Make sure your story is distinctive and compelling, i.e., it hasn’t been told before and it must be. I was sure that the story of a woman’s experience in the Vietnam antiwar movement just as feminism was taking root would have been written about extensively in the years since. In fact, it’s only been touched on briefly and it was clearly a major subject I feel had to be explored. It’s my point of view that the conscience of my generation was formed in the six months between the first Draft Lottery and Kent State.
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 Rita Dragonette.
Rita Dragonette is a writer who, after a career telling the stories of others as an award-winning public relations executive, has returned to her original creative path. The Fourteenth of September, her multi-award-winning debut novel, is based on her personal experiences on campus during the Vietnam War, and she is currently at work on two other novels and a memoir in essays. She lives and writes in Chicago, where she also hosts literary salons to showcase authors and their new books to avid readers. To learn more, please visit www.ritadragonette.com.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share a story about what brought you to this particular career path?
Writing has always been my avocation. My mother was an avid reader and she made great selections for me from the library. I spent my childhood reading historical fiction where I would “write in” a character of a girl of my age so I could be part of the story. Unfortunately, the primary career path for a writer was to teach and I wasn’t interested in that. Instead, after some trial-and-error, I used my writing skills to get a job in public relations, attracted by its combination of creativity and strategy, and built a successful career in global agencies and my own. When I sold my agency, I was able to put all my energies back into my original career path and focused on becoming a writer, with the added benefit of all my years in marketing/PR, which has become essential for an author’s career success.
Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?
I was pretty amazed at the groundswell of people who contacted me from the moment I began to share online the premise of my debut novel. Some of these people I hadn’t been in contact with in decades, some were people that characters were based upon, and many others were people I didn’t know who had shared the 1969–1970 era and the generational-changing things that went on at that time, or were the children of parents who had. One writer had just finished a novel about growing up in Kent State with the legacy of what happened there. It was a kick that some of the real-life, character-based people came to live book launch events. One man, whose nickname back in the day I actually used in the book, Wizard, showed up in a three-piece suit (versus his previously perpetual jeans, t-shirt, and headband). He had become a conservative, yet wanted me to see that he still carried his draft card in his wallet. All of this underscored the high level of interest in this historical time frame and the impact it has to this day. I’ve always felt that we learn our history through facts and nonfiction books, but we understand it through narrative. It’s been amazing to see that in action.
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 that other aspiring writers can learn from?
Coming out of the business world, I knew how long it takes to achieve in your chosen profession. And, writing being my second career, I knew I didn’t have that kind of time. I couldn’t write five novels to keep in the drawer while I taught myself. To expedite, I knew I’d need expert guidance and set out a plan that included enrolling in a University Certificate program, applying for residencies at leading retreats, and working with an editor one on one. There are so many excellent programs and workshops out there today to help that there is no reason to feel you need to go it alone.
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?
Well, it certainly didn’t seem funny at the time. At an early residency at a well-known artists’ retreat, I introduced myself to a woman sitting across from me at dinner and asked if she was published and what she was working on. She stared at me as if I were an alien and promptly turned her head to talk to the person next to her. Later, I found out she was a world-famous, best-selling author of over 20 books. Fortunately, we bonded in a later residency, had a great laugh over this, and are now good friends. She eventually told me that her impression was that I must have been someone who had purchased a residency at a benefit because I was so “well-dressed,” (meaning, I was wearing a scarf that matched my jeans). I’ve learned to do my homework, and not to “dress” for dinner at residencies.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I’m working on three writing projects at present, which I’ve found is beneficial to my creative process, after focusing exclusively on my debut novel for so long. The first novel is an homage to The Sun Also Rises, about older expats who have gathered in San Miguel de Allende with their last dreams. The second is a WWII story about the impact of war over a generation through the female line of both a German woman who participated in the Lebensborn program to propagate the master race, and an American nurse. The memoir in essays focuses on key inflection points in my life that reflect on feminism, grief, childlessness, legacy, and other macro issues.
Can you share the most interesting story that you shared in your book?
My debut novel is a highly fictionalized version of events that actually happened. It began with one that haunted me. The first scene I wrote is actually at the end of the book and is the jumping off point for why I wrote it. I had been in a campus meeting of various antiwar (Vietnam) groups who were plotting strategy post-Kent State. An actual vet (in school after serving) was in the audience and tried to offer his perspective as someone who had “been there.” The leaders of the meeting, showing extreme ignorance, went after him, trying to humiliate him as someone who had actually killed. It was the only time I’d personally seen a vet “dissed,” and I was furious. However, I couldn’t bring myself to stand up and say something to stop it. I was afraid no one would listen to be because I was a “girl.” It’s the only time in my life I’ve ever felt I was a coward. I wrote the fictional scene to do what I wish I’d done.
What is the main empowering lesson you want your readers to take away after finishing your book?
