Saturday 26th April 2014
This week’s Bookish Banter is a little different. My Featured Author, Laurel Bill is such an inspiring person I really wanted to get your attention and let her tell her amazing story, which is a story of her family’s love of history – specifically the history of their home – Alaska! This truly is a generational story and I just hope that lots of you will see this post and be inspired as I have been. Please share her story but most of all – enjoy it…
Feel free to introduce yourself…
Hi, I’m Laurel Downing Bill.
Please can you tell us where you are from?
I’m a third-generation Alaskan, on both sides of my family. Great-grandfather John Couch Downing was a sea captain who piloted steamships from the West Coast up to Alaska all through the 1890, early 1900s. Great-grandfather Robert Burns Mathison arrived in 1896 and helped settle the little gold mining community of Hope, about 90 miles south of Anchorage.
I was born in Fairbanks in 1951 when Alaska was a territory of the United States. We moved to the state capital, Juneau, when Alaska became a state in 1959. I married a fisheries biologist in 1973, and he moved me to King Salmon (there were only about 350 people in the settlement and it was only accessible by air). We lived there for 23 years. I raised three children and worked as assistant general manger for the local telephone cooperative. My husband and I retired into Alaska’s largest city, Anchorage, in 1997.
How long have you been a writer?
I became a writer late in life. When my husband and I moved to Anchorage, my sister gave me my Alaska historian aunt’s body of work. Phyllis Downing Carlson, my father’s older sister, died in 1993 and had spent her life researching and writing about Alaska’s colourful past. Her articles appeared in national publications and she won many national awards for her stories. When I saw what she had compiled, I knew I had to do something with her life’s work.
So I went to collect to get the tools I knew I needed to do the job right. I earned my degree in journalism, with a minor in history, in 2003 at the age of 52. Then I began organizing my aunt’s work chronologically. When I spotted holes in the history she had covered, I then researched and wrote stories to fill in those blanks. For instance, she had never written about Juneau and I thought the people of Southeast Alaska might be a bit miffed if their story was not included in Alaska’s history!
As I put the first book together, which features the history from early arrival of the indigenous people up to the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898, I thought that photographs would really enhance the storytelling. I searched through the archives of universities, libraries and museums to find just the right historical photos to go with the stories in that book. I ended up with more than 300 photographs that really help make the history pop!
I continued with the entertaining, short story, narrative style storytelling in my subsequent volumes in the series and each book now features close to 350 historical photographs. So far, the Aunt Phil’s Trunk Alaska history series takes readers up to 1960.
Can you tell us a little bit about your latest book?
I currently am writing the fifth, and final, book in the history series. I hope to have it finished by summer 2015.
Where did the inspiration for this book come from?
I could have ended the series with Alaska becoming a state. But then people wouldn’t get “the rest of the story.” For instance, in 1964 the largest earthquake in North American history struck Alaska. I felt the stories of those who went through that disaster really needed to be told – as well as the stories of those who went through discovering the massive oil field in Prudhoe Bay in 1968, building the Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline during the 1970s (through 800 miles of wilderness) and the devastating oil spill of the Exxon Valdez in Prince William Sound in1989.
Did you have to do a lot of research for your latest work or is this a field that you are already working in?
Each of my books has taken enormous amounts of time in research. Volume 5 in the series is no exception. In fact, it is taking me much more time because so many people still are alive who lived through this period in Alaska’s history. Each person has a different memory of the same event. And while their recollections help fill in some of the blanks, the actual facts of the various events must be accurate. So I spend a lot of time verifying.
Do you think your writing is improving the more you write?
Absolutely. The more one writes, the better one becomes. Practice, practice, practice!
Did you have any problems during the writing process of your latest work?
My biggest problem is finding time to write. Life just keeps intervening with family medical issues, new grandchildren being born and other life events that take me away from my research and writing. But that’s life. Remember when you were young and thought time seemed to stand still? Remember how your mother told you time would fly when you got older? She was right. Time does fly by faster as we age. And when we hit the 60s, time begins racing past at warp speed. There just aren’t enough hours in the day to do all I want to do!
Why do you feel the need to put your books out there and who do you think will benefit most from them?
