Writing A Novel Set In the Publishing World with Lauren Mechling

Mindy:             Today's guest is Lauren Mechling who has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Slate, The New Yorker online and Vogue where she writes a regular book column. She's worked as a crime reporter and metro columnist for the New York Sun and a features editor at The Wall Street Journal. A Graduate of Harvard College, she lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two children.

Mindy:             Lauren joined me today to talk about how her own experiences in print media helped form the world of her new novel, How Could She?

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Mindy:             Your new book is titled. How Could She? And it follows Rachel, Sunny and Geraldine. It is very much set in the media world it deals with print, it deals with the collapse in many ways of the print industry and then also the rise of podcasting. So why that world?

Lauren:            Yeah, it's about two collapsing worlds, the collapse of friendships over time and the collapse of an industry that is very dear to my heart. I've been part of, you know, initially print media for two decades. And I also was able to weave in one of my true loves and newer love, which is podcasts. I've listened to so, so, so many podcasts. And it all has sort of fit together, as I thought about it in the sense that the stories about three women, okay, they all started out in the print media world and now, you know, a decade later in their mid thirties they have succeeded to varying degrees or in one case not succeeded.

Lauren:            And podcasting is this new dark horse, or it was. And so Geraldine, the character who, you know, all the memos of how to get ahead in life passed her by. She followed her heart and it backfired on her. And she's essentially suffering PTSD at this point from a failed relationship. And she's working at a job that's so beneath her. The only opportunity she really ends up having is one that she creates herself, which is a podcast. And that ends up being the engine of her, you know, ascent and a, you know, a whole new adventure for her.

Mindy:             And one of the things that I enjoyed so much being also an author and moving in the print world myself in the world of publishing, one of the lines that I loved was when one of the characters who is writing a YA novel is talking to an editor and the editor says, "You write beautifully but so does my cat." And I loved that. It was a wonderful indication and it's so true, that just being able to write and even write very well is not enough. There are so many elements involved.

Lauren:            More and more. I mean I think at the time when I wrote that what I was thinking was there has to be a hook, there has to be a high concept there. You know, in order to write a story that has any chance in the market place, you also have to basically tell a whole other story, which is that of yourself and market yourself on, you know, in social media. So yes, being able to put a sentence together is sort of the least of it.

Mindy:             Right. Even if you can do it very well, it doesn't matter. You have to be a hustler and you have to be a mover and a shaker and you have to be able to sell yourself. And I think it's a really interesting dichotomy because a lot of creatives aren't that person. That the performative quality when you're a writer isn't necessarily always there. So do you have any, any thoughts on that?

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Lauren:            I've definitely had to jump into the limelight more than I ever was. I've always felt like I've been like living in the margins even when it doesn't seem that way to other people. I always feel like a bit of an outsider and an observer and yes, now I am, um, you know, writing tons of personal essays and doing interviews about myself. It's, it's strange and I feel that the Lauren Mechling from two years ago, if she saw what was happening, she might be horrified. But it's actually fun and it's necessary. I think it's completely justifiable in a way that maybe the snobby, older version of me wouldn't have thought. I, you know, I really have a story to tell. And so I'm doing whatever I can, I'm doing it for these three women who I invented.

Mindy:             When I was first getting started, I had that, oh, you know, writer in the high castle creating their art for Art's sake. And now I'm like, what do you want me to do? Do you need my hair to be pink? I can make it pink.

Lauren:            It's also fun. I'm not an introvert and I'm not an extrovert. I'm a mix of the two. And writing is hard. I don't feel, I don't think I would be happy if I were in a castle just churning out fiction nonstop. I'm meeting, really cool people. And I also really like, you know, even talking on the phone, which I never get to do anymore. Now I get to do it. And so there's, there's a good side to it. Absolutely. I hope it'll feed me and feed me to, you know, to go back to the castle or as it were, the Brooklyn desk and you know, go back, go into retreat a little bit again.

Mindy:             No, absolutely. Because it is a solitary undertaking and you do need, you do need to refuel sometimes and other people... I'm the same way. Other people help me do that. If I was working in solitary constantly, just being an artist, I think it would stop. My work would suffer.

Lauren:            Totally. There's left, right? There's a writer, oh, Kristin Miller. I remember once, she's a young adult writer and she wants to tell me she had a theory, which is there has to be an equal amount of coming in and going out in that, you know, material comes into you and then it comes out of you as your work and it's important to her to take breaks and be in the world and then go back and have funny things to say about it.

Mindy:             Oh yes. I agree with that. I was a YA librarian for a long time, so I remember, Kristen's series.

Lauren:            Yes. Great. Kiki Strike.

Mindy:             Yes. And Kiki Strike. Yeah.

Lauren:            Yeah. She's so cool.

Mindy:             Wonderful writer. Coming up, the complexities of female friendships as a storytelling concept.

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Mindy:             So the focus of the book also, while the setting and the realm that it's operating in is very much the, the print world. Your focus is very much on female relationships and the intimacy of that, but then also the intimacy fading and there becoming this space in between and some of the assumptions that we make about people that we used to know and perhaps changed and all of the different ways and the complications of a female friendship over time. So if you want to talk about that a little bit since it's a huge focus in the book.

Lauren:            Well, when I started writing the book, I was thinking about the three women's arcs, you know, as an x-y axis of, you know, where they would start when the book starts in January, you know, New Years and then where they would find themselves the next New Years. But in turns out it's essentially not a very accurate way of thinking about the way people change or their relationships change because there's the element of time as this third dimension. And in that sense that people who are intertwined and have a relationship between the two of them, when they reach a point of, you know, everything going well and feeling close to each other and they have, you know, they know how to relate to each other and they have their rhythms. Life throws curve balls and one person will have failures and one person will have successes or you know, new people enter the picture.

