Rebecca O’Connor wrote a critically acclaimed memoir that… didn’t sell. Now she’s taking charge of her own future.
After publishing a novel and a handful of informational books about birds, Rebecca O’Connor wrote an award-winning falconry memoir titled Lift, which married jaw-dropping honesty to a soaring narrative about falconry.
Despite excellent reviews and critical acclaim, Lift didn’t sell very well, suggesting it represents the classic “lost” book; it crossed several genres (memoir, falconry, chick lit), defies easy classification, and as a result, sales suffered.
Rebecca O’Connor wrote an eye-opening blog post detailing her difficult path to publication — and her book’s relatively low sales.
After that post, you could see the gears changing; O’Connor — already active on social media — ramped up her online presence and started self-publishing her own stories, even using Kickstarter to secure funding for an audio version of Lift.
Her “What We Lost When We Lost Barbara Jean” story remains one of the best I’ve read this year, and her “Home For Thanksgiving” essay was selected for inclusion in the New California Writing 2012 anthology.
She is currently writing a new novel, works at Ducks Unlimited, holds a BA and MFA, and has also worked as an ice cream slinger, professional animal trainer (helpful when dealing with editors) and a process server.
With a background like that, asking a writer for an interview is a foregone conclusion. And I did.
The Memoir & Road to Publication
Q: Lift received critical acclaim and a lot of positive reviews, yet in this blog post you revealed some fairly distressing sales numbers:
The publisher was very excited about their “woman warrior” book. Galleys went out, some even hand delivered by the hardworking small press. LIFT got a starred review in Publishers Weekly (a starred review!!), a nice write up in Library Journal and glowing reviews almost across the board. It was happening! So the hard working writer invests the money and the time making appearance, doing readings, talking on radio shows and sends out galleys to many bloggers. Every free moment, every spare dime into this project she believes in with all her heart. The publicity is all great and the reviews continue to be stellar and here’s what happens…
A year later LIFT has sold 411 copies.
It’s been almost a year since you wrote the above; have sales of Lift gone up in the face of the positive reviews and growing online presence?
That post was really meant to be a moment to whine and get over it. Then it got a surprising amount of attention for my quiet little blog. It was a bit shocking, honestly and maybe a little embarrassing. I’ve only seen the royalty statement for the six months following that post and about another 100 copies sold, which is lovely.
A year after being published, my book could just as well have slipped off into the great void and it is very possible that its audience will snowball. Lift won’t go out of print, so who knows what the future holds for it…
Q: Was Lift a difficult book to write, or did it all spill out on paper once you started?
Lift was the hardest thing I’ve ever written and took four years to write. It existed in several incarnations at its beginning before it became the manuscript that was published and every revision dug a little deeper, asked harder questions about who I was and begged for more tequila. (I tried to give it everything it asked for… especially the tequila.) It wasn’t just the writing though. My whole world seemed to swirl into a revision of what needed to be addressed in Lift. For example, the last 8 months I worked on the manuscript my mother was living with me. I look back on the home stretch of working on Lift in awe and gratitude.
Q: You revealed some fairly personal moments in Lift (history of abuse, a stint as a stripper, a stalker, failed relationships). Have those revelations come back to haunt you?
If anything those revelations posed questions to other revelations to come, which is rather haunting. Mostly the discoveries in Lift brought me peace and changed everyone around me in small ways as well. My dad who claims not to have read the book (I did tell him not too, after all.) told me one day out of the blue that he never gave me up, that my grandparents stole me from him and would not give me back. I don’t know that I agree in this version of the story, but he believes this is true and that is enough for me. It shifted our relationship for the better. I have had many moments like this.
Q: You own a dog, a parrot, a falcon and a few others I’m no doubt leaving out — and you’re an attractive single woman with a weak spot for tequila. Can you explain how you don’t you have your own reality TV show?
I think you’re on to something there. I have been patiently waiting for a producer to approach me to star in “Single… with Parrots”. Truth is I’m too lazy to get into the dating scene and this would be an excellent way to expedite the process and find that sexy ranch hand… er… soul mate that I have been dreaming of since I was a little girl…
(NOTE: The video I popped up on YouTube last night is a nice “meet the menagerie” moment.)
