Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Author Interview: Linda Sienkiewicz on her Debut Novel and the Twisty Road That Got Her There

At one of the on-site residencies during my MFA program, a visiting writer told us students that the people in that room were going to be the foundation of our future writing community, regardless of geographic location, writing style or genre, age, or any other factor that might, on the surface, seem to separate us. Lucky for me, she was right.

Linda Sienkiewicz was one of the people in the room at that time, and eight years later, she's a valued part of my personal writing community. Linda has contributed posts here in the past (not once, but twice), and I've been a guest at her blog too. I'm extremely pleased now to offer this interview with her, as she steps out with her debut novel, In the Context of Love (Buddhapuss Ink), released just last week.

Please welcome Linda Sienkiewicz.

Q: Linda, I understand it was a twisty road from initial draft to publication by Buddhapuss Ink LLC this month. How long did it take from that first manuscript to that publishing contract? Did it surprise you that it didn't happen sooner?

A. I finished the manuscript shortly after graduation from the MFA program in 2009. It was incredibly frustrating to have long spells where seemingly nothing happened. In retrospect, if not for that time, the manuscript would never have reached its potential. That surprised me. I had an agent in 2010, but I’m glad she didn’t sell it. In the Context of Love is a much different novel than it was back then.

Q. Can you tell us about some stops and starts along the way? I believe you rewrote the entire novel in a different POV? What other major changes did you tackle in revision and why?

A. The manuscript was originally in first person—second person address, where the narrator is telling her story to a lost love, addressing him as “you.” Early in my agent search, I worried that might be a problem (I was so unsure of myself) so I rewrote it as a traditional first-person “I” narrative. I queried 83 agents before I got two offers of representation.

Then, when my agent sent the novel out to publishers, initial feedback showed editors thought it was YA because it began with the narrator as a teen. My agent had me rewrite the story so it starts when she’s an adult and then looks back to when she first falls in love and learns the family secret that alters her life.

The manuscript didn’t sell. Editors praised it, but apparently it wasn’t what they wanted. Incredibly frustrating, but my agent was encouraging. She suggested I work on something new, but writing became a struggle. I have to admit I was crushed.

Q. In addition to writing/revision challenges and publishing industry vagaries, you had a daunting trauma in your personal life. Would you mind discussing how the family tragedy affected you as a writer?

A. Shortly after that blow of rejection, my eldest child at age 32 took his own life. Let me tell you, there’s nothing that prepares you for such a tragedy. My goals and dreams of publication fell to the wayside. Nothing mattered. I couldnt write. I didn’t feel like a writer anymore; I felt like an utter failure. It took two years before I gave myself permission to have goals again. Two years before I even turned on my computer. It was daunting, but I had to know if I would ever write again. I wasn’t ready for a new project yet; I couldn’t give up on In the Context of Love.

Q. At one point I think you hired an editor. What role do you think that played in moving the manuscript toward publication?

A. First I decided to change the story back to the way I had originally conceived it, using the second person address. Then I sought the advice of an author/editor. She absolutely loved the story, but she saw a few issues, too. She suggested I start the book at a low point in the narrator’s life — when she takes her two young children to visit their father in jail for the first time. That made a huge difference. She also advised me to speed up the narrative in some scenes, and pump up others. Her ideas, with the point of view change, were instrumental. The manuscript was a whole new animal! I was so excited!

I contacted my agent only to learn she had left the business. Not a happy moment. But in reality, she’d shopped it all around the larger publishers, so there wasn’t much more she could have done. I researched small presses and queried them myself.

Q. When you began submitting to small presses, what did you have in mind as the ideal offer and publisher?

A. I knew small presses don't have money to pay advances, but they see potential in stories that big houses ignore. I didn’t want to pay for publishing, I wanted standard royalties from book sales, and maybe some extra attention that a large publishing house doesn’t have time for.
Q. How close did you get to that?

A.    I got what I was looking for and more in the sense that my publisher is truly invested in my novel.

Q. If you don't mind saying, how many submissions did you make, and what kinds of responses did you get?

A. I queried six small presses. I got the standard “not right for us,” and “I'm sure you understand that small presses are creatures of their editors' individual tastes, an idiosyncratic but unavoidable standard.” Ha. The response that really had me scratching my head was “It has potential, with interesting situations and characters, but the prose style is slack and the narrative structure awkward.” I thought that was funny. By then, I had already signed a contract with Buddhapuss.

Q. Were there any surprises – pleasant or otherwise—in working with a boutique independent (though traditional) publisher? We know you're not jetting off on a nationwide book tour on their dime, but that's also true of most authors published these days by the biggest houses.

A. I had to laugh when someone asked me if I was going on tour. Does anyone do that anymore? But, it’s been great. I certainly didn’t expect to consider my publisher a friend. It’s a business relationship, true, but it’s really nice. I also appreciated having input on the cover and the inside layout. That was important to me, having an art background. I had input on just about everything every step of the way.

