Occasionally I receive inquiries from students who’ve been assigned the unfortunate task of writing a paper about one of my books and/or my life as a writer. I love chatting with students and I always make an attempt to answer student emails when time allows. Here’s an interview (updated & edited for length) with a college student who was tasked with writing a profile of someone in the arts & entertainment industry. She asked some great questions!
Student: When was it, exactly, that you realized writing might be a career path you wanted to take, and why?
Nan: I learned to read when I was 4 and I loved the escape that books offered me. I was extremely introverted as a child and I also had a difficult family life due to my father’s alcoholism (he died of alcoholic cirrhosis when he was 39 and I was 9). I spent a lot of time alone in my room and writing was a natural extension of my love of reading. Being that I was shy, writing felt like a safe way to express myself and I enjoyed it a lot.
I attempted to write my first novel in 4th or 5th grade. It’s a futuristic story called “Forgotten,” about two friends who get left behind on Earth while everyone else on the planet has moved to Mars. (This was in the early ’70s, not long after Apollo 13, which no doubt ignited the imaginations of schoolkids everywhere.) It ended up being only a few pages, but I still have the handwritten story and the rough draft.
After that I started writing poetry and continued writing poetry through college. I still have all the poems I wrote. Most of them are very bad. (Though I did get a couple of poems published in The Daily Illini when I was in college, which is when I also received my first fan letter—which I also still have.)
In high school I was the editor of the yearbook and had a column in the school paper. I knew I wanted to be a writer but I was concerned about being independent and making enough money to live on my own (i.e., not with my mom & step-dad) after college. That’s why I chose to major in Advertising (at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign). I felt Advertising was a solid career where I could use my creativity while also making enough money to be self-supporting. During my college summers I worked at Leo Burnett Advertising in Chicago (two summers) and at a smaller ad agency (also in Chicago) called G.M. Feldman & Co. (one summer).
Student: How did you get started?
Nan: My plan was to work at an ad agency in Chicago after graduation. Instead I got married three weeks after graduating (because love), and my husband (Pat, a lieutenant in the Marine Corps at the time) got orders to Okinawa, Japan for three years. It turned out to be a great experience for both of us, and I got my first job in publishing in Japan, where I was the editor of a weekly magazine called This Week on Okinawa.
After we returned from Japan I wrote my first novel, a fictionalized version of two Americans living in Okinawa called Knowing the Sky. This was in 1986-1987; I wrote it using an electric typewriter. The completed manuscript was a whopping 650 pages. Like my teenage poetry, my first attempt at a novel was also quite bad. (Resulting in a box full of rejection letters which currently reside in our basement.)
I went back to work in the magazine business where I was the managing editor of a computer magazine called Personal Publishing. This led to my freelance career as a tech journalist and eventually to my first published book, a four-color guide for graphic designers on how to use desktop publishing software (Quark Design: A Visual Guide to QuarkXPress). My career as a tech writer in the late ’80s and early ’90s turned out to be financially lucrative but it also had a high burnout rate. Even back then, the technology was developing so fast that the tech writers in the industry were expected to constantly churn out new stuff.
In 1995 I decided to take another stab at writing a novel, which is when I wrote the email epistolary novel Chat. (See my bio below for the rest of that story.)
Student: What would be a (short) self-written biography of yourself and your writing career?
Nan: Nan McCarthy is the author of Since You Went Away, Chat, Connect, & Crash, Live ‘Til I Die, and Quark Design. The originally self-published Chat, Connect & Crash series was released in trade paperback by Simon & Schuster in 1998 and widely translated. Nan later regained the rights to the series, publishing new, updated editions in 2014. A former magazine editor & tech writer, Nan founded Rainwater Press in 1992 and began selling her books online in 1995. Nan and her husband, a veteran who served 29 years in the Marine Corps, are the proud parents of two adult sons. Nan wrote Since You Went Away after taking a ten-year break from full-time writing to care for the family during her husband’s frequent military travels.
That’s my professional bio. On a more personal level I guess I’d say I’m a mom, vet spouse, writer, sister, friend. I love my family and I’m still close with my three best friends from high school. I love reading, nature walks, our rescue dogs & cats, and classic movies.
Student: Can you describe your ideal working conditions?
Nan: A few years ago when I started working on Since You Went Away I moved my writing area from the basement office (which had no windows) to a little corner of our bedroom where there’s a big window. I discovered I need daylight to keep my spirits up while I’m working. My best writing time is during the day, what would be regular business hours for most people. I stick to a regular writing schedule—generally Monday through Friday, from about 7 a.m. until 6 p.m. or later. Depending on where I’m at in the writing process, I’ll write on Saturday and Sunday too if I can. If my husband is traveling out of town I’ll write later into the night. I write best when the house is empty and completely quiet.