Q: You self-published (as ebooks) a couple pieces of short fiction over the last year; have you come to any conclusions about publishing, self-publishing and ebooks? Are you taking a different route for your next book?
Honestly, I’m not sure. What I am doing is taking a different route in my approach to my writing. Writing Lift was hard, but so was the process of ushering the book into the world. When I was 30 I had a ten-year plan to the best-seller’s list… and I’m 40 now. What the world of publishing is and what I thought it was are two different beasts – like the difference between a hobbit and well… Gollum. (Tricksy hobbitses.)
Discovering that hard work, a plan, a great publicist, good reviews, a degree, fellowships, awards, yadayada do not mean you can make a living writing was devastating to me. I’m midlife crisis material and I can’t afford to buy a whole new wardrobe in animal print and a sports car. What’s a crushed cougar to do?
The answer was let go of the fantasy and write for myself. (Also, buy lottery tickets. It’s about the same chances and you don’t have to wait for your next published book.)
So lottery ticket firmly in hand I shook my first at the world. Not going to buy my books, world? Well, screw you. Then I’m going to write what I want, publish it where I want, with who I want, how I want and when I want to. My only rules now are that I don’t publish anything I know isn’t as good or better than the last thing I published. (If I’m wrong about that, well, sorry.)
I do want to make my fierce 411+ proud, so I believe in hiring content editors and copy editors as well as swapping favors with friends in first reads and final polishes. If I believe in the completed manuscript, I have no issue with self-publishing. In fact, it’s kind of fun.
Like everything in publishing, self-publishing is not quite what I imagined though. Not disappointing , but just that I was wrong about nuances of it. I thought I would crack the code of online publishing once I could take the blinders off. (Damn you, Amazon and your beguiling proprietary algorithm!)
Seeing my numbers without them being filtered through Amazon’s algorithm didn’t solve any mysteries though. I have two short stories up on Amazon (and B&N, iBooks, Smashwords) and a collection all for free. (Yes, for free. Audience building, you know.) And it’s the damnedest thing, but the short story I put up as a practice in eBooking is a smash.
It has about 15,000 downloads on Amazon and sits firmly entrenched in the top 100 short stories while the others have amassed about a thousand downloads and stalled out. Is it the content? The dog on the cover? Something someone said? I DON’T KNOW! Oh self-publishing you captivating tart, I’ll never be able to give you up now…
Q: You raised money (via the crowdfunding website Kickstarter) for an audio version of Lift, and it funded (overfunded actually) very quickly. Are you planning to use Kickstarter again to fund another project?
I want to complete the audiobook and prove that I can be responsible and even better that I can leverage the funds to create some real forward motion before I do it again. I am considering doing a Kickstarter to fund the research for the project that seeks to find answers about whether my grandmother’s death was suicide, murder or something in between. Of course, a book advance would be nice too, but it is so wonderful to know that I can look to an option that I have more control over orchestrating.
Q: You’re currently writing a post-apocalyptic novel, which is a pretty serious departure from the romance novel and memoir that have come before. How do you decide what project to pursue next?
The romance was a “you are going to write this and then never tell me you can’t finish a book again” sort of thing. For my other projects I am always looking for the story that I just must tell myself.
I have a fallen angel story that has followed me for 20 years, written first as a comic script, then a movie script and likely to become a novel or new comic script again soon. I wish I could figure out what form she wants and find her a home. I have been much luckier with other projects. I think that’s why I skip projects over genres like a stone across water. It’s all about the story that must be told and the story dictates form and genre.
Q: Have you found a publisher for your novel? Will the critical success of Lift help more than the low sales numbers might hurt?
I am in the middle of re-writes and working with a wonderful content editor for the novel, which is currently titled Park West. I’m really not satisfied with it yet. At the moment, I have it stuck in my head that when I am satisfied I will self-publish, but I am going to go through the traditional process of looking for a publisher first anyway. And an agent too, I suppose, seeing as how I’m currently unrepresented.
I have alternately thought that Lift would help and harm the possibilities for publication of my next book. Now I think that it won’t really do either. What it has done though is create connections I never imagined. I had the craziest moment a few months ago when I queried Park West to an agent whose catalogue I have a massive crush on and received an email back that began, “I am familiar with your work and am especially interested in reading, Lift. Also we are friends on Facebook.”
