My mother hated cooking but was in love with boxes and cans. She shopped for food once a month, so you can imagine. My grandmother, who had stumbled into a health food lecture when she was in her late thirties (during WWII), was the “kook” of the family. I learned a lot about physiology from this woman with a third grade education.
My family lived in Japan during my high school years and I saw people eating real food. Then I immediately went to India overland from Europe and afterward lived in Europe for a few years. Back then the world was not infiltrated with American factory food products. People ate real food. I was appalled at the weirdness of food when I returned to the US after a total of six and a half years.
It made sense to me why everyone in my family was always sick with colds and flu. After I left home and started eating real food, I didn’t have a single cold or flu for over 20 years.
At age 40 in 1990 I decided to drop out of my design business and become a writer. I thought you wrote books from the beginning to the end and then wrote “THE END”! I had a lot to learn about writing. I wrote a manuscript that was to become my current novel Karma, but then met a doctor who wanted to write a book with her explaining why eating non-fat was so deadly. I had always been interested in health and had been a runner for twenty years. And so I took up writing with her. I found that I had a natural curiosity for delving into research—for connecting the dots and finding the truth. That book did so well that I did two others with doctors and then my own Death by Supermarket: The Fattening, Dumbing Down, and Poisoning of America.
I’ve learned a lot about health and nutrition during my 12 years of health book writing and I continue to learn.
What unique skills did you hone while writing on nutrition that helped you with your novel?
Oh clearly the doctor’s voice. In a way, Meredith’s thinking is my own. I lived her experience, and though I’m not even close to being a doctor, I think the way she thinks. I look at problems and think, how can I find my way out of this? With Meredith being a medical doctor, she would naturally think in scientific terms, clinically, analytically. And so that comes through in the novel.
I also learned how to do research during my years of health book writing. I never just settled for an opinion that sounded intuitive. I leave no stone unturned when it comes to fact checking. If I want to know how many woods a wood chuck chucks for example, I google, then I google again. I get a lot of opinions from people who are experts on wood chucking, then I fact check that. Then I email people who live in wood chuck countries and ask them. In the end I ask trusted expert to vet what I’ve written. And that’s the way I wrote my health books too.
What tips would you offer to someone who might be considering pulling together a book on nutrition, health, fitness or recipes?
I’m afraid I might go off on a tangent here! The publishing business has taken advantage of the epidemic of desperation in our country. The market is glutted with pithy “fat away” approaches.
It’s hopeful though that so many Americans are going back to eating the way we did 150 years ago. This is hopeful for would-be authors too, as there is definitely a market opening up for this authentic nutritional approach.
Share some tips to help our readers who might need a boost in the creativity department.
I can only tell people what I have done for over 35 years, which is to hit the ground running. I was a runner for 20 years. Now I walk or hike, or do yoga. Endorphin producing exercise is the best way for me to solve creative problems. I have written whole chapters in my head during runs, walks, and hikes, and on the way home from a yoga class (you really can’t think during yoga).
I took up meditation 2 ½ years ago and I find that clearing my thoughts and focusing my mind frees my brain up to be facile and creative. I just returned from a 9-day silent Buddhist meditation retreat. I would have to say that the only real problem I had was toward the end. The creativity was exploding out of my brain. Getting away from what the Buddhists call your “monkey mind” is a way to clear out the clutter so the important thoughts, the creative thoughts, can emerge.
What type of writing/authoring is easiest or most fulfilling for you and why?
I love health writing, but it involves staying current and the research takes time. I’m 59 now and I want to spend the duration of my career writing fiction and memoirs because that’s where I’m finding the most enjoyment now. I love creating characters. I’ve been told that my characters are quirky. But really they are so much like the real people I’ve known or encountered in my life. My characters tell me so much about human nature when they start speaking. Take Mrs. Pawar in Karma for example, who represents the evil people who traffic in human beings. I found a place of understanding for her in my heart. She taught me about evil natures and how they are formed.
What two or three things would you do differently if you were starting your publishing career today?
A lot of successful writers go to writer’s conferences. I went to one and I didn’t attend many of the classes. I didn’t like reading my stuff or listening to others read out loud. I thought I should be home writing. And so that is what I did for 19 years.
