memoir

How did you write that, Debbie Clarke Moderow?

Fast Into the NightFast Into the Night:  A Woman, Her Dogs, and Their Journey North on the Iditarod Trail is the exciting story of Debbie Clarke Moderow‘s participation in the famous Iditarod dogsled race. How did she manage to take care of her dogs, follow the trail, and endure extreme weather conditions, and also write a gripping memoir of her experience? Here are her answers:

HDYWT: How did you come up with the idea for FAST INTO THE NIGHT?

Debbie: Soon after adopting our family’s first sled dog, Salt, I knew that he and I shared a fascinating and remarkable bond. Even in our earliest days with a handful of sled dogs, I wanted to write about sharing the trail with them. Of course, running Iditarod represented the ultimate opportunity to collaborate with our huskies. In the end, I wrote Fast Into the Night to honor those dogs and what I have learned in their company.

DebbieModerow-7965HDYWT: How did you begin work on this project?

Debbie: Initially I thought I would keep notes on the Iditarod Trail. That proved to be impossible, given the sleep deprivation and rugged terrain. Immediately after returning home from both of my Iditarods, I wrote notes chronicling the adventure checkpoint by checkpoint. These free-writing pages documented logistical and sequential details, as well as the emotional threads of our journey. Those pages were the very first of this project.  

HDYWT: How do you organize your research?

Debbie: I gathered as many resources as possible to document the facts: Iditarod checkpoint logs, my own notes, vet books that keep tracking dog details along the trail, and photos. I also referred to trail notes of other mushers that describe the topography of the Iditarod Trail. For the flashbacks of my non-mushing life, I referred to journals, photos, and those murky and often distant memories.

Also, two years after finishing Iditarod, I returned to the Iditarod Trail as a member of the 2007 Serum Run Expedition. To mush through much of the same territory, in daylight and while not sleep deprived, gave me a wonderful opportunity to recall and check topographical facts. On that trip I managed to take notes along the way and re-live my original journeys along the trail.

HDYWT: What does a typical day of research/writing/promotion look like?

Debbie: Due to the launch of Fast Into the Night, I’m currently doing more promotional work and blogging than new research or creative writing. Still I attempt to write something new, albeit brief, every day. I’m working on several different projects that require the mining of memories and cultivation of fresh ideas. After all, that’s what inspires me to write: the ongoing creative process of discovery.

HDYWT: What are your favorite tools in your writer’s toolbox?

Debbie: I suppose it’s no coincidence that my favorite “tools” are among my most treasured experiences: Dogs and trails. They offer me great inspiration, both on and off the page. Whether traveling a thousand miles across the state of Alaska, or simply walking my lead dog Cheddar in our downtown Anchorage neighborhood, interactions outdoors with other species inspire my writing and ever-surprising instances of self discovery.

Bonus question: How did you decide on the narrative structure of your memoir?

Debbie: To come up with the narrative structure of my memoir was a long and laborious process. Early drafts of Fast Into the Night began in a variety of “places.” I wrote the narrative in different tenses before deciding on the final form.

Ultimately I had to significantly narrow down the particular story I wanted to tell. I wrote many chapters that did not, in the end, make it into this memoir. But, like all the miles of training needed to be able to compete in the Iditarod, those chapters and drafts enhanced the final miles toward publication.

How did you write that, Ethan Gilsdorf?

EthanGilsdorf_DD_stufff_Mags_LR-e1422901846523Looking over Ethan Gilsdorf‘s list of credits, it’s clear the man has never met a genre of nonfiction he could not master. He’s a frequent instructor at Boston’s GrubStreet and has published hundreds of articles, but today he’ll be answering a few questions about his book Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks.

In this interview, you’ll learn:

  • How newspaper and magazine articles can launch a book.
  • The value of first-hand reporting.
  • Tips for promoting your work.

