Tuesday, September 17, 2013
Author Q&A: Richard Pieters
One of the unexpected joys of establishing Elephant’s Bookshelf Press was becoming the first publisher for a number of wonderful writers. By my count, EBP has been the initial publisher of at least a dozen fiction writers, including some whose work I believe you’ll be seeing much more of in the future. One of the new writers featured in Summer’s Double Edge is Richard Pieters, whose story “Winter’s Birds” told a tale of a committed couple who struggle with the ever-present reality of serious illness. As anyone who’s ever experienced the horror of watching a loved one suffer knows, the phrase “emotional roller coaster” doesn’t do justice to the challenge. Rick shared a little of his personal story on his writing experiences.
Elephant’s Bookshelf: Perhaps this isn’t a fair question to ask a person who’s worked in advertising, but how long have you written fiction?
RP: I wasn't a copywriter, so the question is fair. I studied creative writing in both high school and college and wrote a lot of short stories for school, but I really put my creative needs to work late in college, songwriting and performing. I was a decent, not great, singer and guitarist, but I was a good storyteller. I had some songs published, but I'm not sure that counts as fiction. Several years performing with a very good improv theater troupe put writing in the backseat, although I do believe the experience helped my think-as-you-go creativity and no doubt encouraged the "pantser" in me. When I moved into the advertising industry, I returned to my first love, read stacks of books on writing, journaled, and wrote short stories -- for my own enjoyment and for the practice. Eventually I decided I needed to quit reading about writing (and working in media sales) and just do it. That was about fifteen years ago. Since then I've written many shorts (often NSFW) and a novel. And, of course, I still study the craft, too.
EB: It’s hard to believe your fiction hadn’t been published before Summer’s Double Edge. What’s taken so long?
RP: I guess I was taken in early by the odds against making a living writing, so I wasn't driven to get published. As I said earlier, I had other creative outlets. I didn't think about it much until I had that novel under my belt and thought I'd see how the querying thing went. At that time, the only avenue that seemed legit was the traditional agent/publisher road. Self-pubbing still had the taint of vanity press. I did think about small, independent publishers, but I guess I thought I needed to try the "old" way first. When I queried, out of about ten sent, I got one request for a full, and when I found myself actually hoping for a rejection, I realized I didn't want to go the agent route. I'm no kid, I can't promise a long, lucrative career, and I didn't want someone asking me, "What do you have for me today?" I never really thought about sending out shorts. I'd say getting involved at AgentQuery Connect and getting to "know" so many cool people, then seeing their work in your earlier anthologies, had me think well, what the hell.
EB: “Winter’s Birds” caught our attention right away. What inspired it?
RP: The truncated version of the newspaper article that starts the story was the actual inspiration. When I read that, one cold January morning in our local paper here in Dayton, Ohio, I grabbed scissors and cut it out. I knew there was a story there. How did it happen? What got them to that point? So many possibilities. So I carried it in my computer case to the office and home for a long time. It begged for the story of who they might have been and how and why they ended up there. (I'm avoiding the spoiler.)
EB: Off the bat, the characters came across as a well-established couple who’ve been through a lot together. Did you know what the ending to this story would be when you first starting writing about them or did it evolve over several revisions?
RP: Since it was based on a news article, I did know how it would end. It was, in fact, the ending that needed the story to get there. With the many directions it could have gone—I didn't want it to be too sentimental, it couldn't be too comedic with that ending, maybe it was a horror thing—I just kept turning it over. Then one day my partner and I were having one of those half-serious-but-let's-joke-to-keep-it-light conversations about which of us would go first. Can't be you, has to be me. Another time, I'd joked that I don't believe, ideally, in suicide, but I could just stop taking all the meds. Voila. There was the story. Once I had that, the only real evolution in the writing of it was deciding, halfway through, that Stanley and Phyllis, for me, needed to be Stanley and Phil.
EB: With your background in advertising, what is your sense on how promoting one’s work is different in this era of social media versus the long-established traditional media approaches?
RP: Well, since my advertising background consisted mostly of media placement and sales, I can say that some of the old tried-and-true aspects of promotion remain the same: Reach and frequency, and cutting through the clutter. The differences, though, are huge. Back in the day, the media were almost exclusively newspaper and magazines. Press releases were usually put together by ad agencies and public relations people. (Television was my business, but books were rarely, if ever, promoted on TV.) So the idea was the larger the "reach" of a venue -- meaning the number of target persons any given medium offered -- the less "frequency" was needed, and the smaller the reach (a community paper or specialty magazine, for example), the more frequency required. One balanced the reach/frequency of various outlets to achieve a desired "number of impressions." Figuring all that out, writing the releases, and getting it out was done primarily for the author by the PR folks. The author mostly just had to show up and be intelligent and charming.
EB: And now we have extremely fractured audiences sharing the same huge media outlets.
RP: My point exactly. And this means cutting through the clutter is infinitely more difficult. Individuals are far more, if not completely, responsible for their own promotion, and that involves not just knowing who represents your target audience, but how to get them to pay attention to you. The individual has much more control but also much more responsibility. The "reach" of most social media is beyond what any of the "traditional" media could offer, but, unlike, say, the New York Times, where its entire readership would see your promotional piece, now only those who choose to, by friending or following, will see those pieces. It's an open world now. Little promotion is done or arranged for you. It's pretty much up to you how effectively and well you present yourself.
EB: Would you say it’s better or worse than it used to be?
RP: I'd say that today's wide open market offers so much more opportunity, with traditional publishing, self-publishing, and indie publishing houses all having validity, and the consumer having greater word-of-mouth influence. And for just that reason, it's a much greater challenge for the individual author to break through the clutter. There are simply so many more players on the field.
RP: What are you working on now?
(Laughs). Not sounding stupid or pedantic while I answer these questions.
I'm working on a new short, and my brain is working on where it wants to settle for another novel. It's suffering a little ADD when it comes to that. Look, a squirrel!
EB: Thanks so much for your time and your insight, Rick. I’ll let you get that squirrel. Oh wow, there’s a bright shiny thing!