I think I did a lot of things right. I wrote a lot. I pursued subjects I was personally interested in. I developed contacts slowly, surely, and persistently. I found mentors and editors and paid them to read my drafts and then I accepted 90 percent of what they said. I developed a thick skin by working with a lot of different editors. I wrote wrote wrote and rewrote. The one thing I can say that I have just started doing in the past couple of years is retyping drafts. Cutting and pasting is self indulgent and lazy. Retyping separates the men from the boys. So I’ve gotten tougher, I guess, more disciplined.
What one issue makes you struggle the most as an author? How do you handle it?
Oh my gosh, that is so easy to answer! Time management. Every day I have five goals: Meditate, exercise, write, practice the piano, make at least one meal to enjoy with my husband John. Unfortunately there is a lot of business that goes into a writing career. I get up early and do a lot before the world wakes up. I spend a lot of time alone, probably more than most people could tolerate. Lately, I’ve realized I need to streamline, answer emails more tersely than I would prefer, let home projects go, not be as ADD about my life in general.
What is the best writing (or life) advice you have ever heard or wished you had followed? Why?
It was advice from a friend of mine who told me to write authentically and uninhibitedly as if no one was going to read it. So I write uninhibitedly and I’m a little demented. I laugh and I cry, and I have a good time. Then I delete some of what isn’t appropriate to share with the world. If you can’t be honest there’s going to be a dullness to your writing. You have to open up and I’m not taking about the way people share their innermost secrets on talk shows. I’m talking about the way you think. Everyone has a unique take on life. That’s what you need to get on paper. That’s your essence and your voice.
What one issue ignites your passion? Does your passion fuel your writing? What would you do with your life if you didn’t write?
The pain of life ignites my writing. Life is suffering. The Buddha said that, not to be a downer, but because it’s true. Pain is something all humans can relate to.
I have only fantasy professions because the things that I would like to do like opera singing are not possible for me—my OM in yoga class is off key. I would like to be a Buddhist monk too, but I don’t think that will happen either. But who knows, I may surprise myself at age 90.
Tell us a bit about your current project.
Last February a friend visited me from the Czech Republic. I met her 40 years ago in Sri Lanka when I was a hippie hitchhiker. I’d traveled overland from India with my boyfriend, a Swiss guy—who later became my first husband. My Czech friend told me about a Buddha pendent my then boyfriend had given her when we left Sri Lanka and asked me if I wanted it. I said yes, I would love to have it. A month after she sent it to me—40 years to the month that he gave her the pendant—he left me a message on my website. I hadn’t heard from him for 37 years and believed he was dead. So his reappearance and our rekindled relationship woke that whole India trip up. He was my first love and going to India with him was a major life experience for me. Now I’m working on the memoir Hippie Chick.
I’m also working on a manuscript Love Children about a failed NY artist who is hired to courier a six‑figure painting to Napa Valley. When he arrives he realizes that he met the couple 27 years earlier when they committed a crime together. Every single one of the characters in this story is grappling with how to find inner contentment. Only they’re going about it by grasping for love or material wealth or security. It’s interesting to see them, to listen to them, to feel their pain. When I get them talking it’s almost agonizing to listen to them. I want to tell them not to do what they are about to do. But I see human nature’s frailty in their actions. I watch them make awful mistakes. And so that’s the way I learn about life too.
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.
It’s too bad that I didn’t write a journal about it because it’s been extremely convoluted and tortured and I could not begin to remember it all.
My idea for Karma was frivolous. (The manuscript had a different title back then.) I just had the idea from hearing about “white slavery” during my hitchhiking trip from Europe to India in 1968-69. But I had an immediate and profound experience the first fifteen minutes of researching. That was 19 years ago, before Google, when you had to use the “gold system” at the library. You would find books in the mammoth Library of Congress index and then fill out a card and weeks later your book would arrive from some far away library. I asked the librarian to help me and we found the listing in the Library of Congress under “prostitution.” We were both shocked. Prostitution denotes the lowest rung of society. I never forgot that moment. From then on it wasn’t frivolous. It was personal.
