This week I’m honored to introduce my coffee break guest, Darcie Chan! She’s a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author who started as a self-published author and achieved the kind of success most writers dream of their whole careers her first time out. She’s just completed a two-book deal with Ballantine Books and is gearing up for what comes next: a YA novel and a return to Mill River. This will be the fourth book in the series, which rocketed her writing career to full-time writer and best-seller, and made countless readers, present company included, fall in love with her stories about the rural Vermont community in which they are set.
Get your coffee ready and please welcome Darcie Chan, author of The Mill River series!
First things, first: What’s your poison? Coffee, tea, water on the rocks? How do you take it?
I LOVE coffee and tea. I do coffee most mornings…my favorite is Kona coffee (with half and half and hazelnut creamer) from a little family farm I visited in Hawaii last summer! Tea, either hot or iced, is great in the afternoon or (if it’s decaf) in the evening. My favorite teas are probably Darjeeling and Chrysanthemum/Pu-Erh, but honestly, I don’t think there’s any kind I wouldn’t try.
Great! Coffee’s up; let’s dive in! I’ve done some reading of other interviews you’ve given and it seems you get a few questions on a regular basis. It made me wonder, is there a question you are asked in interviews that you would prefer not to answer, or are tired of answering?
Ha! This is a little bit of a tricky question. I suppose the answers are “no” and “no.” BUT, I will tell you that I am still often approached for advice from new writers, particularly those who are interested in self-publishing. They always want to know what I did to get The Mill River Recluse off the ground so that they can follow the same path. And, that’s where things get difficult, for two reasons.
First, it’s now been more than five years since I self-published Recluse, and so many of the websites I used to advertise and promote it have either shut down or changed their policies about accepting ads from authors. Many, many more people are self-publishing now, compared with when I did it, so there is a lot more competition. A good number of indie authors today are investing in professional editing and design services to ensure that their books are of the highest possible quality, so that bar has also been raised. Finally, the promotional tools and programs available to self-published writers from Amazon and other ebook retailers have changed and continue to change. I am still more than happy to give advice to writers who approach me for it, but writers should understand that my advice may be a bit dated, as the self-publishing arena really is a whole new world today versus five years ago.
The second difficult part is that the only thing that can sustain bestseller-level sales is word-of-mouth buzz among readers. A good marketing/promotional push can start that buzz, but whether it’s sustained and the book takes off depends solely on the story. If readers connect with a story and start telling everyone they know that “YOU JUST HAVE TO READ THIS BOOK!!!,” amazing things can happen, but that is something that can’t be predicted. I think that as an author, you just have to put your heart into your work, make it as professional as you can, do everything you can to market and promote it, and then hope for the best.
Fair enough! Let’s keep with the self-publishing topic for the next question. Given the market trends of today, if you were starting out now, do you think you would have self-published The Mill River Recluse?
I believe I would start the same way I started with Recluse – by finding an agent and having him or her shop it to publishers, and then by self-publishing it if the traditional route didn’t work. One can always try traditional publishing first and then turn to self-publishing as an alternative. But, the opposite isn’t true. If one starts by self-publishing a book, it’s almost impossible to subsequently find literary representation for the book and get any publisher interest in it unless the book does extraordinarily well. I’m all for maximizing my options, so I’d try the traditional route first. (That said, I think it’s perfectly legitimate to start out by self-publishing. Every book is different, and how an author chooses to launch it out into the world is an extremely personal decision.)
You’ve been quoted discussing your satisfaction with the deal with Ballantine. Are there things you miss about being a self-published author? Are there challenges have you faced now as a traditionally published author with a book deal which you did not anticipate prior to beginning that relationship?
I’ve always said that there are advantages and disadvantages to both indie and traditional publishing. I have found that to be true, and in the ways I expected. I do miss being able to make quick, individual decisions about pricing, marketing, etc. for my novels, which is an advantage of being indie published. But, the tradeoff, as I anticipated and still see it, is a more polished book with better distribution than I could have achieved on my own. I suppose the most challenging thing for me – and for most writers, probably – is maintaining and expanding a readership. It takes increasing amounts of time, money, and effort to keep a title visible to readers in the sea of available books. It’s even harder to get a reader to pick up YOUR book and devote some limited free time to reading it. Every reader is precious and so important!
