Author Interview with Robb Grindstaff

Every now and then, I come across an author who wears more than just an author hat. Robb Grindstaff is one such author. I first met him on Agent Query Connect, a web site for authors of all paths. Through posts there and continuing over on Facebook, where we are part of the same writing groups, I’ve come to respect Mr. Grindstaff not only as an author, but as an editor as well.

So let’s begin…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA1. Let’s get to know you a bit. Where are you from, and what genre do you write?

I’m from pretty much all over. I currently live in Wisconsin. Born and raised in Oklahoma, Texas, Illinois, Iowa, and Arizona, mostly in small towns. Went to college in Oklahoma, then lived in Phoenix for ten years, where I started in the newspaper business. Then to a small town in North Carolina, a smaller town in Texas, before making the leap to Washington, D.C., then a larger leap to Tokyo for five years. After six more years in D.C., two more years back in Arizona, we landed in a wonderful small community in Wisconsin. All those places I’ve lived and visited over the years make for some great settings and characters.

My writing has been described as “contemporary Southern literary.” But it’s not the boring, navel-gazing, self-aware, overly indulgent attempt at art kind of literary fiction — the kind that gives lit-fic a bad name among most readers. It’s realistic characters in contemporary settings, and hopefully well written. And stuff does actually happen.

On the “Southern” part of that description, most of the settings and characters are based in the Southern U.S. because that’s who I am and where I’m from. These are my people. But it’s the modern South, the new South, still steeped in tradition but with a new generation with one foot in the modern world and a whole different outlook on life. I love to explore various American sub-cultures, like the South or military brats, and to expose the conflicts when sub-cultures collide.

2. With all the risks and uncertainty around publishing, what was it that drew you to a career in writing?

Writing is something I’ve always done, long before thinking about publishing and long before the current publishing climate. I started taking writing serious as a possible career in high school, but even way back then, publishing was a highly uncertain business, so I majored in journalism and English in college so I could earn a living until I wrote the Great American Novel and become an overnight success. That was nearly 40 years ago, by the way, and I’m still trying.

I went into the newspaper business and I’m still there. I never stopped writing fiction, but during my 20s and 30s, I was getting married, raising kids, moving around the world, paying mortgages — the usual stuff — and only wrote for my own enjoyment, never seriously considered trying to get anything published.

That period also gave me life experiences to write about and a more mature, deeper perspective that I didn’t have in my teens and twenties. That, in turn, informed my writing in a way that I never could have produced when I was in my 20s. It also helped me hone writing skills for twenty-plus years before I ever decided to show something to anyone else.

In my forties, a character showed up in my head and demanded that I listen to her and write down her story. I’ve been at it ever since. I worked for ten years to find an agent (found one, then lost him), and by the time I’d finished my second novel, the publishing world changed.

I looked into self-publishing, and decided that just wasn’t for me. But there was a third way that fit me perfectly — a small independent publisher with editors, cover artists, marketing support — a full-service publisher, but utilizing modern technology for print and e-books, and they offer audio books and foreign language translations, as well. They loved my work, signed me up, published my first two novels, and have been waiting patiently for me to finish the third. Okay, maybe not so patiently.

All the uproar in the book publishing business is just business as usual. Only now there are ways to get published even if you don’t land the needle-in-a-haystack agent or the lightning-strike publishing house contract. Of course, that means there is a glut of novels out there competing for attention, many of them horrible, many of them good, and a very thin margin of excellent books. But even the best have trouble getting any traction and public awareness.

All I can do is tell the best stories I can and put them out there with a lot of support from my publisher, and hope a few people discover them and enjoy them. Beyond that, I can’t worry about it.

I might have landed an agent and a book deal fifteen years ago, had dismal sales, and been dropped by my big publisher and big agent. Not sure how that would have been any better than today’s turmoil and uncertainty.

3. What are your thoughts about the articles online as of late, claiming that literary books have fallen by the way side; that they’re no longer selling or garnering interest by the reading public?

I avoid reading them. I don’t know if literary fiction is falling by the wayside or not. First, we have to define ‘literary,’ which is a bit like trying to glue Jell-O to a cat’s feet.

With today’s marketing and branding demands, books that might have been considered lit fic a generation ago are now pegged with some specific genre. If J.D. Salinger wrote ‘A Catcher in the Rye’ today, it would be young adult fiction.

