Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Interview with YA Author, Lisa Nowak

AUTHOR: Lisa Nowak
BOOK TITLE: Running Wide Open
PUBLISHER: Webfoot Publishing

1) Tell me a little about your book.
Running Wide Open is a coming-of-age story about fifteen-year-old Cody Everett, who’s been subjected to emotional abuse and neglect all his life. When he gets busted for vandalism, he’s sent to live with Race, his laid-back, stock car racing uncle. Even though there’s enough racing in the book to satisfy NASCAR fans, the story is really about the deep loyalty that develops between Cody and Race. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the number of times the members of my critique groups, all women, have commented on the way I’ve made the sports aspect easy-to-follow and interesting enough to hold their attention.

2) What gave you the idea for this particular story?
I built and raced stock cars on an amateur level for 13 years, starting at Eugene Speedway here in Oregon back in 1987, then moving to Hickory, North Carolina, where I was able to fully immerse myself in the racing subculture. The family-oriented nature of that community filled a need in my life and made a deep impression on me. I wanted to share that with the rest of the world, and in particular with kids who lack such a connection.

3) Are you a full-time writer or part-time, and how do you organize your writing time?
I own a small landscaping company, which gives me winters off. That’s when I do most of my writing. When I have spare time the rest of the year, I might outline or revise a book, but the first drafts require a deeper level of concentration, so I do those in the winter. Writing is a meditative process for me, and it’s difficult to immerse myself in it if I only have a few minutes here and there. It’s nice to have two dramatically different activities to split my time between. Just when I’m getting mentally burnt out from sitting at the computer in early spring, it’s time for the physical activity of yard work. And just when I’m sick to death of raking up wet leaves in the fall, the season ends and I can dive back into the creative phase of my life.

4) When did you first know you wanted to be a writer?
When I was eight years old a relative gave my brother, sister, and me a cassette recorder to play with. We each had our own tape. I dictated stories onto mine, and in one story a character grew up to be “the best book writer in the world.”  I think that was the first time I verbalized the idea of becoming a writer. I loved books long before that, though. The summer I was five, my mother took all of us to Kirby’s berry fields to earn money for school clothes. The way she bribed me to behave and even pick a few berries was by offering me books.

5) What do you hope readers will take from your writing?
The thing that makes a book resonate for me is an emotionally satisfying relationship between the characters. I want the people in the novels I read to seem real, I need to care about them, and it’s nice if they solve their problems in a triumphant way with a twist that leaves me wishing the story wouldn’t end. I hope my books deliver that to my readers. In addition, I hope to provide a satisfying fictional world for kids who need it. I never had a mentor as a teen, and my family was pretty dysfunctional. I sought out the friends and family I longed for in books. Cody’s relationship with his uncle is the relationship I wanted when I was young. I suspect there are a lot of kids today who face the same challenges I did and seek comfort in the same way. If my story can help them escape for a few hours, I’ll feel like I contributed something positive to the world.

6) Which genres do you write, which do you prefer, and why?
I write YA fiction. I started when I was thirteen and at this point I don’t see myself writing anything else. There’s just something about teens I can identify with: the quest for self, the yearning for independence, the process of discovery about what the world is and how it works. I’ve always secretly feared that my emotional development stopped at age 18 and it’s only a matter of time before someone discovers the truth. :) Fortunately, I was able to turn that personality quirk into a strength by writing YA fiction.

7) What is the toughest part about being a writer and how do you get past it?
For me the toughest part is when I’m staring at the monitor unable to find the words for what I want to say. I outline, so it’s not a matter of not knowing where the story is going, it’s just that I can’t figure out how to put it into words. One way I deal with this is by forcing myself to sit there until I get it. That’s not a particularly productive way to spend my day, however. Recently I’ve learned to follow my writing rhythms. I find the times during the day when the words come more easily and I do my writing then. The other hours are spent on more mundane tasks like answering email and networking. One other trick I have is to take a walk with my digital recorder. There’s something about walking that occupies just enough brain power to allow me to concentrate and be creative. I’m sure my neighbors think I’m crazy, though, mumbling to myself as I stroll along.

8) Is there anything in your story based upon a real life event? If so, tell me about it.
There are several minor incidents at the speedway that really happened. For example, the scene where Addamsen runs Race off the backstretch and gets away with it. There are also a lot of bits of character that I’ve borrowed from real people. I tend to take the emotional energy from something that happened in my life and put a twist on the details, so the core experience is real, even though the facts aren’t the same. I also steal great phrases I hear. For example, when I put a snowman window cling on the door of the microwave and my husband labeled it “Defrosty de Snowman,” that went into Getting Sideways. And when a friend said she could get lost in her own cul de sac, I gave that line to a character in Dead Heat.