There are more marketing tools available through traditional publishers, and tools that are not available to self-published authors. Everyone can invest in online marketing, google and social media ads. [Traditional publishers] can get your book into places self-published authors cannot such as trade journals, book reviewers, different book sellers and organizations, corporate-sponsored blogs and generally a wider distribution network. Another thing I miss from being self-published is logging in to Amazon and seeing the sales come in in real time. The traditional publishers have started releasing sales data to authors, but it comes in weekly batches and depends on when the retailer (book stores to Amazon) release the data to the publisher.
Looking back on your move to being traditionally published, do you have any regrets? Tips to other would-be-converters?
In my case, I still think the accepting the offer to traditionally publish my books was the correct choice, and I don’t regret it. I’ve learned a great deal about writing, editing, marketing, and promotion during the past few years, and I think (and hope) that I’ve become a better writer because of it.
For others who find themselves converting from indie to traditional publishing, I would just say to keep up the intensity of your marketing and promotion efforts even after your books are traditionally published. Also, try to build your social media profiles and email lists so that you can keep in touch with readers and bring them to your new books. There are a lot of readers out there who read mostly indie books, and there is another group of readers who read mostly traditionally published books. Most of them will cross over and try a book of the other kind IF they know the author and enjoy his or her work. But, as an author, you want to do everything you can to make sure your readers come with you when you convert!
Let’s shake it up. What is the most unusual food you have ever eaten? (And did you enjoy it?)
Omigod. Well, my husband is Chinese, and we’ve been married almost 16 years (and have been together more than 20) so I’ve been exposed to all kinds of foods I never knew existed before I met him. (Tim still teases me about being a country girl from the Midwest raised on nothing but beef and corn. The country girl part is accurate, but the rest could not be further from the truth.) Here are several odd Chinese foods I’ve tried: dried whole anchovies (so fishy and nasty I almost barfed); dried seaweed (same reaction); sea cucumber (not bad tasting, but so slimy that it is impossible to pick up with chopsticks); marinated cuttlefish (incredibly delicious); red bean milkshakes (awesome!).
I tried some other unusual things during a trip to China I took with a congressional delegation in 2002 or 2003. Our first dinner was at a Beijing restaurant that specialized in Peking duck…but when served the traditional way, all parts of the duck are served in sequential courses, including the tongue, liver, and webbing from the feet. (Yuck, yuck, and yuck.) We also traveled to an ethnic Tibetan village in far western China and were served lunch in a yurt. Among other things on the menu were yak head (not brains – just the tender meat on the top of the head which tasted like beef pot roast), blood sausage (couldn’t bring myself to try it because it was leaking blood all over the serving platter), and traditional butter tea (a beverage widely consumed in parts of Asia consisting of hot tea, yak butter, and salt, but it was like trying to drink tea-flavored melted butter — gag). The butter tea might be the only kind of tea I’ve tried and not liked!
Oh, I shouldn’t leave out wild morel mushrooms. If you are lucky enough to be in the Midwest during shrooming season, give them a try. They are fantastic!
Wow! Dried anchovies? Butter tea? My goodness! My five year-old is getting to be a more adventurous eater (he now volunteers to try SOME new foods) and all I can think is: if you were ever a picky eater, your parents must be so pleased!
On the subject of parenting and being a mom, the focus of the book review is to promote books I believe are worthy of a busy mom’s time. If another busy mom (and potential reader) were to say to you “I’m interested, but I’m not sure I have the time” about reading your book, how would you respond?
I would first probably say “I completely understand where you’re coming from,” because I, too, am a busy mom, and I don’t get to read for pleasure nearly as much as I’d like to. (And this, coming from a writer whose job is supposed to include lots of reading!) I would probably then tell her two things: my book is available in a variety of formats, including audio, so if finding time to sit and read is hard, she could listen to it while driving, doing housework, etc. And, the story in The Mill River Recluse is unique and, in the end, heartwarming. It also sets the foundation for my next two books, which also end happily. I believe anything that leaves someone with feelings of joy and contentment is worth squeezing into a busy schedule, even if she can manage only a few pages at a time.
