We’re Wim Coleman and Pat Perrin, and we do most of our work in collaboration. We met and married in Los Angeles and have lived in other U.S. cities—including Portland, Oregon; Des Moines, Iowa; and Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Now we spend much of our time in the beautiful historic town of San Miguel de Allende, Gto., Mexico, with our adopted Mexican daughter. We’ve both been full-time writers for well over a decade and have over 60 published titles.
Wim grew up in Iowa. He is a playwright whose works have won national awards and have been presented in New York and Los Angeles. He has worked in theater as an actor, director, scene shop foreman, and set designer—and has also been an editor, pizza cook, waiter, and bartender. Wim has degrees from Drake University in Theater, Literature, and Education.
Pat is originally from Virginia, where she became an art teacher and award-winning visual artist. She spent some years on a Shenandoah Valley farm, raising and training horses, growing food, cooking on a woodstove, and learning about the land, all with the help of other artists and several energetic teenagers. Pat has degrees in English (Duke), Liberal Studies (Hollins), and Art Theory and Criticism (U.Ga.)
Tell us a bit about your current project.
We tend to keep several projects going at once. Coincidentally but appropriately, one of our current efforts is a novel called Juggler in the Wind—a title which could describe our creative lives. The fact that there are two of us collaborating makes it both fun and advantageous to work on several books at once.
Juggler in the Wind involves a contemporary teen with a circus troup of worn-out ancient gods in a quest to get some answers about his own life. It’s the first book in a trilogy of YA novels based on material we’ve been wrestling with for some twenty years. The Wand Bearer Trilogy will begin in February 2010.
The Taker and Keeper, the first book in our new Red Monocle series for preteens, will be released in October 2009. About the importance of of stories we tell, this series takes two middle-schoolers into adventures in the world’s myths and legends.
We’ve recently published a historical novel for young readers, Anna’s World, which has won some awards. And we’re working on an adult mainstream supernatural thriller called The First Enigma: Clay. Look for it in May 2010—and there are more Enigmas yet to come.
We are all about journeys…unique ones at that. How convoluted was your path to your first published book? Share some highlights or lowlights from your path to publication.
We sort of stumbled into getting published. The two of us met in the late 1980s while working in Los Angeles for the late Marilyn Ferguson (author of The Aquarian Conspiracy) at her newsletter, Brain/Mind Bulletin. We got the idea of compiling the research that had gone into Brain/Mind into a big, innovative, multi-faceted self-help book. We got a contract from PocketBooks, and that’s how we published our first book, PragMagic (1991). At the same time, the two of us started our own experimental newsletter, mixing fact and fiction. We’d interview real-life people, ranging from Timothy Leary to Tom Robbins to Daniel C. Dennett, and with their permission, used them as characters in our ongoing story. One of the people we approached to interview was superagent John Brockman, who had founded a group of intellectuals called The Reality Club. John thought we had a novel on our hands, so he got us a contract with Harmony Books for it. And so we wrote and published our first novel, The Jamais Vu Papers (1991). It’s long out-of-print but still widely available and has become something of a cult classic.
We were lucky at the outset, but the path became more convoluted after that. We had a thriller with a mainstream house and a movie option, but that didn’t lead anywhere. We’ve done lots of books, plays, and stories for educational publishers. We’ve managed somehow to support ourselves on our writing most of the time (though in the early years one or the other of us worked briefly as a teacher, pizza cook, bartender, sign painter, shop keeper, and probably other jobs we can’t remember.)
Do you still experience self-doubts regarding your work, or struggle in a particular area such as writers block or angst driven head-banging against walls? Please share some helpful overcoming hints that you’ve discovered.
Really, we don’t experience much angst, much less writer’s block. Partly, we just keep too busy. But mostly, having each other to bounce ideas off of keeps us from running dry. We’re awfully stimulating company—at least to each other. When one of us has an idea, the other is always ready to add to it. We keep each other moving. Between us, we currently have more story ideas than we can hope to realize. Our main frustration is not having a lot more hours in the day, or more days in the week, or more years in our lives.
What mistakes have you made while seeking publication? Or to narrow it down further what’s something you wish you’d known earlier that might have saved you some time/frustration in the publishing business?
The frustrations of seeking out publishers are too numerous to talk about. Perhaps things would have been easier for us if today’s possibilities for self-publishing had arrived a couple of decades earlier. For one thing, being our own publisher allows us to manage every facet of book production, ranging from the writing to the design of the book itself. We like the feeling of wholeness that process gives us. Writing the words and creating a cover become all of a piece.