Student: How would you describe your tone in writing?
Nan: I don’t set out to write with a certain tone in mind. I’m mostly concerned with telling the story. I work hard at making myself invisible to the reader so they can get lost in the story and experience what the characters are experiencing without being distracted by the writing itself. I appreciate beautiful writing in others but I like to get out of my own way. I’m a strong believer in using language as efficiently as possible. Whenever I can, I’ll choose the shorter, simpler, more precise word over a longer word. One thing I do concern myself with is rhythm. I read aloud everything I write and if I stumble over something, I keep rewriting until it sounds completely natural.
Working as a computer journalist has had a huge impact on my writing style. In tech writing, even the smallest detail such as a punctuation mark has to be precisely accurate. The way you structure a sentence has to be specifically engineered to help the reader understand and grasp incredibly complex concepts in the shortest amount of time. The language has to be straightforward and not the least bit confusing. I like to think of myself as a “word engineer.” People tend to think of writers as messy and haphazard individuals because we’re creative. But good writing involves logic, attention to detail, and problem-solving abilities, much more so than most people realize.
That said, I do love writing dialogue, which is why I love writing epistolary novels. Emails are a unique form of conversation, a hybrid of talking and writing. My latest novel (Since You Went Away) contains lots of dialogue in the form of recounted conversations within the emails themselves. In real life I love listening to people talk, paying close attention to the rhythm of people’s voices, the idiomatic expressions they use, and each person’s body language while having a conversation. I tend to be a boring dinner companion in restaurants because I often prefer eavesdropping on other diners’ conversations rather than talking to my husband (but he’s used to that by now).
Student: What has been your most successful publication and why?
Nan: Chat, Connect, and Crash are probably my most commercially successful books so far (not counting Since You Went Away which is currently being released in four parts). But I’d have to say, as far as my completed works, the book I’m most proud of is Live ’Til I Die: a memoir of my father’s life, which I self-published in 2002. It was a very personal project obviously, but I’m proud of the quality of the writing in that book as well as the research I did in interviewing my dad’s childhood friends, our remaining family members, and medical professionals who treat people with addictions. I feel good about the positive nature of the book, its sense of hopefulness in spite of the tragedy of a young man like my dad losing his battle with alcohol. Most addiction memoirs are success stories as told by the person who overcame their addiction, so Live ’Til I Die is unique in that way because my dad didn’t survive to tell his story. But even with its incredibly sad outcome, I was able to shine a light on the destruction of addiction while at the same time highlighting the positive aspects of my father’s character, showing his humanity and the lasting impact he left on the lives of the people who loved him. I also put a spotlight on the strength of my mom during those dark times and the positive actions she took in raising my sister and me so that neither of us ended up following our father’s path of addiction, even though we’re both genetically predisposed.
Student: What would you want prospective fans to know about your work?
Nan: My main goal is to give the reader a memorable and entertaining emotional experience. A secondary goal is to make it easy for the reader to keep turning the pages. I put a huge amount of effort into making my writing appear simple and breezy, but in reality there’s a lot going on under the surface. I want the reader to have fun reading my books. Even when the topic is serious—especially when the topic is serious—I like to inject humor in unexpected places. Plot is important too, of course, and I want the reader to feel propelled and compelled to find out what happens next. But even more important than plot (to me at least) is creating interesting characters the reader cares about. Three-dimensional, unique characters that make the reader lie awake at night wondering how things are going to turn out for them. Topically, I like to take on meaty subjects that are of current interest to people.
Student: What inspires you?
Nan: Other writers inspire me. I’m an avid reader and I read a wide variety of books, from narrative non-fiction to literary fiction and everything in between. I love marveling at an especially well-written passage, and I love hearing the success stories of other writers. I don’t believe another writer has to fail in order for me to succeed. In fact I believe the opposite—the more writers who succeed in stirring up excitement about books and reading, who are able to light a spark inside the reader, the better for all of us.
Movies inspire me. I love going to see new movies in the theatre and I love watching old movies on TV. I love old movies for the witty and intelligent dialogue. I go to the movie theatre regularly, either by myself or with friends or my husband. Movies are a chance for me to turn off my brain for a couple hours and escape the pressures of the outside world. I always come out of a movie inspired to write. For me writing a good story is a lot like writing a screenplay because you want the reader to be able to visualize what you’re seeing in your own head.
