Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Today, I interview Terry Shaw, author of the new book, "The Way Life Should Be." Terry's a former newspaper man and he talks about the newspaper industry, making the leap into fiction and how the right writing contests can help your writing career.

Tell us about yourself.
I’m a 44-year-old ex-newspaperman who’s hoping to make it as a novelist. Although we’ve lived in several states, my wife and I now make our home in Knoxville, Tennessee. We like the outdoors and usually spend a lot of time hiking with our dogs and kayaking, though during the past six months most of my free time has been spent editing and marketing my novel.

Tell us about your debut book, "The Way Life Should be."
It’s the story of newspaper editor John Quinn, who returns to coastal Maine with his wife to raise their son. When his best friend – a married politician with children – is killed at a gay pickup spot, Quinn is the only one who wants to know what really happened.
Although it’s primarily a suspense/mystery novel, the book also explores several current issues, including the effect development and soaring real estate prices have on coastal communities, along with the difficulties of publishing a small daily newspaper a time when that industry is undergoing radical change.

You hitchhiked through the west in your younger years. They say writers should always have adventures. What do you think this taught you about life and writing?
I met all types of people and learned that you can find interesting stories anywhere. I also learned you don’t need to have a lot of money – which can be very helpful for an aspiring writer. At one point, a friend gave me $25 in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania and after hitchhiking to Gunnison, Colorado, I walked into a bar to meet another friend and still had $16 left. At the time, I didn’t have a job (except for a short stint working at a convenience store), a car, or any responsibility or obligations. It was one of the most enjoyable years in my life.

You were laid off from your job as a publisher due to downsizing in the newspaper industry. What do you think the future is for people who actually like to sit in the morning with a cup of coffee and hold their newspaper while they read it?
More of them will read their newspapers on their computer screens with a cup of coffee, or at work, or at night. I’m optimistic newspapers can survive, though one trend needs to change. During my lifetime, family-owned newspapers have been forced to sell off to corporations, with many of those corporations borrowing money for the acquisitions and having unrealistic expectations for profit margins. Now that the business is changing and media companies can no longer make the obscene profit levels they’ve been accustomed to, many of them are selling their papers.
I hope we see more independent newspapers that aren’t worried about squeezing every nickel they can for out-of-town shareholders. Also, as more newspaper business migrates to an on-line format, production costs will shrink. Of course, this will be a radical change and we’ll see how it shakes out.
I’m still a fan of newspapers and subscribe to my local daily and always pick up the alternative weeklies. In fact, my novel’s protagonist is a guy who’s struggling to keep his family newspaper afloat during these tough times.

Since you began writing as a journalist, how long has fiction been inside of you?
Since about third grade. I can remember writing a short piece of fiction as an assignment for my third grade teacher, Mrs. Piemme, and loving it. I also wrote a lot of bad fiction in college. I got really serious about the whole thing the last few years, because I figured at this stage of my life, I needed to get moving or it was never going to happen.

Explain the process of successfully making the transition from non-fiction to fiction.
I knew how to craft news stories, features and columns, but fiction – especially a novel – was completely different. When it comes to journalism, once the reporting is done, I can sit down and bang out the work pretty quickly. With fiction, I need to have my head clear and no distractions.
Also, non-fiction is very social. You talk with people. You often work in a crowded newsroom. With fiction, for long chunks of time, it’s just you and your story.
I guess the biggest challenge for me was plotting a story that held up for 70,000 words, something I finally figured out after trying for a few years.

How did you come up with the idea for your book?
When I was an editor in Maine, we used to regularly meet with groups of readers. During one of those meetings, a woman wanted to know why we published a story about a school board member who had gone to jail for molesting children.
This shocked me. I was even more surprised when she followed up with, “When we move to Maine, we want to believe the sign that you read when you cross the state border from New Hampshire that says ‘Welcome to Maine, the Way Life Should Be.”
That’s where I got the title, anyway, and maybe the overall theme of the book.

How did you find your agent/publisher?
I found my publisher by winning the Gather.com First Chapters Contest, which was co-sponsored by Touchstone/Simon & Schuster and Borders. It was open to first-time novelists and first prize was a publishing contract. More than 2,600 people entered and I was fortunate enough to be named the Grand Prize Winner. They also decided to publish the runner-up, a really talented young writer from Chicago named Geoffrey Edwards. His book is “Fire Bell in the Night,” a historical thriller set in pre-Civil War Charleston, South Carolina.
Once I had a publishing contract, it was pretty easy to find an agent. A handful of people actually contacted me and I decided to go with Frank Weimann of the Literary Group.

Your book has a shade of mimicking reality right now -with Sen. Craig having pled guilty in connection with soliciting sex in a men's restroom. Do you think that controversy will help sell your book's story line in any way?
Well, I certainly wouldn’t mind if it helped sell my book. Oddly enough, the whole Sen. Craig situation is a lot more common than most people realize. In Maine we had several prominent local citizens arrested at a gay pickup spot in a public park, in broad daylight, in the middle of the afternoon. In Suburban Buffalo, where I also worked, we had a very well-known park where several prominent local officials were charged with public lewdness. Of course, my friends in Maine assume the arrests there influenced my book and my friends in Western New York assume that park influenced the book. They’re both right.

Where can we find your book and what's next for you?
You can find it at Borders Books & Music and at Amazon.com. You can also find it at other retailers, but Borders is giving the book pretty prominent display, especially for a first novel. The president of Borders was one of the final judges in the First Chapters Contest, so I guess he liked my book, along with Geoffrey Edwards’s book, which you can also find there.


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