Monday, October 5, 2015

Livin' La Vida Loca: I Love the Writing Life

I love writing for kids and working with them. But I have never (at least not as an adult) had any illusions that I could support myself working solely as a writer. This "Ah-Ha!" moment came during a banquet while I in library school, (as we called it back in the day.)

I was graduate assistant to the children's services specialist.  (Who knows where I'd be today if I assisted the specialists in government documents or cataloging?) He had put together an all-star children's literature symposium--Ellen Raskin, Ashley Bryant, Jean Fritz--award-winning authors and illustrators all. At the banquet, I was thrilled when my boss seated me next to the brilliant Ellen Raskin.  The year before, her Figgs & Phantoms had been named a Newbery Honor book.  Her own Newbery for The Westing Game would be three years in the future.

Always a big fan of Ms Raskin's funny, quirky books, I was thrilled to discover that the author was just like her books--funny, quirky and blunt. Too chicken to ask this Great Author anything more than to pass the salt, please, I listened as she answered the questions of our tablemates.  I learned that she had a daughter, was married to an editor at Scientific American and lived in a funny (quirky?) house on a private, gated street in Greenwich Village. Her studio on the top floor had a big skylight. (Odd the details the memory records.)

I was ready to chuck my previous career role model, Mary Tyler Moore, and move into Ellen Raskin's seemingly perfect life.  Then someone asked "that question" which really wasn't a question.

"So, you must be doing pretty well with your books," said a person whose name and gender is lost in time.

Ms Raskin's fork clinked against her plate."That depends on how you define 'pretty well'," she replied.

"I mean financially," the Person said blandly, with a smile that assumed Ellen would answer, "Oh yes, I am making buckets of money." Young, dumb me, assumed that would be the answer too.

Ms Raskin paused, as if calculating something in her head. "Well," she said. "I have ten books in print."

Wow! I thought. Ten books in print. She must be making a fortune. Three-story houses in Greenwich Village aren't cheap. The thought of anyone having ten books in print at the same time was simply mind-boggling.

But Ellen was still talking.  "...and last year I made..." and named a four digit figure. Even in 1976, it was a ridiculously low amount of money. Ten books and this is all she made?  She has a Newbery Honor book for crying out loud!

Long silence at our table. After a moment, Ellen laughed and made a comment about writers needing employed spouses. Dinner went on, but that conversation was a wake-up call for me. Now I knew what people meant went they said, "Don't quit your day job." And I didn't for a long, long time.

Quitting my day job was not my choice. My husband's company transferred him to Thailand, a country with notoriously tough labor laws. I became a full-time writer, whether I wanted to or not. I wrote ten and twelve hours a day.  I wrote and sold My Best Friend and Yankee Girl in those years.

Fast forward to today. I have written and published seven books, plus contributed to two YA short story anthologies. My Best Friend won both the Ezra Jack Keats and Charlotte Zolotow Awards, and is referenced in many children's literature textbooks. Yankee Girl was nominated for a dozen State Book Awards. I am extremely fortunate that all but one of these books is still in print. One, Jimmy's Stars, is only available as an e-book. For someone who is considered a mid-list author, someone who is not J.K Rowling or Suzanne Collins or Rick Riordan, I am doing really well.

Last year, my royalties were half of what my daughter makes as a part-time waitress at Golden Corral. My very best year, royalty-wise, equalled my teaching salary when I left to get married. That was 1990, and I taught in one of the poorest school systems in my state. My very best year, in real money terms, was a lot less than my best year teaching.

Luckily, I enjoy doing school visits and teaching. However, in the last couple of years, school budgets and curriculum have rarely accommodated author visits.  I pick up teaching/tutoring gigs here and there, mostly for homeschool groups. I've done freelance editing and worked as a private writing coach. My most reliable source of income is the Young Author's day camps I run each summer, with
weekend workshops during the school year.
One of my first school visits, Davis Elementary, Jackson, Ms 

    In the beginning, my non-royalty "author jobs" income equalled my royalties.  Now it surpasses it. I love working with these young writers. It's my dessert, after spending the rest of the year writing in solitude. I began with a single week camp. Now, ten years later, I  conduct writing camps for the Parks Department and local historical societies nearly every week from Memorial Day to the start of school.

Young authors at work! Roswell, Ga, summer 2013.
Sure, if I were still a school librarian, I'd be
making more money. I am super lucky to be married 25 years to my best friend, who has a good job and insurance.  If my income dried up to zero, we would not be out in the streets. But I have always been a working mom. I love what I do. I can't imagine ever retiring.

Don't forget to sign up for our latest Book Giveaway (click here) for info.  Don't miss out;  
the deadline is October 10.

Posted by Mary Ann Rodman


Carmela Martino said...

MA, I'm a HUGE fan of THE WESTING GAME. Thanks so much for sharing your story of dinner with Ellen Raskin, and your own experiences of trying to "make a living" as a writer. I, too, meet so many people who think all authors have incomes comparable to JK Rowling. They seem shocked when I tell them most authors have to supplement their income in other ways to make ends meet (and/or have the financial support of a spouse).
Love the photo from your school visit!

mary ann rodman said...

Thank you, Carmela. After I posted this on FB, I heard from my best from library school, who was ALSO at that symposium. She reminded me that Susan Cooper was also featured on the program (sorry, Susan Cooper!). Yes, those who aren't hooked into the writing/publishing world generally think we are all living it up on our Big Bucks Royalties. I had a student ask me during a school visit Q & A just how much I made per book (kids assume that I am racking up sixteen dollars per sale because that's the cover price.) When I told him 5%, he did a double take and said "Lady, you need a manager." (I wonder where that kid is now...he would be out of college by now.)

Linda B said...

You haven't surprised me with your post. Ellen Raskin's name is what first caught my eye, & I thought that at least the Newbery winners might bring in a bit more. I loved your story of your 'beginning' days. It must have been inspiring to be with Ms. Raskin. I always wonder about circumstances, like your move to Thailand, perhaps the best push you could have had for your writing. Thanks, Mary Ann.

Carla Killough McClafferty said...

Thanks Mary Ann for the candor in this piece. It is a shocking reality that most full time authors can not make a living writing books. I can't either.

April Halprin Wayland said...

Mary Ann, I remember talking to a Newbery Award winner, asking if his award boosted the sale of all his books. He said no, unfortunately, it only boosted the sale of that one book. Astounding!
Thanks for your unflagging honesty--always. The more we share, the more we grow in an understanding of our field, and how to change it.

April Halprin Wayland said...

Mary Ann, I remember talking to a Newbery Award winner, asking if his award boosted the sale of all his books. He said no, unfortunately, it only boosted the sale of that one book. Astounding!
Thanks for your unflagging honesty--always. The more we share, the more we grow in an understanding of our field, and how to change it.