9) How much is your protagonist like you? How different?
All of my main characters have a little of me in them. I pick one of my traits and embellish it. A friend who does the same thing described this process as putting light through a prism and breaking it down into its separate colors. Cody’s main trait is being overly emotional. It’s no problem for me as a woman to have that characteristic, but for a young man it’s not socially acceptable, so he’s channeled those feelings into anger. In the third book of the series Driven (available later this year) Jess is a girl who aspires to be a mechanic. She has my toughness, determination, and difficulty asking for help.  I gave her mentor, Kasey, my workaholic tendency, and I gave Race my obsession with Christmas and my habit of listening to the same tape over and over again in the car because I’m too lazy to change it. The fun thing about endowing characters with some of your own quirks is that you can poke fun at yourself. It becomes sort of an inside joke for the people who know you.

10) What kind of research did you do for this type of story?
There were some aspects of the story that I had to research, but I can’t tell you what they were without revealing the plot. :) Most of my research comes from life experience. I built and raced cars, so I call on that for the details that fuel (pun intended) my writing.  I also have a husband who restores cars, so if memory fails me on the automotive stuff I ask him. Dead Heat, the book I was working on over the winter, required a lot of research because I had to learn about Catholic funerals and meth addiction. I can tell you one thing, you get some interesting responses when you call Portland General Electric and ask them how a person would go about stealing copper from a substation.

11) Do writing violent or highly sexual scenes bother you? Why or why not?
There aren’t any of those types of scenes in this series, but Dead Heat is about a boy who’s severely physically abused by his meth-addict father. That story has quite a bit of violence in it. I didn’t have any trouble writing it, but I’ve had a couple critique partners say it was hard for them to read those scenes.

12) What about your book makes it special?
When I was racing back in the 80s and 90s, I kept looking for a book or movie that would depict the sport I loved and the community surrounding it in a respectful, realistic, emotionally satisfying light. I never found either. These days it’s possible to find some good fiction about racing, but I think my book goes beyond that by working on multiple levels. It’s a sports story, a coming-of-age novel, and feel-good fiction. Even though it’s technically a YA book, I’ve had many adults tell me that they didn’t see it as just a story for kids.  In fact, one of the reasons RainTown was so interested in the book was due to its crossover potential.

13) What is your marketing plan?
Like most authors, I have an online presence through Twitter, Facebook, and a blog. I also plan to take part in book signings at local independent bookstores. One thing unique to my situation is that I can take advantage of being one of a few debut authors who had the opportunity to publish traditionally, but turned it down in favor of doing it myself.

I’m also fortunate to have additional marketing options due to genre and subject matter. Writing for kids opens up speaking engagements at schools and libraries. Having books about racing allows me to interact with a subculture that’s known for loyalty and ability to spread news by word-of-mouth. I’d like to do some giveaways and other events at local speedways, but one of the cooler things I plan to do is sponsor a race car.

14) Where can people learn more about you and your work?

15) Any tips for new writers hoping to write in the genre of your book?
I suppose the most important thing to remember is that writing for kids and teens is not a simplified version of writing for adults. Sure, the word choices might be different, especially for the very young, but the ideas, emotions, and thought processes are just as complex for young characters as for older ones. If you think you can slap something together without any effort, you’re in for a rude awakening. Kids see right through that, and they won’t read your book. You have to be able to get back in touch with your child self and feel what it’s like to be that old again, complete with the awe, disappointments, and frustrations of being that age.

16) What’s in the future for you?
There are four more books in the Full Throttle series. Three are complete. I’m currently editing Getting Sideways and plan to publish it in late August or early September. Driven will come out in the fall and Redline will be available in early 2012. The last book, which doesn’t have a title at the moment, is still in the outline stage. My stand-alone book, Dead Heat, is in the first draft stage. It also has a racing connection, but it’s much grittier and has a paranormal aspect.

What are your thoughts on traditional versus self-publishing?
In this day and age, I think it’s a matter of personal preference. For those authors who aren’t comfortable with doing everything themselves, or who highly value the prestige of landing a Big Six publisher, traditional is the way to go. For those who’d rather be steering their own career and are willing to take risks, self-publishing is a more attractive option. It isn’t easy to do everything yourself, and not everyone has the skill set or temperament to pull it off. On the other hand, through self-publishing I think there’s a greater potential to actually make a living at writing, and tremendous satisfaction in handling all aspects of bringing your book to market. As an indie author I’ve had to tackle things I never knew I could do, such as writing the back cover copy for my book and figuring out how to design the page layout. The cool thing is, I’ve managed to step up and handle all these things more capably than I would have thought possible. I’m totally enjoying being an indie author, from writing and editing, to formatting, to marketing. Well, except for having to use Twitter. :) At this point I think I’d feel quite a sense of loss if I wasn’t able to dabble in all aspects of the publishing process.

