Interview with Laine Cunningham

Published 2015-09-15.
What has your experience with literary communities been like?
Many and varied. I left a snazzy corporate gig while living in California to start my fulltime writing career. Six years later, I gave away everything I owned (with the exception of my car, my computer and my two dogs) and moved to Minnesota after a thirty-day residency at an arts center in the middle of nowhere (quite literally). That was at a pivotal point, when I was finally honing in on novels as my career focus.

Minnesota offered a strong arts community but actually didn’t have a good writing network outside of Minneapolis/St. Paul. Four years, one novel and 80 degrees below zero later, I moved to North Carolina to extend my network in this very author-friendly state. Great community here, lots of serious-minded authors to connect with.

I have attended six writing residency programs since 2000, and will be attending one in Italy in November of 2015. Although all of them put me in contact with authors local to the programs’ areas, the Vermont Studio Center residency threw me together with a dozen other writers from around the world. It was a fantastic experience, very intense, and well worth repeating.
What are your goals and ambitions as a writer?
Each of my novels focuses on a specific culture. Although driven by suspenseful plotlines, the main characters are in some way involved in cultures that are outside the American mainstream. My first novel delves into the issues faced by Australia’s Stolen Generation, light-skinned and biracial Aborigines who were forcibly removed from their families under the government’s racist assimilation policy. Since the practice did not end until the early 1970s, generations of individuals who lost their families, culture and heritage are today still attempting to make sense of their lives.

My second novel follows a South Asian-American FBI agent who must access the power of the dark goddess Kali in order to bring a serial killer to justice. The third works with Native American beliefs. All of the novels are intended to cross boundaries of race, culture, age, gender, sexual preference, religion and spirituality, and to show how modern people blend traditional beliefs into their lifestyles. I believe that by entering into another person’s world through fiction, people can begin to understand one another. Then they can break down the fear and hatred that is setting the world on fire today.

No matter how the novels perform, my goal for myself is to achieve a level of success that allows me the freedom and time to focus on writing novels and helping other authors through a variety of means. One of my long-term goals is to finance annual seminars at different locations around the nation. Part retreat and part workshop, the programs will take a holistic approach to the author’s lifestyle. I would also like to eventually set up a fund for the most basic needs that often go unmet for authors: dental care and money to help pay medical bills.

The goal placed on my writing, crossing boundaries, came clear as I was writing my first novel, Message Stick. As I looked deeper into Aboriginal culture and how much had been lost, I discovered quite a bit about the strife that can divide tribes from each other. When combined with the racism they suffer from the larger, European-based society, it seemed clear that all people face the same issues. We all need to learn how to be better and reach across the gaps to find that human beings just like us are on the other side.

The personal goal of freedom and time was obvious from the beginning. The larger goal for outreach grew as my client base grew. There are so many people who have so little understanding of how the publishing industry works, let alone where to go to learn about the craft of writing. Through the seminars, I will be able to help many more people than I do now yet still be able to work in a personalized setting.
How have your associates embraced or distanced themselves from their own goals/ambitions?
Most of the time, people (particularly women) distance themselves from ambition because of perception: they don’t want to be seen as raging egomaniacs! There’s also the very real problem that many opportunities in publishing have an unbelievably long turnaround time…awards committees frequently don’t announce a winner until eight months after the submission deadline; magazine editors regularly hold a piece for as much as a year before actually buying an article; and everything from a blurb on dog washing to a novel can take a year to become available to buyers.

It’s difficult to discuss what you’re doing with people who are used to hearing back rather quickly about their own (non-writing) opportunities. There’s this look that people get…is she telling the truth or is this some smokescreen? Everyone knows the “I’m an actor and I’m just working this waitress job until I get my big break” gag. Lots of people seem to be thinking along those lines when they ask repeatedly about something and your response is always, “It’s under consideration. That’s good!” After a while, you just stop telling people about it.

Now, within the community, it’s different. Other authors get it. That doesn’t mean you won’t run up against professional jealousy, though. I once needed a letter of recommendation for a small writing grant. I asked a fellow writer to help me. Her response was, “If you really think you need another award, I’ll help you out.”

Ahhh! Where’s the sense of community? Where’s the understanding that grant money buys precious writing time? Where’s the author-to-author love? We all know that awards are nice, they play well in the media, and you get a sweet photo op. But the ones that have financial prizes are critical to allowing people to set aside time to develop and produce. Especially in the world of novels where a single product can take years to produce. And it still has to be shopped around before the author sees dime one.

That wasn’t the first time I’d gotten a verbal slap because I had either already achieved something or I was working to achieve something. One guy told me that it’s all right to have goals and dreams and ambitions but that I’d better keep them to myself if I wanted people to like me. Another guy accused me of being "part of the literati.” Hey, that was before I’d even published anything!