HDYWT: How did you come up with the idea for Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks?

fantasy-199x300Ethan: My original idea was to write a memoir about my relationship with my mother, and her life. She had succumbed to a debilitating brain injury when I was 12 and she was 38—the same year I began to play Dungeons & Dragons and get sucked into fantasy worlds. That book never happened, but I began to see way I could explore my fascination with fantasy and gaming through the lens of my own life, as well as the cultural changes that had occurred since I was a nerd back in the 1970s and 1980s. My agent helped me shape the idea as a hybrid memoir, stunt journalism narrative, and pop cultural investigation into various subcultures, such as D&D players, Larpers and video gamers, to Harry Potter, cosplay and Lord of the Rings fan communities. How and why had fantasy and gaming gone so mainstream? What did it all mean? Those were my guiding ideas as I delved into researching and writing Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks. In the end, I was able to save one of the chapters from my “mom memoir” project which, seriously revised, became the prologue to FF&GG.

HDYWT: How did you begin work on this project?

Ethan: In a panic. Seriously, I wish I’d had more of a method to my madness. But here is what happened. To write FF&GGI first began getting assignments from magazines and newspapers for stand-alone articles; a few of these later became chapters in the book. Once I had a book contract in hand and a small advance, I spent a year doing (simultaneously!) book/internet research, field work/interviews, and immersion journalism projects, as well as investigating my own past, which involved talking to family/old friends and analyzing my own personal archives of high school papers, photos, and old D&D paraphernalia.

I wanted each chapter to focus on a different subculture, so I picked a couple dozen ideas: exemplary events to attend, people to shadow and interview, and activities I could participate in — like dressing up in costume and camping with 12,000 medieval reenactors, for example; or spending a few weeks playing the video game World of Warcraft; or hanging out with Tolkien nerds at a convention in the UK for a weekend.

That said, I tried to — and for space reasons, had to — narrow the focus of my investigation to fantasy and gaming only. That meant skipping things like science fiction (my beloved Star Wars!), or superhero comics, and other nerd cultures. I was also limited by budget, which impacted where I could travel. I went on several trips across the nation, one to the UK and to France. I also decide to splurge on a trip to New Zealand to make a pilgrimage to the Lord of the Rings filming locations and Peter Jackson’s movie production facilities. Sadly, I had to ignore a LOT of ideas and leads, and even after my trips and experiences, and hundreds of pages of notes, much great material ended up on cutting room floor.

HDYWT: How do you organize your research?

Ethan: Badly! I am terribly disorganized. I make lists, and jot down notes, and keep many Word docs laden with ideas, links, other stories. I buy books, I go to the library, and I look on Google a lot. I have lots of things scribbled on post-it notes. At times, it can all feel pretty overwhelming. And I definitely think you can research too much. It can get in the way of your own thinking and your own ideas.

I think I do my best research first-hand, with notebook in hand, and camera around my neck (or in my pocket), in the field, taking notes as I’m talking to people, and recording my observation and ideas. I do this while I’m engaged in some experience, such as mountain biking, or trying to sword fight, or wandering around talking to people at a convention. I learned this skill as a travel writer based in Paris for five years. There is no substitute for first-hand reportage.

HDYWT: What does a typical day of research/writing/promotion look like?

Ethan: A research day is different from a writing day is different from book promotion day.

A research day usually has me out in the field somewhere, interviewing someone in person (where possible) or talking to them on the phone, or doing some archival work or Googling around the internet. This is a fun process as I get sucked down multiple rabbit holes.

A writing day, especially when I’m on deadline, is more fraught with stress. As a freelance journalist, usually I am trying to knock out some story or column (or at least the first draft of it) in a good solid 4 to 6 hour stretch (in between being seduced by social media). When I wrote Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks, I was able to scale back my freelance work and focus more on my book writing. But I had less than a year from signing the contract to my deadline to do all my research and writing, so I had to become more disciplined than I’d ever been as a writer. I thumb-tacked a calendar to the wall in my office, made firm dates for the trips and travel that was needed for about 9 months of researching. I had to crank out 1 to 2 chapter a month, in and around all the travel. I gave myself deadlines, and tried to stick with my plan. And I did, more or less.