What is your favorite source for finding story ideas?
Story ideas are everywhere if you stay alert to them. We just try to keep our heads full of intriguing ideas. We’ve found current developments in science and technology to be particularly stimulating. We also find a lot of inspiration in history. For some years, we spent a lot of our time doing work-for-hire for educational publishers. We didn’t make a lot of money, but the time and work didn’t go to waste. We wrote a lot about a huge range of topics, including literature, mythology, history and current events—and we draw on all of that now.
Anna’s World is particularly interesting in this regard. It began some twenty-five years ago when a composer commissioned Wim to write an opera libretto about the Shakers, an American religious group that thrived in the mid-nineteenth century. The composer died before he could write the score, but Wim did complete the libretto, and his fascination with the Shakers and their quest for a perfect society continued. Many years later, Wim was hired to edit and compile a book of source materials about the Shakers. With so much research already done, it seemed silly for us not to write a novel about the Shakers. Once we’d chosen our protagonist—a fourteen-year-old girl left by her father to live among the Shakers—the story really caught fire, fueled by plenty of fact and detail.
Have you ever had one of those awkward writer moments you’d like to share with us, the ones wherein you get “the look” from the normals? Example, you stand at a knife display at the sporting goods store and ask the clerk which would be the best to use to disembowel a six foot man…please do tell.
Well, when researching one of our novels, we planned to include a scene in a sex shop. At the time, it seemed necessary to the plot. Wim went into one of those stores to see what it was like. He spent a good while perusing all the kinky toys and gimmicks, looking for all the world like a seedy middle-aged man pursuing his sordid kicks—although he didn’t buy anything, of course. It was a rather embarrassing experience. And as it turned out, we didn’t use the scene we wrote from that little adventure. It didn’t belong in the story after all. Oh, well, maybe another book …
With the clarity of experience what advice would you offer up to the wet-behind-the-ears you if beginning this writing journey today?
Work out of the urgent questions you’re asking yourself. If you aren’t troubled by questions concerning people, the world, politics, religion, relationships, where the culture and the human species are going, you might want to reconsider whether you really need to be a writer. If you are obsessed by questions, you probably won’t come up with answers by writing about them, but that’s not the point. Good writing is at least partly about stirring up questions in others. Pat likes to say that creativity isn’t about self-expression—the creative experience is a process of discovery. Use your writing to discover.
What event/person has most changed you as a writer? How?
For Wim, it probably has to do with experiences in theater going back to his childhood, as early as he can remember. His father was a college theater professor who directed lots of plays, and Wim started going to rehearsals when he was two years old. Those experiences really shaped his notions of illusion and reality, fiction and fact, myth and truth, and the fuzzy boundaries amongst them. He remembers one incident in particular that really affected him. He saw his mother rehearsing a scene that his father was directing. She was weeping hysterically—acting, of course, but Wim didn’t know that. He rushed up onto the stage to try to comfort her. A moment later, she and all the actors and his father were laughing. It was a primal lesson in the transformative power of story.
As a college undergraduate, Pat took a university creative writing class that convinced her she could never be a writer—she couldn’t write anything acceptable to her professor or classmates. For decades, all her writing was hidden away in a drawer while she taught and exhibited visual artworks. Soon after she met Wim, she started writing again for others to read.
What piece of writing have you done that you’re particularly proud of and why? (Doesn’t have to be one of your books or even published.)
It’s really hard to say. We both still have a weak spot for our first novel, The Jamais Vu Papers. It’s far from our most perfect published novel (Anna’s World may hold that distinction, and least for now), but it is certainly our most daring and innovative to date, and it seems to have had a surprisingly widespread influence. We had a heady time writing it.
Do you have a pet peeve having to do with this biz?
Marketing people wield way too much power over what goes into print. They even get too much input into creative decisions. One of our contracted books was canceled by a major publisher because a marketing director said that it had “too many ideas.” Disaster though that was, we took the intended condemnation as high praise. We like to read novels that have too many ideas, and we pretty much insist on writing novels with too many ideas. We wouldn’t have it any other way.
Share a dream or something you’d love to accomplish through your writing career.
At the moment, it really feels like we’re living our dream—or at least starting to. Publishing on our own gives us creative freedom like we’ve never had before. We get to tell our stories and explore our ideas and get them into print. We’d find it hard if not impossible to find a publisher for Anna’s World these days—but our own edition has won three prominent awards and accolades from enthusiastic readers. We’ve developed a healthy (or is it arrogant?) faith in our own instincts over the years, and now we’re able to act on those instincts as freely as we could ever want.
