Welcome to the three hundred and thirty-seventh of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with biographical and general non-fiction author Cyndee Schaffer. 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, Cyndee. Please tell us something about yourself, where you’re based, and how you came to be a writer.
Cyndee: I live in Northbrook, IL, a northern suburb of Chicago. My project began in January 2008 when I left my job as an IT consultant at the City Colleges of Chicago. My contract was up and I had a suitcase of letters that my mother wrote home as a WAC (Women’s Army Corps) stationed in Europe during WWII. For some reason, her family did not throw out her stuff. Included in that suitcase were lots of memorabilia—over 350 letters, photos, and newspaper clippings. My mother had labeled all of the pictures with names, dates and location. Also peppered throughout the letters was the fact that my mother wanted to write a book. It happened but 65 years later! I knew that I wanted to work on this project while my mother was still alive—and she was 92 at the time. I was living on borrowed time.
Morgen: I keep saying to my (80-year-old) mother that she should write her autobiography as she’s had an interesting life (including working for British racing driver Stirling Moss’ sister’s riding stables). What genre do you generally write and have you considered other genres?
Cyndee: I‘ve written in the non-fiction genre and am considering writing a screenplay or a fictionalized version of this book.
Morgen: What have you had published to-date?
Cyndee: I published an article entitled “The Letters of Mollie Weinstein: Experiences of a WAC in Wartime Europe” in the fall 2008 edition of the Minerva Journal of Women and War. I published “Mollie’s War, The Letters of a WWII WAC in Europe” in August 2010 by McFarland Publishers.
I’ve also edited and published several mathematics textbooks but that is another story.
Morgen: As the saying goes. Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Cyndee: I sent the proposal for “Mollie’s War” to many literary agents. I received replies from most of them—whether they were interested or not. They all thought the topic had potential. Many times they would tell me how I should change my focus. One person actually sent me a sample proposal which I then modified for my book. I used it when I submitted it to the publisher who finally published my book.
Morgen: That sounds so positive. It’s pretty rare these days to get specific replies so you must be very proud. Have you won or been shortlisted in any competitions?
Cyndee: We won a Bronze Medal in the autobiography section at the 2011 Stars and Flags Book Award contest from Branson, MO. and we were a finalist in the Chicago Writers Association 2011 Book of the Year Award for non-fiction traditionally published. I’ve also just found out that “Mollie’s War” just won first place in biography / memoir at the 2012 Royal Dragonfly Book contest.
Morgen: Yay, well done. Do you have an agent? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Cyndee: I do not have an agent but I think they are essential if you want to get published by one of the larger publishing houses. Smaller publishers like McFarland Publishers who published my book, will accept manuscripts from unknown writers.
Morgen: That’s the impression I get and of course there’s eBooks. Are your books available as eBooks? Were you involved in that process at all? Do you read eBooks or is it paper all the way?
Cyndee: My book is now available as an eBook and my publisher did all of the work. I have a Kindle, which my children gave to me for my birthday. I enjoy using the Kindle for travel but at home I prefer reading books.
Morgen: I’m the same. It’s great knowing I have 400+ books whenever I go somewhere. Almost all the authors I’ve spoken with have said they’d never give up paper books and I do think that both formats will run alongside each other. How much of the marketing do you do?
Cyndee: My book was published in August 2010 and since that time I have been on the road– most of the time I stay local. My publisher has not done much marketing for me but my book is listed on their website and is included in all their catalogues and brochures.
Networking is the most important tool in spreading the word about your book. You have to constantly talk about the book. From members of the organizations to which I belong, I have booked speaking engagements and have had reviews and articles published about my mother and the book. I took advantage of being an alumnus of Northwestern University and DePaul University and I’m mentioned in the class notes in the Alumni magazines.
As for self-promotion, my son developed my web site and then showed me how to post updates. My husband is my official “schlepper” and tech support. He attends all of my speaking engagements, setting up my presentation tables which includes books, my mother’s medals, copies of photos and letters, ample bookmarks and business cards—always important to be prepared, nothing is worse than running out — runs the video and takes pictures which we post on facebook and then on my website. I’ve also set up a facebook page for Mollie’s War and an author’s page on amazon.com.
