Interviews with Presenters

Find out more about our conference presenters! Their back story told in personal interviews by Robert Digitale

Robert Digitale

Robert Digitale

Robert Digitale is a staff writer for The Press Democrat. Robert has covered City Hall, education, commercial salmon fishing and, more recently, real estate, agriculture, and various business news.

He conceived and edited three fictional serials that appeared in the newspaper using multiple writers, Sonoma Square Murder Mysteries, SR Xmas ’06, Sonoma Squares: Red Harvest. He published his first fantasy novel, Horse Stalker, and is writing the second book in the series, Blaze and Skyfire. Robert and his wife, Carol, have created their own publishing company, Franklin Park Press. Read more here. 

Amy Cloughley

Amy Cloughley


Amy Cloughley Interview: That Compelling First Page

By Robert Digitale

Amy Cloughley, an agent with Kimberley Cameron & Associates, will take part in the Redwood Writers conference session: “Your First Page & How to Get It Out of the Slush Pile.” This is the full interview from an article in the January 2014 Redwood Writer newsletter.

Please share a little of your background.

I grew up in the middle of Kansas and had the wonderful benefit of parents who enjoyed traveling to big cities as well as, perhaps, atypical vacation spots—maple syrup tapping in Vermont, horseback riding in Wyoming, staying on a working farm in Nova Scotia, etc. (I still have never been to a Disney amusement park.) My upbringing gave me a deep understanding of the dynamics within a community but also launched my interest in learning about different ways of life and appreciating the people who lead those lives.

In college, I studied creative writing and magazine journalism which led to jobs that straddled the line between editorial and marketing communications. After moving to San Francisco, I ended up in the business world managing a corporate magazine as well as managing advertising and marketing projects. I got into the book publishing business via an internship at my agency and built up my book-related skills—providing editorial feedback, market research, contract work—until I ultimately started taking on my own clients, coaching writers through Writers Digest classes, and participating in the myriad of opportunities that agenting has opened up. I am certain that my journalism background laid the groundwork for my appreciation of tightly-written prose (and my resistance to wordiness) and the love of a unique story; whereas, my marketing background provided a base for the business side of book publishing. It is true that I am known as the spreadsheet geek at our office—I can’t help myself. But ultimately, I found my way back to books and the career I have always wanted.

Why did you become an agent?

I wanted to be in book publishing since elementary school, but it took me a few years to figure out that agenting was the perfect position for me. It is a lovely balance of all of my favorite things: providing editorial feedback, pitching to the editors, negotiation deals, and the thrill of helping writers reach their goals. (There is really nothing better than that!) It is truly a business of relationships at every stage. I enjoy the business side of agenting as much as the creative, and I think that all of the positions I have held (and the many, many books I have read) have proven to be the perfect base for this career.

For new projects, you are seeking literary and commercial fiction, mystery/suspense, as well as narrative nonfiction projects. How did you come to settle on those genres/book categories?

Honestly, I like to rep what I like to read. With literary/upmarket fiction as well as narrative nonfiction, I want to learn something new and feel like I have been immersed in a life and circumstance that the author has made compelling and engrossing. The characters’ interiors need to come through in a way that I can understand their point of view—I don’t have to agree with it, but it has to be completely believable. For commercial, I look for a well-paced page turner that has layers and keeps me guessing—a commercial manuscript that has too much backstory up front rarely works for me.

You are one of the agents taking part in the session, “Your First Page & How To Get It Out of the Slush Pile.” What do you imagine this will be like?

Understandably, first pages are tough for a lot of writers. Setting up your story in a succinct, compelling way is a tall order. But I do look to be drawn in right away by the setting, a character, or some unique action that grabs my attention. My hope is that Andy and I can provide our initial reactions in a way that will illustrate the best parts of these pages, as well as point out possible room for improvements. Ideally, we will not only help the author of the page, but also give tips to the audience as a whole.

Some writers may feel a little apprehensive. What would you say to them?

Of course! I completely understand the apprehension due to the public setting, but the truth is that the first page of a manuscript will be critiqued many times over on your road to publishing. Your writing group or private editor will have thoughts, your agent will have thoughts, and ultimately your publishing house will have thoughts. Hopefully the anonymity in this environment will ease the writers’ nerves enough to want to participate and hopefully benefit from the feedback. Who knows, maybe your feedback will be, “Love it! Wouldn’t change a thing!” But if it isn’t, perhaps discussing it in this environment will get you closer to where you want to be.

