Grace Sammon: “Until they fold his hands in the box”

…we are never “done.” I have a friend that says he will not be done “until they fold his hands in the box.” I love that imagery. I think that’s what I want readers to know. We can and likely will, invent and re-invent ourselves many times. We will have times where we feel we […]

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…we are never “done.” I have a friend that says he will not be done “until they fold his hands in the box.” I love that imagery. I think that’s what I want readers to know. We can and likely will, invent and re-invent ourselves many times. We will have times where we feel we are “done,” but we really aren’t. I want people to have deep conversations about the book but also about relationships. I provide a platform for that in the book club discussion guide in the book and share it on my website because I think it’s so important to keep talking.

As part of my interview series on the five things you need to know to become a great author, I had the pleasure of interviewing Grace Sammon.

Grace is an entrepreneur, educator, speaker and storyteller. She has started and managed two for-profits and two not-for-profit companies. Having written three books and numerous articles in the area of education, she is utilizing skills built up over decades as she re-invents herself with her debut novel, The Eves.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share a story about what brought you to this particular career path?

Thank you for having me!

I’ve always paid attention to words — and your use of the words “career path” is the perfect way to describe how I came to be an author. I believe that each of us has a path to follow. It’s not a career destination. In fact, there are twists and turns along the way — things to be picked up and discarded along the way and people to walk with and people to walk away from on the path. In my case, I know I have the successes I’ve had because I also listened along the way.

Perhaps the most important turning point for me was when I got fired from my first professional job. I was working in higher education, married to a university professor, had two small wonderful children, had finished my Master’s degree and was, I thought, “happily-ever-aftering” in a university community. When a new Vice President of my division arrived, I was abruptly fired. This termination was over the protests and the support of nine Deans. It was probably a contestable firing as it was grounded in misogyny, but I was too devastated to fight it and #metoo was decades in the future. Three months later, my husband filed for divorce. Big, life-changing, career-changing, not within my control events — both changed what I did and who I became. They were, I believe, ultimately excellent decisions.

Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?

Before being a novelist, I collected snippets of conversations, details of scenes, eavesdropped and paid attention to nuance, pathos and theme. For me, the most interesting stories are those that involve the complexity of the human spirit, wrapped in a richly drawn sense of person and place. If I apply that to your question, I would have to answer that my work with inner-city schools and underserved groups was the most interesting. Washington, DC, Baltimore, Detroit, Houston, parts of Louisiana, some tribal land Bureau of Indian Affairs schools — each of these schools faced and faces, tremendous challenges.

These are schools and communities for which much of America has no expectation for success. The most interesting stories are the ones that took me out of my sense of place and person. Breaking up a fight in a high school hallway between boys (it’s much scarier, by the way, to break up fights between girls); standing on tribal lands amidst a “skiff” of snow feeling awed by what I did not know — and burying four students in a year to gang violence, mourning those deaths and committing to change education to improve that grim statistic. These are stories I still carry with me.

The most interesting related to career path, again, has to do with leaving a job. I had started a national non-profit organization focused on improving high schools. I did this in partnership with other non-profit’s school systems and Federal agencies. There was a sudden rift between my co-founder and me. I determined that the difference in our moral approach and goals were not the same. I abruptly and very ineloquently, left the organization.

While I went off and sulked, I also decided to write my first book my Co-Founder had suggest I write all along. That book, Creating and Sustaining Small Learning Communities: Strategies for High School Reform, propelled me as a national keynote speaker, prompted research and writing of another book, the creation of my educational consulting company GMS Partners, another two books and numerous articles and contracts in 32 states. The organization, by the way, not only survived, but grew. Lessons here are that “bad” experiences can turn out very well for all involved.

What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming an author? How did you overcome it? Can you share a story about that other aspiring writers can learn from?

The biggest challenge was probably my own thinking.

When I got the idea to write Creating and Sustaining, I thought I would just use the book as a handbook for my clients. I self-published it and, quite honestly, made a lot of money. As it grew in popularity, I explored respected “real” publishing houses. I sent out query letters to 14 houses, got back 11 positive responses and was delighted to sign with Corwin Press. When it came time for the second book, Corwin happily picked it up. I would say that Corwin added considerable credibility to my resume but not money to my pocket, despite the success of both books. That gets to a question of authors needing to think about why they write — which hopefully we will talk about later.

