How does a career novelist make ends meet and navigate her way through a mid-career slump? Today I can’t even tell you how excited I am to share this interview with Tammy Greenwood, author of nine novels. If you are a writer — especially if you are a novelist — I beg you to listen to this podcast. Tammy takes us behind the scenes of her writing career, and provides an unfiltered view of the reality of what it means to write every day, and publish nine books.
- Behind the scenes of ‘living the dream’ as an author.
- How she moved past a mid-career slump, when no publisher wanted two back-to-back novels that she wrote.
- How she earns a living, and details of her revenue streams.
- How she has developed close relationships with other writers, who have served as colleagues throughout her career.
- How she balances being an extrovert and enjoying time alone.
- How she manages her days, and how she fits in writing every day.
- Balancing big goals with the everyday reality of hard work.
- The phases of her creative process in writing a book.
- The importance of viewing the writing profession as a lifestyle.
Here are some excerpts from our chat:
The Reality of “Living the Dream”
I read an interview with Tammy where the interviewer wrote that Tammy is ‘living the dream.’ I asked Tammy what she believes that dream is for many writers.
“I have been publishing for about 16 years, my first novel came out in 1999. I publish regularly, I have nine novels published. In a lot of people’s eyes, that is it. That is what you want; you want to be publishing your work. You want an audience, a readership. So in that regard, I am very much living the dream. I have exactly what I want and what I have dreamed of, in terms of my books being in bookstores, getting emails from readers, and having an audience.”
“I always joke about how glamorous my life is. I think a lot of people have misconceptions about what it means to be a working artist. They have a very glamorous idea of what my life must be like (she laughs).That is not actually the case.”
The Book That No One Wanted…
“The first book was the most exciting — you only get one of those. You feel like you break through something when that happens. I had been writing for a long, long time. I’d been to two different graduate programs, I had written two novels, and one of them had gotten me an agent, but wasn’t published. By the time I had a book accepted for publication, that felt pretty amazing. I thought that was going to be the beginning of fame and fortune as well (she laughs), but it wasn’t. It was the beginning of a career, which was pretty exciting. I published three novels pretty much back to back in my early thirties. Then I had my first and second daughters. I was writing the whole time, but there was a big gap between my third book and my fourth book, partly because I left my publisher, and I left my agent, and because I had little kids.”
“My fourth book’s publication for me was huge, that was a real big deal for me, because I kind of thought my career might be over at that point. It was seven years between my third and fourth books. Other than that, the highlights are usually small. It’s getting a kind email from someone who said the book meant a lot to them. Getting to be around other writers that you admire and respect. Just last week I was at the Tucson Festival of Books, and there is something energizing about being in the realm of Joyce Carol Oates, who was in the room. But of course, I was too afraid to talk to her. Little small things like that are actually what I love most about being in this position.”
When I asked about the process of getting from the third to fourth book, she explained:
“It was terrifying, it was a crisis. For me, this is all I had ever done or wanted. You get a little taste of something, and then it felt like it was no longer accessible. The good thing is that I did get an NEA grant around 2004, which validated me in terms of thinking ‘okay, I’m good enough to get this NEA grant,’ and it also bought me time.”
It’s worth noting that these are feelings Tammy experienced after successfully publishing three novels!
“My kids were really little, I was working, then we moved. My husband said, “Okay, this is the year you need to finish this book. But then I got a new agent, and I couldn’t get it published. So there was a year after getting a new agent, and having this complete book that I was really proud of, but [my agent] wasn’t able to sell it. The book was universally rejected. It felt like it was really over now, because this is what I feel was my best work to date, and we weren’t able to publish it.”
“I documented this horrible time in my blog. [go back to 2005/2006 on Tammy’s blog here.] It was serendipity that I found my editor — now my current editor – who was reading my blog, and he had just gotten a job at Kensington, and he said, ‘Why don’t you send it to me?’ He ended up making an offer, and I have been with Kensington since then. Amazingly, that book has ended up being the best-selling of all of my books, which is funny because nobody wanted it, nobody would touch it. I think it was primarily because sales for my first three books were so abysmal, [even though] hey were critically lauded.”
“My old agent said somewhere, ‘Having a bad sales record as an author is like having bad credit; it’s almost easier to have no credit than bad credit.’ That is why for debut novelists, someone will take a chance on them, but someone who has written three novels, may have even been reviewed well, but it’s a big risk for them. So I’m really grateful, I got lucky.”