4. How do you respond to those who might think starting your own publishing company is the same as self-publishing?

I have no opinion. In today’s world, every writer has to find the right publishing model for him/herself. Find the method that works for you.

But there’s too much emphasis on publishing and not enough on the art and craft of writing. There’s more than enough bad writing inflicted on the public, by the big publishing houses and self-publishers alike. Completing a novel doesn’t mean it should be published. Practice novels and learning curves are now published with the push of a button rather than boxed up and shoved under the bed with the dust vermin where they belong.

But that milk is already out of the cow.

5. Have you ever thought about giving up? If you did, what changed your mind?

No, never thought about giving up. I’ve changed my approach as the world changed. Early on, I was sending query letters to agents and getting lots of very favorable feedback, but couldn’t quite find that one agent who loved it. I took that feedback and revised the manuscript. I joined a writers group to get critique and more feedback. I read books about writing and studied the craft and art of fiction, and then revised and rewrote to improve my work. And while I was exhausting all the possibilities of finding an agent, I wrote another novel and started querying that one too, while also starting a third novel.

Overall, this was a 10-year process (at that time). I landed one agent, who had some excellent input and I made some revisions, then the agent left the business and his agency couldn’t take on any new clients, so I was back on the streets without representation. That was about the time the publishing world began to change.

I self-published a collection of short stories to learn more about self-publishing. What I learned is that it’s just not for me. It’s great for some people, but it’s just not for me. So instead I started looking for that mid-point — not an agent to try to land a contract with a major publishing house, but not self-publishing. I researched small presses and independent publishers until I found one that fit what I was looking for. They provide almost all the same services a traditional publisher provides, they are selective and publish only high quality work, but they are small enough to be responsive. They provide marketing support, editing, professional quality cover artists, etc.

So I queried them, and the publisher loved my work. I’ve now published two novels with them and a third is in the works.

6. Even though Self-Publishing was not for you, what knowledge did you gain from your experience?

It was very helpful. It taught me a lot of the ins and outs — getting good editing, good cover art and some of the technical requirements, and the formatting requirements for both e-books and print-on-demand. The main thing I learned is that I’m not a formatter. I already knew I wasn’t a graphic artist. While I had the ability to learn formatting, I don’t have the patience to do it well, and I learned I would need to hire outside help for that. So for me to self-publish meant I had to hire my own editor, proofreader, cover artist, formatter, and someone to upload the whole thing to all the different channels. Speaking of which, I also learned about the various channels to sell a self-pubbed book in addition to Amazon and Barnes & Noble, such as Smashwords, Apple, Kobo, Diesel, etc.

Last but certainly not least, it gave me a broader perspective on marketing my own work.

All this gave me a better perspective on what to look for in a small publisher — someone who could provide all of that support. Yes, I still have to take the lead on marketing, but I knew I needed some expert guidance and support.

7. Has your perception of the publishing industry changed since that first query letter was sent out?

The industry has changed a lot in the past fifteen to twenty years, since I first started sending query letters to agents. So I suppose my perception of the industry has changed too. When I started, going the agent route to lad a contract with a major publishing house was the only way to get published. It was a high bar, but it forced writers to learn the craft, to write and write and write, to understand that the first novel or three might just be practice novels until you develop your voice and hit your stride. But as the industry consolidated and the book market changed over the years, the gatekeepers — the agents and acquiring editors — became even more selective, if that’s possible. Writers I’d come to know — exceptional writers with fantastic novels — couldn’t get a foot in the door. There were more superb writers than slots available at publishing companies, and sometimes publishing companies had to make choices based on what they could market and sell, not necessarily on what were the best written novels. This is the case in almost any traditional, commercial art field. There are more brilliant songwriters and bands out there than all the major record labels could possibly sign.

As technology changed and the self-publishing industry exploded, it gave all writers an even playing field. The smaller, independent publishers filled a necessary void as well.

The problem then becomes a glut of books and writers. Those brilliant writers who could never get past the traditional gatekeepers can get their books out there. But so can tens of thousands of not-quite-so-talented writers, first-time writers, beginners, amateurs and novices who may have a lot of talent but haven’t quite developed their skills and voice yet — all of us are now screaming for attention while afloat in the middle of an ocean of books.