Lauren:            And so friendships are, they're very, very, very vulnerable and they're all, they always have to evolve to the moment and then be ready to spin around again and take on a new configuration. And in the book, I really, I looked at these three women who had a, they sort of had a pretty good thing going when they got to know each other. I mean, it was a bit of a fraught triangle because two of the women were very suspicious of each other and not very close, but they all knew where they stood and they all had their roles and they all were for the better because of their relationships with other women. Enter a decade plus, and it's really, really, really hard to maintain the fiction that friendship, these friendships will just remain strong and unchanged and keep going because, you know, someone has a baby, someone becomes a, you know, semi-famous person. Someone has setbacks that cause her to feel, feel sad in a way that other people maybe they don't really understand or they can't truly relate to.

Mindy:             Yes, it's very true. Especially in, um, relationships where one person has a level of success that another has clearly not achieved. You can't ignore that imbalance.

Lauren:            Right. And of course there's lots to go around, but it often doesn't feel that way. It often feels as though one person's success is the reason why you're not where you want to be. Well, and I think it's hard. And the other way, if you, if you know, you do become lucky in some way, you've acknowledged that. Do you talk about it with your friend or you know, do you just keep talking about the same old thing or do you say, hey, I get it. This is weird, this thing that I want it to happen has happened.

Mindy:             It is literally only criticism I have of Big Little Lies. I don't know if you watch it, but

Lauren:            I watched the first season.

Mindy:             Okay. No one ever talks about the fact that Jane is poor. Like it just doesn't come up.

Lauren:            Oh, that's interesting.

Mindy:             Well, right. I mean they're all just so rich and so well off and they're like, Jane's our friend and it's never...

Lauren:            Right. Why can't we talk about that? But my story is set in New York City, class and wealth are huge, huge factors in who we are and how people perceive us. And we all also have these financial mysteries that we conceal from each other. You know, everyone has weird way of surviving. People you know, do things on the side or they get things slipped to them from their aunt or something and it's not, you know, people don't even talk about their salaries very often.

Mindy:             No, I remember that when I got my first book deal, my editor said, don't tell other authors what your advance was.

Lauren:            Uh Huh. Did you think she said that because she didn't want other authors to ask for the same or do you think it was that she didn't want people to be jealous of you or what?

Mindy:             I have no idea. I am not sure. And at the time I was like, oh, okay. And because I was a baby writer I was like, okay, I'll take this very seriously. But now I, I'm just... I believe in transparency and I'm just very honest about what I make and I don't feel a reason to like maintain this fiction of the mystery of income in the creative world.

Lauren:            Right? I mean, right now there's that thing going around where people are, you know, everyone was horrified when the author Taffy Akner talked about how she reached a point in magazine journalism where she was asking for $4 a word. And people were scandalized by that saying, that's so much. That's so unfair. But it's just think even that it's ridiculous and it's simplistic. And if, let's say a magazine writer is writing two 1000 word stories, like it's still not enough to live on. So we're so easily shocked and scandalized by talking money.

Mindy:             Oh, we are, that's very true. When I do, um, when I speak in front of groups and people ask, especially if I'm doing school visits, kids love to ask, how much money do you make? That's always what people want to know. And so I just started answering them. And then I tell them the number and they're just like, oh my God, and then I break it down for them. This is before taxes, this is spread out over 18 months in three payments and once you do that, they're like, oh, it's actually not that much money. I'm like, no, it's not. One of the questions I get because it's a symbol I guess for I'm very landlocked, so maybe that's why, but people will always ask me, do you have a boat? And I'm like, I have a canoe and I bought it used. That's my budget.

Lauren:            It's like in New York, a car in New York City.

Mindy:             That's exactly what it is.

Mindy:             Lastly, how podcast figure into Lauren's new novel and where to find the book and Lauren online.

Mindy:             So I want to talk about podcasting and your focus on podcasting in the book as well. Since that is how Geraldine then goes on to make a mark for herself and how you know, what led you to that? I know that you're an avid listener, so it just your own consumption. What kicked that particular plot element?

Lauren:        Sure. I mean it must've been, you know, it's, it's front and center and then in the back of my head, just the, the beauty in the world of podcasts and then as a fiction writer, you know, we, we sort of retake the ingredients that life hands us and make art out of them. And when I listen to podcasts, one of the things I do, I learn about the world and people who are being interviewed. But I also fantasize about, I don't know, just the podcasting life and who are these people who are doing the interviews and how do they get here? And usually it is people who come from more traditional of journalism backgrounds or entertainment backgrounds and then they decide that they want to do something where yeah, they can curse and things don't have to be perfectly or redone over and over.

Lauren:            It can just feel natural. And I love also the, the conversational element because we don't have conversations the way, I mean, I used to talk on the phone for hours, hours and hours a night when I was young. There's nothing that terrifies people more than the words, "are you up for a quick call?" It's like people are scared. They think that it means I've, you know, I'm going to tell them that somebody died or that I'm mad at them when in fact I just like to shoot the shit.

Lauren:            So in podcasts people get to do that and it worked in the narrative because there is like, there isn't that barrier of entry as far as I imagine to making podcasts as there is to getting a job at some international corporation that peddled news and culture stories. So Geraldine, I love her. She is lost. She is lovely. She is curious. She's smart, she's unafraid but fragile. And of course she latches onto podcasting. And in fact it turns out to be the best thing she's ever done in her life. Whereas her friends who have these more, you know, perceived as fancy, enviable situations. I mean one of them is a coveted artists, you know, tastemaker. And then the other one is a Young Adult writer and who has a part time job in a magazine, but their professional struggles are much greater.

Mindy:             Last thing, let listeners know where they can find you online and where they can find the book.

Lauren:            The book is available anywhere are sold. It's called, How could She? Has a bright orange cover with big lettering, hard to miss. And online I am at Lauren Mechling on Twitter and I spent a lot of time there and on Instagram I am at Laurenomics like economics, but Laurenomics and I am also at The Clog Life, which is a whole other story, but it's a very fun community.

Making Art Even When You're Lost with Andrea Hannah

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Mindy:             Today's guest is Andrea Hannah, an award winning author, essayist and workshop leader. She teaches on living a healthy, creative life at her Wild Heart retreats and writes about making art on Twitter and Instagram. Andrea joined me today to talk about using the same process, whether she's writing fiction or nonfiction, and the constant hustle of being a successful freelancer.