I began writing the Aunt Phil’s Trunk Alaska history series as a tribute to my aunt. But as each book builds on the next, I am realizing that I am writing for the people of Alaska. This series, which has been wildly successful with ages 9 to 99, shares our common past and highlights the ups and downs of the people who made/make the Last Frontier their home. But anyone interested in Alaska enjoys these books, as well.
How much planning goes into a book? Do you spend a long time planning or do you just start writing and see where it leads you?
Ha, ha, ha! I thought I was planning out my work when I began this project back in 2003. But I just kept coming across the most incredible stories and felt compelled to share them. My one book has turned into four, with a fifth on the way. So I guess I’ll have to say that I now just write and see where it takes me!
Do you get ideas from personal experience or from people or events around you?
Well, with the Alaska history series my ideas come from what others have done/experienced and the events of the past. I did write another book, a sourdough cookbook, in which I relied on my own experiences and experiments. Remember that gold-mining great-grandfather I told you about earlier? He may have lost his gold, but he kept his sourdough starter alive and I have it.
After my husband’s triple bypass heart surgery a couple years ago, I began baking with less sodium, sugar and fat and created incredibly tasty sourdough recipes from that starter. Sourdough itself is so healthy for our bodies. I tested my concoctions on about two-dozen folks who lived around us and tweaked the recipes until they were perfect.
The end result was a selection of recipes that include treats like cranberry chocolate cake, white chocolate cherry muffins, breads, pancakes, pizza dough and even dog biscuits. My Sourdough Cookery cookbook debuted in 2012 and comes with a dried starter that began with great-grandfather Mathison in the gold fields of Alaska in 1896.
Once Volume 5 in my series is published, I would like to write a humorous account of my life in rural Alaska based on my experiences. I had a humour column titled A Slice of Life that appeared in some Alaska newspapers a few years ago and people said I was a cross between humourists Erma Bombeck and Tom Bodett. I’m looking forward to developing that idea.
What is your experience of the Publishing industry?
I did a lot of research into publishing when I started down this path. What I found was that if a mainstream publisher decided to take on your book, which is highly unlikely, it would take years before your book went to print. I also learned that writers, in general, don’t get the big cash advances as in the past; only get a few cents off each book sold; and have to market their books themselves (unless you are a famous star or political figure).
So I decided, if I was going to spend a ton of time writing a book and have to market it myself, then I wanted to be the one to benefit financially from that effort. I began my publishing journey with an on-demand publisher. When I got the proof of the first book in December 2005, I hand carried it to all the bookstores and gift shops in Anchorage. When almost each shop pre-ordered several copies, I knew I had done something special.
But I had a problem. My cost for the on-demand book was close to $12 per book. My books would have to retail for close to $30 each to make the project profitable. Authors need to remember that bookstores take a 40- to 50-percent discount and distributors take from 50 to 60% off the retail price to sell the author’s book.
That means a book, which retails for $30, that is sold to a distributor and discounted by 60 percent, earns $12 for the author. If the author paid $12 to make the book, he/she receives nothing as a profit.
As I was driving back home with my head spinning from doing the math and relishing the shopkeepers’ compliments, I passed by a print broker and pulled in to see what that company was all about. I learned they sent out bids to printers to get good deals so authors could publish their own books.
I had the company manager send out bid requests for my book, with the only stipulation that my books had to be printed in America. I didn’t want to be responsible for another American loosing a job. And since my books are all black and white text and photos, the bids between American printers and overseas printers are quite competitive. It’s when books are full colour that there is a substantial savings with using printers from overseas.
The bids came back at such a low cost for a couple thousand, that I jumped in with both feet. I ordered 2,000 copies and was able to lower the retail cost to $19.95, which was in the ballpark for other books in its category in the stores, and I could make a little money as well.
Volume 1 in the series was such a hit, that my initial order sold out within three months. I had to order several thousand more. To date, that volume now is in its fourth printing and has sold more than 20,000 copies.
The drawbacks to becoming my own publisher and ordering large quantities of books is the initial large output of capital and having to find storage space for that many books. I rented a storage unit for a couple years, but recently moved to a house that has a big double garage.
But I have never regretted my decision to become a self-published author. With four Alaska history books, a historical puzzle book and a cookbook published so far, I am happy I chose the self-publishing route and became a publishing company. I have complete control from start to finish, the books are selling like the proverbial hotcakes and I don’t have to share my revenues with another publishing house.
