An Exclusive Authorlink Interview With Julie Salamon
Bestselling Author of The Devil's Candy
By Doris Booth
One in a series of special Authorlink interviews with today's well-known authors. Watch for new interviews every month!
Julie Salamon candidly talks to aspiring Authorlink writers about her career as a bestselling author.
Julie Salamon is an author, journalist and critic whose books include The Devil's Candy (a national bestseller), The Net of Dreams, White Lies, and The Christmas Tree–a New York Times bestseller. She is now a television critic for The New York Times. Her latest book, Facing the Wind, A True Story of Tragedy and Reconciliation (click to order via Amazon.com), will be released by Random House in April, 2001. The new book is a unique exploration of responsibility and fate–the causes, consequences, andlegal and moral implications of one man's deranged killings of his family.
[Writing is] "my way of trying to bring order to life's chaos."
AUTHORLINK: When did you begin your writing career, and what prompted you to do so? Is there a special story behind your decision to become an author?
SALAMON: I believe my writing career began with the death of my father. I had just graduated from high school and my graduation present was a trip to Australia, to meet a longtime penpal, who was also the son of one my mother's closest childhood friends. I think the families were conspiring to make a match. Instead, I had to cut my trip short because my father died. It took 24 hours to get back, and the only thing that kept me from completely falling apart was writing. I spent most of the trip scribbling into a notebook. When I began college that fall, I had already begun to identify myself as a writer, because I realized that was my way of trying to bring order to life's chaos.
AUTHORLINK: Who was the greatest influence on your decision to write, and in what ways did they encourage you?
SALAMON: Shortly after I started college I became friends with another freshman-a boy-who invited me to come work on the college newspaper. I had told him I liked to write. He became much more than a friend-my husband, in fact, many years later-and has always had incredible faith in me, which is the best encouragement I know.
Also in college, I took several literature classes with a teacher who treated the work of students with the same rigorous analysis he applied to published authors. He took us seriously, to think of our own writing the way we would look at the writing of authors we loved (and those we didn't).
AUTHORLINK: How did you find your first agent? How did you find the agent who sold your work to Random House?
SALAMON: I was working as a film critic for the Wall Street Journal when I met Kathy Robbins, my agent. She represented many journalists, including an experienced writer at the Journal who had taken an interest in my work. That was 15 years ago and Kathy still represents me.
"I think (hope) with all my books, editors were attrached by the voice, the characters, the story."
AUTHORLINK: What aspects of your work caught your editor's attention? Voice? Characters? Marketing concept? If Random House was not your first publisher, who was, and how did you find them?
SALAMON: I think (hope) that with all my books, editors were attracted by the voice, the characters, the story. My first publisher was Hill & Co., which unfortunately is no longer in business. Tim Hill, the man who began the company, liked my work in the Journal and wrote me a letter asking me if I had any book ideas. As it happened, I was just completing my first novel, White Lies, which he bought and published with great care. My second publisher was Houghton Mifflin, for The Devil's Candy, a work of non-fiction. For that book, I wrote a proposal, which my agent shopped around. My last three books have been published by Random House. I made the move after writing a proposal for a non-fiction book that has never been written. But Ann Godoff was interested in part of the proposal, which developed into a memoir, The Net of Dreams.
AUTHORLINK: How important has your agent been in guiding your career?
SALAMON: Very important. She has helped me write proposals, which is especially Important, I believe, with non-fiction. She has guided me in making choices when more than one publisher has bid on a book-because the highest bidder isn't always the best, hard as that might be to believe.
AUTHORLINK: How does it feel to be a published author? Is this your first book, or one in a long career? Tell us a little more about your writing career. How long did it take you to publish your first work?
SALAMON: It is satisfying and nerve wracking to be a published author. This is my fifth book, part of a career that has been divided between book-writing and journalism, mainly in newspapers but magazines as well. I've had an eclectic career, beginning as a financial reporter for the Wall Street Journal, switching after five years to become the paper's movie critic. Now I write about television for the New York Times. My books have also been diverse: a novel, a memoir, a Hollywood book, a novella about the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree, and now a book of reportage about a devastating crime. It took three years to get my first novel published.
AUTHORLINK: Did you ever think you would be where you are today as an author? What was your vision for your career, and how does it compare against reality?
