Monday, March 8, 2010

An Interview with M. LaVora Perry

*This interview was originally published at Multiculturalism Rocks.
Today I’m proud and excited to interview author and publisher M. LaVora Perry. LaVora, thank you for joining us today!

I recently reviewed your book PEACEBUILDERS, in which you share some aspects of the Japanese culture such as food and language. Have you spent time in Asia and abroad in general?

MLP: Thanks so much for interviewing me, Nathalie!

To answer your question, I want to travel to Japan and all over the world. But, no, I haven’t been to Japan yet. I became more familiar with Japanese culture than I might have otherwise when I started practicing Buddhism. The form of Buddhism I practice, Nichiren, began in Japan. The people who brought this teaching to the U.S. and spread it worldwide were Japanese. Many of the practitioners I met when I started my practice were Japanese. So it was only natural that I became familiar with things Japanese. For PEACEBUILDERS, I researched traditional dishes, like oden, a winter stew, to make the book authentically reflect Japanese culture.

I am curious to know how you made the transition from Taneesha’s books to PEACEBUILDERS…

Long before I wrote Taneesha Never Disparaging, or its predecessor, Taneesha’s Treasures of the Heart, I knew I’d write PEACEBUILDERS. This may sound weird, but I actually dreamed of writing this book in 1976 when I was 14 years-old—years before I’d ever heard of Daisaku Ikeda or knew anything about Buddhism.

In recent years, I pitched the idea of PEACEBUILDERS to publishers, including Buddhist publishers. I pitched it to agents, too. But, I think because Daisaku Ikeda is not as well known in the U.S. as he is in Asia, agents told me they saw no market for it. It could also be that my pitched letter sucked.

Even so, I might have found a publisher for it anyway. But I made the mistake many writers make–I submitted the manuscript before it was in top shape. So every publisher I submitted to rejected it.

By the time I’d gone through the critique and revision processes to the degree the story needed to be fit for publication, I realized that even if a publisher picked it up, due to Daisaku Ikeda’s advanced age, I could not guarantee that the book would be published in time for him to be able to know children around the world were being inspired by his story and that of his beloved teacher, Josei Toda.

I heard the clock of age loudly bonging—my age (48) and Daisaku Ikeda’s age (82). So I decided to publish PEACEBUILDERS through my company, Forest Hill Publishing, LLC. I also decided to release it on the date that Josei Toda passed the task of building world peace to Daisaku Ikeda and all young people in 1958—March 16, which Soka Gakka International (SGI) Nichiren Buddhists celebrate as “World Peace Day.”

Do you intend PEACEBUILDERS to become a series, or is it a stand-alone book?

I’m working on companion books to PEACEBUILDERS.

LaVora, we read in your biography that you have been practicing Buddhism since 1987. If I may ask, how did you embark on that spiritual journey?

In 1986, I was living New York. A year earlier, I’d moved there from my hometown of Cleveland, Ohio to become an actress after I was kicked out of Ithaca College’s theatre arts program because I’d been too depressed to attend classes.

Sometime after midnight on February 16, 1986, I was walking the streets of Forte Greene Brooklyn with no where to go. The guy I lived with was in our apartment with his “real “girlfriend” who had come down from upstate and discovered, that night, that her boyfriend was mine, too.

The two of them were in the apartment, where I’d heard my “boyfriend” say about me: “I don’t love her!,” and about his other girlfriend: “I love YOU!” After that, I walked out into the night, feeling totally alone and demoralized.

As I walked down the sidewalk, three smiling woman approached me and invited me to a Buddhist meeting. They looked so happy—just the opposite of how I felt. I went to the meeting with them and joined the SGI-USA Buddhist organization that night.

But I didn’t start practicing Buddhism until the fall of 1987 when a friend convinced me to do the practice—chant the words Nam-myoho-renge-kyo while imagining my desires. The day I did this, I landed my first performing job since arriving in New York two years earlier. For the first time ever, I felt I could change reality. After that, I was in. I’ve been chanting ever since.

How does your spiritual life influence your work as a writer and a publisher?

My spiritual life is my life. If I’m not taking care of my spiritual business, everything goes haywire.

As an actress, you starred in plays and movies. Does such an experience give you a particular approach or strategy in writing for children? And does that come into play in the workshops that you lead?

“Starred in movies” sounds way bigger than anything I’ve ever done. But, yes, my acting background definitely impacts my writing.

When I conduct school workshops, I incorporate drama into reading my stories. And when I’m writing, I read out loud to hear how the words sound—to hear if dialogue sounds the way my characters talk, if the narrative flows, if the sentence structure works. If I have a character performing a certain task, I might act it out to see if it is physically possible to carry out the task the way I’ve described it being done, and to see what words most precisely convey what the character is doing.

You started Forest Hill Publishing in 2004. You have successfully self-published, and you even published other authors such journalist Beverly Robinson and Chicken Soup for the Soul author Nancy Gilliam.

I personally judge a book by its content, not its press. Despite success stories like yours or Zetta Elliot whose self-published book recently got picked up for publication by Amazon, what would you attribute the prejudice suffered by self-published authors?