Book promotion is a different muscle. I slip into self-promotion mode. Back when Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks was a new book, a book promotion day might have involved contacting organizers of reading series, college professors, bookstores, potential reviewers, groups that might co-sponsor some promotion or event, or trying to write an op-ed and place it with a media outlet. Or I might have been giving a talk at a college or book fair, doing a radio show, or attending a convention and handing out postcards. I tried all kinds of things. I was a tireless self-promoter! Some of my tips can be found in a chapter I contributed to Chuck Sambuchino’s excellent book Create Your Writer Platform: The Key to Building an Audience, Selling More Books, and Finding Success as an Author.

HDYWT: What are your favorite tools in your writer’s toolbox? 

Ethan: I’m a fan of several books, including Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer by Roy Peter Clark, a terrific book for those looking for big-picture and micro-level writing issues, and for memoir writers, Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief and Loss by Jessica Handler, and The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again by Sven Birkerts which are both great help for those thinking about writing short or long-length memoir.

On a more practical level, if you’re easily distracted by the internet, I recommend installing these apps on your computer: Freedom and Antisocial are software to block access to the internet or social media only for discreet periods time, so you can increase your own productivity.

Bonus question: Dungeons & Dragons recently turned 40 (How is that possible?). Were you able to use that occasion to generate new publicity for your book?

Ethan: Short answer: yes! Anniversaries are great ways to make your expertise or niche area instantly timely and newsworthy. I wrote probably 10 different stories, op-eds, commentaries, posts and personal essays in 2014 that tied into the 40th anniversary of D&D. Each of these ended with my bio: “Ethan Gilsdorf is the author of Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms and a frequent contributor to The New York Times, Boston GlobeBoston Globe MagazineBoston Magazine, Salon, BoingBoing, … etc. You can read more about Ethan at ethangilsdorf.com or Twitter @ethanfreak.Contact him at www.ethangilsdorf.com or follow him on Twitter @ethanfreak.” Get your book title and your website and Twitter handle into your boilerplate bio. Which is  what I am doing here. Mwwhahahha!

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How did you write that, Caitlin Doughty?

caitlin.doughty-300x199This was the summer of Smoke Gets In Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory. Everywhere I went, people were talking about this book. “It’s about death, and the funeral industry, but it’s kind of a memoir, but it has a lot of good information in it…” Okay, you had me at “death,” but the hype was sound. In her first book, mortician Caitlin Doughty blends memoir, straight nonfiction, and a dollop of shock (a big dollop) and transcends it all in a morally persuasive call for greater dignity and rationality in how we treat the dead. How did she do it?

HDYWT: How did you come up with the idea for Smoke Gets In Your Eyes?

doughtyCaitlin: I never thought of myself as a writer. Big reader yes, but not a writer. But when I started working at the crematory seven years ago, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, the people I was meeting, the dead bodies I was coming across. “People need to hear about this!” I thought. I guess the way I rationalized writing a memoir in my 20s was that it wasn’t so much my life I was sharing, as it was the story of what was happening at the crematory and behind the scenes in the funeral industry.

HDYWT: How did you begin work on this project?

Caitlin: It started as a private blog, with all of 11 readers. This allowed me to have a very honest record from the time period. Some of those stories ended up in the book virtually unchanged.

HDYWT: How do you organize your research?

Caitlin: Oh geez, so poorly. Many notebooks, many Google docs, many notes in margins of research material. I have no good answer for this. This is the least inspirational answer ever.

HDYWT: What does a typical day of research/writing/promotion look like?

Caitlin: Much of the first half of my day is meetings, emails, and all the bureaucratic steps for opening a funeral home. With a dash of social media thrown in. I really have to make time to research in the evening, when people need less from me. Writing happens best when I’m able to devote myself to it fully, so I usually try to go somewhere I can shut out the world.

HDYWT: What are your favorite tools in your writer’s toolbox?

Caitlin: I’m lucky that I live in Los Angeles, so really any book I could ever want is available in the public library system. They’re even delivered right to my local branch! I consider another great resource to be the people I work with. The death academics, the crematory operators, the embalmers who are experts in their areas. It allows me to say, “Hey, I need to know about exactly how long this kind of decomposition would take,” and someone will have an answer.

Bonus question: Will you continue writing books, either memoir or in other genres?

Caitlin: A few months ago I would have said no. But then my brain filled up its coffers with new ideas and experiences. I hate how the brain does that.

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