This pastor’s wife wears biker boots

When you write a book about a world to which you don’t belong, you can’t help but wonder what the people who actually belong to that world think of your fictional version. Are they insulted? Aghast at your very nerve? Shocked, dismayed, scandalized?

Recently I got a message on my Facebook author page from a pastor’s wife. Karla Akins admitted she had bought “Pastors’ Wives” with the sole intention of reviewing it online. She planned to tell one and all how I did not get even a little bit of it right. Instead, she wrote me a lovely note. We got to corresponding, and I learned she too had written a book about pastors’ wives—albeit one with a much cooler title.

Karla agreed to a Q&A that I hope will a) tell you a little about the novel, b) show you how tickled I am at her reaction, and c) introduce you to this warm, funny and wonderful pastor’s wife.

How did you and your husband meet?

We met through mutual friends. My husband was attending a church similar to Greenleaf in your book, Pastors’ Wives. I was a lot like Ruthie in that I wasn’t raised in such a church. The character Ruthie was Catholic but I was raised American Baptist. Very, very different style of worship than what my husband’s church practiced. I was terrified that first service!

Could you share the name, denomination and location of your church?

Our church is Christian Fellowship Church of North Manchester, Indiana. It is an independent, non-denominational church. I like to describe it as a church whose emphasis is on following Jesus rather than following rules.

What are five words you would use to describe life as the wife of the pastor?

1. Challenging
2. Demanding
3. Stressful
4. Rewarding
5. Faith-building

Meet Karla Akins and her hog

Meet Karla Akins and her hog

What is the hardest thing about being a PW?

Life in a fishbowl. Constant scrutiny. It’s unsettling sometimes not to have privacy.

The best?

Helping people, families, children.

As a pastor’s wife, did you have misgivings about reading a book titled “Pastors’ Wives”? (I know I would.)

Oh yes. As soon as I saw the title I was very skeptical. In fact, I bought it with the intention of setting the record straight with a review. I thought it was going to make fun of pastors’ wives or criticize them. I figured there was no way someone on the outside could possibly “get” what life is like for a pastor’s wife and be sympathetic in their portrayal of them. There’s a show on TV right now that’s about pastors’ wives and it annoys me because the women they depict are nothing like me and my lifestyle at all, so I figured the book was going to be another skewed look. And while the characters in the the book are in a mega-church, and I’m in a small rural one, I was pleasantly surprised that the emotions are very similar. You were quite often spot on.

What did you think of Ruthie, Candace and Ginger, the PWs in my novel?

I could identify very well with all their emotions. While I’m not like any of the three women, all three have something about them I could identify with. My husband’s been on staff of a few larger churches before, so there were things that happen in the book I could truly see happening. I know what it’s like to be the wife of a staff pastor, and how your identity in those situations are pretty much non-important and that while you are pretty much invisible, you have quite a lot of expectations put upon you. The expectations are very different in a megachurch than a smaller church.

In our smaller church, I’m more of a Candace. That is, the woman behind the man, making sure things run smoothly, overseeing a lot of different departments and activities. Even though I’m an ordained minister myself, I prefer the title of pastor’s wife. I do better in that role. My husband is such an excellent pastor and is very people-oriented while I’m more task oriented.

I think the thing I most identified with in your book were the emotions these women had about feeling like they were playing second fiddle to God. I had to work through those emotions early in our marriage myself. Pastors’ schedules are grueling. And the pastor’s wife has to share her husband with so many others. When the kids were small it was pretty difficult.  This excerpt says it so well:   “What’s it like when the guy you married decides to marry God?…It feels lonely…”

One of my favorite paragraphs in your book was when Candace was trying to decide how to deal with the elder, John:

“…to forgive was to run the risk of being taken advantage of. So should she turn the other cheek? Or demand an eye for an eye?”

This is something that I find myself wrestling with at times. But I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m a peace-maker, not a fighter, and if people see me as a pushover, then so be it.

I really, really wanted Ruthie to develop a faith, and for Ginger’s husband to make different responses. I was impressed with Candace’s backbone and confidence in her abilities. I’ve known pastor’s wives like her, and they are amazing people. However, I would find it difficult to work for someone like her.

