My new book is called The Humanist Approach to Happiness: Practical Wisdom (Volume 1). It is a book about applying Humanism to your everyday life. Philosophy isn’t just for the classroom. Thinking about and adopting a set of ethics can help you lead a happier more productive life specifically because it gives you a way to think about and judge your actions before you act. In other words, this book is about the pragmatic reasons why being a good person has benefits here and now.
Tell us something about yourself.
I was born and raised in Los Angeles CA and then went to college in Hawaii. While in college I trained dolphins and spent some time in China. I moved back to Los Angeles after graduation and worked as a volunteer administrator for the Los Angeles SPCA. I moved to Florida a few years later. I didn’t start writing in earnest until I started working for the Humanists of Florida Association. Then I realized I really enjoy writing and that I seem to have a talent for presenting difficult philosophic concepts in a easy to understand and concise way.
What inspired you to write this book?
There are a couple of incidences. One in particular was a conversation I had with my neighbor’s daughter. She was telling me she was upset that her boyfriend hadn’t called her in a few days. Upon questioning it turned out this boy wasn’t her boyfriend, it was just a guy she had had sex with but never dated. She was shocked when I told her that this boy wasn’t her boyfriend and that he wasn’t going to call her. That conversation along with a few others made me realize that young people really are struggling with some basic life issues. And their parents aren’t necessarily helping them out by telling them what dating is and how it works and what to expect. And that there was a real need for a book like mine to let kids know this one basic truth about life. Your actions have consequences and that you should thing before you act to make sure those consequences are good. And that applying this knowledge to all aspects of your life will help you be happier here and now. It is amazing to me how many people have to learn this the hard way simply because no adult ever told them this one simple truth. My book was written to fill in that gap.
How did you choose the title?
Humanism is a philosophy that primarily concerns itself with human happiness. All that we do and think about is geared towards not only maximizing our happiness but the happiness of others. I also think that one of the reasons people join cults and other questionable groups is because they are looking for ways to become happy and they think that maybe this group or that theology will help them. So I thought a straightforward book about how Humanists approach the task of being happy would be attractive. That and I tested some titles out on some talks I was giving at the time and The Humanist Approach to Happiness had a REALLY big draw so I knew I was onto something with that title.
What obstacles did you encounter in getting this book published? How did you overcome them?
The biggest obstacle was that because my book is a niche book and I don’t have an obvious platform from which to sell my book, it was hard for publishers to see how they were going to sell enough books to make it worthwhile to publish it. I could see it, but it was hard for others, mostly because there has never been a book like mine published in the English language. There is only one other book like mine and it was published in Spanish down in Latin America and a huge social movement grew up around it’s publication. So the potential is definitely there. I eventually decided to self publish for two reasons. One was that my customers were asking me when the book was going to be available. The second was that I realized that even if I had a publisher, the marketing was going to be on me anyway. And I feel confident that I can get into my target market easily. So far, the response has been very good.
How did you know you wanted to be a writer? How did you get started?
I didn’t know I wanted to be a writer until just a few years ago. And now it’s all I can think of. I joke with my husband that at the tender age of 40 something I have finally figured out what I want to do when I grow up, and that is to be a writer. I have more ideas now then I have time to write them down.
As for how I got started, I had to do a lot of writing in my work with the Humanists. Fortunately, I had professional copy editors that volunteered with me so I learned quite a bit about writing as a craft through working with them on the various projects we had (newsletters, brochures, speeches, etc). When it came to writing the book, I had the idea but it took some time to carve out the time to actually get the book written. In the middle of everything I had a child and that obviously took a lot of my free time away. But now that my son is in school, it is easier to find the time to write and to market myself and build my platform.
Do you have any writing rituals?
Not really. Mostly I write when I have a brainstorm or idea I need to get down on paper. But if I have a brainstorm about something to write about and don’t have the time to write, I make sure I at least write down some notes so I can come back to that idea later. I don’t ever want to loose an idea because I forgot to write a note to myself. So my biggest issue is how to organize those notes and review them periodically. But I don’t seem to lack for ideas. For example, with my monthly newspaper column, I have about a year’s worth of column ideas already written down. I have seven ideas for future books. That way when I do have time to write, I don’t need to struggle to come up with an idea, I just choose one of my old ones and start working.
Did you learn anything from writing and publishing this book? What?
Yup – get it done. As my husband always says, having the idea isn’t enough. You need to act on it and bring it to completion. And that was actually my goal in writing the book. I didn’t know if anyone would want to read it or even like it, but for myself I needed to complete it and get it done. I could worry about the marketability of it later. And that is pretty much how I approach all my endeavors. Do it for myself first. If someone else likes it, bonus.
As for what I have learned about publishing. It is obviously really important to have some idea of how you personally are going to market your book. How are you going to reach your customers? That took me some time to understand but I do feel that all the time I spent thinking about this aspect of publishing has been super beneficial because now, my marketing plans are easy for me. I know exactly whom I am trying to reach and how to reach them. My marketing efforts are well targeted.
If you were doing it all over again, what would you do differently?
I would have figured out what my niche was to start building my platform in that niche sooner. As it was, I floundered a bit not knowing exactly what my unique voice was going to be. But it all works out in the end.
What types of books do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors? Why?
I have been alternating my reading between sci fi and fantasy and philosophy since high school. Right now I am reading a Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain, which, as it turns out is both fantasy and philosophy packaged neatly together in one single volume. Rather surprising really. My favorite philosopher is Camus and my favorite book of his is The Myth of Sisyphus. My favorite regular books would have to be His Dark Materials trilogy by Phillip Pullman. What a great story! Though I have recently discovered James Morrow. Towing Jehovah is hysterical! And again, marries fantasy with religious critique in a really entertaining way. I love his work.
Are you working on your next book? What can you tell us about it?
I am trying to decide whether to write the follow up to the Humanist Approach to Happiness: Practical Wisdom, which would be a book for advanced thinkers discussing the Humanist approach to religious diversity and tolerance, finding meaning in life, dealing with fear and other deep topics. Or, I might finish the economic pamphlet my mother and some of my business friends have been asking me to write for a few years now. But what I really want to write is a Humanist Bible study guide. I’m not sure yet which one I will work on next. It will be a few months before I can approach it though so I am not spending much time worrying about it right now. I just launched my new book and I need to focus on marketing that. I figure when I do have time to start writing something else, my brain will decide what it wants to work on for me.
What is the best advice you could give other writers about writing or publishing?
Get it done. You can’t sell anything until you have a book that is finished. So just write and don’t worry about whether you can sell it yet. The more you write, the more you figure out what you like and what it is you want to say. All that helps you when you finally decide to enter the market and try to sell a book.
Who is the perfect reader for your book?
The perfect reader is actually a teen or young adult in a youth ethics class or a liberal religious education class at say the Unitarian Universalists or the Congregations for Humanistic Judaism or even the Ethical Culture Society. My book was written primarily for these sorts of youth education classes. The next group that would like my book is young freethinkers in college. I also think that people involved in secular recovery could benefit from it as well.
Where can readers learn more about you and your book?
http://happiness.jen-hancock.com has all the details.