Q. We hear about how much work even a traditionally-published author has to do to help with (in some cases, to spur any) marketing and publicity efforts. I know you produced your own lovely book trailer over the summer. What else are you doing, what is your publisher doing, and are you exhausted?

A. Buddhapuss put together an amazing media kit for new releases and bloggers. They sent advance copies to long lead reviewers and entered the book in contests. They did a pre-release giveaway on Goodreads. They've sent me business cards, postcards, book markers, author cards and posters. They are a cheering squad.

Six months before the book launch, I revamped my website I’ve worked on creating a buzz using graphics and excerpts for Twitter, Pinterest and Facebook. Twitter is great for networking, Facebook is pretty good, Pinterest not so much. I’m entering the book in other contests and trying to schedule appearances now, but I feel tapped out. I’m glad I hired an outside publicist to handle blogs, press releases and news articles (I hear even authors from large houses have resorted to hiring publicists).

Q. Before you wrote the novel, you published a good deal of poetry, earning a Chapbook Award and Pushcart Prize nomination. Had you always been writing fiction?

A. A few years before Stonecoast, I had success with publishing short stories, and even had an early novel and agent, which was kind of a fluke, really. Let’s not go there. But I wanted to write a good, solid novel. I entered the MFA program in fiction with a rough draft of In the Context of Love, eager to learn all I could. I was a sponge.

Q. Besides all the time and energy going into the book launch, are you finding any time to work on new writing?

A. Um… I have an outline and a few chapters. I’m anxious to get back to serious writing.

Q. What's your favorite piece of advice for writers who are now seeking publication for a book-length work?

A. Think of your chapters as publishable excerpts and submit them to literary journals and contests. It’s a good way to gauge how marketable your work is, and it helps establish credibility. Write a synopsis. No one likes writing them, but you’ll be surprised at how it helps you see the big picture. You’ll need one to query agents or publishers, anyway. And don’t ever give up. It’s hard work, and it gets discouraging, but don’t quit.

Note from Lisa: Linda would like to send one of this blog's readers a signed copy of her novel. Simply leave a comment here by the end of the day, Sunday, September 27, or tweet a link to this post, making sure to tag @LisaRomeo, to be entered. Must have a US postal address.


Andrea said...

Great interview, Lisa. This really underscores the adage that successful writers are the ones who don't give up! Sounds like a fascinating book, too!

Linda K Sienkiewicz said...

Thank you, Andrea! I really feel it's an important book for those who struggle with identity issues or tragedies in their lives. And yes, as a writer, you can't give up! Thank you for reading!

The Book Team said...

Well done!
from your head Cheerleader,
MaryChris Bradley,
Publisher, Buddhapuss Ink LLC

Linda C. Wisniewski said...


Thank you for your honest and direct responses. This is so encouraging to me as I revise and revise my first novel. I don't want to give up on it and you've reinforced that for me. My first book, a memoir, was published by a very small press, too, and you are right about the attention they can give a new writer. It's great.
Having had a brush with suicide (unsuccessful, thank God) attempt by one of my kids, my heart reaches out to yours. Be well,


Some_Lost_Girl said...

What a great post! I've been looking forward to this book since I saw the FB announcement. Author experiences like this are so helpful for those of us who dream of seeing our own work on a bookstore shelf someday. Thank you for sharing with us!

Rena said...

I am so glad I read this today. I just finished my first draft of my first fiction novel and I have no idea what to do with it when I am finished. This gave me an idea of how to go about it. I still have a long way to go and I'm not in any hurry, but I definitely want to do it right. Thanks so much. Have a great weekend.

Terri Jackson said...

"And don’t ever give up. It’s hard work, and it gets discouraging, but don’t quit." I needed to hear that this morning. Thank you for sharing Linda and such a great interview. My eldest son died at 25, five years ago tomorrow in a vehicle accident. Linda's loss of her eldest to suicide and her feeling like a failure hit home with me - child loss is beyond description. I too felt like a failure, it is hard to allow yourself to dream. Thanks again for such a great post. Wishing you a peace filled weekend.

Unknown said...

My sincere congratulations to Linda. I wrote a book, got an agent who believed in it, but subsequently had a mental breakdown. Then I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Some day, I may get back to it. Thanks so much for her interview. Brenda

Lisa Romeo said...

Some_Lost_Girl - you are the winner of a signed copy of Linda's book! Please contact me via email w/your postal address so I can have Linda sign and ship it to you!
Thanks everyone for reading and leaving a comment.
LisaRomeoWrites at gmail dot com

Some_Lost_Girl said...

Oh my gosh - yay! I'm so excited!! I'll send you my info shortly.

Thank you so much, Linda! I can't wait to read it - what a great Monday gift!