Before our writers submit that first page, what’s the one thing you’d most like them to do?

Make sure the opening page is compelling in its own right and really represents the type of story you are telling. If it is a character-driven piece, I want to be hit with your character’s unique voice and circumstance. If it is plot driven, get the plot going right away. Either way, I want to have a sense of the setting, the mood, or some other element that puts me “in the moment” right away. Too much backstory or wordy openings can be a real deal killer for me. 

Name one thing that writers would be surprised to learn about you.

I am a bit of a sports fan! I love to play tennis and watch March Madness—I was even the sports editor for my high school newspaper. The last time I was visiting editors in New York, I saw some fascinating narrative nonfiction and biography projects relating to sports that were in the works, and I got inspired!

What’s your best piece of advice for writers, including writers looking for agents?

It is wonderful to have people in your life that support your writing and love you, but it is also important to have beta readers that you trust to give you honest, helpful feedback on your project—these two groups are often mutually exclusive. It is nearly impossible to create a publishable project in isolation (especially for first time authors). Although you may decide to cherry pick from the advice you receive (it is still your book after all!), it can be amazing what a fresh perspective can sometimes lead to. Take advantage of their feedback to help you tighten and polish your manuscript before you take your next step toward publishing. 

Dana Gioia

Dana Gioia

Interview with Dana Gioia

By Robert Digitale

Dana Gioia looks around and sees thirsting people.

“I believe that we are locked into a kind of crazy, materialistic ethos in this country, and people are starved for things of the spirit and the imagination,” said Gioia, a poet, essayist and former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts.

Gioia, whose name is pronounced “JOY-uh,” says culture is supposed to point us to that which is beyond price. But culture today doesn’t seem strong enough to withstand the incessant messages that what we need is more stuff. Even so, he holds out hope that poets, writers and other artists can offer a different vision.

“What poetry should do is awaken us to what is true and beautiful and meaningful in our own lives,” he said. He believes literature and the other arts play a similar role.

Gioia, who splits his time between Sonoma County and Southern California, will be the keynote afternoon speaker April 26 at Redwood Writers From Pen to Published Conference at Santa Rosa Junior College.

A part-time professor at USC, Gioia is known for calling the public to value the arts and for calling artists and educators to be relevant.

The Sewanee Review, which in February awarded him the Aiken Taylor Award in Modern American poetry, said perhaps no other poet in recent times has “sparked as much conversation on the role of poetry in society.” Part of that reputation resulted from Gioia’s 1991 essay in the Atlantic Monthly, Can Poetry Matter?

As the chairman of the NEA, Gioia helped champion such new initiatives as: Poetry out Loud, Shakespeare in American Communities, NEA Jazz Masters and Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience.

 He said the most important lesson from his seven years with the NEA was “the necessity to bring arts and arts education into every community, however large or small, in America. Without the arts, no education is complete. Period. Without the arts, no community really meets the complete needs of its own people.

“The arts are not a luxury. They’re one of life’s necessities.”

Gioia, whose 2012 poetry collection is titled Pity the Beautiful, is nothing if not a believer in beauty. He sees a strong connection between the beautiful and the true. Moreover, he said, artists “perceive and participate in the beauty of the universe and reflect it in their work.”

He believes that any writer in any genre has the opportunity to create such art, and that the best works fascinate because they are elicited from experience rather than “manufactured by rules.”

A working-class boy from Southern California, Gioia graduated from Stanford University, where he later received his MBA. He worked 15 years as a corporate vice president in marketing before leaving the business world to write full time.

His best advice to writers is to read. “Your work becomes stronger by nourishing it from what’s been written before you,” he said. “No writer can do it all on his or her own.”

Sharon Hamilton

Sharon Hamilton

Sharon Hamilton

Article by Kent Sorensen

At first glance, the story of Sharon Hamilton’s aspiration to become a successful published author is familiar to most of us: work hard at writing, attend writing classes, enter writing contests, and learn to accept rejections—plenty of them.

Sharon’s journey in writing romance began only four years ago when she met, Catherine Bramkamp, a featured speaker at one of her husband’s Rotary Club meetings. After the presentation, she suggested to Sharon to join Redwood Writers if she was really interested in writing. Within a month, she was sitting in Anna Manwaring’s Second Step writing class and followed up by attending Marlene Cullen’s rewriting course. Sharon was a sponge learning POV, the story arc, character development and all of the other elements needed for good writing. She rounded out her exposure to writing by joining Romance Writers of America. 

