Today, we're bestowing an honorary tiara upon Keith Cronin. His debut novel Me Again releases today! I had the pleasure of reading an advance copy of this delightful story.
About Me Again / September 2011 by Five Star/Gale:
Two young stroke victims meet in a hospital ... Jonathan's memory is gone, wiped clean by a six-year coma. Since nobody had expected him to recover, his sudden awakening becomes an awkward intrusion on his family and friends.Rebecca's personality has changed, making her a stranger to her husband. Gone is the vivacious trophy wife, replaced by a shy, awkward woman with a knack for saying exactly the wrong thing.They don't fit in. And they'll never be the same. But now they've got to decide what matters most: who they were, or who they can become?A steadily accelerating story exploring the irony, humor, and opportunity that can accompany personal calamity, ME AGAIN follows the intertwined paths of two people forced to start over in life: one looking for his place in a world that has moved on without him, the other struggling to navigate a relationship with a man who wishes she were someone else.
Keith is a corporate speechwriter and professional rock drummer who has performed and recorded with artists including Bruce Springsteen, Clarence Clemons, and Pat Travers. Keith's fiction has appeared in Carve Magazine, Amarillo Bay, The Scruffy Dog Review, Zinos, and a University of Phoenix management course, and he is a regular contributor at the literary blog Writer Unboxed. A native of South Florida, Keith spends his free time serenading local ducks and squirrels with his ukulele. Visit him online at http://www.keithcronin.com/ or www.facebook.com/keithcronin
Julie: Keith is a fellow member of Backspace, and I've so looked forward to conducting this interview! Tell us, how does it feel to know your first novel is about to debut? (Obviously, we talked before release day!)
Keith: It feels like somebody pressed the Fast Forward button! The book's launch seems to be hurtling towards me, and I often wake up in the middle of the night, wondering if there's some important thing I've forgotten to do to support it. As we all know, an increasing amount of the responsibility for promoting a book is falling on the author, so I'm trying to find that balance between doing everything I can realistically do, and not making myself crazy. The promotion that really matters is done by readers telling other readers about books they enjoyed, so I'm trying to get my book on as many people's radar as possible, and then just hoping for the best.
Julie: Many of our readers and all six of us here at What Women Write are dreaming of that day. It's great to hear some of what goes through your mind. Me Again is being marketed as women's fiction, which is, of course, one of several reasons we're bestowing the second honorary What Women Write tiara upon your head. (Jamie Ford received honorary tiara number one.) Many if not most male authors explore interpersonal relationships at some point in their thrillers, mysteries, horror stories, etc., but I can only name a few who write relationship-driven novels similar to yours: Nick Hornby, Nick Sparks, and James Patterson. Your voices are all quite different, but it's definitely an interesting niche market. I'd love to see more male authors classified this way. I think it brings a new perspective to the field. As a male breaking into the women's fiction market, how has the pre-marketing phase gone for you?
Keith: It's been going really well, I can say with both some surprise and some relief. I find female readers tend to be more open-minded. By contrast, many men won't even read a book by a female author, which baffles and disappoints me. In general I think women are more interested in exploring the kind of emotional questions a book like mine raises. And I've seen this same kind of open-mindedness professionally. I joined the RWA (Romance Writers of America), and found an incredibly supportive and energetic organization where I've already made some wonderful friends. In May, I led a women's fiction panel at the annual Backspace Writers Conference in Manhattan, and was well received by the audience (made up of women and men) and my fellow panelists (all female). I think that's because women's fiction is such a wide and diverse category, united by the way it explores the journey and personal transformation of female characters, which is definitely something my novel does. All in all, it has made a believer out of me, and I plan to continue to write for this audience.
Julie: I'm happy to hear we won't have to take your tiara away any time soon. It frustrates me, too, that many men are less willing to take a chance on a novel written by a woman than the other way around. Me Again is about a man who wakes up after being in a coma for six years following a stroke. What did your research in learning about stroke victims look like? Unfortunately and coincidentally (or maybe not coincidentally), you've have some very personal ties to stroke victims since or while writing your novel. How have the events in your own life impacted how you'll market your story or speak about it publicly when opportunities come your way?
Keith: I'll answer the easy part first. I did a lot of research, but the reality is that we still know relatively little about the brain. Stroke can affect people in countless and unpredictable ways, and I took advantage of that fact, essentially using brain damage as my own artistic license.
That sounds like a rather detached approach, and I'll admit, it was. I found the whole scenario of brain damage as a potential to explore "the path untaken" a fascinating theme, but as the book neared completion, my whole perspective changed. For one thing, I began to really empathize with my main female character, and saw that her challenges and emotional transformation were really key to what the book was about, and that my main character was to some extent a vehicle for helping to facilitate that transformation.