Morgen: Wow, you’re organised. If your book was made into a film, who would you have as the leading actor/s?
Cyndee: I would like to make “Mollie’s War” into a movie. I would like Natalie Portman to play my mother, Mollie, Ellen Page to play Loddo, Jesse Eisenberg to play Coleman Bricker, Jake Gyllenhaal to play Alex Korody.
Morgen: Did you have any say in the title / cover of your book? How important do you think they are?
Cyndee: I believe the title and cover of a book make the first impression and, therefore, are most important to attract people to your book. My book was designed totally by the publisher including cover and page layout although my mother and I suggested the picture that is on the cover. I liked that my publisher placed the pictures in the book in the section where they belonged rather than all together. I think it makes it easier for the reader to visualize the people in the book. I gave the publisher a list of possible titles but ultimately the publisher chose the title. In my mother’s letters, she wrote of a title for her book—“G. I. Jane, Both Here and Abroad.”
Morgen: Well I hope she’s not disappointed (I like Mollie’s War). What are you working on at the moment / next?
Cyndee: I am thinking about writing a screenplay of the book.
Morgen: I wrote the beginning of a TV script for Script Frenzy 2010 and whilst I liked the story I found the script format really hard. I’m a prose writer, I just wanted to write the story rather than chop it up, but then others prefer script. Do you manage to write every day?
Cyndee: When I am writing, I do write everyday but I have not started the screenplay.
Morgen: Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Cyndee: I tend to write and then re-write so I am constantly editing my work.
Morgen: I think we could keep editing our work but I do three or four edits. As long as I’m happy with it I feel confident about sending it to my editor / first reader (who pull it apart anyway). Did you have to do much research for your book?
Cyndee: Writing a book based on letters from the 1940’s was a formidable task. In order to actually be able to use these letters in a book, I needed to read them and to transcribe them—about 1000 pages typed. The actual letters were written in various formats—some were typed, some hand written and some V-mail—reduced in size and very difficult to read. I also needed to be familiar with the content for the book so I would have a general idea of what I could use and what I could cut out. Thus began my serious project. These letters had been stored in an old suitcase and they were not preserved in any kind of manner that they should have been but surprisingly they were in good condition. I opened each letter and kept the envelope if it existed. I bought “sleeves” for preserving documents and placed each letter in a separate one when we finished typing it. Small photos and newspaper articles were also placed in the “sleeves”. I transferred all of the memorabilia into a plastic box. Occasionally I got help from my husband, sister, daughter and son but the bulk of the work was mine.
Even as I was transcribing the letters, I began going to the Pritzker Military Library in downtown Chicago once or twice a week to do research and get help in my project. Teri Embrey, the head librarian, was most helpful in giving me guidance in terms of research and looking for publishers. She would show me websites and places where I might get some ideas. I was constantly researching and requesting any books that had to do with women and the military in WWII. Because of censorship, my mother could not write about her work or where she was located—many letters indicated somewhere in England, somewhere in France—she could only write about pleasant things, sightseeing, and boyfriends. I had to investigate and put some history around the letters so that the book would put proper perspective of the events occurring around her at that time.
Morgen: It really has been a labour of love. What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Cyndee: I would tell young writers to keep reading and writing. They should join groups and organizations for young writers, ask lots of questions and listen to the answers. Joining these groups and organizations can be beneficial because it helps with networking and promoting themselves.
Morgen: Is there a word, phrase or quote you like?
Cyndee: “My mother wore combat boots.”
Morgen: I love that. Are you involved in anything else writing-related other than actual writing or marketing of your writing?
Cyndee: I am a member of several writers groups—MWA (Midwest Writers Association), CWA (Chicago Writers Association), MWSA (Military Writers Society of America), Puerto Vallarta Writers Group, and a women’s group, AAUW (American Association for University Women). I write the monthly newsletter for the Midwest Writers Association. MWA is a networking base for experienced, professional non-fiction writers. Members work across the media spectrum from magazines, newspapers, websites and corporate publications to books, trade journals, film, speech writing and texts. Their specialties range from arts and entertainment, family, health, history, home, landscaping, real estate, travel and sports to medical, technical and business writing.
