Andi Cumbo - Writer, Editor, Online Writing Courses, Classes & Lessons

Not Everyone Is Going to Like You: A Writers Write Interview with Susan Pogorzelski

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I met Susan Pogorzelski through Twitter, but she’s connected with a group of my face-to-face friends in the amazing Lancaster, PA area.  So of course, she herself is amazing.  Her strength, grace, and resilience inspire me every day, as I’m sure they will inspire you in this interview.

1. Tell me about your latest project.

Gold In the Days of Summer originally began as a series of short stories entitled “The Annie Summer Series” that I had posted to my personal blog in an attempt to return to my first love of creative writing. I honestly didn’t think that it would become much of anything, and never in my wildest dreams did I think I would have the courage or drive to pursue self-publishing — and with a fiction book so deeply embedded with my own personal experiences, at that. However, over the past four years, the story continued to grow, and the dream of it one day being read began to weave its way into my heart; the individual stories themselves eventually underwent a massive overhaul to become part of a standalone novella with plans to be published next spring.

The book itself follows 12 year old Annie through the summer of 1979:

She’d planned her entire summer vacation in the early days of spring: bike riding through fields, swimming at the community pool, and sharing secrets beneath the backyard tent. But the summer of 1979 doesn’t turn out to be at all what 12 year old Annie expected: her best friend is away at camp, Connor Bartlett barely notices her anymore, and her family, trying to protect her from the reality of her grandmother’s illness, only seem to further isolate her.

Struggling to navigate the tender crossroads of young adulthood, Annie turns to an unlikely confidant: a reclusive young veteran at war with his own past.

As the summer days pass and her 13th birthday edges closer, Annie discovers that growing up has little do to with age and everything to do with letting go and moving on.

2. What role, if any, did books, writing, and reading play in your childhood?

Ever since I was old enough to hold them in my hands, books have played such a significant role in my life — shaping who I am as an individual and developing my passion as a writer. I remember as a child reading everything I could get my hands on, the library and bookstores almost like a candy store where I could get my fix of incredible worlds that captured the imagination, where adventures seemed limitless, and where characters served as role models and friends. My Little Golden Books, Berenstain Bears and Amelia Bedelia, Lois Lowry and Scott O’Dell, The Babysitters’ Club, Sweet Valley, and Fear Street series…These books are so deeply imbedded in my childhood memories that I can’t help but feel nostalgic when I come upon one at a yard sale.

I’d been writing ever since I could hold a pencil properly, telling stories to my kindergarten teacher who would then help us illustrate our tales and turn them into cardboard-covered books, but it’s really the books of my childhood that have shaped me as that writer. When I was ten or eleven and reading the Fear Street series, I went through a stage of writing mysteries. I probably didn’t know it then, but Lois Lowry and Scott O’Dell have cultivated a love of dystopian and survivalist fiction.

And then, when I was around twelve and thirteen years old, I discovered literature. And through reading books like Catcher in the Rye, To Kill A Mockingbird, Peter Pan, and A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, I found myself, and I found my voice.

3. What is your writing practice, your writing routine?

I’m almost ashamed to say I don’t have a writing routine, which is probably why it took four years to complete a novella of only 30K or so words. Writing comes from a very emotional place for me — and whether I’m blogging or journalling or writing a piece of fiction, I find that the best inspiration comes from those “in-the-moment” sparks where I can then channel those emotions into something.

That’s not to say that I don’t force myself to write, too…Gold in the Days of Summer actually came about because I made myself sit down one May morning, close my eyes, and press my fingers to the keyboard. Working in finance, creativity was hard to come by and I was desperate to get back to my love of fiction.

So…I write when I need to, when there is something stirring within me that has to be set free. And I write when it feels like I’ll never write again, if only to remind myself that sometime it’s still a part of who we are.
4. Who are you reading now?

I just finished reading Divergent by Veronica Roth. My heart belongs to coming-of-age stories, but I also have a fondness for dystopian/post-apocalyptic fiction. I love character and behavior analysis, so the questions of who we are as humans and what drives us to survive never ceases to enthrall.

I also just started Midnight in Austenland by Shannon Hale…because it’s fun.

5. What are three of your all-time favorite books? Why do you love those?

1) A Tree Grows In Brooklyn by Betty Smith: I found this in the basement with the rest of my mom’s literature collection when I was somewhere around thirteen years old. It was the first time I’d realized where I’d really gotten my love of reading and writing, and I think I felt bonded to her in a whole new, substantial way. And then I read this book and really connected to its characters and to the writing itself — she details the seemingly simple moments of a life that add up to something wonderfully profound. It’s my favorite book, and I think it has influenced me as a writer — and maybe even as a person — more than any other.

2) A Fine and Private Place by Peter S. Beagle: I love anything and everything that Peter Beagle writes. He’s the scriptwriter of The Last Unicorn, an animated movie that I watched as a kid, and I was blown away years and years later to learn that it was actually a book first — his book, in fact. I may have listed The Last Unicorn here instead, but A Fine and Private Place has always stood out in my mind as a favorite for its fantastical realism featuring a grim topic that is also witty and subtly philosophical. I just love that combination, and I could go on and on because I’m such a fangirl, but I’ll leave it at that.