When I decided to write my novel, The Eves, I knew enough to do my research about publishing. Unlike with non-fiction, you need an agent to get your work into the hands of the big traditional publishing houses. This means hours of research into which agents will appropriately represent your book as to genre, marketability, etc. Then there are countless hours of creating individualized query letters to agents who will ask you for anything from three lines to 30 pages that they are willing to review and upon which they will judge your entire manuscript. The reality is you have less than a 1% chance of securing an agent. By the way, agents will tell you right up front that you will likely only hear from them if they want to represent you — basically, it’s “don’t call us, we’ll call you.”

That said, I did try to go the agented route; it did not meet with success. I was determined to get the book out and in the hands of readers, TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, bloggers, pod-casters, library associations and book clubs. In order to do that, I had to change my thinking. The change was not to think of it as “self-publishing”, rather to think of myself as an “Indy Publishing”. No one thinks Robert Redford’s Indy Film Festival is trivial, so why was I trivializing a method that had worked well for me in the past?

Once I changed my thinking and “owned” the moniker of an Indy Author, things began to happen. I researched and found an excellent Indy publishing firm in Chad Robertson and Writing Nights and I hired a team of publicists that helped make everything happen. That change in my thinking altered everything. The Eves, my writing process and the challenges of publishing a book in a pandemic have been featured in all of those media I just mentioned and readers can explore those on my website

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

The funny thing about mistakes is that they don’t feel very funny at the time. However, if you can figure out the lessons from the mistakes, they can be some of our best teachers.

I was working in a large urban school system and it wasn’t going easily. I always have a great respect and understanding for the consultant — client relationship. There is sometimes resentment that the consultant gets hired to come in and “fix” what’s wrong when the people on the ground feel and rightly so, they can address their own issues. The person who was in charge of the project resented my company being on-site. I tried being professional and collaborative. I tried being driven and a bit authoritative — neither worked.

As a sign of a white flag, I asked the client if she just wanted to go have a drink and dinner and discuss how we could work together. Her response, “Ms. Sammon you are not my friend, you will never be my friend and we will not be sharing any time together.” Well, she made that clear! My mistake was all the time and effort I gave thinking that I had to make an impossible situation work. My lesson learned was: be professional, do your job, invest in the positives, to thine own self be true.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

Discovering how to thrive in the world as an Indy Author, social media and still having time to research, write and have a life is a fascinating lesson in new learning and balance. I imagine most of your readers, since this is a digital platform, have a much better acumen around the myriad of social media platforms than I do, even now. That continues to be a challenge and far more of a commitment than I would have imagined. Yet, I’m really enjoying the connections that these interactions produce.

Truly, however, I am probably always happiest when I am in that zone of writing and talking about writing. Hopefully, each of your readers can identify that zone for themselves. It’s that series of moments that slip into hours when you are using all of your skills. I call it “juice.” You just know when things are clicking and you are doing good work that feeds your soul. Right now, I am in the research and design phase of my next novel, The Egg. It’s the story of two sets of sisters in two different sets of pandemics (1918 and 2020) and how their stories connect. I love the way it is taking shape in my head — juice.

Can you share the most interesting story that you shared in your book?

The Eves is filled with poignancy and humor. It carries the psychologically-complex Jessica Barnett to DC, Maryland, Tanzania and Norway. She’s given up on her appearance and her aspirations but not a sense of loss and guilt, nor her vodka. As she begins to catalogue the oral histories of a group of diverse, determined and sometimes ditzy old women, everyone and everything changes. It is the story of conversations we wish we could have with our elders if they were still here and those we would want to have with our children if they were ready to listen. The characters are white, Black and Latinx. They are cisgender and there is a lesbian couple. For me what is most interesting parts are three distinct plot twists that readers don’t see coming and how they change not only the story, but the reader.

What is the main empowering lesson you want your readers to take away after finishing your book?

We are never “done.” I have a friend that says he will not be done “until they fold his hands in the box.” I love that imagery. I think that’s what I want readers to know. We can and likely will, invent and re-invent ourselves many times. We will have times where we feel we are “done,” but we really aren’t. I want people to have deep conversations about the book but also about relationships. I provide a platform for that in the book club discussion guide in the book and share it on my website because I think it’s so important to keep talking.

