As those who know me will tell you, I’m really big on collaboration. Sure, I have many of my own projects on the go, but I’m a firm believer in the importance of community and working with others. This month’s blog returns us to collaboration as the next instalment in my occasional series about womxn writers. I had the fantastic opportunity to interview author, Shirley Merith, a Hospitality and Tourism college professor with a Masters Degree in Education. She is a freelance travel writer, and a co-author of Walking Through and Other Stories, which was featured on the CBC Radio’s Here and Now Book Club. The interview was conducted over the phone on March 24th and has been edited for length.
RS: I’m interested in writers and their engagement with the community. Your book, Walking Through and Other Stories was a communal project, because you collaborated with four other women to create this book. I’m wondering if you can speak to how the book came about, and how important it was for you to produce a collaborative book? In other words, how does community and collaboration affect your work as a writer?
SM: There was a large group of us (about twenty of us at the start) who met through the Writers’ Community of Durham Region (WCDR), and we were interested in working on a project together. We realized after awhile it would be beneficial if we formed a smaller group, so we did that. And then after some time, we realized that we were women that all lived in the Pickering/Ajax community, and felt that it would be good if we could create something that we could share with that community. So, yes, community was part of the process. The next question was: what would we create? The idea of a book of short stories came up, so we started to work on that, and went forward.
RS: So it was important for you to work as a group? Because it’s different if you write a book by yourself as opposed to with a group, that’s what I’m getting at.
SM: Yes, it’s definitely different. The reason that we did this together is because all of us, individually, were at some stage of writing their own novel, or poetry book. So we were all doing our own things, which we all are still currently doing now. But we also found that we were getting into writer’s block, or getting stuck. So, what happened was that we felt that if we worked on something together, we would help to push each other through, as opposed to what we were doing on our own. That was the whole purpose behind it. We were constantly in contact with each other, and asking “How are you doing? How is the process?” Then we realized that if we were going to do something together we needed to come up with a theme, and an idea and what exactly we were trying to do. Everyone contributed different ideas, and we finally decided upon a theme related to human connection. So all of the stories have to do with human connection, even though one might be more historical, and one might be more romance, it still had something to do with human connection.
RS: Sounds like you were really supporting each other, and that there was a real sense of community and supporting each other’s work.
SM: Every single week we communicated, and twice a month we met. Every week, back and forth, and every two weeks we met at a coffee shop, and we literally spent time working together on the process. And the process took some time. Not only were we working on our own material, but we had to work on the whole process. It really wasn’t simple, because we had five women, with five different mindsets, ideas, concepts, and you had to work together, and that was a challenge on a good day!
RS: Because you and your co-authors self-published, and because there were so many in your group, did you find you had to learn to work together as far as the self-publishing, promotion, and so on, went?
SM: Everyone was assigned a role. Two people were the bankers and took care of the finances and ordering of books; one person was the marketer, and she looked after getting us into the bookstores and the libraries, radio and so forth; one person was the social media person, and she created the websites and the Twitter and that sort of thing; and one person was somewhat of an meeting organizer, arranging meetings with the editor, for instance. I mean, we were all editors, but she was really the main editor, and then we hired an outside editor as well, so everybody had a certain role in the group.
RS: And what made you self-publish? Did you try to go to the traditional route? What were the rationales for self-publishing?
SM: That’s a good question. First of all, we thought about the traditional route, so it wasn’t that we hadn’t thought about traditional publishing. We did get in contact with a few publishers. Not big publishers like Doubleday or anything, they were smaller publishing houses, and they were prepared to take us on, but the problem was when you did a smaller publishing house, you had to buy a certain amount of books from them at a time. So we had to put up the capital in advance for let’s say 500 or 1000 books, not knowing in advance whether we were going to sell them or not. So that was a concern. When we decided to look into self-publishing, we found that we could more or less pay as you go. And that for us seemed to be a more viable option. And so, yes, over the past two years or so, we’ve had over 1000 sales.
SM: I can’t give you an exact number, but it’s around 1000. And some months were better than others, of course. We had it on the e-books and that, but you know, as the years go by, the sales go by as new books get published, you’re no longer at the front of things, you’re at the back, at the back end. So right now, I don’t know if we’ve sold much, I don’t think we have, but I’m sure if we ramped up our marketing again, which I’m sure, at some stage we will, we could move up again. As you know, we were doing a lot of the bookstores, doing a lot of promotion, doing local events, like the Pickering Indie festival author day, with the library, and we still do that to this day with the library. But what eventually happened was that it was a year and a half to two years of always out doing promotions and things, and one or two of the women said, you know what? We’re tired of it now. It’s great, we’ve sold some books, but some of the women started to feel that they wanted to work on other projects, so we’re not as invested in the promotion as we were in the past.