Again, “success story” sounds bigger than what I’ve achieved—but I plan to live up to it. In any case, I am deeply grateful that you judge a book on its merits because I respect your opinion. I can’t wait to read Zetta’s novel, A Wish After Midnight. People like you and Ari over at the Reading in Color blog have totally whetted my appetite for it.

That said, I think the responsibility for eliminating the prejudice against self-published books ultimately lies with the authors of these books, me included. While industry bias exists, and prejudice exists, the cold hard fact is that too many self-published books are poorly written and riddled with typos.

I once heard Newbery award-winning author Linda Sue Park say that instead of saying “My manuscript is just as good as other books I’ve read,” before we writers start submitting a manuscript to publishers, we should be able to say, “My manuscript is as good as the best books I’ve ever read.”I think we self-publishers need to apply the same high standard to our books.

I’d drive myself crazy trying to take a purely external approach to breaking down the mountain of prejudice that is very real in this world and that functions to keep people like me down. I think one of the most effective ways for me to fight this battle is to become so good at what I do that people can’t help but want want what I produce. I’m okay with the fact that I’m not there yet. I won’t stop until I get there.

What was the most challenging experience when you created Forest Hill Publishing, LLC, and How does one start a publishing company?

Money has been my biggest obstacle as a publisher. With sufficient cash, hiring editorial, design, and marketing staff would be a snap.

Beyond that, I’d like to point readers to my book Successful Self-Publishing—From Children’s Author to Independent Publisher, A Simple Guide for New and Not So New Authors. It predates blogging, FaceBook, and Twitter; so it needs updating and I have no idea when I’ll do that. But even so, it lists effective strategies I used to start Forest Hill Publishing on a virtually non-existent budget and sell thousands of books as a result. These strategies are just as relevant now as when first Successful Self-Publishing launched.

What has been your most rewarding experience?

The most rewarding thing for me as a writer is when a reader says “I like your book.” Nothing beats that kind of genuine affirmation.

Does Forest Publishing intend to publish other writers? If yes, what are you currently looking for?

Right now, Forest Hill will consider all types of projects. Regardless of the project, we require our authors to assume most of the responsibility for selling their books.

What are the submission guidelines?

Forest Hill Publishing’s guidelines are posted on our “About Us” page.

Last but not least: the success and growing recognition you’ve earned does not come without an efficient marketing strategy! *Hat down* Any tips for the writer getting ready to promote his or her first book?

Read Successful Self-Publishing and check out the marketing and promotion resources I list on my personal website. Set up your own website and blog. Use FaceBook, Twitter, and any other media that’s relevant to people in your target audience and widely used by them. Recognize that bookstores are typically not the best places to sell books. Keep your eyes open for non-traditional bookselling opportunities, andcreate such opportunities.

Are there any questions you wished I had asked?

I’ve launched a PEACEBUILDERS essay contest for grades K – 12. The deadline to enter is March 16. Details are on my BookCover kjidlit blogI got the idea for the contest from Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich ran for her debut novel, 8th Grade Super Zero .

A few of the the writers groups and associations listed on my website really help me develop as a writer and learn about the industry—the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, the Highlights Foundation writers workshop in Chautauqua New York, which offers a scholarship, and most recently, the relatively new, but dynamic, Association of Children’s Authors and Illustrators of Color.

Also, March 19-21, the newly formed Multicultural Literature Advocacy Group holds its first conference in Mobile, Alabama. There’s still time to register. I hope many writers of color, and those who support the cause of diversity in publishing, will attend. I’ll be presenting a publishing workshop.

Lastly, I once made the mistake of ordering a few hundred copies of Successful Self-Publishing for an event at which I sold about five books. I’m now selling them at a big discount. Details are on my Fear-It’s So Yesterday, blog.

LaVora, thank you again for your time and for sharing your experience. I look forward to Forest Hill Publishing’s upcoming projects!

Again, thank you, Nathalie! You have a tremendously giving and expansive spirit. I’m really touched that you asked me for this interview.

For more information on LaVora Perry, visit
o LaVora’s Website
o Her blog: Fear-It’s So Yesterday
o Forest Hill Publishing, LLC
o Facebook
o Twitter

LaVora’s interviews
o by Amy Bowllan for Writers Against Racism, at the School Library Journal
o To learn what the “M” stands for in M. LaVora Perry and more, read the following interview she gave at the Brown Bookshelf.
o Multiculturalism Rocks! review of PEACEBUILDERS.

Books by LaVora Perry:


Kristi Bernard said...

This is great LaVora. So far I am really enjoying "Taneesha" she is a great character.

bookcover said...

Thanks, Nathalie, for letting me know Color Online posted your interview here. And thanks Susan for doing that!

Also, Kristi, I really appreciate you reading Taneesha. I'm glad you like her!

As you know, Nathalie, the MLAG conference has been cancelled. But I love the words you shared with me when we got this news, which you originally shared with MLAG founder Dyahnne Alston : Things always look bleak before a great leap forward.

You also said that because of the conference buzz, word is really getting out about MLAG and multicultural books. This is a great thing. I know that bloggers like you and Susan are a huge reason why this is happening. There are no words to thank you enough.

Jessie Carty said...

Such a great interview. I especially appreciate you calling to the selfpublishing community to step up and put out a quality product :)