You’re an author too! Tell us about your fabulously titled book, “The Pastor’s Wife Wears Biker Boots.”

My new release is due on shelves August 9 but it’s already on Amazon in paperback. It will also be available digitally in ebook form.

It’s about a pastor’s wife named Kirstie Donovan who gets tired of living life in a fishbowl. But when she hops on the back of a bright pink motorcycle, tongues start to wag at the conservative, century-old First Independent Christian Community Church of Eel Falls.The Pastor's Wife Wears Biker Boots

Here’s the back cover blurb:  Kirstie loves roaring down a road less traveled by most women over forty, but she’s not just riding her bike for the fun of it. Kirstie has a ministry. However, certain church members have secrets to hide, and when God uses Kirstie’s ministry to fill the pews with leather-clad, tattooed bikers, those secrets could be exposed…and some will stop at nothing to hide the truth. Join Kirstie and her motorcycle “gang”—two church matrons and a mouthy, gum-smacking non-church member—as they discover that road-toughened bikers are quite capable of ministering to others, and faith is fortified in the most unexpected ways.

Where can we find you online?

KarlaAkins.com

http://facebook.com/karlakakins

Twitter: @KarlaAkins

Blog: http://karlaakins.com/blog

Thank you, Karla!

Yet another post in which I promote my novel, this time under the guise of an author Q&A

I hate chain letters. I mean I really hate them. I find them obnoxious and annoying and creepy. Also I resent the threat of eternal damnation for breaking the chain. I may be damned, but it sure as hell isn’t for failing to forward some stupid letter.

But this chain letter is different. Different because it came from someone I respect: Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, author of “A Tiger in the Kitchen,” her memoir of growing up and cooking in Singapore. She was also a fashion reporter for the Wall Street Journal. So she cooks and dresses fancy. Some husbands have all the luck.

Why was this lovely and accomplished person forwarding me a questionnaire about my work habits? Because writers need help. Let’s admit it. We spend day after day shut in from society with our weird ideas and delusions of grandeur, but at the end of the day we need to sell what we produce. And that’s the point of this exercise.

So I will continue this chain without complaint. Without much complaint. It’s called The Next Big Thing. I don’t know who started it, and I’m too lazy to find out. Following is the Q&A, in which I, like many writers before and after me, answer questions nobody asked me about my current work. If you value your time, please skip it and go straight to the part where I tag five other writers I like very much.

What is your working title of your book (or story)? “Pastors’ Wives.” Pre-order on Amazon!

Where did the idea come from for the book? It was inspired by an article in TIME magazine. That I wrote. I am not yet good at lifting other people’s ideas.

What genre does your book fall under? Women’s commercial fiction. In other words, if you only read Hemingway and Vonnegut, keep moving.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition? Oooo. As Ruthie, the skeptical outsider new to the Southern evangelical megachurch that hired her husband: Emma Stone! As Candace, the fierce, powerful wife of the senior pastor: Alison Janney! As Ginger, the lonely wife with a hidden past: Jessica Chastain! Wait a minute. That’s the cast of THE HELP. (In truth: any actress with her own production company, the funds to option and with the clout to get a studio to greenlight.)

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book? “Pastors’ Wives” follows three women whose lives converge and intertwine at a Southern evangelical megachurch. No, no, that’s boring. Let me try again: “Pastors’ Wives” is a passionate portrayal of the private lives of pastors’ wives, caught between the consuming demands of faith, marriage, duty and love. There.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency? My publisher is Penguin/Plume.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript? The date on the Word document titled PASTORS’ WIVES FIRST DRAFT is September 2009. Many complications ensued. I turned in a final draft to my agent in December 2011. I would say most of it was hacked out over 2011.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre? “The Help,” by Katharine Stockett. “Fly Away Home,” by Jennifer Weiner. “Belong to Me,” by Marisa de los Santos. All of those books alternated the story lines and perspectives of three characters. It is mere coincidence that they also sold like hotcakes.

