,” the one I wrote to see whether or not I could really write an entire novel. Of course, at the time, I hoped to also find an agent and get the book published—I’m practical and optimistic that way! I got close, but neither of those things happened. The feedback I received was that the story was well-written but suffering from a bit of an identity crisis. That is to say, it wasn’t quite chick-lit (too serious) and not quite mainstream (too chick-lit-ish) and on the edge of Young Adult but not quite there, and too Young-Adult-ish for adults!
For your first published book, how many rejections did you go through before you either found a mainstream publisher, self-published it, or paid a vanity press to publish it?
My first published novel, Souvenir, was submitted by my agent to maybe a dozen or so editors at the major publishing houses. I know a few of them turned it down, but we had offers from several others; it sold at auction a week after submission, and to ten foreign publishers as well.
How did the rejections make you feel and what did you do to overcome the blows?
Well, the above-mentioned rejections had absolutely no impact on me, for obvious reasons—but I’d certainly gotten my share of rejections for the two novels I wrote prior to Souvenir. My approach to dealing with those was always to take any and all encouragement offered by the agents who responded personally (to my first novel) and the editors who wrote up wonderful rejections (to my second novel). Whenever I got constructive criticism, I gave it real consideration and tried to put into practice what made sense for me. Ultimately, the key to overcoming the blows is to get up and fight again. Or, in a word, persevere.
When your first book was published, who published it and why did you choose them?
Because the sale of Souvenir was an auction situation, I had the unexpected pleasure of “interviewing” the interested editors and evaluating which editor and publishing house suited me best. Honestly, I don’t believe any of them would have been bad choices, but I really fell for Linda Marrow, who is not only an editor but also Senior Vice President and Editorial Director for Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House. Linda has been in the business for more than twenty years, and edits a wide variety of very successful authors including Jonathan Kellerman, Carol Goodman, Judith McNaught, and Tess Gerritsen (to give you a sample of her range). As much as all that, she’s simply a delightful, brilliant person and has proven a dream to work with.
Ballantine, as a publisher, has real presence in the marketplace—never a bad thing from an author’s perspective—and dedicated people at the helm in every important division. I trusted them to get me going in the right direction. They’ve published both my books to date, and have me for at least two more.
How did it make you feel to become published for the first time and how did you celebrate?
It was a surreal feeling—especially because I’d never had anything published before! (I’d written short fiction that did quite well in writing contests, but never got into print.) I celebrated by stopping into all the book stores in my area to “visit” my book and autograph copies, and to take photos of the books on display pretty much the way you’d photograph a new baby.
What was the first thing you did as far as promotion when you were published for the first time?
My first promo event was a book launch party at Raleigh, NC’s Quail Ridge Books and Music. We had wine, and a beautiful cake with the book’s cover image reproduced on top—and a wonderful turnout! It was a great way to begin what I hope will be a long and happy career.
If you had to do it over again, would you have chosen another route to be published?
These days, with the advent of more and improved self-publishing options, many aspiring novelists are finding this seeming “short cut” irresistible. And I nearly went that route myself, when I’d endured months and months of finding rejection slips in the mail for that first novel. I investigated the self-publishing companies and the so-called vanity presses, and bought books about marketing. It was oh, so tempting.
The reason I didn’t succumb was because I knew that, difficult as it is, the traditional route was right for the career I hoped for and aspired to. That being true, I did everything in my power to improve my craft and hone my storytelling skills so that an agent and publisher would be willing to invest in me. I would definitely do it the same way over again.
Have you been published since then and how have you grown as an author?
My second novel, Reunion, was just released in late March. It’s hard for me to judge whether or how my writing has changed since I wrote Souvenir—I hope I’m growing and improving; but I do know without question that I’ve grown as a writing professional. There is so much to learn about this industry and about how to grow a career, so many variables to attend to. I felt I was reasonably knowledgeable when I got my foot in the door—and I was. Yet I’ve discovered that a lot of what authors need to know can only be learned experientially. I try to be a good student of my own occupation, asking questions, getting advice (and heeding it!), and above all being professional about every aspect.
Looking back since the early days when you were trying to get published, what do you think you could have done differently to speed things up? What kind of mistakes could you have avoided?
I’m not sure I could have sped things up. I worked steadily and took steps to improve; when it was time to look for representation, I followed guidelines and recommendations… The rejections I received were a valuable part of the process, really—because believe me, they test a would-be author’s mettle in ways that will prove useful when the author has a book, or books, out in the “real” world. Getting published is difficult, but staying published is in many ways just as difficult, if not more so.
As for mistakes, well, I look upon all the things that seemed like setbacks as opportunities to learn a little more of what I needed to know in order to eventually succeed. I probably could’ve used some doses of patience now and then—or, maybe I got them when I needed them after all. Thanks to the good advice I got using resources like Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, and Literary Agents, I didn’t waste time or do anything detrimental or foolish.
What has been the biggest accomplishment you have achieved since becoming published?
The answer depends on what you mean by “accomplishment.” I can point to a number of business-side accomplishments such as BookSense (now IndieBound) recognition, best-seller status at Target, Borders, and the Literary Guild, great reviews from USA Today and others, Souvenir now having its fourth printing in paperback in just ten weeks’ time… And there is perhaps no bigger professional accomplishment for me so far, objectively speaking, than having been given a second two-book contract by the same people who’ve published my first two books. But as thrilling as all those things are (and they truly are, no question), I feel more accomplished whenever I hear from a reader who says “I LOVED your book!” That’s the real test, isn’t it? Because after all, I write for readers.
If you could have chosen another profession, what would that profession be?
Oh, that’s tough because I have so many interests…but if I had to choose one thing, it would probably be something in the medical field. Maybe I’d be a kinder, less conflicted, female version of Dr. Gregory House (a diagnostician, from the TV show House).
Would you give up being an author for that profession or have you combined the best of both worlds?
No way would I give up this gig! I love to write and love the perpetual learning and unique experiences that go along with this profession. I may not be as directly useful as a novelist as I would be as a physician, but based on letters I’ve received from readers who’ve been inspired by my stories, I gather I’m doing some good. Besides, as a novelist I get to work from home and don’t have to buy malpractice insurance.
How do you see yourself in ten years?
With another ten novels out, I hope! And I aspire to what Elizabeth Berg has reportedly accomplished—having every book I’ve written be some reader’s favorite.
Any final words for writers who dream of being published one day?
Regardless of what kinds of stories you write, strive to write them with as much skill and as much heart as you can develop in your work before you seek publication. Not only is this what agents and publishers look for, it’s what readers respond to. Yes, developing your abilities takes time—but making the investment up front will pay off greatly in the long run.