Thursday, May 10, 2007

SPECIAL GUEST: Sandi Kahn Shelton, Author of A PIECE OF NORMAL

I have a real treat for everyone today at Boomer Chick. We have a guest author! Welcome Sandi Kahn Shelton, author of A Piece of Normal!

Sandi is one of my authors on her very first virtual book tour with Pump Up Your Book Promotion Virtual Book Tours and it's been such a pleasure to know her, to work with her, and to follow her around the blogosphere as she visits blogs that are literally all over the world!

And who is Sandi Shelton?

Sandi has been writing fiction since she was six years old and figured out that she could make money selling stories to the neighbors so she could get money for the ice cream man. After she made her first sale--twenty cents for a story about a king who slept through his coronation--she bought banana popsicles and vowed that making up stories was going to bring her plenty of frozen goodies until the end of time. Unfortunately, life doesn't always give you what seems promised--and first she had to put herself through college by working at Taco Bell and Howard Johnson's, then she became a medical assistant and learned to give shots and say, "The doctor is busy just now, may I take a message?" while she waited for her degree in English to come through for her.

While she waited, she got married and had a couple of kids, and for a while the only creative writing she did was permission slips for field trips. And then she got a divorce and she got a job writing news for a local weekly newspaper--which would have been so much more fun, she thought, if she didn't have to tell the precise truth about everything. But people are quirky about their news: they want it to really have happened, not be the way a person would have thought it could have happened if life was more interesting. And so, bored out of her mind with Planning and Zoning meetings, she started writing a weekly column about her life as a single working mom, just to keep her mind of town politics and to keep herself from going insane. (Plus sending these little bulletins made her mother stop nagging her for letters.) She put the typewriter on the kitchen table (this was back in the days of typewriters) and started writing down all the things that happened in her family: the hamster loose in the living room, the last-minute elephant costumes being put together at 3 a.m., the lost car keys turning up in the garbage disposal, the bubble gum in the hair, the doll named Fixie that she had re-sewed the arms on 4,586 times...etc., etc.

People started calling it a "humor column," although that wasn't the way any of it struck her at the time. She planned to write it for exactly five weeks, or until she ran out of material, whichever came first--and somehow that led her through the next ten years, including into a new marriage, another baby, the older kids growing into teenagers and heading off to college. Working Mother magazine started printing some of these columns, and then a publisher ran across one of them, and offered to put them in a book, which was called You Might As Well Laugh: Surviving the Joys of Parenthood, which was released in 1997.

Then, because once these things start happening, they tend to keep on happening, she started writing a book about babies and how fascinating life can be when you haven't had any sleep for five straight months. St. Martin's published it in 1999, and called it Sleeping through the Night...and Other Lies, and it had the honor of being the only book about parenthood that offered virtually no advice whatsoever that could ever help a new parent, unless you count the sentence that says, "Just try to muddle through as best you can, and don't feel bad about crying in public." On a roll now, she started free-lancing for magazines (she's an expert in 77 Ways to Tell Your Husband You Love Him Without Spending More than $10) and she went on to write Preschool Confidential, which came out in 2001, and again, merely commiserated with people who might have toddlers at home scribbling on their couches and walls. For a while it looked as though she might be stuck in a rut of writing about each and every age a child might eventually turn, all the way up to "Dealing with Your Thirty Year Old," but luckily fate intervened and she realized that what she'd really always wanted since she was six was to make up lies about fictitious people and put them in books and buy banana popsicles.

And as it happened she had been pursuing this little dream for nearly the whole time she'd been writing the other books. Whenever there wasn't a carpool to run, or a load of laundry to throw in, or some disgusting dog-substance to wipe up, or a magazine or newspaper column to do--she could be found tapping away on her laptop and muttering aloud about this woman Maz who was raised by Madame Lucille, a crazy fortune-teller who thought nothing of seducing Maz's boyfriends, and in 2005, a mere seventeen years from the date she'd started it--she got a phone call from her agent saying those words she'd always longed to hear: "They're buying your novel!"