There was not much to read about the subject but I plowed on with what I had. It took me two years to finish the manuscript. Then I bought a book How to Find an Agent, or some such. My plan was to send a query letter to the first 10 agents, get those rejections, and then proceed to the next ten. I got interest in the first go around and signed a contract with a NY agency that represented celebrity best selling authors. My manuscript didn’t sell. I was crushed. It was before heroin chic, and before the general public knew much about sex trafficking. I couldn’t get over it. I thought my book was original. I lamented for years that someone would scoop my idea and that Karma would be a “me too.”
Then a doctor friend asked me to write a book explaining why the low fat diet was so deadly. That book took 18 months to write. At first we put it out as a spiral bound manuscript. It was riddled with typos but we sold about 3,500 copies at $30 each. Then I read an article in the New York Times about Peter Vegso at Health Communications, Inc. in Florida who was turning publishing on its head by printing his own books. I said to John, “This is the publisher for us.” So I sent him the manuscript. Shortly afterward we signed with an agent and she called Peter who said, “I’m holding the manuscript in my hand trying to figure out how to get to the authors.” We’ve sold 600,000 copies of that book.
Meanwhile, I wrote a script of Karma that was circulated by a producer friend who happened to love the project. The script and first manuscript have been read by so many readers, editors, producers, agents over the last 15 years or so that I used to joke that publishing it or making it into a movie would be a moot point!
For a few years I gave up on the idea of publishing Karma or even being a novelist. I said to John, I’m not a novelist and never will be. I’ll just stick with writing health books.” Meanwhile interest for my Karma manuscript would crop up from time to time and I would print it out and send it out and get excited but nothing would come of it.
Then I wrote Death by Supermarket. It’s extremely dense with research and took me three years. My life changed then. We sold our ranch in California where I had been isolated to the point of going a little crazy. We moved to Boston and I went through the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. I think one thing that is true about me is that I don’t have “friends” per se, I like interesting people and I hang with people who fascinate me and stir me on a deep level. I met my Buddhist teacher in Boston a man who has been studying Buddhism for decades, and my piano teacher who was only 20 when I met him. Both of them contributed to my creative awakening after being wrenched from California.
I was fed up then with writing health books. I decided to open up Karma. I took a look at it and shuddered. My writing was immature and there were so many things wrong with the manuscript. I started rewriting it and it flew off the pages.
My agent at the time was enthralled and began sending it around. He got comments from major publishers like, “We don’t read books on sex trafficking.” Now, you have to understand that I am very close to this subject. I’ve read a lot of non-fiction books about sex trafficking. I also never forgot the Library of Congress epiphany, you know, that this subject just represents what women have suffered since the beginning of time. They are trampled on, then scorned. It really infuriated me on their behalf. So I decided to self-publish.
Publishing is changing so much. Peter Vegso was the first maverick, but now writers like me are taking matters into their own hands. I love that I designed my book cover and interior, and have controlled every aspect of the web design, blog, and so forth. So it’s been a very positive experience.
When I look back I know that my writing wasn’t mature enough in my first drafts of Karma. I had to go through everything I went through, both in my personal life and my career to prepare me to rewrite Karma as it is today.
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.
Of course I think my writing is sophomoric or boring a lot. What writer doesn’t doubt themselves? I have never believed in writer’s block though. You can write something, it just won’t be very good and might even be embarrassing nonsense. But generally if you sit and write something there’s a germ in there that you can use later.
I don’t believe that writers have to write every single day. I read an article about Nora Roberts in the New Yorker who writes every day for 8 hours and has written 200 books. That’s great for her. But not all of us can be Nora Roberts.
I love organization and I couldn’t let my life get unorganized or I couldn’t concentrate. On the other hand, I refuse to let people trample into my time. When I wrote the first draft of Karma I had a Post-It on my office door with a scribbled “Do not disturb for any reason.” It was incredible how powerful that Post-It was. It kept people out.
Right now I haven’t written other than business and blogs in three months. It’s taxing and stressful but I know it will end and I’ll figure out how to manage the business and write too. It’s all a learning experience.
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?
