Ann Eisenstein writes. Complex and contemporary characters dance in her head, emerging in black and white, shaded in all their flawed colors. Ann’s stories engage and engulf readers with true joy, that pleasure of devouring a great book, and feeling satisfied when the final page plays out. It is with genuine excitement that I spotlight Ann today. Her middle grade novel, Hiding Carly is just one example of her writing talent.
Q) Ann, without giving too much of this mystery novel away, share with us how you developed the concept for Hiding Carly, what’s in the future for your character Sean Gray, and what else we can expect to see from your pen.
A) Hiding Carly is the confluence between my love of children and my love of writing. To be honest, however, there was a different beginning. I was writing a novel for adults and in the cosmos between plotting and pantsing – I panicked – I had no idea what I was doing. So, I leaned back on what I knew: kids! I decided that I would learn how to write by writing for children. That had to be easier. (Delusional!)
I was “retired” and mentoring a fifth grade boy. G (name protected) was quiet and shy – famous for nods and shrugs and one word answers. He wasn’t anti-social. He played well with the other kids and they liked him. He just didn’t initiate socialization.
G’s class was in the FBI Junior Special Agent Program. The main focus of this program is to help students improve their performance and their attendance in school. The JSA curriculum also helps students develop a positive self-image, and encourages them to stay away from drugs, gangs, crime and violence. Through his involvement in this program, I began to witness a change in G’s behavior. He became more involved in school, his work, and our relationship. He also became more outgoing with his peers. I was so proud of him!
A germ. A seed. A nugget. Planted. It took root, and inspired, I decided it was time to start writing. I chose an main character, Jamie, and titled the book Badge Boy. I stared at the page – it was pretty blank. It was about this time that I realized writing for children was not any easier.
But I had an idea: I called the Special Agent in charge of G’s JSA program, told him I was writing a book and asked if I could interview him. Surprisingly, he agreed. I was on my way to the FBI. Gates, guns and grit.
Armed with lots of information, I returned to my desk. My computer and the blank page. Staring. I had an idea. I had some imagination. And then the inspiration hit. Sean Gray became my main character. And off he went!
I had read that main characters sometimes wrote their own story. But the practical side of me was doubtful. But Sean did indeed take me on his mystery journey. We stumbled into a world with which I was only peripherally familiar. Connecting with characters that I never wanted to know. Solving a murder mystery that in my wildest dreams I could not have solved – not without Sean Gray, Junior Special Agent.
I originally intended Hiding Carly to be a stand-alone novel, but the FBI liked my story. Now I am working on the second book in the Sean Gray, Junior Special Agent series. This story opens with Sean in middle school – “hormone hell” to a middle school teacher. He misses Carly – and other friends from Springdale Elementary. There has been a “before school starts party” with a calamitous and mysterious incident. He also is in the midst of trial preparations and depositions from the “case” that began in Hiding Carly. Middle school is challenging – replete with groupies and gangs and geeks. He hits his stride when he joins an after school computer club. But when an eighth grader shows his fellow geeks “the ropes” and angles of a new virtual world, Sean is catapulted into the middle of a cyber-crisis.
A producer in Atlanta read the book and called to ask me if I would be interested in making a movie of Hiding Carly. “No” said no author ever! Of course I agreed with great enthusiasm. He asked me to write the screenplay adaptation. At this time, we are, as they say in the biz, in pre-production. The talk has been for a TV movie, with a potential series to follow.
Some of my other WIPs are:
Statesville 719 (contemporary young adult novel) Seventeen year old Matt has plans to get away from his past and his abusive uncle when he gets a mysterious letter telling him that his “dead mother” is in prison for killing his father and that his “dead sister” is coming to live with him.
Challenger (chapter book) Charlie, an eight year old little leaguer, paralyzed in an automobile accident, learns to accept life in a wheelchair and play ball again.
Wisdom (young adult science fiction) Bored with his high school classes, Thomas, an honors student at Midlands High, and the only son of two gifted and talented university researchers, time travels to the future and back to the past, searching for his identity.
A Question of Dependency (screenplay) Randy Parker, a single father and an alcoholic, struggles to regain the custody of his children from the California court system and rebuild his life.
Sara Mae Fleming (biography) In 1954 South Carolina, a twenty year old African American cleaning lady’s story, inspired from Rosa Parks lonely stand in the “whites only” section of a city transit bus.
Diary of a Mad Daughter (historical) My chronicle of my mother’s descent into the horrific world of Alzheimer’s.
Breathe In, Breathe Out (memoir) My personal account of how a death sentence gave me new life.
Q) I know you to be a gifted writer, and all of these works will find their way to readers and viewers, I can’t wait! Going back to your first Sean Gray mystery, Hiding Carly, which is being released by Peak City Publishing, yet originally was a self-published work…Tell us about your journey, and how you view self versus traditional publishing.
A) “It’s all good.” One of the mantras I have collected along the way. I don’t know who first said that. Bob Dylan maybe. Anyway, as I wrote, I researched and learned what experts in the field of children’s publishing outlined as the proper steps and the rules of the business. I joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators. I joined Writer’s Market. I subscribed to newsletters. I took courses. I attended conferences. Bought the guides. Studied the lists of publishers, editors, and agents.
After typing “The End”, I followed the example of those gracious published authors, and wrote my first query letter. Then my second. My third. And so on.