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Mindy:             You have written both essays and novels. You are a staff writer for Bustle and your YA novel, Of Scars and Stardust released from Flux in 2014. So you obviously have some experience across the board with different types of writing. If you could talk a little bit about your own creative process and how you manage those different arts of writing with the essay versus fiction.

Andrea:            It's super interesting because when you think about it, all of those forms and structures are completely different, right? But when I start any piece, whether it's a long form piece or even a short story or a poem or even if it's something for myself personally, I always start the same way. I think of my creativity as a message of what I want to say and who I am. We work in ideas and we are putting new, innovative thoughts out into the world that hopefully catch fire. So I always start with what do I want to say with this piece? I have tons of interests and I could go in a million different directions at any time. What is it that's important for me to say and am I the person that should be saying it?

Andrea:            So once I have that down, then I kind of work in big ideas, big abstract ideas I might think of mood or tone or theme. And that's where I started getting some visual ideas. I have like a private Pinterest board where I start putting things together for that. I build a world around it, characters and plot. And that's true for both nonfiction and fiction. So even when I write essays about my past, you're still applying a narrative structure to a life - basically to chaos. The only difference with Bustle is that I'm projecting Bustle's message. So they have a specific prompt and they have a message and what they want to say. And I'm just making sure that I echo that.

Mindy:             As someone who is interested myself in freelance writing and that process of getting picked up to write smaller pieces as opposed to really burying yourself in something that's going to take possibly years to write and hope that it can turn into an income. Can you talk a little bit about managing those smaller pieces and turning those smaller pieces like an essay into a freelance income? How does one get their foot in the door at a place like Bustle?

Andrea:            It is so rewarding to just work on a piece for like a week and turn it in and see it get published and be done with it like it's off your plate and it's so satisfying because you know how it is with a novel. It's just years and years until you can really see the finished product. Security's a big issue. I have two small kids and if I wanted to make a freelance career, I knew I would have to have something that had some stability where I knew more work was coming just for my own mental health. Bustle is actually one of the best companies to freelance for because they often post job listings online and they will look for what they call staff writers, but they're actually freelancers. Like I have to pay taxes out of my... On my own. So they have staff writers that they are on staff and you get a weekly schedule and a weekly list of articles and you apply for the job like you would any other job.

Andrea:            Like I think I sent in my resume in a pitch, a sample pitch, and then they called me and we had interviews and back and forth kind of thing. So, and I get a trial day there, but it's been wonderful. I've been there for a year and a half. It's a great company to work for and I know that there's always work coming, so it's got the stability of a regular job. But then there's also the flexibility, which is great. A couple of my other freelance clients, I go straight for. They're people that I pitched directly where I liked their work online, like they might be small business owners or studios or different places that I've been to before that I really like and I had sent them an email just conversational, friendly, like, Hey, I've been to your yoga studio or I really admire your work or I've read this book and I follow your business on platforms.

Andrea:            If you ever need a content or a copywriter, I do both. Here's a sample of my work, please contact me. And that's worked out for me a few times as well. So I have a couple of stable ghostwriting clients that I meet with on the phone every week and I write blogs and different social media posts for them as well. So, and then I also place like the periodic essay in different places as well, like Thrive Global or MindBodyGreen or any of those. That's not where the majority of my income comes from, if that makes sense.

Mindy:             Every freelancer that I've talked to talks about the hustle involved because you are chasing down every job.

Andrea:            Oh, for sure. Absolutely. So for me, having those stable behind the scenes incomes are really important for me because it's enough money where I feel secure enough and anything after that is bonus. So if I can't hustle for a specific week because I have a sick kid or I'm sick, it gives me a little bit more leeway.

Mindy:             You also have extensive experience, not only with your own creative process, but nursing the creative process of others as well as their creative soul. You offer both workshops and retreats to assist creatives. So if you could tell my listeners about how you came to create these programs and what they have to offer to participants.

Andrea:            You know how you look back at your life and there are clues to what you should have been doing all along, especially when you were younger and you don't really see it at the time. But hindsight's twenty twenty. That's kind of what this has been like for me. So I was recently at lunch with a group of writer friends and we were chatting about writing stuff and all of them said, oh yeah, I used to come home from middle school and just open up my mom's clunky laptop. And all I did was write until it was time for dinner. And they all chimed in. They're like, yeah. And I wrote my journals and I wrote in this and I was kind of like, aw, I didn't do that at all. I never had that desire to do that. What's interesting is I was always kind of like a creative kid who liked to make crafts and, and do art, and I went to art classes and I did dance and ballet and I wrote funny stories for a period, but mostly I was a creative kid who wanted to be a helper.

Andrea:            Anybody who needed help. I was always like, oh, I'll help you. And I was always kind of like, everybody's unofficial counselor. And I loved it. So I went into teaching actually. Really, I was a special education teacher for a long time and that quenched that thirst to help people, but it didn't necessarily allow me a lot of leeway to, to explore creativity and others'. And then early in my career, my mom died and she was super sick for a while before that. And my mom was a really, really creative, wild woman person born a little bit too soon. Um, she was just born at the wrong time and didn't have a lot of chances to express as her creativity.

Andrea:            She was a single mom working a lot, that kind of thing. And so her passing away really lit something in me to help creative people create with less friction in their lives. And uh, it merged the creative part of myself and the helper part of myself. There's this lack of allowing in creative people, so many artists and writers and musicians I talk to say things like, I can't write that because that's not marketable or I can't write in the morning because then I might miss this. I can't miss a single basketball game or else I'll be a bad parent. Or, if I take time for my own writing, the house will go to garbage, kind of thing. There's so much resistance to just letting yourself be who you're going to be and allowing yourself to be creative in the ways that you were made to be creative and allowing your projects to be what they're going to be.

Andrea:            And so over the years between my teaching - I also teach a creative writing class at a community college - doing mini workshops, has really led me to distill that theory down to "let's teach people how to know themselves, how to allow creativity to come through them." That's basically what my retreats are about. That's what any of my newsletters are about. It's, it's about time to sit back, find out who you are and what works best for you, and I've designed some specific tools, like a mapmaking process. And we do use some esoteric tools sometimes, like we dip into Tarot and astrology and all that stuff as tools for self-reflection so that you can find your own path and what works best for you and and make some cool stuff.

