“I look at everything as a story,” an interview with Christina Consolino

Christina Consolino, senior editor at Literary Mama, freelance writer and editor, and author of the award-winning novel Rewrite the Stars, shares what it was like to launch her first book during the pandemic, what she’s working on now, and why writers should always, always pay attention to the world around them. Thanks, Christina!

Q: Happy Book Birthday! You launched Rewrite the Stars during the pandemic last March, a novel that has landed as finalist for several awards and garnered an impressive list of blurbs. What was that experience like? What were the highs and lows of debuting when the world was (and still is) knocked sideways?

A: Thank you so much for having me here! It seems hard to believe so much time had passed! I signed a publishing contract in April 2020, after much of our world had effectively shut down, and my novel debuted in March 2021. Because Rewrite the Stars is my first novel, I had no experience to compare its launch to. In retrospect, I think that’s a good thing—my bar was set pretty low! (Which seems like a horrible thing to say as I strive to be an optimistic person.) Everything I did to get the book ready for publication and beyond—approach authors for blurbs, submit to awards, pitch to podcasts and the launch itself—was done virtually. As an introvert, I found the virtual route easier than if I had to do anything in person. As a woman with many obligations, I also found it easier to plan for a Zoom launch because finding an hour to do something is far more palatable than finding two hours.

Because I debuted a year into the pandemic and the world was used to the virtual platform but not completely fatigued by it yet, my launch was well attended and held an abundance of energy. I consider that launch a highlight! Having never had a novel out in the world, it was wonderful to see readers, supporters, writing partners, friends, and family with my book in their hands. A low point for me involves the lack of interest by the library and bookstore in the city my characters visit on vacation. The library especially plays a role in the story (and in my life when I visit), and I would have loved to find my book there or even hold a virtual reading. And while reader reviews have been positive, because the number of in-person events has been limited, the connection I’d love to forge with the reader has been dampened. (Thankfully, some readers feel comfortable emailing with a line or two about how the novel affected them. These words mean so, so much to me!)

Overall, the experience enlightened me to what an author must do to launch a book and keep the book present. It also showed how adaptable (or not) the book industry can be. I hope to apply everything I learned to the next book.

Q: I am always interested in a writer’s “other selves,” and the way those interests and lifestyle facets work together. You are a scientist as well as an author, having taught anatomy and physiology at the college level for years. How does writing affect your scientific brain, and how does your knowledge of science affect your writing?

A: Writing has always been near and dear to my heart, and years ago, I grappled with the choice to pursue a creative degree or a more practical degree. With guidance from well-intentioned parents who wanted me to be able to support myself fully, if necessary, I chose the practical route and earned a doctorate in physiology. But even as I lectured on the cardiac cycle or the structure of skeletal muscle, a little voice spoke to me. “Write,” it said. While my children—I have four—were little, that meant blogging; it’s all I had time or energy for, and capturing snapshots of our lives then, maybe inserting snark or finding the humor in them, fulfilled me. A decade ago, though, the voice changed from the generic one prodding me to write to a full character telling me their story. As you might know, it’s difficult to ignore a voice that’s constantly pestering you!

That’s a lot of (perhaps unnecessary) backstory, but I share it because the answer to your question took me years to fully realize. When I reflect back on my time in graduate school—even just the application and interview process—signs pointed to my true desires to write. At my interview with the graduate school chair at the time, a gastrointestinal physiologist, he said, “Your essay is quite different from what we normally see. It’s a beautiful story.” I often think back to that hour I spent with him. What if I’d recognized then that my stories needed to be told? Would I have left the physiology department with a polite “Thank you for your time,” and applied to English or creative writing instead? Who knows?

My point: I look at everything as a story, and I want to connect the dots, find a structure, and produce a storyline. When I taught, my lectures had a beginning, a middle, and an end, and the “story” flowed, and I chose my words carefully, much like a writer does. And now, though I don’t teach science, I use that background every day, either in writing or in freelance editing. Being able to formulate questions, make suggestions, dig deeper, and test hypotheses serves me well in the writing arena and allows me to ask questions or hold a perspective that not everyone else has. Furthermore, most of my fiction revolves around some physical or mental health issue—the science lover in me still exists—and knowing the disease processes, how the body works, and what questions to ask puts me at an advantage when it comes time to do research.

