APKY/AMP: Hello Joan, and thanks for this interview for AuthorMeProfessionals. Please tell us something about yourself and how you came to be a writer. What inspired you to write your first book?
I have written since I was eight when I wrote my first 10 page novel. I was immensely impressed with it. When I was living in New York in the 1980s I was studying “Rebirthing” which is a new age idea that says you make your major life decisions at or around birth and you live according to those decisions. One day there was a major accident right up the street from my apartment in which a woman was pinned by a 35-ton building crane 60 feet above an excavation pit. It was a riveting rescue. I wondered what kind of a birth would result in that woman being the victim of a crane that missed two other people and should never have been able to work over an unprotected sidewalk in the first place. So I wrote “The Provenance” (which means origin) about a similar accident and a fictional woman and her life based on a birth as a twin in which her twin brother died and she felt responsible. I also wrote the story of the man who tipped the crane and several other people. They all came together to play out their specific roles in this one monumental accident, each according to their birth decisions.
In the beginning of my career I was very conventional. I wrote with Suzy Prudden. We had agents. We were published by Hay House, Doubleday and Harper San Francisco. Today I publish on the digital sites, I don’t use agents, and I don’t use publishers. I take home 70% of what sells (instead of 7%). I’m absolutely happy as a writer and love the new writing and publishing paradigm.
APKY/AMP: Most writers are right there with you in the paradigm, Joan. Perhaps that’s the current writers’ Provenance. What genre do you generally write and have you considered other genres?
I write in three areas under Joan Meijer – Medical Thrillers, How Tos (dealing with mostly writing) and co-authoring Suzy Prudden books. I have recently stopped writing for other people. I simply have too many of my own books and stories to write.
APKY/AMP: I think we missed the question there, Joan, but gained more info about you. Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?
Relentless: The Search for Typhoid Mary is a medical history novel with dozens of issues. It is based on the true story of Typhoid Mary. Mary Mallon – Typhoid Mary was an Irish immigrant woman, relatively unattractive, heavy set, approaching 40 and unmarried when the investigation that led to her identification as the first Typhoid Carrier began. She was strong, tough, outspoken, a woman who had immigrated to the US at 15, researched the most profitable employment available to her. She had worked hard to become top in her field – a cook for the wealthy. There were other typhoid carriers in New York at the time. None of them were incarcerated in solitary confinement. Mary’s big sin was being a cook for the wealthy. Her other sins were her Irish immigrant status, her female sex and unmarried status. Male typhoid carriers were give jobs at tax payer expense. Mary spent 1/3rd of her life in a prison hospital. The issues that beset us today – immigrants, female, lack of recognition as the supporter of a family, attractiveness, epidemiology and the limits of the law all play out today as they did in 1906.
APKY/AMP: Amazing. Sounds like a book I’d love to read. Wing me over a pdf copy, please? Back to you - what have you had published to-date?
I have published in fiction: “The Initiative” “The President’s Dirty Little Secret” “The Provenance” “Relentless: The Search for Typhoid Mary. In Nonfiction: “Date Rape: It’s Not Your Fault” “How To Write A Book That Positions You As An Expert In Your Field” “The Character Book”. With Suzy Prudden: “Starting Right” “MetaFitness: Your Thoughts Taking Shape” “Change Your Mind Change Your Body” “Suzy Prudden’s Itty Bitty Weight Loss Book” “Suzy Prudden’s One Stop Diet Revolution” “Suzy Prudden’s Body Wisdom” I have also written two little books for The Ford Foundation, a little book for the State of Connecticut Department of Transportation, a little first aid book for ABC Television, and half a dozen in-house books for Suzy Prudden workshops. I wrote “Adventure-cise” a children’s exercise audio. I was the writer for hire on two motion pictures that never got out of development. I’m currently in the process of writing a book about publishing on the digital sights which is pretty much written on a daily basis in my blog http://writecharacter.blogspot.com. I also blog daily for Suzy Prudden doing readings from our book “Body Wisdom” and may do an annual Body Wisdom Readings book depending on time. I have two medical thrillers in the hopper which I’m hoping I have time to write.
APKY/AMP: Oh my, you could open your own bookstore! J Do you have any advice for other writers?
The greatest gifts to writers are the digital publishing sites. For the first time we don’t need agents or publishers. We can publish what we write and it’s up to us to figure out how to sell it. We live in a wonderful time.
APKY/AMP: Perhaps you could blog on our site about marketing and selling, Joan. That seems to be our hardest work these days since most writers are not very good sales people. Tell us why we should buy your book?
