Wednesday, March 2, 2016

The totally fabulous Julie Klam talks about writing, giving advice, the road to publishing, and why no one knows what really sells books

 Can you ever get enough Julie Klam? No, of course you can't, and that's why I'm including this great interview that Julie offered me. Julie is not only the author of the fabulous books above, she's an advice columnist at Dame, a book critic, dog lover and hilariously funny.

You graduated from New York University in 1988 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in film, cinema and fine arts. In 2001, you began working as a freelance writer, landing articles in such publications as O, The Oprah Magazine, Rolling Stone, Harper’s bazaar, Glamour and The New York Times Magazine. How do new writers get their work published in a national magazine? What is the basic process and what are some important “must-dos” to be successful? 

Things have changed so much… sooooooo much since 1988. For example, when I pitched a magazine, I would go to my fire pit and send the smoke signal ‘Johnny Depp profile’ and if the editor liked it, I would get paid two wooly mammoth skins a word. Ha ha I joke. But it was all mail and follow up phone calls, oh yeah and there were actual magazines to pitch to, a lot of them. That’s what people looked at when they were bored. Now we are never bored because we have our phones!
But you want advice. Well, it’s about a gazillion times harder to get an assignment because more writers and less places to write. That said, I think if someone wants to write something, you have pitch it well to an editor and if they say no, see if you can get an idea what they’re looking for. Or build a time machine.

 In addition to freelancing, from 1999 to 2002, you worked as a writer for VH1’s television show, Pop-Up Videos, earning an Emmy nomination for “Outstanding Special Class Writing”. What kind of abilities and talents must a writer possess to qualify for this type of wor

Interestingly for Pop-Up, it was to be able to write short and tight – kind of pre-dated the tweet and status update. It was hard though because you were telling a story, but there were a lot of punch lines in there, too. Writers needed to be taught to do pops, the producers, including my extraordinarily talented ex-husband, really figured out the best way to make the show work. I was there in around the 7th season and by then it was a well-oiled machine. Which brings about a good point, when you are hired to write for a tv show or magazine that has a voice, it’s your job to deliver in that voice and not try and be a big pain in the ass and make it your own. I mean make it great, but realize you are working for a company, you are not an artiste!

From the period of 2002 to 2003, you took a major detour and authored and co-authored a series of five World War II history books, which were published by Smart Apple Media. As background, Smart Apple Media is a distributor and publisher of children's books for schools and public libraries from K-12. Since our research doesn’t indicate you were ever a World War II buff, how did this opportunity arise and what convinced Smart Apple Media you were perfect for this assignment? Of course, we also are curious, how in the world were you able to produce five books in such a short time period?

Six books!  Five would’ve been easy! It actually came from a book packager called Byron Preiss. (Book packagers find writers to write books on a topic sometimes for a company. Like I did one for Comedy Central with them.) Anyway, the editor a lovely woman named Dinah Dunn who very coincidentally was the sister of my best friend, Jancee, approached me to write these. She chose me because I was broke and had time on my hands and they needed six 6000 word books in six weeks.  I was able to do it because I had to. But I did try at about week two to get pretend I was dead which I’ve actually done many times since then to get out of work.  But they knew I was faking so I finished it.

 In 2009, Please Excuse My Daughter, a memoir, was published by Riverhead Books, a division of Penguin Group (USA). It recounts your life of growing up in the affluent Westchester County of New York under the tutelage of your mother, who sounds like every little girl’s dream. For example, taking you out of school to go shopping at Bloomingdale’s was the norm, which you used as the premise for the book’s title. Since this was your first foray into writing a memoir and since Riverhead Books touts itself as a well-established publisher of best selling literary fiction and quality nonfiction, please describe the chain of events, which enabled you to land a contract.

I had the idea for a book, it felt like a story that hadn’t been told. It wasn’t super-dramatic, I hadn’t been rescued from a well or come back from a life of drugs and prostitution, but it seemed like a good story nonetheless. I mean the whole thing was about not really being ready for adulthood which is much more of a thing now than it was then. Whatever this generation is – XY, everyone knows they aren’t ready for life, but we were supposed to be ready.

Anyway, I have an amazing agent, the great Esther Newberg and she told me to write a  proposal and some sample chapters which I was able to do really fast. It was definitely a story that was all there in my head. We talked about who my dream publisher would be. I remember I got up one morning at like 5 am and was pulling all of the books off my shelf that felt like what I wanted my book to be and I noticed that in all of the acknowledgements they mentioned Geoffrey Kloske. So I googled him. He’d been an editor at Scribner and was now the publisher of Riverhead Books so I knew I wanted to be there. I sent Esther an email that said “what about Riverhead?” And she wrote back
“There’s a young woman there….” Later that day she said the young woman, Megan Lynch, wanted to speak to me. I talked to her on the phone for about an hour, we clearly had the same vision –which was for her to be my editor and she told me that she needed to speak to Geoff but he it was a Friday and he was going away for the weekend so it would probably be the following week. I hung up the phone and about 45 minutes later Esther called me and said “Riverhead made an offer.” I was jumping up and down. Megan edited that book and the three after that and the left to be a big shot at another company and now my editor is Jake Morrissey (who edits Anne Lamott and Marlon James among others). Please Excuse My Daughter got very nice reviews – a full page in The New York Times Book review.. really cool, but it didn’t sell well, and Geoff said to me, “I’m sorry this book didn’t hit it, but hopefully the next one will and if not, then the one after that.” And that is not what most publishers say, so I knew I was in the right place. When ever I write Riverhead Books I dot the I with a heart.