Who or what inspired you to write this book? While reporting for TIME magazine, I met and interviewed pastors’ wives whose stories stayed with me. What struck me most was their honesty. They shattered my preconceptions about these sweet ladies who supported their minister husbands above all. No—they were lonely, intelligent, wistful, opinionated. Almost all of them wished their husbands weren’t pastors at all. Yet they remained devout. I marveled at their faith, their sense of duty, their love for their husbands and God. The question that became central to my novel popped into my head: What’s it like when the man you married is married to God?

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest? It is told entirely in limericks. No! It’s not. It’s set in a world you may know well or not at all, about women you may recognize or not at all. I love my Ruthie, Candace and Ginger with all my heart. It would make me so happy to introduce you. (Pre-order on Amazon!)

Now here’s the part where I tag other writers. Not it!

I met Julie Gray when I fan-mailed her after stumbling upon her website. Julie is a screenwriting guru to students and writers around the world. So I was delighted and surprised when she replied and invited me to lunch on my next trip to L.A. We cemented our friendship over martinis in New York. Her website is called Just Effing Entertain Me, and it’s an awesome resource.

Julie recently introduced me to Margaux Froley. Margaux is a Los Angeles–based television and YA fiction writer. Her first novel, “Escape Theory,” comes out March 12. Margaux says that when she’s not writing, she can be found “hiking in the Hollywood hills and practicing Tae Kwon Do with her nunchucks.” I have no idea what that means, but I like the way it sounds. Check out her work here.

I think I fan-mailed Rebekah Sanderlin too. (For someone who hates chain mail, I appear not to have any compunction about cold-calling other writers with gratuitous gushing.) I admire the blunt and candid style with which Rebekah writes on military and family—and military family—issues. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Self, Maxim, and a whole slew of impressive titles. But I think the medium where she proves her genius is Facebook. This is her website.

I met Lauren Sandler at this kaffeeklatsch of writer moms in New York. Which sounds cozy, but honest to John it’s the most high-powered group of writers, and I’m always thrilled but utterly intimidated to attend. Lauren was warm and high-larious and we hit it off right away. That’s not to say she’s not scarily accomplished. Her new book draws on her experience as an only child and the mother of one. Because it’s Lauren, you know it’s going to be brilliantly reported, beautifully written—and controversial. Her book comes out in June. This is her website.

Bee Ridgway I met through our mutual editor at Penguin. Her time-travel novel (!), “The River of No Return,” will be published by Dutton/Penguin this spring. Lauren Willig, author of “The Pink Carnation” series, describes the novels as “A compelling race through time in a historical world turned upside-down. Take time travel, intrigue, a vast conspiracy and a wicked way with words, shake and serve.” Here’s her site.

 

The difference between selling a TV pilot and selling a novel

…is that one will eventually see the light of day. The other may not. Ever.

Last year, for the first and maybe last time, I did both. I sold a novel to Penguin, and a TV pilot to CBS.

In both cases, the sale is only the end of the beginning of the process. You get paid, partially; the rest comes in increments, after you hand in the next draft, et cetera. You and your people edit the hell out of the thing. You prepare. You strategize. And you wait.

In the case of my novel, “Pastors’ Wives” (pre-order now on Amazon!), we have a publication date: May 2013. Since we sold the manuscript in February 2012, it’s gone through two edits by my main editor, a copy edit, and something called a pass, which is kind of like a proof. We rejected two cover designs before we landed on one we loved. I begged other authors for blurbs. We’re currently circulating it among book bloggers and reviewers. Next week I meet with my agents, editors and publicists to devise an all-out marketing strategy.

And whatever happens, it will publish in May. If the only people who buy it are related to me by blood, it will still exist in the world.

Not so my pilot.

So far, the 66 pages I bled over have been read by under two dozen people: my manager, my agents, our producers, our studio execs, and our network execs. I made my husband read it. Also a very few people with expertise in my topic, for fact-checking purposes.

That’s it. And that may be it, ever.

In a couple of weeks, we’ll know if mine is among the seven or eight drama pilots CBS will decide to shoot, among the 60 or so it has bought this season. I mention this so you know my odds are loooong.

If it should happen to hit the jackpot, then, yes, many more people will read the script. And if it should happen to win the whole lotto and get sent to series, even the tiniest broadcast TV audience would dwarf a bestselling book’s.