3) The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery: I studied this book in my high school French class, and it’s been a favorite ever since for its exploration of humanity — all those life themes that each of us go through as humans, including what it means to be a “grown up.” It’s not quite a children’s book, though it may seem like it at first glance; instead, it has a depth that connects the reader, that really stirs the soul. For myself, these are the kind of books that linger in my memory.

6. How do you balance “building a writing platform” and the actual writing to set on that platform?

I have a habit of doing things backwards, especially when it comes to bigger goals and ideas. When I first decided to actually publish Gold in the Days of Summer, I began to look for a cover designer and drew up some marketing ideas while the editing still had to be done. But I find that I work best in scattered pieces rather than a linear equation so that I can better visualize the project as a whole. Somehow, it all comes together.

I think the same happened with my “writing platform.” I’ve been using social media since 2007 as a personal outlet — sharing stories of my life, sharing my passions for writing and reading, and sharing information that I thought others might be interested in, all before it became known as a platform. All of my intentions, especially now with this book, isn’t about building credibility, but rather is about making it an experience — for myself and for friends, potential readers. It’s a joy for me to use these tools and create an entire experience out of Annie’s world…So often, you can close the cover and that’s all that’s left, but I wanted Annie to be something more and social media seemed so natural.

That’s why, back in 2009, I created her fictional account @AnnieSummer on Twitter (which I’m relaunching at the close of the campaign) — I wanted to add depth and layers, and bringing Annie out of the book and into the world was so much fun. It’s why I’m broadening that to include a Pinterest, FB page, and Flickr account for her as well.

I think that’s how I find it so easy to balance — the “platform” and the writing itself, especially for this story, is so intertwined and just a pure joy to do.

7.What is a typical day like for you?

A typical day would include working at my day job in foreign exchange where I’ve been fortunate enough to also use my writing, social media knowledge, and creative skills to develop materials/projects that would benefit the company. As a very right-brained person, I thought that working with numbers would be difficult, but I love my job and the balance it provides so that I don’t feel burned out creatively. It makes those nights of writing on the couch, with my dog curled up beside me, seem special, like I’ve accomplished something when I finally do create, and I think it only adds to the motivation to actually sit down and want to write.

8. Describe your dream writing space?

I’ve been really lucky in that I’ve already had the chance to write in one of my dream spaces…In 2008, I spent a month at a retreat here in an old village in the French mountains:

Labastide and La Muse

I don’t believe that inspiration is limited to location and scenery, but sometimes, it really can’t hurt.

9. What is the hardest writing critique you ever received? How did you respond?

I’ve been to a lot of workshops, both in school and as an adult, but I can’t say I’ve ever had a critique that completely disturbed me, and certainly not one that made me want to give up altogether. Even though I’ve been writing all of my life, maybe I’m still too new at this; however, I like to think it’s the attitude I take towards these critiques that help me in the long run. As a sometimes-editor, I know what it is to want to make the piece the best it can be and, when critiquing, people usually have those best of intentions at heart. So I try to take my own advice that I would give to other writers: take it or leave it. These are just suggestions from one reader, and this is your story and your words in the long run.

That said, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t kill you to scrap 10 thousand words because they just aren’t necessary, as a friend recently told me to do with Gold in the Days of Summer. Writers, I think, are sensitive by nature, understandably so when they tuck a piece of their heart in among the words. But, as in the case of this book, when I looked at it objectively and from a reader’s perspective, I could see how it was weighing the story down and the change really did bring it to a new, exciting level.

10. What is the best wisdom you have to share with other writers?

Here’s one of the hardest lessons I’ve ever had to learn, and that I’m still learning, in both life and writing: not everyone is going to like you. And certainly not everyone is going to like your writing. I know my flaws as a writer: brevity (clearly) is not my strong suit. But I love words, I love digging deep to find meaning, I love the poetics of language. My style may not be for everyone, especially in a time where 140 characters rule the web, but this is me, this is my voice.

Ok, I’ll try this short answer thing:

Don’t be afraid to learn from others and grow in your artistry, accept critiques as the guides that they are, surround yourself with a group of people you can trust to be both sensitive to your needs as a person and objective to your goal as a writer.

Most importantly: Be yourself. Trust yourself.

Susan Pogorzelski grew up among family picnics and neighborhood games of flashlight tag in the suburbs of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. The youngest among two siblings, she frequently spent her summer days chasing after her brothers or exploring the woods on the outskirts of her neighborhood while making up wild stories with friends.

Her adult career has spanned freelance writing and editing, marketing and communications, and foreign exchange; however, her passion for fiction has lasted a lifetime. She currently resides in Lititz, Pennsylvania with her cat, Mikey, and her Beagle/Bassett light-of-her-life, Riley. You can find her on Twitter as @susanpogo and be sure to check out her blog – twenty(or)something.

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Author: Andi

I am a writer, editor, and writing teacher whose most recent book, The Slaves Have Names, tells the story of the people who were enslaved on the plantation where I was raised. When I'm not working, my husband and I are working to make our small farm - God's Whisper Farm - a retreat here at the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

  • Jason Ziebart (@JasonZiebart)

    It’s nice to know that I’m not the only one whose writing practices are sporadic. Wonderful advice also. Thank you.

    • http://susanpogorzelski.com Susan Pogorzelski

      Thanks, Jason!

      And thanks, Andi, for letting me have the privilege of sharing my thoughts in your space! <3