Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Platforms Smatforms - A Writer Named Lisa

Today, I interview Lisa Rogak, an author of over 40 books. Her latest, "A Boy Named Shel," is a biography about Shel Silverstein, the children's book author. Lisa talks about the writing process and gives us a different perspective on how important platforms are to writers. She also talks about soaking in traits of the subjects of her books and her next book, a bio on Stephen King.

Tell us about yourself.
I’m an independent book author and magazine journalist who’s been in the business for over 25 years with over 40 books to my credit. I’ve covered everything from cat quotes to baby names to funeral food customs, though in the last few years I’ve focused on writing biographies.
Writing has provided me with a fascinating, adventurous life. I wake up each morning looking forward to discovering what new things I’ll learn that day, which is something I think that everyone should strive for. After all this time, it never ceases to fascinate me that I have been able to make my living by indulging by curiosity and asking total strangers really nosy questions…

Tell us about your new book, "A Boy Named Shel."
It's the first full-length biography of Shel Silverstein, who was best known as a children's book author, but who was quite accomplished in other areas as well. He wrote A Boy Named Sue, The Unicorn, and Sylvia's Mother, wrote one-act plays with David Mamet, drew cartoons for Playboy for several decades, and lived in five different places strewn around the country. It was like writing five books instead of just one. It was by far the hardest work I've ever done, but also the most satisfying because of the stories I heard from his friends and the things I learned from my research.

You've written over 40 books and a huge variety of topics - from writers and their cats (The Cat on my Shoulder) to sabbaticals (Time Off From Work) to cemeteries in New England (Stones and Bones). Would you say earlier in your career that it wasn't necessary for authors to be focused on one particular "platform."

I still don't think it's necessary. All you need is one good idea, a killer proposal, and the ability to prove you can write artful and descriptive prose and that you're the best person to write that book.
One thing that peeves PhDs and professors in particular is that I explain that I'm still an apprentice, always learning. I mean, I still read books on writing aimed at beginners, and I learn tons of new stuff every time. The older I get the less I know, and the more books I write, it becomes more of a mystery how I do it. I don't question, however, that'll kill it cold.
And if I don't learn something new, why bother? That's why I'm currently writing my last biography.

You seem pretty focused now on biographies. What drew you to that?
I signed with a new agent and we decided that it was best for me to write bigger books than the ones I'd been doing. I'm currently under deadline for a biography of Stephen King, and this will be my last biography. Been there, done that, it's on to my first loves: comic fiction and historical disasters.

What is the most challenging aspect of doing a biography on someone who is already deceased?
Actually, I prefer writing about dead men; more people will talk to me. Even though I tell people who I'd like to interview that I write for the subject's fans, that I'm not a Kitty Kelley, and I show them my previous books to prove my approach, they turn me down.
I HATE the word "unauthorized biography." It implies that there's something sordid, unclean about it, when the truth is that in my experience, most unauthorized biographies are good cures for insomnia!

What kinds of releases or permission did you seek from Shel's family for the book
None. I contacted them, but they didn't reply. I'm used to it. You need a thick skin to be a writer and an even thicker one to write biographies because of the almost constant rejection. I NEVER take it personally.

How do you choose the subjects of your books?
With the biographies I've written, my agent and I go through a list of possible subjects and then cull them down with a list of questions. Is there a current biography out on them? What kind of interest exists for them? Do their fans tend to read books? What are the foreign rights potential for this book? And finally, do I want to live inside their skin for a year?

How did you find your agent/publisher?
I had been with several agents, and was ready for something new, something to take me beyond the niche-y books I'd written before. My current agent told me he wouldn't work with me if I still wanted to write the smaller books, and so I decided to give him a shot. He's done so well for me -- and me for him as well (!) -- that my nickname for him is Superagent.
I've done five books with him -- biographies on Dr Atkins, Dan Brown, Barack Obama, Shel Silverstein, and Stephen King (my next biography) -- and we're sticking with St Martins for now.

Making a living writing books is quite difficult. How do you mix writing books with writing magazine articles as part of your business plan.
I primarily write books and live off the advances from the North American publishers and foreign rights my agent sells. Income from magazine and online articles is a supplement.

Where can people find your book and what's next for you?
They can get it on Amazon, ask for it at bookstores, and through my website at lisarogak.com . I'm finishing up research for a biography on Stephen King, which will be published in the fall of 2008. Then it's on to an historical disaster and polishing two novels, one for adults and one for kids, both set in funeral homes.

What is the one thing you've learned from writing biographies?
When you write a biography and delve that deeply into another person’s life, it’s impossible not to take on some of their quirks. While some biographers may consciously don the persona of their subject from the start, mine crept up on me until one day I discovered I was living like them. I didn’t set out to do this deliberately, it’s part of the organic process of absorbing so much information about a person that it’s impossible not to start living his life. And it’s particularly jarring when that individual was highly complex and charismatic.
A few months into writing the Atkins bio, I started eating like a caveman – lots of red meat, the rarer the better – while also began baking lots of carb-laden sweets to balance things out. When I researched the biography of Dan Brown, I was inspired to keep going in all areas of my life regardless of the odds. After all, the reception to his first three novels was so discouraging that although he had his doubts about writing a fourth, he continued anyway. If he had given up, The Da Vinci Code would have never been published.
Shel Silverstein, the subject of my third biography, was off in so many creative directions – art, music, theatre, literature – and lived in so many different places that I was exhausted most of the time I was researching his life. I crashed and burned more than a few times. When I mentioned this to one of his friends in an interview, he laughed. “No one could keep up with Shel,” he said. After each manuscript was handed in, I fully expected to slip back into my own life and leave the borrowed ones behind. I’m still waiting. Instead, I retain pieces of each man in my life. To this day, I still bake like a fiend, keep going even when the odds are overwhelmingly against me, and juggle several different creative pursuits, sometimes to the point of exhaustion.
I like to write about writers. They fascinate me because I like to see what makes them tick, and how their work reveals themselves, usually unwittingly. Also, since I’ve been writing for more than 25 years, I learn new things from their own work habits. They also inspire me to branch out into new areas and styles of writing.
I've also become curious about the link that three of my subjects -- Shel, Dan & Steve -- have to music. All were/are musical, and this is my original training; I was supposed to be a classical pianist and go to Juilliard, but as you can tell from my wide variety of book subjects, I'm not very good at concentrating on just one subject. But I still play and perform locally, and music has played a big part in the lives of these three writers.
There have been several books on writers and alcohol; maybe I'll have to write one on writers and music...


Blogger Western Woman Editor said...

These are great interviews! Thanks.

11:58 AM CST  

Post a Comment

<< Home