My interview today is with Susan Wittig Albert, an award-winning author, whose books have appeared on the New York Times bestseller list. Her books cover the range of YA, mysteries, academic non-fiction and memoirs. Read on to find out how she has made writing her life.You’ve had a long an prolific career as a writer. How did it begin? When did you think you could make a career at it?
I started writing for YA magazines when I was in my late teens. Then I detoured to go to college (I was a freshman at 24, with three little kids) and begin an academic career as a university professor, with a focus on medieval literature. The career requirements included writing academic studies in my field; I wrote four books during that time.
I stayed with it until I was 45, then left the university for a writing career. I was still at the university (in administration/teaching) when I submitted my first YA novel, to Bantam, in the Sweet Dreams series, under the pseudonym Susan Blake. It was accepted and I went on to write five more in that series. When I started that last book, I felt I could make it, and I left my academic career for fulltime writing. That was 1985—30 years ago!
You've written under multiple surnames. Why the pen names? Were they works for hire?I wrote the first YA books, and several more, under Susan Blake—I wasn’t eager for my university colleagues to get a glimpse of my moonlight efforts. After that, I worked for hire in 10 different series, under the series pseudonyms: Carolyn Keene, Franklin W. Dixon, Francine Pascal, and so on.
After 1986, when Bill Albert and I were married, I co-authored some of these books with him. Co-authorship presents a special problem, since publishers like to present books under one name. Bill and I co-authored a dozen adult historical mysteries under the name Robin Paige. (You can see a full list, and count the pseudonyms, from the book link below)
For one of series, I see you wrote 23 books. How did you come up with that many plot lines for the same characters after so many books?
Plots are everywhere in the world—I’ve never ever had a problem coming up with one. Actually, each book has many more plots, since each character in a story has her or his own plot. Right? Think about that for a minute. If a character is fully-fleshed (she should be, to deserve a reader’s attention), she has a story. Her story is her plot. So a good (i.e. rich, multi-storied, engaging) novel will have as many plots as there are characters. Some plots will be extended, others abbreviated. But they should be there, and be evident enough that the reader can follow them.
After so many years of writing for children, you switched to writing for adults with your China Bayles series. Is your female protagonist’s career change, symbolic of your own writing change?
China’s career change is related to mine, yes. When I started the series, I had just written a book called Work of Her Own, about career leavers (including myself).
What made you choose herbs as your focal point for these murder mysteries?I chose herbs because that’s an interest of mine. I studied herbs in medieval literature and followed that interest out into my own garden. China Bayles was an extension of that.
You’ve seen a lot of changes in publishing over the decades. Do you think there will always be print books? Or do you think it will all go digital?
Print books won’t go away for a while. Last week, I sampled an eBook but bought the print edition because I wanted to work with the notes; it’s hard to access notes in most eBooks. I buy quite a few print books, because I need them for research. But digital is my choice when I read a particular book for entertainment, and I think digital books will increasingly dominate the market. For one thing, they’re much less expensive for publishers to produce, so the industry will move in that direction.
How do you feel the digital market has changed the publishing industry for the better or worse?
Digital publishing and marketing has opened options for many writers, and that’s very much to the good, in my opinion. The traditional publishing model presents many barriers to start-up writers. Digital gives them a place to get a foothold. Some will stay at that level, others will go on to create a crossover career in both digital and print.
As if all these series weren’t enough, you are also prolific in helping other writers through your Story Circle Network to help women writer their memoirs. How did this begin? What do you for the future of this endeavor?I was teaching memoir and journaling (lifewriting) to women, then wrote a book about the process: Writing From Life. That same year (1997) I worked with a dozen women to start Story Circle, a nonprofit international membership organization. We sponsor the largest women’s book review site on the Internet: the Sarton Women’s Literary Awards, and offer online writing classes for women and conferences and workshops.
What promotions have worked best for you in book sales? How do you make a book signing a success?
For years, I did extensive (4-5 week) book tours, doing signings/talks in bookstores, libraries, garden clubs, etc. around the country. In 2007, I stopped touring began doing blog tours. I can reach many more people online, at a much lower cost and with just about the same effect. I’m active in social media, and support websites for my series. I still do an occasional bookstore and quite a few libraries, but that’s no longer my promotion focus.
What is some of the best writing advice that you’ve received or could give?
Read. Read read read read read. If you don’t read, you can’t write.
What new works do you have planned?
I have a contract to write two more books (#25 and 26) in the China Bayles series. I will likely continue that series, although I’m doing fewer mysteries these days. I’m currently working on a biographical/historical novel and have another of those planned.
If you would like to learn more about Susan and her writing, here are some options:
To purchase her memoir writing book http://tinyurl.com/WritingFromLife
To learn more about memoir writing: ww.storycircle.org or www.storycircleonlineclasses.org
The Sarton Women's Literary Awards: http://tinyurl.com/Sarton