And in the likely event it doesn’t? Then into the bin it goes. No chance of selling it elsewhere, as the studio now owns the rights. The Writer’s Guild stages readings of unproduced teleplays, but that would just be weird.

So here I send my two babies into 2013, their fortunes already set. I love them both. I hope they make it.

How I met my book agent

I walked up to her at a journalism conference.

Books by Lisa Takeuchi Cullen

How I met the agent who sold these books.

I don’t actually remember this. I could swear I cold-queried her after finding her name in the copy of “Guide to Literary Agents 2000,” which I still have on my office shelf.

No, she says, I walked up to her after she spoke on a panel about nonfiction books. I just waltzed right on up to this A-list superagent who reps some of the bestselling authors on God’s green earth, apparently, and introduced my unimpressive self.

There’s no way I would do that, I tell her. I don’t have the balls. But she insists. And she’s always right.

I do remember she said my pitch sucked.

That was after the conference, over lunch, after I had with great excitement pitched this idea I had about a reported memoir of my parents. And she didn’t actually say it sucked, because she doesn’t use that kind of language. But I got the message.

Crushed, I went back to my job as a staff writer at Money magazine. Then I did this fellowship, after which I became a Tokyo correspondent for Time, after which I transferred to Time in New York. Through it all, I kept in touch.

I mailed her copies of my splashiest stories. Occasionally, I dropped her an e-mail. Sometimes she responded; sometimes she didn’t.

Then I got a call from a publisher.

It was when I was back at what we call the Mother Ship, or Time headquarters in New York. I had written a feature story about how Baby Boomers were reinventing funerals as celebrations of their lives. A young woman called to ask if I had considered turning the article into a book.

I had not. But now I did.

I told the agent. She read the article, thought about it, and agreed it could work as a book. I can’t remember ever signing anything. But at some point, the agent became my agent.

And, at some point much later, she became my friend. More than that: she’s the big sister I don’t have, my sista from anotha mista.

That’s how I met my book agent.

How to ask a famous author for a blurb

You know, a blurb. Those quotes you see on the back of a book (or, if it’s from someone super famous, the cover) that tell you it’s “brilliant” or “insightful” or “the best thing since the invention of EZ-Pass.”

Among the many steps involved in preparing a new book for launch is the gathering of blurbs. (Not to be confused with reviews from newspapers and magazines; those come later.) A lot of authors prefer to let the publicity department handle this. With good reason. No one likes to grovel.

Because grovel you must. Think about it. You’re asking someone famous, or at least way better known than you, to read your entire manuscript, and then say some flattering thing in a pithy manner. It’s a big ask. A big, honking ask.

Some people like to blurb. Take my friend Gretchen Rubin, author of the best-selling “The Happiness Project” and the upcoming “Happier at Home” (pre-order now!). She reads like I worry: constantly, by nature. Plus she has a helpful soul.

The author and journalist A.J. Jacobs blurbs so promiscuously that his editor and agent performed an intervention. He writes in The New York Times Book Review of his “blurbing problem”:

My friend, the writer Andy Borowitz, sent me an e-mail that said: “I had the strangest experience today. I went into Barnes & Noble and saw a book that you didn’t blurb.”

But the Gretchens and A.J.s are the exception. Some big-name authors are so busy churning out their own prose—Lisa Scottoline says she “starts at 9 a.m. and goes until Colbert”—that they’ve instituted no-blurb policies. (I don’t know if Lisa S. has a no-blurb policy. I haven’t asked. Yet.) And who can blame them? Easier to hand out a blanket “no” than to assess and cherry-pick and reject.

So what’s a desperate writer to do? I don’t know about you, but here’s my plan of action:

Make a wish list. I’ve been compiling one for a year. On it are some of the biggest names in women’s commercial fiction. You can probably guess most of them. They’re all writers I admire for their clever narratives and memorable characters and—let’s say it—their muscular sales. You want a name that will resonate with the readers you target: “If you like Brand X, you’ll love Brand Y!” But it’s more than that. It’s an endorsement. When Yogi Berra tells the Yankees to check out a young catcher, they listen. (I don’t know where that baseball analogy came from. I just had to Google Yogi Berra to check the spelling.)