Mindy:             One of the things that I really heard you talking about underneath all of that is guilt. Essentially it's a lose lose because we feel guilt if we aren't being creative because we do know that we are not fulfilling something that we are called to and also we are failing that project. Whatever that project would be. Whether you have one novel in your, if you have 10 it's like if you are not fulfilling that story, your story that no one else is going to tell, then you do feel like you're failing on that end. But then as you're saying, there is just a myriad of real life requirements that we have everyday. Kids, job, work, house, all of the things, social pressures, even all of the things that we are required to do to be a healthy functioning human being or at least socially responsible. And I think especially women, especially when it comes to the house and keeping the house clean and keeping food on the table and raising the kids. And it's not meant to be a sexist statement because plenty of men fulfill those jobs too. But I think women suffer more socially and personally if they're not doing those things and doing them very well.

Andrea:            I totally agree with you. I can't tell you how many people, women in my life have been or women identifying people in my life have been like, ah, I can't. I when the kids get older, I will make that website, write that novel, paint that painting. Women more than men, need somebody to stand there and pat them on the back for a second and be like, look, it's all right. You can get going on this. And I like being that encourager and I, even if that means I'm not in person encouraging them at a retreat. Maybe it's through Instagram posts or a newsletter or whatever. I just want women to know that what you make has value beyond and who you are has value beyond what you can do for somebody else.

Mindy:             I think it's really interesting too, you're talking about being a creative yourself yet, but many of your urges are directed towards helping others with their work. And I find that really fascinating to be honest because, and I say this as a creative myself, most of us are pretty self involved.

Andrea:            That's so funny. I, yeah, I didn't think of it like that.

Mindy:             I have never felt like, you know, I am going to help someone else make their work as good as possible because that is a drive that I have. You know what I mean? It's not. My passion is for my own work I guess is what I'm trying to say.

Andrea:            So you know what's so funny about that? I think that goes back to me as a kid being like, well what do you mean? Nobody? Like everybody else is sitting around painting and writing. Like I want to go help that kid on the street or something. And I'm not trying to say that to be like, look at me. I'm so awesome. It's just truly has been a drive within me my whole life. And I think what's interesting about that is I actually just quit teaching in a traditional school very recently and I had been teaching part time for a while. Up until then, and to be honest with you, I could have financially quit teaching a while ago, but I didn't for the reason that I didn't want to ever stay at home all day and write. That has never appealed to me. That kind of gives me hives. Thinking about it, I wanted to teach like I want to help people. I want to be interacting with people regularly. So I just started doing my retreats last year and I've booked a bunch of workshops and I'm regularly teaching at the community college by my house. I feel like I could leave that school setting. I wasn't going to be at home writing all day, which is so funny because people are so different.

Mindy:             Coming up. How Andrea's upcoming release A Map for Wild Hearts is designed to help creatives find their way through the obstacles blocking their artistic goals.

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Mindy:             So let's talk a little bit about how you do help people find their way to their art. Your newest release A Map for Wild Hearts: How to Make Art Even When You Are Lost, is designed to help the reader with a myriad of problems that they may come across in their creative process, but also their larger lives. So if you could tell us a little bit about that, what your goals are for that book and some of the things that you're hoping to address with that title.

Andrea:            A Map for Wild Hearts is one of the books in my heart. And I would say it's kind of a culmination of all of my life's philosophies wrapped up into this workbook. And it's part guidebook, it's part essay, and it's part research-backed philosophy on how to create with less friction. So the First Section of the book is titled How You Got Here. And it's very forest metaphor heavy, but it's all about how you may have gotten lost. Various ways that creatives tend to get lost. Everything from toxic relationships or showing your work before you're ready, or a comparison or lack of stability and structure in your own life or not dreaming big enough. And it talks through each section that way. And then the second section is How to Make A Map. Basically, how to get yourself out of the woods. You start with the idea and I walk readers through their creative process.

Andrea:            There are seven chapters where it starts with internal and it ends up being external. So the first three chapters are ideas and identifying your own voice and identifying your direction you want to head into. And each chapter comes with specific activities. Everything from prompts to mad libs style, fill in the blank to little quizzes. So they go through and do that. And once you've got your internal stuff together, you can kind of start to seek out relationships that are good for you or how to know when it's time to show your art to somebody. That's a lot about emotions. Like jealousy and anger and sadness. And then it also talks about joy.

Mindy:             I particularly like what you're saying about toxic relationships and also comparison. It doesn't matter where you are in your journey, someone is ahead of you. I know so many people and I was one of these that I thought, you know, if I could just get published then I will be happy. And uh, that's simply not true. You appreciate being published, but then you're like, well, I've got one book out now I want two. Now I want a movie deal. Why don't I have a Netflix show? You're never fulfilled. And then you're looking at other people going, well they have that. Why don't I?

Andrea:            So I'll tell you a little story. I'll be completely honest about this book as well. This is indie published and it's the first time I've done this and I've actually hadn't had any interest in indie publishing even though I think it's wonderful. I just, it hasn't been my avenue of choice until now. And I have an agent, we had this on submission for a long time as a proposal. And then I wrote the entire thing and had it professionally edited, which I don't suggest anybody does that, but I was so certain that this book had to be out in the world that I was going to indie publish it if it didn't sell. So it was an investment for me. We put it out and it got really close to being picked up several times. But in the end it was the marketing department at acquisitions that was like, I don't know, it's kind of this strange hybrid, like I wouldn't know how to market it.

Andrea:            Is it adult? Is it this? Is it a workbook? Is it a prose book kind of thing? And so it got turned down at acquisitions and for me that was heartbreaking. But I sat with myself a little bit there and I said, okay, what's the message, right? Do I think this is important enough to go out? Like I tell all these creatives, be brave, make without fear, put things out there, take chances. So I had to do that as well. And I am indie publishing this. It comes out on August 13 and to be honest with you, I'm, I'm happier with the publishing journey than I've been in a long time. It doesn't have a traditional book deal, but people are excited about it. People who read early copies have said that it's helped them so much that they can't wait to share it with other people. And that's really all I wanted for the book. So in the end, my goal is aligned with with what it is and I think that that matters more than looking at what other people have going on for them.

