Interview with Amy Impellizzeri, author of Romance / Time Travel Novel ‘Lemongrass Hope’

Amy Impellizzeri Interviewed by Suzanne Brazil

Amy had an idea and decided to write a book, and then made it happen in a big way. We spent over an hour on the phone together talking all things book-related. The interview originally appeared on www.Blogcritics.org. Amy had so much more to share, I decided to publish the extended, full-length version here for her fans and anyone with a dream to write a book.

Amy Impellizzeri’s debut novel, Lemongrass Hope (Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing, 2014), is a 2014 INDIEFAB Book Of The Year Bronze Winner (Romance), a 2014 National Indie Excellence Awards Finalist, and the #1 Reviewed Book in 2014 by the Literary Connoisseur. Kirkus Reviews called it “A layered, bittersweet romance that questions consequences and explores second chances.” Impellizzeri spent 13 years as a corporate litigator in New York City before leaving to write and advocate for women entrepreneurs. Her writing has appeared in  The Huffington PostThe Glass HammerABA’s Law Practice Today, and Yahoo Shine. She is also the author of the non-fiction Lawyer Interrupted (American Bar Association Publishing), due out in 2015.  She drinks a lot of coffee at home in Pennsylvania where she lives with her husband and three children.

I finished the book yesterday and I really enjoyed it. Time travel seems to be a particular niche with readers; there are readers who go back to it time and again. 

Thank you! It’s funny for me because I love the idea of time travel but I don’t read a lot of science fiction. So, I really wanted to write a book that was sort of time travel but real. And it’s sort of funny to me now, and it was funny as the book was evolving, but I thought this is actually turning into a time travel book. Now I’ve totally embraced it but it’s interesting. I really wanted the book to be something that you’d sort of say this could happen or that could happen, that was my goal.

Can you introduce your book for us? What is it about to you?

Which is the question I get asked the most and the question I have the hardest time answering. It is a book about time travel but I never say that from the beginning. I never lead with the time travel element. I don’t know why I think partly because I do want people to be taken on the journey and surprised a little bit, although it’s marketed as a time travel book and most people who pick it up now know that that’s what it is. I usually call it an unusual love story, an unusual look at second chances and the road not taken, and hopefully a book that will surprise you. I’d like to think the characters are relatable and real but still have extraordinary things happen to them.

What do you hope readers come away with from the book?

I think my favorite compliments are that it felt natural, that it didn’t feel so outlandish. Also, it is a book club book, I think. We’ve marketed it as such. Book clubs have found it and embraced it, and are probably my largest reading demographic. I’d like to think that people will finish it and say it gave them a lot to think about and a lot to talk about. And I love when I get emails and Facebook messages from a reader in the middle of the night who say ‘I just finished it and I need to talk about this book.’ I love that it’s kind of a book that you want to talk about right away. I love when people say that it’s a book that stays with you for a little while, and makes you think about your own second chances and what-ifs, things I might have done over, things I might not have done over.

What surprised me about the book was the prologue/epilogue.  I was surprised by the main character’s willingness to look at her life differently. 

I actually spoke with editors and I had an agent and an editor who wanted me to change the ending. And I always resisted that. I had an editor tell me that it really couldn’t be commercial unless [I changed the ending]. And I said that was never the book I was going to write. My publisher said do not change a thing, do not change the ending of the book. But I still, I wanted there to be a little ambiguity.  I think what I want you to come away with and what I want you to think about is evolution. I’ve had readers say to me ‘How many times do you think this has happened? How many times did they go back?’ I’ve had one reader in a book club say to me ‘Well, I mapped it all out in the book, and I could tell you it happened six times,’ and I said ‘That’s awesome that you did that, but that’s not true.’  My answer to that question is I think they went back a lot. I want you to have this idea of evolution. That’s part of why the person changes in the story. It’s sort of a snap shot, it’s one sliver of time.

I want you to leave with the idea that this could have happened over and over and over again, and indeed it really sort of had to have happened a lot. At the end, I want you to think not that it happened six times, that it happened enough times, that it’s believable that yes, she’s making this decision. She’s making this decision with both feet in. But there’s still the question and I leave the question mark open in the book for me, and for all readers there’s still the question whether it’s enough.

Which poses an interesting question. What are the possibilities of a sequel?

Well I have toyed with the idea of not a sequel but a related book. I’ve often thought about writing the book from two different people’s perspective. Not this book but a story from either Stella’s perspective because I agree with you I think she’s a really interesting sympathetic character, and I’ve always had an idea about writing a book from Dee’s perspective because she’s one of my favorite characters. And every time I really try to do it, never say never, but I have not figured out a way to do it and still preserve what I think is a little bit of the magic and mystery of Lemongrass Hope. I usually say not now. If I ever figured out a way to do it, I would love to do it but I haven’t figured that out yet. I am working on my next book and it’s completely unrelated.