Music inspires me. I listen to certain songs when I’m getting ready to write a particular scene. (On my Pinterest page I have a board called “Music That Inspires Me to Write” where you can see some of the songs that inspire me. I also have Pinterest boards for some of my favorite movies and books.)
People inspire me. People I meet at parties, conversations between strangers I overhear in restaurants and other public places. I love people-watching.
I’m also inspired by current events. The novel I’m currently working on is about a military family during the Iraq war. The story involves issues such as PTSD among veterans and Islamaphobia. Those were big topics when I started writing the book in 2012 and they’re even more relevant today.
Student: Is all your work similar in nature, in general, or how does one novel differ from the next?
Nan: My current novel (Since You Went Away) is in the epistolary format which makes it similar to Chat, Connect, and Crash. The similarities end there however. Topically, I’d say my work is pretty varied. Quark Design is a computer how-to book. Chat, Connect, and Crash is a love story. Live ’Til I Die is an addiction memoir. My current project focuses on a military family during wartime.
There are similar themes that tend to pop up in all of my novels. One of them is alcohol addiction, obviously influenced by my childhood experiences. It’s not something I consciously set out to include in a novel, but it’s something I have intimate knowledge of and is part of the fabric of who I am. So the theme of alcoholism tends to weave itself naturally into the characters I create. In Chat, Connect, and Crash, the male protagonist (Max) is a borderline alcoholic. Live ’Til I Die is all about alcoholism. And in my current novel, one of the characters is a veteran suffering from PTSD who turns to alcohol as one of the ways he deals with the stress of transitioning from military life to civilian life.
Student: What has been the response to your work?
Nan: Largely positive. My favorite feedback is hearing from people who tell me Live ’Til I Die resonated with them, because so many people struggle with addiction or have a loved one who’s an addict. Although I’ve just recently released Part One of my new novel Since You Went Away, I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the positive feedback so far. I’m working on Part Two now, and I hope I can keep that positive vibe going until I release all four parts. With Chat, Connect, and Crash, I was surprised and delighted to learn the books are required reading in some college communications courses. A few years ago I was contacted by a young woman in Italy who wrote her doctoral thesis on Chat. The Chat, Connect, Crash trilogy is a time-capsule of early Internet communication. Because the story takes place in the mid-1990s, it shows how email not only changed the way we communicate with one another but how it changed our relationships. I’m very proud of that. But there are also people who hated those books. And that’s OK. As a writer you have to learn to not take the negative feedback to heart. Worrying about that stuff will kill your creativity for sure. So that’s why I try to write the kind of books I myself would like to read. If the end result is something I’m proud of, that I know in my heart was the best work I could produce at that moment in time, I’m happy. The world would be a pretty boring place if everyone liked the same books.
Student: How do you think your personality is reflected in your work?
Nan: I like books with substance and humor that give people hope. I try to imbue those qualities in my own work. If other people think of me as a person who’s substantive, funny, and hopeful, that would make me happy.
Student: How do you think the industry has changed since you started?
Nan: Oh my gosh! That’s a story unto itself. I wrote my first novel on a typewriter. When I self-published Chat in 1995 and sold the printed books using an 800-number and an online order form on my first website, Amazon wasn’t even a household word yet. Now we have ebooks and ereaders and blogs and social media and self-publishing has become a huge thing for writers. Even traditionally published authors are expected to have a “platform” in which they promote their books via Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, etc. It’s nuts. And it’s great! I’m excited to be an independent writer and publisher with a lot of years of experience under my belt. When I started writing my latest novel, I didn’t even consider going the traditional route to get it published. I knew from the beginning it would be independently published. I love all aspects of that process—the sense of adventure, the creative freedom, and the risk-taking. Here’s one of my favorite quotes from Neil Young: “You know, the future’s a huge, gigantic place. I have no idea what’s going on out there, I’m just going to walk into it and see what happens.”
(For a detailed timeline of the publishing history of Chat, Connect, & Crash, click here.)
Student: What do you hope to ultimately accomplish through being a writer?
Nan: I want to make people smile, entertain them, give them an escape from the stress of daily life, and give them hope.
I like the idea of leaving something of myself behind, of someone reading my words after I’m gone.
I want to keep growing, to be a better writer today than I was yesterday, a better writer tomorrow than I am today.
For me—like a lot of writers—writing is survival. It keeps me sane, makes me happy and joyful. Aside from spending time with my loved ones, the best feeling in the world is a day when I’ve written a lot of words.