Interview with Kelli Pizarro, Author of “Shanty by the Sea”

A few years back, I met a Christian fiction author, Kelli Pizarro, online.  Graciously, she listened to my feedback, as a Romani woman, about her book “The Roma Road: A Gypsy Tale,” which dealt with the little-known (and historically factual) theme of Romani slavery in the UK.  At the time, “The Incomplete Ones,” my own book about Romani slavery, set in 19th century Romania was available, but doing poorly on amazon due to my sorry lack of promotion skills.  Pizarro and I wound up comparing a lot of notes about the strangeness of writing about an enslavement that most readers not only know nothing about, but would likely think absurd if it were spoken of in their presence.  
We became fast friends and, lucky me, some months back I was again allowed to read one of her upcoming releases: “Shanty by the Sea.”  Being Christian fiction YA, this was nothing like “The Roma Road,” which dealt with some very intense, tragic material.  Instead, “Shanty by the Sea” struck me as the sort of thing that a well-read grandmother might stuff in her grandchildren’s’ stockings at Christmas.
As I reviewed it on Amazon and Goodreads:
“The literary world, where eccentricity is as common as breathing, is a rough sea to navigate for a first-time author. Scarlett Cooper, desperate to achieve her dreams, is about to see just how quirky and competitive it can get. Pizarro’s tale “Shanty by the Sea” gently emphasizes to readers the importance of staying grounded, pacing yourself, and, above all, never giving up. All in all, an excellent read for today’s creative youth and equally enjoyable for an older crowd craving a sweet RomCom with a supportive, willing-to-listen male. As an author myself, I wish that I go could go back in time and give this book to my middle school self, when I first knew that I wanted to be a writer. I recommend it to parents whose young daughters have the same goal.”
The book happily wound up being picked up by Dragon Soul Press, as did “The Roma Road.”  Today, “Shanty by the Sea” debuts online, so it is only fitting that audiences receive some insight about how it was created.  AKA: Interview time!
1.    Hello, Kelli.  Can you give us a brief introduction, including details of your literary background?:
Hi there! I’ve written four novels, one novella, and a drabble accepted in an anthology. I chose the self-publishing route for the first four books, and consider them a huge part of how I developed my writing and writer’s voice. Once Dragon Soul Press picked up Shanty by the Sea, and also one of my previously self-published pieces, The Roma Road, I removed all my self-published works from publication to see what I may do with them in the future. However, though they are my first works and nowhere near as well-developed as the ones DSP has picked up for publication, I feel they are important parts of my journey to writing something worth being published.
2.    Your newest book, Shanty by the Sea, is soon to be released by Dragon Soul Press.  What things did you do to give the book its own unique flavor?  What kind of research?:   
Research for this book was both intensive and a grand adventure! I flew from Houston, Texas to Boston, Massachusetts last fall to spend a week scoping out the area and taking notes. My traveling companions and I spent a great deal of time in small New Hampshire towns, inspiring the town Scarlett lives in, and also Nauset Beach, Cape Cod, where the writing retreat in my book is set. I spoke to locals, visited Hammond Castle, walked Half Moon Beach, and ate at an amazing family-owned Italian restaurant in Boston that inspired La Famiglia Adesso Restaurant in my book. Seeing New England in the fall, taking train rides through the foliage, strolling the streets of Salem, and getting an overall feel for the area helped the book really come to life.
3.    This book touches a lot on the difficulties of a first-time writer, both in terms of finishing the first project and establishing one’s self in the professional industry.  If you were to sit down for a cup of coffee with Scarlett, your main character, what advice would you give her on both of these fronts?:
As far as finishing the first project goes, I would tell her to stop waiting until a page is perfect before moving onto the next. Just write the thing. When you get to the end, you can rewrite, edit, etc., but making time to write as often as possible is the only sure way to finish that first draft.  Establishing one’s self in the professional industry is a tough one. I can’t pretend that I’ve got a fool-proof answer for that. I could only tell her that there are a few key things that helped me tremendously: (1) Surround yourself by writing friends. This means supporting other authors, not competing with them. (2) Grow thick skin and don’t just take constructive criticism, seek it out. When sending your manuscript for a look-over by an editor, or asking the professional opinion of another author, don’t expect sugar coating. You can learn so much if you put your feelings aside. (3) Marketing is a skill to be learned. Don’t wait until your book is finished to start figuring out how you want to approach this. Build a social media platform that is fun for readers and other authors to follow, and be faithful to keep up with it. (4) When the time comes to send out those query letters to publishers/agents, set a goal. Determine to send a certain amount out each week and stick to it.
4.    One of the choice bits of comic relief in the book is Janet the Donkey–a lovely symbol of a blossoming writer’s struggles as well as means to overcome them.  What particular thing helps you when you hit a literary road-block, overcoming your own personal “Janet?”: 
Oh, Janet. Going along for the ride is sometimes the only answer. When things seem to be going haywire and I feel my writing is taking all the wrong directions, I read a book, watch a few movies, go on an overnight trip, or have a game night with my family. Though routine is necessary for progress, sometimes getting out of my routine is what breaks me out of a writing funk. When my works-in-progress don’t behave, I often have to let them do their own thing. I’ll write a few bad pages just to get the creative juices flowing. Once I know which direction I’m going, I delete the “junk” and get to work. Also, having a friend read a few chapters to get a fresh perspective is helpful. Riding a deaf donkey down a hill and hoping for the best is always an option, too.
