I met Jenny Milchman three years ago when I applied to ITW’s Debut Authors Program. A nervous new author, I was welcomed by this woman with seemingly boundless energy and enthusiasm. I soon learned a few things about Jenny. One, she loves Jack Reacher novels—I mean loves them. Two, she is one of the most talented, kind, and generous authors you’d ever hope to meet.
A little backstory: Jenny’s road to publication was not easy. She struggled for more than a decade—seven unpublished novels—before finally getting her break. Despite it all, including a pile of rejection letters a foot tall, she didn’t grow bitter or jaded or turn her back on the publishing community. Instead, she stuck to it, honed her craft, and stayed positive. She became an influential blogger, created a national holiday in support of booksellers, and was named chairperson of the Debut Authors Program—before her own debut novel was released.
For those who don’t believe in Karma, consider this: A bestselling author took pity on Jenny, read her unpublished manuscript, and loved it so much she shared it with her editor. That manuscript—Cover of Snow—was scooped up by Random House and ultimately won a Mary Higgins Clark award for best first novel. It also had a blurb from none other than Jack Reacher’s creator, Lee Child.
Jenny did not take her success for granted. Rather, she embarked on an unprecedented book tour, packing her family in the car—home schooling her children in the backseat—and traveled the country for months on end promoting her books. She also became Vice President of Author Programs for ITW, a position singularly aimed at helping ITW authors succeed. Through it all, she’s been a wonderful and supportive friend to an untold number of authors, myself included.
Jenny’s highly anticipated third novel, AS NIGHT FALLS, releases this month. It’s about a family in an isolated mountain home who are terrorized by two escaped convicts. If you’ve watched the news the past couple of weeks, you’ve seen that real-world events have conveniently coincided with Jenny’s book launch. Remember what I said about Karma?
Already on the road for the latest leg of the world’s longest book tour, Jenny answered a few questions for The Big Thrill.
AS NIGHT FALLS is getting great buzz, including an Indie Next pick. Please tell us a little about the story.
AS NIGHT FALLS takes place in one single night when two escaped convicts enter an isolated mountain home just ahead of a snowstorm. Inside are a mother, her husband, their fifteen-year-old teenage daughter, and rescue dog—all of whom turn out to be far braver than they ever knew they could be.
As I mentioned, real life events, the recent escape of two murders escaped from a New York maximum security prison, eerily resemble aspects of your story. Given what befalls Sandy Tremont and her family in AS NIGHT FALLS, the hair on the back of your neck must have been standing up when you heard?
Yes, it did seem a little uncanny. My editor wrote me immediately to thank me for planning such a great publicity stunt. (She was kidding). I began madly scrambling to remember that Stephen King story where the author moves events around in real life. And right now I am just hoping for the safe restoration of justice for all involved, especially law enforcement…and that none of my other books come to life.
Your stories often involve people with seemingly idyllic lives being put to the test. What draws you to this theme?
In a way that theme underlies all fiction, I think. The turning point. The moment of change when we go from what we thought was true to what now is. And I think one of the related aspects is that the truth the characters thought they knew wasn’t really as idyllic as all that. My characters all need to dig down deep and change—even if they didn’t realize it before the novel started. They needed for this story to happen. As for what draws me to that theme…well, that might take therapy to answer. And then I might not get to write about it anymore, so I will shut up now. Deep question, though.
Cover of Snow and Ruin Falls won many awards and accolades. AS NIGHT FALLS is every bit as gripping, but you seem to have channeled more of your inner Lee Child or Harlan Coben for this one. Was this a change of direction for you?
It’s fascinating to me that you say that because it’s exactly the observation my beloved editor made—right down to the two authors you mentioned. Of course, I love both Lee Child and Harlan Coben. (Their books, I mean. Though the authors are good people as well.) And I do think both write fantastic action sequences. No one can choreograph a fight on paper better than Lee. As for Harlan, I remember to this day something one of his bad guys did with fingers in his very first standalone thriller. Action may’ve been something that was missing from both my first novels, and this book called for a lot of it. I hope I got it half so right as Lee and Harlan do—sometimes some of the physics of life escape me. And I probably haven’t fought half so many bad dudes as they have because they’re both 6’4 and I’m not.