I received some form rejection letters and postcards – generally with the “Thanks for thinking of us, but it’s not right for our list” verbiage. I did have a couple “Send me 3 chapters” replies. Those were exciting. One associate editor of the big six publishers asked for the entire manuscript. We were in contact for several months. Then she disappeared. No one knew – or would say – where she went – so it was pulled for some unknown reason. Several months later, I received a nice “So and so left our company and your manuscript got misplaced” note attached to my worn and tattered package.
All the while, I was trying to work on other things. But I knew in my heart that I wanted to see Hiding Carly in print. So my BFF encouraged me to self-publish. I began another search to see which company would be right for me. I approached one that seemed promising, only to find out that they were bad-listed on the “Predators and Editors” site.
Finally, I decided on Create Space because they were connected to Amazon. Their team was wonderful to work with and I was very pleased with the way the book turned out. The team that designed the cover chose the perfect face to portray Carly based on my description of her and my concept of the book. When the FBI requested that the badge be redesigned because of legal infringement, Create Space worked with the government attorneys to come up with the perfect image.
Even though I had been “warned” that I should hold out for a traditional publisher and that self-publishing would forever taint my career, my decision to self-publish was a good one. My baby was born and I was a proud parent.
The aspect of self-publishing that was most difficult for me was the marketing and promotion. I had no experience in that area and trying to learn that was taking time away from what I really wanted to do – write. So that suffered – a lot.
Then this amazing thing happened to me. I was at the South Carolina Book Festival last spring just walking around, up and down the aisles browsing, when I came upon this booth that was really different. Animated and fun. Balloons and hula hoops and lots of color. I stopped in and met Shiloh Burnham, from Peak City Publishing, independent publisher in Raleigh, NC. She asked if I was an author. I gave her a copy of Hiding Carly, which she read, and liked! A few weeks later, I received a call from Peak City Publishing, asking if they could represent my books.
Shiloh and Peak City re-released Hiding Carly on Amazon Kindle last December and the paperback will be out in the next few weeks. During the December promotion, I enjoyed being “#1 in Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Children’s eBooks > Mysteries, Espionage, & Detectives” for a while. Also, chosen as a “Hot New Releases in Children’s Mystery & Spy Stories” – right up there with John Grisham!
I couldn’t be happier. Shiloh is a great publisher to work with. Her company is only three years old and she has “put over 140,000 books in reader’s libraries”. She is active in her community and wonderful at promoting her authors. Here’s a link to my blog piece, “Peak City and Me.”
So, although I don’t regret my decision to self-publish, I have to say that I am happy now to be represented by a traditional publisher.
Q) I’d say that’s inspiring and motivating, Ann, to many who are reading this. Switching to you, personally, you’ve worn many hats: teacher, psychologist, cancer survivor, mentor and now author. What has each of these contributed to your writing style, and how would you describe where you see yourself in the future?
A) That’s a tough question. It is hard for me to separate each of those “hats” and talk about them in isolation. Because I am definitely a product of my whole life! It seems that throughout my life, I always turn back to my first love – children. But each “hat” level seemed to lead me to the next step – always taking those experiences with me, building and moving toward a culmination.
I was a middle school teacher, an age to which I have always related. It is a time when kids really come into their own – learning, searching, stumbling into their identities. I was still doing some of that stumbling, too. And I found that over and above teaching them language arts, science and social studies, they wanted an adult that cared about their personal struggles. Remembering my own struggles at that age, I became a quasi-counselor. (Middle schools back in the 70’s didn’t have full time counselors) That led me to pursue a degree in psychology.
As a full time psychologist in school systems, I found that I didn’t have the time to interact with children as much I would have liked. My main duties seemed to be testing and holding meetings to interpret the test results! Yet I managed to be involved in groups, workshops and staff development – always trying to better the atmosphere and educational experience for the kids.
I left the school system in Sumter, SC to work for the South Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice. There, I was able to work more directly with kids and teachers. A different setting – but still meeting the need that kids have to talk and learn and grow.
Unfortunately, during that time I was diagnosed with Stage IV Lung Cancer. It’s a hat I did not choose to wear, but had to don all the same. In many new ways to cover my shiny head! I think cancer offered me an opportunity to grow in a new way. To challenge my inner strength. To develop courage. To renew my faith and lean on God. The gauntlet was thrown – faith versus fear. I grabbed onto a new mantra: “A cancer survivor is anyone who has ever been diagnosed with cancer and is alive today.” I fought for that. I endured years of chemotherapy. I faced death. Close up. There was a new cancer. This time in my breast. I fought again. Much harder. I am still winning. I am blessed.
Due to the challenged and difficulty of treatment, my oncologist put me on disability. I missed kids. So when I felt better, I began to volunteer and mentor. That led me to this time, now. I try to spend time with kids, speaking to schools, classes, and teachers. Last year I worked with a sixth grade creative writing class. I think I had more fun than they did! This year I am going back and working with a new group of students. Also, I’m active in the FBI Citizen’s Academy in Columbia and the Richland County Sheriff’s Department Citizens Academy. Being involved in the community allows me opportunities to spend time on what I love: children and writing.
Thanks, so much Ann, for taking time to share your story, and giving us much to look forward to as your books and projects release. I mentioned earlier that you are a gifted writer, but you are also a gift to me, a personal friend, and I am honored to spotlight you.