“Relentless: The Search for Typhoid Mary” is a wonderful story about an incredible woman who was branded as a villain. She is a magnificent character; strong, independent, stoic, undaunted, loving. As I read through the articles that had been written about her fascinating case and the amazing investigation carried out by Dr. George Soper, I knew there was more to the story than the history I was reading. I was thrilled as an author to see this three dimensional woman emerge. Not only does she emerge but the wealthy class of New York and the servant class that saw to their needs emerge. New York itself emerged. It’s a fascinating picture of the United States at the beginning of microbiology. I consider myself as much of a stenographer for this marvelous history as an author. It was my honor to give Mary a voice she never had.
APKY/AMP: Wow, I really need that pdf from you. So, how much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
APKY/AMP: Aha. I think I know what you mean. J Have you won or been shortlisted in any competitions and do you think they help with a writer’s success?
No I haven’t submitted my books for competitions I don’t ever want to take the time to figure out which of the zillion competitions actually applies to what I write.
APKY/AMP: You do have a point there – there’re tons of competitions out there and that makes for hard choices. Is there a special place that you prefer when you write?
I just sit at my computer wherever it is, turn on Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto and start to write.
APKY/AMP: Right. I lean more towards Edvard Grieg. Do you write under a pseudonym? If so why and do you think it makes a difference?
I have another pseudonym that I write under because I write subject matter under that name which would not be appropriate for my non-fiction writing as Joan Meijer.
APKY/AMP: That’s encouraging to me as I’ve created A P von K’Ory as a nom de plume for my fiction – has a ring to it and is easier to remember than the full version. Do you have an agent? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
I don’t have an agent now. I have worked with several agents in the past. Since I’m not approaching publishers any more I don’t need an agent. We’re at an interesting time in the publishing world when Publishers, Agents and even bookstores are at risk of becoming obsolete because they truly have not treated writers well. I make more money on the digitals than I ever made working with agents and publishers.
APKY/AMP: Another good point. What are you working on at the moment / next?
I’m working on a bunch of material under my other name. If I get time (read make time) I’ll finish “The Bridge” which is almost finished. It was my National Novel Writing Month project last year. “Relentless: The Search For Typhoid Mary” was the project in 2010.
APKY/AMP: All the power to you, Joan. Do you manage to write every day?
No, but close. I have a job and a family as well as my writing. Often other obligations take me away from the computer.
APKY/AMP: Right. What is your opinion of writer’s block? Do you ever suffer from it? If so, how do you ‘cure’ it?
I never suffer from writer’s block, because I’ve never been much of an editor. I know people who do. I have made a hypnosis process “Overcoming Writer’s Block” which I’ll post on my website one of these years. The trick with writer’s block is never to allow your internal editor take over.
APKY/AMP: Let us know when you post that one so we can “steal” it for our blog! Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and off you are with it?
My favorite way to approach a novel is to write it as a movie first. Formula for movies is a very formal dance. If I stick with the formula I end up with an excellently structured book. I can then expand it into novel form. A 20,000 word script easily turns into a 70,000 word novel, which is just the right length for the digitals. I find that if I just let the book flow – which I’ve done a few times – it’s harder to control it. That’s how I ended up with 93,000 words for “The Bridge” which I now have to go back and tighten.
APKY/AMP: Again, let us know about the script approach idea, if you’ve an article or book on it. Do you have a method for creating your characters, their names and what do you think makes them believable?
I’ve written an entire book “The Character Book” about character development. I start with the question: At the beginning of the book what does my main character know. What is he wrong about? So at the beginning of “Relentless: The Search For Typhoid Mary” Mary knows she is a top cook for the wealthy in New York and she believes that her life is settled and will continue in that direction until she retires. She is completely wrong about that because as a typhoid carrier she cannot handle food. And there is no way she can be careful enough to remain a cook without infecting people. Her whole existence is about trying to remain a cook. It’s very easy to write characters once you understand what drives them.
APKY/AMP: That’s sound advice. Who is your first reader – who do you first show your work to?
I used to give my books to my sister. Her response to “The Provenance” was, “Thank God it’s good, I was terrified that it wouldn’t be.” Now I just post. I don’t give what I write to anyone.
APKY/AMP: Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
My writing has really improved. I generally write a first draft. I go through it again to see if I made any mistakes. Once more for typos and up it goes.
APKY/AMP: Do you write on paper or do you prefer a computer?