That in the big events of life our experiences are different but equal in impact. My book focuses on war, from a woman’s point of view, and how marginalized women are just because they weren’t (at the time) facing a bullet. Yet their experiences were often equally patriotic, horrific, of value. I was inspired by the experiences of my parents, both WWII vets. My mother saw much more action than my father (including performing surgery on the front in a tent in Patton’s army and helping to liberate a prison camp in Germany on VE day). Yet, no one wanted to hear about her experiences because she was “just a nurse.” Both of us were astounded that decades later, during the war of my generation, many of these attitudes were still in place. While fighting in the antiwar movement during the Draft Lottery, you could be easily dismissed. “Why should we listen to you? You aren’t going to be drafted.” In The Fourteenth of September, I give my female character a dilemma with equal gravitas as the one faced by male draftees of the day. They are both the same question of conscience. Will I give up what I value most to be the person I hope that I am?
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.
- Make sure your story is distinctive and compelling, i.e., it hasn’t been told before and it must be. I was sure that the story of a woman’s experience in the Vietnam antiwar movement just as feminism was taking root would have been written about extensively in the years since. In fact, it’s only been touched on briefly and it was clearly a major subject I feel had to be explored. It’s my point of view that the conscience of my generation was formed in the six months between the first Draft Lottery and Kent State.
- Do whatever you can to ensure your craft is the best you can bring and keep educating yourself to make it better. Take classes from experts (don’t do it alone) and read like a writer (ie. focus on the craft of “how” the story is told). When I left PR to write full time, it was not feasible to start a full MFA program. Instead, I enrolled in a Certificate Program at the University of Chicago, and have supplemented this with classes from other entities like Story Studio.
- Establish a relentless writing discipline and practice. Be selfish, and don’t compromise on the time and effort it requires to make your vision live on the page. This is the part I struggle with the most. My aspiration is three hours first thing in the morning. As an insomniac, I have to confess I can’t always predict how lucid I’ll be at 6 a.m.
- Establish a network among writers of your peer level — through an MFA program, other classes, a writer’s group, writing associations, etc. Do it to raise your profile (the higher your profile the more opportunities will come to you). Part of this is to be a good literary citizen — help and promote other writers. I regularly attended a leading writers’ retreat where I not only wrote much of my first novel, but also met many very successful and helpful writers who welcomed me into their activities and introduced me to like-minded writers. I also began a series of literary salons in my home to introduce independently published writers to avid readers.
- Understand that marketing is essential to your success. It is not a necessary evil, though it may be contrary to the impulses of a solitary writer. Learn to be good at it, to enjoy it and the visibility it brings. Make it easy for readers to find your distinctive and compelling story. This is also essential to keep your book “alive.” The publishing industry will give your book six months to be successful. However, readers don’t only care about the latest. I’ve been marketing my backlist debut novel (nearly three years post publication) successfully by going directly to readers through book clubs, enthusiast online sites, and influencers. And, to hype interest when its story of activism matches what’s going on in the world today (i.e., Black Lives Matters, the 50th anniversaries of seminal events in the book such as Kent State).
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?
For me it’s craft study. I love stories and how they are told and can get totally gobsmacked by a writer who can expertly bring me into a narrative that really “lives.” For example, Elizabeth Wetmore’s recent novel, Valentine, has a scene that is so skillfully written, you literally feel as if your heart is in your mouth over what might happen. I’m in awe and have reread and studied that scene repeatedly, and it’s brought how I think about and execute certain scenes to a new personal best level.
Which literature do you draw inspiration from? Why?
Fashionable or not, my writing-style fascination began with Hemingway. He not only introduced new subject matter but also a way of writing that was so revolutionary storytelling was simply never the same again. As Ken Burns recently showed in his PBS series, writers since have either imitated or reacted against him. That’s impact. Though I’m not as minimalistic as Hemingway, my style is based upon my admiration for authors who write cleanly, digging deep without embellishing.
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. 🙂
I’ve long felt we need to address much more fundamentally — and at the youngest possible age — the concept of confidence. I’ve learned from my life and career — what I’ve experienced personally as well as through exposure to many employees and associates — that this is a key element for both success and life satisfaction, for innovation and creativity. Though it sounds like a “soft” issue, it’s not. Insufficient confidence holds so many people back so frequently in their lives, it’s often a key issue in adult therapy. Lack of confidence comes from a myriad of places: ethnic and gender traditions and practices, parental modeling, antiquated behavior reward systems, and many other sources. There has been more attention about this regarding girls and women, but it does impact everyone.
I’d encourage a curriculum addition that would begin at the earliest possible age to address this as a fundamental life skill — how to reward free and open opinions, ideas, and experimentation versus the shame of being wrong, or ensuring understanding that it’s okay to be good at some things and not others (like athletics). How should parents and teachers be interacting with children to build in them a strong foundation of faith in themselves and their ideas and abilities, an appreciation of the myriad choices children have to excel, or not? In my years in business and certainly embarking on a new literary career later in life, I’ve seen and experienced the need for environments that foster free risk-taking — without reverting to old programming, i.e., you may be starting over but not from scratch — and to do this without killing positive competition or inadvertently encouraging arrogance or shame.
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Thank you so much for this. This was very inspiring!