Find a connection. Any connection. I ran my list by my agent and my editor at Penguin. They knew some of the authors, or had useful intel (“that one NEVER blurbs, but she might talk it up to influencers”). One author on my list is the friend of a friend. Another shares my agent. Another blurbed one of my editor’s previous books. None of these are guarantees by any means. But it’s like anything else in life…networks help.

Cain’t hurt to ask. Even when the author won’t know you from George. The worst she could say is no. Which brings me to the big question: who does the asking?

I do the asking. Me. Not my editor or my publicist or my agent. Because it’s my damn book. No one will represent it better. And you know what? It’s easy to say no to a rep. Not so easy to slap a no on the face of a hopeful new writer and crush her dreams forever. And yet I must—

Brace myself for No. Because it’s coming, my friend. Some are polite. Others are like the one I got for my first book from a Famous Author, who strung me along with “maybe,” “I don’t know”…and then finally told me he’d decided he didn’t like it enough. What the @#$$%#^!!! Deep breath. As writers, we’re inured to rejection. I’m kidding. We’re so totally not. Rejection blows. And yet we face it, regularly. And here we are. Still not dead. Still not throwing in the towel to go sell life insurance. When you get the No, swallow hard and accept. Or…

Ask again. Sometimes this works. Seriously! I’ll give you a fer example. I once begged the author Mary Roach to blurb my first book, “Remember Me,” about weird ways we celebrate death in America. Besides being one of the funniest and smartest science writers around, Mary had practically birthed my book with “Stiff,” her book about weird ways we use cadavers in America. She was absolutely Number One on my wish list. I got back a lovely note apologizing that she was so busy and her nightstand so stacked with manuscripts by people she actually knew that she just couldn’t in good conscience add mine. So…no. I sunk into a funk. I kept thinking about it. I couldn’t let it go. She seemed so nice. And I really, really wanted her blurb. So I asked again. And guess what? She said yes! Here’s her quote (on the cover of my book, it was that good):

A must-read for anyone who plans on dying.

And that is what makes it all worthwhile.

How do you know when your novel is finished?

Answer: when it’s due.

My manuscript is due. Like, next Monday. This explains my sudden-onset insomnia. Is it ready? What does ready look like? How do you know when your novel is finished?

Deadline quote

For true.

Like many—maybe most—first-time novelists, it took me a while to push out this puppy. I first published the article on which the novel is based in 2007. I thought at the time it would turn into my second nonfiction book, a journalistic venture into the secret lives of pastors’ wives.

Then I had an awesome idea: this would make a great TV show! Like I had a clue how to make that happen.

But the freakish thing is it almost did happen. That took another two years. Finally, when that project crashed and burned in a spectacular ball of vomit-fire, my book agent said to me: “You have over two years of reporting. You have the characters. You have the plot. Why not just write a novel?”

Like I had a clue how to make that happen.

I tried to find a clue. I took workshops at Mediabistro. I read Anne Lamott and Stephen King. I reread dozens of novels I admire to figure out how real novelists did it.

And then I sat down and started writing.

That was in the fall of 2009. I know this because I have a Word document dated September 2009. Even though it’s titled, “Pastors’ Wives Draft 1,” it consists of exactly three paragraphs.

So when I say “I sat down and started writing,” what I mean is I sat down and started writing and then stopped and made tea and went out to L.A. and came back and started again. Everything interrupted. I pecked away. A few pages here, a chapter there. My agent read a draft, then another, then another.

By the close of 2011, I had a manuscript. It sold in February 2012. My editor at Penguin turned it around with notes in mid-April. They were good notes, thoughtful and smart, not a gutting that would drive me to drink (more). I tweaked. I rewrote. I deleted.

And now, it’s due.

My friend Joe Gangemi, the novelist and screenwriter, told me that John Irving is still correcting his own punctuation at readings of long-ago works. My novel’s no “Owen Meany,” but still, I can’t imagine ever reading it without wincing.

How do you know when your novel is finished? Maybe never. But as it says on a paperweight my sister once gave me, the ultimate inspiration is the deadline.

