Interviews / Original Fiction

From Self-Published to Small Press Novelist: Q&A with Elie Axelroth

Full disclosure: I first met Elie Axelroth about a decade ago, when she approached me about editing her novel manuscript of Thin Places for publication.  I found both the book and the author intelligent and sensitive, and we remained in touch after Elie successfully published Thin Places and some shorter fiction. Later, I was privileged to work with her again on an early draft of her latest novel, Cross Body Lead, available here. Set on a college campus, Cross Body Lead addresses vital contemporary issues head-on: racism, stalking and harassment, PTSD, and gun violence.

Elie is a classic Bloomer, beginning her writing career after retiring from a full career as a psychologist—experience she brings to her fiction. I was delighted to be able to talk with her about the new book and the unfolding of her “second act” as a novelist.

Evelyn Somers: Your first novel, Thin Places, was self-published.  For Cross Body Lead, you’ve worked with an independent small press.  Did self-publishing the first novel make it easier to find a publisher for your second book?  And how has the experience of publishing with a small press been different from doing it yourself?

Elie Axelroth: I wouldn’t say self-publishing made it easier to find a publisher. I think I was clearer about what I wanted—which was to grow as a writer and if possible, to do less of the marketing and not pay for the upfront costs like editing and proofreading. I’d actually been offered a book contract from another small publisher earlier on, but it was clear the editing would be minimal, and with some regret I turned down the offer. That was clearly the right choice for me. I have no doubt that Cross Body Lead is a better book, having worked with Propertius Press. That said, a small press has its limitations in the resources they’re able to commit. Like everything else, it’s a tradeoff, and I still see self-publishing as a viable option.

Photo by Colleen Rosenthal

ES: You published your first book after retiring from a career as a college psychologist.  Had you thought about/planned on writing fiction before that?

EA: Around my forty-sixth birthday, I remember feeling the strong pull of time—shrinking or speeding up—or maybe both. I’d wanted to write, and it felt like a now-or-never moment. Since I was working at a university in the counseling center, I was able to take classes. I took a poetry class and then the creative writing class—twice  Along with trying to carve out time to write, I attended a few writers workshops—locally at Cuesta College, and Port Townsend and Flathead Lake. I read books on craft and participated in a few critique groups. I brought a short story to a writers workshop at Flathead Lake. It was so helpful being in a room with other writers who took their craft seriously, and I loved all the learning—about craft and research and how to develop helpful writing habits. At Flathead Lake, the feedback I got on that first short story was that it was a novel, not a short story. With two children at home and a full-time job, writing a novel seemed daunting, if not impossible. I’ll never forget the advice I received: don’t think of it as a novel, just a longer work. Whatever sleight of hand this involved, the advice stuck. Along the way, I found myself squeezing in time to write and then periods when nothing was happening—I was mostly just pretending to write. At some point, I happened to read an astrology forecast in the newspaper that indicated I was going to have a prolific couple of weeks. I challenged myself to write every day for a month. Then one month turned into two. For me, that immersive time with the writing was hard but felt so compelling. By the time I retired from the university, I had a pretty solid draft of what became Thin Places. With all that, I was glad I’d started to write in advance of retiring.

ES: Your career expertise is evident in both novels: both are largely set on college campuses; both address issues of mental health. But Cross Body Lead takes on larger social issues of race and ethnicity, PTSD, stalking and harassment, and gun violence.  Did you set out to tackle larger issues in the second book, or did the project simply develop in that direction?

EA: I very much wanted to challenge myself for this second book. In initial drafts of the book, I concentrated on developing the characters—that was where I saw the deepening in my writing. Having been a psychologist on a university campus, issues of PTSD and stalking were easier for me to handle. But I found myself drawn to using my time working at a university, or perhaps any large bureaucracy, where change happens slowly if at all, especially around issues of diversity and inclusion, racism and violence against women. My main protagonist, Billie Ochoa, seemed the perfect foil, a mismatch in academia in the sense that she’s impatient and single-minded. As I worked through the drafts, issues of race became more prominent. Those were trickier for me, and I was fortunate to have some good feedback and editing to help me see my blind spots.

ES: As an emerging writer, you’ve been astute in finding ways to promote your work through blogging, talking to writers’ groups, book launches, etc.  What have been your most valuable resources as you’ve learned the task of marketing a novel?