I think I have a magical connection between my fingers on the computer and the creative universe. I just open my head and take notes. Since I type really fast, we get a lot written – the muse and I – in a short time.
APKY/AMP: What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person? Have you ever tried second person?
I like third person best. I have never tried second person. I’ve just written a first person short story that was quite a bit of fun but I still like third person best.
APKY/AMP: Yours truly too. J What do you like to read?
I like to read thrillers. Good medical thrillers are fabulous to me.
APKY/AMP: I think I read Harlan Coben’s Miracle Cure and had a good time with it. What do you do when you’re not writing? Any hobbies or party tricks?
I have a grandson who is my movie buddy. I like hanging with him when I’m not writing. I read to him and pretty much think of exposing him to the world – museums, books, music, etc. as a hobby.
APKY/AMP: Lucky fellow, not left to see the world through video games. J Where can we find out about you and your work?
I have a URL www.joanmeijer.com. I’m also covered extensively on Google.
APKY/AMP: Superb. Is there anything else you’d like to mention, Joan?
The important thing that writers should know is that Kindle Direct Publishing (Amazon), Pubit (Barnes & Noble), Kobo Writing Life and Smashwords.com are all you need to be an author these days. You should learn to do your own covers because it gets really expensive if you don’t. You don’t need an agent. You don’t need bookstores and book signings. You need to write and publish. Learn keywords. Study how other people in your field write their descriptions. Learn what sells and give people what they want. It’s a whole new world out there and it’s very, very exciting.
APKY/AMP: Joan, thank you so much. I now invite you to include an extract of your writing:
THE SEARCH FOR TYPHOID MARY
Part I – Discovery
Peach Ice Cream
The Thompson House in Oyster Bay near the southern tip of Long Island was gracious. From its large central chimney with its four distinct flues that guaranteed heat throughout the cold, damp winters, to its multiple steeply slanting roofs, expansive porches, sloping lawns and ancient trees, it spoke of wealth and comfort at a glance. Built in 1885, it combined a first story of red brick and second and third stories of wood that was painted a rich gray. Striped canvas awnings extended the porches, providing shade during the hot, muggy summer months.
A long, curving drive lead from Prospect Street, past the barn that had once housed carriages and horses and now served as a garage for the horseless carriages and up the gentle slope to the top of the hill on which the house was perched. Maple, oak and linden trees lined the drive and sheltered the house from some of the summer heat.
From the house Oyster Bay Harbor itself could be seen and beyond that inlet Long Island Sound glittered in the brilliant sunshine. The family could walk to the beach, their servants carrying picnic baskets and umbrellas to shelter them from the summer sun. The house was perfectly positioned for New York’s wealthy seeking escape from the cholera riddled city in the summer months.
The Thompson House kitchen was large and white. Its floors were covered with linoleum which had been invented in 1860. Like the walls the floors were also white inlaid with a popular pattern of small squares that formed at the corners of the larger squares laid side by side and end to end. There were two large sinks in the kitchen, one for washing vegetables and one for washing dishes. Between the two sinks were areas for draining. The stove was coal burning and large enough for a restaurant. It radiated heat that make the kitchen almost unbearable during the heat waves of summer. In the center of the kitchen was a large cutting table made of gray marble slab. Cabinets for dried and canned foods lined the wall opposite the sink. A small room off the kitchen contained those pots, pans, coffee grinders and general cooking equipment.
At the far end of the kitchen, away from the working end was a long table for the staff. Dishes for the staff were kept in tall cabinets that lined the far wall. Dishes for the family were kept in the pantry, a room between the kitchen and the dining area. The pantry had its own sink and access to such luxuries as butterball scoops and the crystal dishes in which fresh celery was served.
Off the pantry was a cutting room with its own door leading to the outside of the house so that Onofrio, the gardener could bring fresh cuttings to be placed in vases and distributed throughout the house.
A long passage to the laundry room at the end of the house completed the servant’s area of the house. The laundry was placed at a distance from the kitchen because it’s vats of boiling starch and its giant mangles created its own heat and would have driven the staff to insurrection during heat waves.
Across the hall from the laundry was the servant’s toilet, the size of a very small closet. The fact that the Thompson House boasted indoor plumbing had been the selling point for the Charles Henry Warren family which had rented the house for the summer. Doris Warren had been adamant. She insisted that she would never again rent a house in which she would be subjected to the foul odors and inconvenience of outhouses. The General, a banker who could afford to indulge his much adored family had been delighted to introduce her to the Thompson House, a perfect summer establishment, close enough to the city in case business required his attendance in the office, far enough away to provide a haven for his children.