Mindy:             That's the truth. And I know just from having gone to acquisitions and been turned down quite a few times, that marketing, they're the ones that make the decision in the end and as a creative it is frustrating because I have zero control over what the market is doing. You have to look at it as a positive in that if it's the case that it made it to acquisitions, then that is an indicator that you're doing something right. It's not a judgment on your work usually. It literally is the market and the list at that moment and in that time that is making the decision about whether or not you're getting published.

Andrea:            Totally. And I say that in A Map For Wild Hearts too. There's a thin line between knowing when critique is valid and when you have to trust your own gut on something. And for me that was the line. If I had had editors saying, you know this part needs work, this doesn't make sense. If I had found some common threads, some common ground between all of what my agent was saying and critique partners and editors, then I would have really taken that to heart. There was no common thread and it was a marketing department decision for me that just meant well then I'll market it. Like, I'll do it.

Mindy:             Right. Absolutely. You know your audience and you know how and who to market it to. So strike out on your own for sure. And I like to what you're saying about how you had to take your own medicine, essentially you had to go and do the thing that you have been telling people to do for a long time and make that leap.

Andrea:            For sure. And I'm not going to lie, it was, it is and was super scary, but I am so glad that I've done it. So my advice to anybody trying to make anything is you go and you do it and try not to think about what other people are doing and just listen to your own true voice on it. And it might end up with an agent or it might end up with a publisher or you might be indie publishing it or you might lose passion for it and put it in a drawer. And you have to be okay with all of those results. You know how publishing is. You just don't know what's going to happen.

Mindy:             Oh, you don't. And it's entirely out of your control, which is freeing once you managed to embrace that.

Mindy:             Lastly, writing through chronic pain, illness, depression, and where to find Andrea online.

Mindy:             One of my most popular episodes on this podcast is with Hillary Jastram who is the CEO of SickBiz and she deals with chronic pain herself while being a creative. And so her episode about mental illness and depression and dealing with chronic pain while being a creative is my most downloaded episode. So in A Map for Wild Hearts is chronic pain, depression or mental illness something that you address as a block, as something that is getting in the way of the creative process for your readers?

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Andrea:            Oh heck yes. I am depressed and I also have generalized anxiety disorder and if you believe it or not, for all of my loving being around people, I also have social anxieties. And I have worked with different therapists and medications my entire life. So I address that a lot and I'm honest about that a lot. I offer suggestions, but mostly I offer grace. I want people to feel, especially people who are chronically ill, to feel that they are witnessed and seen and heard and that there is another creative out there that is doing her best to make cool stuff everyday. But that sometimes I just can't make it either. And one thing that I have that I think is helpful for anyone dealing with chronic pain as a creative is at the end of each chapter I have a Make Your Map exercise so people can actually make a visual representation of their creative process. And then if that is too hard for them and they're, you know, just struggling to get through that, there's something called a mapping modification where it actually gives you visuals or suggestions so that you can just plug them right in their map and it kinda takes the burden of figuring something else out away from you. So I think it is also helpful if you're really, really struggling. There's another like stepping stone to help you get there.

Mindy:             You've mentioned the mapping concept a few times. Can you tell us a little bit more about that and how that process works?

Andrea:        Sure. It is so fun. Actually. I just had a workshop on it and online workshop for a Woman Unleashed and it was so much fun. I provide you with a pdf of map paper, but you can make your own. It's mostly just a blank sheet of paper with a little box in the corner for a key and then another box for a compass. So as we go through each chapter and we work from internal to external, we add little things to your map and we kind of think of the map as one project at a time. So if I'm working on finishing my novel, I try to make this map to represent what I'm going through and what my creative process is going to look like just for this project. Because as you know, things change with every book and piece that you write.

Andrea:            I have this map and in the compass section I might think of a theme I want to go towards or a message I want to send and I write it down on my map. And then as I'm going along, I think of typical obstacles that might get in my way before I finish this thing. And for me that looks different with every book that I write. So this last book I just finished. I was in too many things, coaching too many soccer things, taking kids to ballet, just I had way too much going on. So I wrote that in my key with a little extension bridge as my symbol for that. And then another obstacle I had lack of rest and I put a little angry grizzly bear in there for that. And so you may make a key of all of your obstacles that, that you can foresee coming up and you also make the key of the antidote for those obstacles.

Andrea:            So, over extension would be rest and not resting would also be rest. And then also community and socialization or I'm trying a creative art that isn't writing, to kind of refresh my brain. And you just make a path through the woods. I walk you through in more detail on the book. A lot of people like to use the maps when they finish as like a vision board so that they can tack it up on their corkboard or on their desk so they can keep it handy when they're feeling really stuck. And a lot of people alter them as they go along, like and they come other obstacles and they can brainstorm with friends about what the antidote might be. And it just kind of gives you a really realistic picture, a bird's eye view of what it's going to take out of you and that you also have solutions to those things that you might come across.

Mindy:             Very cool. So it is a literal map of the obstacles that you envision getting in your way to your goal and how you plan to circumvent them.

Andrea:            Yes, totally.

Mindy:             So cool. I love it. Last thing, what is up next for you and where can listeners find you online?

Andrea:        Oh my gosh. I feel like I have a million disjointed parts coming out next for me. I actually just finished my first YA in a really long time. It's called Black Bear Wild and it's about black bears that lumber into this town and are attacking the town and people because they are, they're starving from climate change, which is actually a real thing that's happening right now. And about a girl who is, her father is like a famous wildlife biologist and then her longtime boyfriend goes missing and they think it was a bear attack and she's got to figure out all this. So I'm really excited about that book. It's still in the editing phase with my agent though, so it'll be awhile until anything happens to that. But I'm super pumped that I went back to YA after a long hiatus there. And then I am also working on a graphic novel and it's called Heroes of the Oak and it's about, um, it's a Jumanji meets Stranger Things mashup, which is really fun. I'm just doing my retreats and I'm doing some workshops. I'm doing one in New York City in October. And you can find me online on my website. It's just my name. It's Andreahannah.com and I'm on all the socials at andeehannah.