Is the working title the Secrets of the Worry Dolls?

It’s not final, it’s still a work in progress although it’s getting very close. It’s a totally different book though, not related to Lemongrass Hope.

How is writing the second book similar to or different from writing Lemongrass Hope?

It’s different in a lot of ways. Lemongrass Hope came about sort of by accident. I was a corporate litigator for over 13 years. I was taking a year sabbatical, and I was not taking a year’s sabbatical to write a book.  I took a sabbatical to catch my breath. While I was on sabbatical I was doing writing. I had always written. I’d always been a creative writer, but I’d sort of stifled that side of myself to be a lawyer. I wrote for a living, but I wrote what other people paid me to write.

“I had this dream one night. I went back in time and my children weren’t there. And that was it. There was nothing more fleshed out than that.” 

When you say you were a creative writer, what did that look like? Were you writing stories on the weekend? Were you submitting anything?

Not while I was practicing law at all but in college, I was taking creative writing classes. I always had a journal I have piles and piles of journals from when I was like 11 . . . you see the end point. They run from when I was 11 until I was 20, and then they just stop dead. I went to college knowing I was going to be a lawyer. That was my goal.  That was what I was going to do. I was going to go to law school. But I was going to do them both. I was going to write on the side, and I was going to be a lawyer. And I don’t know, looking back, what I thought that would look like. I wasn’t planning on writing professionally I was planning on being a lawyer to make a living, and I was planning on always keeping my journals, writing stories, submitting maybe small short stories.

I never had this dream to write a novel, but I did always love writing. I loved it. But in college, I made this decision at one point that this was too distracting. I had to pick one, in my mind, so I picked law. That was all I was going to do professionally and so I had to put all my energy and resources into that. I stopped writing creatively and only worked on my English and Philosophy majors. Then I went to law school, and I never wrote anything that wasn’t a case brief or something I was paid to write for a client, legal-related.

That part of me was really pushed to the side. When I took my sabbatical I started writing again. Now it was 20 years later, and I was writing essays on a computer and I had never done that before. Now I had a whole hard drive of essays, and I thought what am I going to do with these? I just filed them away, but sort of reconnected with that side of myself. It was a time that I was very much thinking about what have I done? I’ve totally pushed this whole side of myself away. I was only ever going to be a lawyer that was all I ever wanted to do. Now you’ve done it and have you’ve abandoned a whole path you could have explored. You really enjoy this, you really love it. It was in terms of my professional life that I was having a second thought. I think my subconscious was in overdrive on it. I had this dream one night. I went back in time and my children weren’t there. And that was it. There was nothing more fleshed out than that. And I sort of woke up and I thought so yeah that’s what it would mean to go back and do everything differently. Everything would be different.

I just started toying with that and it became an idea for a book. That was the first time I thought I’m going to write a book. I’m not just going to write essays anymore, and I’m going to not go back to practicing law. Because, in the meantime I’d hooked up with this start-up company who was doing a lot of marketing for women entrepreneurs. They were moving from a magazine to an online content site. Their mission was to empower women entrepreneurs, and they were starting an e-commerce site. I got involved with them on the business side. I was writing articles about the women, and helping the women write their marketing pitches. I did that as my new job, and on the side I wrote Lemongrass Hope for years.

You asked what’s different about the new writing process. When I started writing Lemongrass Hope, I didn’t set out to write a book. I sat down to flesh out this idea I had, and I would literally leave it for months at a time. I’d come back to it and I’d say ‘Is there anything here?’ And every time I’d say ‘There is something here. I want to come back to this.’ So after about three years, I said to myself, this is silly. I’m tired of saying I’m writing a book. I’m going to actually finish this book. So then I put myself on a deadline. And really the book got written in that last 12 months when I focused myself.

The writing process now is so different because now I have set out to write a book. And for good or for bad that is a totally different process than just sort of exploring an idea. I’ve been much more structured about this from the outset. I’ve been more structured about plotting out the characters and plotting out the plot. But I still notice about myself this is still the way I write. But I still keep putting it down, coming back to it putting it down, coming back to it. I almost can’t focus myself until I know exactly how it’s going to end. That’s how I was with Lemongrass Hope. Once I figured out exactly how it was going to end, then I was able to really focus myself on the rest of it. That’s how it is with Secrets of Worry Dolls. I had an idea. It was a general idea. I loved the idea. I’ve explored it a couple different ways over the last year. And the last month or two, I’ve figured it out. I know exactly how it’s going to end now. Now I can be very focused about it.