I’m so pleased to meet you…

I got these flowers for Mother's Day. Pretty, right?

Let’s start with introductions. I’m Lisa Takeuchi Cullen. You probably have some burning questions for me. Because I am the type of person who hates to start sentences with “I am the type of person who,” I’d like to begin our relationship with candor and TMI. Here, below, are some queries I imagined you might have for me, and, also below, my answers:

Q. All so-called writers who have websites are trying to sell something. So. Are you? Selling something?

A. True! And yes! Sometimes, what we’re selling is a book. Other times, it’s our services as writers for hire. Yet other times, it’s what’s fashionably known as a personal brand. Like: “swashbuckling war reporter.” Or: “charming romance author.” Mostly, these days, it’s a relationship. You know…writer + reader = besties. I know. Creepy.

Q. I’ll say. On the off chance I want to know you better, I’m going to have to know you better. Is it true you’re from Japan?

A. True! I was born and raised in Kobe, which is a port city in the southwest. You know how the main island of Honshu is shaped like a sock? Kobe is located around the ball of the foot. You’ve heard of it for our beef, but as I learned only recently, the “Kobe beef” you think you’ve been splurging your annual bonus on isn’t even from Kobe. It’s illegal to export. Which begs the question, what is the stuff we’ve been savoring in our $28 burgers? Pink slime?!

Q. Red meat is gross. What brought you to America?

A. College! But I stayed for your world-class television programming. I love Japanese TV, but it’s pretty bad. Oh, and my husband. I stayed for my husband. (Hi, honey!)

Q. Oh…kay. You never did say what you’re selling.

A. A book! I’m selling a book. It’s a novel called “Pastors’ Wives,” and it’s about pastors’ wives. It’s going to be the lead title (!) from Plume, an imprint of Penguin, for summer 2013. It’s a beach read!

Q. Are you a pastor’s wife or something?

A. Nope! I’m married to a classical musician. He plays the clarinet. Real good, if you ask me, but then again I can’t tell Mahler from Mozart. Strangers assume I’m a musician because a) I’m married to one, and they tend to intermarry, and b) I’m Asian. Though my Tiger Mom made me take piano lessons for like 12 years, I can’t even bang out a decent set of Chopsticks. Isn’t that tragic?

Q. So what in heaven’s name moved you to write an entire novel about pastors and their wives?

A. An article! My article, so you don’t think I lifted the idea. Which would be a terrible thing to do. To back up: in 2007, I wrote this article for TIME magazine, where I was a longtime staff writer and foreign correspondent. (I say “longtime” because my friends who still work there get irked when “TIME writer” gets thrown around by, like, summer interns. But now that I think about it, maybe what it really says is that I never got promoted.) It all began when my editor, Jan Simpson (who now writes this wonderful blog about Broadway), told me to cover a convention of pastors’ wives. (I’ll write a lot more about all this in future posts.)

Q. So you already wrote an article. What’s the novel about?

A. Here’s what it said in Publisher’s Marketplace:

DEBUT: Time magazine writer Lisa Takeuchi Cullen’s debut novel PASTORS’ WIVES, following three women whose lives converge and intertwine at an Atlanta evangelical mega-church, a dramatic portrayal of the private lives of pastors’ wives, caught between the demands of faith, marriage, duty and love, inspired by her magazine reporting.

Q. I can’t wait. No, really. What will you be writing about here?

A. Stuff! I love blogging. Truly. I blogged extensively for Time.com and True/Slant (now Forbes.com), but I quit over a year ago to concentrate on writing books and TV pilots. I’ll post here with news about “Pastors’ Wives” as we prepare it for launch next spring. I’ll post about the swirling slop bucket of frustration that pretty much defines my so-called career as a TV writer. I’ll post anything I think might be useful to other writers out there looking to a) publish books, b) get into TV writing, and/or c) work in journalism. I’m not gonna lie: I’ll promote friends’ books and projects. I’ll post the deep thoughts of a New Jersey mom who every morning marches into her attic office to write something she hopes does not altogether suck.

I’m so very, very happy to meet you. Please come back. And next time you see Kobe beef listed on a menu for the price of a tank of gas, call the manager over and very sweetly demand an explanation.