One thing to keep in mind if you decide on the indie route is that it’s not a free license to throw your first draft out there to the world. If you want to be successful, you have to be a professional. Get your book edited, hire a cover designer, learn how to format properly.

What are your thoughts about children's writers needing an agent or not needing one?
I had an agent, but she wasn’t the one who attracted a publisher’s interest. I submitted on my own to Raintown and was accepted by them, though I ultimately decided to forge out on my own. At this point I don’t have an agent and don’t see a need for one, but once my book begins to sell and I have to negotiate things like foreign rights that might change. I think for the most part it’s necessary to have an agent to publish traditionally these days, though I’ve heard that this isn’t the case if you’re writing picture books.

Please give us a brief synopsis about your current book and when and where it will be available.
Cody Everett has a temper as hot as the flashpoint of racing fuel, and it's landed him at his uncle's trailer, a last-chance home before military school. But how can he take the guy seriously when he calls himself Race, eats Twinkies for breakfast, and pals around with rednecks who drive in circles every Saturday night?

What Cody doesn’t expect is for the arrangement to work. Or for Race to become the friend and mentor he’s been looking for all his life. But just as Cody begins to settle in and get a handle on his supercharged temper, a crisis sends his life spinning out of control. Everything he’s come to care about is threatened, and he has to choose between falling back on his old, familiar anger or stepping up to prove his loyalty to the only person he’s ever dared to trust.

Running Wide Open is currently available as an ebook through all major online retailers, and as a paperback through and

April 1989

The hiss of a paint can sounded like a roar, even over the rumble of traffic on Sunset Boulevard. Tim’s drunk-assed laugh snagged my attention. His fingers shook as he used a can of Krylon royal blue to put the finishing touches on an anatomically correct and obviously proud elephant.

“Dude,” I said, “his shlong is longer than his trunk.”

“Why do you think he’s smiling?” Tim busted into another giggle fit, doubling over and clutching his gut.

“C’mon, Cody, you’re supposed to be drawing,” prodded Mike. “That’s not a picture.” He was kind of an ass, but it’s hard to blow off a guy you’ve hung out with since third grade.

“Pardon me for being able to communicate with words.”

“Is that a giraffe?” Tim said. He was sprawled on the concrete now, staring up at Mike’s neon pink animal as it brayed a string of four-letter words across the zoo wall.

“No, moron,” Mike said, “it’s a zebra. Can’t you see the stripes?”

“Looks like a giraffe.”

“It’s a frickin’ zebra!”

Mike planted the toe of his Adidas in Tim’s ribs, and Tim tried to nail him in the balls with his rattle can. Then they were both rolling on the sidewalk, thrashing each other.

Why couldn’t they shut the hell up? Beer buzzed through my skull, making everything go sideways. The words spilling out of my spray can had a crazy tilt to them.

Whooooop! A siren shrieked. I jerked back and dropped my paint.

“Cops!” Mike was up in a second, bolting down the sidewalk for the woods. Tim wasn’t so fast. He’d messed up his knee last fall when he totaled his stepdad’s Jeep in the Terwilliger Curves.

“C’mon,” I said, grabbing his arm. Red and blue lights flashed around us as I dragged him down the sidewalk—no easy feat, considering he had five inches and fifty pounds on me.

The siren got louder. I risked a peek over my shoulder. They were close, but if I ditched Tim I could make it.

He stumbled, wrenching my arm.

“Move it!” I said, yanking him up.

Behind us, the car screeched to a stop. Doors slammed, and footsteps pounded the asphalt.

We reached the end of the zoo wall, but I knew we couldn’t make it through the trees in the dark and stay ahead of the cops.

“Shit, Cody. I can’t get busted again!” Tim panted.

I remembered the last time—how his face had looked when his stepdad got done with him.

“Then get the hell out of here,” I said, shoving him into the bushes.

As he disappeared I turned to face the cops.

“Good evening, officers!” I called. “I don’t suppose you’d be willing to discuss this like gentlemen over a dozen donuts?”


  1. Great interview and excerpt. Love the picture with the kitty too!! :-)

  2. A great interview. Lisa gives us an intimate look at her creative process as well as some of the nuts and bolts of self-publishing. I've read Running Wide Open and give it a five star review. She's an amazing author and an amazing person.

  3. V.R., thanks for commenting. MPlanck, it's always a pleasure to hear from someone who has read the book and enjoyed it.

  4. Sounds like a wonderful book. I like that you reiterate that writing for young adults requires a skill separate from writing for adults. I appreciate that.

  5. Great interview. The book sounds interesting. Thanks for sharing about it.

  6. Susanne, glad you had a chance to stop by and catch up with Lisa.