But then my world got rocked. First my mother died from complications during heart surgery - in the very hospital where I had set Me Again. I got to know that setting in a completely unexpected way, during a 40-hour stretch of surreal and sleep-deprived agony that etched itself forever into my psyche. And within six month of losing my mother, my brother was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and I once again found myself in the waiting room of an ICU, while my only remaining blood relative's life hung in the balance. That pair of experiences changed me, and left me with no appetite for using a catastrophic health problem like stroke as the basis for a novel whose only goal was to entertain.
So I decided that if I ever managed to sell this book, I would find a way to give something back. And I found it: starting with my advance for Me Again, 25% of everything the book earns me is being donated to the American Stroke Association, a division of the American Heart Association that focuses on reducing risk, disability and death from stroke through research, education, fund raising and advocacy.
I wish that was the end of my answer to this question, but it isn't. In June of this year I was contacted by Clarence Clemons's musical director and informed that Clarence had suffered a massive stroke, and that things didn't look good. For a week the Big Man fought to stay with us. But on June 18 Clarence passed away, another of the 137,000 victims that stroke will kill this year. I played drums for Clarence for a decade and a half, and the void created by his absence is something I'm still learning to cope with. So now more than ever, I'm glad that my book will be doing its small part to fight against this awful affliction that is the third leading cause of death, and the leading cause of adult disability. But I don't know if I'll ever write another book focusing on a fatal health problem. It's just too hard to take when the thing you're writing about suddenly decides to "get real" on you.
Julie: I am really sorry for your losses. Thanks for allowing me ask that question and for your candid response. Your commitment to share the proceeds with this cause is commendable and should be an example to us all. I'd imagine it's also a good feeling for you to honor the memory of your loved ones this way.
I ask another question in nearly every author interview I conduct because I believe it speaks to that elusive thing aspiring writers are always trying to nail down and agents and editors are always trying to find—voice. One of your co-bloggers on Writer Unboxed, Barbara O'Neal, teaches that much of what we call voice comes from our personal experiences. What about where you've lived, grown up, worked, etc., has affected your writing voice?
Keith: It's funny that you mention Barbara O'Neal. I got to hear her speak at the RWA Women's Fiction Conference this year, and she said something that really struck me: "We're all stuck with our own stories." Barbara's point was that we should accept and embrace the elements of our personalities and experiences that drive our stories, because that will inherently make them more resonant with readers, particularly those who've had similar experiences. But she wasn't saying we need to base our plots on our own lives; rather, that we should focus on the ideas and feelings that mean the most to us, and imbue our stories with a corresponding level of emotional conviction and intensity.
Once I understood what she meant, I became an instant believer, by simply looking back at my own publishing history. Historically the fiction I've written that has resonated most with readers - i.e., getting published rather than rejected - has been stuff that was both funny and emotionally sensitive.
The key word in that previous sentence is "both." My first novel was funny, but I can't claim it contained any real emotional revelations - either for the reader or for myself. And it never sold. Me Again, on the other hand, caused me to dig deeper than I ever have as a writer. Despite the fact that I look - as one person put it - like "either a Harley mechanic or a prison guard," I am at my core a sensitive person (often inconveniently so), who strives to smooth over life's rough edges through the use of humor. I tried to funnel that sensitivity and humor into this novel, and I suspect that the much higher amount of emotional "skin in the game" that I have invested in Me Again is likely the reason it sold, and my previous novel did not.
I'm thankful to Barbara for codifying this concept so succinctly, and I advocate the same advice to any writer. Let your writing reflect your world view, your passion, your issues and your sore spots - whatever they may be. The result will carry an emotional truth and gravitas that will be undeniable.
Julie: And having been lucky enough to read an advance copy, I can attest that your novel is both funny and emotionally sensitive. I am delighted you discovered that about yourself and shared it with your readers through Me Again. As you mentioned, you're also a professional musician. How do music and writing mix and mingle in your life?
Keith: There are many parallels, and some key differences. Although music has always given me an outlet to express my emotions, for years I thought writing simply gave me an outlet to express my intellect or wit. But as I develop as a writer, I'm really discovering the opportunity to explore the things I care about most.
Both music and writing require discipline. In either case, you get good at it through deeply focused practice, and by doing it a lot. And just as I became a better drummer by specifically studying the playing of my favorite drummers, I spend a lot of time studying my favorite writers, both in print and on the screen. For example, Aaron Sorkin is a huge influence on my writing, particularly my dialog. I can watch my West Wing DVDs over and over, and I always learn something from his brilliant and incisive writing.
