In this guest interview, Phyllis Ungerleider interviews Pamela Newton about writing a book about a parent, in this case, her mom.
Phyllis: A Candle for my Mother is a lovely tribute to your mom… and so much more. What made you want to write about a parent, document this story and your relationship to her?
Pam: It didn’t start out the way it ended up. My first idea was to write a story about my family based on our time living overseas in the Middle East in the late 1950’s to early 1960’s. The idea for the current version that includes my gratitudes to my mom came later.
Initially, I planned to write it as if I was this adventuresome woman, mother of four little girls ages 3 to 8, who wanted to travel the world and experience exotic places. As I was not my mother, I could not find the right voice. After several false starts, interrupted by two intense executive positions in the entertainment industry, the project lay fallow on a shelf in my bedroom collecting dust… for two decades.
Phyllis: How did you come to have such detailed and documented stories to share?
My mother was such a wonderful story teller captivating friends and relatives with tales of our life overseas. In 1990, I asked Mom to record these family stories (and roped in a couple of her friends who lived in Scotland and Australia). Mom made the recordings over a period of three years. The tapes were transcribed and she made corrections while I conducted research. These tapes are priceless and the reason why this book is so authentic. The Lorraine sections really are my mom’s actual words. I was simply the editor.
Phyllis: That’s a great idea. If our readers are writing a book about a parent–or even considering it–it would be a helpful to record interviews. Why did you decide to write the book now?
Pam: I will give you the reasons; but quite honestly, I think the universe aligned, the Gods spoke and granted me a genius to guide the writing. I could feel my mom’s spirit with me all the way, and my friends absolutely would not let me quit in those dark moments of doubt.
- I am on the back half of life and procrastination is not my friend. (Not that it ever was, really, haha)
- I did not want my family’s stories to be lost. None of my sisters and I had children, so our small branch of the family stops here.
- I finally came up with a concept for the book, a framework that I felt was right… like something I could write.
- I told a friend and fellow colleague about this “decades held dream” and my new vision for it. She proclaimed, “That sounds like a perfect Mother’s Day book.” Brilliant! But I am the marketing instructor, I should have thought of that. (So, you see Ana is to blame!)
- I was no longer in a high-powered, time-consuming studio job, so could write if I chose to.
- I got a team together to help with publishing, marketing, editing, design and the myriad of tasks it takes to launch a book and announced it to every person I knew on the planet.
Then, I had to do it or suffer irreparable damage to my reputation!
Phyllis: The story takes place over an extended period of time. Were you writing bits of it all along, or did it just come pouring out once you decided to tell the stories?
Pam: Once I came up with this concept for writing a book about my mom, it became something I could complete. I was excited. Each chapter starts with a “Lorraine story” from the 1950s / 1960s followed by my gratitude for something she taught me. I would express these gratitudes when I visited churches while I was travelling. At DreamWorks Animation, I travelled over 100,000 miles a year so that time period became the focus for my portion of the book.
A Candle for My Mother is an inspirational book because it’s about the gifts our mothers give us in this world. It’s also a memoir and a travel log and a history book! The cool thing was adding customizable pages that give the reader the opportunity to include their thoughts or memories – a poem, paste in a picture, document the “best day ever” in words or photos expressing the reader’s own gratitudes to his/her mom. A Candle for My Mother can then be given or kept for their library. It makes it very personal.
I’d like to say it came pouring out. In a weird way, I started with more than half of the book “written” via my mom’s transcribed tapes, yet it was much harder than I thought it would be. The rough outline was twelve chapters that grew to twenty-five. The Lorraine stories comprised over 300 pages requiring me to make choices about which stories to include. I also conducted tons of research. Trust me, I’m not complaining. There are authors that would kill to have the kind of resource I had at the start of this project. I felt very fortunate indeed.
Then when it came to my portion of the book, I had nothing.
Phyllis: Nothing? How did you remember everything from your travels for your part of the book? Did you have a journal knowing you would someday write this book?
Pam: I did not keep a journal. I never intended to write about the private moments I spent in churches all across the globe. Lighting candles in my mother’s honor and spending time thinking about her was just something I did. I didn’t talk about it much. People who traveled with me knew about this tradition and would give me my space. But the fact that I didn’t keep a journal made it very hard to piece together. Some churches I popped into in-between meetings and did not remember the name of the church. Thank goodness for Google maps. I was able to find most of them by retracing my steps. I did take some poetic license. Every church visit is real, but I cannot give an exact date for most of them. I was on the road every month, sometimes in three or four cities each trip, so it gets to be a bit of a blur.
Phyllis: Did you choose destinations and adventures knowing that you could relate them to your mom’s stories in the book?
Pam: Yes, I did. I have visited well over one hundred churches in a myriad of countries in the twenty years since my mother died. I only needed a couple of dozen for the book. So, I did select relevant visits during the timeframe of my five-and-a-half-year tenure at DreamWorks Animation.