Your first memoir was followed the next year by another memoir, You Had Me at Woof: How Dogs Taught Me the Secrets of Happiness. Once again, Riverhead Books was the publisher. In a previous interview, you revealed, “With the second book, there were times I felt more slumped. Sophomore efforts for writers are talked about: If your first does well, will the second?” How did you work through this and what did you do to motivate yourself to finish the book?

I had the most trouble figuring out what the second book should be. It’s always hard to follow-up a memoir, especially one that takes you to the present. I mean what was going to write about, my book tour? How I had a lot of club sandwiches? But I’d been doing the dog rescue for years and I wrote the draft for it while I was going through a lot of the stuff… which is interesting. I wasn’t looking back I was in it.  I wasn’t that motivated to do the edits which is weird because now that’s my favorite part, but Megan said one day, ‘if you don’t get this done by next week, it’s going to be a whole other year before we can get it published.’ I was at the gym in the middle of working out, I put down the towel and went home and finished it over the weekend.

After the publication of You Had Me at Woof, you were quoted as saying, “My first book got a lot of reviews and the book sold very little. This time I’ve gotten barely any reviews but the book’s done great. It’s redefined for me what it takes to sell books.” What did you learn? What exactly does it take to sell books?

You know, you think you learn something and then you put those things into practice the next time and it turns out to not be the case. What does it take to sell books? That’s the gazillion dollar question! I thought I knew, I don’t. I think it changes all the time. I remember talking to this agent (not mine) and saying, ‘well there’s no guarantees to selling books except Oprah.’ And she said, “my client was on Oprah and barely got a bump.” When a book does well everyone tries to figure out why and duplicate it, but there are so many factors, you just can’t say. It’s definitely a confluence of things….and luck… and I think a great title and a great cover and a great book. Sometimes I think an author with a great personality who can get on tv is the thing and then you see the most obnoxious writer in the world who is number 1 on all the lists. I was at a book club fair for my first book and there was a room full of authors signing books. No one was on line to get my book, but there were a zillion people on line for this other woman and I decided it was because she wore a sweater with a snow man on it and I had a velvet blazer. Clearly the snow man had put a spell on the readers!

Please explain a “book trailer” and discuss the most effective methods to distribute it. We love your book trailers, by the way!

Book trailers are little 3 minute videos that like movie trailers, try to get a person to buy a book. Sadly, I think book trailers are over now. I did a few and basically they were me trying to be funny and have fun. The first one I did with one of my best friends, Ann Leary, she directed it. We took something that should have been about a half a day’s work and turned it into 3 months. Really. It was like Titanic. We had no idea what we were doing, but Ann learned to edit and she videotaped 8 million hours of me and my dogs and our friend Susan Orlean and Ann’s husband Denis and she made some of the greatest trailers that ever were. The following year I had 2 big budget trailers, both amazing and fun –did they sell books? I don’t know but I enjoy watching them. One is a fantastic animated thing and the other is a little movie with Geoff Kloske and Timothy Hutton. Geoff was so funny because he didn’t act. In fact, one of the things about Geoff, if you meet with him, he eats nuts. He didn’t stop eating nuts for the shoot, even with a big hair and make up team. And Tim was just –extraordinary. You know after the video he went on to get a part in the movie Ordinary People and won an Oscar. All because of me.

In 2011, you wrote an additional dog memoir, Love at First Bark: How Saving a Dog Can Sometimes Help You Save Yourself (Riverhead Books), which was closely followed by Friendkeeping: A Field Guide to the People You Love, Hate and Can’t Live Without (Riverhead Books).

The latter sparked a weekly “friendkeeping” advice column titled “Dear Julie”, in DAME, an e-magazine publication. We read several columns and loved the way you were able to exhibit your trademark sense of humor, while consistently offering sage advice.

How did this opportunity present itself and what has this experience taught you?

Everyone should read Dame magazine. It is the smartest online magazine EVER CREATED. I seriously gasp at the stories on there. One of the editors, Kera Bolonik, was my facebook friend. She and I always had a lot of online laughs, but also really liked each other and I for one had always wanted to work with her. She was coming up with content for Dame and approached the founder, Jennifer Reitman, about using me for a column. It turns out Jen is a big dog rescue person so she said yes. It is absolutely the joy of my week … answering those letters. At heart, I am a know it all. Also, I’ve been in therapy for almost 30 years so I know what people are supposed to do… doesn’t mean I do it but I know. Since then I’ve worked with Kera and another editor Lisa Butterworth. I send her my columns and she only writes back the parts that make her laugh –there’s never any ‘change this’ or ‘tone it down.’ I love them so much –if you can put a bunch of hearts around the Dame Magazine link, I would appreciate that.

We loathe this moment when the interview has come to an end and we still have so many more questions to ask. We will leave you with one simple question: What’s next on the agenda for the unstoppable, passionate and multi-talented Julie Klam?

I have a book on the nature of celebrity that is so late, I should be killed, but I will get it done. And maybe a book of my columns. More dog things because I love the dogs so much. Another podcast with Ann Leary and Laura Zigman… uh… lose the weight I gained this summer… find a suitcase with a million unmarked non-sequential dollars… there’s a dress on sale that I want…. Need to make dinner….

No comments: