...Interview Jenny Milchman

This is Jenny.

And this is Jenny's debut novel, which won the 2014 Mary Higgins Clark Award! Buy her book here.

And you can buy her just-released second book, RUIN FALLS, here!

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(First, a brief housekeeping note. As I mentioned last week, I had the huge honor of giving a speech to Marymount University's graduating English undergrad and graduate students. I excerpted the speech for my monthly column at the Washington Independent Review of Books. You can read it here.)

I am really excited about having an interview with Jenny Milchman on my blog, and the timing for this interview is coincidental and awesome - her debut novel, COVER OF SNOW, was just awarded the Mary Higgins Clark Award (see the sidebar on the right for more information). It's well-deserved: Jenny's writing is tightly-written and carefully-plotted, and she keeps you immersed in her world until the final page. But, beyond that, Jenny's just a terrific person to know. I met her as a member of this year's debut class in the International Thriller Writers (she coordinates the debuts), and we became fast e-friends. She also has one of the most interesting approaches to marketing I've come across (especially nowadays) which she briefly discusses below, and more in length here. Finally, check out her blog, a collection of Made It Moments from writers that resonate strongly with both the published and unpublished.


What's your favorite joke?

OK, here’s how it goes…This guy wanted to go on vacation with his wife, but they have a hamster they’re very devoted to and can’t leave. But their neighbor promises to care for the hamster, come in every day, feed it, etc. So the guy goes. And when he calls to check in, he says, “So how’s my hamster?” and the neighbor says, “Well, I’m sorry to tell you, but your hamster died.”

“What?” gasps the man. “My hamster? Is dead? How could that happen? How could you just tell me like that?”

And the neighbor says, “Well, how I should I have told you?”

“I—I don’t know,” sputters the man. “You should have led up to it slowly, I guess. Prepared me. Maybe today you would say, ‘Well, your hamster ran up to the roof.’ And tomorrow you’d tell me, ‘Your hamster fell off the roof.’ And then finally…”

“OK, OK,” the neighbor says. “I get it.”

Years pass, and the man’s mother-in-law moves in with them. And one day, the man decides to go on vacation, and he asks his neighbor if he’ll look in on his mother-in-law. The neighbor agrees.

In the middle of their sun and sand, the man calls his neighbor and asks how his mother-in-law is doing.

“Well,” the neighbor says. “Your mother-in-law is on the roof.”

You’ve detailed how extensive your marketing campaign is for your novels. How did the idea for this type of campaign come about?

The thing is, it didn’t come about as a marketing campaign at all. It took me thirteen years to get published—years that contained a great deal of discouragement and disappointment and frustration—and when they finally came to an end, what I most wanted to do was get out there and go see the readers I’d waited so long to meet. The reason I kept at this, banging on that brick wall till my knuckles and finally my forehead bled, rather than just writing away in a garret somewhere, was so that I could have real readers who read my work.

That’s how’s the “Let It Snow” book tour came about. 7 months and 35,000 miles on the road, meeting people who love books. Booksellers, librarians, teachers, book club members…readers. My husband is lucky enough to work at a job that allows him great flexibility—and so we rented out our house to help pay for the trip, traded in two cars for an SUV that could handle Denver in February, and withdrew the kids from first and third grades. It was car-schooling, and hightailing it between bookstores, and when word began to get out about the trip, it took on a life of its own. I was thrilled. As much as the virtual world has allowed me to connect with people who are truly meaningful to me, there’s also just something about getting to see them face-to-face.

So many writers rely solely on the Internet for marketing nowadays, but you employ a more traditional, in-person approach. Do you think you’ll always use the latter method?

Maybe the best way I can answer that is to say that with my second novel about to come out, we’re setting out on another 4 months and 20,000 miles on the road! I can’t say whether we’ll always be lucky enough to get to do this, but I hope we can. Things will surely change as our kids get older, but I hope we can be flexible and keep combining what’s important to them with this way of doing things that we all seem to love. Getting to see someone’s avatar come to life—giving that person a handshake or a hug—brings the virtual world full circle in a way.

What’s the hardest part about being on the road?

