An in-depth interview with Outside the Box collaborator
Born into a family gospel/ bluegrass band, Joni grew up on stage, opening for huge-haired, sequin-bedazzled country-western legends of the 1960s. She has always loved setting words in rows and started seriously writing in the 1980s while living on a fire tower in California’s Trinity Wilderness with her husband. She kept writing for the love of it as a young mom working on theatre and voiceover projects.
Then in 1994, at age thirty-two, Joni was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a virulent blood cancer and writing became her route to recovery. In 2001, Bald in the Land of Big Hair, her memoir about ‘the chemo thing’ was published by HarperCollins, extraordinary people started asking her to help them tell their stories, which is how she ended up ghostwriting, book-doctoring, and editing between novels.
In 2011, Joni started her own indie e-press, Stella Link Books, to publish a 10th Anniversary ebook Edition of BLBH (foreword by fabulous Elizabeth Berg!), her backlist books, new novels, and ‘whatever else I feel like publishing on my own label’. As she says, ‘It’s a thrilling time to be in the book business.’
I’m delighted to be collaborating with Joni on Outside the Box; Women Writing Women. It’s only through interviewing the other contributors for my blog that I’m discovering how truly extraordinary they are!
Q: Joni, all writers start life as readers. When did your love affair with reading begin?
That moment is the earliest clear memory from my childhood! I was four years old, sitting on the floor in the hallway with my sister Diana, whispering because we were supposed to be in bed, and she showed me how to sound out words in a Betsy and Veronica comic book. I don’t recall the exact words, but I do vividly remember this thrilling realisation coming over me, like a gate swinging open.
Q: Who gave you your first encouragement as a writer?
When I was in high school, my English teacher Gale Peterson (think unholy one-legged offspring of Margaret Thatcher and Bilbo Baggins) assigned a forty-page paper on Great Expectations. I was too busy to read it, but my sister Diana told me all about it, and I deftly cranked out the paper the night before it was due. The day Mr. Peterson handed back the papers, I smugly accepted my A grade—“Excellent! Thoughtful and creative!”—as per usual. But about halfway through class, he paused at the blackboard, thought for a moment, then crutched over to my desk, scribbled out the A, hashed a big red F over it and scrawled, “You are such a clever writer, I almost believed you read this book.” It was weirdly thrilling!
One morning when I was in college, I was doing the walk of shame on the way home from a frat party, and I saw Mr. P sitting at a bus stop near the teaching hospital where he was being treated for the cancer that had taken his leg and would soon take his life. He asked me in disgust what I was doing with my life. I blathered something about being a theatre major and dramatically declared, “Broadway is my biology.” He said, “Broadway may be your biology, but the English language is part of your soul, and if you don’t write, it’ll be the greatest tragedy of your life.”
His words came back to me in a very unexpected way when I most desperately needed to hear them, but that’s another story. (If you’re interested in the long version, it’s in my memoirella First You Write: The Worst Way to Become an Almost Famous Author and the Best Advice I Got While Doing It.)
Joni playing guitar, 1985
Q: One of the key stories of publishing in the last couple of years was the revelation that The Cuckoo’s Calling had been penned by J K Rowling. Do you write under a pseudonym?
As a ghostwriter, I’ve written many books under other people’s names, and I’ve published under a pseudonym as well. There are many different reasons for that, but it’s always driven by what will best serve the book. Collaborating on celebrity memoirs, I’ve hung around with famous people enough to know that I don’t want to be famous, so for me, the decision is always about how the book will reach the most readers with the least confusion. Only my soul projects are published as Joni Rodgers.
Q: Man Booker prize-winner Richard Flanagan said that The Narrow Road to the Deep North was the book he couldn’t avoid writing. Have you ever felt that way about a book?
That’s the feeling I’m talking about when I say “soul project”—and Crazy for Trying definitely was that. I started writing this book when I was living on a fire tower in the Northern California wilderness and finished it almost ten years later while I was undergoing chemotherapy for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (blood cancer). I had no immune system, which meant mandatory isolation. That gave me the space and quiet to write sixteen hours a day. This purely creative purpose breathed joy and peace into what was otherwise a very dark time. My prognosis was poor; I was told I’d live five years if I was lucky, and my son and daughter were just five and seven years old. When I started seriously pursuing getting the book published, I was driven by the reality that this book might be the only way my children would ever really know me.
