Editor's Note: Back in March, Innovative Editing began its “Author of the Month” program to highlight engaging writers who deserve to stand out for their skills and/or messages. These authors can be self- or traditionally published in fiction or non-fiction. The only qualifiers for consideration are that I’ve read their work and that they’re available for an interview.
If you'd like to be an upcoming Author of the Month spot – or if you have a story idea burning a hole in your brain – shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org with the details. Either way, I’d love to hear from you!
As for today, I am so proud to be shining a spotlight on my former coworker, friend and fellow author, Lia Mack, the talented writer of Waiting for Paint to Dry.
June’s Author of the Month: Lia Mack Featured Title: Waiting for Paint to Dry Genre: Women’s Fiction Age Appropriate: 18+
Bio: Lia Mack is the debut author of the women’s fiction novel, Waiting for Paint to Dry. A ceaseless cheerleader of the underdog – and a hopeless romantic – Lia enjoys writing fiction that travels the line between everyday life and the extreme challenges we sometimes face. The way she sees it, it’s all about those key moments when the turns of life make us and break us and ultimately show just how we can rise to the challenge.
In addition to her debut novel, Lia’s creative non-fiction has been seen in such publications as The Washington Post, Nickelodeon Jr. Magazine, Advances in Bereavement Magazine and Nesting Magazine.
You can find her online at www.LiaMack.com.
Jeannette: So, Lia, when I first approached you about doing an Author of the Month spot, you were quick to ask for June because this is National PTSD Awareness Month. And Waiting for Paint to Dry is about overcoming the kind of PTSD associated with rape. By now, you and I have talked so many times about this book and what it means; but how do you describe it and its message to potential new readers?
Lia: Thousands upon thousands of women and men suffer from the ramifications of sexual abuse, sexual assault and rape in the form of PTSD – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – every single day of their lives. All day. Every day. But dealing with it in silos – quietly and alone – or not dealing with it at all because you think long-lasting reactions to abuse somehow make you weak… That’s what gives PTSD its staying power over your life. That’s what I personally did for over 10 years by trying to deal with it privately and then by denying I had anything to deal with at all.
That was neither helpful nor healthy, and at some point, I realized that the person I was – the person I had always known – was slipping away. So I did what any person would do in that circumstance. I went looking for help online. Because people who are trying to hide their trauma and depression behind a smile don’t feel as though their pain is worth bothering a real person about. Plus, that way, you’re insulated in your own private bubble away from the fear of scrutiny. But if you’re lucky – and I was – you can find ways to heal online.
Jeannette: Online? For some reason, that’s not the answer I was expecting.
Lia: Yep! That’s where I found Angela Shelton.
Now an award-winning writer and director, Angela Shelton was working through her own trauma by going public in a big way with her book and film, Finding Angela Shelton. And because she was, as she put it, using her “sword of trauma for good,” her work was helping other people who had suffered sexual abuse, sexual assault and rape heal by the droves! All from the quiet solitude of their isolation (a.k.a., the internet). She was a lifesaver for thousands. And her prescription was easy: Journal your trauma.
So I did, and it helped a great deal, partially because I was finally able to put my trauma somewhere. Plus, through her journaling exercises, Angela asked all the right questions, making me dig through all the hurt inside.
But it didn’t end there. Once you were able to, “remove your sword of trauma,” you had to do something with it. Otherwise, you might use it against someone else. Because isn’t that why you were hurt in the first place? After all, abuse is a cycle. Thankfully, Angela Shelton gave a way to stop it: through whatever means you wished, whether writing or singing or painting or whatever your talent was, you could “use your sword of trauma for good.”
And so that’s what I did. I took my love and passion for writing to help others find light at the end of their trauma tunnel. I wanted to help as many people as I could find the kind of healing I did. Because it was life-changing. I was no longer disappearing. I was once again thriving.
Jeannette: Thriving with a novel manuscript too!