Right now, I’ve been making beds, cleaning house, cooking, and getting kids off to school with all the requisite tasks that that entails. (Why is the missing sock always discovered just when the school bus pulls up?) So being on the road frees me of all of the above. I’m tempted to say what hard part?—but there’s got to be something. I’m having trouble thinking of it, though. I think that one reason this approach works for me is that I really love life on the road. There’s a freedom to it, and a closeness with my family. A sense of adventure as the world sails by, and we sail off in it. I will be happy to come back to the house we rented after the last book tour ended. And getting to write a new novel is awfully alluring (which I can’t do on the road). But when Willie Nelson sings, “My life is making music with my friends,” that’s kind of the way I feel, except it’s books, and readers are the friends.

What do you find most annoying about marketing (either something you don’t like, or something writers do that annoys you)?

I don’t like when anyone tells writers, “You have to do that if you want to sell well.” The truth is, none of knows what makes a book sell. We’re all taking guesses, we’re all doing what works for us. I wouldn’t say, “Here’s all you need to do! Rent out your house, hit the road for seven months…” Who knows if that would work for anyone else…who even knows if it’s “working” for me? What does “working” mean? So I prefer it when people share their experiences so that writers can take from them what resonates, and then go on to find their own personal way. We’re all on this road by ourselves in the end…but if we share what we learn along it, it becomes a little less lonely.

COVER OF SNOW and RUIN FALLS are standalone novels. Do you have any thoughts of ever writing a series, or connecting these books somehow?

Well, they’re standalones in one sense, but they’re connected by setting, which is the fictional Adirondack town of Wedeskyull. The recurring “character” is the town, which I hope readers will get to know in unfolding, onion peel layers, much as a real town is gotten to know. In my second novel, Ruin Falls, you get small updates about characters whom you first met in Cover of Snow. And one small character from my first book comes back to play a larger role in the second. My hope is that readers who read all the books will be insiders in Wedeskyull, experiencing details that others don’t. And that readers who only read one will get a good story that tows them along on its own.

Can you describe the moment when you found out COVER OF SNOW was getting published?

First, I have to share some numbers with you. Eight novels, three agents, a dozen submissions, and fifteen almost-offers in eleven years. That’s how long it took me to find a publisher for Cover of Snow, my eighth novel. By the time it happened, I didn’t believe it ever would. I had given up hope.

The way the book finally found its way to the publisher I feel I was meant to be with all along happened by the craziest of long shots. I had long admired the author Nancy Pickard, and in her 2010 hit, Scent of Rain & Lightning, Nancy achieved something I hoped to do myself—to use the setting and weather as a character. I told Nancy how much I loved her novel, and through a tangled sequence of events, she read my unpublished manuscript, and gave it to her editor, who bought it. I’ve been with this brilliant, visionary woman ever since.

When Nancy Pickard told me what she was doing, I remember thinking: “Wow. What an incredible thing for an author to do for an unknown. I am grateful, and if we were having any more children, I would name them all Nancy. But I’ve been around this block 15 times now. I don’t think no matter what someone does, it’ll ever happen.”

How did I feel when I finally learned I would be published? Pure disbelief.

What are your thoughts on the changing nature of publishing?

Oh wow, there’s a question you could write a whole book about. I’m going to keep it brief, though, because wiser people than I have written whole books. I think there are more ways than ever to get published today, to bring your work to readers, and that is a fantastic, liberating, democratizing thing. But with those advantages come risks…and overload of content and an ability to rush the process are two of the biggest. If I hadn’t had an enforced wait of eleven years, during which I wrote eight novels that hopefully got successively better, I’m sure I would’ve ducked out early. And when I look back at earlier books, which I would’ve sworn were publishable…they really weren’t. I’m glad in the end that it took as long as it did. Now I’m not suggesting everyone needs eleven years and eight novels. Most people I’m sure are much faster learners, or just better at this. But I do think it’s crucial to involve other people in the process of publishing, whether those are traditional gatekeepers, or ones the indie author seeks out for feedback and review.

Once the writer has a book many people agree is terrific, it’s a question of determining which publishing path will be right for you. Write for you. There is no best path; pros and cons exist along each. Do you want the control and infinite shelf life of indie publishing? The team approach and wide reach of traditional? All of this and much more goes into deciding which road to pursue. Once you’ve decided, you should get out there and ride it with all your heart.


You can learn more about Jenny Milchman and her work at her site, and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

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