Would you say you have more of an outline then for this book than you did for Lemongrass Hope? Were you just writing scenes for Lemongrass Hope?

Yeah, yeah. I was. I learned so much because I wrote the Lemongrass Hope over the course of three or four years, but really focused in the last year. I remember someone asking me ‘how on earth did you know how to write a book’ and I thought that’s the best question I’ve been asked because I don’t really know how I figured out how to write a book. Because I didn’t figure out how to write a book until after I wrote a book.

Once I had the manuscript I started going to writing seminars and I started acting like a writer and I started shopping the book. Through a series of things that happened, a best-selling author got hold of a small excerpt and said to me this is a real book. We should do something, we should introduce you to someone. I ended up being introduced to Caroline Leavitt who is a New York Time’s bestselling author and works as a developmental editor on the side. I worked with her for a couple of months on the revisions and the structure of the book. She was really wonderful in terms of  saying ‘You have a real book and a real idea, but think about how you want to structure this so that this is a novel.’ The time I spent with her, and the time I spent after that finalizing and revising it is when I think I learned how to write a book.

Now I’m not telling you I’m an expert on writing a book. But I can tell you when I sat down to write Lemongrass Hope, I had no idea what it was to actually write a book. So many people say I have this idea for a book. And I encourage everyone, because I think everyone who says they’re writing a book should write a book. But I think probably 75% of those people think you write the words. You write them from beginning to end and you create a story. And that’s not really how you write a book.

On Secrets of Worry Dolls, I have not been writing it linearly, nor will it look like it does now when I’m ready to submit it. It’s a lot of different pieces and I need to figure out how they all fit together to tell the story the right way. I know what the story is and I can sit down and write those words. But, I need to make them all fit in a way that is compelling, and will tell the story in the way that I want it to be told, and let it unfold for the reader in the way I want it to unfold. That’s really the hardest part of writing the book; not just getting the words on the page but getting them in the right order.

“I don’t really know how I figured out how to write a book. Because I didn’t figure out how to write a book until after I wrote a book.”

If you had three hours I’d keep you on the phone as I just love this topic. A writing mentor recently told me “Look, no one knows how to write a novel.” It’s nice to hear you say that. When you said you know the story for Secrets of Worry Dolls or even for Lemongrass Hope, how much did the story change when you got into writing the characters and putting their words on paper?

It didn’t change so much as a lot of blanks got filled in. So I had a very skeletal idea of the story and that’s what I started with. I knew Lemongrass Hope was about second chances and what-ifs. This woman was haunted by her first love and she’s in a terrible marriage. She reconnects with her first love and what does that mean? But I didn’t know how her marriage was going to break down. Those things sort of evolved, those details and those scenes. Rob changed a lot. I had to really work on him. In an earlier version of the book, we know about Ian but we really don’t meet him. That was all wrong. Who got introduced when changed. The characters changed. I hope Kate became less superficial and a more substantive character. Rob is probably the character that changed the most.

I can see his arc in the final version. He’s certainly more redemptive.

My editor would say ‘Rob’s a bad guy, I don’t get it.’ I told my editor Rob’s the kind of guy that would take the kids to the diner and clean out the claw machine (winning prizes for them). She said, ‘Ok, where’s that?’ I said ‘Oh yeah, I’ll write that for him then, not just in my head.’

Can you describe the moment you got the news that you found out it was going to be published?

I know exactly where I was. I was at my son’s hockey rink at hockey practice. I actually pitched this book without an agent. I had sent the book to a couple of agents. Then I was introduced to this publisher directly. I had pitched her the book the week before. She had said ‘Let me see the manuscript and I’ll get back to you next week.’ It was Monday morning and I said to my husband ‘Maybe I’ll hear today.’ He was like, “No.” But she did. She emailed me that night. I opened the email at the rink and she’d attached the first draft of the publishing contract. It was very exciting and I squealed at hockey practice!

“If you have a real goal for yourself, and it sounds crazy in your head, say it out loud and it will sound less crazy.”

What would you say is the worst piece of writing advice you’ve received?

The one piece of advice I got hands down was to change the ending. An agent told me the book really wouldn’t be commercial unless I changed the ending. I still think there’s a lot of people who think the only books that are commercial are formulated books. But I think I see so many new writers getting caught up in, and I try to tell people, when you are writing your first book, focus on the writing first and getting it published last. I think people who do that are the ones who end up getting their books published more quickly.