You know, you only have to have so many encounters like that before you start to censor what you say a little. And then a little more. That’s a problem, though, because an author’s platform, or public presence, is an important part of how publishers judge them these days.

I’ve struck a nice center ground. When people ask about my work, I give them a quick tagline for whatever I’m currently working on. If they ask more, I usually just tell them to google me and they’ll get way more links than they’ll ever want to click on. If the situation is personal, I wave my hand dismissively while saying this to soften any potential ego vibe. If it’s a business-related conversation with a potential client, my statement is straightforward and includes an invitation to visit my website.

There is, I think, a time and place for your ambition to rage freely. Too often writers and other artists are talking to people who either aren’t in their industry or who are so amateurish (like Mr. Literati) that their initial reactions are based on misunderstandings. CEOs and small-business owners don’t have to censer themselves nearly as much. In fact, their ambitions are often met with applause. I think this has to do with the capitalistic culture…their ambition always equals more money, and everyone wants more money. For authors and artists, ambition often results in some level of fame. As much as our culture adores celebrities, it arbores celebrity seekers.
What patterns related to gender have you noticed in publishing?
Several. And they are so widespread I wrote "Writing While Female or Black or Gay: Why Women, Minority and LGBT Authors Need Not Submit."
One patterns is that a majority of writers are women yet there is an equal number of male and female authors being published in many categories. In certain categories, a larger number of male authors are published than female authors. I attribute this dichotomy to the old-boy network still in charge of some of the top levels of the big publishing houses. There’s also the fact that many men brought in decades ago are still publishing.

However, things are changing. The old guard at publishing houses is slowly cycling out and being replaced with somewhat younger executives. Acquisitions editors are certainly getting younger, and there are a lot of women working in the power spots: the people who make the decisions on what to buy.

This means that women writers can be more enthusiastic about actually having their ambitions pan out. And since they can be more enthusiastic privately, eventually they will be allowed to be more enthusiastic publicly…and no one will accuse them of being snobby literati!
What has changed for authors who own their ambition?
Speaking as a woman who remained single for nearly 14 years before finding the right guy, one big challenge was dealing with the lack of acceptance other people displayed for my goals. I never wanted to follow the marry-and-have-two-kids model. Not that I never want to marry, and not that I wouldn’t take on someone else’s kids. I just had goals that were entirely different. I also knew my goals would not be met if I had to make time for all the other things that women are (still) expected to take care of in those situations.

My career has meant making a lot of sacrifices. Any career in any industry demands sacrifices. What people don’t stop to consider is that not having a career demands different kinds of sacrifices! Every choice in life comes with a set of obstacles and benefits. Every choice will be different for every person. I had to battle through a lot of flack to hold onto my dreams.

People understand more now that you really need to follow your passion and let everything else come along for the ride. Why take a corporate gig that has flashy trappings if your passion dies as a consequence? I followed that pathway for a while, the path everyone said was right and proper. The writing never got done. I walked out one day and have never looked back. It hasn’t all been easy but I’ve been so much happier. And that happiness has given me the drive to actually achieve my goals.

One of the big challenges even today is earning enough to pay bills and still have time to write. Women are still making far less for every dollar a man makes for the same job. You can’t tell me that doesn’t impact their ability to follow their dreams.
What does it mean for a writer to accept their ambition?
It means you know who you are. That’s one of the most important things in life!

It is different than arrogance or entitlement. Arrogance means you think your high-concept commercial thriller is better than the genre mystery series, or you think your literary tome is better than anything else because everything else is commercial and yours is written for the love of art.

Bullshit! It’s all art. OK, some of it’s pretty lowbrow but Shakespeare appealed to the same crowds who enjoyed bear-baiting…and that was pretty lowbrow! Nowadays we teach Shakespeare’s entire life’s work in college classes. You have to respect what others are doing. If you can’t respect the product, at least respect the effort that goes into that product.

Entitlement…well, that’s a whole different ballgame. That’s the hands-out, give it to me ‘cause I’m perfect and I’ll work if I feel like it writer. Trust me, there are plenty out there. When you talk to them about their work, you usually discover that they published one poem or received one award maaaaaany years ago and haven’t written a line since. They’re often “waiting for the muse.” Well, the muse could crap all over their heads and they’d still never pick up a pen. Writing is work, damn it. People who feel entitled feel entitled to not work!
What are the stakes?
Plenty. There’s too little support out there now for authors and artists…at least in America. Did you know that there are American authors who are bestsellers in foreign countries who can’t get American publishers to even consider their manuscripts? There’s too little appreciation for the art (or craft, for those literati readers) of writing in America. It’s mostly about the bottom line.

If you squelch your ambitions or “wait to be discovered,” honey, you’re gonna be one of those people who keels over but no one finds out until the neighbors complain about the smell. Whenever I’ve been asked to judge applicants for arts or writing awards, I see—firsthand and without doubt—how many talented people there are who deserve…yes, deserve! be published. But there aren’t enough resources to support them all in this country, and the publishers aren’t doing much to improve the situation.