Is this book a part of a series? Where is it going?
Yes, my books are in a series. Aunt Phil’s Trunk Volume 1 goes up to the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898; Volume 2 features stories from 1898 to 1912, including tales of early law and order (or lack thereof), building the Iditarod Trail and the great eruption of Novarupta that created the Valley of 10,000 Smokes; Volume 3, which covers 1912 to 1935, showcases the Alaska Railroad, Anchorage, the Matanuska Valley (where giant vegetables grow) and the fatal airplane crash of famous aviator Wiley Post and humourist Will Rogers near Barrow; and Volume 4, from 1935 to 1960, is filled with stories from World War II, the Cold War and Alaska’s struggle for statehood.
Have you had some good reviews for your book?
The reviews for my series have been amazing. Our local NBC station in Anchorage interviewed me for five hours! The resulting 7-1/2-minute news story was aired in three different time slots. Several newspapers across the state also have interviewed me and many have reviewed the books over the years – they all gave 5-star reviews.
Also, last year, Midwest Review gave my books a thumbs up and Volume 4 received finalist status in the Eric Hoffer Excellence in Independent Publishing contest. That’s a huge honour.
But for me, the best reviews come from my readers. They absolutely love the series. I have a list of several thousand who are patiently awaiting the arrival of Volume 5!
Your favourite Author is…
This is going to date me … my favourite author is Agatha Christie. I love murder mysteries.
What do you do to wind down?
I like to swim, golf and play with my grandchildren.
Do you belong to a friendly writers group and does it help?
Yes, I do belong to a local writers’ group in Anchorage. It’s always a good idea to surround yourself with other authors and bounce ideas off each other.
What is you experience of editing and polishing your manuscripts?
During my last two years of college (2002-2003), I accepted a position as a copy editor with a newspaper company that printed seven weekly newspapers for villages across Alaska. I got quite good over the five years I spent editing news, feature, business and human-interest stories. I learned what bad and good writing was at that job. However, just like physicians should not treat themselves, a writer should not be his/her own copy editor.
I hire a professional copy editor to go over my manuscripts. It is money well spent.
Any tips for all our budding authors out there wondering how to get started?
First, I would advise any budding authors to dig deep and discover their motives. If they want fame and fortune, then the writing world is probably not the path to take. If you just can’t help yourself and find you must write to feel whole, then you are on the right path.
It’s been said that there is a book inside each and every person. But while many folks say they want to write a book, few actually do. The prospect of filling a book with thousands of words is daunting.
However if you write a few words a day, pretty soon you will have many pages filled. Start with an idea and flush it out with an outline. Be flexible. Revise and rewrite often. Then share your work. Find a writer’s group. Many bookstores are the meeting place for writing groups. By sharing your work with others you will see how your creation is received – like a test group. And please hire a copy editor – not your mother, spouse or friend. A good copy editor is worth his/her weight in literature gold.
When your manuscript is close to finished, check out forums online to see what others are doing for publishing. There are several groups of published authors out there who are happy to share tricks of the trade and help up-and-coming authors avoid publishing pitfalls. LinkedIn has several groups, including book marketing, book review sharing and more.
Link city – as many as you need to guide us round your historical internet trail…
To learn more about my Aunt Phil’s Trunk Alaska history series, go to http://www.AuntPhilsTrunk.com
To read my Alaska history blog, check http://www.AuntPhilsTrunk/Alaska-history-blog/
To join my fan page on Facebook, where I share cool historical photographs and tidbits about the 49th state, go to http://www.Facebook.com/LaurelBillAuthor and “Like” my page
To follow me on Twitter, my handle is http://www.Twitter.com/LaurelBill
To follow my Pinterest boards, head to http://www.Pinterest.com/LaurelBill
Other connections: http://www.LinkedIn.com/LaurelBill, http://www.plus.google.com/+LaurelBill and you can always email me at email@example.com
Thank you so much for joining us here on the ‘Bookish Banter’ Laurel and taking time out to give us such an interesting insight into your writing world. It’s been an absolute pleasure having you guide us around the historical trail of your family’s and of course Alaska’s very colourful history. Please come back and keep us updated on your wonderful series of history books.
Xx Laura Crean xX