Tuesday, November 29, 2011

An Interview with UNTRACEABLE author Shelli Johannes-Wells

I was going to save this for a Bookanista day, but then I realized that (a) the Scavenger Hunt is happening on a Bookanista day and (b) today's Shelli's book birthday, so (c) let's share it today!

Today I've got with us Shelli Johannes-Wells, author of UNTRACEABLE. This book has had a somewhat unique path to publication, which you can read all about at Shelli's blog. I picked her brain a bit about the book, the publication, and more--hope you enjoy!

We can read all about your life from your bio in the jacket flap of your book. So, what's a completely random fact about you that most people don't know? 

Excuse me, my whole life is not in my bio. I’m much more interesting than that :)
I used to sing in a Blues/Jazz band and love to sing. Always wanted to be a professional singer. So I sing A LOT. Drives my kids nuts because I make up my own songs about mundane things. Yeah, I’m crazy that way.
As a kid, what was your favorite book? Have your tastes changed since growing up? 

Pippi Longstocking has always stuck out to me. I loved how daring and independent she was. I loved how secure she was with herself at that age. She was so real.
I’ve always read thrillers and mysteries. When I was a teen, I used to sneak my mom’s books – Iris Johansen, Steven King, James Patterson – whatever thriller I could get my hands on. I loved the feeling of hiding under the covers, reading until the wee hours of the night by flashlight b/c I could not put the book down.
Your book, UNTRACEABLE, takes place in the Smoky Mountains, an area you’re familiar with. Is anything else from the book drawn from your life?
I always loved being outside when I was younger. I used to camp and canoe with my parents. I got away from it in school and as I got older. But my hubby is very into nature and the wilderness – goes camping on his own in the deep dark forest. I slowly got back to nature and realize how much I was missing. Today, if I have a hard day – I sit outside on the swing and let Nature recenter me.
You’ve decided to self-publish UNTRACEABLE—and make every step of the process, from the costs to the emotions, public on your blog. What led you to make this decision?
After having four books go to acquisitions over an 8-year period, including 2 years with a top literary agent, I never made it.  After a long and hard decision making process, I decided I was tired of putting my dreams in someone else’s hands and I needed something positive to focus on. I was tired of focusing my writing around a sale and just wanted to touch people. I felt confident I was good enough and this book was good enough to do it on my own. I have a marketing background and felt I could do all the packaging, distribution, and marketing on my own – and I knew I would actually enjoy it. 
I wanted to see if I could do it and wanted to test out some marketing ideas I had in the publishing biz. It started out as an experiment. Now, it has become such a rewarding experience.
I’ve done this book my way and I’m proud of it.

It's the inevitable question: what inspired UNTRACEABLE? 
Well, my husband came home from camping one weekend and said, “Man I was so deep in the wilderness, a terrorist camp could be there and no one would know.” I started the book just as that – about a terrorist cell in the woods.
I know – embarrassing right? (ugh!)
Then I visited Cherokee, NC, and saw some atrocities to nature that I wanted to change. While I rewrote my book from scratch, it was important to me to make people think while creating a thrilling book – just like the ones I used to read – while touching on a message that I felt was important. I wanted to create a strong girl character, but keep her in today’s world with no powers and no magic. That was important to me – I was always a tomboy and loved to be outside so I felt there was a market for a wilderness thriller.
One of the great things about UNTRACEABLE is the focus on the environment—what led you to turn a thriller into an environmental thriller? 

Well, I don’t really like to say it’s an “environmental thriller” because it is not preachy at all and sometimes people get turned off by an eco or conservation book. This book is about a girl that loves nature, wants to find her father, and stumbles on some crimes that she didn’t know existed. They just happen to be crimes to nature that she wants to change. But I would not call it an environmental thriller - though it does touch on some issues.
Can you tell us a little bit about the process--particularly the timeline--of writing UNTRACEABLE? 

I started Untraceable in 2007 (then it was called Grace Under Fire) when I was prego with my son. In spring 2009, my book got named in the quarterfinals of the 2009 Amazon Breakthrough Novel award and was 1 of only 7 thrillers.
Shortly after that, my former agent picked me up on Untraceable. At the time, she felt my tween paranormal was more marketable. So Untraceable was shelved 2009 and 2010 while we tried to sell the other book. The tween went to acquisitions several times but never made it.
In early 2011, I worked with 2 top NY editors on Untraceable to be sure it was what it needed to be before my agent submitted it. Last spring, it went out on a small round and even made it to an acquisition board. Unfortunately, my agent and I parted before it could see 3 full rounds. I queried other agents but since it had been seen by editors – I guess the book was too tainted to be picked up – because I had a couple that wanted my WIP but that was months from being finished and I was not going to give up on Untraceable. I decided I could not lose by putting this book out myself.
If your reader could only take away one emotion, theme, or idea from UNTRACEABLE, what would you want it to be? 

Sometimes you have to stand up for what you believe in. No matter the risks. Oh and get back to nature. We have forgotten how beautiful it is by hiding behind our computers.
What's the most surprising thing you've learned since becoming a writer? 

How hard it is to take steps forward. Not only to get published but the emotional drain of writing is exhausting. I love it but it is tough to pull out what I need sometimes. It’s not an easy career and it’s definitely not the easy way out.
Beyond the typical--never give up; believe in yourself--what would be the single best advice you'd like to give another writer? 

Don’t write to the market. It is good to know and understand the industry, but don’t get too sucked in – it can mess with your head and hurt what you are writing by making you second-guess yourself.
What do you think are your strongest and weakest points in writing?
I think I plot well and always go a way people don’t expect. I like that in books I read so I don’t choose the easiest or expected way out.
I have a hard time nailing voice. It is the biggest challenge for me in my work. And it always comes last for me.

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