Welcome to the six hundred and thirteenth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with non-fiction author and poet Dorothy K Fletcher. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further.
Morgen: Hello, Dorothy. Please tell us something about yourself, where you’re based, and how you came to be a writer.
Dorothy: I have lived the bulk of my 62 years in Jacksonville, Florida. The experiences I have had and the connections that I have made as an educator have helped me immensely in furthering my writing career. My most recent books have been local histories about the 50s and 60s in Jacksonville. They were put out by The History Press, a company located in South Carolina and London.
Morgen: Topography is incredibly popular. My aunt’s written seven books about her town, actually not that far from London. With your non-fiction, how do you decide what to write about?
Dorothy: Most of the time, I will have a lingering image from my childhood or youth and then I begin researching the event that is behind the image. Usually, I head for the main library and go through the microfilms of The Florida Times Union or the now-closed Jacksonville Journal. After that, I start calling people for interviews and then, as things are revealed, I start a “retelling” which includes all of the elements I remembered and I have discovered.
Morgen: I used to do in-person or Skype interviews and really enjoyed them, although they were time-consuming. I can get to do one a day via email (and there are plenty of authors wanting to be interviewed… I’m booked up to July!) but it was great actually getting to meet / speak to people. What have you had published to-date?
Dorothy: Besides numerous poems and articles, I have published 5 books. They are:
- The Week of Dream Horses, a children’s book, with Green Tiger Press (1984)
- The Cruelest Months, a novel about my teaching experiences in an inner city school in Jacksonville, with Xlibris (2002)
- Zen Fishing and Other Southern Pleasures, a collection of essays and poems about life in the South, with Ocean Publishing, (2005)
- Remembering Jacksonville: By the Wayside, a collection of essays written for the Florida Times Union, (2010)
- Growing Up Jacksonville: A 50s and 60s River City Childhood, a memoir about my Jacksonville childhood influences, (2012)
Morgen: I spotted Xlibris so you’ve self-published, what lead to you going your own way?
Dorothy: Yes, my second book was self-published. After many rejections, I was finally being championed by a young editor at Thomas Dunne, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press. Of course, after I revised the manuscript to suit them, it took almost a year for them to recommend another revision, which I did. I waited another year to be told a different rewrite was necessary. They wanted me to abandon my basic format because I used quotations from classics to open each chapter. I think there was concern over copyrights or fees that needed to be paid to use the quotations. At that point, I said no.
I have done very well on my own. I have sold over 1100 copies, quite good for a self-pub, and the book is now being used as a college text in an introduction to teaching class at Florida State College in Jacksonville. (It is interesting that my book has to be kept behind the counter because it has a tendency to be stolen—go figure. I suppose you could say I have arrived as a writer when people feel sufficiently compelled to steal my books).
In the teaching community, I have received many supportive comments about the book and its accurate depiction of teaching. I am afraid that traditional publishers in New York haven’t a clue what goes on in classrooms all over America, so they saw very limited possibilities for my book.
Just as a side note, I did get permissions from all living writers or the heirs of dead ones to use non-public domain quotations. I even paid Toni Morrison’s organization $35.00 and two copies of my book to use a piece of her The Bluest Eye. I think concerns over such things revealed a lack of publishing knowledge on the part of Thomas Dunne’s organization.
Morgen: It must be so thrilling to have your books used in classes – I think an aspiration of any author. It’s true you have to be careful about quoting other works but if they were ‘classics’, you’d probably find they were out of copyright and in the public domain already. Are all your books available as eBooks? Do you read eBooks or is it paper all the way?
Dorothy: Remembering Jacksonville is available as an ebook, and Growing Up Jacksonville will be within a few months. And as for ebook or paper, I can honestly say that I do both. I have a Kindle and love the ease with which I am able to read lying down. I also love being able to enlarge the fonts so that I do not need glasses. Still, I love reading books, flipping the pages, and cuddling up on the sofa with one. I love that I am in an age when both are possible.
Morgen: I can probably count on one hand the authors who’ve said they only read eBooks. I love the Kindle app on my iPad (and my books are only available as eBooks so I rely on those who do read them :)). Did you choose the titles / covers of your books? How important do you think they are?
