Tonya Plank – Swallow

What is your most recent book? Tell us a bit about it.

My debut novel, Swallow, is about a 26-year-old Manhattan lawyer named Sophie who develops a psychosomatic disorder called Globus Hystericus, or Globus Sensation (Globus Hystericus is the older, Freudian term; Sensation is the more currently-used term), which is where you feel there’s a ball-like object in your throat. But there really isn’t anything there; it’s all psychological. It can make it difficult for the sufferer to eat, to swallow, to speak and sometimes even to breathe. So this disorder wreaks havoc on Sophie’s life.

Swallow has won several awards, including gold medals in the 2010 Independent Publisher Book Awards and the Living Now Book Awards, and was a finalist in the 2009 ForeWord Book of the Year Award and the 2010 National Indie Excellence Awards. So, I’m very proud of those.

Tell us something about yourself.

I worked as an appellate-level criminal defense attorney in New York for many years. I’m also a former competitive ballroom dancer, and I write a dance-focused arts blog called Swan Lake Samba Girl, which is centered on both the ballroom scene and ballet and other kinds of dance in New York. It’s been lauded by James Wolcott of Vanity Fair and Terry Teachout of the Wall Street Journal, and has been cited in those publications as well as the New York Times Arts Beat blog and CNN.com I also write for some other websites, including the Huffington Post, about dance and occasionally about law.

What inspired you to write this book?

I suffered from the disorder for a few years and I wanted to write about it. It kind of helped me to deal with it, particularly writing about it in an, at times, darkly comical way. The disorder is actually not that uncommon, though it’s been far less written about than pure eating disorders like anorexia nervosa and bulimia. Many consider it a type of anxiety disorder, and my research indicated that, unlike anorexia, men are as likely as women to develop it. I felt like it would be interesting for people who’ve never heard of it to read about it, and helpful for people who have had some experience with Globus, or with any kind of anxiety disorder.

Also, as I mentioned above, I worked as an appellate-level criminal defense attorney in New York for many years. Sophie is a criminal appeals attorney as well. I felt compelled to write about certain things I saw and experienced in my job – mainly the way certain people can be treated by the criminal justice system, the difficulties of doing appeals – the legal process that occurs after the defendants have already been convicted at trial, and generally, the really profound stresses of the job.

I also wanted to write about New York, now my home. One of the awards I won was for best fiction set in the Northeast, and I’m really proud of that because I do feel like this is a very New York book. Sophie’s from a small, working-class town in the Southwest that most have never heard of, called Florence, Arizona, which is known not for its art and history like the Italian city of the same name, but for housing a large prison. Sophie’s family is very working-class – her sister’s a welfare mom living in a trailer park, her father makes very low-budget porn films, and her mom is a clerical worker at the local prison. None of them have college educations. Through hard work, Sophie manages to get into a prestigious East Coast law school and from there become a Manhattan attorney. She now finds herself surrounded by all of these very privileged people, and they – her fiancé, his friends and family, and her colleagues and friends, talk down to her in ways that can be very condescending and harmful to her sense of self. Regardless of her accomplishments, she doesn’t feel very good about herself. But her family back home doesn’t really understand her either, or appreciate her accomplishments. Her father wanted her to be an actress, her mother wanted her to get married, and she has a very competitive and destructive relationship with her sister. She feels very alone. In her job she represents indigent criminal defendants, appealing their convictions. She begins to feel more in common with her imprisoned clients than the judges she appears before and her fiancé and NYC/ Yale grad friends.

I also wanted to write about a certain kind of father / daughter relationship. There seem to be a lot of books focused on mother / daughter or father / son or even mother / son relationships, but there seem to be very few on the father / daughter relationship. Sophie’s father left her family when she was a child to start a film career in L.A. He now makes these small, soft-core porn movies. She has a very odd relationship with him. He often treats her like she’s one of his actresses and it makes her very uncomfortable and she continuously tries to distance herself from the way he seems to want to define her.I think my love of art and its power to transcend are what inspired me to write about that particular relationship. Through her artist friend, Sophie learns to re-envision herself. The novel is in many ways about learning to define yourself, transcending everyone else’s definitions.

