Jenny Milchman gets around, and I mean that in the most flattering sense. She spent eleven months in her car taking her debut novel Cover of Snow—as well as her husband and kids—to 400 bookstores. The book went on to win the Mary Higgins Clark award, was praised by the New York Times, and chosen as an Indie Next and Target Pick. Subsequent books—Ruin Falls and As Night Falls—also earned outsized acclaim. Her newest, Wicked River, drops May 1 from Sourcebooks.
Jenny speaks nationwide about the publishing industry and the importance of sticking to a dream. She is Vice President of Author Programming for International Thriller Writers, and the founder of Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day. Jenny led the literary series Writing Matters, which covered the publishing industry during the upheaval of 2009, attracted guests coast-to-coast, and received national media attention. She teaches writing and publishing for New York Writers Workshop.
She’s here today to talk about her involvement with the New collection from Down & Out Books, The Night of the Flood.
One Bite at a Time: I have to start with the obvious question. You have a sizable footprint in the industry. You’re a talented writer, come across as intelligent and you have your whole life ahead of you. What got you involved with Ed Aymar?
Jenny Milchman: Oh, well, you know what they say about appearances. In all seriousness, meeting Ed Aymar made everything in my life easier. Well, not everything. I still have to do the dishes. But given my role as ITW board member, Ed has been one heckuva connection for me because he is just as devoted to helping other writers, doing what he can to further their careers, as I am. This anthology being just one example. A couple of years ago, Ed became Managing Editor of ITW’s debut authors blog, The Thrill Begins, completely revamping it. And it’s grown into one of the best, most lively and interesting resources for writers on the web. (Do people still say “web” when referring to the internet? See, this is why I need Ed.)
OBAAT: Ed and Sara Chen were here a couple of weeks ago to talk about the anthology in general. Tell us a little about your contribution.
JM: Small. That’s what I have to say about my contribution to The Night of the Flood. When Ed described the project to me, I happened to be in a particularly frenetic phase of my career—losing my first editor, on submission for what would turn out to be the dream publishing team, only I didn’t know that then—and still, his idea completely swept me away. A novel in stories—told by writers whose talent I knew firsthand from reading their debuts, and in many cases, their follow-ups. I didn’t think I could add much, but when Ed mentioned that there’d be a sort of forward—an open letter to the townspeople of Everton—two things happened. One, I thought I could handle writing such a piece, and two, the voice of the character came to me, fully formed. She just began dictating words in my head, and I wrote them down. So that’s why I say my contribution was pretty small. And easy.
OBAAT: You’re able to write short stories and novels equally effectively. Is it as effortless as you make it seem? Short stories kill me. I write them, but to me they’re much harder than novels.
JM: Oh no, I completely agree with you. (See above). Writing a short story is like trying to swallow a whole lasagna in one bite. (I don’t know why I came up with lasagna. Could’ve been a casserole. Or a chocolate cake.) You know, the fullness and grandness of a novel loses something when I try to trim it down to 5000 or so words. I’ve written a handful of short stories I’m really proud of; two of them were published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, and the best in my opinion is called “The Closet”, about a young girl who takes revenge—hey, shades of The Night of the Flood—but every short story takes me months and months of whittling, shaping, trying to find the core. It’s novels that have my heart.
OBAAT: Let’s talk about your novels. I write two series, mainly because once I get a universe down my ideas tended to come in that form. You’ve written three well-received standalones with a fourth to come. Are there any connective threads? Similarities in protagonist or location or themes?
JM: Actually, the dirty little secret behind my books is that they are a series that can be read as standalones. That secret isn’t so dirty actually. If it were, it’d probably get a lot more press. OK, rewrite! The secret behind my books is that they are a series that can be read as standalones.
Here’s how: They all take place in the same fictional town. It’s called Wedeskyull, and the town becomes a character in the books. A mountain village, largely lost to time, and riven by a cultural chasm between the old-timers and the newcomers, the locals and the expats. When those two groups share a land and their lives, it makes for a great deal of drama. Even though my forthcoming novel, Wicked River, is set in the back-country, the town still plays a role. The local police chief is first on scene when my honeymooning couple fails to arrive back home. People who read all four of my books will see small characters from one tale play bigger roles in another, and vice versa. It’s one of the joys of writing for me—to see this town come alive in layers and ripples.
OBAAT: In 2013 you and your family traveled to 400 bookstores over nearly a year. You’ve repeated the tour for each book since. What gave you the idea and how did you keep up with the rest of your life while you were living out of suitcases for so long?
JM: In 2013, after a thirteen year odyssey to see my “first” novel published (it was actually the eighth one I had written), my husband and I rented out our house, traded in two cars for an SUV that could handle Denver in February, and pulled the kids out of first and third grades to “car-school” them on a 35,000 mile drive around the country. I did a book event nearly every day, sometimes two. And my publisher thought I was nuts. They actually convened a call to tell me I was nuts. And here’s the thing—I was nuts. The whole idea was crazy. Who goes to one book event for an unknown novelist, traveling far from home, where she doesn’t know anyone—let alone 250 of them? Then my debut novel went into six printings in hardcover, and all of a sudden, well, I was still nutty, but the nuttiness had somehow worked. I think that may be because in this virtual world, we still crave the face-to-face. The handshake, the smile, the words exchanged in person. I was introducing my book to the world, but really I was introducing myself—and meeting people in return. Much as I appreciate all the riches on offer online, truly great was to see Facebook friends become friends IRL. As for keeping up with regular life—we didn’t for the most part. Book tour was like a step out of time for us, and we all really embraced it, and enjoyed the 24/7 aspect of being together. The humorous or ironic (or wonderful) punch line to all this is that I’m now with a publisher that believes in relationships and word of mouth and bookstores and libraries just as much as I do, and for my fourth novel, they’re sending me out on a mega tour again!
OBAAT: You’re a board member and Vice President of the International Thriller Writers and run the Author Programs operation. How did you get involved in that?
JM: A long, long time ago—actually it was five years, a blip in publishing terms, which is roughly the scale of geological time—I was a newbie author, and ITW’s Debut Authors Program helped introduce my book to the world, and teach me about the biz. Being a writer is one thing, and usually by the time we’re published, we know a thing or two about craft. But becoming a professional in a very high stakes, major media industry is a whole other ball of wax, kettle of fish, pick your cliché, and ITW guided me as I began. I wanted to do as much as I could for the next wave of authors. First I served as Chair of the Debut Authors Program, then I joined the board as Vice President of Author Programs. This includes overseeing the Debut Program committee, a podcast featuring ITW members as guests called the Inside Thrill, a yearly program in Palm Beach that showcases debuts alongside one headliner—this year it’s R.L. Stine—our newly expanded YA/MG arm, and of course, all of Ed Aymar’s brainstorms.
OBAAT: Clearly we’re talking about two different Ed Aymars, but that’s a discussion for another time. What are you working on now?
JM: Well, it’s a story about this guy named Ed who’s sort of a Jekyll and Hyde figure…OK, actually, right now I am at the delicious, rubbing-my-hands-together-in anticipation stage of being about to begin a new novel. I call this the sprinkle-frosted cupcake stage. Nothing I enjoy more—about writing and the biz anyway—than a first draft. Now, this is because I suffer from a perseverative delusion that I am writing the world’s first perfect first draft, and I get my comeuppance come editing time, so don’t hate me. But right now, I am a happy, happy writer. The new book is called Mercy Island, and that’s all I can say, except that it’s a stranger-comes-to-town story, written from the perspective of the stranger.