You tell the story from the point-of-view of the victims and the perpetrators, which created great depth in the story. Was this planned out or did this happen as you went along?
I tend not to plan much at all, but just let the story carry me along like a river current while I’m writing. But what I did become aware of early on was that this book was going to contain a novel-within-a-novel, the events of which would meet up with the present day story only at the very end. It was a bit tricky to structure. But I felt I needed it for two reasons. First, the inner story provides perspective for what’s going on in the present day. How did these people get to such a crisis point? Also, the present day story takes place extremely fast. The whole novel covers just eight hours in the life of this family. Eight hours that change everything. And advance readers have told me that the novel-within-a-novel, which flashes back four decades, provided a bit of breathing room just when they needed it.
Without giving anything away, this is far more than a story about a family home invasion; there are big secrets here and I wondered if you’ve heard from any advanced readers yet about the big twist?
Actually, I haven’t heard as much as I thought I would! I’m hoping when more people read, it becomes part of the discussion. Because The Big Twist (not to be confused with The Big Thrill) was for me the heart of this novel, and for my editors and publishers, too. They all worked really hard to protect it, in revisions and in-house discussions and advance publicity. For me as the writer, The Twist depends on a very complex psychological mechanism, and I really wrestled with how best to portray that mechanism for readers without being obvious or heavy-handed about it. Sandy doesn’t realize this is a part of herself—it’s just who she is. So how to get it across in her point of view when she isn’t even aware? Gulp. It sounds as hard now as it was when I was writing. I hope I did okay. I will say that not one reader so far has guessed The Big Twist before it was revealed, and that if anybody goes back and reads twice, they should see the whole thing laid out.
Your books are set in the Adirondacks. What is it about that part of the world that makes it such a fascinating backdrop for a thriller?
There’s an inherent drama to that part of the country. There are six million acres within the Blue Line—AKA the Adirondack Park—and that’s as much terrain as in five of our biggest national parks combined. Think about the possibilities there. For getting lost, for encountering wild life—animal and human—for confronting the awesome power of nature. Some of the greatest stories ever written, Moby Dick, Heart of Darkness, “To Build a Fire,” deal with the way man’s hubris crumbles when faced with nature. And of course, these stories all really concern our human nature, too. Then, when you figure weather in with the topography, things can get really hairy.
But there’s a deeper reason the Adirondacks consume me as a setting and feel rich enough to be the backdrop for what I hope are dozens of novels to come, and that’s a social reason. Like the area in which I now live, the Adirondacks are split by a very real cultural chasm, between the expat and the old-timer. It’s a theme that’s hinted at in AS NIGHT FALLS—the Tremonts have built a spectacular house, invading terrain that had previously been occupied by humbler folk—and gets more fleshed out in the novel I’m working on now. When people who have lived one way for generations suddenly have to face people who live very differently, that is a combustible mix.
Writers are often asked about their “journey.” But in your case, it really is a journey—Shelf Awareness called the promotion of your first novel “the world’s longest book tour”—and you continue to travel thousands of miles for every book. Please tell our readers how many miles and bookstores you’ve logged since Cover of Snow, and how many you’ll add for AS NIGHT FALLS.
I love these numbers. Every single mile was a joy. Let’s see. For the first “world’s longest book tour” we traded in two cars for an SUV that could handle Denver in February, and put 35,000 miles on it over the course of seven months. For my second tour, we added another 20,000. We recently traded in that no-longer-new car—afraid that a part might fail on the upcoming tour—and will probably come back with 30,000 miles on our new one by next October. As for the bookstores, libraries, book clubs, and schools that we visit on the tours…We’ve done more than 400 events by now, and made close to 1,000 stops, including stock signings and spontaneous hello’s.
What has been the absolute best—and absolute worst—events so far?