Dorothy: When I self-published, the cover was a design my friend Emily Carmain and I put together. The pictures and artwork were mine, and Emily put the pieces together in a very pleasing format. With History Press, I provided the photos and artwork, and they designed the rest. I was thrilled with the way the books turned out.
I hate to say it, but covers make a great deal of difference. An attractive book is often picked up and people will then thumb through it. Maybe, just maybe, the person will take a chance and buy it after he or she had nosed around inside (if he or she wasn’t looking for the title in the first place).
Morgen: I like the contrast between your covers; Growing Up Jacksonville’s pastel colours and layout are very of the era (although I don’t remember much about it, I was born in 1967) and then you have the modern bold colour of The Cruelest Months. What are you working on at the moment / next?
Dorothy: I am in promotion mode at the moment for Growing Up Jacksonville. I do have two novels that I am shopping, but I can tell this is going to be a “bumpy ride” yet again.
Morgen: Oh dear. Marketing is usually the answer to ‘What’s your least favourite aspect of your writing life?’ Many see it as a necessary evil. I enjoy speaking to potential readers but marketing (social networking especially) can be so time-consuming – I think that’s why it’s resented; we’re writers, we should spend most of our time writing. Do you manage to write every day? Do you ever suffer from writer’s block?
Dorothy: I try to write everyday in some form or fashion. Whenever I am blocked, I return to poetry.
Morgen: Ah yes, we’ve not talked much about your poetry. Do tell us more.
Dorothy: I seem to be able to vent my spleen and process my world when I write poetry. Then occasionally, I send the poems out and I will win something. In 2006, I won first place in The Robert Frost Poetry Contest in Key West, Florida, and as a result, I was asked to speak at the Library of Congress. Very cool! My most recent poetic joy was winning a second place prize in the Dancing Poetry Contest in San Francisco and going there to read my poem at the ceremonies. From one end of the States to the other—got to love poetry!
Morgen: Congratulations. I write very little poetry and don’t read it, and have never been taught to write it (properly) but my heart lives with prose (always has, always will). I’m sure I did study some poetry at school but I don’t remember any of it (I can tell you the novels / plays we covered: Moonfleet, Jane Eyre, Macbeth…), although I do remember writing a poem about an ampersand. Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Dorothy: I edit constantly! My thoughts seem to come out of my head in a mish-mash of foolishness. My best thoughts or ideas may take a while to emerge, but eventually they do, and that is when I cut and splice and reject and add. It is a very organic process, I suppose—like a garden—planning, weeding, nurturing, pruning and directing. It takes a long while and then one day, you sit down with it and it seems beautiful and just as it should be.
Morgen: I wrote my debut novel for NaNoWriMo 2009 (a 117,540-word first draft in the month!) but then it’s taken me since then (I released it in November 2012) to edit it (seven times) and pass it through three other pairs of eyes (essential for any piece of work to be shared with the public). It’s probably why I don’t like editing – I’d much prefer just to write, do one sweep and pass it on to first readers but that’s not fair on them, especially with the earlier works. My other bugbear is research (although having everything on the internet makes life easier) – do you have to do much research?
Dorothy: I do, and thankfully, I love that part of writing. I get to whir through microfilm, rummage through old closets for photos and memorabilia, and talk to the famous and the ordinary. I really enjoy research. I must be very nosey.
Morgen: <laughs> There is that upside. Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Dorothy: Absolutely. Much of what I write is exercise for my thought process. And just as I don’t want to do my physical workouts where everyone can see me, there will be pieces of writing I simply throw away.
Morgen: Do you pitch for submissions and / or are you commissioned to write?
Dorothy: I have to pitch my ideas. I have yet to be commissioned.
Morgen: Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Dorothy: I think that in a former life, I must have been terribly impatient. I am paying for it now by having to wait and wait for the dreaded rejections that are part of this writing path I have chosen. My reaction to rejection depends on what has been rejected. When Thomas Dunne came back to me with the desire for another rewrite, I was devastated. I cried and was forlorn for days, but I decided not to let this rejection determine my value as a writer, and I chose to take a different path.
Morgen: I know of long-established authors who are still receiving plenty of rejections, fortunately not as many as their acceptances but I do believe it’s finding the right person for the right thing, not the other way round. Do you enter any non-fiction competitions?
