April 25, 2015. Santa Cruz, CA.
As part of the 50th annual UCSC Alumni Weekend, a panel of five alumni authors spoke on practical writing and publishing advice. The panel consisted of: Don Wallace, a ‘75 Cowell alum, magazine editor and author of several novels including French House; Laurie Fox, a ‘75 Porter alum and autobiographer, writer, and agent; Laurie King, a ‘77 Kresge alum and author of prize-winning crime novels; Tom Killion, a ‘75 Cowell alum, writer, woodblock printmaker, and founder of Quail Press; and Reyna Grande, a ‘99 Kresge alum and American Book Award winning author. Yours truly, Andrew Wilde-Price, Phil Garbrecht, and Summer Parker-Perry, sat amongst the crowd as young writers eager to learn from the visiting alumni.
Wallace Introduced each of the writers, who he said have, “seen the heights and crawled in the gutter,” and “want to tell you what it’s like.” As he moved to introduce the panel itself, Wallace quoted Chris Connery, an influential professor, and inspiration for Wallace, who said, “Don’t dream, do.” The panel then officially began, as did our feverish note-taking which forms the basis for this article.Out of many wonderful insights from the panel we focused on three.
Part 1: The Santa Cruz Cauldron by Phil Garbrecht
“When people came to Kresge,” Don Wallace reflected, “I think they were just given hammers and nails and condoms.” What was meant to be a quick icebreaker question—what’s your special sauce from your time in Santa Cruz?—became a very collaborative discussion in itself. Each of the five panelists shared their memories and added to each others’ thoughts about the “old” Santa Cruz. They all felt a heartfelt connection with their college years and while not all majored in writing, they said their time at UCSC was formative in their development as writers.
Laurie King was one of the authors who did not major in writing. “I am one of those people that wanders around in a story…” King said. “When I was here [in the mid-70s], there was very little assumption that you would follow rules; you might discover rules. But I think that being a creative writing major would have killed me.”
Reyna Grande took an unconventional path into the creative writing major and found the major to be very helpful in her development as a writer, but nonetheless she faced great challenges. “When I started college I was an art major and I wanted to be a painter. I had never thought about being a writer. I was not exposed to Latino Literature so I thought that latinos didn’t write. At a certain point in my college years my life was falling apart, and I moved in with my English teacher, and she brainwashed me and made me a writer.”
The panelists all faced different challenges as writers during their college years, but they all shared an interest in pursuing multiple disciplines, and found UCSC to be very helpful in allowing them to achieve that, even during different decades.
Laurie Fox was an Aesthetic Studies major which allowed her to take classes in drama, writing, art, philosophy, music, and many more subjects. She summed up the special experience of studying at UCSC well with her closing remark on the question. “I attended UC Santa Cruz in the heyday of the interdisciplinary studies [‘71-’75]… you could pursue multiple things and find a mentor… For me, Santa Cruz was this great cauldron of collaboration and inspiration.” Fox ended by saying her special sauce was Café Pergolesi—but the old Pergolesi that was around before the earthquake—not the new one.
Part 2: Publishing Now by Summer Parker-Perry
Laurie Fox continued the conversation by discussing publishing. Fox explained the importance of pursuing a publishing strategy or support system based on what your individual needs and goals are as an author. Large Publishing house, small press, or even self-publishing, Fox sees them all as valid in today’s age. When asked about her views on self-publishing as an agent, Fox said that she likes to represent authors who already have some of their work out there. Fox believes that an agent is necessary for authors that want to get their work into publishing houses, but not for all. Contrary to the assumption we would make, she still promotes self-published books to publishing houses for a large print run. Fox’s experience as an agent and author matched up overall with what the strict authors had to say, too. Agents are helpful, some can do it without an agent, others can’t, it ultimately comes down to your goals as a writer.
Don Wallace discussed the interesting politics of discussing net neutrality, asserting that we are all, “moving from a verbal to a writing community.” This point resonates in a community where most writers are producing and posting content online, and many are publishing that way. When the discussion of online publishing came up in the panel, the alumni writers had varying views, landing on the general consensus that online publishing tends to work best for those whom rely less on publicity, and whose work publicizes itself. In most cases, they concluded, this tended to be genre works, which are easily recommended and accessible via Amazon, or other online readers.
Part 3: The Author Must Self Promote by Andrew Wilde-Price
During the latter course of the panel, Don Wallace steered the discussion towards the different genres and forms each panelist operates in and the struggles that came from authorhood. Reyna Grande spoke to treating her books like children and using lecturing to support her writing. “I believe my books are like my children,” Grande said, “and after you get a new one, you don’t stop talking about the other ones… But you have to find a balance, because I find now I am more of a speaker than a writer… Your book won’t sell by the grace of god, you have to go out there and make it sell.”
Grande’s sentiment echoed amidst the other panelists. Each, in their own way, also relied on part of their lives, such as a job or their artwork, to influence their writing. Laurie Fox discussed publishing during this part of the panel too, commenting on how it has changed in the last 20-30 years. She spoke to the rise of self-publishing –– that out of the roughly 700,000 new books that come out every year, 400,000 are self-published.“I do have a respect for people who self-publish,” Fox said, but get it edited, proofread, and developed professionally. Get a professional book cover.”
Laurie King talked about becoming a published author in the 1980s. “I think that I am in the generation that published in publishing houses.” King continues to promote her books through book touring and maintaining a blog and website, especially the recent 20th anniversary edition of The Beekeeper’s Apprentice.
Tom Killion however characterized himself more as an artist, responding to Wallace’s question on Genre with: “to support my family every year, I make sure I do a print of poppies. Because everybody like poppies.”
As three young writers, we have taken so much practical advice from this panel of alumni authors. Yet, we also realize we have our own choices to make in a changing industry. Every writer is in a process of stewing their own special sauce, and surely a part of that process for any writer is to sample and incorporate the methods of other writers. So however the future of books is shaped by the current generation of writers and readers, we will refer back to what we learned at UCSC to make new decisions. And surely we will return to Santa Cruz at some point as these alumni authors have—in search of new ingredients, new fuel, for an old recipe.
Don Wallace is a ‘75 Cowell alum, magazine editor, and author of several novels including French House. Don has worked, among others, as Executive editor at Time Inc and at The New York Times Magazine Group.
Laurie King is a ‘77 Kresge alum and author of prize-winning crime novels. She is probably the only writer to have both an Edgar and an honorary doctorate in theology.
Laurie Fox is a ‘75 Porter alum, autobiographer, author, and agent. Her books include Sexy Hieroglyphics and My Sister from the Black Lagoon.
Reyna Grande is a ‘99 Kresge alum and American Book Award winning author. Her works have been published internationally in countries such as Norway and South Korea.
Tom Killion is a ‘75 Cowell alum, author, and woodblock printmaker. After traveling extensively in Europe and Africa, Killion returned to Santa Cruz in 1977 and founded his own Quail Press.
Andrew Wilde-Price is a ‘15 Kresge alum and author of Aelita! and Other Stories.
Phil Garbrecht is a ‘15 Merrill alum and author of Kamigami.
Summer Parker-Perry is a ‘15 Stevenson alum and author of Retelling.