Patricia Dunn is the author of the YA novel Rebels by Accident, which will be released by Alikai Press in August 2012. Patricia is the former managing editor of Muslimwakeup.com, America’s most popular Muslim online magazine from 2003-2008. Her writing has appeared in Global City Review, Salon.com, Women’s eNews, The Christian Science Monitor, The Village Voice, The Nation, and LA Weekly, among other publications. Here, Patricia talks to Ginger McKnight-Chavers, author of Messages from Midland, about her new book, the press she recently launched, her own path to publication, and more.
Ginger McKnight-Chavers: Your new YA novel, Rebels by Accident, features a teenage protagonist of Egyptian-Muslim-American descent who is sent to Egypt for the summer by her parents and finds herself in the midst of the recent revolution. What inspired you to write this story?
Patricia Dunn: It didn’t start off as a choice. I was in a writing class with Cassandra Medley at Sarah Lawrence College--she’s an amazing teacher and playwright. Through a series of writing prompts, the voice of Mariam started to come through. Someone once said it was like I channeled her. And I must have, because I'd never have consciously written in the voice of a teenager. Teens are tough. But whenever I tried to go back to a more adult narrator, Mariam kept fighting her way through and winning. When I finally accepted Mariam as my narrator, I let her tell her story, and there were many variations. After the recent Egyptian revolution, I knew that was part of her story, and so--with the help of a wonderful editor, and my then publisher Evelyn Fazio, and with the help of my best friend and agent--this version emerged. Throughout all of the dozens of versions, I knew I wanted to write the journey of an Egyptian-Muslim-American teen who, in our post 9-11 world, is very disconnected from her culture, and how she finally figures out what it means to be Egyptian and American. I also wanted to tell a love story. Not just the girl-meets-boy story, but a story that also includes falling in love with a place and a people, and friends and family.
And I wanted to write a story that my son, Ali, an Egyptian-Muslim-American, would feel proud of.
Ginger McKnight-Chavers: The path to publication for Rebels by Accident has been a roller coaster and seems emblematic of the changes going on in the publishing industry right now. What did you go through, and what did you learn from the experience that might be helpful for other authors?
Patricia Dunn: I could write a whole novel to answer that question, but the synopsis is that after a long search I finally found a great publisher who wanted my book: Evelyn Fazio from Westside Books. Evelyn was amazing. She really understood my characters and she got the book. While she was considering my book, the Egyptian Revolution happened and she asked if I would be willing to bring the story to the current time. At that stage it took place a year earlier. I knew it was going to be a lot of work, but I said of course. The story is all about revolution; not just the huge ones that happen on the streets with thousands marching, but the kind that happens inside us all as we grow and change and figure out who we are in this world. So we worked together from February to May, and then the book was done. My agent read every rewrite I did as well, so by the time I got to the end, the book was solid, and Evelyn made an offer. She believed in it so much that she got the Barnes and Noble rep interested, and was going to nominate it for a National Book Award. Her confidence in the book meant the world to me. Then, the day that she received my signed contract in her office, the president of the publishing company announced he was selling the house and, well, my book no longer had a home; it was back on the streets. If I wasn’t so sure this book was good and ready to be out in the world, I would've probably taken to bed for a week. Yet something in my gut said this is going to be okay.
My agent and I starting sending the book out again, and some of the rejections contained so much praise for the book that I could have quoted them as promotion blurbs. But we also kept hearing, “It’s not right for our list.” Well, there was always something in me that wanted to publish the book myself, but until recent times there were too many obstacles to doing a book yourself and there was this feeling that the only person who would read it would be your grandmother. However, with all the recent stories of people making their books into ebooks and doing well, and knowing that even if a publishing house buys your book you will still have to work your butt off and put your own dollars behind promoting it, I decided: “I want to do this myself.”
Ginger McKnight-Chavers: You recently launched a small press, Alikai Press, with your agent and are due to publish seven books in the upcoming year. How did Alikai come about, and what are you trying to achieve by taking this entrepreneurial step?
Patricia Dunn: The simple answer is: We want to change the world one book at a time.
The more involved answer is that we know there are so many amazing and powerful books out there that we want to help get out into the world. But we also know that writers need the support to do this. Call us old-fashioned, but we are not just buying books, we are creating relationships, partnerships, with our writers. We actually believe that along with the reader, the writer is the most essential part of the process. Let's face it, without the writer there are no books. We put the writer before all else.
We know this is a great time for writers to take control over getting their work out there, but we also know there is a reason that PR people and editors work within publishing houses--so writers can write, and the rest of the industry can take care of getting the books out to the readers.
Both Alexandra and I have had lifetimes full of experiences that we realized had prepared us to start our own press. So we did. Originally, we thought we would focus only on ebooks, but it soon became clear that there is still a desire and a need for print. We believe in the grassroots model of doing readings at bookstores, libraries, schools, community organizations and right now to do this print is necessary. People still want to walk into their local bookstores and meet authors and get their books signed. The local bookstore and library is a place for people to come together. We see the print aspect of books as integral to community building.
There isn't a lot of money to be made from selling print, but there is still a lot of community building. Don't get me wrong, we want very much to make our authors and ourselves money, but we also want to make a difference. That brings me back to my simple answer and our mission- Changing the world one book at time. As a long time activist, it speaks to the heart of who we are as writers and publishers.
Ginger McKnight-Chavers: In light of your extensive experience as an author, writing instructor and, now, publishing executive, what advice can you offer the SheWrites community as they navigate approaching agents, large publishers, small presses, self-publishing and e-publishing?
Patricia Dunn: We hope our story tells writers that it’s time to stand up and just do it. If you believe in your work then get it out there by any means necessary. You have a lot of options, more than you may see right now. However, you don't need to do this alone and you shouldn't. Honestly, what has kept me going as a writer and now as a publisher, is that I have people in my life who get it. Other writers who get my work and who get me. We meet on a regular basis to not only talk about our work, but to also talk about our lives. If there is one thing I would tell any author today it is to find your self a writing-support group; a group of people who have your back. As writers we think the hard part is over when the book is written, but that's just the phase I. Shewrites is a wonderful place to find the support we all need to write our books and to get our books out into the world.
Ginger McKnight-Chavers: On a personal level, you are a convert to Islam, and your son is a recent cancer survivor. How have these aspects of your life affected or inspired your writing life? How do you manage being an author, publisher, teacher, mom, and caregiver and still carve out space to write?
Patricia Dunn: Well, some days I manage well and on other days, well, it ain't so easy. I learned to let the people in my life who love me be there for me, in the same way I try and be there for them. The fact is that I may be a person of faith, but that faith is sometimes hard to carry. During those times I let the people in my life hold the faith for me until I can hold it again for myself. I may have had a lot of challenges in my life, personally and professionally, but through it all, I have had a community of friends and family who love me, who have my back. And I have my writing support group. The women in my group are not only writers, but they are mothers, and partners, and daughters, and a whole lot of things and we remind each other that along with everything else, and sometimes above all else, we are writers. So, we must write.
Visit Patricia's website at http://www.patriciadunnauthor.com to learn more about her and her new book, Rebels by Accident.