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Exploring Themes of Motherhood & Sisterhood in Fiction with Gillian McAllister

Today's guest is Gillian McAllister, a British author best known for her bestselling debut novel Everything But The Truth. Her new US release, The Good Sister, is an electrifying novel about the unyielding bond between two sisters, which is severely tested when one of them is accused of the worst imaginable crime.

Gillian joined me to talk about how her background in law helps illuminate her fiction, writing for the American audience, and how she explores themes of motherhood and sisterhood in her thrillers.

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Mindy:             Welcome to Writer, Writer, Pants On Fire. Where authors talk about things that never happeend to people who don’t exist. We also talk craft, the agent hunt, query trenches, publishing industry, marketing, and more. I'm your host Mindy McGinnis. You can check out my books and social media at www.mindymcginnis.com and make sure to visit the Writer, Writer Pants On Fire blog for additional interviews, query critiques, and more, at www.writerwriterpantsonfire.com If the blog or podcast have been helpful to you or if you just enjoy listening, please consider donating. Visit www.writerwriterpantsonfire.com and click support the blog and podcast in the sidebar.

Mindy:             Today's guest is Gillian McAllister, a British author, best known for her best selling debut, Everything But The Truth. Her new US release, The Good Sister is an electrifying novel about the unyielding bond between two sisters, which is severely tested when one of them is accused of the worst imaginable crime. Gillian joined me today to talk about how her own background in law helps inform her fiction, writing for an American audience and how tapping into universal themes like motherhood and sisterhood were key to her newest release, The Good Sister.

Mindy:             Your new book is called The Good Sister. It is about a sister who has to question everything she thinks she knows about her sibling after the death of her child. So if you could talk a little bit just about what the book is about so listeners can get a feel for what kind of read they're looking at here.

Gillian:             Yes. So The Good Sister really is a character led family drama about two sisters, Martha, who is struggling to balance new brotherhood with being the CEO of a charity she's set up and Becky who she entrusts to look after the new baby while she has to work. Then the unthinkable happens and the book opens on the first day of Becky's trial for murder.

Mindy:             And you are also a trained lawyer, which I'm sure was incredibly helpful to you while writing this book.

Gillian:             Definitely I sort of was, although I wasn't a court lawyer, I was exposed to lots of different cases and I talked about them with lawyers and I was able to research things easily and I sort of know naturally the kind of language used in the law and in courtrooms. So yes, definitely it was a big help.

Mindy:             And when it comes to writing courtroom scenes, I know just because in one of my own novels I had written a courtroom scene that I thought was just riveting and it set my plot perfectly in the way things pan out, was exactly what I was going for. And then I shared it with a friend of mine who was also an author and a lawyer who was like, yeah, this is great for fiction. He's like, what you wrote would never actually fly in a real courtroom.

Mindy:             And the way you have your books set up is really smart structurally because we go back and forth between the past and some of the actions and the interactions between our characters and the actual courtroom scenes. So the vagaries of an actual court process can actually be really dry. A lot of the drama that we see on television and in movies and in books usually isn't the way it would actually go down. So if you could talk about that a little bit and how you kind of mediated the realities of a dry courtroom with the more tense and personal aspects of actual human interaction outside of the courtroom, for the purposes of your plot.

Gillian:             Like you say, for every minute of drama we see, there's hours of adjournments and juries falling asleep and witnesses not showing up. And although I wanted it to be authentic with no sort of shouted objections and no sort of pacing lawyers. In Britain, the courtroom is a little more sedate but no less dramatic. Um, and I think in toning that down, I let the human relationships come to the fore and really the novel structure where you go back to the past and you also get little vignettes of each witness that was born out of like you say, I, I didn't want to write a closed set book that only took place in a courtroom and was just reams and reams and reams of questions. So in The Good Sister, as each witness takes the stand, you get that own chapter in their own voice at the time, what they saw. So you're sort of taken out of the courtroom, via their memories.

Mindy:             And it works very well. I have to say there's a wonderful back and forth where the reader who doesn't know, of course, what actually happens on the day that the child passed away. Every chapter is leading you somewhere that you wouldn't expect, I would think.

Gillian:             Yes, I think that's right. I hope there are a few sort of twists and turns and the reader really is focused on whether or not Becky did it. That is the central question that the novel answers. But it definitely, there were all sorts of red herrings and you know, other suspects and all that that you would expect from a thriller as well as a character led drama.

Mindy:             So I want to talk just briefly about the fact that this is your first US release and because it does take place in a courtroom, and there are also other industries like health workers and people that are taking the stand that are speaking about things that they have noticed within the family. And it's not always using the same terminology that we use in the US and I noticed that as well in the courtroom scenes. You said yourself that in the British cart room that it's a little more restrained. The language is slightly different too. So I was just curious if you had any concerns about anything being lost in translation for a courtroom drama for a US audience.

Gillian:             Yeah, I mean I think when you're published internationally, you always hope your fiction will translate well. Whether that is in sort of a different kind of English languages, the States has from the UK or actual literal translations into other foreign countries. I know that Putnam, my publisher at Penguin have used a lot of proofreaders so hopefully they have all sort of, well I know that they will understand it and I think really The Good Sister deals with themes that are universal. So I mean the courtroom is fairly similar that you have witnesses who get cross examined, you have juries, you have the defendant standing there, you have, whether she would have been granted bail or not. There's so many similarities between the British and the American legal system and, but really The Good Sister deals with themes of sort of the price of forgiveness and sisterhood and motherhood. And I think those really are truly universal.

Mindy:             Absolutely. Yeah, they are. And I want to come back to motherhood, which you mentioned. I love how you portray motherhood and it's not all glowing skin and happiness. There are ugly parts to motherhood and you're drawing real women here, you're drawing the actual mother, but also a caretaker. And they're not always the picture of the idolized, happy, glowing mother that is so thrilled to be up at 3:00 AM holding their baby and staring into their face with great love. These are stressed women, these are modern women with modern concerns, but they are still the primary caretakers for an infant and an event and a toddler need constant care and support. So I really liked what you were doing, showing the stresses of motherhood and especially on a mother that is also working and trying to balance their lives. So if you could talk a little bit about that, what your goals were there, and also if you've had any, if you had any sort of concerns about portraying motherhood realistically.