Armed with the essential elements of writing, Sharon plowed ahead with writing a series of vampire romance novels. Inspired by her critique partner and widely published author, Tina Folsom, she completed three novels and entered them in selected writing contests. In 2010, she placed first in one of the contests which, in turn, attracted the attention from a literary agent. With a signed contract in hand, Sharon assumed that she had finally made it, but she was wrong. After shopping Sharon’s novels around to various publishers, the agent could share only one outcome with her—rejections.

While Sharon was coping with these rejections, she was advised by another agent to consider writing about a real hero, someone that the reader could root for. So she created the idea of a series of novels based on the life of Navy SEALS. In the RW spirit of “writers helping writers,” Sharon continued to benefit by Tina Folsom’s sage advice along with those from Bella Andre, a highly accomplished and successful romance writer from Sonoma. In one of their brainstorming sessions, Bella suggested that Sharon’s chances of success would be heightened if she turned to self-publishing, release a book every three to four months and produce three different series.

Armed with these goals, Sharon wrote with new vigor, determined to succeed. She hired the services of two editors plus Arlene Miller. By June 2012, she saw her first SEAL novel, Accidental SEAL, generate significant sales on Amazon. In December 2012, her second novel in the series, Fallen SEAL Legacy, provided Sharon with her first 5-figure monthly income. Ten months later, she keeps writing—always grateful for the help she’s received along the way.

Her advice for fellow writers working hard to find their place in the literary world:

  1.  1. Write every day.
  2.  2. Write in a series.
  3.  3. Seek advice from successful authors and use mentoring.
  4.  4. Don’t ever listen to anyone who tells you, “It can’t be done.”
  5.  5. Never, never, never give up.

Sharon presently lives in Santa Rosa with her husband, Donald, and enjoys her daily routine of writing romance novels in a burgeoning literary career.

John Rothmann Interview

By Robert Digitale

John Rothmann

John Rothmann

John Rothmann says writers can benefit from a thick skin and a little persistence.

One thing they needn’t worry about is getting rich.

“Don’t write to make money. Write because it’s inside of you and you want to share it with the world,” said Rothmann, a radio personality, author, political analyst and frequent lecturer on American politics and the presidency.

Rothmann, a former talk show host on San Francisco’s KGO radio for 15 years, will be the morning keynote speaker at Redwood Writers’ April 26 Writers Conference, “From Pen to Published.”

He plans to share lessons from his own publishing experiences. He is the co-author of two books: Harold E. Stassen The Life and Perennial Candidacy of the Progressive Republican (McFarland & Company, 2012); and Icon Of Evil: Hitler’s Mufti and the Rise of Radical Islam (Random House, 2008).

For writers seeking a publisher, he said, “I know it is tougher and tougher to get people to be interested.”

In today’s publishing world, book advances are less common. And even writers who find publishers must help in the marketing of their works.

“It requires that you not just write the book but also sell your book,” he said.

In regard to the benefit of a thick skin, Rothmann recalled how “Icon of Evil” received an unfavorable review in the New York Times.

However, Harvard professor, attorney and author Alan Dershowitz read the review and offered to write an introduction for the book’s next edition. Without the review, Rothmann said, Dershowitz likely wouldn’t have done the intro.

A native San Franciscan, Rothmann’s career is nothing if not varied. He worked on the presidential campaigns of Republican Richard Nixon in 1968 and Democratic Senator Frank Church in 1976. He served as chief of staff to state Senator Milton Marks and as field representative for state Senator Quentin Kopp, both of San Francisco.

For writers and political junkies, an interesting tidbit about Rothmann concerns the personal library he has developed containing more than 15,000 volumes. His focus is American political history and biography. He frequently makes the works available to scholars, graduate students and authors conducting research.

His advice for prospective authors is simple: Write. He certainly followed that recommendation in 2013.

For much of last year he wrote a daily blog on world and national events. To do so, he rose early each morning and in about two hours prepared his take on a variety of breaking news topics, including Obamacare, same sex marriage, the nuclear talks with Iran and the labor contract for BART.

In December he wrote an article for the online Jewish news site about his family’s recent trip to Germany. There they took part in a memorial service at Halle-Wittenberg University for 43 professors who had been expelled by the Nazis from teaching in the 1930s and 1940s because they were Jewish. Among those professors was Rothmann’s father, Hans, removed from his position in 1933.

The visit, he said, was a “journey to a haunted land.”