5. A writing rule of thumb which, sadly, many don’t heed is that, only through talent, rather through deliberately standing in the way of other authors, one does not get a fan base for their own books.  Was this rule in your head, as well as how much it is ignored when you were brainstorming for your antagonist?:    
Yes. One thing that is a given in any industry is there are givers and takers. As an author, I’ve met both kinds. There are those who encourage you to be the best you can be by pushing you beyond your comfort zone and limits, and then there are those whose only concern is what they can get from you. Some authors won’t give another author, especially an up-and-coming writer, the time of day for encouragement. I’m not sure if it’s because they are afraid there is a low supply of readers and they don’t want to risk losing their own personal fan base, or they feel that they’ve reached a tier in the writing community that can’t be bothered by newcomers, but it’s no fun being on the receiving end of a dismissal. My antagonists in this book embody the attitude that some authors have: there’s only enough room here for me.
5.    At the writer’s retreat in your book, novice authors are made to dress and act the part of famous authors of times past.  Which deceased author would you most enjoy taking on the role of in Scarlett’s shoes?  And which would you least enjoy?  Why?:
Jane Austen would have been my pick. I’m a huge fan and think her costume would’ve been the most fun. Plus, Jane said it best when she wrote, “There is a stubbornness about me that never can bear to be frightened at the will of others. My courage always rises at every attempt to intimidate me.” As Scarlett, I would’ve found it fitting, given the extreme lengths her peers went to intimidate her. I don’t think I would’ve enjoyed William Makepeace Thackeray, because he wasn’t as sentimental an author as Dickens, or as attractive in a dress as Jane.
6.    There are many competitions, (such as the one in the book,) in which authors are invited to compete against each other for the prize of a book contract.  Have you ever participated in one of these?  If not, why not?  If so, how was the experience for you?:
I have not competed for a contract. It’s not to say that I wouldn’t if it was set up somewhat like in my book with the primary purpose of attending being the retreat itself. The entire experience would give all participants much to take away with them, and experience is worth a lot! If it was strictly a competition, I can’t say I would enjoy that.
7.    An unfortunate, but common, cliche which happens far too often in the chick-lit genre is that a woman’s love interest will overpower the original plot, with more focus being centered upon a potential partner than upon the female lead’s personal goals.  This same cliche is very seldom the case in books where the lead is a male.  When writing a RomCom with an ambitious female lead, did you have to make a specific point to avoid this trope?:
When writing Shanty by the Sea the primary goal wasn’t to have a romantic focus. However, I did struggle at times finding where this book fits when comparing it to others in its genre, because I didn’t want it to fall into the common pattern of ‘girl has a dream, girl meets boy, boy becomes girl’s new dream, and they live happily ever after, forfeiting the girl’s initial ambitions.’ Though Scarlett is a lover of romantic English literature and, at times, wishes she had a love interest of her own, this isn’t what drives her. I wanted to tell the tale of a relatable female who struggles to find that balance between providing for herself and chasing her dreams. It was never an option for her to abandon her writing to chase a romantic interest. I like to think the love she finds just adds warmth to the story.
8.    Shanty by the Sea is a book about an author seeking her first traditional publication and, as luck would have it, it is also your first traditionally-published book.  How does this irony sit with you?:  
It’s actually quite funny to me. I started Shanty by the Sea years ago. Its first name was The Write Retreat, and I wrote it by hand in journals. I put it on the shelf for a while, eyeballing it much like Scarlett does her manuscripts. I wrote four more books, then came back to it. Years had passed and I was still intrigued by the story. It was worth picking up again. I’m quite glad it was my fifth finished work because had I pursued publishing it first, I fear it wouldn’t have made the cut. I needed the writing experience to mold it into something I love. And to add to the irony, I got to travel to Cape Cod and have my own little writing retreat while finishing up this book. I feel it came full circle.
9.    Shanty by the Sea reads as very smooth, easy-going YA–rather remarkably so, given this is not a genre in which you have written before.  What was it like for you to try it out for the first time and do you intend to make a habit of YA?:
I think because historical fiction has been what I’ve mostly written, it was strange writing a story with a modern setting. I enjoyed it, but it did take a bit of rewiring in my brain. I’m pretty certain I’ll do more YA in the future, though I can’t say I’ll stick solely to one genre.
10.    Scarlett writes a darling little children’s story in Shanty by the Sea about a frog.  Do you intend to publish more children’s stories, such as this frog tale, in the future?:
I do intend to eventually write a series of children’s books focusing on another topic I love: childbirth. I am a labor and postpartum doula, and hope to put together a collection that will educate children on topics such as homebirth, waterbirth, pregnancy, and what to expect once a baby arrives. As for the frog drabble, who knows? It may make its appearance someday!
11.    Rumor has it that you are putting together a PG-13 anthology whose theme is coffee shop short stories.  Is this rumor true and, if so, are you still looking for authors?  How should those interested contact you?:
I am! I don’t have a deadline just yet, as my hands are pretty full with other tasks, but I hope to set to work on it no later than 2020 and publish by 2021. I am looking for authors who wish to contribute to the collection. Those interested can reach out to me on Facebook or via email:
12.    What’s next on the publishing docket for Kelli Pizarro?:
After Shanty by the Sea is released in August, I have another book due to release toward the end of the year. The Roma Road is one I’ve previously self-published, but Dragon Soul Press has picked up. I am excited to see it in print! I am currently working on a piece titled Blackwater’s Daughter. I can’t give away too much, but it will be set in both Antebellum and modern-day Louisiana. I hope to see this one finished by 2020.
And there you have it.  Subscribers, feel free to check out the release event for “Shanty by the Sea” this afternoon.
Be sure to follow Kelli on: