by Toni McGee Causey
It’s funny, but I would have thought the man didn’t even know my name. I had known him for some time as the teacher who was the writer-in-residence at LSU. David Madden, nominated for a Pulitzer in 1979 for The Suicide’s Wife. (He would go on to be nominated for another Pulitzer in 1996 for The Sharpshooter.) He intimidated the hell out of me.
(An aside: David intimidated the hell out of most people. He enjoyed that, he said a couple of days ago. He liked to start with a bad impression and then improve from there.)
I was in Allen Hall, second floor, walking past his office one day—just an ordinary day. I had no idea my life was about to radically change. Fifteen years ago, and I can still tell you the color shirt he had on (light green). Gold rimmed glasses. Khaki pants. And I can tell you that, because the moment struck me like lightning: David stopped me in the hall and asked, “Why haven’t you applied to the MFA program?”
I looked around to see who on earth he was talking to, and realized he was talking to me. “Uh, I have.”
Now, LSU had a very firm policy of absolutely not taking their own undergraduates into the grad program. I knew this, and applied anyway. (What was the worst they could do? Say no?) I did not hold out a lot of hope for an exception. However, as a young mom of two, and a partner in a construction company, I couldn’t exactly parade across the country to attend any other program, so I figured I might as well apply to LSU. And I knew David was the head of the program; David had created the MFA program at LSU.
“I haven’t heard back from them,” I continued. I probably looked calm and cool on the outside. On the inside, I was thinking, holy shit, he knows my name! And then wait… is that a good thing or a bad thing?
“I hear your stuff is good,” he said, more to himself I think, than me. “You’re published, right?”
“Just non-fiction.” I had been selling freelance articles for about ten years at that point—I had, in fact, interrupted that career to return to school because I wanted to go back to my first love, fiction, and I needed some structure to do so. I also wanted to finish the degree (which was referred to for so long as “that damned degree” that we started calling it TDD for short.)
“Bring me some samples and let me see.”
And then he was off, heading to class to scare the bejesus out of a few dozen other students.
The next day, I dropped off samples of my writing and a couple of days later, David stopped me in the hall and asked me again how the application was going.
“Well, I think there’s some concern because I’m an undergrad here,” I said, and he frowned at me from behind those glasses as if I’d just said, “I think there’s some concern that I have green ears and three noses.” I had no idea if “you’re an undergrad here” was the euphemism for “we think you suck and we’re not admitting you,” but I suspected it was.
“I read your stuff,” he said, as gruff as blunt force trauma. “You’re in.”
And the next thing I knew, I got an acceptance letter.
We talked about this a couple of days ago—David just retired, and a few of us met him for lunch. I wanted him to know how he changed my life. I’m not entirely sure I would have had the courage to keep writing fiction in the face of rejection if he hadn’t stepped in and intervened.
(A note about MFA programs… you learn when you enter that you don’t really know enough to claim to know anything at all. When you leave, if you’re lucky and you’ve had good teachers, you realize you’ll never know enough to claim you know much at all, but that that’s okay. The point of writing is the discovery and any kind of school is just part of the journey.)
One of the finest things about writers is that, on the whole, we’re supportive of each other. Sure, we’d like some of the good stuff to happen to us, but as Victoria Alexander said at the PASIC conference, “It’s not that we want it to happen to us instead of our friends. Just in addition to.” Writers have an inclusive sort of competition—let’s push each other to be better, let’s cheer each other on when we accomplish that goal, and let’s encourage each other when it’s going rough because one day, we will need that same encouragement.
I have been exceptionally lucky in mentors. Chocolate covered lucky. Max Adams (who happens to be stunningly talented) ran an amazing online workshop that I credit with being one of the very best educational experiences of my life. Sharp, funny, brilliant writer Rosemary Edghill took the time to mentor me through the initial phase of my writing Bobbie Faye as a book (switching over from it as a script, as it was originally written) and then introducing me to my editor. Harley Jane Kozak stepped up and said, “Sure!” when ITW asked her to mentor this crazy new writer and has been an absolute joy. There is just no one funnier than Harley and I love her work; last year at RT, Harley had me in tears at lunch, she was so funny.
