While studying the craft of writing at the Johns Hopkins University, I had the pleasure of meeting many soon to be published authors. They were hungry for the craft, ready to show the world what they can create with mere words on the page. One of my classmates, an especially ambitious young writer named Kelly Ann Jacobson, recently published her first novel and agreed to share her thoughts on writing. You can find more information on Kelly and her novel at her website, www.kellyannjacobson.com.
Justin: Thank you for agreeing to speak with me Kelly. I am sure you are excited to have published your first novel, “Cairo in White,” and from I have read so far, it is full of beautiful description and issues of sexuality that I imagine play a very interesting role in the Egyptian culture. What drew you to this particular story in this particular location?
Kelly: Thank you for having me, and for your kind words about my book! I am beyond thrilled to have finally published my first novel, but it did take me about six years to write (and edit, and rewrite again, and edit again). I started Cairo in White during my sophomore year at George Washington University, when I was dating an Egyptian who, when asked about gays in Egypt, claimed that there weren’t any. As a Women’s Studies major, I was appalled. So I wrote the first chapter of Cairo as a short story about one woman’s struggle within the confines of her Egyptian struggle, and the character just stayed with me.
Justin: Do you find a theme or common thread among the stories you write? Is there one major aspect of writing that brings you back to it over and over again?
Kelly: My dad always jokes that I write “slit your wrists” poems and stories, which is, at times, an accurate description. Over the past few years I’ve written enough stories about the deaths of family members to fill a whole book (I literally do have a book of these, which is with a publisher right now, so we’ll see if it goes anywhere). It’s weird, because I’m usually the happiest, bubbliest person in any room, but my family is the most important thing to me in the world and I think the idea of losing them terrifies me. Writers always say to write what scares you the most, so that’s what I do. I pour it all into my stories.
Besides death, in terms of threads, I find myself going back to Pennsylvania a lot for the settings of my short stories and poems. It’s weird, because I couldn’t get out of there soon enough, but now that I live in Washington, DC, there are parts of Pennsylvania I miss.
Justin: I feel the same way about DC, so I know what you mean. I understand you have a second novel about to be published. Can you explain to our audience what it feels like to have, not one, but two novels hitting the market? Do you have any war stories from the publishing process that you would be willing to share?
Kelly: It feels bizarre. I actually wrote the first draft of Dreamweaver Road in about ten days this past summer as a way of “taking a break” from the millionth revision of Cairo in White, and weirdly, one publisher loved Dreamweaver but asked for a longer novel instead (that’s Musa Publishing, which is publishing Cairo), and the second publisher sent me a contract for Dreamweaver right away. The book is more of a novelette, very short, and it’s a Young Adult fantasy story with witches and dragons.
In terms of war stories, I think the hardest part of being a writer is the waiting. Not only do you have to take forever to write the book, but once it’s done, you have to wait for someone to read it and accept it. Then, once they accept it, you think all of the waiting is over, but in fact, it’s just begun. They might tell you they’re aiming for January (or not give you a date at all), and when the middle of January comes, you’re still doing your first round of edits. Patience, needless to say, is not one of my strong points.
Justin: Do you workshop with a writing group? Beta readers?
Kelly: I just graduated from Hopkins in December, so I spent a lot of time in workshops over the past two and a half years. After graduation, a wonderful friend of mine, Sheryl Hotlen Rivett, asked me to start a writing group with her, so we did. I tend to actually not be much of a workshopper or group writer at all, I prefer writing on my own without feedback until the entire thing is done (or never, until I send it to a publisher), but I love my group of writer friends and I trust them so that makes it fun.
Justin: Did you ever consider the self-publishing route in this process?
Kelly: When I first started querying this novel back in undergrad, I got a lot of positive responses from big deal agents who loved the story, but thought the writing was just not there yet. So I knew that eventually, after spending a lot of time querying agents and publishers, I would find a home for the book. I think with self-publishing, you need to be able to edit your own work or have someone else edit it, which involves more time and money upfront that I didn’t have. You have to be able to make your own cover art or have someone do it, which again, requires more time and money. But, for example, I’m editing a book of essays on online dating called Answers I’ll Accept, and I think I’m going to go the self-publishing route with that project. I’m the one editing other people’s work, my dad took the cover photo, and I now have the connections I need to hold a book launch, get blurbs, etc. etc. As long as a writer is willing to market the hell out of their work and hire an editor, I think self-publishing works.
Justin: Do you have an agent? If not, how did you find your editor and what made you go with this choice?