The system is broken. An individual author can’t fix it. She can only harness every ounce of her passion to move herself forward. And that takes ambition, baby! Oh, and a lot of dark chocolate along with stock in Starbucks.
Smashwords Interviews are created by the profiled author or publisher.

Books by This Author

On the Wallaby Track: Essential Australian Words and Phrases
Price: $11.99 USD. Words: 33,300. Language: English. Published: August 23, 2018 . Categories: Nonfiction » Travel » Phrasebooks, Nonfiction » Reference » Directories
Think Aussies speak English? Think again! On the Wallaby Track contains most of what you'll need to eat, sleep, and survive in the beautiful and astonishing Australian country. And unlike Laine Cunningham, you won't have to spend six months figuring it out.
Amazing Australia: A Traveler's Guide to Common Plants and Animals
Price: $11.99 USD. Words: 12,030. Language: English. Published: August 23, 2018 . Categories: Nonfiction » Travel » By region » Australia, Nonfiction » Travel » Specialties & interests » Ecotourism
Ideal for the nature-loving traveler, Amazing Australia is a handy pocket guide to the most unusual and the most common birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, insects, plants, and trees of Australia. Featuring over a hundred examples, this compact work makes an excellent addition to curricular units in social studies and biology.
Woman Alone: A Six-Month Journey Through the Australian Outback
Price: $11.99 USD. Words: 46,110. Language: English. Published: August 23, 2018 . Categories: Nonfiction » Travel » Essays & Travelogues, Nonfiction » Travel » Specialties & interests » Adventure
For fans of Cheryl Strayed's Wild and Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love. Guided only by a map pulled from an old copy of National Geographic, Laine Cunningham camped in the Australian Outback for six months...and she did it alone. Told with warm humor and sparked with suspense, the search revealed a woman's most important discovery: herself.
Seven Sisters: Messages from Aboriginal Australia
Price: $11.99 USD. Words: 25,420. Language: English. Published: August 23, 2018 . Categories: Nonfiction » Self-improvement » Motivation & inspiration, Nonfiction » Self-improvement » Emotional healing
For readers of The Secret, The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down by Haemin Sunim, Eckhart Tolle, Louise Hay, and Paul Coelho. Seven Sisters harnesses Dreamtime energy to address challenges in love and friendship, parenting, life and the afterlife with the unchanging wisdom of the human heart. Winner, Carolina Woman Inspiration Award.
15 Outdoor Christmas Light Ideas: Fast, Affordable Ideas for an Utterly Unique, Incredibly Easy, and Mind-Blowingly Cool Christmas Yard Display
Price: $4.99 USD. Words: 4,310. Language: English. Published: November 29, 2017 . Categories: Nonfiction » Home & Garden » Decorating, Nonfiction » Relationships & Family » Family activities
15 Outdoor Christmas Light Ideas is packed with fun, unique, and creative ideas that are incredibly simple to make. Easy enough for the kids and the grandparents, 15 Outdoor Christmas Light Ideas will make your holiday season bright!
Reparation: A Novel of the American Great Plains
Price: $11.99 USD. Words: 68,390. Language: English. Published: July 1, 2016 . Categories: Fiction » Adventure » General, Fiction » Literature » Literary
National Award Winner The Book of Unknown Americans meets Everything I Never Told You in a captivating family drama like An Untamed State. Perfect for viewers of “Yellowstone,” “Cults,” “Westworld,” “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” and “Heathers.” “A beautifully written … story. The work of a master craftsman.” “Endlessly compelling."
Beloved: A Novel
Price: $11.99 USD. Words: 113,640. Language: English. Published: July 1, 2016 . Categories: Fiction » Thriller & suspense » Psychological thriller, Fiction » Mystery & detective » Police Procedural
SHORTLISTED FOR THE WILLIAM FAULKNER AWARD The Couple Next Door meets The Woman in the Window in a haunting, atmospheric Hitchcockian thriller for Karin Slaughter fans. A fictional feminist manifesto like Brave with raw, honest, fearless action as a woman battles violent misogyny. Perfect for #MeToo supporters.
The Family Made of Dust: A Novel of Loss and Rebirth in the Australian Outback
Price: $11.99 USD. Words: 82,300. Language: English. Published: September 16, 2015 . Categories: Fiction » Themes & motifs » Family sagas, Fiction » Themes & motifs » Crime
WINNER OF TWO NATIONAL LITERARY AWARDS TOP SELECTION FOR A NATIONAL BOOK AWARD “One of the best novels in ten years.” Hackney Literary Awards Committee Destined to become the next The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. For fans of Small Great Things, Before We Were Yours, and Orphan Train, and viewers of “Mystery Road,” “Picnic at Hanging Rock,” and "Bite Club."