Truth Teller Spotlight: Caitlin Hamilton Summie
“10 stories, 1 book, 25 years in the making”
A book publicist brings out her own first book.
After decades in publishing, where she carved out a niche as one of the industry’s top publicists and marketing strategists, Caitlin Hamilton Summie has just brought out her first story collection, To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts, with Fomite Press. The book represents twenty-five years’ worth of story writing, editing, mulling — and delays for “happy interruptions” such as children and her marketing career.
Before the book, Caitlin’s work appeared in journals across the country, including Puerto del Sol, Beloit Fiction Journal, Wisconsin Review, Mud Season Review, Hypertext Magazine, South85 Journal, and Long Story, Short. She got advice from her colleagues in the MFA program at Colorado State University and even (at the very beginning) from Paula Danziger, the ideal mentor for a budding eleven-year-old writer.
She is the founder and co-owner of Caitlin Hamilton Marketing & Publicity, one of the industry’s go-to marketing firms, where she has represented books by Big Names and some new authors just stepping into the ever-changing waters of the published life.
With all Caitlin’s experience on both sides of the page, we at Broad Street needed to knowhow she balances so many hats — and how she views the state of the industry today.
Broad Street: How does it feel to be an author promoting a book after your years of helping others get attention? Is it fun?
Summie: Yes, it is absolutely wonderful! I started these stories twenty-five years ago. Of course, there have been many long breaks — happy interruptions, as I call them — for children and career.
That’s marvelous! … Now let’s begin, as we always do, with the idea of Truth. How do you define “truth”? For example, how do you see the stories in your new collection as telling the truth in some way?
My stories tell an emotional truth, my characters’ emotional truth. As they struggle with their losses and their hopes, they try to be honest with themselves and others. It’s not easy, but that honesty is what will allow them to live with themselves — maybe to forgive or to free themselves from past mistakes and move on. To me, those are important kinds of truth.
How do you create your characters’ voices?
My characters’ voices just come to me. I hear them. Or I hear a sentence. And then I have to let the characters guide me. I know when something is off mostly by sound and tone.
“As my characters struggle with their losses and their hopes, they try to be honest with themselves and others. It’s not easy, but that honesty is what will allow them to live with themselves.”
Related to that question of creation: Is there some process by which you evaluate the honesty of the piece, once you’ve written down the voices that have been speaking to you?
I also remember something that Paula Danziger, the renowned author of books for teen readers, once said to me about my writing. I was young — eleven or twelve, maybe? She read a novella I had written and asked me what disease my character had. When I couldn’t answer, she told me I was lying to my readers. I think Danziger felt that I was being emotionally dishonest, creating a character whom readers mourned, yet I couldn’t name the character’s disease. I keep that in mind. You can’t play with readers or manipulate them.
But let me clarify — that doesn’t mean you have to write something you yourself have experienced. I agree with Nancy Willard that we “write what we understand,” a phrase that was a relief when I heard it, as it articulated something I had long struggled to say. We don’t have to write what we know personally. We can write beyond that. My stories tell the truth of my characters’ lives — faults and all — but I am not a man, for example, and I am not paralyzed.
We can write about feelings or other experiences because we can imagine and empathize. It is what makes fiction so important, in part, that ability to walk in another’s shoes.
“Paula Danziger … read a novella I had written and asked me what disease my character had. When I couldn’t answer, she told me I was lying to my readers. I think Danziger felt that I was being emotionally dishonest.”
Now let’s try out another hat — or maybe I should say other shoes. You’ve worked as a book publicist for a long time and are well known in the field. How do you find the “truth” that you want to market for your clients’ books? That is, how do you help a book find its voice and its spot in the marketplace, and how do you present it in the best light? Maybe I’m asking for your philosophy as a publicist here …
We only take on books we can get behind, books we want to wave about. Even during our worst times financially, when the economy wasn’t great, we have turned down books rather than take the wrong ones. We believe each book is unique and deserves passionate advocacy, and our work with authors is a partnership. It begins, though, with respect and admiration for the writing itself.
What does a publicist do for a first-time author — and are you doing all of those things for yourself?
