Writing is revising. I consider this the absolute golden rule of writing. Whether you’re writing a poem, essay, short story, or novel, there is always room for improvement. I find it especially helpful to walk away from a project for a day, week, month, or even a year to get some space and much needed clarity. Fresh eyes always spot the problems. There are some chapters in my novel that have been revised at least a half-dozen times.
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 Tammy Pasterick.
A native of Western Pennsylvania, Tammy began her career as an investigator with the National Labor Relations Board and later worked as a paralegal and German teacher. Her interest in the labor movement and history of Pennsylvania transformed her modest family genealogy project into an epic historical novel set in 1910s Pittsburgh. Beneath the Veil of Smoke and Ash, which is being released in September 2021 by She Writes Press, is a story of immigrant sacrifice and one woman’s journey into madness. Tammy currently lives on Maryland’s Eastern Shore with her husband, two children, and chocolate Labrador retriever and is working on her next novel.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share a story about what brought you to this particular career path?
I’ve always been a writer. I was the editor of my high school yearbook and wrote constantly when I was at the NLRB and when I studied German. However, I didn’t write much fiction until my genealogy project took on a life of its own and became a novel. It was actually a conversation with my ninety-year-old grandmother that lit the spark. When I asked her some questions about her childhood after doing some research on Ancestry.com, she presented me with a shoebox of old family photos I had never seen before. I was so captivated by the images of my great-grandparents who immigrated to America from Lithuania and Slovakia at the turn of the twentieth century that I knew I had to recreate their world in a novel and pay tribute to their sacrifices.
Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?
Anyone who has traveled to Pittsburgh has probably noticed that we Yinzers have a unique accent and dialect commonly referred to as Pittsburghese. I was actually unaware of how pronounced my accent was until I taught German to high school students near Philadelphia. One day, when I became irritated with a student named Kyle, I yelled his name in anger and forgot to pronounce the “e” at the end of his name — a common habit of Yinzers. My students immediately asked where I was from, and a fascinating conversation about regional dialects ensued. It was a fun discussion and very relevant to the study of German.
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?
The biggest challenge in my journey was navigating the publishing industry. It’s tougher than ever for debut authors to get a traditional publishing deal because most publishers are looking for authors with a built-in social media platform. (And it’s very difficult to build one when you’re not already famous or an expert in a particular field.) Writers need to be flexible and creative — and willing to explore options outside the traditional model. I ultimately chose hybrid publishing and am happy with my decision. However, I do recommend that all writers query literary agents for at least a year even if they plan to self-publish. The feedback I received over two years of querying was invaluable and helped me improve my novel.
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 first time I attended a writers’ conference, I made the mistake of following the advice of several writers’ blogs that recommended cornering literary agents in elevators and hallways to pitch your work. I did it a few times and realized that the approach of an overzealous stalker is not my style. At the end of a conversation with one agent, I asked her if she had ever signed any authors whom she’d met at writers’ conferences. She bluntly told me “no”. While she may be an outlier, I quickly learned that ambushing agents at conferences will probably not lead to a publishing contract.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
Promoting my debut novel has become a full-time job, so I haven’t had much time to devote to my World War II novel, which I’m very excited about. I’ve conducted a lot of research, but haven’t put many words on paper. The story will be told from the perspective of a German family and will feature aspects of the war that haven’t been given much attention in other historical novels.
Can you share the most interesting story that you shared in your book?
My novel is filled with many fascinating details about life in 1910s Pennsylvania, but I believe readers will be most intrigued by the hazardous working conditions in the steel and coal mining industries. The number of accidents and deaths in the mills and mines at that time was staggering, and many corporations considered immigrant workers expendable. They did not make health and safety a priority.
Also surprising was the role animals played in the coal mines.
What is the main empowering lesson you want your readers to take away after finishing your book?
I hope my novel sheds light on the struggles immigrants once faced and that readers will see the parallels with today’s immigration issues, particularly as they relate to anti-immigration sentiment. It is also my hope that my book will give people a better understanding of mental illness and the many ways it can destroy a family.
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.
- Writing is revising. I consider this the absolute golden rule of writing. Whether you’re writing a poem, essay, short story, or novel, there is always room for improvement. I find it especially helpful to walk away from a project for a day, week, month, or even a year to get some space and much needed clarity. Fresh eyes always spot the problems. There are some chapters in my novel that have been revised at least a half-dozen times.
- Do your research. This piece of advice applies to all writing, but I find it especially critical when writing historical novels. Author credibility is key, so the facts surrounding world events and their timelines should be well researched. I caught a mistake in my own novel when I wrote about a character traveling to England in the summer of 1915. I realized that average American citizens would not be on a ship to Europe a month after the sinking of the Lusitania.
- Be open to critique. Whether you ask your friends and family to read your work or you hire beta readers, you should be open to feedback. It is true that reading is very subjective, and not everyone will like your work. However, if several people raise the same issue with your story, it is time to do some revising.
- Be persistent. The publishing industry is tough, and you will get rejected over and over again. I queried 95 literary agents over the course of two years before I decided to explore independent and hybrid publishing. It was a long and frustrating journey, but I listened to the advice of agents who read my manuscript and made several revisions to my novel. That process helped me become a better writer and put me on the path to publication that made the most sense to me.
- Read in your genre. This is the easiest piece of advice to follow since I don’t know a writer who doesn’t like to read. Although it’s fine to stray from your chosen genre for a while — I binged on contemporary southern fiction last summer — it’s important to know what’s being released in your genre. You can learn so much about style, technique, and plot from your fellow authors.
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?
Persistence. I can’t stress this virtue enough. If I had become discouraged by all the rejections I received from literary agents, my novel would still be sitting on my hard drive, never to see the light of day. I brushed myself off after every rejection, took the advice of agents very seriously, and made changes to my manuscript. When it became clear that my lack of a social media platform was hindering my efforts at traditional publishing, I explored other options. The publishing industry has so many barriers to entry — especially if you’re an unknown author — but I didn’t quit trying to find a way in.
Which literature do you draw inspiration from? Why?
I’m inspired by historical fiction from all eras, but am especially intrigued by stories set against the backdrop of war and revolution. I’m always blown away by books that provide insight into turbulent world events while taking me on an emotional journey with the characters. Some of my favorites are The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, and Winter Garden by Kristin Hannah.
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 would like to erase the stigma surrounding mental illness and encourage people to share their struggles without fear of judgment. Most mental illnesses stem from chemical issues in the brain and are not something to be ashamed of. No one can control how his or her brain functions at the molecular level — just as no one can control an irregular heartbeat or high blood pressure without medical intervention. Mental health is often poorly understood, so I’d like to see more educational programs in schools and communities to increase awareness of illnesses like anxiety, depression, dementia, and eating disorders.
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Thank you so much for this. This was very inspiring!