Crazy for Trying was originally published by a prestigious small press and was a finalist for the Barnes & Noble Discover Award, which launched my career and gave me a whole new life. This book, I truly believe, is the reason I’m still alive. Had I not found the purpose and peace I gained from writing it, I don’t think I would have made it.
Q: So writing was very much a part of your recovery?
Absolutely. My first two novels were published as I struggled in and out of remission. Writing a memoir about my cancer experience was a tremendously healing process, and the response to that book taught me how to use my creative purpose in service of others, which made it a life purpose. As the crucible moment evolved into a long career, I’ve tried to hang onto the joy and peace of pure creative purpose. I truly believe it’s why I’m still alive twenty years later. Perhaps that’s the short answer to why I write: in my heart of hearts, I still feel that if I stop, I’ll die.
Joni after her chemo treatment
Q: Who is the hero of your story?
Tulsa is a bookish, zaftig misfit, much like I was in my early twenties. She’s not me, but I drew on my experience as the lone female disc jockey at a rock station in western Montana. She’s the opposite of a damsel in distress; she’s rather ornery, she’s the one rescuing the (anti)hero when all’s said and done. I was beyond elated when the Houston Press described Crazy for Trying as “Jane Eyre with rock and roll.”
The themes of body image, forgiveness, making peace with one’s past were important to me, then and now. I also wanted to write about a healthy, loving union between two women (Tulsa’s mother and her partner) and how unfair it was—to them and to their daughter—that they weren’t allowed to marry. I was turned down by a number of agents because I refused to cut that storyline, and back then (in the mid-1990s) it was still a verboten topic for commercial fiction.
Q: Do you have a method for creating your characters’ names and what do you think makes a name believable?
There’s a scene in Crazy for Trying where a friend helps her come up with her disc jockey name from the phone book—a great resource for mix and match character names. I also love street maps, Shakespeare and, of course, the Bible begats.
Q: Do you feel under pressure to make your main characters likable?
Quite the opposite. I feel under pressure to make them real—deeply flawed and deeply human.
Crazy for Trying
You were a New York Times bestselling author. What made you to decide to self publish after enjoying so much success with traditional publishing?
Well, first the dream is finding an agent, and then the dream is getting a book deal, and then the dream is a bestseller. And then you wake up. The reality of a long, healthy writing life is the day-to-day work. If you’re not writing what you love, it can be a slog.
I’m glad my first two novels, Crazy for Trying and Sugarland, were published within the feet-to-the-fire standards of small literary presses. HarperCollins published my third novel, The Secret Sisters, and my first memoir, Bald in the Land of Big Hair, which brought me to the attention of editors at Random House and S&S who brought me in to ghostwrite celebrity memoirs. I was mentored by a string of stellar editors, and I learned as much as I could about cover design, production, positioning, marketing—every aspect of the book biz—so now I feel more comfortable in the driver’s seat. I’ve had several opportunities to sell ebook rights for my backlist books, but the agility and creative power of author-publishing is addictive, and candidly, when it comes to fiction, the money is better.
Only one of my backlist novels is still controlled by the publisher, and it’s by far the worst of my ebooks in sales performance, cover design and the quality of the conversion from print to digital format. They don’t care as much as I do, and it shows. There’s no such thing as a perfect book or ebook, but this fakakta notion that author-published books are inferior to ebooks from mainstream publishers is old-think left over from the early amateur swell in self-publishing. It simply isn’t true of books from top tier authors like Roz Morris, Orna Ross and the other authors involved in Outside the Box: Women Writing Women.
I enjoy working with Big 5 publishers as a ghostwriter, and I’m deeply grateful for the opportunities I’ve enjoyed in the corporate publishing world, but I don’t want my fiction to be guided by the corporate values system. For me, every novel is a soul project; I want 100% of the creative control. If I go down in flames, I’d rather go down for something I believe in, something I’m proud and happy to have in my body of work regardless of its performance in the marketplace.
So that’s the long answer to your question. The short answer is tattooed on my back next a portrait of William Shakespeare: “Be true.”
Q: Which professional services won’t you skimp on?