What we do for a first-time author depends on lots of factors: Who hired us, the publisher or the author? Are they getting a marketing budget and if so, what does that free us to consider? Does the writer have experience doing readings? Are they active on social media? Have they published before, and where? Did they pursue an MFA and have they networked with a connected literary community?
But overall, our goal is to reach any book’s readers through a careful, tailored campaign of media, events, and marketing.
“We know that small press publicity is trench warfare.”
I think our effort on my own behalf has been realistic, with a dash of hope, which every campaign has to have. I say a dash of hope because short story collections don’t do as well in the marketplace, and as ever, any titles coming from the Big 5 [commercial publishing houses] will get the most notice.
I never shopped my book to other publishers. I am very happy with Fomite, but we know that small press publicity is trench warfare. It always has been. My husband, Rick, who is also a book publicist, has handled my campaign for me. I have been involved. Every author has to be involved. I do tend to stick my nose in, but I have tried as much as possible to let Rick handle things for me.
I would say he’s doing the very same kinds of things for my book that we consider and/or pursue for others: contacting publications for reviews and interviews, setting up a variety of events, booking some ads, doing social media, etc. As I said, since short story collections don’t usually attract as much attention as novels do, Rick has — like in every campaign — prioritized efforts where they might do the most good. For this book, we have emphasized reviews, but we have also, for example, made an effort to build the book on Goodreads, where we seem to have reached a (hopefully growing) group that generally doesn’t read short story collections but has been quite supportive of mine. Another thing we did was that we shared how long it had taken me to complete all the stories, which translated into a catchy tagline: “10 stories, 1 book, 25 years in the making.” This resonated with people.
Were all of your stories published in journals and magazines before you got the book contract? If not, how did getting a book deal affect your ability to publish in journals and magazines?
When my manuscript was accepted, I had published only had four stories out of the ten in the book. Three stories had come out in 1995 and 1996, and the fourth was published in July 2016. It was that July acceptance, actually, that propelled me to submit others and also to consider a collection. I thought, Why not submit a book?
I had been asked by editor Marc Estrin at Fomite if I had a manuscript, and I’d initially said no, though I thanked him for asking. But then I counted up the stories I had and thought ten was a respectable number. So I submitted the book that July. And it was accepted that July, in a staggeringly fast response time.
I continued to submit work to journals in the meantime. I imagine having a book coming helped place the other stories, combined with the fact I already had a few credits to my name.
“David Milofsky told me that whenever I was writing and cringed, that that was the moment to keep going.”
Let’s hear it for persistence and serendipity! In fact, the serendipity wouldn’t have happened if you hadn’t persisted for so long … Backing up in time, when you were starting out as a new writer, what gave you inspiration and kept you going?
I first started writing before I could form letters, so what kept me going initially was my parents [who were my first audience]. Then came people like Paula Danziger and teacher Joan Schulz at my high school, who took me seriously.
I don’t think I’ve talked about this before, but my first agent signed me while I was in college. That didn’t go anywhere, with good reason. The book wasn’t strong enough. His wife’s agency took me on in graduate school, but I never got the collection together. But there was always something that propelled me along — a wonderful MFA community, an acceptance.
But what really kept me going was my own interest, characters popping up, a line coming to me. Though this collection took twenty-five years to put together, I was writing lots of other things meanwhile. I had a poem accepted and published in July 2017.
I’ve alsobeen working on picture books and a middle-grade novel and a novel-in-stories (and three of the stories in this collection are also in the novel).
I suppose what keeps me going with the kids’ books, despite no interest from agents in taking them on or publishers in releasing them, is the great interest that I have in them, as well as my belief that they will eventually find their way, as my stories have. The kind declines [turning down projects] from the industry have helped to fuel me, as has some smart criticism. But in the end what keeps me going is that I love the books and believe in them.
I keep writing because I love to write.
“In the end what keeps me going is that I love the books and believe in them.”
To close — what advice do you have for aspiring writers–in any form–and where did you learn that tip?
My MFA advisor, David Milofsky, told me that whenever I was writing and cringed, that that was the moment to keep going. He didn’t want me to pull away then, as he felt there was something deep and truthful behind my cringe. He wanted me to go on — and I have never forgotten that.
Thanks for the interview, Caitlin! And best of luck as you launch your brain-child into the world!