Friday, June 13, 2014
Interview: Author Em Barrett Takes a Self-Publishing Chance
Celebrity Extra: Your books take place in Michigan — did you grow up there and/or used to live there?
Em Barrett: Yes, I did grow up in the suburbs of Detroit, and I spent a lot of time in the summer up in northern Michigan (where the fictional Green Island is). Not anywhere as swanky as Green Island, or even close, but I really love it up there. I was always a big reader and liked writing, but fiction writing wasn’t something I got into until more recently. I went to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor for undergrad. I was an English major there, and I loved that, and I loved books, and I loved writing papers. But rather than trying to pursue that, I took a more carved-out path and decided to go to law school. I went to the University of Michigan for that as well.
Then I moved to Chicago and worked as a corporate lawyer at a big law firm there for six years. Overall, I pretty much hated it, like a lot of people do. That was when I started writing “Leaving Green Island.” It was kind of my fun side project, and a way to vent some of my frustrations with law-firm politics and life. And also just a means for expressing some of my thoughts on the world generally while creating this other fictional world. It ended up being so much fun that I was hooked after that.
CE: Based on what you just told me, then you did draw from your own life to write these books?
EM: Yes. For the settings and jobs and relationships, I draw a lot from my own life — mainly because I feel like that makes it come through in a more honest way. It makes the characters feel more real, but it also makes it easier for me to write stories that come across as genuine when I actually know what I’m talking about.
CE: Are your characters based on real-life people, or just some aspects of their personalities?
EM: Everyone’s always trying to figure out who is who in real life but, no, they are fictional. I actually feel like with each of the three girls, I put different parts of myself into them. I relate to each of them in different aspects of their personalities. I definitely draw from my dynamics with my close friends and my roommates from the days when I used to live with a lot of my girlfriends in college. I’ve stayed close with them, so it gives me a lot to draw from. But the conversations aren’t real and the characters don’t reflect three specific people who are actually in my life.
CE: When you wrote “Leaving Green Island,” did you have a sequel in mind, or did that just sort of happen?
EM: There was a big break in between writing the two books, and I definitely did not have it in my mind that I was going to write a sequel when I wrote “Leaving Green Island.” I just wrote “Leaving Green Island” kind of as a fun project and thought, “I’ll see what happens with it.” I was self-conscious about the whole thing at first, so I started off just having a few good friends read it, and eventually I let my parents and other friends read it and so on. For a little while, I tried to find a literary agent and see if I could potentially get it published with a major publishing house.
I was working a lot at my law firm back then, and I was also pregnant, and then I had my first child, so I was just so busy that it felt like I couldn’t keep sending out these letters to agents, feeling that they were just being thrown in the trash. So I stopped writing, put the book away, and didn’t think about it for a while. Around that time I started seeing different articles pop up about self-publishing, and how it was making waves, and self-published writers were having a lot of success. There were all of these new opportunities to market self-published books through Goodreads and Amazon and whatnot. So, my husband really encouraged me to try that.
My first instinct was, “No, no, no. I just wouldn’t feel confident doing that.” I was really wary of the idea, but, after having friends give positive feedback on the book, I decided to get some more objective opinions and then decide. I had a couple of friends give it to their book clubs, along with a feedback sheet and say, “This is my friend’s book. She really wants brutally honest feedback. She doesn’t want to publish it and have everyone write horrible reviews. Be honest about what you think.” The response was really positive. That gave me the little boost of confidence that I needed to decide, “What the heck? I’ll try it.”
I self-published “LGI” in summer 2012, and I tried to learn how exactly to market a self-published book. I was figuring it out as I went. It was really fun to do. It was my own project where I could control everything. When I started to get a few fans, a lot of people said they wanted a second book, that they wanted to know what happened next. And they were interested in other characters. So I thought about it for a while, debating if a book about Nevada or Lizzy or even some more-minor character would be best. The story for “The Almosts” came to me over time. I was also in a new stage of my life with a baby then, so that gave me a lot of new experiences to draw from. I tried to incorporate those into the book and hoped they would resonate with other women.
CE: So, are we gonna get a third book written from Nevada’s perspective? I, for one, would love that! She’s a great character.
EM: Thank you! I’m toying with it. So far I have hesitated for two reasons: One is in trying to market “The Almosts” and get the word out to people, it’s a lot harder when you’re trying to market a series. While you can read it as a stand-alone book, I think it provides a lot of background about the characters and their relationships, and the nuances of what’s gone on between them if you have read “Leaving Green Island” first. It’s hard to market a book and say, “Buy my new book. Oh, but buy my old book first.”
I’m worried if I get into a third one where I’m saying, “I have this book but you should read these other two first,” it might be really hard to get the word out. And my other holdup is that I feel that Nevada is kind of a mystery. She’s really loyal and always there for her friends when they really need her, but she also can be a little bit prickly, and I think of her as having this complicated childhood and past. And so I don’t know if she’s better off left a mystery or whether it’s better to unveil everything that’s going on in there. So, I don’t know. We’ll see.
CE: How do you feel about some critics comparing you to Emily Giffin?
EB: I was very excited when I read that. Obviously, I take it as a huge compliment. I like her books a lot, and she’s been hugely successful. While I hope my voice is unique as well, I’m beyond flattered to be compared to Emily Giffin.
CE: You moved back to Michigan from Chicago recently, yes?
EB: Yes, we moved back here in the summer of 2013. At that time, I left my law firm job with the hope of pursuing writing full time, as well as spending a lot of time with my daughter. And I’m expecting another baby as well.
CE: Congratulations! You might have your hands too full for writing pretty soon!
EB: Thanks! And yeah, things are busy but I really am trying to buckle down with my writing to see if I can really make it or not. I feel like this is a good time to try to do it. Hopefully you’ll be hearing a lot more from me soon. That’s the plan for now. We’ll see what happens.