Interview Transcripts

Mary Rosenblum:   Sybil  left her hometown in northern Virginia for Boulder where she completed her Master's in English at the University of Colorado. She eventually moved back to Virginia but soon  the wandering bug bit her again. This time she spent twelve years teaching English in South Korea and traveling the world. So far she has checked off  over 30 countries, many in Asia. Her path did lead back to the United  States where she received her MFA at The Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2005 and began teaching creative writing at the University of Tennessee in 2007.
These days she satisfies her wanderlust by writing about exotic locales from the Chattanooga home she shares with her husband.  Sybil is also the author of a novel *The Life Plan. *You can learn more about *The Life Plan *and its WOW Blog Tour at http://muffin.wow-womenonwriting.com/2009/03/sybil-baker-author-of-life-plan.html

Sybil, welcome!  Wow, what a 'resume'!  That is quite a path from that MFA to 'Life Plan'.  Were you writing and submitting from grad school on?  Or was it all about teaching English and the writing came later?  What a great itinerary! 

So, tell us about the book!  What is 'The Life Plan' about?  

Sybil Baker:  Dear Mary, thanks so much for hosting me and your questions. First on the teaching vs. writing. I started writing stories in the first grade and have been writing ever since! Teaching as a profession came later in life to me--when I moved to Korea. Before that I was a technical writer/editor and before that a journalist. I love teaching now, but had not planned on being one.
When I was an undergrad at Virginia Tech I worked on their literary magazine (called Silhouette) my last two years. I submitted stories and they were accepted, so those were my first publications. I submitted some stories in grad school when I was at UC Boulder and then off and on in Korea. It was difficult and expensive to submit stories from abroad back then (remember I had to include SASEs!) Now because many journals take submissions online, it's much easier to submit your work from anywhere in the world that has an internet connection.

Actually my novel The Life Plan came out in March 2009 and my collection Talismans was released in December 2010. I'd like to post a synoposis of Talismans (available at Amazon and from C&R Press (www.crpress.org)) for those who are interested:

Elise understands her father—a Vietnam vet who abandoned her when she was an infant—about as much as she does her church organist mother and the rest of their suburban Virginian town. When even that thin thread of connection is suddenly severed, Elise is flung across the world, to Southeast Asia. Tracing the steps her father took through the war, Elise searches for a connection —with his ghost, with other travelers, with the foreign culture and environment she experiences. In a series of linked short stories, Talismans follows Elise’s journey to learn what she must hold onto, and what she must leave behind.

I'll be back later to talk about both books. In the meantime you can visit my website at www.sybilbaker.com.

My first novel, The Life Plan is a comic novel that takes place mostly in Thailand. I have a fun book trailer for it so you can get an idea of what the book is about--here it is:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-RVu8VbHEbY&fmt=18

If anyone is interested I'd be happy to talk about making a book trailer and advice to those who are interested.

 

Mary Rosenblum:  I apologize, Sybil, for confusing the two books!  Can you see my glowing read face?  :-)  Let me post the very  nice press release for Talismans here: 

"Sybil Baker’s Talismans is a contemporary Heart of Darkness.  In its linked stories, Baker’s compelling protagonist, Elise, travels throughout Asia in search of a way to come to terms with the deaths of her first love, her mother, and, especially, her father, a Vietnam vet who drowned in Thailand, where he lived with his second wife and family after abandoning Elise when she was a child.  Although it is a harrowing journey, one in which she endures the loss of a lover, an opium habit, and the temptation of suicide, it is also an uplifting journey, as full of light as of darkness.
“The stories trace Elise’s gradual movement away from what Koreans call han, the “longing and sadness for something or someone that you can’t have,” to jung, a “feeling of attachment and affection, no matter what happens.” By tracing Elise’s achievement of jung, Baker’s stories become powerful talismans against death, loss, and the kind of fear that prevents us from living fully and truly.  Read them and you will feel their marvelous magic at work in your heart, mind, and soul." –David Jauss, author of AWP short fiction winner Black Maps  (winner of the AWP Award for Short Fiction) and Alone With All That Could Happen

So let's do talk about those linked stories.   Did you begin with the intention of a larger story arc or did you write the stories first and realize that you had an over-arching story arc later. 

Sybil Baker:  No worries, am happy for people to hear about both books! I'll start a new thread on novels vs. short stories.  I think a lot of writers wonder what the difference between writing novels and short stories is, and which one should they do. My advice is to write what you're interested in. Both have advantages. I've been spending more time on novels in the past few years, but that is because the stories  I have (longer, more complex) lend themselves to a longer structure. Some pieces though that I've written I knew were short stories because they have a singular emotional effect, which lends itself to short fiction.
On my blog tour I've written about the differences between short stories and novels. Here are a few links:
http://blog.juliealindsey.com/julie-lindsey/short-stories-vs-novels-by-sybil-baker/
and
http://writerinspired.wordpress.com/2010/12/13/short-fiction-vs-novels-and-book-giveaway/
looking forward to your questions or comments!

 

Mary Rosenblum:  Sybil, you'd published quite a few of those Elsie stories by the time you sold the novel.  Do you feel that those sales helped make that sale for you?  

