Susan Wilson of Oak Bluffs has been a published novelist, intermittently, for nearly 20 years. Now it’s her job.
For most of that time, she has raised her kids, gone to Stop & Shop, and to her day job. Amid all that, she found time to write, hustling to crib down plot and character illuminations in the midst of her daily schedule. She also wrote a regular column for The Times, called The Last Word.
She’s found her place. The kids are grown, the books are selling strongly enough to support a hiatus from the day job. Now she can write for a living, her success resulting from taking some literary chances in recent years.
“I had written some novels that were not really romance novels but were [assigned] to the category. It was a difficult niche to find a place in,” she said last Sunday, recalling her ongoing attempt to position herself in a publishing universe turned upside down over the past decade. The early books were a moderate commercial success, one became a TV movie, but the genre wasn’t providing the artistic or commercial success track she desired.
Dogs did it for her. “I was talking to my agent several years ago, looking for new direction, and she said, “You’ve always loved dogs. Stories about dogs are big right now,” Ms. Wilson recalled. “She was right. I read dog books as a kid, all of them, beginning with ‘Call of the Wild.’ So it made sense and it turns out I’m okay at it — bearing in mind that the books are really about people.”
Apparently, the knack for living successfully involves willingness to change. And dogged determination, so to speak. Ms. Wilson was willing and two years later, “One Good Dog” was published by St. Martin’s Press, a division of mega-publisher MacMillan. It’s a book about redemption and relationship that stars a beaten down man who meets a battered dog in a gritty Boston neighborhood. The book got an “A” from reviewers and orders from booksellers.
St. Martin’s fondness for Ms. Wilson’s new direction grew as well, resulting in a publishing contract — a rare glimpse of nirvana for most authors — and publication last year of “The Dog Who Danced” continued the roll. “Danced” has a plot finely threaded with several protagonists, a villain, and a very determined dog. Certainly Ms. Wilson was dancing recently when a book review blogger at retailer Barnes and Noble included the title as one of 20 best reads of the year.
The success of her first two dog books have allowed Ms. Wilson to become a full-time writer. “I’ve been writing full time since October 2011,” she said. “It’s my job now. I love having the free time to think about the work rather than squeezing it in among a bunch of other things. And I’m lucky to have a hardworking agent and the faith of an editor in my work. St. Martin’s is part of a very large company, but its culture is very nurturing. It’s kind of old school in the way they take care of their authors.”
Ah, the glamorous life of national book tours, a suite at The Plaza. “Oh no,” she said and laughed. “Those days are gone in publishing, except for a few really big authors. I do a lot of online interaction with readers and online book clubs. That is exciting, valuable time. To hear perspectives on your book directly from readers. I’ve learned ways of seeing my books and their characters in ways I’ve never considered.”
“I do a lot of library readings for the same reason. It’s energizing to talk with people who have a passion for books and ideas,” she said, adding, “I’ve been published for almost 20 years — the first book came out in 1994, but I feel like I’ve moved from the perimeter to a solid place as an author now. I love to think of it that way and I’m going to love it as long as it lasts.”
In addition to the psychic benefits, her canine characters have provided her with full-time focus.
“The books provide enough money, not a fortune, but enough so that writing is my job now. I have the time and schedule to write 1,000 words a day, every day. That’s the rule: 1,000 words a day,” she said. She has worked for the Martha’s Vineyard Museum and continues to edit The Intelligencer, the museum’s publication because she enjoys the work and her collegial relationships.
“How has the work changed? For one thing, I had never thought of a writing a book with a dog as a central character. And every book is an education. Seeing what works and what doesn’t, reading reviewers’ thoughts on what went right and what didn’t.
“It’s like building houses. Over time you learn the tricks of the trade. Some are hard, some are difficult. Ideas die on my computer screen frequently – but I save them anyway.
“This is a great place to be a writer. David and I were living in Waterbury, Conn., a long time ago, working, raising two daughters, scraping by. There was no discussion of art and writing. Needlepoint and crocheting was our art. We didn’t know anyone who was an artist.
“David was born and raised on the Island and when we moved back, I kept bumping into artists. You can talk about your work, the Island is conducive to art. It’s nurturing for artists. You know there are 30 book groups on the Island? Writing groups abound. Lots of us wash-ashores brought our art to an oasis of the arts. Maybe it’s in the water.”
Ms. Wilson delivered her eighth book, third in the canine genre, to St. Martin’s last week. The manuscript, titled “The Dog Who Saved Me,” is slated to hit the market in September 2013. “It’s a very situational novel and very realistic about a stranger who comes to a town. It features a 90-year old World War II dog handler and Pax, a military service dog.”
Ms. Wilson won’t crystal ball her future directions. “We’ll see how ‘The Dog Who Saved Me’ works,” she said, “and then we’ll go from there.”