Our own Allison Brennan probably had no idea what she was getting into when we first met online. (I am like Kudzu. I am everywhere and hard to kill.) Allison’s super talented (and doesn’t seem to realize it); she’s smarter than any five people put together (no, seriously, there were tests). Mostly, I’ve never met anyone nicer. She’s mentored me through all sorts of business questions. I understand (well, as much as I think they can be understood) royalty statements because of Allison. (25 years doing accounting for our construction company didn’t hurt, but seriously? I am pretty sure the first royalty statements were created by the people who thought they would utilize string theory or alternate-universe-math.) I have a firm enough grasp on returns to be sufficiently depressed and best of all, I respect the hell out of her. [I know that when I pick up her books, I’m in for a great read. It doesn’t get much better than that, folks. Her newest book, FATAL SECRETS, is damned good, and is going to be out on Tuesday. Here’s a description:
Fiery ICE Agent teams with cool-headed FBI Assistant Director to stop a deadly human trafficking conspiracy in northern California.
And because I think this is an awesome review:
RT Book Reviews gave it a Top Pick and said: Bestseller Brennan’s new heroine is the epitome of a survivor. In this chilling thriller, Brennan explores the consequences of sliding from fierce commitment into obsession. The sociopathic villain at the center of this tale is truly revolting. A master of suspense, Brennan does another outstanding job uniting horrifying action, procedural drama and the birth of a romance — a prime example of why she’s tops in the genre.
She’s taught me more about publishing than anyone else… which made me curious… who were her mentors? I asked and here’s what she said:
Mr. Kubiak. My sophomore English teacher who was both kind and belligerent, tough and supportive. He’s the teacher who most inspired me to read classic American literature. (My junior year was English Literature–I didn’t like that a fraction as much, partly because of the teacher I had. Except for reading Hamlet, which is probably my favorite Shakespeare play.) Mr. Kubiak set the bar for teachers, and while I’ve had some really good and some really bad teachers, Mr. Kubiak taught me the most that I actually apply in my writing. I still have the Prentice-Hall HANDBOOK FOR WRITERS that I used in his class. He also challenged and pushed me harder than most. I tended to be a student who naturally did well, so I slacked off most of the time because I knew when the final came around I’d ace it. Mr. Kubiak didn’t let me slack off.
Patti Berg. When I first joined Romance Writers of America (specifically the Sacramento chapter) as an unpublished writer, Patti Berg was one of the published authors who immediately introduced herself and made me feel welcome. When I sold, she was one of the first to congratulate me. When I hit the USA Today list my debut week, she’s the one who called to tell me. (I had no idea the list was online the Wednesday before!) When I nervously asked her to do a workshop with me at my first RWA conference in 2005 (after I sold but before my book came out), she happily agreed. She has been hugely supportive of me and my career and is one of the most genuine people I know.
Mariah Stewart. When I first sold to Ballantine, I thought I knew nearly everything there was to know about publishing. After all, I’d gotten an agent the old-fashion way (blind query) and we’d sold pretty quick. But after asking my agent hundreds of really, really stupid questions, I realized I knew next to nothing about the business. Mariah Stewart emailed me out of the blue and introduced herself, leaving an open door for any questions I might have. I was nervous because she was a major author and I was nobody, but I started asking questions and she gave me honest answers. If it wasn’t for Marti, I would have made far more missteps than I have. Now, I can talk to her about anything–professional jealousy, our publisher, agents in general, covers, whatever–and we have a terrific friendship. She’s the big sister I never had, and I’d throw myself in front of a bus for her. (Though I certainly hope it doesn’t come to that!)
[I met Mariah Stewart at PASIC and Marti and I joked that I was her “grand-mentee.” She is as amazing as Allison says.]
As writers, we’re really in this together. Readers out there are generally not going to just read one book a year. They are, we hope and pray, going to read more than one, and I want the other books they pick up to be really great, because I want them to love that hobby, to love taking the time out of their hectic schedule to give some time to an author, and we need a lot of good books for that to happen. I know I haven’t felt like I’d learned enough about the business until maybe this year to feel like I could genuinely answer questions on the business, but I hope to be able to pass along some of what I’ve learned and make someone else’s path a little easier. We are a tradition. A tribe. A Club. A culture. A belief system.
We are family.
I know I could spend several more hours listing people who’ve been mentors for me—who’ve either influenced my writing or answered questions. But for now, I want to hear about someone who has mentored YOU – whether it’s in writing or ANY other field. Give a shout-out to someone who encouraged YOU. AND TO CELEBRATE MENTORS, I’m going to give away FIVE COPIES of Allison’s previous book, SUDDEN DEATH, to five people who comment. I’m going to be doing other mentor-and-friend giveaways for the next couple of weeks, so come back to win.