I nearly peed myself. Don’t take this wrong, but when people ask to be friends I don’t check their pedigree; I just click “yes”. I mean, no one ever chose me to be on their softball team until the pickin’s were slim. I get kind of giddy when people pick me. So I had no idea we were connected on Facebook and was stunned that someone out there I considered a drool-worthy agent had any idea who I was.
I had a similar reaction when “Sugar” on The Rumpus tweeted that she had read and loved Lift. None of this will mean much of anything to a potential publisher of my next book, but it means the world to me.
Q: You went back to school to receive your MFA; was that a worthwhile experience?
For me, yes. I had published the romance novel, a few nonfiction reference books and I really wanted to write something that was deeply meaningful for me, but that meant an investment of time and focus. It is hard to give yourself permission for this when you are working fulltime and focused on a job. So I applied to grad school, secured a part time position through my program and freelanced for three years.
Then I focused on reading and making connections that would last past graduate school as much as the writing. I am so glad I did. I have a wonderful group of friends I went to school with who look at my work, a network of alumni through the growing MFA at the University of California, Riverside and a book that I am really proud to see on the shelf.
Had I gone into graduation school thinking that I would come out with a teaching job and a literary star, I think it would have been a waste of time. Fortunately, I thought I could be a best-selling author without an MFA, so I don’t have to blame grad school for leading me to believe I would be famous. That’s all on me.
Q: What’s next for Rebecca O’Connor?
A parrot training book (that I should be finishing instead of answering interview Qs), a post-apocalyptic wilderness adventure novel, a biography/memoir/re-imagined lost novel and a lot more short stories/essays as eBooks and published anywhere else online that will have me. Oh, and I should probably stop in to my day job now and again too.
The Writer At Work
Q: You’ve written a romance novel, informational nonfiction and a memoir; have you found it difficult to switch between genres?
I switch back and forth fairly easily for some reason. I guess every project is a break from the other and that keeps me from being bored. I do wonder if this failure to commit to a genre is sort of a universal theme for me and if it is responsible for my penchant for genre blending.
Q: Could you summarize your writing process (how do you write; how do you organize longer works; how do you avoid going off the rails on page 183; have you ever thrown a computer through a second story window)?
Generally I avoid going off the rails on page 183 by doing it at about page 175. I counted four manuscripts at about that stage in my file cabinet last weekend. Some relationships just weren’t meant to make it, I suppose.
The thing is I always know where I’m going, I just fall out of love and abandon them. (There’s that lack of commitment thing again.) I’m not much of a final product rewriter. If I think the whole project is in trouble and I’m in deep already, I’ll ditch it.
My process is highly outlined. I think I learned this from writing reference books with strict word counts and information requirements. It has spilled over into my more creative writings as well. My outlines are flexible throughout and loose toward the end, but I’ll outline a chapter to the page before I write it.
I also constantly go back and read what was written, tweak it and reorganize. So I’m a slow writer, but when a manuscript is done it’s pretty close. It better be. If it’s not, well, sorry, baby. It’s not you, it’s me.
Q: Which writing tools do you use, and are you a stickler about them, or largely word processor/editor agnostic (and is any of this mandated by your publishers)?
I use Word and Movie Magic. It’s strange to be of the generation that actually went from typewriter to electric typewriter to word processors that could only remember a few lines at time to what we have now. I’ve used everything and I think it has kept me from getting attached to any one tool. After all, something better is going to come along tomorrow anyway.
Also I’m not really picky because most of the real work gets done by hand in notebooks. I have stacks of filled notebooks. I tease out ideas in my morning pages. I jot down stray thoughts during meetings and when I’m working on other things. And I spend a lot of writing time scribbling about characters’ histories and writing outline after outline after outline by hand.
Q: Any quirky writing habits that would instantly endear you to my readers?
You mean like licking my soup bowl in front of the computer in between writing sprints? I think there might be a video of me doing that out there somewhere in the interwebz…
[ED: I tuned in for a live webcast run by Rebecca O'Connor only to discover I was too late, but that -- unaware to Rebecca -- the webcam remained on. I sent an email and then waited for her to receive it, though before she read it, she had a bowl of soup and licked the thing right there on camera. Someone else (in the same boat as me) said it was the "Best. Show. Ever.")]
Favorite O’Connor blog posts