Being a professional musician who worked his way up to a national level also gave me an awareness of how crazy the business side of the arts can be, which in turn prepared me for the wild and wacky world of the publishing industry. I also think that being a musician has made me a much better listener, and I put a great deal of effort into the rhythm of my own writing.
The key difference between writing and music for me is that music is a team sport, in which I as the drummer play a supporting role. Fiction is usually a solo endeavor, at least when laying the initial foundation of the story. I relish the freedom - and accompanying responsibility - of being accountable for every word that goes on the page, and enjoy knowing that good or bad, the stuff in that first draft is mine. As you get further into the publication cycle, you need to become more flexible and collaborative, but that first draft is a rare moment where you're in control - something that in ensemble-oriented music is rarely if ever the case.
Julie: I happen to know you can make another claim to fame. This, in regard to one bestseller almost everyone has heard of. Care to enlighten our audience so they can ooh and aah and be duly impressed and jealous? How the heck did THAT happen?
Keith: It's true - the whale in Moby Dick was inspired by me. Wait - that's not what you mean? Oh, the Water for Elephants thing. Yes, I am the person who came up with the title for that book. And really this story is a testament to the power of "virtual" friendships. Sara Gruen and I became acquainted through the Backspace community - an online writers forum that has played a huge role in my career. She had written two successful horse-oriented romantic novels, but she was working on a "labor of love" novel that had her publishers scratching their heads, because it was nothing like her previous two books. She sent me a draft in a Word document, and asked if I'd take a look. She added that she had not yet found a title she was in love with, and would be open to any suggestions I could come up with.
I had read her debut, Riding Lessons, and knew she wrote strong, engaging fiction. But this book took things to a whole different level. I was on an airplane when I read the last half of the book, and I still remember reaching the scene where she pulls the story back around to the opening flashback - a move that I never saw coming. I arched forward in my seat, bowing to the manuscript in the "we're not worthy" pose, because it was simply some of the most stunning storytelling I'd seen in years. When we landed, I wrote her a gushing email, with a list of about a dozen title ideas, with "Water for Elephants" at the top of the list. The phrase came from a minor scene in the book, but those three words had a power and mystique to them that I found compelling.
Both Sara and her agent loved the title, and the rest is history. It's been a thrill to see what happened with that book, which her original publishing house actually passed on. (Wow, how would you like to be the editor that made that decision?) And in a testament to the power of online relationships, I never actually met Sara face-to-face until years later, when the book was already a huge success. So folks, don't discount the relationships you can forge online. Sara has been a good friend and loyal champion of my own work, and even gave me a blurb for the cover for Me Again. You've got to believe that makes me proud every time I see it!
Julie: I love that story—that is, Water for Elephants and the story of how it found a name, too. Thanks for patiently telling it one more time! And I also love the tie-in about writers and the spirit of community, even when we don't often meet face to face.
So, what's next for Keith Cronin?
Keith: I'm working on a book about a guy who does some stuff with a thing. I know, it's a mind-blowing concept, and I don't know how I came up with it, but what can I say? The muse just smiled on me.
Julie: I am seriously blown away by it. It's so ... high concept! And to think, you allowed us to hear it here, before anyone else. Can someone toss Keith an extra tiara?
Keith: No, seriously, I'm in the brainstorming phase of a modern-day reimagining of a famous 19th-century novel, set in a rock n' roll context. This harkens back to that Barbara O'Neal observation about the stories we're stuck with. Countless people have told me, "You should write about your experiences in the music business." But frankly the last thing I'm interested in writing is a thinly veiled autobiography or some roman à clef exposé. So the idea of taking a story I love and viewing it through the lens of a lifestyle I know intimately is very appealing to me. That way, it's not a book about me, but about something I'm passionate about, colored by my experience in something else I'm passionate about. All that passion could add up to something powerful, if I can do it justice. We shall see...
Julie: I have to admit that sounds much cooler than a story about a guy who does some stuff with a thing. In fact, given that I love music, I can't wait to see what happens with the new story now that I've already devoured Me Again.
Readers, I sure hope you'll check out Me Again, which is available now through all your favorite online bookstores, including IndieBound, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble, by special order in stores, and in many libraries, thanks to Keith's super cool publisher, Five Star. Authors appreciate your support through not only buying their books as often as you can, but by supporting libraries, which are customers, too. (Can you tell I have a master's degree in library science? I love libraries and librarians!)
And Keith, congratulations, once again, on the debut of Me Again. We wish you nothing but many, many sales and a multitude of happy readers.