What obstacles did you encounter in getting this book published? How did you overcome them?

This book has really been a long time in the making. I wrote it in 2002. I work-shopped it in several classes, revised it several times, and got a literary agent in late 2003. I revised it again with her, and she sent it out to several houses, where it was rejected. Many of the editors said very positive things about it though – they loved the title, liked the plot, the concept, the voice. After a few more revisions, my agent sent it out to a couple more publishing houses, but they rejected it as well. Depressed, I took up ballroom dancing, became fairly infatuated with it, and started writing my blog about it. Eventually, the blog started to gain a good amount of readers, and, as I mentioned above, it started to attract the attention of mainstream media as well, being written about in the Wall Street Journal, Vanity Fair online, and several other publications.

By that point, it was getting harder and harder to get accepted by a publishing house, and self-publishing was starting to really take off. I decided that, with my success in self-publishing in the form of my blog, I might as well try self-publishing my novel. I talked to my agent about it and she wholly supported me; said many authors are now getting their start that way. So, I self-published in late 2009. I published in paperback form (via print on demand, through CreateSpace) and ebook form. And I’m so happy I did. Not only did the novel win several indie awards, but sales of the ebook have been strong. Swallow was a best-seller in legal fiction in Amazon’s Kindle store for several months over the summer. I’ve now sold five thousand copies in a little over a year, and a foreign publisher has expressed interest in possibly buying foreign rights. The book has been reviewed very well by bloggers and professional reviewers, and I’m starting to develop a real audience.

What types of books do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors?

I like to read a variety of books, but mostly read literary fiction, crime fiction, or literary nonfiction with a social bent, probably because those are all related to what I write about. Some of my favorite authors are Richard Price, Richard Wright, John Dos Passos, Junot Diaz, E.M. Forster, Oscar Hijuelos, Norman Mailer, Joseph Mitchell, and David Foster Wallace.

Are you working on your next book? What can you tell us about it?

Yes, I’m hard at work on a novel about a group of young people who witness a shooting, all from various perspectives. It’s set in New York again and it also draws loosely from my former job and from some events that have happened in New York fairly recently. I’m finding this one more challenging to write than my first because the characters’ lives are so completely different from my own. But of course it’s good to be challenged!

What is the best advice you could give other writers about writing or publishing?

We don’t really know what’s going to happen with traditional publishing at this point. It’s getting harder to get a book deal with a traditional publisher and many people are turning to self-publishing. My experience and that of many other self-published authors I’ve met has generally been very positive. I do think if an author is going to go this route, you need to make sure your book is the best it can possibly be: well-written, well-edited and well-designed. Revise, revise, revise, and seek lots and lots of feedback. Take writing workshops and ask people whose opinion you trust to read your book.

After your book is out, focus most of your efforts publicizing the ebook – those are what are selling right now, especially for unknown, starting authors. People are much more willing to take a chance on a new author if they can start out with an inexpensive ebook.

Things are changing constantly, so you must keep current on your research about which companies are the best to use. Right now, many people publish their physical books POD (print on demand) through Create Space or Lightening Source, and upload their ebooks to Amazon and Barnes and Noble directly, then use Smashwords to distribute to other ebook retailers like iBookstore, Sony, and Kobo.

To find the best places to publicize and advertise your book and to seek book reviews, consult the Writers Café on Kindleboards.com. The authors there are very good about giving their feedback on which blogs, message boards, websites, newsletters, and social media worked best for them in terms of getting their book publicity and sales. It’s also good to keep abreast of changes in the publishing industry in general by reading sites like Galley Cat, Publishing Perspectives, and the Huffington Post Books section. Good luck!

Where can readers learn more about you and your book?

To find out more about Swallow, you can visit my blog: www.tonyaplank.com. You can also visit the book’s Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Smashwords pages.