I’m not joking when I say a good freelance editor is so hard to come by I had to grow one. My daughter, Jerusha Rodgers of Rabid Badger Editing is my secret weapon. Not only is she a ruthless line and copy editor, she has a knack for sussing out storylines. I call her “The Plot Whisperer” because I can call her with a herd of feral ideas, and she makes sense of it—not by telling me the answer but by asking the right questions that lead me to my own answer. (I’m bummed that it’s too late for me to grow a cover designer!)
Q: How did you meet the other authors taking part in the box set?
I actually met Roz and Orna before I met them, which is the best possible way to make friends with another author. I read and loved Orna’s linked novels After the Rising and Before the Fall and learned about her life as a publishing industry mover/shaker when I was searching to see what else she’d written. She turned me on to Roz’s book My Memories of a Future Life, which I inhaled one weekend when I was down with the flu, and as I recall, we connected on Facebook after I reviewed it. When I learned that your novel, An Unchoreographed Life would be in this collection, I had already bought it for a travelling Kindle I share with my daughter. We load it with books we both want to read and discuss, and that haunting cover image—who could resist? As soon as the group came together, I started reading Jessica Bell’s White Lady, which is terrific, and I can’t wait to dive into Carol and Kathleen’s books. They’re both wonderful writers. I’m thrilled to be in such good company professionally, and we’re quickly becoming good friends.
Q: Genre box sets are a very indie-publishing move—you’d never see a sci-fi box set that included Macmillan, Penguin and HarperCollins authors. Why do you think that is?
Big corporate publishers don’t have the agility we have in author-publishing, but authors should be banding together and pushing for that, especially small and micro-press authors who typically get very small advances and need all the visibility they can get. I’d buy that Mac/Pen/HC sci-fi box set in a hot second! It would benefit the authors tremendously, and readers would enjoy the heck out of it.
Click here to look inside or buy from Amazon.co.uk
Click here to look inside or buy from Amazon.com
Also available from other major retailers – see www.womenwritewomen.com
Q: Because of the diversity of the books in Outside the Box, would you say we’re on the edge of cross-genre ‘bundling’?
Definitely, we are. While all the books would be considered contemporary fiction, there are elements of suspense, love stories, drama and humour. Our common core: artistic integrity, serious craft chops and an unshakable belief that books by and about women are important. All these novels star strong, engaging women main characters. It’s about individuality, so having all the books be of a certain strict genre ilk would sort of defeat the purpose. These books—like we, the authors and our unruly protagonists—jump the turnstile and surprise you. As a reader, that’s what I love about it!
Q. Which books are you an evangelist for? If they are relatively unknown, how did you discover them?
I love to talk up excellent undiscovered fiction and memoirs by small/micro-press and indie authors. I have my go-to publishers like Unbridled Books, Jaded Ibis Press and a few others who consistently do books I love. I get recommendations from my sisters and daughter and many bookish friends, and a lot of PR people send me books to review. I think they appreciate someone who’s actively doesn’t want to read what everyone else is reading. I mean, Gone Girl was great, but I enjoyed Jessica Bell’s White Lady even more. It’s the difference between a slick Madonna video and a live Neko Case concert.
Q: Do you post reviews? And, if so, where?
I’m not able to keep up with it as much as I’d like, but whenever I have time, I post video reviews on Joni’s List: www.jonislist.com.
Q: “They really are evil bastards,” Anthony Horowitz, has said about Amazon. “I loathe them. I fear them. And I use them all the time because they’re wonderful.” Where do you stand?
Amazon is the sand worm from Dune. If you’re brave enough to scramble aboard, it’ll take you for a ride, but it might also chomp you in the maw of a thousand teeth.
Q: What do you do when you’re not writing? Any hobbies or party tricks?
In 2014, my mom died of Alzheimer’s. During the last two years of her life, I spent a lot of time sitting with her, playing her ukulele and singing the old songs I grew up with. At first, I sucked, but it seemed to calm her, so I kept playing, and eventually I got pretty good. (I even learned “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Miserables and made up lyrics about the publishing industry. “I dreamed a dream in days gone by, that I could write books for a living. I dreamed bookstores would never die. I dreamed reviews would be forgiving…”) Since she died, I still find myself drawn to play every day. The peace and happiness I get from it is one last wonderful gift from Mom.
You can find out more about Joni and her writing on her website.
OUTSIDE THE BOX: Women Writing Women, is available for 90 days only from Feb 20, 2015. Only £7.99/$9.99 for all seven novels from seven boundary-breaking writers. For more information go to www.womenwritewomen.com
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