In this 5On interview, author Kathleen M. Rodgers discusses her approach to writing and reading, her self-promotion philosophy, and why she won’t self-publish. She also shares a personal writing and publishing history that might serve as powerful encouragement to others to never give up.
Kathleen M. Rodgers is a former frequent contributor to Family Circle Magazine and Military Times. Her work has also appeared in anthologies published by McGraw-Hill, University of Nebraska Press/Potomac Books, Health Communications, Inc., AMG Publishers, and Press 53. She is the author of the award-winning novel, The Final Salute, featured in USA Today, The Associated Press, and Military Times. Deer Hawk Publications reissued the novel in e-book and paperback in September of 2014. Her second novel, Johnnie Come Lately, released from Camel Press February 1, 2015. In 2014, she was named a Distinguished Alumna from Tarrant County College/NE Campus. The mother of two grown sons, she lives in a suburb of North Texas with her husband, a retired fighter pilot/commercial airline pilot, and their dog, Denton. She is working on a new novel titled Seven Wings to Glory and is represented by Loiacono Literary Agency.
5 Questions on Writing
KRISTEN TSETSI: What book or story (or author) had an early and lasting impact on you as a writer, and in what way?
KATHLEEN M. RODGERS: Although I was born and raised in New Mexico, I’ve always been drawn to southern writers. Mark Childress’ novel, Crazy in Alabama, had a huge impact on me the first time I read it in the mid nineties. Mark taught me that a novel about a serious subject (in this case, civil rights) could leave a reader laughing and crying at the same time. Portions of his story are told in a lighthearted style through his character Aunt Lucille, who dreams of going to Hollywood and becoming a big star. Meanwhile, back home in Alabama, her young nephew, Peejoe, is learning a cruel lesson about racial injustice in the south during the sixties.
Mark’s writing style gave me the courage I needed to put my first novel through multiple revisions. In The Final Salute, set against the backdrop of a fictitious Air Force base in the South, I wrote about how fighter pilots too often die in peacetime training missions while the brass are busy covering up sex scandals.
What do you read when you want pure entertainment, and what do you read when you want to think?
It’s impossible for me to read for pure entertainment. I read to learn, to feel, to grow as a writer and as a person. And sometimes I read other authors’ books so I can help promote their work through endorsements and reviews. My favorite books are contemporary novels, the occasional biography or memoir, or books about the writing life.
You write in your website bio that you’ve encountered roadblocks and detours as a writer. What roadblock or detour stands out, and did you ever consider quitting (if so, what did that feel like and what was the turnaround moment)?
My first novel, The Final Salute, was a sixteen-year effort of more than one hundred revisions, that many rejections, and my bullheaded determination to find a traditional publisher. Finding that publisher proved as daunting as revising the novel. I started the novel in 1992, and by 1995 I’d signed with a literary agent who got my manuscript to a major publishing house in NYC. Three weeks later came the rejection, along with advice from an editor telling me what I needed to do to fix the novel. I took her advice and started over from scratch.
In the end, my former agent dropped all of his fiction writers and I never found another agent to take on the project. So I spent years revising and believing that one day I would find someone who believed in my story as much as I did. I kept hearing, “All it takes is one person to say YES.”
But that one person seemed to elude me.
A few weeks before September 11, 2001, and after too many years of rejection, I got fed up and quit. By then, I’d also grown tired of freelancing for magazines and newspapers, and I desperately needed a change. So I went back to college, earned a degree, got a dog, worked as a nanny, and tried to walk away from the writing life. But it was there, lurking over my shoulder. It called to me. And I listened.
In early 2007, I enrolled in novel writing classes at Southern Methodist University. One night a week, I’d leave my nanny job and head to writing class. On the second floor of Dallas Hall, in the most imposing building on campus, I started my second novel, Johnnie Come Lately.
Finally, in May 2008, sixteen years after I started writing The Final Salute, I signed with a small traditional press and my novel came out that October on my 50th birthday.
What wouldn’t you write about in a novel, and why?
I will never write about rape and murder if it somehow glorifies or entertains. My stepsister was brutally raped and murdered in 1982. The brutality left me shaken. If I ever do approach the subject, I will write straight into the fear.
When you want to create a character who is true to life, convincing, what details do you think about/apply?
I imagine that I am each person living inside the story, and I become each character as I write. Physical attributes, body language, and gestures are all important to bring a character to life. But it’s what’s on the inside that makes my characters feel alive to me. What are their secrets? What are they hiding? What are they afraid of? Who is getting in their way? Do they believe in God? Do they have phobias or anxiety attacks? How do they feel about visiting a cemetery after midnight? Are they haunted by past mistakes? Do they hold grudges or are they able to forgive?
Flawed everyday characters charm me more than bigger than life super heroes or heroines. What may look like odd behavior to one character may seem perfectly normal to another. For example, in my latest novel, Johnnie Come Lately, my protagonist, Johnnie Kitchen, is curious about why her mysterious new neighbor, a portly airline pilot, is digging a hole in his front yard in the middle of a rain shower. Once the reader finds out Mr. Marvel’s story and the motivation behind his odd actions, it all makes perfect sense.
The bottom-line: I go for emotional impact. I want my readers to laugh and cry with my characters. I want fiction and reality to blend into a seamless dimension where my characters know they are real people and my readers think they are my characters.