 

Sybil Baker:  Definitely--if you look on the acknowledgements pages of most short story collections, you'll find that most or all of the stories have been previously published. That is pretty much the standard these days--that way when you query you can say that 7 out of the 10 stories have already been published (or whatever number you have). That shows you have a track record.

With the success of Eat Pray Love, a lot of women are becoming more interested in traveling as a way to personal growth and as a way to write about their own lives. I'm curious if any of you have any questions or comments about traveling or writing. I've written about this topic several times in my blog tour for Talismans. Here is one post for this tour I wrote about travel writing:
http://bethiswriting.com/2010/12/07/special-guest-post-with-sybil-baker-2/

 

Lizbeth:  Hi Sybil. I've lived  several places in my life, including South America, and love to travel, and I think it gives me an advantage in writing as opposed to someone who lived their whole life in one town, something I can't imagine doing!

 

Sybil Baker:  I do think traveling allows a distance that can help you "see" the world differently. James Joyce lived most of his adult life away from Ireland, yet that was all he wrote about. So you may not write about the place you're visiting, but it can help you see your own world and live from a different perspective.

 

Ladyrayne:  Wow--you are quite the adventurer...30 countries!
I would love to travel, but not in a tour-group scenario. How does one find affordable opportunities off the beaten path and also deal with a language barrier? Also, have you ever had difficulty entering a country as a "writer"? Do most government recognize that "writer" is not "journalist"?

 

Sybil Baker:  I've never entered the country as a "writer" always as a tourist. If you have an American passport you can get into *most* countries relatively easily although for some you have to buy a visa before arriving or at the airport. When you're going to be in a country, Sybil, do you arrive with ideas for articles you can pitch to specific magazines and then keep notes/take photos/do research with those markets in mind or do you simply accumulate data, so to speak, and think about what to do with it after you get home? 
I like the Lonely Planet guidebook series--they give lots of information on the country as well as practical information on places to stay and how to travel out of the tour-group scenerio. I agree, it's best to travel on your own or with friends to get a bit closer to the culture. The language barrier is not as tough as you think--if you learn a few phrases you'll be amazed at how far you go. In some countries esp. in tourist areas the locals know some English as well. Do you have a country in mind you'd like to visit?

Mary Rosenblum:  When you're going to be in a country, Sybil, do you arrive with ideas for articles you can pitch to specific magazines and then keep notes/take photos/do research with those markets in mind or do you simply accumulate data, so to speak, and think about what to do with it after you get home? 

 

Sybil Baker:  Mary, I don't consider myself a "travel writer" in that sense--I know many people do and make a living from it. Rather, I write and I travel. So, I travel to a place because I want to, and *if* a story or essay idea comes up, I let that happen. It usually happens organically for me. That said, I've never really made any money off of travel writing--I do get stories and essays and books published, but that pays very little. So, if you are writing for a living, it seems much better to have proposals and ideas and pitches set to go before you embark on anything.

 

Mary Rosenblum:  So, these days, no matter who publishes your work, whether it's New York or yourself, you have to self promote.  You're doing a blog tour with WOW (Women on Writing).  So how is that going?  Tell us about blog tours!  And what else are you doing to get the word out about your book? 

 

Sybil Baker:  Mary, those are great questions.
When my first book The Life Plan was published by a small press (Casperian Books) in March 2009, I was looking for ways to promote my novel. I found out about WOW's blog tours and decided to try it. While it's intensive and hard work, I really enjoyed doing it, so when my second book Talismans was published this month by another small press (C&R Press), I approached WOW about doing a blog tour for that book as well.
A blog tour is like a virtual speaking tour--that is, I'm a guest writer on a blog and I write about a topic that those readers would be interested in. For example, I will write blog posts about travel writing, book promotion, how to travel, writing a novel, finding time to write, etc. By visiting those blogs, I then get exposure to potential readers who might not have ever heard from me.
For those who are curious about blog tours, you can check mine out at my blog at http://sybilbaker.blogspot.com/search?updated-max=2010-12-10T06:25:00-08:00&max-results=7
There I list the places I wrote and the topics.
I'll write more today about other ways to find more readers.

An other to find new readers is being willing to be a speaker for groups (possibly for free as long as you can sell your book). I was the guest speaker for a Virginia Tech Women's conference and that introduced my book to many new readers.
I also made postcards of Talismans that I'm sending out or leaving around, hoping to find new readers that way.

 

Mary Rosenblum:  Boy, I cannot encourage new writers enough to go out and speak to potential readers!  Most local libraries will be happy to give you time and space and advertise your visit to some extent.  So was it scary for you, Sybil?  That 'speaking in public' stops a lot of folk.  Or did you have some public speaking experience before that event? 

