In this interview with Scott Wilbanks, author of the cross-genre novel The Lemoncholy Life of Annie Aster, we learn what it really takes to find a literary agent, get a glimpse behind-the-scenes of a book launch at an independent publisher, and hear the unexpected (and hilarious) tale of how a novel was born from a botched first date.
Lori Puma: Tell me about your The Lemoncholy Life of Annie Aster and the people you most want to read it.
Scott Wilbanks: This is one of those tricky novels that’s hard to pin down because it’s a bit of a grab bag that bounces around from genre to genre. It’s not a mystery, not really, though I often call it that for the sake of convenience. It’s not a thriller, either, though I’ve created some scenes that I hope get your heart racing. And it’s not fantasy, though it contains time travel. If you ask me, it’s simply a book about love, pure and simple, and the bringing together of a most unusual family—against the odds and across time.
As for my intended audience, the word unconventional comes to mind. I didn’t write Lemoncholy to give people more of the same, though, believe me, there’s nothing wrong with that. People know what they like, what scratches their itch, so to speak, and that’s great. I wrote Lemoncholy to appeal to someone who is willing to try something… different.
LP: I listened to an interview that you did and heard that this book came out of a funny email you sent after a botched first date. Would you be up for sharing that story?
SW: Yeah, how many people can say that they came up with the basic premise for a novel just to get a second date?
We were having coffee, and I was a bit star struck, to be honest, doing my best to be clever, but, more often than not, only tripping over my own words. I was just about to say something--lord only knows what--when my date knocked the wind out my sails. “I think we’re destined to be great friends,” he’d said.
Shortly after that, I found myself driving home with my tail tucked between my legs. I felt like... an... idiot. The more I thought about what had happened, though, the more I decided that things are only inevitable if we accept them as such, so I started brainstorming. I concocted a pair of characters in my head; one an eccentric, young lady named Annie living in contemporary San Francisco who walks around all day wearing Victorian clothes, the other a dowdy, old schoolmarm named Elsbeth living alone in a turn-of-the-century Kansas wheatfield. I decided they were buds.
When I got home, I had Annie write to Elsbeth seeking advice for her love-stricken best friend Scott (me) and, being completely aware that I was quite possibly about to make a monumental fool of myself, emailed it to my failed date’s work account.
The next morning, I received a call--from him. He was laughing his butt off, and I could hear laughing in the background. He’d shared my email with the entire office.
“Annie has to write more of these!” he said.
“Regrettably, she cannot,” I responded.
“Because Elsbeth has to respond,” I said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.
A prolonged silence ensued.
“Am I Elsbeth?” he asked.
That afternoon, Annie received a letter from Elsbeth. A friendship was cemented between the two and more letters were written.
Happily, I can share that those letters got me a second date, and a third. We dated for almost four years, actually, but in the end, his prophecy came true. We were much better suited as friends. And while none of those letters made it into the book, I certainly channeled their spirit while I worked on it.
LP: I’m also curious to hear about the process of going from a single email to deciding to write more to releasing a published book. Were there other people who encouraged you or who you hired to help you with the process?
SW: Writing Lemoncholy wasn’t a conscious decision. It was an act of desperation. I’d just had a panic attack minutes after sitting through the closing arguments of a trial regarding a suit I brought forward against a company that had chosen to stiff me for a year’s worth of work. The tension had been building up over the course of the week and I kind of collapsed when I got back to my room.
Not to sound melodramatic, but I literally crawled into the shower and sat under the spray… in my suit. Lord knows why, but as I slowly reconstituted, a sentence popped into my head. In polite company, she was known as Annabelle Aster… It was a nice distraction, so I started toying with it. Being a spirited woman, however, she wasn’t often found in such company as she’d determined it to be, more often than not, insincere. I’m not kidding. I was sitting in the shower as I thought this up. When I could, I got out of my wet clothes, dried off, wrote it down on a piece of paper, shoved it in my brief case, and flew home to San Francisco.
I found it the next day as I was cleaning out my briefcase. I sat down and added another sentence; just for grins, you see. Then I added another. And another. Two months later, I’d written almost five hundred pages.
They were TERRIBLE, by the way.