Q: What project or projects are you working on right now? Why are you excited about it or them?

A: My work is mainly categorized as women’s fiction, and my next novel, The Chocolate Garden, is no exception. The story centers on seventy-seven-year-old Frank Raffaelo, a retired serviceman who loves his family but doesn’t always understand them or their motivations. An accidental fall forces Frank to face a fear—that his memory might be failing him—and rely on his three children: Gabe, the oldest, who’s overseas; Nico, the youngest, who is keeping a secret from his family; and Marissa, the middle child, who wants to feel like she belongs and matters to her family. Marissa is also a nurse practitioner, and with time, she realizes that while Frank might not show any abnormal cognitive changes, his wife of forty-two years, Angie, does. When Angie’s denial of her symptoms results in dangerous consequences, the Raffaelo family understands that life as they know it is about to change.

In 2015, my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. That summer, I spent many hours with my parents, and I sat with my mother as she was assessed for cognitive changes and diagnosed with “changes consistent with Alzheimer’s” (definitive diagnosis can only occur upon autopsy). Since then, I’ve taken on the role of point person for her health and well-being. This book reflects my experiences since that summer and exposes the toil and hardship that dementia can cause for partners and families. I hope it resonates with readers who have had similar experiences and helps them realize that they and their loved ones aren’t alone.

Aside from The Chocolate Garden, a few other projects are also in the works, but it’s a little early to divulge any of their secrets!

Q: Finally, I believe the writing community thrives when writers support one another and share their experiences. What advice do you have for the rest of us for hanging on to our creative selves when life is so messy? What techniques can you share with us for finding energy when we’re running low on it? 

A: Finding solace in writing—which, for me, is usually a solitary affair—is something I do every day. Shutting off from the real world is integral to maintaining my personal health and well-being (and sometimes, those characters just won’t be quiet!). Times exist, though, when my virtual writing friends are just what I need. Despite my ineptitude with social media and my dislike of the venue, there’s a draw there, and it comes from the writing community. They are a generous, welcoming, safe lot that understands why you’re stressed about life. They know how difficult it is to find minutes to write between parents or kids or grandparents or jobs or partners or bouts of loneliness. They understand that messiness and offer you a listening ear, advice, encouragement—whatever you need. So one tip would be to involve yourself in a good writing community and become involved. And by involved, I mean don’t just lurk there (though that’s a good start!). Participate in whatever way you can. Comment on a post, share a post, read a book and review it. Make friends! These folks will be your lifeline through the whole publication process.

As for hanging onto creativity and finding energy . . . I think it’s important to have other creative outlets that bring us joy. When a story just isn’t working for me, I often bake. The process soothes me, I enjoy it, and I always have a finished product (that usually tastes great). Somehow, being able to hold something concrete in my hands energizes me and clears my head. Walks outside also help; the air and nature rejuvenate my cluttered mind. Lately, I’ve also relied on my fifteen-minute solution: I set a timer and concentrate for fifteen minutes on the task at hand. At the end of the time, I celebrate (usually just a mental high five) what I’ve accomplished. The task can be anything from my own writing project to a client’s manuscript to dusting my home or weeding the garden, and I get a lot accomplished in fifteen minutes. That sense of accomplishment helps fill the empty vessel within once again.

A Toast to Music and History: Guest post from Melanie Gall

Melanie Gall is a woman of many talents. She is an author, an editor, a historian, a musician, a performer, and more. She tours within and outside of the U.S., putting on shows full of razzle and dazzle and all that jazz: A Toast to Prohibition and A Talent to Amuse: The Noel Coward Story are just the latest. Check out her albums on her website, and preorder her book Deanna Durbin, Judy Garland, and the Golden Age of Hollywood here.

The other day, I was at New York’s Museum of Natural History with a couple of friends. Safely masked and vaxxed, for the first time since the pandemic began, we had a regular girls’ day out. As we wandered through the Hall of Gems and Minerals and then the Hall of Biodiversity, my friend noted that one of the stuffed bears had been in the collection since 1892.