It’s hard to say because it was all a learning experience and how does a writer grow and mature without trying?
I kept rejection letters in my files for years and would read them from time to time. When we left California and I was paring down, I thought, who needs this negativity? I think one thing I did wrong and will never do again is give away free books. I have sent out literally hundreds of free books thinking that people would read them and tell their friends. It was a waste. It’s better to focus time and attention on building up a base of readers.
What is your favorite source for finding story ideas?
My own life and experiences are by far the most valuable. I love to read, books, magazines, newspapers. But you can only learn stylistic techniques from reading. The real stories are what real people and you are going through.
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.
I’ve sat down with heroin addicts, car mechanics, detectives, ER docs, Hindu nuns, art gallery owners, and criminals. If I can go to the source, I do. Otherwise I use Google. My friends are used to getting emails from me like, “My character has to harvest organs out of a girl who just OD’d on heroin. They’re in a dingy old apartment building in Istanbul with very few surgical supplies. When can I call you and get the blow by blow? Love, N”
With the clarity of experience what advice would you offer up to the wet-behind-the-ears you if beginning this writing journey today?
For goodness sake be patient and enjoy the ride. The beginning of the journey is so luxurious because all you’re doing is writing and giggling (or sobbing) to yourself. Later, when your books get published you can’t write as much anymore. It’s much more business and PR.
Love what you do and don’t complain. I can’t tell you how many doctors, lawyers, judges, and other people with lofty professional titles have said to me, “I would love to write a book someday.” So if you have the opportunity, revel in the actual writing and worry about the publishing when you’ve got something to publish.
What event/person has most changed you as a writer? How?
My friend who told me to write uninhibitedly.
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.)
Death by Supermarket because it’s a very well researched exposé on the food, diet and drug industries that is helping people lead better lives and Karma because I accomplished what I set out to do, which is to write a pager turning novel.
Do you have a pet peeve having to do with this biz?
Oh yes, indeed. I find it appalling that books by “celebrities” get six figure advances that for the most part are not well written, not written by the actual person, and are contributing factors to the downfall of our collective intellect. I am also dismayed at the continuing “lose fat” books that come out every year with absolutely terrible, damaging nutritional advice. A few years ago there was a runaway best selling health book. I knew the editor at the publishing company who shared with me confidentially that the premise was nonsense, but that it played out well on paper. I wish I could tell you the book but I can’t!
My second pet peeve is the silliness about celebrity in general. Celebrities have gained such elevated status in our society that what they say is gold. A friend of mine who was one of the top publicists for 25 years told me, “You can’t launch a book or product anymore without a celebrity endorsement. The morning TV shows won’t even talk to you unless you have a celebrity attached to your project. It doesn’t even have to be an actual star. It can be as insignificant as some celebrity’s hairdresser or ex‑personal assistant. But it has to be someone who the public perceives as having celebrity status. If you’ve got a celebrity, you can sell anything to the public.” I find that more than a little distressing.
Share a dream or something you’d love to accomplish through your writing career.
I’m a writer and so I’m going to explore all kinds of subjects in the rest of my career. Right now I would really love to see a higher consciousness evolve over the scourge of sex trafficking in the world. We can’t really just sit around in our luxuries while 2.5 million women and children are being raped and forced into prostitution. It would be such an honor to know that Karma raised awareness about this subject.
What gives you the greatest writer buzz, makes the trip worth the hassles (besides coffee or other substances, or course )?
I’m human. I love praise. I love comments on my Death by Supermarket site or Amazon when people say the book changed their life. It made the 3 years of research and writing worth it.
I love praise about Karma, which seems pretty consistent. It’s a major rush to hear people gush.
What is one of the more unique or strange life experiences that has really given you an extra oomph in your writing?
For me there is no oomph. The first draft is the worst experience for me. I would rather work at a car wash. I generally feel a sense not unlike sodium pentothal falling over me as I sit down to write. I feel drowsy, very very drowsy. All I can do is tell myself that it will pass as soon as I finish the first draft. To keep myself going through that draft I remind myself how fun the next drafts will be. Once I get that first draft down, the rest is all entertainment.