SALAMON: I'm not being coy, but I don't think I've ever had a clear vision for my career. I've always operated intuitively, and veered towards stories that interest me. Sometimes I think I should have been more calculated, built a body of work that isn't quite so diverse, so one book would build more logically on the next. But I feel lucky to be able to earn a living from work that I find compelling.
AUTHORLINK: Where or how did you get the idea for your first book?
SALAMON: I got the idea for my first book from the usual place, from life.
AUTHORLINK: What are your writing habits? How many hours per day do you write? Describe your writing environment? Do you have a special place where you write? Do you have special quirks about how you work?
SALAMON: My writing habits are pretty steady, especially since I've had children (mine are 11 and 6). For a few years I wrote books without newspaper deadlines. During those years, I tended to keep fairly regular hours, scheduling my writing time from 9 AM to 6 PM. Those hours included both writing time and incubating time (that is, walking around, doodling, telephoning, pulling my hair, etc). Now that I'm working for a newspaper again, I sometimes have to violate my own rules and work in the evening and on weekends to meet deadlines.
I work at a nice big desk on a computer. I have a few sentimental doo-dahs on the desk all the time and big piles of paper some of the time. Periodically I try to shovel it clean.
In the quirk department, occasionally I find a piece of clothing seems to provide inspiration. I may wear that piece of clothing (usually an old sweater) for a while until it loses its magic.
AUTHORLINK: How important is it to read other authors while you're working, and when you're not working? How important is it to read the classics? Why?
SALAMON: I am almost always reading something. I find that when I'm writing non-fiction I tend to read fiction, and vice-versa-though that rule isn't hard and fast. Why read the classics? For pleasure-above all, but also because there's much to learn from great writing.
"I don't think publishing is closed or open, it's just hard. I think whatever success I've had lies in my piles of rejection letters. You have to be willing to persevere."
AUTHORLINK: What would you do over again if you began your writing career now?
SALAMON: I think I'd spend more time worrying about the writing and less time worrying about everything else surrounding it. But that's like saying I'd like to have been 40 when I was 20.
AUTHORLINK: What's the best thing about being a published author? The worst thing?
SALAMON: The best part is seeing someone actually reading one of your books. The worst part is wondering about what next.
AUTHORLINK: Who are your favorite authors? What you like about them?
SALAMON: The authors I like best use strong narratives that also have a larger purpose. I appreciate good stylists and distinctive voices, but my favorite writers always have something to say about their world. Most recently I've been enjoying Philip Roth, Elizabeth Strout, Norman Mailer, Dostoevsky.
AUTHORLINK: Do you have any advice or insights for newcomers trying to break into publishing?
SALAMON: Find a way to write for publication, even if the your first venue isn't very glamorous. I've had students who think their first piece should be published in The New Yorker. That probably won't happen. Don't be snooty about where you get published. Concentrate on your writing and getting it published somewhere. That's your ticket.
AUTHORLINK: Do you perceive New York publishing to be a closed society or an open one? What do you think publishers are looking for today?
SALAMON: I don't think publishing is closed or open, it's just hard. I think whatever success I've had lies in my piles of rejection letters. You have to be willing to persevere. Also, with the Internet, it is easier to show your work.
AUTHORLINK: What are publishers looking for today?
SALAMON: All kinds of things, as they always have been. There's all kinds of schlock out there, and also very good writing being published. Some writers are good at reading the market; others are better at reading their own desires and ambitions.
AUTHORLINK: Why do you think so many writers get rejected, and so few become published? What elements of good writing would you guess are missing from an aspiring writer's work?
SALAMON: More writers get rejected than published because of supply and demand. That's why perseverance is crucial. But many writers are rejected because they haven't done honor to their own stories. They don't want to work as hard as you have to work to create a good piece of writing. They are afraid to ask for criticism.
AUTHORLINK: How did you learn your craft? Through reading? Conferences? A university? Mentoring? A combination of these, or other means?
SALAMON: I learned my craft-am still learning it-through reading, writing and listening. I've been lucky to have a few incredible editors who have helped me along the way. Sometimes the advice is hard to take, but almost always I've found the toughest readers have been the most help.
AUTHORLINK: If you could choose any career in the world today, knowing what you know now, what would it be?
SALAMON: I would be a writer.
This is one in a series of special Authorlink interviews with today's well-known authors. Watch for new interviews every month!