“That’s a hundred and thirty years ago,” she said. “I wonder what New York was like back then?”

Without thinking I replied, “Easy. That’s the year Eddie Cantor was born in the tenements of the Lower East Side. It was when the anti-sparrow protection laws in New York were in full force, and the year Merry Gotham opened on Broadway.”

One friend was a lifelong New Yorker, so she took this all in stride. But the other gave me a look that made me pause. I was suddenly aware that it was a bit odd to have so many seemingly random bits of historic tidbits at the ready. At least, it would seem that way to someone whose writings didn’t center around presenting and preserving history.

You see, I’m a music historian. Over the pandemic, I wrote and secured a book deal for Deanna Durbin, Judy Garland, and the Golden Age of Hollywood, a biography of 1930s Hollywood star Deanna Durbin. And to properly understand and recount life of a forgotten historic figure—in a way that both serves history and presents the material in a compelling and relatable manner—there needs to be context. And to effectively build that context, I immersed myself in the popular culture of the time. And learned a lot of, well, unusual history.

Wondering about millinery trends in the early twentieth century? I got it. Pondering when the first “morality clauses” were introduced into Hollywood contracts? I’m your gal. Feel like hearing about the litigious nature of inventor Thomas Edison? Oh, don’t get me started…. So many random facts, and it’s all just part of the job.

You see, every writer needs the skills and tools to properly serve their genre, and this is something a lot of people don’t sit down and think about. If you’re writing Science Fiction, Fantasy, or any sort of Apocalyptic or Dystopic novel, you need to be able to build a world, defining and remaining consistent with the rules that govern your universe. There’s memoir, where the writer needs to be able to tell a personal story while looking beyond their often still-raw emotions to create a work that is both relatable and marketable. A mystery has to be mysterious. Erotica needs to actually be scintillating. And so on.

I recently edited a manuscript where the writer fully admitted that he had never read any other books in the genre. Not one. My first piece of advice (after “don’t capitalize every word you happen to like in the next draft or I’ll stab myself in the eye with a fork”) was, of course, for him to research the genre. Understand the conventions. Understand what is trite and what is original. And learn what tools you already have or that you need to gain to write the best book possible. And for a history book (and no matter how much I’d love to craft a world with magic gerbils and flying toasters, I know my strength is non-fiction) one of the strongest tools needed is an in-depth knowledge of the history surrounding and influencing the events in the book. Because as a author/historian, I’m not just preserving history, I’m making vital decisions about how it will be remembered. And that is a heavy responsibility.

It’s probably a good thing that there haven’t been any parties for the past two years, because I’d
probably be that person expounding upon the most random things while other people chat about the weather and the most recent Marvel film. But meanwhile, I’ve just finished my second book, which is a history of house sparrows in North America. And oh, you have no idea the crazy things I’ve learned….

“Stay on the Path,” an Interview with N. West Moss, author of FLESH & BLOOD

N. West Moss is the author of the story collection, The Subway Stops at Bryant Park, and the memoir, Flesh and Blood: Reflections on Infertility, Family, and Creating a Bountiful Life. Her essays and short stories have appeared in McSweeney’s, The Saturday Evening Post, The Stockholm Review, Salon, the New York Times, Brevity, River Teeth, and Ars Medica, amongst many others

Q: What projects are you working on now? What are you excited about? 

A: I have several projects in various stages of completeness. I have a middle grade book that has been purchased, and I expect to get notes from my editor shortly. I also have ideas for two sequels to that book, and those ideas are written down in a file. I have a children’s book that I’m writing with my mother. I have a novel for adults that I’m also working on, as well as several essays, a short story, and a one-act play. That sounds like I’m writing a lot. I’m not really, but they are all there and ready for me as soon as I have time. Oh, another cool thing is that someone has purchased film rights for a few of my short stories, so I’ve gotten to spend time with him and hear the ways that he is envisioning making a very quiet story into a short film. It’s thrilling to collaborate in that way, to write, but really, I’m excited about all of my projects, every single bit of them. Creative endeavors–what joy.

