By Amy Brown
I have the pleasure to know the wonderful writer Kate St. Vincent Vogl who in this blog generously shares insights about her journey as a writer. In Lost & Found: A Memoir of Mothers, her successful memoir, she reveals what happened when her birthmother found her through her adoptive mom’s obituary. Kate lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota and teaches creative writing at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. She has also taught at the Hudson Valley Writers’ Center. She has spoken at national and international conferences and to book clubs across the country. Kate has garnered honors in international competitions for her fiction and nonfiction. Her most recent work appears in Bellingham Review. The late writer Carol Bly praised Vogl as a “natural teller of story.” Learn more about Kate at http://www.katevogl.com
Have you always wanted to be a writer? Yet you became a lawyer. Tell us a little about that journey.
In first grade we had to write about what we wanted to be when grew up––I wanted to be either the first woman astronaut or a writer. Sally Ride beat me to the first, so I worked on my writing instead. In college, I tried to be practical in thinking about how I’d make money writing, so I decided to become a lawyer. I ended up on the 84th floor of the Sears Tower writing senior mezzanine credit facilities and wondering what I was doing. I most enjoy bringing people together and finding connections, and law didn’t allow me to do that as much as I wanted. In time we moved to the Carolinas, my mom was diagnosed with cancer, and my first daughter was born. There were not great childcare options where we lived, so I decided to stay home since I was in a position to do that—and secretly that allowed me to start writing.
You’ve received well-earned recognition from your memoir, Lost and Found: A Memoir of Mothers. Was this a story that you simply had to tell?
Absolutely. When I first started writing I wrote a scene from what would become that book. I was a page and half into it when I realized I wasn’t ready to tell that story yet. In part because I hadn’t processed that experience and in part because I didn’t have the tools to write it the way I wanted to. So I wrote a first draft of a novel. By the time I hit the fifth draft I was ready to share it. I shared with my birth mother, and she shared it with her sisters, and they talked about the characters as if they were alive, which was wonderful. That weekend, I asked Val, my birth mother, if it was okay if I shared her story and our journey together and she agreed to do that.
How did you find a publisher?
I began to look for an agent in fall 2008, which was a bad time to be looking for an agent as everything was falling part in the financial crisis. In February 2009 I went to the AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) conference, talked to all the small publishers and found there was a lot of interest. Then while serving on a panel with another creative non-fiction writer who was a birth mother, she encouraged me to send it to her publisher. I did, and a few days later I had a book contract in hand. A week after I sold the memoir, I was accepted for a speaking gig the American Adoption Conference. Working with a small press I was able to have the book in hand for the conference which was only five weeks after it was accepted. I found it was better to go with a small press, as they had the flexibility to meet this deadline.
How is the book doing now?
It’s in its fourth printing now. The nice thing about a memoir is that it lives on. The book been out seven years and still has a growing audience. I’ve been told that a work of fiction has only a six-week window to catch on and develop an audience––a depressingly short time frame. So whether you write fiction or non fiction, if you are able to connect with a ready-made audience who is interested in your story, you are in a much better position. For me, speaking at meetings of adoptees and of birth mothers best helped me connect with potential readers. The first year after my memoir was published, it was a full-time job to market it. Facebook was just taking off then. I did book tours and readings, I would connect with a newspaper in the area where I did a reading, and I was fortunate that a lot of them would want to write a feature article on the book. I also did several interviews on TV morning shows and radio shows. I set up all the events myself, as a small press did not have the ability to do any marketing for me. I would recommend Publishers Marketplace for finding an agent; the monthly fee is modest and you can see what deals are happening. Within a couple of months, you will have some interest if your manuscript is submission ready.
How has publishing the memoir opened up doors for you and your writing?