Dorothy: I have not entered competitions for my non-fiction, but I have made a few national sales with magazines. I won am Historic Preservation Award from the City of Jacksonville for my column and my book Remembering Jacksonville. That was a grand surprise and thrill for me!
Morgen: What a thrill. My aunt (and uncle – he takes the photographs) is certainly very well-respected where they live. It’s a small town so she’s their ‘celebrity’. Do you have an agent? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Dorothy: This is the hardest question to answer. I have had four sets of agents and once they have exhausted their contacts, they would set me free. All of them thought my books were wonderful and they went to bat for them all, but it never came to a contract. I cannot help but feel that many really good books never see the light of day because of the process publishing houses have adopted and clung to tightly for lo these many years! If I can approach a publishing house without the agent, I do that. History Press did not require an agent.
Morgen: It’s said that it’s harder to find an agent than a publisher, and that’s certainly true for small presses (I’ve had two publishers offer me contracts for The Serial Dater’s Shopping List (neither was right for me, unfortunately, so I self-published) but here in the UK you’d certainly need an agent for the ‘top 6’ publishers. We touched on marketing earlier, how much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Dorothy: My latest publisher has been the best as far as marketing is concerned. They have arranged many events for me, but I was the one who gave them contact information. It only seems wise since they are in South Carolina and London, and I am in Jacksonville where my market is. As each book comes along, I have been getting more and more followers, so I suppose you could say I have “branded” myself. It also helps that I was a monthly columnist for the Florida Times-Union newspaper. I had many people follow my column and therefore want to buy my books. Facebook has really helped get the word out about my books as well.
Morgen: I think unless you write something like Harry Potter or Fifty Shades, whenever an author releases a new book, they’re known as them rather than the titles. Write something that people enjoy and they’ll remember you. What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life? Has anything surprised you?
Dorothy: I love giving speeches. It is exhilarating to have groups hang on my words and enjoy my travels down Memory Lane, so to speak.
I hate the process of getting a publisher—especially when it comes to dealing with the big houses. It is almost impossible to rise above the slush pile and get a decent read. Very discouraging, but with the shift in the publishing paradigm, from paper to “cloud,” my guess is that publishers are going to be scrambling for writers as the publisher’s importance begins to wane.
Morgen: I’ve not really done enough public speaking to love it, although I read out a runners-up story at the H.E. Bates Short Story Competition prize-giving the other day. It may have helped that it wasn’t my own writing (which we’re invariably more self-conscious of) but I’m reading 20 minutes’ worth of my own writing at my local museum this Friday night so I had that in mind when reading out the story last Friday and enjoyed it. What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Dorothy: All I can say is enjoy your process and keep writing. One is certain to lose the race if he or she stops running. The same can be said for writers. When the writer stops writing or stops submitting, then he or she can be certain that nothing will happen.
Morgen: 300 words a day = 100,000 words a year – everyone can do that. If you could invite three people from any era to dinner, who would you choose and what would you cook (or hide the takeaway containers)?
Dorothy: I would love to dine with Shakespeare. It might take a while to have understanding between us, but I have been very moved by his words and I would love to chat with him. I would love to dine with Marjorie Kennan Rawlings and I would have her cook the dinner and serve us her Brandy Alexanders (she was quite the cook, you know). Her words, especially in Cross Creek, have moved me tremendously, and she lived not a stone’s throw from where I live now. We have that in common. Finally, I think I would love to chat with Charlotte Bronte. Her Jane Eyre is the book that most influenced me as a kid. I would love to chat with her.
Morgen: I did enjoy Jane Eyre when I did it at school – appealed to my dark side I think (probably why I liked Macbeth too). Is there a word, phrase or quote you like?
Dorothy: So many quotes, so little time… I think I must pass on this one. No, wait. There is one. “This is the lesson: Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in, except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force. Never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.” Winston Churchill.
Morgen: Absolutely. When it comes to writing, I never will give in, even if I just end up writing for myself. If any of your books were made into films, who would you have as the leading actor/s?
Dorothy: If The Cruelest Months ever were made into a film, I would cast an unknown in the role of Donna Webster. She would need to be attractive without being beautifully glamorous. Most of the time, directors cast gorgeous babes in the roles of teachers, and it really smacks in the face of reality. Most really devoted teachers care more about their students than their clothes.
