Friday, June 15, 2007

Blown Away by This Author

Today, I interviewed Caitlin Kelly, author of "Blown Away, American Women and Guns. She describes writing a book on a highly controversial topic and how she has maintained sales for nearly 3 years:

Tell us a little about yourself.
I've been writing professionally for national magazines and newspapers since my sophomore year of college at the University of Toronto. I wanted to be a foreign correspondent so I speak French and Spanish and have always been a generalist, although I've written a lot on sports, design and business. I've been a reporter for three major dailies, most recently the New York Daily News, the country's 6th-largest paper, and it's made a real differerence in how I approach my work. There's no such thing as "writers'block" when they expect your copy by 6:00 p.m.! I love writing features for a daily paper as it's the best of both worlds, a huge audience and quick publication with enough time and space to tell a good story. You also learn to produce the best you can on deadline -- and move on. Personally, I loveto travel internationally (37 countries so far), cook, go antiquing, cycle, ski and play softball.
Tell us about your book, "Blown Away, American Women and Guns."
It's the first and only book of its kind in its impartial exploration of how women and guns intersect in American life, past and present. With 11 to18 million female gun owners, 50 percent of whom have bought a gun (or several) for self-defense, I wanted to know why guns were so important to them. I also wanted to include the stories of the many women whose lives have been destroyed emotionally and/or physically by gun violence, like two women shot point-blank by criminals and a woman who shot and killed her husband in self-defense. A woman who loses her child or husband to a massacre like that at Virginia Tech is affected by guns as well as those injured or killed in domestic violence or other crimes. I interviewed women and teens of all races and income levels from 29 states, who have felt the presence, wanted or unwanted, of a gun in their lives, from convicted murderers to politicians to Olympic shooters and FBI agents. I wanted thebook to be both authoritative enough to be useful to academics and students, while readable and lively for non-students.
How did you chose this topic - especially since you are Canadian?
I moved to the U.S. when I was 30. I grew up in a country dominated by the U.S. and was intrigued by this most American of obsessions, one that receives little serious and thoughtful coverage, here or elsewhere. Guns play a major role in the political, economic, social and criminal fabric of this culture. Yet gun use is almost never discussed rationally and thoughtfully, which left the field fairly open for me, as an ambitious author, to attempt this myself. As an outsider, albeit one who has lived in the U.S. since 1988, I felt comfortable raising a variety of tough questions on an unpopular topic that many American writers just won't touch.
You said you interviewed people on all sides of the issue, do you takea side and if so, was it your concern to remain objective? Why or why not?
When three women a day are killed in this country by their domestic partners, something is very wrong with women's choices, law enforcement, prosecution and sentencing and support for fleeing abuse. I am, and make clear in my book, horrified by the persistent violence against women and so I raise the difficult question of when, where, how and why a woman might choose to arm herself -- and shoot in self-defense. I felt it essential, as did my publisher, to represent the concerns and issues raised by both sides of the gun debate as neither is going away and both are determined to prevail. It's difficult, since many academics shy away from this topic, to find basic factual data without a lot of political topspin, which, to me, is the definition of classic journalism. I want readers, who are also voters with the power to influence their elected officials, to really understand the complexity of gun ownership and use. Suicide, for example, consistently represents 55 percent of gun deaths, yet we focus enormous attention on "gun control" and very little on the mental health of those who own or have access to guns.
What were some of the challenges of researching the book?
The greatest reporting challenge was gaining the trust of civilian and professional gun-owners, many of whom feel tremendous mistrust, even outright hostility, toward journalists who consistently mis-represent and demonize them. I was often asked: "Are you pro Second Amendment?" before many people would agree to an interview. Since I had taken a three-day shooting class and had since trained with a variety of handguns and longguns, I could tell people truthfully that I had enjoyed shooting and completely understood why they did as well. It was not my place to judge them but to present their views. Another challenge was framing the story, as there is so much to say. I attended the world's largest shooting event, 3,200 skeet shooters who meet each summer in Ohio, and found many interview subjects there.Deciding where to do on-the-ground reporting and interviewing presented another challenge as this story is so broad. I flew twice to Texas, once to New Orleans and Ohio and drove to Manhattan, NY and Massachusetts. I found four researchers, all female, willing to donate time to help me. Icould not have done it without them.The single toughest issue was focusing on violence against women. It gave me "secondary trauma", common for those who delve deeply into such disturbing material. I had nightmares, insomnia and anxiety for a few weeks and still have a limited appetite for dark stories. It was personallydeeply upsetting -- even while I felt it essential for readers to recognizeand address these issues.
How did you find your agent/publisher?
I found my agent through a personal contact, a fiction agent and former journalism student of mine at New York University who knew someone at the William Morris agency. He suggested another agent who immediately liked the proposal and agreed to take it on. It took us more than a year and 25 rejections to find a publisher as most were too scared of the subjectand/or dismissive of its potential appeal.
Your book was released in 2004, yet it is still selling. How does an author help a book with a longer "shelf life."
I think you can't ever stop promoting your book if you want it to stay inprint and keep selling. I'm always looking for ways to remind potential readers of its value; word of mouth is what sells books. There are so manyways to promote your book if you think broadly, and consistently committime and money to it.In the past few months, for example, I did a live television talk show inNew York City to discuss gun issues; took a table at a gun show to sell books; participated in an authors' event at my local library; arranged a speaking event at another local library for September; got a copy to Hillary Clinton through a contact; advertised my book in a criminology journal read by academics who might use it for their classes; sent it forreview/blurbs to several prominent professors of law and women's studies and spoke on a media panel in which I brought the book and discussed it. I've also written letters to the editor of publications whose readers mightfind the book of interest, identifying myself as the author. It's verydifficult to get op-eds or essays published on this subject, so I have to focus on other forms of promotion.
What was the most challenging aspect of writing this book?
Having the nerve to do it! It takes guts to wade into one of the nation's most bitterly divisive subjects. Now I'm seen as an expert on the subject, which is a large responsibility, although a privilege as well. Some peoplewho hate and fear guns refuse to even consider the issues, and that sort ofdeliberate ignorance is really frustrating. Ignoring or simply hating gun violence does nothing to stem or reduce it.
What is a quirky writing habit you have that no one knows about?
I don't think I do anything quirky, although writing more than six bookproposals that did not sell might strike people as both exhausting andquixotic. (I figure it's all practice for the books that will sell.)
Where can our readers find your book.
Amazon and some bookstores. They can read the first two chapters and click to amazon directly from there.


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