Friday, May 11, 2007

Southern Charm

Today, I interview Annabelle Robertson, author of "The Southern Girls Guide to Surviving the Newlywed Years: How to Stay Sane Once You've Caught Your Man," the book that replaced Margaret Cho on the 2006 USA Best Books in humor (and no, it's not a book for southern girls, its a book by one - and its not just a book for newlyweds). Confused? Read on:

Tell us about yourself.
I practiced law for several years before joining the staff of a weekly newspaper in Atlanta, where I won some awards from the Georgia Press Association. After the birth of our first child in 2002, I opted to freelance from home and now write for a number of publications, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Atlanta Woman Magazine. My husband spent eight years as an emergency room chaplain before joining the Air Force in 2005. I often help with the weddings he performs (choreography, premarital counseling), and I found myself giving the same advice, over and over – namely, that about four months after the wedding, things could get difficult. That’s the end of the honeymoon period, and it hits hard – especially if you’re an oldest child (or an only child) married to another oldest child, as I am. That’s like two monarchs trying to share the same palace. I also come from an all-girl family raised in the South, whereas my husband comes from an all-boy family raised in the North. So trust me when I say that I understand marital conflict.

Tell us about your book.
Well, despite the title, it’s not just for newlyweds. It’s for anyone who has ever been driven a little crazy by a man. I cover all the problem areas that nobody tells you about before you’re married – like tips for helping your husband distinguish between date nights and football games; acceptable vacations (a trip to Hollywood) vs. unacceptable vacations (a trip to Dollywood); teaching a man to apologize (works best while he’s asleep); the difference between “Destructive Waiting” (jingling your keys, saying ‘Hurry Up,’ honking the horn) and “Constructive Waiting” (checking email, shooting hoops, scrubbing toilets). I list the Top Ten Mother-in-Law Tormentors and the no-fail method for motivating a man to do housework. I also have a lengthy questionnaire for the boys that I like to call my “How to Tell If Your ‘Gift’ Is Really a Gift” (first question: is it diamonds, fur or a new car? Congratulations. It’s a gift. You may stop the questionnaire).

How did you come up with the title and do people think it is a book only for Southern women?
This is definitely an issue. I’m always saying, “It’s not FOR Southern Girls, it’s written BY one. Moi! I’m the Southern Girl. Which just means I tell it like it is, with a lot of humor. Think of me as Dr. Phil, in pearls and high heels, with a few gin and tonics under his belt, okay? I’m not Oprah, but I’m not Jerry Springer either. As for the title, it was a marketing decision. I wanted something that would lend itself to a series, in order to interest agents and publishers. You’ve got to think that way these days to get published. Plus, the South is hot. It’s also allowed me to “write what I know,” which is always good.

Do you have an agent, if so, how did you find him/her? And how did you get your publisher?
My first agent offered to represent me at a writer’s conference, during a one-on-one session. It wasn’t an overnight thing, though. I’d spent years laboring over a novel then trying to find representation, without success. After I switched to non-fiction, the magic happened. My writing had also improved tremendously (no small thing), and it was a marketable product. I still had to write the proposal, though, which ended up being 150 pages and took me five months. I switched agents, thanks to an introduction from an author friend, and she sent it out. The book sold at auction, with three major publishing houses bidding for the rights.

That was pretty exciting, but still, it’s not like it made me rich. A friend asked, “Did you get six figures?” which sent me into fits of laughter. Even though only one in 25 books sells at auction, you’d be surprised at how little advance money that can mean. They bid in very small increments. Also, your advance is doled out over the 18-24 month period between signing the contact and publication. Then you have to earn back all that money in royalties before getting any more checks. It’s a tough business. Nielson Book Scan reported that 95 percent of the books published in 2004 sold less than 1,000 copies. I’ve sold far more than that, in less than three months. We went back to print after only three weeks, but I still have a long, long way to go before I see a royalty check. Suffice to say that I’m keeping my day job. However, I spent a lot of time on publicity. It’s a never-ending vortex.

Is writing a humor book as fun as it seems? What are some of the challenges? The Southern Girl’s Guide is a relationship book, but I deliver my advice with a heaping dose of humor. And yeah, it was great fun to write. My husband gives me lots of material. He’s an aggressive Alpha male who got bored as the chaplain of one of the largest level one trauma centers in the country, if you can believe that. He joined the military and just returned from the Middle East. Worse, he can’t wait to go back – which sends me around the bend, especially since we have two small children. But every time he makes me mad I say, “Okay! That’s going in the book, Bubba!” (That’s a Southern thing, to call men “Bubba.”) Of course, if I get TOO mad at him I get writer’s block and can’t produce a thing. But most of the time, I’m just annoyed, which seems to translate extremely well into marital humor. There’s a fine line between anger and humor, though, and you have to tread it very carefully.