Kelly: I don’t have an agent (though I would like one!). I did try to query a bunch of agents back in undergrad, and got many positive responses. When I did the same thing last year, with a bunch of publications and a Hopkins degree, most agents didn’t even bother to respond to my email. I think that was enough of a hint about where print publishing is going for me to stop, go online, and find myself an e-book publisher, which is how I found Musa. I absolutely love their system, it’s all online, so you can see who has your manuscript and what part of the process it’s in. You get an editor, and a line editor, and a cover artist, and all kinds of wonderful help.
Justin: That is great, I will be among those soon to check out Musa. Are you a fan of writers conferences, and if so, do you have any favorites?
Kelly: As a poor college student for the past six years, I haven’t gotten much of a chance to go to that many writing conferences. I did go to AWP last year in Boston, and I’m headed to Seattle this coming week to table at this year’s AWP for the magazine I edit for, Outside In Literary & Travel Magazine. I know a lot of people find AWP overwhelming, and it is, but I love the feeling of being surrounded by so many eager writers, editors, and agents who are all looking for the same thing.
Justin: I just attended the San Francisco Writers Conference and had a wonderful time, as I am sure you will at AWP. I wish I was going, as I hear Tobias Wolff will be there. How much of your real life do you tend to put into your stories? Are any of your characters based on people you know (you don’t have to say who they actually are)?
Kelly: I pull a lot of details from my real life, but almost no actual characters or storylines. So for example, Aisha goes to a lot of the same places I went to in Cairo, but none of the situations that happen to her at those places happened to me. The general feeling of her experience is the same, and if you look closely she’s eating the same things I ate and buying the same things I bought, but I am not her. The same holds true for Zahra. I pulled the description for her basement “apartment” from an actual basement I lived in in Fairfax, and I really did eat soup with fish heads floating in it, but nothing that actually happens to her happened to me. I write and edit poetry, so I think in general I strive to write my prose as lyrically and “poetically” as possible with as many great details as possible, but if I try to write a personal storyline I’m too close to, it fails.
Justin: I notice that you made sure to acknowledge your professors from the Johns Hopkins MA in writing program. What are your takeaways from such a program, and would you recommend an MA or MFA in creative writing to other aspiring authors?
Kelly: Yes, I would definitely recommend it. I loved my time at Hopkins, and even though it took my two and a half years, I felt like it was over too soon. Even if you think you’re the best writer in the world (which, I hate it to break it to you, you’re probably not) there’s always something to learn from both your professors and your fellow students in an MA or MFA program. Ed Perlman, who teaches Sentence Power, literally changed the way I write my prose. After his class last spring I printed Cairo, opened a blank page, and started again. It was humbling, but it was necessary. And I did it with the support of David Everett (the Director of the Program), Mark Farrington (who I basically stalked by taking a class with him almost every semester), and all of my other wonderful teachers and fellow students.
Justin: I went through the same wonderful experience with Ed Perlman, and completely agree. Without him and the other professors’ help, I would be lost. Are you done with education now, or what do you see as coming along next for you?
Kelly: I actually applied to PhD programs, though some of them take about two people a year, so we’ll see. My goal is to be a professor, so, in general, the more education the better. I also just love learning, and I feel lost if I’m not in school.
Justin: Do you have a day job, or are you focused 100% on the writing? If you have not made the leap yet, do you hope to one day go all in on the writing?
Kelly: I would love to write full time, but honestly, writing doesn’t pay. So yes, I have a full time job as an Events Coordinator at a city club, which can be a struggle because of the stress but flexible in its own way because I have the best boss in the world. Hopefully after I get a teaching job and put a few more novels out, writing can become my fulltime gig.
Justin: I hope that will become a reality. Thank you for sharing your experience with us Kelly. Before we sign off, do you have any last bits of advice for those of us out there anxiously waiting to follow your lead and get our first novels published?
Kelly: Thank you so much, these were wonderful questions! My biggest advice is pretty much what everyone else says: write every day. Even if it’s just a quote someone said on the metro, or a line for a poem, or a plot idea, write it down. It’s not about getting the volume on paper, it’s about keeping your mind focused on writing at all times. As a writer with a full time job who until this point was in school and also teaching writing to kids on the side, I almost never got to actually spend several hours sitting down and writing. We multitasking writers need to learn how to write anywhere and everywhere, and how to keep our minds on writing even when we’re not actually sitting down to write.
That is great advice from Kelly, and a wonderful interview! I hope you all enjoyed it as much as I did, and stay tuned for more to come.
*** To buy Kelly’s novel on Amazon, click HERE.