In Search of the Right Structure

I had the chance to interview Lisa Romeo, whose memoir, Starting with Goodbye, has just been released. Lisa’s path to publication was long and winding, and has much to teach us about how to listen to your instincts, when to ask for help, and the importance of persistence.

One thing I especially love about Lisa’s story is that she, too, is a book coach and an editor and a writing instructor who guides writers on their way to publication — and yet she asked for help with her own work. True pros tend to know when they need help.

Jennie: I would like to ask you some questions about finding the shape of this story because I think your path mimicked the path so many memoir writers take.

Lisa: In the beginning, you had some essays and short pieces, some of which were already published in literary journals, and your vision was that you would bring those pieces together to make a memoir. I believe you used the term “linked lyric essays” to describe the structure of that original book. Can you talk first about the published pieces? At what point did you realize you were not just writing short pieces but you were writing a book?

I began writing essays — of varying lengths, styles, and structures — about my grief experience, my father, and our relationship, shortly after he passed in November 2006. At the time I was in an MFA program, and that’s what I did — all essays, all the time. They were steadily published in literary journals and in more popular media venues, for about six years before it occurred to me that I might have a book in there. I envisioned it as a memoir-in-linked-essays. I knew I’d need to write more thematically linked pieces for it to hold together and so I did that, and next started assembling them into an order I thought worked, and then revising for things like repeated information, etc.

Jennie: The proposal for your book was a finalist in a SheWrites/Seal Press publishing contract contest. What drew you to that contest — besides the two great organizations? And what was the result of that contest for you?

Lisa: That was the proposal for that imagined essay collection, and it was one of five finalists in that contest. I have many friends who’ve published with both She Writes Press and with Seal Press (and I’d been included in an anthology from Seal, too), so that combination of entities attracted me.

Even though it didn’t win, I learned a number of things from the experience. First, in practical terms, it forced me to finally finish the proposal (yay for deadlines!), which had been languishing in my computer. Being a finalist gave me hope and a confidence boost — so important for any writer cooking up a book idea on their own. When it wasn’t selected for publication, it forced me to think more critically, but alas, I persisted, and not exactly wisely!

Jennie: You came to me for coaching on pitching that original book. What strikes me looking back on that request is that you said you had shown the work to some agents and publishers and that the feedback was consistent: everyone loved the prose but lamented that it was not a more traditional, linear narrative. That turned out to be my response to the work, as well. You were obviously not ready to hear that advice — which happens so often. There’s sometimes so much such tension between the vision you have for the book and the way the world seems to want it to be. Do you remember why you were resistant to crafting a traditional narrative?

Lisa: The biggest reason I was clinging to my original concept is because at the time I thought of myself as an essayist, and since my days as an MFA student, I always imagined my first book would be essays. I’d had so much fun writing them and seeing some reach readers already, and I’d read and loved several memoir-in-essays books and I guess I wanted to join that club.

Plus, I’m stubborn. Two beta readers — both accomplished as both novelists and essay writers themselves — had already given me the advice to transform it into a more traditional, linear narrative memoir, and while I respected their acumen, I just couldn’t let it go. Not even when a few small press publishers read the manuscript and asked me to revise and resubmit as a memoir. Not even when you made such an intelligent argument, and we had those long phone conversations and all those email exchanges.

I think in my gut I always knew everyone was right. And I also realize, looking back, that I was scared. What if I undertook to make that huge transformation, and I couldn’t do it? What if, as a writer, I didn’t have the chops? Ironically, that doubt eventually was what made me take on the challenge.

Jennie: I’d also love to hear your thoughts on the whole idea of asking for help and accepting help. It’s so hard for so many writers and creative people. There is such a fear of losing your voice or your vision, or that it is somehow cheating. Did that enter into your thought process at all?

Lisa: On the contrary, I’ve always thought that asking for help — from experts you respect who are interested in helping, not taking over or forcing a change — is very wise. Yet it sometimes takes time for good advice to sink in. One has to come around to it in their own time. As an editor and writing coach myself, I’ve seen this again and again. Client writers come back to me months, years later to say they decided to give something a try after all. In so many ways, you have to be ready.

Jennie You eventually pivoted and decided to write the book as a full narrative, whole unto itself. Can you talk about the decision-making process around that change? How did you come to that decision and at what point did you know it was the right decision?