Another challenge is targeting your audience. Even though my book makes a great gift, women who’ve been married the longest actually laugh the hardest. However, I had to be very conscious of brides and newlyweds, who are my primary audience – and they don’t quite understand that feeling of wanting to strangle a man with their bare hands, the way the rest of us do. Not yet, anyway. They’re still having sex 24 hours a day and bragging that they’ve never had a fight, right? So again, I had to walk a very fine line.

You just completed a book tour. Tell us how that was scheduled and explain to our writers how they work.
Well, one of the things that apparently sold my book was my “platform,” which consisted of all the publications I write for and all of my media connections. I still had to send myself on book tour, though – because no way do they do that for a first-time author, unless you’re Paris Hilton. So I arranged as many speaking engagements as possible around the South then had my in-house publicist set up book-signings and pitch the local media. Here’s what I learned:

a) You don’t have a prayer of getting local media coverage without a pre-arranged book signing. They need a local event to consider you.

b) Even with a local book signing, however, you probably won’t get media coverage, unless you know someone. Sad but true. Newspaper staffs are shrinking and space is limited. And way too many authors are pitching those overworked reporters. Teresa Weaver, book editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, for example, receives 200 books per day. She has an assistant who does nothing but open packages all day and label them. I was fortunate to land some local television shows around the South, but I have a good hook and a timely topic. Radio sells the most books, anyway – and that’s easier to land. You can do it from home.

c) Get ready to round up your friends and relatives, because hardly anyone else will come to your booksignings – even with media coverage. Media sells books, but it won’t get more than a few people, at most, to a signing. And don’t be disappointed if you feel a bit like a beggar at your little book table. It’s rough, lemme tell you. But even bestselling authors experience this.

At the end of the day, am I glad I flew cross country with two small children, rented a furnished apartment and drove my fanny all over the South for two months, on my own nickel, to schlep my book? Absolutely. But next time, I’ll do it differently. I’ll arrange more speaking engagements, which do sell books, and I’ll avoid those towns where I don’t have significant numbers of friends and relatives. It’s just not worth it.

Your book won the 2006 USA Best Books Award in the humor category, replacing Margaret Cho. Congratulations! Did you enter it or was it chosen from a list of books?
My publisher sent off the book, after a serious nudge from me. I had to pay the entry fee, though. The marketing budget for books is pretty small.

Tell us one of the quirky things in your book that men do to drive women crazy.
Lord! Where do you want me to start? Well, how about the concept of Learned Helplessness, which I explore throughout the book – since men tend to use it to get out of everything from chores to feeding themselves. They learn this from their mamas, who should have stopped the business long ago, if you ask me. And they’re very adept at getting us to play along. “Ummm…that sandwich looks good,” your husband will say, licking his lips. “Can I have one?” “Sure. Roast beef is in the fridge.” Pause. Pause. Pause. “Where?” “Deli and cheese drawer,” you answer, reading your book. “Which one is that?” You look up from the book, blink a few times. “Top one. Where it always is.” You go back to your book. “Ah,” he’ll answer. “I see it.” Pause. Pause. Pause. “Now where’s the mustard?” You grit your teeth and answer. “What about the lettuce?” he’ll say, and so on and so on, until you get up and make the dang sandwich for him. Learned Helplessness triumphs again. It’s very smart, and we fall for it every time. I coach women on how to get out of this vicious cycle, though. One strategy involves a kitchen map, which I suggest placing on the fridge. Of course, you’ll need to remind him it’s there – several times – and he’ll still need to find it. Try calling it a treasure map, though, and offer a reward, if he finds it. Like dinner.

What is one piece of advice you would give to writers wanting to write humor. People have told me all my life that I’m funny, and after years of not understanding that, I’ve finally realized it’s because I tell the truth. How many people do that, when you think about it? We’re conditioned to talk around topics, not go straight to the heart. So that would be the first piece of advice. Always tell the truth. You also have to look for the humor in life, no matter how challenging that may be. My husband makes me feel as crazy as a sprayed roach, but I channel that into my writing. Because, let’s face it, when a man goes to the grocery store for butter and sour cream and comes home with Butterfingers and cream cheese, what else can you do but laugh? Either that, or go look for your daddy’s shotgun – which believe me, I’ve considered. But prison green is really passé right now, you know? I’ll stick with the writing.

Where can we find your book?
Visit my website at, where you can watch a video of me and download the first chapter then click through to Barnes and Noble to order the book.


Blogger rev. jen said...

I'm not married, but I am a Southern gal. I think this book might be a fun read.

Thanks for this great review!

-- Jen

2:08 PM CDT  

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