People were interested in my story, and it resonated for them. It was wonderful to get it into the hands of people who really needed to hear the story. To share that with others has been a real joy. I’ve moderated two panels at the AWP conferences, and for me, that’s like drinking your favorite drink out of a fire hydrant, serving on panels with your favorite writers. It allowed me to connect with writers I absolutely admire, like Jill McCorkle and Meredith Hall. I learned to be professional about my writing, and say yes to whatever opportunities came my way. In just one example, when I spoke at the Bloomington Writer’s Festival, I met someone married to a librarian in another town, who had me come to present a program to her patrons, and she in turn recommended me to another library…and this led to being recommended to book clubs.
How did you get started with teaching creative writing? What’s the most important piece of advice you give to your students?
When I was first trying to sell my first novel (which remains in my desk drawer), I was taking a class on how to secure an agent. The author leading the course said she taught several courses at The Loft Literary Center, and that kind of expertise seemed to be something agents would be interested in––and like something I wanted to do. So I wrote up a course I would want to attend, and sent it to The Loft. They asked me to teach that course, which I did twice that session, and that class remains among the most popular courses I teach.
I loved teaching writing from the start. It was a chance to help others with their writing. I find it really fun, teaching students from ages 9 to 90. The younger kids have great ideas for stories and the teenagers tend to want to start writing memoirs. And I love finding that student who has that special gift for writing and a tremendous story to share. A couple of my students went on to be named finalists for the Minnesota Book Award, a wonderful honor.
I have found teaching also helps my own writing. It is so much easier to see what others are doing wrong in their writing than to see it in your own writing! You need to get to the action faster, you advise the students, and then you see a similar issue in your draft. As a beginning writer, you don’t understand how many drafts it takes to get it right. The best tip to become a better writer, though? Most importantly, read what you love. Then re-read what you love. Write what you can and when you can. As William Stafford said, “Write what occurs to you and if nothing occurs to you, lower your standards.” Trust the process. Trust your gut. So in short, my advice is Read. Write. Trust.
What have been the most successful ways to market yourself and your book?
Attending and serving on conferences and writer’s festivals, as I mentioned above. One other thing I would add is that while you want to be “on” all the time you don’t have to oversell yourself; it’s a process and a struggle. You need to have the writing out there but you also need to connect with people in a way that is authentic. The moments when I feel most vulnerable are when people most connect to my writing and my story.
You’re a versatile writer, moving from novel to memoir to short story to essay. What is your favorite form of writing?
I like them all. I like to say it’s the form that expresses what I have to say that is my favorite form. I tend to write best as memoirist or essayist and I tend to find fiction more challenging. For fiction, I’ve figured out that the more grounded I am in setting and the sensory experience of the character, the more successful I am. It’s about figuring out how to contain your weaknesses. In the novel I’m working on now, I wrote it in chunks, not sure at first how it would connect, but now it’s all fitting together––even the chunks.
What are you working on now?
I’m writing a story loosely based on my father, who was a POW in Korea who escaped capture. I started writing it as a memoir but it wasn’t working, so I tried writing it as fiction, in my father’s voice. In that process, it became a completely different story. I have done a couple of readings from it. I’m not yet working with an editor or agent. I just finished up my MFA at Hamline University. A lot of successful writers have told me you don’t need an MFA (Carol Bly and Marilynne Robinson among them). But I needed a MFA. I knew there was something I wasn’t doing right. I needed a pair of eyes that were better than my own to see what was wrong. I needed a better set of self-editing tools to improve my writing and I needed to form a community of writers, and I have that now. Now I am in three writers’ groups and I need those deadlines.
What is your writing routine and where do you write? Do you have any writing talismans?
It varies widely. Some weeks I am writing all the time and some weeks I am hardly writing at all.
The more I write the better I write. I’d like to write more regularly but that is something I struggle with. Right now I’m trying to write with a pen on paper, to connect more deeply with my characters, and that’s been working really well for me. Plus it cuts down on internet distractions. As for a writer’s talisman, I’d have to say it’s my dog. I need to walk her every day, and having that walk––that meditation––always helps me figure out what to write next. Several writers have found that daily walks an essential part of their writing process. But figure out what works for you and do it. (So much easier said than done––trust me, I know.) Go for it, just go for it.