RS: What is your perspective on supporting and encouraging womxn writers?
SM: Supporting women writers, of course that’s important. All of us, we’ve all had stuff we’ve thought about for years about writing, we’ve either read books from an author we’ve loved and we’ve said to ourselves, you know, I would really love to do something like this, and we put it away, and we never really pick it up and that’s because life gets in the way, and we all know this. So that’s why there are a lot of women’s writing groups, or women’s reading groups so they can help and support each other to move forward, and that’s what we wanted to do. To take that stuff out of the cupboard, take it out of the drawer and dust it off, and that’s challenging as you know as a writer, because you’re giving your stuff out there to people, not knowing the feedback, and you have to accept the feedback as you get it. And sometimes that’s not fun, because you wrote it with one thing in mind, and you wrote it as a great piece of writing, and you have other people saying well, that really doesn’t work for me. And that was challenging for us as women supporting each other, because we had to support each other in the good and the bad of our writing. Sometimes, some of the writers would come back and really crucify what I wrote. And it stung a bit, but you know, I got it. I understood the message. So yes, supporting is understanding that you might not agree or like everything that you do or you hear, but you have to be open. And also for future writers, because, of course when we were out doing promotions, people would ask us how we got into it, how they could get into it, and we would recommend that they start somewhere. There are writers’ groups and groups online. Two of the authors in our group were also taking creative writing at the University of Toronto, and they would share some of their exercises or feedback, so we always have to be in support of women, in general, whether you’re in an immediate connection with them or not, but not only just women, young girls, young people who want to write. We really helped each other because we had deadlines, and we had to meet those deadlines, so we kept each other on track. Women really help each other along.
RS: Your group is also a group of women of colour. Is that something that your group was conscious about when forming together as a group?
SM: No, good question. It wasn’t conscious. What happened was again, we were all in a writing group, and we put it out there for people to join up, and we were the main ones that came back with it, who stuck with the project. We also recognized that wow, yes, we are all women of colour. That was also something that we thought about afterwards, and even in our writing, we thought about it carefully, and how we wanted to approach our heritage and identities in our stories. Two of the stories do connect with the writers’ heritages, one story has to do with India, and one of the other stories has to do with the author’s heritage in Barbados. We didn’t want to make our various heritages the main part of the book, but it’s certainly something we recognized and took stock of in producing the book, and its definitely how we got into some of the events and things we did, because we are women of colour.
RS: What you’re saying then is that race is something that your group was definitely conscious of, and how significant and important it is.
SM: Yes, it’s important. It’s something that, like I said, we weren’t sure, as first-time writers, how it would play out in terms of the book. And even when I was writing my character, I left it so that you don’t know how she is. I leave it to the reader to imagine how she is.
RS: What about in your mind? How do you see your main character? What does she look like?
SM: Well, in my mind, she was somewhat of mixed heritage, but I did not dwell on that. I left it open, but it’s all in the perspective of who reads it, and what they want to get out of it.
RS: Final question, and this is something I ask everyone: whose work inspires you the most? Or more generally, what inspires you?
SM: It’s really interesting because my story is a light romance, and I do not have a favourite light romance author. I like Elin Hilderbrand, I like her writing, but she’s not my favourite, I just like her light writing. And I chose the light romance, because we all know that romance is a big seller. I felt that I wanted to try something a little bit different in that regard, for me, different for me, because that’s not where I was starting out. Because I am a mystery writer. That’s what I really like to do, and that’s what I’m doing right now. I love mystery and suspense. So my favourite writers that way would be James Patterson, Lynwood Barclay, David Baldacci, I love the way write, whatever they do. It’s crime-thrillers. I like that stuff. But I sensed it was a little bit different than what I was working on, and then this project came along. I was also working on another type of romance, I was thinking along the lines of Hallmark, you know, although I haven’t quite gotten there yet. Then there was the decision to shorten it, because we were thinking of short stories. How many words in a short story? I had way more story, and I had to cut it right down because we’d decided on a length, and I had to work within certain parameters to keep it short. I’m really more of a crime fiction person, but I’ve always, like a lot of people, wanted to write. And it was exciting to write, and seeing the finished product at the end was quite pleasing.