What gives you the greatest writer buzz, makes the trip worth the hassles (besides coffee or other substances, or course )?
Surprise is a real high. As Robert Frost once put it, “No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.” Another plus of collaborating is that we generate a lot of surprise between us. A day of writing seldom goes by without a pleasing rush of surprise—and that’s the experience of creativity as a process of discovery.
What is one of the more unique or strange life experiences that has really given you an extra oomph in your writing?
For Wim, it probably was years working in a restaurant as a cook and a waiter. That may not sound unique or strange, but it often was. You meet many different kinds of people in that kind of job, ranging from ex-convicts, heroin addicts, and prostitutes to college professors, doctors, and lawyers. You meet religious zealots, schizophrenics, armed robbers, political radicals and reactionaries, and occasionally somebody who is actually sane. You learn to listen to and share their stories. Wim’s experiences in food service gave him a feeling for the plurality of human beings and their voices.
Pat went through a back-to-the-land phase that fostered both an interest in collaboration and a capacity for self-reliance. Living in various parts of the U.S. was invigorating and revealing, and 11 years in Mexico has provided some new perspectives on human behavior and motivations.
Describe your special or favorite writing spot.
We share an office space that used to be part of our living room, and we each have our own computer. We’re never more than a few feet away from each other while we’re working, and we find that great fun—perhaps especially when we’re working on very different things. It’s a pleasant and stimulating distraction to suddenly find yourself discussing something very different from the work you’ve got at hand. Distractions are good for the creative juices.
What aspect of writing was the most difficult for you to grasp/conquer? How did you overcome it?
For Wim, it was probably the brass tacks business of structuring a story. Pat is still stronger in that area, while Wim is good at supplying raw material and stronger at writing dialogue. We overcame our shortcomings by working together.
What is the first thing you do when you begin a new book?
We start talking about it—and we don’t stop talking until the book is finished. We also start writing absolutely the first words that come to us—whether it’s summary, character descriptions, or actual scenes and chapters.
Writing rituals. Do you have to sit somewhere specific, complete a certain number of words, leave something undone to trigger creativity for the next session? Some other quirk you’d like to share?
While we certainly encourage other writers to set aside a time of day just for writing, our own approach is to simply write whenever we can, and as much as we can. Hemingway was not necessarily a fountain of good advice in many matters, but he did wisely recommend not to put your work aside until you’d gotten over an impasse; when you’re really in the flow is often a good time to stop. It’s easier to get back to work the next time around. And of course, writing doesn’t stop when you’re away from your workspace, or even when you’re asleep. It’s part of life.
Plot, seat of pants or combination?
We tend to be seat-of-the-pants writers, and we write scenes as they hit us, often not in chronological order. Pat will decide to write a particular episode, Wim another, and then we pass them back and forth, and we build the story as we go along. By the time we’re finished revising and re-assembling each other’s work, we often don’t remember which of us initiated a particular scene. That’s good, because we don’t wind up having a lot of individual ego invested in what we do. We don’t do formal outlines, but we often keep a calendar of events to give us some sense of structure. We keep the calendar flexible, changing it and pushing and pulling at it all the time.
What is the most difficult part of pulling together a book? Ex. Do you have saggy middles, soggy characters, soupy plots during your first drafts…if so, how do you shape it up?
Wim writes too much, gets too wordy, and often writes totally extraneous scenes. Fortunately, Pat has a good sense of what will work and what won’t. Sometimes we create too many characters, and have to merge some to cut down on confusion.
Have you received a particularly memorable reader response or peer honor? Please share.
Whenever a reader has a strong personal response to something we write, it is a true honor. For example, a recent Amazon.com reviewer responded strongly to Anna’s World because she, too, had been left as a child in a religious community. She found that the book resonated powerfully with her own experience. Reactions like that are simply wonderful, all the more so for being unbidden. You can’t do anything to make them happen.
Have you discovered any successful marketing/promo ideas that you’d share with us?
It’s hard to predict how well this will work out, but we’re doing our own book trailers. We lease background music, Wim and our daughter Monse do voice-overs, and Pat creates or finds visuals for us to edit into a couple of entertaining minutes to intrigue potential readers.
Parting words? Anything you wish we would’ve asked because you’ve got the perfect answer?
There’s a lot of talk among writers about cultivating your own voice. Don’t do that. Cultivate a multitude of voices. Make your writing teem with different people speaking in their own individual, thrillingly human ways. Also, don’t wait for inspiration, because inspiration won’t wait for you.