For many writers, having a book published is the ultimate goal of their careers. Even for those of us who don’t consider it the ultimate brass ring, it’s often the standard we’re held to. “Oh, you’re a writer?” people say to me. “Have you written a book?” (This happens all the time.)
So while it aggravates me a little that what I do is often considered “not real writing” by many, the fact remains that managing to get a book contract is still a very difficult, very big deal in the writing world.
Author Jennifer Joyner didn’t necessarily view publishing a book as an ultimate career goal—she says she wrote Designated Fat Girl because it’s the book she wishes she could’ve read fifteen years ago, while still in the grip of food addiction. This is a very personal tale of a difficult journey, and intertwines both the hoop-jumping routine of getting published and an urge to reach out and help others.
Jennifer was kind enough to let me interview her, and I’m giving away a copy of her book, as well. Read on!
Mir Kamin: I think there’s this pervasive belief out there that writing non-fiction is “easy” because you just pull from memory. In Designated Fat Girl, though, you’re tackling some really painful personal demons. Can you give us some idea of what that was like for you? Was it unbearably difficult? Was it cathartic? All of the above?
Jennifer Joyner: I used to share that belief—until I had an 80,000 word deadline! It’s true that you couldn’t know the material any better; it is, after all, your own story. But organizing that narrative in a way that makes sense is incredibly difficult, and being almost too close to the subject matter can sometimes cloud your judgment as to what needs to be included and what could be left out. Thank goodness for editors! Copy-editing has never been my strength, and certainly when it comes to my own work, it’s difficult for me to have perspective. Having several other people look over your work without bias is a relief.
Baring my soul and sharing my struggles with strangers was actually less difficult than I thought it would be. I knew that if I were going to do this, I would have to be completely honest, and I didn’t exactly relish the thought of people knowing about my embarrassing body issues or sex life! But as I let go of my fear and gave myself permission to put it all out there, the words came freely, and it actually felt kind of good. I had suffered in silence for so long, it was nice to finally say what I was unable to articulate for so long.
MK: Tell us about the process of shopping the book. Was it picked up quickly? Did you worry no one would buy it, if not?
JJ: I knew I would have to first get a literary agent, and I thought that would be the most difficult part of the process. I figured they get tons of queries and I worried about whether mine would stand out in the crowd. I put a lot of time into crafting a powerful query letter, and it paid off; I got several replies from agents asking to see the book proposal. That’s when the process slowed a bit. One agent liked the proposal but wanted me to significantly change the direction of the book. Another wanted me to sign an exclusivity agreement before he even agreed to represent me. Some passed, saying they didn’t know the right editors to pitch it to, or that the project was too similar to another one they were working on. It was frustrating, but the whole time I was getting positive feedback and the general consensus was yes, this would make a good book. I started looking for an agent in January of 2009 and I signed with one in March. She worked with me on the proposal and the polishing of the first five chapters. She started pitching to editors in May, and we signed a deal in July. That two month-period was the most gut-wrenching—it felt like we were so close, and every time an editor passed, I felt like a door was closing permanently. My agent kept telling me not to take it personally, but how could I not? On paper, it looks like the process was brief, but it sure felt like an eternity.
MK: What’s the weirdest thing that’s happened to you in conjunction with the book so far?
JJ: I knew going in that it would be somewhat difficult for people who have never had a weight problem or a body image issue to identify with my struggle with food addiction. What has been a surprise is the reaction of some people who are or have been morbidly obese who try to dispute my account or even attack my credibility. The overall response has been overwhelmingly positive, but those few negative comments really nag at me—especially because they come from people who should know better! I’m working on developing a thick skin and not engaging people who seem to be just looking for a fight.
MK: What would constitute “success” in your eyes for Designated Fat Girl? Short of the New York Times Bestsellers list, of course.
JJ: Yes, the NYT list and bucket of cash would indeed be wonderful! Sales have been great, and O, the Oprah magazine picked my book as one of the Top Ten Titles to Pick Up Now—that was a phone call I will never forget. I get emails daily from strangers who’ve read my book and were moved by it; that really means more to me than anything. You always hope you can make a difference in someone’s life, and when you see that happening, it makes all the hard work so worth the effort.
MK: What would you say to a writing looking to write/shop a memoir? What’s the most useful piece of advice you received during this process?
JJ: I can’t tell you how important it is to do your research before you look for a literary agency and/or a publisher. You could have the best idea in the world, but if you don’t find the right fit, your idea will go nowhere. Find out which agents specialize in your particular genre and pitch to them with that specific information in mind. Same goes for publishers—you’re wasting your time and theirs if you target a house that doesn’t deal with your type of book. And when the rejections start to come in, don’t take it personally. If an agent turns you down, it’s not necessarily an indictment on the quality of your work; some don’t take the time to explain that they already have similar projects or that your idea doesn’t speak to them personally. You want to work with people who are passionate about your book and know the correct way to get your message out—try to be patient as you work through the process.
MK: What’s next for you? Are you working on another book?
JJ: Writing a book is such a long and involved process—when it’s finally published, you’re a little sick of it, to be quite honest! I took the Fall off from writing, and now I’m finally ready to start again. I’m still trying to decide, but I’m leaning toward a young adult fiction series with an overweight teenager as the protagonist. Growing up heavy is a subject with which I am intimately acquainted. I like the idea of exploring, through fiction, what that is like, with the major difference for my heroine being she handles it a whole lot better than I did!
Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me, Jennifer!
Readers: I have a copy of Designated Fat Girl up for grabs. Leave a comment on this post by 8:00 p.m. Eastern on Sunday, December 12th, 2010, and I’ll choose one commenter at random to receive it.