“It also shows that putting yourself out there like that opens doors sometimes.”
“I look back at that time, and I think it was darker than I even knew. I was lucky that I had these two beautiful daughters, and my life was very busy and full — I was distracted. I was writing the whole time. I think I wrote a book before the fourth book that my previous agent [rejected]. This was a book that I wrote while pregnant with my second daughter that never got published. I have always been that person who has perseverance and is hopeful. I’ve never stopped writing, I always do the work. Since I was in college, I have been writing steadily.”
The Messiness of the Process
This moment is astounding to me. She had published three books that were well reviewed, but had poor sales. She wrote a fourth book that was rejected by her agent. She stopped working with her agent and her publisher. She wrote a FIFTH book that was rejected by every publisher. And this whole time, she blogged about that process – and there is no other way to say this – that sense of failure. Why would she share this so openly?
“I started blogging when we moved in 2005. It was kind of new then. My audience was so small, I didn’t even have a way to check. I was just throwing words out to the universe. I don’t even think people were commenting. It was an exercise in diary writing that I knew was public. I still don’t think I have that many followers on the blog. It was a way to process what was happening.”
“I’m always interested in that with writers and other artists – fascinating to know about their process. How you do it. Not just the writing process, but the emotional process. It was a lot about making parenting and writing work at the same time.”
“There is so much more than the physical act of writing. The conception of an idea, the evolution of the idea to make sure it is something you want to dedicate yourself to. Then there are the false starts and all of those things that people don’ necessarily think about. They think, ‘I have an idea, I’m going to sit down, I’m going to outline it, I’m going to write it, I’m going to sell it, and that’s going to be how it goes.’ But it’s just not like that. It’s much messier than that.”
Earning a Living as a Writer
I asked her about her revenue streams:
“It fluctuates. And that’s the crazy thing – it goes up and down. Right now, I have a contract. A 2-3 book contract, so it’s predictable in terms of dates I will get big checks. There have been royalties that I know when they will come. Early on, there was none of that. That is why I have always had a backup, something more predictable. I teach, which provides income. I teach for San Diego Writer’s Ink, I run three reading critique groups, and we meet weekly, and then I teach online for The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland, and then one community college class. I read unpublished work all day, every day.”
This is another point that I found astounding. Up until this moment in the interview, you see Tammy as a career author, working through the ups and downs of writing and publishing, all while raising two kids. But now, not only do we introduce a teaching career into the mix, but she has three different employers just for teaching. Two writing centers and a community college. Consider, just for a moment, how complicated that is to manage. Then of course, there is the fact that teaching is an inherently social job where she is managing lots of students, doing public speaking, and responsible for critiques, etc.
But there’s more… she does freelance editing as well:
“I do developmental editing for novelists. I don’t work any more hours than the average person, it’s just that I have like 10 jobs! I have to parcel my time out so that I can hit everything I am supposed to be doing.”
From a revenue standpoint, she has three different income streams.
“I have control over it, which is the beautiful thing. We go away for a month every summer. When we started doing that 13 years ago, I said this is important to me, and I’m going to make my work revolve around that. I somehow managed to do that.”
Managing fluctuation: “It’s nice that one of us [her husband] has a more manageable and stable job. There is predictability in at least half of our lives. It would be really hard if – two freelancing people – that’s SCARY.”
“I would love to have benefits, but the sacrifice I would have to make to have that… isn’t really worth it to me. I really love the life I have made for myself, and I wouldn’t trade that for more economic stability.”
On Writing Every Day
“I’ll write 100,000 words in November and December. I just compress things into smaller spaces. I am always practicing writing — every single day. If I don’t do it right away, it won’t get done. I think about what I am writing all the time. Just the actual physical typing time happens in the mornings. Having all of these jobs has taught me how to plan.”
The Profession of Writing as a Lifestyle
For writers considering this as a profession: “You have to be aware that this is not a lifestyle that comes easily. You have to look at it as a writing life, not just individual projects. Are you prepared for that? Is the payoff of doing something creative worth all of that risk? If it isn’t, maybe it is not what you should be trying to make a career of. It’s hard to make art what you do for a living. You have to look at the big picture and figure out if this is the type of life you want to live. When a student comes up to me a ta career fair and asks, ‘can I make a living at this,’ I answer, ‘Well, that depends on how you define what a living is.’”
Thank you to Tammy for making the time to meet with me. You can find her online at:
For more interviews and behind-the-scenes stuff on my book Dabblers vs. Doers, click here.