It’s gone from a tiny little gate with gatekeepers to an uncontrolled deluge. For many writers it’s gone from unable to get published to able to publish in five minutes, but unable to get any attention or readers or sales.

8. Some authors tend to stay away from certain genre’s/categories. Myself, I can’t write YA. Is there one you know you can’t write or would have a difficult time trying to write?

There are a lot of things I can’t write. Ha. But specific genres I know I would never attempt include science fiction and fantasy. I’ve never been a big reader in those genres, and they require some very specific skills and knowledge that I don’t have. The world-building skills among these genre writers has to be incredible. I take the easy way out by writing contemporary, real-world settings, often in places where I’ve lived.

9. Let’s talk about your latest book. What are you hoping your readers will take away from this story?

The crux of the story is how you live and how much you love, not how long you live or what you accomplish. The key themes to the book are family, faith, and forgiveness — including forgiving ourselves. Life is going to be over before you’re done with it, so love people and let yourselves enjoy life. Those are the basic lessons that Carrie, the main character, has to learn.

10. Was there any one thing that inspired you to write this story?

For five years, we lived on an Air Force base outside Tokyo, Japan, while my daughter was in high school. I was a civilian, but most of the people there were in the military, of course. My daughter’s friends inspired this story of a biracial, bicultural military brat. So many of her friends were of mixed race and mixed nationalities — kids from an American military service member (usually the father) and a “local,” (usually the mother), who might be Japanese or Korean or German or Italian. Military folks move to a new assignment every few years, and have often joined the military right out of high school, so they frequently fall in love with a local woman wherever they might be stationed. Then the young, just married couple gets transferred somewhere else.

We knew high school kids who had never lived in the U.S., or didn’t remember it. The American military brat is a subculture all its own — 100 percent normal, average everyday American kids who had lived all over Europe and Asia, often had one American parent and one non-American, and frequently spoke several languages. “Kids from nowhere” they’ve been called by sociologists. They’re loyal friends and make friends easily, they’re very patriotic as Americans, but very worldly and cultured from their travels and familiarity with different cultures and parts of the world. These were some of the most interesting kids I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing, and there are still many of them (all adults now, like our daughter) who still call us “Mom and Dad.”

Carrie, the main character in Carry Me Away, is the daughter of an American Marine officer and his Japanese wife. She grows up moving around every two to five years. “Home is never where you left it” is a line Carrie uses — a line she borrowed from my daughter.

Author Bio:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERARobb Grindstaff’s first novel, Hannah’s Voice, debuted January 2013 to rave reviews from critics and readers alike, his writing compared to Flannery O’Connor and John Irving. His latest novel, Carry Me Away, published September 2013.

In addition to a career as a newspaper editor, publisher, and manager, Robb Grindstaff has written fiction most of his life. The newspaper biz has taken him and his family from Phoenix, Arizona, to small towns in North Carolina and Texas, and from seven years in Washington, D.C., to five years in Asia. Born and raised a small-town kid, he’s as comfortable in Tokyo or Tuna, Texas. He now lives in Wisconsin, where he manages a group of newspapers.

Robb has had a dozen short stories published in several print anthologies and e-zines, and his articles on the craft of writing fiction have appeared in writing magazines and websites.

ROBB’S WEB AND SOCIAL MEDIA STUFF:

www.robbgrindstaff.com (website)

www.facebook.com/robbgrindstaffwriter

Twitter: @RobbWriter

BOOK DESCRIPTION:

carrymeaway_finalCarrie Destin, a biracial military brat, believes her injuries from a car accident will prove fatal before she reaches adulthood. Carrie launches a frantic quest to experience everything, travel the world, and find her soul mate before her life ends. Her grandmother’s wisdom points her toward acceptance, but first she must break through her fears before she can give the gift of ‘til-death-do-us-part.

WHERE TO BUY THE BOOK – available in print and e-book:

http://www.evolvedpub.com/robbgrindstaffbooks/ (this is the landing page at his publisher’s site, and it has more links to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc).

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About Darke Conteur
Darke Conteur is a writer at the mercy of her Muse. The author of stories in several genres, she prefers to create within the realms Science Fiction and Dark Fantasy. A pagan at heart, her personal goal it to find her balance within nature; exploring the dark through her stories and the light through her beliefs. When not writing or working with crystals, she enjoys knitting, gardening, cooking and very loud music.

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