What Comes After Crazy was published by Shaye Areheart, a division of Crown, which is a division of Random House, in 2005--with one little surprising line added there in the contract: another book of fiction was due just ten months later. This was great (though scary) news for her but bad news for the piles of laundry and the carpools, because now she actually had a reason to learn to say NO and to sit down and mutter nearly full-time at the laptop. She finished A Piece of Normal--the story of two mismatched sisters who have to learn to get along-- with minutes to spare for her deadline, and it came out in June 2006 in hardcover, and in March 2007 in paperback.

These days she's again muttering happily aloud at the laptop: she's at work on a new novel whose deadline is ticking ever closer, and a fourth novel is just beginning to nudge itself into her consciousness. Luckily the children have pretty much grown up and don't need her to made their peanut butter sandwiches anymore, and instead of writing her family life column for the newspaper, she now writes a blog.

You can find out more about Sandi and her books at or her blog at!


Boomer Chick: Welcome to the Boomer Chick blog, Sandi! Can you tell us what your book is all about?

Sandi: Oh, I'm so happy to be here, Dorothy. I love this blog! Thank you for letting me come and visit and talk about my book.

A Piece of Normal is the story of two sisters--Lily, a single mom who is all settled down and buttoned up (she's so together, she's an advice columnist who loves to tell other people how to live) and Dana, a runaway punk rocker who left home at 18 and hasn't looked back. The story is about their reunion and how they both have to come to terms with their damaged childhoods and learn to forgive each other and their parents so they can move on in their lives. In the process, though, they go through a lot of weird stuff, such as Dana falling in love with Lily's ex-husband, and Lily getting in such trouble at her job that she has to figure out how to give herself some good advice. (And we all know how hard it is to advise ourselves!)

Boomer Chick: Do the two sisters in the book have any relevance to your own personal life? In other words, did you have a punk rock sister, lol?

Sandi: I didn't have a punk rock sister, actually--but I do think that the sister relationship is one of the most power-packed relationships in a woman's life. A sister is like a mirror, showing you the past you came from, and keeping you from ever being able to quite walk away with it without dealing with it. You know? So many times, I think, sisters become almost polar opposites: one being almost a mother figure and the other one being permitted to act outrageous and do whatever she wants. In Lily and Dana's case, the roots of their estrangement come from way back, when Dana unwittingly became the keeper of their mother's secrets...and this mom had some pretty powerful secrets, believe me! So while Lily is the one trying to hold everything together, she learns how to be spontaneous and take more risks by watching her sister--even though her sister is breaking her heart at the same time.

Boomer Chick: What message is your book trying to convey?

Sandi: You know, I didn't really have a message when I started writing it. I didn't know what it was about. I only knew that I was compelled to write about these two women, who seemed to have moved into my head and were telling me things about their lives all the time. They were constantly tattling on each other in such a sibling rivalry kind of way--while I was trying to fall asleep, or when I was driving the car, or when I was taking a shower. I finally stopped fighting them and started listening and making notes. It wasn't until the book was finished that I could step back and see what it may have meant, and here's what I think it's about--that sometimes we have to open our hearts in very unexpected ways to find our truths. This means not only forgiving the past, but embracing it.

Boomer Chick: Can you tell us about your agent and how you acquired her?

Sandi: My agent is Nancy Yost, of Lowenstein-Yost Associates, and she is wonderfully encouraging and supportive, and sometimes I think we could talk for hours on the phone just making each other laugh--except that we both have work to do, and have to finally hang up. She's got more energy than any four people on the planet put together--almost as much as you, Dorothy. LOL. I found her through my former editor at St. Martin's Press, where I published three non-fiction humor books about parenthood. But the whole time I was writing non-fiction, I had this secret novel in the drawer, and when I told my editor there about it, she suggested I find an agent who was devoted to fiction-writers. I sent a letter to Nancy, sent her a draft of the book, she liked it, made some handy suggestions, which I was happy to take (they were head-smackingly wonderful observations about things I needed to change)--and then she sent it out to editors she already knew, and within a very short time, we had an offer.