The crowning glory of the house was its proximity to Sagamore Hill, summer White House for Theodore Roosevelt the 26th President of the United States and his family. The General and his wife, like others of their class, would dine with the Roosevelts on occasion as did the other well-positioned families in the area.
On this day in early August, the new cook, Mary Mallon, who had recently been hired to replace the Warren’s regular cook who had inconveniently developed appendicitis, was preparing her signature dish designed to justify Mrs. Warren’s choice of her replacement. To cement her position in the household even more firmly, Mary had invited the two Warren children to help in the preparation. Mary had discovered during her years as a cook for the wealthiest families of New York that the path to acceptance lay in the children. She was a rather intimidating woman, tall, broad in her body, extremely strong and apt to move more like a man than a woman in a society that prized the simpering step of femininity and bound its women in whale boned corsets to achieve the fashionable “S” shape walk that thrust women’s busts forward and their posteriors back. Mary, who had to function in her working world, had not bound herself into the tight fitting undergarments, nor had she had added a bustle to her long black dresses. Having eschewed fashion in her clothing, Mary had also rejected fashion in her hair, which required foundations on which to pile curls and feathered hats. She had a large lantern jaw and blond hair which she clubbed back into a severe bun at the back of her head. Her only attractive features were her eyes, crystal blue and shining with intelligence.
When she had arrived in New York at the age of fifteen, she had scouted her new terrain for the best paying job an Irish woman could attain. Cooking for the rich was the career she had identified and now, at age thirty seven she had achieved a level of success that other immigrants only dreamed of.
While the two children, Abigail eight and Constance ten, waited on pins and needles, Mary used the servant’s bathroom before beginning the lengthy process of making ice cream. An ice cream machine – a bucket with a bowl in it that could be turned with a crank – peeled and sliced peaches which sat waiting to be mashed in the ice cream machine’s inner bowl, a bowl with four large brown eggs in it and a potato masher were set out on the kitchen table.
The children’s wide eyes followed the woman as she picked the bucket of the ice cream machine and carried it to the vegetable sink where a large block of ice could be seen glistening in the warm summer air. They stared in awe as she took an ice pick in her large, strong hand and attacked the block, stabbing at it so that chips, large and small, flew into the sink around it. When she thought there were enough chips, she stopped the attack on the ice, and scooped up the frozen water with her hands, dumping it into the bucket.
“Is it the ice that turns the cream to ice cream, Mary?” Abigail asked, her voice breathless with awe.
“Of course it is, that's why they call it ice cream, silly bean,” Constance informed her younger sibling. Abigail made a face as if to say that she had only been making conversation. Constance used her two years seniority to great advantage with Abigail, much to her younger sister’s consternation.
“Mind you, you don't add the ice to the cream. You just cool the cream with the ice until it thickens in a certain way,” Mary instructed, ignoring the air of disagreement between the two children. “It's quite a miracle. Without the ice it would just turn to whipped cream or butter.”
“Where did the ice come from?” Abigail asked.
“Well now, there’s a great ice house on the grounds. I suppose they’ll be bringin’ the blocks in from some big river like the Hudson durin’ the winter. They store it in straw and then use it all through the summer for cold drinks and the like. It’s a great luxury,” Mary’s strong Irish accent and Gaelic rhythms punctuated her speech.
“We almost never have it,” Constance mused, her voice dreamy with the expectation of the treat.
Mary smiled knowingly as she drew the bowl with the peaches toward her and picked up a potato masher.
“Would you like to take turns mashin’ the peaches?” she asked. Both children nodded enthusiastically and Mary handed the bowl and masher to Constance.
“There's undoubtedly a very good reason why the good Lord made the things that taste the best, take the longest to prepare. Perhaps so we wouldn't ever be tempted forget we're eatin' something special. That’s it, Miss Constance, you want to break 'em up into little chunks.”
It was at this moment that Doris Warren, in her soft flowing white-flowered gown with its legomutton sleeves, pinched waist and high bustle chose to make her appearance in the kitchen. The antithesis of Mary, she wore her hair piled high with soft ringlets cascading down her narrow back. She was a statement of the hours it took to scrub her grass stained hems, lace her into her breath restricting corsets and coif her ringlets to perfection.
“Don't let the children bother you Mary,” she drawled, her perfect English spoken with the clenched jaw that bespoke all the restrictions of the upper class.