Morgen: They should, yes. I like the way you’ve put that. Do you plan your books, or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Dorothy: Once I get the idea, then I plot it out. I may stray from the plot, but I need a bit of guidance and a plot line helps me greatly.
Morgen: I usually get and idea and go with it, but it didn’t work for my NaNoWriMo 2012 novel. I enjoyed writing it and I think it’s one of the best novels I’ve written (it’s my sixth) but it’s the first in a crime series so a mish-mash (I love that phrase) of at least two books in one. It’ll be interesting unravelling it when I go back to it, although I plan to write a synopsis for it (possibly the series) first, which I think will help. Do you have a method for creating your characters, their names and what do you think makes them believable?
Dorothy: Many of my characters are composites of real people and me. Such construction helps make the character believable, especially when I base character reactions to things on how I would react. I am very careful that my characters are not easily recognizable, however.
I also like to be deliberate with names. Donna Webster, for example, was an English teacher and it seemed fitting that her name alludes to Noah Webster, the lexicographer. “Donna” and “Dorothy” were also close and indicated that I was very much a part of the lead character.
Morgen: They would be a little confusing if used together but it’s nice to think that there’s part of you in there. I found out in a guest blog post that crime writer Neil Yuzuk did for me recently (http://morgenbailey.wordpress.com/2012/12/18/guest-post-getting-it-right-part-3-by-neil-l-yuzuk) that he’s named one of his characters (a secretary, and coincidentally I was a secretary!) after myself and fellow writer Rosanne Dingli. What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person? Have you ever tried second person?
Dorothy: I’ve tried first and third. First seems easiest to me, but it creates a problem sometimes with point-of-view. How can you accurately show what is going on in another character’s head? Third gives a bit more credence to the story when you can be inside every head to explain things to the reader. I suppose first is my favourite. And I really have no idea how to do second person.
Morgen: Few people have heard of it, and fewer written it. I have a page on it at http://morgenbailey.wordpress.com/2ppov. Are you involved in anything else writing-related other than actual writing or marketing of your writing?
Dorothy: I give talks and do workshops. Those things keep me pretty busy.
Morgen: I bet, but I get the impression that you’re like me; you just love being involved in anything writing-related. What do you do when you’re not writing?
Dorothy: I love spending time with my grandchildren who live within a mile of my house. The moon rises and sets in my granddaughter and grandson, ages 7 and 3. Watching them discover the world is quite a kick!
Morgen: Ah, how lovely – the exploratory years. Are there any writing-related websites and / or books that you find useful?
Dorothy: I subscribe to Poets and Writers Magazine. With it I have found many little magazines, literary magazines, and ezines that like my poetry and publish it. They are online as well. www.poets&writers.com and I was part of an online organization called www.writers-editors.com
The latter had dues, but it was well worth the expense in that they helped me with some legal copyright issues.
Morgen: I belong to The Society of Authors and took advice from them with both contracts and whilst I was sure they weren’t right for me, the advice they gave confirmed this. You have to have received a contract or had a certain level of sales before you can join them and I was so glad I did. Are you on any forums or networking sites? If so, how valuable do you find them?
Dorothy: I used to belong to some networking sites, but often people used them as the bully pulpit to promote their political agendas. I prefer to seek workshops and classes with real live people.
Morgen: For the last five years I’ve run a Monday night alternating critique / writing workshop at my house but I’ve just given it up as it had become wearing and I’d had to turn down invitations because of it. A colleague’s taken over so it lives on. In exchange I’ve set up four online writing groups (for novels, short stories, script and poetry) and they’re taking off nicely. What do you think the future holds for a writer?
Dorothy: This is hard to say. With publishing in such a confused state, writers really need to be careful. I just read an article that said writers may eventually give away their work and let corporations plant ads in the copy so that the writer gets something for their efforts. I suppose if television “gives away” its product and sponsors pay the bills, then what’s to stop publishers from doing the same? Interesting idea.
I know that I will write no matter what goes on. Writing is my comfort and I would be most sad without it.
Morgen: Me too. My mother said recently that I shouldn’t let it take over my life – I didn’t have the heart to tell her she was a few months too late. We used to frown at my brother’s obsession with Octopush (underwater hockey) but I can see why he was (or at least when I compare to the thrill writing gives me). Where can we find out about you and your writing?