Phyllis: Please share with us your writing process. You hold a day job. It had to be a labor of love to write this book. Your process may help others who want to tell their stories, but think they don’t have the time or ability to do so.
Pam: I am always reminded of Mary Higgins Clark who was widowed with five young children and a full-time job. She would write in the mornings at 5:00 am before the kids woke up and finally found success in her mid-forties. Wow! That’s not me. Besides, I am a night owl.
After my intense 24/7 studio jobs ended, I found I had more time, even though I was a full-time teacher. When my conversation with Ana spurred me into action, I was off and running in my naivete. I spent 18 months writing and rewriting the draft and five months on editing. I spent many months working seven days a week from four in the afternoon until midnight and all-day weekends because I was behind schedule and had underestimated the time it would take to edit, design and distribute the book. But I did it. For over 20 years I didn’t. And then I did. Whoo hoo!
How? I wrote a blog post about that lightning bolt on my website.
The first thing was to get leverage on myself, get an immovable deadline (I can’t move Mother’s Day) and a team. Most importantly, as I mentioned before, I didn’t want to die without finishing this book!
What someone else may need may be different. I know now how much I could have benefited from Lisa Tener’s Bring Your Book to Life program. Even though I hadn’t signed up, Lisa never refused to help and offered so much support. Lisa proved an amazing resource, a true gift.
Phyllis: You are a marketing professional, so I assume you created a detailed marketing plan for your project. Please share your marketing process. Other first-time authors may not be as well versed in the field and can benefit from your expertise.
Pam: You are asking a lot with this question. I will do my best to break it down. First, my beautiful marketing plan was shot to pieces because I was six weeks late delivering A Candle for My Mother. It arrived just a few days before Mother’s Day. Too late for the Mother’s Day selling cycle. I also did not have time to pitch the promotional partners we had identified because I was so busy writing. Self-publishing is an immense amount of work!
Even though the book was late, we had done many activities in the plan that gave us a good start. It began when we were determining if we had a viable project. I sent the first pages to a friend of mine who is a writer and editor in Oregon. Paula said, “You are not writing a memoir. This is an inspirational book.” So, my project manager and I did some market research. We went on Amazon and looked at memoirs, mother books and inspirational books. There were tons of them, but none quite like the book I envisioned. My book was unique with customizable pages and included a little bit of Hollywood magic from my job and tons of adventure and travel in both my Mom’s stories and my church visits. This was a critical determination.
The plan had the launch positioned around Mother’s Day 2018. During Mother’s Day 2017, the whole team was on the lookout for Mother’s Day promotions. Everyone knew the ideas in the plan. When we went in stores and online, we found the ideas we had were not being done, indeed little was being done especially in bookstores around town and on the Amazon website. That was good news. We now knew we had some fresh concepts to introduce to the market. (Although, we did not make the promotional calendars for 2018, we are proceeding for 2019.)
We started an author website nine months ahead of launch. That was late, I would encourage authors to begin sooner. I wrote blogs. Put up information and pictures. Started an Author Facebook page and Twitter feed. In December 2017, we spent a day with a crew filming 30 adults and students talking about their mothers. We have been releasing those short videos across social media since January 2018.
Another key thing I did was to solicit input from a variety of sources during the writing of the book. The first half was reviewed by two story editors (one being Stuart whom you recommend) and a writer friend in England who gave amazing, detailed notes. Then there was a proofreader in Texas and a copy editor in New York. Because I was behind schedule many of these activities overlapped and incorporating the feedback was quite the feat. I had underestimated the time needed for the editing process.
There was also the book design phase, photos had to be digitized, maps created, and illustrations, font styles selected (complicated, as there are two voices in this book). Our designer was amazing! It didn’t stop there because once we had the layout, it had to be optimized for various platforms such as Nook, eBook, Kindle, print on demand. I completely underestimated this phase, too. At this point, it was not an option to delay the book. I had scheduled a launch event, so it had to get done… and it did.
Fortunately, the book is full of travel and adventure so makes a great summer read. We have revised the plan. It now includes more word of mouth social media marketing, a unique book club pitch, appearances, entry for book awards and presenting it to Hollywood for a movie or TV show. We will be hard at it for the next year or so. I recognize it will take time especially when I don’t have a publisher behind me and limited financial resources. I am not discouraged. I remain excited. The reviews are great, so we know we have something worthwhile.
Phyllis: You’ve finished your first book. Knowing now what it took, would you write a second one?
Pam: My immediate answer is “no”… because it took over my life. But now, I’m so proud of the result, I just want everyone to read my mom’s story, to know Lorraine. Because I chose to self-publish, I still have so much work to do that it is hard to think about beginning another project. I do have ideas though, so let’s say “maybe” for now. Ask me again in six months. After I’ve taken Lisa’s next class!