Lia: Absolutely. With a lot of hard work and determination (a.k.a., blood, sweat and tears), Waiting for Paint to Dry was published. Many readers have personally reached out to me since to let me know how my novel helped them. The letter that sticks out the most was from an 89-year-old woman from California. She wrote to let me know that, after reading my book, she finally told someone she’d been raped over 70 years ago. To know that I had a hand in helping someone break a 70 year-long silence and, more importantly, that she now feels free, is exactly why I turned my journaling exercise into a novel in the first place: to help others in the same way Angela Shelton helped me.
But of course my novel only helps those who read it. That’s why, in addition to all the marketing I did for the book, I’m also donating all my personal proceeds to RAINN, the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, until I raise $10,000. For every $1 it receives, its national hotline (1-800-656-HOPE) helps a survivor find whatever resources he or she needs to find healing.
Jeannette: One more reason for me to be happy I’m highlighting your efforts here. Now, Waiting for Paint to Dry quickly establishes that main character Matty Bell is stuck in a really bad rut – a 14 year one, if I remember correctly. You mentioned how it took you a decade to really start moving on. And I know you interviewed many other real-life rape survivors while you were writing this book. So would you say that kind of painful, drawn-out struggle is common?
Lia: Unfortunately, it’s extremely common. But not all non-recovery periods look alike. Mine was monochromatic. Other people I talked to looked completely normal and happy on the outside, only to be suffering secretly for years – either knowingly or unknowingly to themselves. Part of it is subconscious self-preservation, where your brain actually won’t allow you to recall something that happened until you’re old enough and emotionally mature enough to handle it.
Of course, the stigma of rape and sexual abuse also keeps victims quiet as well. We live in a culture where the victim is most often blamed. I was blamed for my own trauma, and the mass majority of women I spoke to said the same. With so many fingers pointed at you, you no longer feel you deserve to speak up or speak out. You stay quiet. And suffer. But it’s not a private suffering. All your relationships suffer alongside you. Your work. Your passions. Your everything. And because no one knows what’s going on in your head – and even you, as the survivor, can be clueless that you’re suffering because you’ve tamped down your pain for so long – no one knows that you need help. So none is sought or given, and the non-recovery and silence continues.
Jeannette: I’m not sure what’s more tragic to contemplate: the initial act of violence or that imprint afterward. Either way, it’s difficult – maybe even impossible – to wrap my head around it as someone who hasn’t gone through that trauma. So how can those of us not suffering from PTSD help those who are?
Lia: Pay attention to those you love and watch for the warning signs. Flinching. Reliving bad memories. The inability to think or talk about much else. Certain words or smells or objects or sounds that trigger anxiety or uncontrollable crying or fear.
These are only a handful of ways people continuously live and relive their trauma. That’s why they call it PTSD. It’s POST Traumatic Stress Disorder. The trauma is in the past, but every time your sister or friend or wife hears her abuser’s name, or hears about someone else being abused in the same way she was, all of a sudden, she’s back reliving it like it’s actually happening to her again. Right now.
That’s what PTSD feels like: a constant reliving of past trauma in your present life – every day all day. And it places a chokehold on you, keeping you from healing and moving on.
My best advice would be that, if you notice people in your life who routinely avoid certain people, places or things, ask them why. But only from a place of unconditional love. Don’t judge. Don’t blame. Be there for them in a way that helps them. You probably won’t understand nor be able to connect the dots, but don’t worry about it making sense to you. The trauma didn’t happen to you. Just be there for them. And help them find help if needed.
Jeannette: Valid point. And let’s face it, we humans have a bad habit of making it about ourselves, especially when we’re not sure how to deal with something.
Lia: It’s okay. Totally human. Just try to keep in mind that this is not about you. This is about them. And if you care about this person, you will need to put aside your own ideas of what they should be able to handle and just be there for them.