I think people who are so focused on ‘I need to get this book published, I really want to get it published,’ completely lose sight of the writing, the editing. When you have a first draft, the things that happen to that book that are so substantive, so meaningful, from that moment until the moment it gets published are huge and important. Those are necessary. You need to get out of your head, out of your manuscript, and you need to have other very reputable, trustworthy people give you their input. Not too many people, though! A lot of advice can sometimes make you a little crazy. That’s one of the biggest hang-ups for new writers is to get too focused on the publishing and forget about the writing.

I think what makes the book linger is the fact that the ending isn’t formulaic.

There’s a time and a place for every type of book. But there’s certainly a time and a place for books that don’t fit the usual commercial mold and good for them!

Did you have a favorite book or author growing up?

My favorite book of all time that stands the test of time is Gone with the Wind. Recently, Beautiful Ruins is probably my favorite contemporary book. It’s tied with Jo Jo Moyes. I love the way she writes.

Is there a particular book on craft or what was most useful to you in improving?

I won’t say I’ve read them all cover to cover, but I have a bunch of craft books on my bookshelf:  Stephen King’s On Writing, Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel.

“When you are writing your first book, focus on the writing first and getting it published last. I think people who do that are the ones who end up getting their books published more quickly.”

What aspects of craft do you struggle with the most or what do you feel you have a really good handle on?

Probably what I struggle with the most is the editor’s favorite admonition: show don’t tell. There’s scenes I get caught up in exposition. I want you to know every single thing going on in my character’s head. And I think, this is awful. I have to do this with dialogue. I have to do this with action. I have to make this more powerful. That’s what I still struggle with and probably will never ever master. I don’t know that I would say I’ve mastered anything. That would be crazy.

I think I have a voice, and I think I know what my voice is. I think that’s important for all writers. I love when a new writer will ask my advice or show me something and they have such a clear voice. I think ‘I know exactly what the book you’re writing. This is your voice.’  I’m comfortable writing in my voice and I try to write a book that makes sense even if you’re reading out loud. Does that make sense?

Yes. It’s very readable. It has complex ideas but it’s readable and relatable.

I hope so, thank you!

How important is your writing community and how did you forge that? 

I am a fan of critique groups. I’m not in a live critique group, but I do a lot of workshopping of my writing. You have to think about if you’re going to align yourself with a genre or not. The plus side of that is there are going to be communities that are readily available to you. If you clearly write science fiction, romance, thrillers, mysteries, there are usually associations. I belong to the Women’s Fiction Writers Association, and they do a lot of great online workshopping and online critique groups. I do writing retreats when I can, but I do have three small kids, 11 and under. I really don’t travel that much. I try to do a lot on line. Social media has made writing so much less lonely. I don’t know what people did 20 years ago. It’s such a notoriously lonely career.

Lawyer Interrupted

How do you handle the social media pressures and time sucks, do you have a certain schedule?

I am a terrible offender of getting distracted by social media. There’s an app you can download that prevents you from logging on to Facebook and Twitter for three hours at a time. I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never been able to do that! I do try to give myself a moratorium. But I have two books out now, Lemongrass Hope and Lawyer Interrupted. A huge part of being a writer is marketing your book. So, you end up on social media a lot, but I do try to limit myself. When I’m writing, I really try to reign myself in, especially in the summer. I really try to do morning and night, check everything and check off all the boxes. Some days I just get into it. The truth is there are real benefits to it as with everything.

I am a person who does like to write amidst chaos. I’m not a person who can sit in my treehouse. I always thought I would do that. I thought that’s how it would be. I painted my writing office and got a new chair.  I never write in there. I always write in the middle of chaos, and in the margins of doing other things, and on my coffee cup in the car at the red light. I’ve always written like that and I probably will for the foreseeable future. It’s important to admit you have a social media problem. Twitter is tough because that will suck you in.

If used for good, you have to use social media for good, developing the community is important and I love it for that.

What would you say has been the most surprising part of becoming a published novelist?

Everything has been so new and novel that I can’t say I expected any of it. I’d probably say the way book clubs have embraced the book has been such a wonderful surprise. I can remember pitching it to my publisher that way. I was in a book club, I still am in a book club. I love my book club. If we could get this to book clubs I think this would be a great book for book clubs. I put it out there on my website that I would come to book clubs. I can’t believe how many book clubs have emailed me. I’ve lost count. I think I’ve probably been to close to 50 book clubs live or by Skype. I love book clubs.

Every single discussion has been different. Every single experience has been different. Having the book received so well by book clubs and getting to experience other book clubs. I’m fascinated, it’s like a whole other demographic. I’ve been to book clubs that have been very formal, informal. I’ve been to book clubs that have people on a wait list to get in; people that hand-picked their members because they didn’t want it to be too homogenous, wanted different ages and different lifestyles represented. I’ve been to other book clubs where everybody is exactly the same. It’s been such a fascinating way to experience the book through all those different eyes.