I’d been querying the essays manuscript for about two years (to small traditional publishers and university presses), and finally I stopped and put it away for about a year. But I kept writing around the same experience (grief, losing Dad, getting to know and understand him better after he’d passed) — passages that I thought would go to future essays, but maybe could become part of a new manuscript. I was, I suppose, getting ready.

Finally, I sat down in January 2016 to begin the big revision/rewrite. Once I decided on the framework of the chronology — beginning two months before Dad died and ending about two-and-a-half years later — I could feel it coming together, making sense. I gave myself permission though to move around quite a bit in time within those “bookends” because I wanted the narrative to mimic the unpredictable, episodic vagaries of grief. I wanted the reader to enter my experience of unexpectedly “visiting” various times in my and my father’s life, without warning, as I did the hard work of remembering (not forgetting) which is what drives grief.

About two months into that process, I felt fairly confident it was going to work. That was a huge relief, to have taken on this challenge I had more or less been hiding from, and seeing that I was going to manage it, learn from it, come out the other end a better writer.

Jennie: Did you go back and start from scratch or were you able to retain any of the original pieces?

Lisa: A little of both. Tearing those essays apart was a particular kind of agony; I felt very protective of them. They are the foundation and walls of the memoir, but now I’m the only one who will see and know it; for the reader, I hope the parts I salvaged from them are seamless, blending with all the new material.

A wonderful bonus was realizing I could now write about other aspects of our father-daughter experience that I’d never included in the original essays — joyful, fun times from my childhood that made for refreshing, perhaps more uplifting and even humorous moments in a memoir otherwise about grief. Waiting had another advantage: I got to go deeper in so many areas, since I’d had so much more time by then to have found meaning in the grief journey and to discover what I’d learned about myself in the process — which of course, is what drives memoir.

Jennie You ended up publishing with the University of Nevada Press. Can you talk about your decision to pitch to university presses, and how you ended up going with UNP?

By January 2017, I’d been querying small traditional presses for a few months, and the full manuscript was out at three of them (that included one of the three publishers who originally asked to see it as a traditional memoir; one other passed, and the third had gone out of business).

I had just begun submitting to university presses.

I had a number of author friends who’d been happy with their university press experience, and some who’d been unhappy — which I suppose, mirrors experiences with any kind of publisher! But and I had a lot of respect for the way most university presses operate, which includes a rigorous manuscript peer-author vetting process. Also, as someone who teaches in an MFA program, publishing with a university press makes a lot of sense; it carries some weight.

I met Justin Race, the director of University of Nevada Press, in the final hour of the AWP conference in February 2017. We got to talking and when I came to the part about half of my memoir taking place in Las Vegas, it felt as if something clicked for us. Most university presses have a mission or mandate, and one of theirs is to publish books that have something to say about the experience and culture of living in Nevada and environs.

The same day UNVP made an offer (about five weeks after AWP), I received an offer from a more commercial press that had been reading the manuscript. I kind of knew deep down I wanted to go with a university press, but it had to make sense and I needed input. I reached out to three agents, one showed interest, advised me on contract details and helped with negotiations. So suddenly I had an agent — sort of the backward way of doing things, but I was grateful for the support. And now it’s nice that someone besides my husband wants to know what I’m going to write next!

I’ve had a very positive experience with my publisher thus far (we’re two weeks from publication date at I write this), and to me the book, the press, and I fit well together — which of course if what every author hopes will happen.

Jennie: This book was many years in the making. How do you feel about its path to publication today?

Lisa: Some days I’m sure this was the way things were always supposed to be. Other days, frankly I wish I were getting my first book published when I was younger! But I didn’t get serious about creative writing until I was in my mid-40’s. And the learning experiences along the way were invaluable.

Jennie: The story is a remembrance of your dad — your relationship with him after he died, and the whole idea of death not being the end. Do you think your dad would have been proud of you?

Lisa: I know he always was proud of me and my writing efforts (even when it was a mediocre article in a forgettable publication), though it was hard for him to express that to me directly. Which of course is one reason the book exists — that we found it difficult to bridge so many gaps. His pride showed itself instead when he bragged about me (or his other children) to others, often embellishing here and there! He’d likely be surprised to find himself the subject of a book at all, which I think would make him feel a bit awkward, but at the same time proud that his work as a parent had meaning that lasted beyond his own life.

To learn more about Lisa and her work, check out her website.