Remember: PTSD is not a choice. It’s what our brains do to and for us after we live through extreme trauma. It’s the brain’s self-defense mechanism, no matter how harmful it can be at times. So be careful about involving yourself. And help your loved one find the best kind of help so they can find their way out of their trauma tunnel. For survivors of rape and sexual assault, a good place to start would be to call RAINN (1-800-656-HOPE).
Jeannette: Thank you so much for sharing all of that. Seriously. You’re a brave woman for being so direct and open about all of this when, like you said earlier, there are so many ignorant opinions out there on the subject of rape and sexual abuse.
I’m going to go out on a limb and say that I think the larger fiction-writing world is one of the worst offenders in that regard. So many authors throw in what I like to call “damsel in distress” scenes for entertainment’s sake. Since sex sells and violence sells, they combine the two for exploitative purposes. I do think that fiction should deal with difficult subjects, but in an honest and respectful manner – which I’ll admit can be a tricky balance at times.
Did you find it difficult to know what details to include and what information to only allude to as you were composing Waiting for Paint to Dry?
Lia: Absolutely. At first, I wrote a sanitized version of pain. The trauma was there, but it was also so quickly and easily recovered from that it wouldn’t have helped a single soul reading it. Quite frankly, it didn’t help me writing it either. It was more shame, more blame, and definitely more hiding.
I didn’t realize I had sugarcoated anything until I brought a few chapters to the writing group I belonged to at the very beginning stages of writing this book. And it quickly became clear that something was wrong. Why? Because they thought it was “nice” I had added in a rape scene. “Nice.” Nice that I had injected some kind of depth. Nice…
Sorry, but there isn’t anything “nice” about rape or the seemingly never-ending suffering that comes after. So I knew I hadn’t really dug deep at all. And I wanted to. I wanted to write a book that made people uncomfortable enough that they could feel what it was like to have suffered this sort of trauma. Not the actual trauma itself, mind you, but the aftereffects.
And you’re right. A lot of books and movies just toss in sexual assault and rape as though it’s all about the entertainment value. But that is so far removed from reality that it not only doesn’t help anyone; it harms victims further. Now their suffering is viewed as a form of pleasure for others. Tell me that doesn’t turn your stomach!
No. Instead, I sought to write a true-to-life rendition of what it was like to have lived through a trauma like rape without healing from it – yet. That way, if you as a reader are currently suffering from PTSD and haven’t found your road to healing, you might eventually see yourself in Matty’s flinches or avoidances – and her journey toward healing. And if that happens, then we’ve got a real-life journey toward healing too!
Today, that’s exactly what I’m seeing. By adding in true-to-life experiences that don’t just reflect my own healing but also encompass many others’ experiences, I was able to put together a fictional journey that mirrored many other journeys. That’s why the novel has been so successful in helping others.
But it’s not just working for the survivors. It’s also working for those who have survivors in their lives. I still hear from people who, after reading my book, finally understand why their friends did the things they did. Or why their wife always cried. It’s not pretty to finally understand the intricacies of someone else’s pain. But it is the first step in being there for them. And in helping them heal.
And for those wondering if Waiting for Paint to Dry might inflict PTSD episodes, it will. That’s why, at the very beginning of the book, I have a warning. To let you know that if you’ve gone through sexual assault, you will be reminded of your trauma. So safeguard yourself as best as you know. And proceed at your own pace.
Jeannette: “Proceed at your own pace”: further proof that you’ve handled the subject with the respect it deserves, which makes you a gem among authors, published or otherwise. Though you were not only published but traditionally so by a small to mid-sized press. So, switching gears here, what would you say are the best and least desirable aspects about this authorial route?
Lia: Boy, are we opening a can of worms here! This is a major topic I talk to myself about all the time. (Yes, writers talk to themselves. Totally normal.)
Jeannette: Yup! All the time.