My brother asked me this question back when the first tour was in progress. I couldn’t answer it then, and I can’t now. Every event is special in some way—even the ones where one person shows up, or nobody shows up. Then I just get to hang out with the bookseller and talk books…not a bad way to spend an evening. And when you realize that that bookseller will go on to handsell my book long after I’m headed off for points known and unknown, it’s not even a bad investment, career-wise. Certain highlights come to mind—booksellers I particularly click with, book clubs that really know how to throw a party, events that are like a rock concert or banquet (you and I did one together once, Anthony)—but I could never single out just a few.
For writers, please give a do’s and don’ts lists for book events—you have to be the country’s foremost authority given that book tours are less common these days.
Here are 5 Do’s–
- Do plan ahead. You may get local media coverage—newspaper, radio, even TV—or a review of your book.
- Do bring a small gift for your host. My momma raised me never to arrive without a gift. And it can relate to your book—think hot cocoa if you wrote a winter story. Or swag—pens, pads, matchbooks always come in handy. I’ve never met a bookseller—or a person for that matter—who didn’t appreciate cookies or doughnuts or candy.
- Do consider hiring an independent publicist. They can help steer you to particularly robust venues and events, and help with the many logistics.
- Do get creative about events. You don’t have to read for twenty minutes. (Please don’t read for twenty minutes). Instead think about holding a writers workshop or publishing pitch. Teach a skill related to something in your book—a craft or a recipe or a foreign language or how to use Jujitsu to take down a bad guy. Be the guest author at a book club. Lead a kids’ story class. The possibilities are endless, and will really value add to the site’s event calendar during the days when you are still growing your readership.
- Do understand that the measure of an event’s success is not in how many books you sell that one particular night, but in longterm payoffs down the line, and the relationships you are building, one by one by one.
And 5 Don’t’s—
- Don’t rely on the bookstore to bring in a crowd. They may, but you can always boost attendance. Tap into your Facebook Friends and Twitter followers who live in the area. Meeting virtual contacts face-to-face is one of the great joys of this kind of touring. Ask friends and family to invite people on your behalf. Spread the word through local media. Many towns have Twitter accounts—Tweet at them! Find MWA and SinC chapters in the area, and of course, rely on your fellow ITW members to come out and support you.
- Don’t worry that if you can’t go out for seven months, it’s not worth doing. Nobody would be nuts enough to go out for seven months! Oh, wait…But even doing a mini tour right in your own backyard can add richness to your life as an author. And if you happen to be planning a vacay, make it tax deductible, and search out good venues there too.
- Don’t read for twenty minutes at your event. Yes, I know I just took a Do and flip-flopped it. But it bears repeating. I see no reason why author events can’t be as exciting as a rock concert or a big game. There are authors who give a great show—Lisa Scottolline, Lee Child, Harlan Coben, and Chris Bohjalian may as well be stand-up comics. Louise Penny is like a motivational speaker. And Jodi Picoult once howled like a wolf. You’re out there representing when you do an event—show ’em how it’s done.
- Don’t burn bridges. Maybe you just had the worst event in history, and the non-existent crowd booed and spattered you with tomatoes. This same place may turn out to be a great gig next year. Or handsell a hundred copies of your book after you leave. Or simply be going through a rough patch, and your courteous response can make all the difference.
- Don’t underestimate the investment and effort a venue is making on your behalf. Events cost money, take time, and require skill for your host. Until we’re raking in thousands of dollars towards their bottom line, the event is probably a loss for the bookstore. They do it because they want to invest in authors and in their community. How generous is that.
Okay, thousands of miles, hundreds of bookstores. You’re on the board of ITW. You even created a national holiday, Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day, for goodness sakes. And now a radio show! You must drink gallons of coffee. Tell us a little about Next Steps radio.
Only decaf. That’s my secret—makes a cup of tea really pack a punch. Anyway…Next Steps Radio is a resource for ITW authors as they begin the transition from debut to a longterm career in writing. It gives members who may not have a lot of media experience a chance to appear live on-air and talk about their book, their career, their writing process and journey. It gives established members a chance to support other writers during joint shows. And it offers mentorship opportunities—something ITW is known for. Just last month, Lee Child appeared alongside debut author John Connell. What a show that was. We air once monthly on Wednesday nights as of now, but demand is huge from authors, and our audience is growing. Once we can support more shows with listeners, I have hopes of introducing guest hosts who can then gain interview and on-air experience.