LP: The Lemoncholy Life of Annie Aster is published by Sourcebooks, an independent publisher. How did you first connect with them?
SW: It was a piece of cake! Only took nine years, and over a hundred-twenty-five rejection letters.
The real story was in the hoops I jumped through to land an agent. Getting a book deal was a breeze by comparison.
Here’s the thing. The cardinal rule in the journey to find representation is to never, ever (ever, ever, ever) put your manuscript in an agent’s hands before it’s ready. The problem with that rule is that you won’t really know if it’s ready until you do. It’s a catch 22. At some point, you have to fish or cut bait.
I worked in rounds; sending my manuscript to agents and piling up rejections. If an agent was generous enough with their time to provide insight, I’d use it as instructional material to improve my story, then I’d start again.
I’m guessing I went through half-a-dozen iterations of that process with as many rewrites. That was how I taught myself the craft of writing. Not very efficient.
LP: Your book was published in August of 2015. Can you give an idea of what the promotion for it was like leading up to the release and during the first few months after. How does that compare with what you’ve done to promote the book since then?
SW: I certainly wasn’t allowed to rest on my laurels, that’s for sure. Prior to the launch, there was marketing copy to create, art work to refine, and all sorts of other crazy stuff, but the thing that really got to me was the blog tour. First off, I never knew there was such a thing. Some fifty-odd literary bloggers requested content regarding Lemoncholy, most of it in the form of questions and answers, some in the form of essays. My job was to provide one-off (unique) material for each. I’m guessing I delivered between one and two hundred pages of content to satisfy these requests.
In tandem with the launch, I was sent on a book tour, one that took me to San Francisco, Los Angeles, Houston, Atlanta, Miami, Washington D.C. and The Big Apple. It was everything you might expect; exhausting, amazing, unforgettable.
After the launch, things happened organically. I started to receive invitations for radio interviews, to speak at conferences, and to meet with book clubs.
LP: I notice you’ve got several events listed on your website. Can you talk about the logistics of setting those up? Is that something that you’re doing? Is it your publisher’s doing? Is it just people reaching out to you? I’m curious to hear how those happen.
I neglect my website shamelessly. It’s simply a question of time management, something I’m terrible at. To answer your question, though, it’s a healthy combination of the two.
LP: What are you currently working on?
SW: The new one’s going to be Southern Gothic--is that even a thing?--and I’m about ⅔ of the way through it, so I don’t really have a synopsis or a logline ready to go, but here’s something to wet your whistle:
Easy Pickens may well be the world's most famous living poet, not that he would know. He's just an odd, little kid living in his mom's basement who likes to write in his journal...
Easy's mom was struck a glancing blow by lightning when he was being born. As a result, he looks... different. Startling, even. People can be unkind, so he becomes a bit of a night owl and a shut in who lives in the basement of his mother's falling-down-around-us estate in the backwaters of Louisiana. Essentially, he journals a lot, trying to come to terms with the way he’s been treated in life, and the misbelief that he’s a monster. (He’s not. He’s really lovely.) While journaling, he’s created a story about a kid with a pet monster that lives under his bed. He writes the entire plot in verse. It's titled Trembling Ted And His Pet Monster Ned. His mom, Claudelle Merriweather Pickens steals one of his poems and submits it to a poetry contest sponsored by Random House (under a pseudonym, of course.) It's chosen for a compendium of children's poems. One thing leads to another, and without his even knowing it, Random House is asking for more. Claudelle makes a copy of his journal, along with all his renderings, and sends it to them. The resulting book becomes a sensation, and he doesn’t have a clue.
Ultimately, this is a story about how a beautiful, tortured soul gains acceptance (and even love) when the world realizes just how special he is through the poems he wrote for himself, poems he used as therapy, to grips with his lonely life.
LP: Where should people go to connect with you and to pick up a copy of The Lemoncholy Life of Annie Aster?
I have an author page at http://www.scottbwilbanks.com/ and an author page on Facebook (Scott B. Wilbanks), but I’m much more active on my personal Facebook page and encourage people to look for me there. Lemoncholy, itself, is in bookstores, and can be found loitering with the usual suspects like amazon.com, kobo.com, and barnesandnoble.com.
This interview has been edited for length.