Dorothy: I have a website: www.dorothykfletcher.com.
Morgen: Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
Dorothy: One of the happiest things I know is getting the words just right on paper. As a reader I often encounter pieces of writing with words that bring tears to my eyes. Some writers are so skilful. I want to be able to move readers with my words in the way that I have been moved by other writers. That is my highest aspiration.
Morgen: I’m sure you do, Dorothy. Is there anything you’d like to ask me?
Dorothy: Where do you get the energy to maintain this wonderful site? You must never sleep. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to do this. It had been quite a pleasure.
Morgen: I certainly don’t get enough sleep, but I really enjoy everything writing-related so I just keep going. A better balance of blogging and writing / editing would be good but as we know, marketing is a necessity. Thank you, Dorothy.
I then invited Dorothy to include an extract of her writing and this is from The Cruelest Months…
As Lydia Morrison and I made our way down the hall to the faculty lounge for our lunch break, complaining as usual about the unreasonable nature of the county’s latest request for information, we happened past the door of Mr. Smyth’s classroom and stopped. Our colleague was at the podium at the front of his room, lecturing and gesticulating wildly about the subject at hand—Moby Dick’s symbolic nature and man’s relationship to it. He went on for some seconds before he realized that we were watching him.
“Geoffrey, what are you doing?” Lydia asked.
“Why, I’m teaching my lesson.”
“But, Geoffrey, no one but you is in the room.”
A look of utter despair passed slowly over his face, his eyes filling with tears and his lip trembling almost imperceptibly.
“No one but me in the room,” he echoed in a whisper. “I was afraid this would happen.”
The poor man shuffled painfully to his desk and took a seat in his chair. He was probably in his early fifties, but at this moment he appeared to be close to seventy. The short, stocky man had broken out in a sweat that was beginning to soak through his button-down blue shirt. His bald head began to glisten under the glare of the lighting of the room.
“For so long I have had to pretend that these little hellions weren’t there. It was just better that way. For all of us. I’d just imagine all the seats to be empty. That way I wouldn’t have to endure their incessant insults and blatant disrespect for my authority. Their tyranny was just too much; too painful, you know. Imagining myself to be all alone was such a good plan.
“I wished them all into oblivion. It was so wonderful; so peaceful. It’s just that now, I really can’t tell the difference any more. Whether they are actually here or not. It’s all the same.”
And a synopsis…
There was no finer place to be a child than Jacksonville, Florida, especially in the 50s and 60s. For the children who called it home, Jacksonville was the perfect backdrop for some of America’s timeless traditions. Mothers belonged to garden clubs, fathers smoked cigars from the King Edward Cigar Factory, and children fed peanuts to Miss Chic, the first elephant of the Jacksonville Zoo. Jacksonville kids tied up their skates and held hands as they circled the rink of the famous Skateland Roller Rink, wandered down the stacks of books in the Haydon Burns Library, and frolicked on the warm happy beaches kept safe by handsome lifeguards.
If you want to take a pleasant stroll down a Jacksonville Memory Lane, then read Dorothy Fletcher’s latest book, Growing Up Jacksonville: A 50s and 60s River City Childhood available at local bookstores and on Amazon.com.
In 2007, Dorothy K. Fletcher retired after 35 years of teaching English in Jacksonville, Florida, and discovered life as a writer. With her poetry already appearing in 78 literary journals, magazines, and anthologies, and her articles appearing in national markets like the Christian Science Monitor, she became a monthly columnist for the Community Sun Section portion of the Florida Times-Union.
Dorothy has had 5 books published; The Week of Dream Horses (Green Tiger Press), a children’s book; The Cruelest Months (Xlibris), a novel based on her experiences in an inner city school; Zen Fishing and Other Southern Pleasures (Ocean Publishing), a collection of poems and essays; Remembering Jacksonville, By the Wayside (History Press), a collection of her columns; and her most recent, Growing Up Jacksonville: A 50s and 60s River City Childhood.
In 20ll she received a 2011 Jacksonville Historical Preservation Award from the Jacksonville Historic Commission of the City of Jacksonville for her column and book Remembering Jacksonville.
After the Community Sun section was discontinued, Dorothy became a freelance writer. She and her husband Hardy reside in the San Jose area, near their children and grandchildren.
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