Monday, February 28, 2011

Literary Neighbors - An interview with cartoonist and author Jeffrey Koterba

This month on The Lit Coach's Guide, the focus is getting out to know and support your literary neighbors. Like I said last month when our focus was connecting, writers have far more opportunity to connect via social media and good old email. My God, how much time to we actually spend checking twitter, facebook, blogs and all the other sites for the latest updates and status changes of all the people we follow? Yet how many of you make it a point to get to know your literary neighbors? As in, writers in your own city? Face time. (My friends in Portland and Seattle, you don't count because just about all of you are writers and I'm sure you live next door to eachother and share your writing tips and secrets across your back fence...right? Kidding.)

When I moved from Los Angeles to Omaha, Nebraska, I didn't think finding writers would be tough. (Long story...because my mother is from Iowa, I grew up for a time across the river from Omaha where I eventually met my husband...then we moved back to LA, where I'm originally from...and then 10 years later, we moved to Omaha. Exhausted?) So what that I moved away from a city that thrived on creativity in all forms...Omaha was a totally thriving city, too! After all, it's the city in the center famous for producing Warren Buffett, 311, The Counting Crows (among many other great bands), and now The Grey Plume (touted by Time Magazine as "The Greenest Restaurant in America). Heck, even Bono's been here! I even spotted Ron Howard in The Old Market shortly after we arrived.

Despite all the cool stuff Omaha has going for itself, finding writers in the area was a challenge for me. My emails to university professors went unanswered, the local booksellers wanted to help but provided me with a very short list of local authors. All I was asking these folks was, "Hey, would you mind sharing with me a little about the local writing community?" Crickets. What?! How could this be?! I was entirely frustrated.

But I was determined to find the writers. I met people and asked questions. And then, after some more digging, I heard about Jeffrey Koterba, Omaha's own brilliant cartoon artist and author of Inklings, a memoir about his childhood navigating his eccentric father's Tourette's Syndrome, his inheritance of the syndrome and how he escaped into the comic strips as a way of coping with the chaos that surrounded him. Loved the book and I'm excited about the memoir genre as a whole, so of course, I asked him if he wouldn't mind coming on TLCG to share a little about his experiences as an author.

What inspired you to share your story?

JK: All the individual stories that make up the larger story are pieces of me that I’ve been carrying around for so long, replaying them in my head, attempting to make sense of them. It was a relief to get them down on paper. In retrospect, I suppose it wasn’t absolutely necessary that I publish my book. Just the getting down on paper was therapy. However, if someone can be inspired by my story, then I’m thrilled.

Also, aside from the spiritual and emotional or whatever reasons I needed to write it, in a strictly artistic way, I wanted to prove to myself that I could write a book. And, I believed that my story was unique and interesting. That I had something to say.

How did you decide the voice in which you delivered your memoir?

JK: I knew pretty early on that I wanted to write my memoir in the present tense, allowing me to write from the perspective or my little kid self, teenage self, etc. I really allowed myself to be in the moment, write in the moment, to go back into the events that helped shape my life.

How did you find your agent and how long did it take you? What’s your best advice for new writers going through this process?

JK: I put in quite a bit of time researching agents and the world of publishing, reading, studying the industry as much as possible. I then queried agents with a previous book—a novel—and received some very positive responses. I also attended a writer’s conference and met an agent there who liked my work. I didn’t get picked up that time around but eventually, one of the agents who looked at my novel took me on when she read the proposal for my memoir. As it turned out, she was also the agent of a writer I know, but I can assure you, an agent isn’t going to take on a client just because she represents someone you know. Agents are always on the lookout for great books. I really believe that it’s not who you know—it’s can you write?

My best advice is to write, write, write and don’t be afraid to revise, revise, revise. And read up as much as you can on agents. There is such a wealth of material out there, from magazines to books on agents. It’s all invaluable.

Tell us a little about what it’s like to work with an editor in shaping your personal story. Where they receptive to your overall vision or was there a fair amount of creative give and take with the process?

JK: I really did a lot of this before an editor ever saw my work. My agent was always there for me to bounce ideas off of and I had a couple of close friends whom I trusted to be my first readers. So by the time an editor actually saw my work, I might have revised my book, thirty or forty times. When I did work with an editor—two editors, actually—I was really fortunate, because they both very much understood what I was going for. To be honest, there was very little that was suggested that I didn’t agree with. The suggestions that were made were made out of deference to the overall story.

As a mother bear, I admit, reading about some of your more painful childhood memories was tough for me. Were they difficult for you to write?

JK: To some degree, yes. But not as much as you might think. My hope for people reading my book is that they’ll understand that most of us have had some awful stuff to deal with and that sometimes those obstacles can inspire you. And again, it was sort of cathartic just getting this stuff down on paper. To finally rid myself of all those stories I had been carrying around. I feel much lighter now for having done so.

What’s next for Jeffrey Koterba?

JK: I hope to keep writing. My first work of fiction—a short story about children capturing small tornadoes with butterfly nets—has just been published in a wonderful new literary magazine called Parcel. I’m also working on an animated TV show concept with a friend of mine. And, of course, I continue to draw cartoons.

Thanks, Jeffrey, for sharing a bit about your process.

Writers, especially those of you who think there couldn't possibly be another writer within miles of where you sit, get out there and dig around to find your literary neighbors. Writing is a solitary endeavor; being part of a larger writing community will support your efforts (and keep you sane) in so many ways.

Your Action: Tell me who your literary neighbors are! Have you met them? No? Reach out by attending events, readings, signings, etc.

About Jeffrey Koterba:

Jeffrey is the author of Inklings (Houghton Mifflin, 2009) and Editorial Cartoonist for The Omaha World Herald. His cartoons are distributed through King Features Syndicate to 400 newspapers nationwide, and have appeared in such publications as The New York Times, Chicago Sun-Times, San Diego Union-Tribune, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, USA Today, and on CNN. One of his cartoons can also be spotted in the Alexander Payne film, Election, but you have to look quickly. Additionally, his original cartoons have been collected by notables such as Warren Buffett and Oprah. In 2010, two of Koterba’s cartoons flew aboard space shuttle Discovery.

Koterba has written for The Huffington Post, ABC News and The Daily Beast and in 2009, he was named a finalist for a three-part essay written for The World-Herald, “Ink and Ash,” in the Great Plains Journalism Awards. He has also received an honorable mention from Glimmer Train in the Short-Story Award for new writers. His first piece of fiction, Little Twisters, will be published this spring in Parcel.

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