Gillian:             I mean, yeah, I think I always want to write real characters and not a single one of my characters is without flaws. They may not all be completely likable, but it was important to me that they would be real. Like you say, it would be easy to write a novel where somebody loses a child where they were in the idle of motherhood and they were loving 100% every moment of it. But I observed my friends and family who have had children and it just isn't the case. Of course, real life is just more complicated than that.

Gillian:             And motherhood is, from what I can tell, being childless, it seems like a huge life upheaval and you suddenly have to prioritize somebody else when you've had maybe 30 years of prioritizing yourself. And I think it's both fascinating how sort of willingly people manage to do that. When to me it looks so difficult. Um, but also how complex their relationship it really is. And you've created another human and you've got that bond for life and there's nothing like it. So I really just wanted to use the crime as a vehicle to sort of explore that relationship and, and put pressure on it too.

Mindy:             And the other thing you did that I thought was interesting, isn that we're not looking at a cherubic little baby that's always perfect and easy to take care of. None of them are. And I really appreciated that. Like you were showing a colicky baby. You're showing, you know, up in the middle of the night with a baby that won't stop crying and you can't figure out why to the point that it's like, you know, you're, you're understanding why some women do snap. Why that caretaker role is very much as you're saying, putting someone else first. You are second if not last in the consideration.

Gillian:             Yes, totally. I noticed that that is a particular concern for women that some women feel that they do come last in the pecking order. Um, and you know, The Good Sister does definitely explore that hierarchy and that inequality that sometimes women do feel like the martyr of the family and you know, rightly so, in some circumstances. And it was important for me. I see so many crime novels where there is a family but the children just sort of run off, you know, off stage left during important plot moments.

Gillian:             And really The Good Sister is about Layla the baby, and so I wanted to portray her as, even though she was eight weeks, as fully rounded. And I don't know a single person who has a baby who just sleeps in the corner all the time. So I didn't want to write a book where that happened either.

Mindy:             Right, exactly. No, even the baby is a very real character, which is lovely. I want to ask about why the uh, main character, why did you have her as being the head of a nonprofit? I was curious about that choice for her employment.

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Gillian:             Well it was born out of a plot problem really, which I spoke to a lot of my friends and my sister who has children and I said, what would compel you to leave an eight week old overnight? And they, they really said family emergencies. Some women may feel comfortable doing that and some not. But I wanted Martha to have an exceptional reason because I knew that her likability would be in question. And I, you know that rightly or wrongly because men do leave their children, generally speaking. I don't want to gender stereotype, but maybe they leave them earlier than than women do. Men might go away for a night earlier. And part of that is biological. I really wanted Martha to have a cast iron reason for doing so because I didn't want the reader to not side with her. So really that was born out of a crime writers plotting problem.

Gillian:             But then it opened up so many interesting questions about the greater good. And Martha's charity is dealing with children who are refugees and so they sort of arguably need her more than her own baby, or at least that's the way it works in Martha's hyper logical mind, although she obviously comes to regret it. And it actually sort of started a really interesting debate with myself about the morality of leaving your own child to care for other people's. Both Becky and Martha actually both do that.

Mindy:             And you're totally right about it being a likeability problem for your reader because you do have to have sympathy on the side of, of Martha in order for the book to work. And it is an unfortunate truth that in our society, a mother that is leaving her young child is automatically going to have a strike against her. She has to have a very good reason for doing that

Gillian:             In the same way that I turned the plot problem of the courtroom being kind of tedious in some ways into what I like best about the book - the witness vignettes - I have turned the plot problem of Martha's likability into something I explored and I actually, I began to address it in the text because I was thinking, well Scott was away that night too, which is Martha's husband. They both left the baby. But Martha is the culpable one in the eyes of society and the press and even the courtroom. And I actually then started to discuss that in the book because I just thought it was so interesting. I mean you see it all the time in the media, you know female sports people asked how, how they balance it with motherhood and men are much more rarely asked and that is something that women are beginning to question in the public eye, which is really brilliant. And it was sort of a way to explore that slight inequality that still exists.

Mindy:             Yes, it absolutely does. Which brings me to Becky who is the sister who is trying to find a way to support herself and the child that she has but having a hard time finding her own path and knowing what she wants. So in some ways you have the same struggle going on with Becky where there's a career need while also being a parent. Her child is older, she has a son, but there is that question again because she is a parent and because she is focused on her own career of likability and of course we have the title of the book, The Good Sister. The assumption is that Martha is the good sister. Becky is the one that has less of a positive trajectory. She doesn't have all of the elements of an upstanding comfortable sort of life that Martha has. So if you want to talk a little bit about that, about the squaring off of the two characters kind of against each other, the way it is used in the court, but then also how the title plays into that.

Gillian:   It was important for me to portray a kind of universal relationship and I think that the older in control, sensible sister versus the younger more volatile sister is such a universal thing and like not just in families but in romantic relationships. That sort of opposite pairing. Definitely. I see it all the time. That dynamic and I was really interested in, you know, if you've always known your younger sister had a little bit of a temper or she wasn't very good at holding a job down, how that looms really large when she's accused of a crime and all those fault lines in your relationship kind of become huge. And with The Good Sister I think. I mean ultimately that there is a strong thread of sibling rivalry running through the novel and I think each sister thinks the other is the good sister and in the conclusion they, I think they kind of come to a little bit of peace about that.