“I always write in the middle of chaos, and in the margins of doing other things, and on my coffee cup in the car at the red light.”

There is a fierceness and determination in Kate and in your essays on your blog. Do you think this quality helped you become a published novelist? Did any of that influence your choices for Kate’s character in the book?

It’s always interesting for people who know me to read the book and to hear their take on Kate. It’s always interesting for people to try and read me into her. You have to read me into her. I wrote her. You have to read me into all the characters. That’s actually been an interesting awakening to me to now read other novelists’ books with that in mind.

I have this notion, like my personal mantra, if you say something out loud, if you really want something and you say it out loud, and you work towards it, you really can make it happen. I’m not talking about like going into space, I’m talking about if you have a real goal for yourself and it sounds crazy in your head, say it out loud and it will sound less crazy.

Of course part of that is written into Kate. I hope it is because I think that’s a great way to live your life. When I was writing this book and I was in the last year, the really focused time, I was with my sisters. We go on an annual girls’ trip and we were in Vegas. I remember the moment very clearly, as clearly as I remember getting the publishing deal, actually. We were going around, the three of us, talking about our fears and what was on the horizon for us in the next year. They kind of knew I was working on this book, but I had never put it together this concretely. I said ‘I’m working on this book and it’s called Lemongrass Hope. I’m going to finish this book this year and I’m going to try to get it published.’ They looked at me and they said ‘Well then, you probably will.’

Once you say something out loud like that you are accountable and you really have to work at it. I would like to write strong female characters who have that quality. But I don’t want anyone to read all my characters and think they’re completely autobiographical.

My next book I did a lot more research for. My new book takes place partly in Guatemala, and there will be a lot of research incorporated into it. But it will also be about sisters and a mother/daughter relationship. I’ve already known I had to sit them down and say ‘this isn’t about you,’ but it comes from a place of having been a daughter and having been a sister and a mother.

Lemongrass Hope

Was it a little scary for you thinking everyone was going to think this was your life?

My publisher asked if I wanted to handle pre-orders differently, if I wanted to send it to them [personally] so they [readers] wouldn’t have to wait so long. I said that’s a fun way for a new author to do a pre-order. It really wasn’t advertised that way, but I put it on my personal Facebook page. All my friends pre-ordered the book. Three days later, my feed was just filled with pictures of all my friends with their copy of Lemongrass Hope next to their morning coffee. I remember being so weepy, ‘This is so beautiful. How nice—my book is in the hands of all the people who love me.’ And then I’m telling you, I didn’t sleep for three days. I was sick to my stomach for three days. I thought, you didn’t think this through. Now, everyone you know, everyone in town is reading . . . your . . .book.

A little bit of stage fright?

A lot of stage fright. A lot of exhaling as the reviews started coming in. My favorite compliments were from people who knew me who said ‘You know, a couple of pages in and I forgot you wrote it.’ That’s the best compliment.

The more I work on my own writing and the more authors I speak with, I’m always in awe and have a renewed sense of respect No one tells you how much work it is. Isn’t it similar to motherhood?

Oh, Absolutely. It’s just as personal. It’s just as painful. It’s just as complicated and emotional. And I love to write. This is true and I really mean this—I’m probably going to sound insincere but I’ll say it anyway—I really would write even if nobody would read a thing I wrote. I need to write, and I love to write, but it’s even better that people are actually reading it. I have to tell you!

You were able to take something from nothing and make it into something. How did that feel?

I loved the whole process. I really didn’t shop the book for long. I actually finished editing the book in October and I had a publishing deal by January. That’s very unusual. The reason is I didn’t try to shop it to larger houses first. I’ve talked to many people who say you start with the bigger houses and agents and then you work your way down. As an emerging author, you see where you land, and that’s a valid methodology. I wanted this in print. Then I found a publisher very quickly who was enthusiastic about the book, and said all the right things about the book, and said don’t change the ending. In hindsight, the reason it’s been the best decision for me is I’ve been able to see this to conclusion, and it has empowered me to write another book. I want this book to be even better. I’m petrified of not writing a better book, but I’m going to try.

Check out Amy’s website and blog for more information about her fiction and non-fiction writing, appearances, and Book Club offerings

Amy Impellizzeri and I met through Women Writers, Women’s Books. If you love books, if you’re looking for a source of support for your writing, a place of intelligent discourse, a diverse group of warm, generous, and often hilarious women, you have to click here.

 

 

 

 

 

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