As part of my series about prominent entrepreneurs and executives that overcame adversity to achieve great success, I had the pleasure of interviewing…
Annie Sullivan, author of the sweeping young adult novel A Touch of Gold and the forthcoming titles Tiger Queen (2019) and A Curse of Gold (2020). Her book was listed on multiple Barnes & Noble Most Anticipated lists and was nominated for Epic Read’s Best Retelling of the year. She grew up in Indianapolis, Indiana, received her master’s degree in Creative Writing from Butler University, and loves writing about strong female characters to give young readers role models to look up to.
Jason Crowley: Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this specific career path?
Annie Sullivan: I’ve always loved reading since I was a child. I had asthma as a kid, and I would have to take medicine that required me to sit in one place with a face mask on for about fifteen minutes at a time. During the time I would take my medicine, my mother would read stories to me — stories that took me far away from the world where I was a sick kid. I got to be a hobbit, a princess, a wizard, and so many other characters. So when it came time to choose a career, I knew I wanted to write the types of stories that would allow others to escape from a world that can so often be cruel and unfair.
I ended up being an English major with a concentration in creative writing at Indiana University, and after graduating undergrad, I got a masters degree in creative writing from Butler University. From there, I set about the long, hard task of finding a literary agent and a publisher. It took eight years, but my first novel, A Touch of Gold, published in August 2018. And now I have deals for two more books!
Crowley: Can you share your story of when you were on the brink of failure? First, take us back to what it was like during the darkest days.
Sullivan: I nearly didn’t make it to being a published author because I nearly failed in graduate school on the first assignment.
I attended Butler University to pursue my master’s degree in Creative writing. I had been an English major with a concentration in creative writing at Indiana University, so I thought I would be fine. However, in the writing world, many people look down on those who write fantasy and fiction, which I loved, because they don’t think they write about serious or worthwhile topics. Afraid I wouldn’t be taken seriously unless I wrote more literary-style fiction, I turned in my first short story to the class. It was a sad story about an older man who killed his wife in a car accident because he was too stubborn to admit he needed to wear his glasses.
Now, for those unfamiliar with how a writing workshop is run, a student sends out their story ahead of time. The other students come prepared to discuss it, and while they discuss it, the author of the story is not allowed to speak or defend their story in any way. They must silently listen.
When my classmates discussed my story, they tore it to shreds. They hated it.
I was crushed. I’d tried so hard to be literary, to show them that I could fit in. I’ll admit I went out to my car after class and cried. I thought that I wasn’t meant for graduate school — maybe I wasn’t even meant to be a writer.
However, I pulled myself together and decided that if I was going to go back in there again, then I was going in as me — writing something I loved and not something I thought would make me seem more literary. For the next workshop, I turned in what would later become the first chapter of A Touch of Gold, and my classmates loved it — not because they particularly liked fantasy or fairytales, but because they saw that my passion came through in the writing. This was the genre I was meant to write in.
If I’d given up when my classmates had hated my story, I never would’ve found the courage to write what I’d always wanted to. It took failing to take away the fear of failing again.
True, I failed many more times after that (I got rejected by over 100 literary agents before finally finding one!). Yet, I learned that failure is just part of the process, a part that can catapult you to future success if you don’t give up.
Crowley: What was your mindset during such a challenging time? Where did you get the drive to keep going when things were so hard?
Sullivan: My first thought was that clearly others didn’t think I was good enough. It really shook my confidence. I really thought I should give up. But the more and more I thought about it, the more I realized that I was talented. I had just tried too hard to fit into what other people thought I should be when I should have been being myself the whole time.
Once I figured out that, my drive to succeed was stronger than ever. I didn’t stop at just writing the first chapter of the book. I wrote the whole thing. While a lot of my other classmates would go out drinking after class, I would hurry home and start working on the feedback I’d received in class. I had found my passion, and I knew all I needed to do was put in the work to make my dream come true.
Crowley: Tell us how you were able to overcome such adversity and achieve massive success? What did the next chapter look like?
Sullivan: If I thought simply writing the book was hard, finding a literary agent was even harder. You’re constantly sending out email after email to agents hoping they’ll like your work and that they already won’t have a client too similar to you. Then, you wait months to hear back from them. And usually, their answer is a no. No explanation. No advice. Just no.
In many ways, it was easy to feel like a failure all over again because there would be days I’d get six rejections from literary agents. Each one making me feel like I wasn’t good enough. Thankfully, I had a good support network around me who encouraged me, and I didn’t give up. After nine months, I found an agent!
Next came the hard task of finding a publisher — which felt like looking for an agent all over again because it was filled with just as much rejection. One day an editor rejected my manuscript because she thought it wasn’t dark enough. The next day, a different editor rejected it because she thought it was too dark. It seemed I couldn’t please anyone. But my agent and I kept at it, eventually finding a publisher, Blink (an imprint of HarperCollins), that loved my work. I finally had a book deal, and hearing those words made all those days of rejection worth it.
Crowley: Based on your experience, can you share 3 actionable pieces of advice about how to develop the mindset needed to persevere through adversity? (Please share a story or example for each.)
Sullivan: Don’t give up. If I had given up all those times I wanted to after being rejected, I wouldn’t be an author with three book deals under her belt. I know an author who it took her writing ten manuscripts to land an agent. It’s all about putting in the time, learning the industry, and not giving up when setbacks occur.
Learn to manage rejection. The way I dealt with rejection was to go and research more literary agents. That way, I could send out more queries seeking representation. That gave me a constant source of hope that there was still a chance out there.
Stay busy. When I was waiting to hear back from literary agents, I didn’t sit around twiddling my thumbs. I was working on a new manuscript. Not only did this help me hone my craft, but it kept my mind off worrying about getting rejected.
Crowley: None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Sullivan: My parents were great supporters from the start. Not only was my mom the one to instill a love of reading in me as a child, but my parents didn’t discourage me when I said I wanted to be a writer. They helped me follow my passion without making me feeling like it wouldn’t be a worthwhile career.
Additionally, author John Green (The Fault in Our Stars), was very helpful too. Since we’re both authors who live in Indianapolis, he was kind enough to meet with me, and he gave me some great tips on how to improve my social media following, which is something publishers really pay attention to with young adult authors. Thanks to his help, I was really able to get my number of followers up enough to impress my publisher.
Crowley: Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Sullivan: While my first book, A Touch of Gold, is about the cursed daughter of King Midas who faces pirates and betrayers on her quest to retrieve her father’s stolen gold, the main character is a little more timid. My next book, Tiger Queen, follows a desert princess who faces off against suitors in an arena in order to win her right to rule. I think the main character in this new book will give a generation of young readers a strong female role model to look up to, one who has a strong sword arm and a strong mind. I want to show young women that they can break free from the roles assigned to them and find their place in the world — even if that means toppling the monarchy in the process.
Crowley: You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire 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. 🙂
Sullivan: I would love to start an organization that catered to empowering young women through the stories they read. Not only would young women spend time reading about strong female characters real and imagined, but they would learn to write their own stories in order to discover that they are stronger than they imagined.
Crowley: Any parting words of wisdom that you would like to share?
Sullivan: Remember to be yourself. It’s no use finding success if you have to give up yourself to do it. Find what you love and don’t stop working until you’ve achieved what you set out to do.
Crowley: How can our readers follow you on social media?
Crowley: Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.