Mindy:             The book is about so many things dealing with female relationships, the sister relationship, the relationship of mothers and also of course they have their own mother who is now in a way torn. Becky is staying with her and Martha is having to kind of juggle that whole idea herself where there is this strain within their family. What do the parents believe? Do they think that Becky did it? Are they on Becky's like quote unquote side? And the parents are trying to have to walk this line between what they should and shouldn't say, what they can even talk about to their own children when there is a court and a media circus around their interpersonal relationships

Gillian:             The parents deserve their own novel don't they? It's such a fascinating kind of moral dilemma. Like what do you do if your child is accused of a crime but the victim is your other child? Um, and I think really they, they try and sort of play it even handedly between the two sisters. Even though part of Becky's bail conditions is that she resides with the parents. They don't take sides. But I think in doing so, both Becky and Martha find it frustrating. Um, but neither parent will kind of come down on one side. I don't know what the answer is in that situation. There is no right answer really. The family is sort of fractured and changed forever regardless of the outcome of the trial.

Mindy:             Things are going to pass in between people that that can't be unsaid and can't be forgotten. When you're in a situation like that, it would change you regardless of the outcome. When you don't know what the outcome will be, you're going to be reacting honestly yet guardedly. What a tricky, tricky situation.

Gillian:             No, exactly. And the parents don't know if Becky... Becky has no alternative explanation only that she didn't do it, which is not a very compelling defense. So I don't think they can do anything but wait and hope that the justice system will provide the truth, which it doesn't always. The justice system answers the question of whether there's enough evidence to convict, which is not the same as the truth.

Mindy:             Very fine distinction. So talk to me a little bit more about Becky. She's also divorced, correct?

Gillian:             She is separated, yes. She's not yet divorced. She's separated from her husband Mark. Yeah.

Mindy:             That plays into then her character, the public assumption in the way that she is read because she is in some ways kind of judged for that. She has a failed relationship. And then we have Martha, who of course is in a marriage- outwardly happy marriage. Again, it plays into the assumptions that people make about, especially women in a situation where they are separated or divorced or there is some sort of non harmonious romantic relationship. And even though the separation is amicable yet perception is that something has gone horribly wrong and that she, Becky is the one that carries the responsibility for that.

Gillian:             Yeah. I mean I think I wanted to probe the sort of notion that Martha really has it all. She's a CEO of a charity, so she's a working mother. She, she had a baby a couple of years into marriage. Um, she sort of did it all in the traditional way, whereas Becky got pregnant, I think she was 19. She'd just gone to university so she dropped out and then she's a single mom and she's never really held a job down. But actually if you look at who's happier - taking out the tragedy - Becky sort of says in in one of the flashback scenes where she's still with Mark when they were hanging the wallpaper in anticipation of their baby being born. She actually said, I shouldn't be happy at 19 and pregnant and dropped out of university, but I'm so happy with this man. And I think it's so interesting the sort of stories we tell ourselves about how our life has to appear to the outside world versus the messy truth with it and where you can be completely happy within chaos.

Mindy:             And chaos is a good word for Becky's life. I particularly like her opening scene where she is running around trying to acquire a particular print of fabric for a chair that is needed for a TV set and they need it tomorrow. And so she's running around just insanely trying to make things come together and she's stressed and she's upset and she's calling Martha and saying, I can't believe my life. It's ridiculous. But at the same time, even though she does end up leaving that life, she's kind of thriving on it. She does enjoy it to a degree. It just becomes too much.

Gillian:             Exactly. She, she thrives on adrenaline or drama if you, if you want to kind of be slightly more judgmental about it. But Becky would tell you that she's a failure and she, oh, she can't secure the right sets for her job and she needs Martha's support. But actually what Becky can't see is that she's so resourceful. She found the zebra print at 11 o'clock at night. She found the chair, she went home and covered it. And Becky's real problem of her own self esteem and her own self perception. And I think Becky's great if only Becky could see it. I have a lot of sympathy for that character. I think she's my favorite character I've ever written.

Mindy:             Yeah. Oh Becky is fascinating and so much fun to read about. I think what you're saying about the problem of self esteem is also true of Martha to a degree.

Gillian:             Yeah. And in some ways that's why the title, I think it's quite good because they both think the other is the good sister and neither of them can see that own qualities. And because they're so opposite, they wish they were the other. But if only they could sort of see that they're perfectly adequate themselves.

Mindy:             And that's kind of true of all women I would assume. I mean, unfortunately part of society, how this works is that we're always measuring ourselves against one another, be it a sibling or a friend or even an enemy. We're trying to figure out who is better looking, who is more successful, who has the more uh, attractive spouse or the more successful spouse, whose children are smarter. Like all of those things. We weigh those against one another and it all ends up being about you and whether you have succeeded or failed as a woman and a mother and a wife and all of the different hats that women have to wear.

Gillian:             Exactly. And particularly, you know, with the modern invention of social media, I think we do constantly compare our, our interior to peoples exterior, when actually it just, it makes us all kind of feel bad about ourselves really. So I was kind of, I was also writing about that like you know, comparison is the thief of joy and all of that.

Mindy:             Either we suffer by comparison or even if we are quote unquote winning at the comparison. I think especially as women because we're always taught to be nice and kind, we then judge ourselves for comparing in the first place.

Gillian:             There's no joy really in winning a competition that you've set up because you feel insecure. And I think the, the healthy mental health point to get to is the point where you just please yourself and when we talk about, you know, wanting to appear like you have it all or whatever, I think is like the kind of comeback to that is, well, in whose judgment? Because everybody will have a different idea of the perfect life and really you can only please yourself. That's definitely the way to wisdom whether or not any of us achieve that is another question.

Mindy:             Very true. All right. Anything lastly that you want to say about the book or anything related to the characters or your writing process for it?

Gillian:             Well, I just really hope people enjoy it. You know, I'm a UK bestseller and this is my American debut and it's, it's such a privilege to have an access to such a wide audience and I'm just, I'm thrilled and I really hope people enjoy it. And if they want to get in touch with me, I'm on Twitter as at GillianMAuthor and Instagram, actually as GillianMAuthor and on Facebook as Gillian McAllister, author.

Mindy:             Writer, Writer, Pants on Fire is produced by Mindy McGinnis. Music by Jack Korbel. Don't forget to check out the blog for additional interviews, writing advice and publication tips at www.writerwriterapantsonfire.com If the blog or podcast have been helpful to you, or if you just enjoy listening, please consider donating. Visit www.writerwriterpantsonfire.com and click support the blog and podcast in the sidebar.

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