 

Sybil Baker:  Luckily I've never had much fear of public speaking. If I did, that certainly had to go to the wayside when I started teaching 17 years ago. I'm comfortable and used to speaking in front of groups.
I think practice is really important--start with a group of friends or people you know. Start with your own community. I volunteer to talk to our local writers guild a few times a year, gave a speech to the winners of a young writers contest (there were more than 100 people!), spoke to a ladies charity group, and spoke to about 50 women at the Virginia Tech Leadership conference. Because I've been speaking in front of people for a while, I'm comfortable with it--and the more prepared you are the more comfortable you'll be!
If you want to improve speaking skills you can also join a local Toastmasters club--they work on those skills as well.

 

Mary Rosenblum:  You know, I've often thought that Toastmasters offers a lot for writers, since public speaking and public readings are a great way to promote your book. Have you taken any workshops or belonged to them? 

 

Andrea:  Hi Sybil.  Thanks for coming to talk to us about promoting our books.  My first book was just published as an eBook.  Other than blog posts, what would you recommend for promoting eBooks?  Thanks.

 

Sybil Baker:  First congrats on your ebook publication! The small presses that my work has been published with do not use ebook formats (yet), so I haven't had a lot of experience with marketing those. Have you ever checked out JA Konrath's blog A Newbie's Guide to Publishing? He has experimented widely with different ways to promote, and has released several of his novels in ebook format only. If you check the archives you'll probably find lots of tidbits:
http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/
For me, I've done blog tours, book trailers, readings, and post cards. It's hard to tell what works best except word of mouth. In this era the biggest problem is just making people aware of your book. Good luck!

 

Andrea:  Thank you, Sybil.  I will check out Joe's blog to see what tidbits he gave.  I am working on getting the word out in every way I can think of  

 

Sybil Baker:  Great Andrea, let me know what ideas you have as well. I've done book trailers, sent out postcards, etc.--I don't know what works, but that I have to try whatever I can within my budget.

 

David:  It's cool toastmasters has been brought up. I am a member now three years running! now an ACB, ALB. Certainly helps to speak in front of a group!

 

Sybil Baker:  My two books (The Life Plan and Talismans) were both published by small, independent presses. I don't have any experience working with a large commercial press, so I can't describe the differences, but I can talk about the advantages and disadvantages of working with small presses.
Advantages:
1. You'll get attention and have a personal relationship with the editor and publisher.
2. The process will be more collaborative. For both books I had a lot of input on the cover design and layout, which writers with larger presses rarely have.
3. You and the publisher can brainstorm together to work out a marketing strategy.
4. You don't need an agent.

Disadvantages
1. Small presses have little or no marketing budget (although this is becoming more common at commercial presses as well), so you'll have to put in a lot of your time (and some money) to sell your book.
2. It's harder to get your book distributed widely or to get the type of attention and publicity that a book from a larger press often gets.
3. Advances (if any) are minimal.
4. You won't make much money.

If any of you have had experiences with small or large publishers, I'd love to hear your comments or feedback on this topic. What are your thoughts on the advantages and disadvantages of small vs. large publishers?

 

Mary Rosenblum: Sybil, I've mostly been published by the big NY publishers (eight novels so far).  I do have two  books out with   small press houses (Water Rites from Fairwood Press and Synthesis from Arkham House).  The others were Random House and Penguin-Putnam and Tor Books.   The advantages of the big publishers are what you list as disadvantages for small publishers:  You get a big print run in the tens of thousands if you're a new writer (usually about 35,000 for a paperback) and wide distribution as well as ads in all the trade publications read by book buyers, librarians, et all.  You get an advance and they're usually several thousand bucks for a new writer.  You get reviewed by the big reviewers who may overlook small press publishers.  But you will probably not make more money as a new writer unless your book 'takes off'.  Most first time novelists do not sell through, that is they do not make more than they got as an advance.  
The downside to the big publishers is that the NY publishing world is nearly all corporate owned these days and bottom line MATTERS.  Because of tax law changes, publishers no longer stock an inventory so there is no 'mid list' anymore. (those are the writers who make the publisher some money but not much). That means that the average 'shelf life' of a new book is about a year.  After that, if your sales figures are not wonderful, your book will be OP, out of print, and off the shelf.  The small press publishers can keep that book alive forever because they can print copies as they need them, through POD technology.  This MATTERS.  Where do you send the new reader  who wants to read your NY published book when it's out of print?   But the small press publisher will be able to provide it. 
And, let's not forget, that small press publishers can take more risks, they  have less on the line. If a Random House imprint publishes a book and it bombs, they just ate 35,000 copies or more  and someone upstairs is Very Upset.  So right now, you see more 'cutting edge' in the small press publishers. 

 

Sybil Baker:  Those are all great points Mary. I think writers have to consider a lot of things when they're ready to query their work--is my book a better fit for a small press or a large one? And with ebook technology the publishing world is changing so quickly that other options are also open to writers.
Another advantage of small presses is that I'm not "locked" in to writing a certain type of book. My first novel The Life Plan was a comic novel, while Talismans is much darker. I do know some writer friends with big publishers who feel pressure to write for the same audience as their earlier successes.
That said, as you pointed out, distribution, reviews and marketing are much easier with a big press--at least for that first year.

 

Mary Rosenblum:  Sybil, you've been a great guest!  Thank you so much!!!   Happy New Year! 



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