You’re a study in perseverance—you wrote seven novels before you were signed by Random House. What kept you going for all those years, all those books?
Decaf. No, I’m kidding. Two words: my husband. He liked to quote Will Smith, who said something about there being no Plan B, it just gets in the way of Plan A. I love that. And I love my husband—thank you, honey, you made me hang in there. Louise Penny says the single most important thing a writer can have is a supportive partner. I would say that friends, other family members, even pets can also fill this role.
And I’d add another thing that did it, and that was the stories themselves. Whenever the industry and its crushing level of rejection got me down—which was a lot during that decade-plus—I would retreat into the world of a new book. And it always swept me away, and it always was a source of some of the greatest, purest joy I have ever known.
You’re Vice President of Author Programs for ITW, which includes overseeing the Debut Authors Program you once chaired. What is Author Programs all about? And why are these positions so important to you, particularly now that you’ve “made it”?
Anthony, you are an officer and a gentleman. Or an attorney and a gentleman. OK, an author and a gentleman. First of all, I haven’t made it. But I do get to be a working writer now—and after eleven years of rejection, that’s something I give thanks for every day. As for why I’m so happy in my position as VP of Author Programs, the answer is twofold. First, ITW is very important to me as an organization. It’s the only writers organization as far as I know whose membership is free, which makes it a resource available to all. And it’s also a source of unparalleled support, something I missed out on during my years of struggle. (If I’d been an ITW member, I probably would’ve gotten published in eleven months instead of eleven years).
And why Author Programming in particular? Because it’s crucial for me to give back as an author. I love shining a spotlight on other writers, and this position allows me to do so in all sorts of creative ways. The Next Steps Radio show. Our growing Discussion Forum community, with Bryan Robinson at its helm. The awesome Debut Program, (wo)manned by Amy Christine Parker. Palm Beach Peril, which gives Debuts the chance to appear before a crowd of three hundred and meet Book Bitch reviewer Stacy Alesi and syndicated columnist Oline Cogdill. And hopefully new programs and opportunities to come. Dennis Lehane says writers must send the elevator down for each other. A lot of authors did so for me. I hope I can give writers a few floors, too.
You dedicate AS NIGHT FALLS to your editor, your agent, and writer Nancy Pickard. Tell us a little about that.
They are three of the four most important women in my writing life. (The fourth is my mother, but she got the first book dedicated to her). I don’t know if everybody feels this way about their editor, but I am lucky enough to have one who gets me so deeply—my strengths and my weaknesses—that she is like a part of the writing itself. And my agent stuck with me through multiple unpublished novels and showed no signs of giving up. She is the definition of thick and thin. Finally, Nancy Pickard is one of my favorite authors—and the reason I finally got published.
What’s a question you’ve always wanted to be asked, but so far no interviewer has asked it?
What made the bad guy in AS NIGHT FALLS who he is? I would like to teach a psychology class on this topic. It’s a family structure that relies on a psychotic denial of aggression on the part of the parent, and which breeds an escalating pattern of violence in the child. Lionel Shriver dealt with a similar composition in We Need to Talk About Kevin, and when I was a therapist, I worked with children who were showing signs of the effects. It’s fascinating to me—and it created the domino row that brought down my family in AS NIGHT FALLS.
I’m finishing up a new novel almost as I type (like, I’m about to go write for the day, and whoa, am I excited) and then, what else? Another world’s longest book tour! I hope to see some of you along the road…
Jenny Milchman is the author of COVER OF SNOW, which won the Mary Higgins Clark Award and RUIN FALLS, an Indie Next Pick and a Top Ten of 2014 by Suspense Magazine. Her new novel, AS NIGHT FALLS, will be released this June.
She is Vice President of Author Programming for International Thriller Writers, teaches for New York Writers Workshop, and is the founder and organizer of Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day, which is celebrated annually in all fifty states. Jenny lives in the Hudson River Valley with her family.
To learn more about Jenny, please visit her website.
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