“Children never bother me, Mrs. Warren. I've a spot for them an' that's a fact,” Mary smiled. She stood almost a foot taller and at least that much wider than the diminutive Doris Warren and might have seemed threatening in other circumstances.
“Do you have children of your own?” asked the ever-inquisitive Abigail.
“I had a daughter, once.” Mary replied, a cloud dimming the brilliance in her startling blue eyes.
“Where is your daughter now?” Abigail asked.
“Miss Abigail, are ya' big enough to go to the ice chest and get the pitcher of cream all by yourself?” Mary asked, diverting the child from what might become an uncomfortable conversation.
“Oh yes, Mary. Thank you. Mary,” Abigail dimpled in happiness.
“Where is your daughter Mary?” Constance pursued, not satisfied with the change of subject.
“Constance,” Doris chided. “Prying into other people's personal lives is not good manners.”
“I was just...”
“I'll be needin the sugar jar, Miss Constance. Would you be able to be findin' it for me?” Mary interjected. Her blue eyes found the brown of Doris Warren as if to thank her for the consideration.
“I know just where it is Mary,” Constance replied, putting down the potato masher and dashing off to the shelf where the sugar jar was stored.
“If they get to be too much Mary, just send them to Nanny. Though I must say, she's grateful for a little time to herself now that you're here. We're so grateful that you could come to help us on such short notice,” Doris Warren said, taking advantage of the girl’s absence.
“It's my pleasure Mrs. Warren,” Mary replied.
They had only those few words before the girls returned racing each other to be the first to bring the treasures they had been sent to find.
“Don't bump your sister, Constance,” Doris Warren scolded.
Constance deflected the reprimand by instigating a song, “We're making ice-cream, we're making ice-cream…”
“This is such a treat for them. Thank you for letting them help, Mary,” Doris said gazing at her oldest daughter with a knowing eye.
"I enjoy havin' them in the kitchen and that’s a fact. Thank you Miss Constance. Now I'll need the measuring cups. Why Miss Abigail, you didn't spill a drop.”
“I was very careful,” Abigail said, pride filling her voice.
“So I see. Would you like to be havin' a turn mashin’ the peaches now, Miss Abigail?” Mary said.
“Oh, yes please,” Abigail said happily.
“Here are the measuring cups," Constance announced dragging attention back to herself.
“Thank you, Miss Constance. That’s fine now, Miss Abigail. Lets be settin’ the peaches on the ice.” Mary took the bowl and potato masher from Abigail, banged the masher against the rim of the bowl to rid it of any remaining peaches, and placed the bowl in the bucket of ice. “Miss Constance would you be wantin’ to measure half a cup of sugar and pour it over the peaches while I separate the eggs?”
Constance carefully measured the sugar to the top of the half cup and transferred it slowly to the peaches. Mary remove the eggs from the bowl, cracked one, pried it into two halves and, tipped the yolk back and forth between the shells as the white slid into the empty bowl. When the yolk was free of white, she dumped it onto the peaches. She repeated this process three more times to the wide-eyed approval of the children.
“This is called separatin’ the eggs,” she explained. "We’ll keep the whites and I’ll make you a meringue to go with the ice cream later on.”
“Can we help with the meringue too?” Abigail asked.
“We'll see if you want to. Now miss, Abigail, please pour the cream over the peaches,” Mary instructed, fitting the lid of the machine in place and the clamping the bucket to the table.
“Now who is going to turn first? Miss Abigail I think it will be you because Miss Constance was the first to mash the peaches. You'll turn twenty times and then it will be Miss Constance’s turn.” Constance opened her mouth as if to protest. “Now don't' be frettin’, Miss Constance. You'll each have so many turns at the crank before we're through you'll never be wantin’ to make ice cream again.“
Abigail pushed against the crank. It was difficult at first because the ice had melted and then hardened against the bowl, so Mary had to help her get started.
“One, two, three....Keep it turning Miss Abigail, you don't want to let it rest. If you let the cream rest, it might turn into something all together different from what you expected.
“Like what?” Abigail asked, laughter coloring her voice.
“Oh, like liquorice stew, or hot cross buns,” Mary smiled.
“No it wouldn't,” Constance said derisively.
“Twelve, thirteen.....Keep turning. Miss Abigail. That's a girl,” Mary said. Doris Warren slipped out of the kitchen and let herself into the flower room where flowers and greens stood in buckets waiting for her to arrange them. She smiled happily as she busied herself with a chore she truly enjoyed. The sounds of her happy children added to her satisfaction. It was truly a memorable afternoon.