5 Questions On Publishing
What about self-promotion comes naturally or easily to you, and what part do you dislike or feel least comfortable with?
I am a people person, and I enjoy engaging with others. When my writing carries a message that could benefit others, I want the word to get out. I want to be a helper, a person who spreads HOPE.
Every time I promote myself, I go out of my way to promote others. If I post something about my writing career, I then turn around and shine the spotlight on someone else. By doing this, it helps soften the glare of “self-promotion” and shows that I care about others. At least that’s my goal. There are two kinds of writers in this world: the givers and the takers. I try to focus on the givers in our profession because the takers can rob us of any joy we experience along the journey. I have a saying that goes like this: “When we elevate others, we elevate ourselves. Let’s all go be elevators.”
The part I hate the most about self-promotion is when the media ignores me regardless of my credentials. Despite the fact that I am traditionally published and I have an amazing agent who helps me with publicity, my work gets overlooked for writers with big marketing teams from major New York houses. It’s frustrating, but I keep going.
What critical lesson did you learn in your search for an agent and then publisher?
Patience and persistence…and I’m still learning.
After I finished Johnnie Come Lately in spring of 2013, I mailed the manuscript to a trusted copy-editor. No sooner had Joyce Gilmour and I finished polishing the manuscript when my dog and my dad died five days apart.
A week after we returned from Dad’s funeral, and still numb from two deaths back to back, I busied myself by sending out batches of queries to agents all across the country. Despite my thirty-five plus years in the business, I don’t handle rejection with grace. Usually I get angry, maybe even curse a bit, and then I sit down and fire off more queries. One night, after a handful of rejections, I stood in the kitchen and yelled, “My dog died. My dad died. And I can’t get a *#@*ing agent.” I’m glad my husband was the only one there to witness my outrage. Gulping down a glass of ice water, I marched back into the office and fired off another round of queries.
As the rejections continued to trickle in, along with several agents requesting a full or partial, I pressed on with faith that my new novel would find a good home. I believed in my story about a woman named Johnnie Kitchen, a character who came to me years ago while I was working on my first novel. Looking back over my long writing career, I reminded myself that each acceptance came with a slew of rejection.
In mid September of 2013, four months after I sent that first query, I received an offer of representation from Jeanie Loiacono, President and CEO of Loiacono Literary Agency. After our initial meeting, Jeanie went to work pitching Johnnie Come Lately to numerous editors at various publishing houses around the country. Two months later, we received an offer from Camel Press, an imprint of Coffeetown Enterprises, a traditional publisher based in Seattle, WA.
A little over a year after we signed the contract with Camel Press, Johnnie Come Lately released February 1. As my novel is finding a home in the hearts of readers, I am busy working on the sequel, Seven Wings to Glory. And I am learning once again that I have to juggle two jobs: the shameless act of self-promoting and the hard work of bringing a story to life on the page.
Should something like what happened with The Final Salute happen again, would you consider self-publishing?
I’m old-school when it comes to self-publishing. I grew up in the era when self-publishing meant paying a vanity press thousands of dollars to get a book out. I heard horror stories of authors pedaling their books around in their car trunks and their garages stacked with boxes of books. From the time I was fifteen and writing for my high school newspaper, I have longed for the approval of others in the business. I want that pat on the back from an editor who is helping me hone my craft. As much as I enjoy working on my own, I also enjoy being part of a team that is working toward the same goal.
I guess it comes down to confidence or lack of it. If one other person in the industry tells me my work is good enough to publish, then I take that attagirl and run with it. That one yes gives me the boost of confidence I need to push my book into the world. To be honest, I want someone else investing their money in me. Not the other way around. Many of my friends are self-published and some of them have written award-winning books that go on to become bestsellers. Regardless of the route we take to get our work into the hands of our readers, we writers must keep chasing after our dreams.
At this point in my career, I hope to continue on a traditional route. I have worked so hard to get where I am. My agent and I have formed a bond based on mutual trust and a belief in each other’s abilities. We are hoping to work together for a long time.
How are the pressures you experience creatively now that you have a publisher different from the creative pressures you experienced pre-publisher?
It doesn’t change anything. I still write what speaks to my heart. Camel Press has first refusal rights on the sequel to Johnnie or on a second novel. I’m staying hopeful they will say YES.
You respond to many Amazon reader reviews of your books. When did you first decide to do that, and how do you decide when and when not to comment on a review?
At some point along my author journey, I remember being told to “never engage with a reviewer.” But that seems silly to me if a reader has written something positive about your book. After all, readers invest their time and emotion into a book. And if they leave a nice comment, I feel a responsibility as the author to leave a thank you note. Once in a while, I hear back from the reviewer. There have been a few cases where we end up connecting on Facebook and become friends. Isn’t that why we write? To connect with others?
I don’t respond to negative reviews. They sting, but I try to remember what my oldest son, a working artist, told me recently: “Mom, the more you get your work out there, the more critics you will encounter.”
I am grateful for my readers. When they spend time with my novels, my characters get to live.
Thank you, Kathleen.
Note: If you enjoyed this interview, you may also be interested in an earlier Q&A with Is This Tomorrow author Caroline Leavitt, who discusses, among other things, her worst rejection and how she handles competitiveness in the writing world.