Based on your experience, what are the “5 Things You Need to Know to Become a Great Author”? Please share a story or example for each.

One given and sadly this is truer today than ever, is that you actually need to be a good writer. That sounds obvious, but you would be amazed at how few people really know how to create clear, cogent, well-constructed sentences, paragraphs and completed works. This is a practiced craft. Write, write, write!

Next up, I’d determine why you are writing. I alluded to that before. Do you want to be a writer for work, pleasure, to reach an audience, what audience, for profit, recognition? These are important questions to answer on your way to becoming a great author.

Perhaps most important in the writing process is creating a “beta” group of readers that will give you honest feedback. I did this especially for The Eves and it made all the difference in the world. My last chapter became my first, characters became more fine-tuned, characters were edited out and others created to help fill out plot lines. Beta groups are critical. I know, for myself, writing is the most naked thing I do. It’s not easy to put your writing out there, but it’s essential.

Read, a lot. One of my author friends says this is essential and I agree. You will see what stimulates, intimidates and just plain boosts your interest in good writing. It’s also helpful, if you are going to seek an agent to see what agents rep what types of books and authors.

Lastly, in all work there is the question of how certain people make it and others don’t. This is true in the area of writing as well. Thus, a key part of becoming a great author is the work you have to do to get your work known. In tandem with writing, do your research on how you want to publish and promote. Do you want/need an agent, use a publishing house/Indy Author, what about hybrid presses? How much time and money do you have to promote your work? What is your plan for release and launch — you should be doing all this at least three months prior to launch! A final thought on this step is know, for yourself, how you will define success. For me, it was when I got a hand-written note from a 94-year-old reader asking for a sequel to The Eves. #happyauthor

What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a great writer? (i.e. perseverance, discipline, play, craft study) Can you share a story or example?

I believe I am just driven to write. It’s my best form of communication. What tumbles off the end of my fingers onto the keyboard is much more eloquent than the words that fall from my lips.

I am not as disciplined as I should be at my craft because the media demands have exceeded my expectations. That’s not a bad thing, its just that I haven’t found balance yet. Writing does take discipline. My personal practice is to sketch out a few notes, write as much as I can and print if off for my husband to read. He then reads it, does a first edit and wonderfully reads it aloud to me. That step gives me the feel for how it will ‘sound’ in readers’ heads. It allows me to hear if I am getting the voices and the story right. Each morning, I then re-read the writing from the day before, make edits and then keep writing until the next logical break. Starting with the re-read and edits propels me into the next segment of the story and helps me avoid the all-dreaded writer’s block.

Which literature do you draw inspiration from? Why?

Anything with complex, well-drawn characters and vivid descriptions of places. The bonus is always when I learn something new. That’s the educator coming out in me. There are many factoids written into both The Eves and The Egg. These enrich the story and the reader.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

There are three areas to which I am deeply committed: education, entrepreneurship and aging well. If I could start a movement it would combine those areas into fabulous communities. I did this in The Eves. Here a group of very diverse and determined people ranging in age from 15 to 94 set out to create a sustainable community where each is determined to leave their mark on the land. There are llamas and lambs, a mule and a service dog. People are broken and whole. There are issues with families. There is a commitment to sustaining the planet. Multiple partnerships and businesses are formed. It takes place largely on the cliffs of the Chesapeake Bay. What I was happy to create was a great respect for and use of, people’s and the community’s talents and resources. Community college students help the elderly; the farm helps feed the hungry; each person supports and challenges the others. When their stories are told, everything changes. By far the most frequent question I get is “Is there a place like you created that I can go?” I wish there was and I’d love to make that happen.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

I’d love to hear from your readers and I’m always happy to help when I can. I become a better writer as I interact with readers. Readers can email me directly at [email protected]. They can go to my website to see the latest interviews and articles, as well as listen to music that inspired The Eves and grab some of the conversation starters I referenced a bit ago. They can also follow me on:

Thank you so much for this. This was very inspiring!

Thank you so much for having me and for what you do for the industry and your readers. It was a pleasure.

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