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Author interviews by Kay Ellington, LSLL Publisher

Kay Ellington has worked in management for a variety of media companies including Gannett, Cox Communications, Knight-Ridder, and the New York Times Regional Group, from Texas to New York to California to the Southeast and back again to Texas. She is the coauthor, with Barbara Brannon, of the West Texas novel The Paragraph Ranch.

Susan Wittig Albert is the author of the novel A Wilder Rose, the true, untold story of the writing of the Little House books. Read Susan's October 2014 WWW talk.

 

Her award-winning fiction, which has appeared on the New York Times bestseller list, includes mysteries in the China Bayles series, the Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter, and a series of Victorian-Edwardian mysteries she has written with her husband, Bill Albert, under the pseudonym of Robin Paige.

 

She has written two memoirs: An Extraordinary Year of Ordinary Days and Together, Alone: A Memoir of Marriage and Place, published by the University of Texas Press.

 

Her nonfiction titles include What Wildness Is This: Women Write About the Southwest (winner of the 2009 Willa Award for Creative Nonfiction); With Courage and Common Sense; Writing from Life: Telling the Soul's Story; and Work of Her Own: A Woman's Guide to Success Off the Career Track.

 

She is founder and past president of the Story Circle Network and a member of the Texas Institute of Letters.

3.22.2015

Susan Wittig Albert: Mystery and mentoring

 

 

As professor of English at UT-Austin and New Orleans's Sophie Newcomb College and administrator at Southwest Texas State University -- not to mention role-model author -- Susan Wittig Albert has inspired and influenced a full generation of writers. Her Work of Her Own: A Woman's Guide to Creating a Right Livelihood was recently released in a 20th Anniversary edition. It was our good fortune to talk with her on publication day for the Lake Union Press edition of A Wilder Rose, the acclaimed fictional treatment of the life of Rose Wilder Lane that she had originally self-published.

 

 

LONE STAR LITERARY LIFE: Susan, you are certainly a prolific author under a variety of names. Why did you use pen names, and how many books have you published?

 

SUSAN WITTIG ALBERT: When I was writing YAs, I was a ghostwriter for a number of series under different names: Carolyn Keene, the Hardy Boys, Francine Pascal, and others. When my husband, Bill Albert, and I wrote together, the publisher wanted us to write under one name: we chose Robin Paige, and published a dozen books under that pseudonym. All my other writing for adults has been done under my own name. At last count, I’ve published about 110 books, but that’s an estimate, and doesn’t include my academic books or textbooks. I stopped counting when I got past 100. : )

 

 

Many authors lament the rapidly changing nature of publishing. You seem to have embraced the range of options—you are traditionally published, and you are also a publisher with your own imprint. How would you characterize the current state of publishing?

 

These days, there are a great many more options than there were when I started writing full time in the mid-1980s. But even then, there were more options than most people acknowledged. There’s always work—even paying work—If you are determined to write, persistent in your efforts, and willing to take risks.

 

 

Readers may not know that you are the founder of the Story Circle Network, a nonprofit organization for women writers. What prompted you to found Story Circle?

 

I was teaching journaling and memoir writing and needed a book for my students. So I wrote Writing from Life. That book led to Story Circle, which I founded in 1997. We’re almost twenty years old now, and sponsor a number of excellent programs. To see what we’re doing, go to www.storycircle.org and look around.

 

 

As a fellow gardener, I enjoy reading your blog. I also appreciate protagonist/herbalist/herb shop owner China Bayles, and the metaphorical and literary roles herbs play in those books. Can you tell us more about the ways gardening informs your writing?

 

I couldn’t write China’s mysteries if I didn’t have a pretty solid background in gardening—I would make too many mistakes! Gardening and homesteading (which includes chickens, ducks, geese, cows, sheep—the whole ee-i-ee-i-o barnyard) were major subjects in my first two memoirs, Alone Together and An Extraordinary Year. I blog about gardening, too. It’s a part of my life. While I still have a large veggie garden, though, I no longer grow exotics, just native plants and those that do well here in the Hill Country. I think I’d call myself a nature writer, rather than a garden writer. To see what I’m doing in that area, visit my blog: www.susanalbert.typepad.com/lifescapes

 

 

As a child, did you want to write? When did you decide to make it a career?

 

Yes: I was determined to be a writer when I grew up. I decided to make it a career when I was nineteen and began publishing YA short stories, but got sidetracked into college and an academic life. At midlife, I left the university behind for full-time writing.

 

 

There’s been a lot of dialogue in the book press lately on the question—“Can writing be taught?” As a former academic and an author/publisher, how would you answer that question?

 

Writing skills—and yes, these are necessary!—can be taught and learned, as long as there’s some aptitude and desire, just as dance steps can be learned. And a strong, sympathetic, empathetic teacher can show students how other writers work, can introduce them to excellent writing, and encourage them to take off on their own. But the rest of it is the writer’s own doing, on her own. If she wants to learn, she has to be her own teacher.

 

 

What advice would you give to new writers—especially to those who are seeking their dream to publish later in life?

 

To new writers, read read read read read. (And don’t neglect basic skills.) To midlife writers: Yes, you can, yes, yes. But you won’t know what you’re capable of doing until you stretch out and reach as far as you can. (But you do need basic skills, too.)

 

 

What’s the best thing to happen to publishing since your career started?

 

Word processing (I started with a manual typewriter!). Then electronic publishing and online ebook retailing of author-published works. Writers no longer have to wait until a gatekeeper-agent agrees to represent them. They can put the work out themselves. That doesn’t mean they’ll attract lots of readers. But at least they’ll have a foot in the door.

 

Here’s the most important topic of all: describe your quintessential Texas meal!

 

Pork ribs, beans, and coleslaw or potato salad, with slices of big, fat, ripe tomatoes, a hunk of hot garlic bread, and a cold beer.

 

* * *

More on Susan Wittig Albert's books

can be found on the author's website at susanalbert.com.

 

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