Morgen: As you’re in Puerto Vallarta you might know Ted Druch. Are there any writing-related websites and/or books that you find useful?
Cyndee: As I surfed the net, I found a website that became my mantra. The website is called Writing-World.com. Mary Janice Davidson defines a successful book signing as one where you show up, your books are there, you have a place to sit and you sell just one book!!!! She claims that the purpose of a book signing is not necessarily to sell books but to sell yourself.
Morgen: That’s true. I’ve not done any yet (although I may be for a charity anthology I’m in, fingers crossed) so I have that to look forward to. Are you on any forums or networking sites? If so, how valuable do you find them?
Cyndee: I am on the “Write it Down” website from LinkedIn, a website for writers. This is where I found your blog.
Morgen: LinkedIn is great. I’ve ‘met’ so many great people through that site. I love technology. Thank you for finding me. Your turn; where can we find out about you and your work?
Cyndee: You can view my website: www.mollieswar.com.
Morgen: Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
Cyndee: As for the people who played a role in my mother’s life—-
It was an amazing journey as I connected with some of the people or their children who were around my age and we have become email “buddies” and even facebook friends.
Over the years, my mother corresponded with her four WAC buddies including Loddo, sending birthday cards, Xmas greetings and anniversary cards. But in October 2007, my mother received a letter from Loddo’s daughter that Loddo had passed away. I think Loddo was the only other surviving member of my mother’s close WAC friends. This gave me the impetuous to begin this project and see it through to the end while my mother was still alive. So I then contacted Loddo’s daughter Cathy who lives in Hawaii and we have been in contact ever since. She helped me fill in some of the blanks.
Out of the blue, one of my mother’s boyfriends from the war, Coleman Bricker, contacted her in the late 1990’s. He found her on the internet. He and his wife live in California. My mother and dad lived in Chicago. They started to send each other letters. My dad passed away in 2000. Coleman and his wife have been married over 64 years. But as I started this book, Coleman and I became email friends and facebook friends and he had been most helpful. He also filled in some of the blanks. I sent him many emails and he would answer the questions to the best of his memory. And, he was giving me leads for publishers. I was very nervous as he read the book—but he thoroughly enjoyed it and said it brought back memories. Coleman passed away in January 2011. But now I email with one of his sons.
I contacted the Detroit Jewish News because my mother sent letters to them that were published by one of the columnists, Danny Raskin, who called my mother his overseas correspondent. To my surprise, he is still writing for the paper—68 years as a columnist. I sent letters to people who were in the book based on what I could find on the internet. Some answered and some did not.
The book was published in August 2010. Seeing the smile on my mother’s face when she held her book in her hands was priceless and made the entire project worthwhile! My mother is now 95 and is always excited to hear about the success of the book.
Morgen: Well, I hope she enjoys this interview. Thank you, Cyndee.
Cyndee Schaffer, published author of “Mollie’s War” and editor of the monthly Midwest Writers Association newsletter, received a BS in math education from Northwestern University and a MS in curriculum development from DePaul University. Cyndee’s work experience has taken her into three divergent careers. First, she worked as a high school mathematics teacher in the inner city of Chicago. She co-wrote and edited several mathematics textbooks for McDougal Littel Publishers and Quantum Scientific Publishing. Her next career led her into the “human side of computers” as an IT consultant writing training materials, conducting corporate training and testing computer systems for the City Colleges of Chicago and other companies. In 2008, she changed careers again and collaborated with her 92-year-old mother writing a book based on the letters that her mother sent home to her family while serving as a WAC stationed in Europe during WWII. “Mollie’s War” published by McFarland Publishers in 2010 is the result of this endeavor. Cyndee shares her mother’s story by speaking to various groups including veterans groups, libraries, senior living facilities, women’s groups, and Rotary clubs. She discusses the writing adventure from inspiration to publication.
“Mollie’s War” won a bronze medal at the 2011 Stars and Flags Book Awards and was a finalist in the 2011 Chicago Writers Association Book of the Year contest. For more information please visit her website: www.mollieswar.com
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