Lia: When I first started shopping my manuscript around, I got a nice bit of interest from two of the then Big 6 publishers up in New York. That was more than I could have ever dreamt of as an aspiring novelist. So when they asked me to edit my novel – basically sanitize it in a way that was more in line with their commercial fiction blueprint – I jumped at it. Rewrote the entire first 10 chapters and killed off one of my most beloved characters… all in the name of being published by a Big 6 publisher. To me, that was going to get my book in front of the most readers possible.
Only there was another catch. They had me remove all the parts of the book that were helpful to survivors; they only wanted the romantic comedy elements of the story.
At the same time, while I was rewriting my novel, a small independent publisher – in Arkansas of all places – wrote to let me know they loved my novel and wanted to publish it. The contract was already attached and everything. I had New York interest though, so what did I want with Arkansas?
Yes, I know. A bit snobbish. Not my best moment. But I'm thankful I had that moment, because in my reply, I let them know who I was being looked at by; and since they loved my novel so much, maybe they’d like the New York version? So I attached the newly edited manuscript for their reading pleasure.
I don’t know what possessed me to do that, but I’m glad I did.
When the small publisher wrote back, it opened my eyes. They said that, while the New York version was more in line with how commercial fiction is written – and sells – the manuscript had lost its heart.
Lost its heart.
I had to do a double take and reread the email again. What heart? What could this little publisher be talking about? Thankfully, it troubled me to the point of rereading both the New York version and the original version back to back. And they were right. The whole purpose of Waiting for Paint to Dry had been lost. Every helpful aspect. Every painful revelation. Gone. The sanitized version might sell, but it would help no one. No one would learn. No one would heal.
So I signed on with Pen L Publishing of Arkansas. (Don’t tell my younger Texas self!) And they printed the book as-is, heart and all. For that, I’m eternally grateful.
It’s been a success too. So much so that I had to write a sequel. Yes, you read that correctly: HAD to. Because of the demand from my readers, there will be a sequel.
Jeannette: I’m going to ask you about that sequel in a moment. But I already know there’s a “but” coming in this current question…
Lia: Yeah, there have been some drawbacks from going with a small independent publisher. They’re small – meaning their reach is puny compared to big ol’ New York. But I compensated as best as I could. I had to do a lot more marketing than I thought or wanted to do. And I was glad for the challenge. It worked, and I’ve got the sales and reviews to show for my effort.
With that said, I’ve also learned a lot about marketing… like the fact that I hate it. And I will pay someone else to do it for my next book. That’s why I work a full-time job. So I can afford to do so when the time comes.
Jeannette: And as for that next book, that was something of a journey in and of itself. You were utterly opposed to writing a sequel for a while there. So let’s hear the reasons why and what made you change your mind about it.
Lia: This is what I wanted to say to my readers, my publisher and all those who demanded I write a sequel: Sometimes life doesn’t work out. Sometimes you don’t get closure. Seriously. Do you think every rape victim out there has healed and moved on and gotten all the redemption and restitution they deserve? No! But that’s what readers want: closure. I fought writing the sequel for two years. But eventually, thanks to the wisdom of my publisher, I’ve since caved. To quote them, “If the readers want it, you write it.”
In all honesty, I’m glad I have such obstinate readers. Without them, this sequel wouldn’t be set to blow people out of the water! I initially didn’t know where else the story could go, but once I found a grain of an idea, I let it build up in my mind so much that it now plays out like a movie. And it’s going to give my readers what they want – more time with their beloved characters and, more importantly, all the answers they say I didn’t wrap up with a nice little bow at the end of Book 1.
Only thing is, you’ll have to wait to read it. The paint’s not quite dry yet.
Jeannette: Ha! I love it. Nicely done. In the meantime, where can people follow you online?
Lia: I am everywhere and nowhere online, depending on my mood (and lack of time and/or brainpower). If you want to get a hold of me personally, you can always email me at LiaMack@yahoo.com, but here’s the (short) list otherwise:
Thanks so much for having me, Jeannette!
Jeannette: Thanks for being awesome, Lia! Can’t wait for Book 2! And yes, that’s meant to keep the pressure on.