Describe your special or favorite writing spot or send a picture if you’d like.
I would have to send you a photo of me in bed with no makeup on so I won’t do that any time soon. I channel Edith Wharton (without the brilliance) who loved to work in bed and tossed down manuscript pages onto the bedroom floor for her secretary to rewrite. I work primarily in bed, in the TV room on the sofa with the fire going if it’s winter, and in the kitchen. In the summer or on vacation I like to take my laptop to the pool. I virtually never write creatively at my desk. That venue is for paying bills.
What aspect of writing was the most difficult for you to grasp/conquer? How did you overcome it?
My own voice. It was only when I decided to follow my friend’s advice to write uninhibitedly and authentically that I began to blossom as a fiction writer. You have to be true to yourself and write what’s coming out of you.
What is the first thing you do when you begin a new book?
I buy and read a lot of books that are somehow related to my subject or the tenor of the book I want to write.
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?
When my plate is clear to write I write the majority of the day. As I said, in bed, in the TV room, in the kitchen or at a hotel pool. I like to be comfy.
Plot, seat of pants or combination?
I don’t write outlines because I never follow them and so I’ve found it’s a waste of time. I generally start writing Chapter One then I go to Chapter Two. If I’m lucky when I’m out exercising I’ll figure out the end, which is imperative to the story. Then I’ll write that and go back and start up where I left off, say on Chapter Three. When I’m done with the entire manuscript, I print it out. I find a time when I will not be disturbed because I need to read from beginning to end without interruption. Then I read it. I use my notes to begin the retyping process. I keep repeating the read, making margin notes, and retyping until I’m satisfied. Then I send the manuscript out to whatever editor I’m working with and I clean out closets and play the piano till I get the manuscript back. Sometimes a manuscript will go out to an editor and I’ll pick up another work and won’t get back to that work for another year. I don’t let stuff like that bother me.
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?
I tend to put in way too much description. I’m visual and so I see visuals and put it all in. I have to strip all of that out. I tend to get too dark and so I have to watch that too.
Does anyone write great first drafts? Joyce Carol Oates says it’s all about the rewrite. I agree. I cringe to think that I’ll die and someone will purge my laptop of all the first drafts that linger there. They are embarrassingly insipid. I just read recently that Vladimir Nabokov’s wife is allowing his last unfinished manuscript to be published even though he explicitly told her not to publish it if he died. My sympathies are with him. On the other hand, he has no idea. If his first draft was anything like my first draft then he would definitely be rising from the dead to prevent the manuscript from being published.
Have you received a particularly memorable reader response or peer honor? Please share.
I haven’t begun to circulate Karma to a greater audience, but I did get three stellar reviews from published authors that were extremely complimentary. The actress Elizabeth Perkins raved about Karma (in a text message to me). All that made me feel, well I’m arriving after 19 years. So that was good. The “You changed my life” comments I get about Death by Supermarket are pretty warm and fuzzy too.
Have you discovered any successful marketing/promo ideas that you’d share with us?
All I can say is that it is relentless. Anymore you have to do it all, the branding of yourself, which includes the website, the author photo, blog, twitter, facebook, public appearances. It’s very demanding and I can’t say that I’m an authority on marketing. I’m a writer who is trying to be a marketer. My best advice to writers would be to produce a good work and then take it from there.
Parting words? Anything you wish we would’ve asked because you’ve got the perfect answer?
I spent the New Years at a nine-day, silent Buddhist meditation retreat. I decided that I would spend the time not being self critical. I approached this task as a laboratory experiment. Where in the world would a person feel the liberty to not be self critical but a cloistered silent retreat? I followed through rather successfully. I heard the negativity but dismissed it or just observed and thought, wow, that was caustic, or no need for that. I found it exhilarating and liberating. We’re encouraged by the world we live in to be self critical. Writers can be extremely self critical because our work compels us to be introspective. The media bombards us with the mega success of others who are more talented, more beautiful, more athletic, more prolific, more spiritual, more disciplined, and on and on. Self criticism kills creativity. So I would invite your readers to take a break from self criticism for just one day and see what that does to the creative process. They might find it addicting . . . . and creative.