Boomer Chick: What would you tell someone who is dying to be published with a NY publisher and would give first rights to their first kid to have an agent like yours?

Sandi: Two pieces of advice, really, besides KEEP THE FIRST RIGHTS TO THE KID IF YOU CAN. The first is: don't give up. I know that sounds trite, and people probably think, "You kidding me? Why would I ever want to give up?" But the truth is that there can be so many obstacles along the way, and everybody always tells you how impossible it is to get a novel published and that you are insane even to try. It can be horrifying how long the whole process takes. My first novel, What Comes After Crazy, took 17 years from the day I sat down and wrote the first sentence until it came out--and during that time I finished it four separate times and then just knew, in my heart of hearts when I would re-read it, that it still wasn't "right." Ugh! I rewrote that thing so many times that I thought it was going to end up being buried with me in manuscript form. My family would just roll their eyes whenever I'd announce that I was back on page one again. (In fact, when it did get accepted and I called my son on the phone to tell him, after he congratulated me, he laughed and said, "So what do you estimate your hourly rate was for that book?" I had to tell him it was probably something like 4.5 cents.) But, hey, who cares about an hourly rate? If you've got a book in you, you're willing to work every available second just to get it the way you want it, right?

Anyway, my agent at the time (who had placed my non-fiction books) read it and liked it and was willing to shop it around, but it didn't sell. Which brings me to my second piece of advice: Get the agent who is right for what you are writing. Although my non-fiction agent was good at what she did, she didn't travel in the "fiction editor" circles. You need somebody who can be passionate about you and your work, and who really knows the market for what you're writing. I was lucky in that I found my agent through a recommendation from an editor, but if you're looking for one, there are books out there to help you. Writers' Digest publishes guides to agents, in which the agents tell what kind of clients they're looking for and what books they like to represent the best. Then write a ONE-PAGE cover letter, (editors get a lot of mail, and they get bored easily, so you have to grab 'em quick) describing your book and your other writing credits, if any, and ask if the agent would like to see a chapter. And then sit back and wait. Sometimes it takes a few tries--and it's hard to wait, especially when you've poured your heart and soul into your book. That's when you need to go back to my first piece of advice: Don't give up. Take it from me. Miracles can happen.

Boomer Chick: If you weren't an author and could be anything in the world, what would be your second choice?

Sandi: I have laughably few skills in the world, so it would be hard for me to do anything besides write, I'm afraid. I'm one of those people who looks at the Classified Ad section of the paper and can't imagine how they find people to fill all those jobs! Who can DO all those things? I work part-time as a feature reporter for a newspaper, where I've worked for 20 years, but other than stringing sentences together (and making the occasional pie crust), there's really not much else that's available for me. I love writing in all its forms (except on the days when I hate it.) But I think I would have loved to become a filmmaker, if I couldn't be a writer. Just the idea of trying to put across an idea using pictures instead of only having words intrigues me.

Boomer Chick: Thanks for coming, Sandi! Any last thoughts?

Sandi: Just that it's so wonderful that there are these online communities now where people can reach each other and talk about things they're interested in. In the six months that I've had a website and a blog, I've met so many interesting people. I could stay in the blogosphere pretty much all day and never mind a bit that I'm not getting any work done. Thank you so much for hosting me on your blog, Dorothy. And I'd also like to say that I'm willing to answer readers' questions, and can be reached at my blog which is: Thank you!


Sandi's tour is brought to you by Pump Up Your Book Promotion Virtual Book Tours! If you are an author and you would like us to set up a virtual book tour, click here for more information!

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  1. I loved the interview wiht Sandi. What a great idea. I love learning about authors. As an aspiring writer myself it's so cool learning how other writers came to this point. Thanks!

  2. That was fascinating!

    Happy Mothers Day, Dorothy!


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