This is a perfect segue to talking about your books. You have written some very dynamic, fascinating characters, many of whom are a delight to read, made me giggle or want to cheer on, and others who made me want to reach through the pages and give them a stern finger shake! Which of your characters have you enjoyed writing the most?
I loved writing about Father O’Brien and his spoon-stealing habit in The Mill River Recluse, as well as his back story during the Great Depression in The Promise of Home. Daisy’s scenes are always a hoot because even I never know what she’s going to say until she says it. And, I love writing about the DiSanti sisters because I end up thinking about my own two sisters. The three of us live in different parts of the country but are very close (unlike Emily and Rose).
I’m so glad you mentioned Emily and Rose. Their relationship in Redemption seems to transcend the pages. The hurt between them is palpable, but so, too, is the bond they share. You mentioned that Emily shares characteristics with your youngest sister, Molly. Are there more characteristics about the sisters, or their relationship that are drawn from your experiences?
LOL! Emily shares many characteristics with Molly. When Molly did her training as a landscape architect, she had to drive around a giant dump truck and direct a whole crew of guys. She’s always been very independent and she’s always had a dog. She called me after reading Redemption and said the fights took her back to our childhood and the fights we had growing up. I said, “Good! That means they read as authentic!”
With Emily and Rose, I tried to draw from the bond of sisterhood that we share. There may be unresolved issues and tension [for Emily and Rose] but underlying all of that there’s also a deep bond. What I wanted to create is the feeling that there would always be some sort of bond there [between Emily and Rose], even in the face of a difficult turn of events.
The Mill River Redemption includes a pretty dramatic twist. I’ve seen some pretty negative comments in review about it. It took me awhile to sort through what effect it had on me, if it worked for me or not, if I liked it or not. (Readers, if you haven’t read my review of The Mill River Redemption, hop on over and you’ll see my final thoughts on the matter…without spoilers!) What were your thoughts in crafting that twist?
Oh, I knew there would be some negative responses. But I also knew some people would be more accepting of it, of the idea that a person could do such a thing. People of all walks of life have varying opinions of what is acceptable [and] what they are willing to do. There are [people] out there who go so far as to commit crimes to protect or try to help their [loved ones]. I wanted to give the readers something juicy. Something to make them think, to reflect on the fact that a person would do something so extreme with the best of intentions and because of their love and desperation [to follow through on a sacred promise.].
Well it certainly worked! Phew! I still think about it, and wonder if I could go to that sort of extreme. Hopefully I’ll never know.
Now for the bonus round! Just in case you saw the question in my last author spotlight, and have an answer picked out: What kind of dinosaur would you want to be?
I did see that question, and thought that I, too, would choose to be a flying dinosaur of some kind…a pteranodon, maybe. It also might be nice to be a T-rex and not have to worry about being eaten by someone else. But I pondered it a little more…and I think it would have been amazing to have survived the K-T extinction to see what the Earth looked like afterward and how mammals survived and thrived. Since I’ve always wanted to be a super strong swimmer, maybe I would be some sort of ancient platypus! (Not a dinosaur, but a mammal that lived among dinosaurs!)
Thank you so much for your time and interest in having a Coffee Break with Darcie Chan and The Mom Who Runs!
Ms. Chan, it’s been a delight having you join me this week. You’ve shared some great stories about your writing and publishing journey and insight to the world of a best-selling author. All the best with your upcoming projects and continuing journey! I hope to have you back to chat again about your next book!
Thanks for reading! If you have questions for my coffee break guests, please leave them in the comments section so I may forward them on to Ms. Chan!
Featured image (author photo) credit: Carrie Schechter
The Mill River Recluse cover: Illustrator Richard Tuschman from photograph by Molly Tomasallo
The Mill River Redemption cover: Cover design: Marietta Anastassatos; Cover image: Richard Tuschman
The Promise of Home cover: Cover design: Marietta Anastassatos; Illustrator Richard Tuschman from images (Alex Kotlov/iStockphoto; Horst Gerlach/iStockphoto; Betty Copeland/Dreamstime; Monkeybusinessimages/Dreamstime)