Q: You write in seemingly all genres. Is it difficult or freeing to move between genres? What advice do you have for other authors who want to diversify that way? 

A: I read in all genres, from the most high-falutin’ literary work (think Virginia Woolf) to armloads of YA, poetry, plays, etc. I love language and I don’t feel like being bound by form. So no it’s not difficult to move between genres. It’s a delight. My memoir [has launched], and [I’m doing] interviews about that book, but I’m already looking forward to spending time writing fiction again, where I can make things up, and amuse myself without being the center of the story. So I love it. That being said, I have a lot to learn. So I got the itch to write a play or two or three, and I know that there is a lot I don’t know, so I’m sitting in on a friend’s script writing class, and I’m hoping another friend (you know who you are!) will teach an online class that I can attend in January. I want to be good at it, and I want to test out the ways that these different forms both constrain and allow us certain freedoms, simultaneously. 

Q: What have you NOT tackled yet that you want to? 

A: I want to get better at long-form fiction. I love great novels and I feel right at the edge of my ability with that. I need time though, to get better at it. The novels that I want to write require great time and concentration, and I don’t have great swaths of time, sadly. I also want to write some plays. I’m all excited about Sara Ruhl’s work (I got to be on a panel with her recently and now I’m reading everything she’s written) but I’ve always been fascinated by Eugene O’Neal’s two plays, A Long Day’s Journey into Night and The Iceman Cometh, and the ways that allowing characters to just speak for themselves reveals them so utterly. I want to be able to do that. I also love the idea of working with other people sounds great. I’d love to have a director and actors and lighting designers and costume people all add to their vision of my story. It just sounds like fun. Oh, also, I have never written poetry. I love reading poetry, but I just have never learned how to make it myself, even though I think that some of my language is poetic. I’m not a poet, I don’t get how to do it, and maybe someday someone will teach me how.

Q: What are you trying to write “around” in your life–what priorities also take up your time and energy, and how do you fit writing in, too?

A: All I want is time. All any writer wants is time. I wish I was rich and had a butler and a cook and someone to make me cocktails and do the dishes. But I don’t have any of that, and I have a full-time job, so I work around all of that. Whenever I think that it’s too hard, I think about Pearl Buck getting up very early in the morning and writing before her children awoke and before she went out to work in the rice fields, and I think, Quit being a baby and get to work. So I try to be disciplined. I have a lot of books that I want to write before my life is over, and my father, who did some writing, lost his ability to think clearly at the end of his life, so I feel like the clock is ticking. I try not to waste time, but I still do, and I’m not too hard on myself. I don’t want to ruin writing for myself by beating myself up. My career is moving along and maybe one day I’ll be able to afford to take a long residency somewhere and get substantial work completed. Until then, I do what I can. 

Q: So much about writing is really about networking and marketing, which can exhaust writers and take time away from their craft. How do you connect with readers and other writers in ways that you find beneficial or rewarding? 

A: There’s also all the time spent sending our work around and waiting for a response. I got into MacDowell a few years ago. What a lucky break that was, and I’ve since been to other residencies including the glorious Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA) and Cill Rialaig in Ireland. Meeting other artists at these places is enormously helpful. But really things are getting easier for me now. Getting the right agent has been enormously helpful.  He looks out for me, and helps me strategize about my career, and he protects me from a lot of the sending out process and the negotiations, that I wouldn’t be very good at. Having my current book published by Algonquin has been a stunning change for me. They arrange events for my book. They send the galleys out to reviewers and influencers. They get me interviews. They even help place some of my writing. All of this is to say that if you keep plugging away and get lucky enough to have an amazing agent and a lovely publisher, you finally get to do a bit less of these other jobs, and more of the writing. I say that to you, though, in the midst of the vortex of my first big launch, and even with people helping with that other stuff, it’s still pretty extroverted and exhausting. The thing is, I’m willing to do anything if it means I get to be a writer, and my job, as I see it, is just to stay on the path and put one little foot in front of the other for as long as I can.

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