EA: Thank you for that! Like most writers, I’m an introvert, so reaching out to strangers to promote my work is not my strong suit. I’m in the midst of that now with Cross Body Lead, and I can say, it doesn’t come easily for me. So I’ve tried to find ways to promote my work that I enjoy. Early on, I started writing a blog that I use as a creative outlet and for marketing. I write short, mostly nonfiction pieces about whatever is on my mind, occasionally something political, or sometimes a travel piece—back when we could travel. I include my own photographs, so the focus is very different from my novels or short stories. I also use social media, although I’ve found that my own website and mailing list is much more effective. When I published Thin Places, I loved being invited to book groups, especially after they’d read my book. My readers often see things in the book I hadn’t necessarily intended or noticed. For instance, Thin Places involves a young girl who is abandoned by her mother and taken in by a foster family. I honestly didn’t do much research around foster care; I used my own sense as a psychologist about how that might feel. As it turned out, almost every one of the book groups I attended had someone in the group who had a connection to the foster care system. One woman had been in foster care briefly as a child and never told this group of close friends. The discussion was quite meaningful for everyone. With Cross Body Lead, I’m curious about what I’ll discover from my readers.

ES: Your new novel features minority protagonists: Evelyn Davis is Black; her history professor, Billie Ochoa, is Latinx.  They are not the only point-of-view characters, but they are two of the most important characters in the novel.  What challenges did you face in writing these characters? 

EA: This aspect of the writing was quite challenging, so I’m glad you’re asking this question. While I’m a white, Jewish woman, I felt reasonably secure in developing a Latinx character. I live in California surrounded by Latinx culture and I’ve spent a lot of time in Latin America: I attended language school in Mexico several times, I worked in Honduras as a Fulbright Scholar for six months, and I’ve traveled extensively in Central and South America. Billie is Cuban-American, and I’d traveled to Cuba as well. But creating a Black character felt like a stretch. Honestly, I tried to figure out how Evelyn could be white. But I knew the story would be richer, truer with a Black character confronted with stalking and not being taken seriously. I cast her as upper-middle class because at least that was closer to my experience. I’ve been involved in racial justice activism for the past twenty years and participated in many trainings, and I thought about conversations I’d had with Black colleagues and friends. Even though Evelyn is a victim of stalking, I didn’t want her to be perceived as a victim, so that was in the mix too. When it came time for editing, I sought feedback specifically about Evelyn. My editor at Propertius Press, Rulonda Fuller, is Black, and she helped a great deal with shifting Evelyn in ways that made her more three-dimensional.

That said, prior to signing with Propertius Press, I had a hard time getting an agent interested enough in the novel to request the full manuscript. I very much appreciated one agent who was willing to be honest with me. She replied to my query with an acknowledgement that given publishing’s focus on #ownvoices representation, she thought the novel would be hard to place.

At about the same time, I happened to read Colson Whitehead’s keynote address to AWP in 2019, “I Have Been on a Fried Chicken Journey.” It’s a marvelous address, full of humor and wisdom and the self-doubt that all writers experience. In the address, he encourages writers to write what they don’t know, including characters outside of our experience. Essentially his advice when writing across race and gender is to “get it right.” No one’s going to call you out unless you bungle it. (As I recall, Whitehead’s phrasing was a bit more colorful). I’m not insensitive to issues of race and cultural appropriation, but of course, it’s complicated. Whitehead’s piece was validating for me. I suppose, in the end, my readers will tell me how much I got right.  

ES: I found myself extremely interested in the character of Billie.  She’s a marvelous example of a flawed character—brilliant in ways but with a complicated back story, and at times overly sure of her views.  Not offering any spoilers, but she is not blameless in the novel’s outcome.  I’m curious about how you think readers in general will react to Billie. 

EA: I’m curious too! With all the characters in this novel—who I believe are generally well-meaning but fallible—I hope my readers will identify with their dilemma and see that what happens in the book isn’t so far from what many have witnessed or experienced. I imagine they will find Billie infuriating, but I hope they will also see how under the right circumstances, they might act similarly. Or perhaps even wish they had the courage to risk their livelihood for the sake of their principles. In the end, I’m hoping they are moved to ask themselves: how far would I go to right an injustice?

ES: A major conflict in the book is Evelyn being stalked by a fellow student and veteran, Eddie, who seeks the help of the campus counseling services.  I’m guessing your professional experience was invaluable with this aspect of the novel.  Can you talk about that briefly?

EA: From the start, I’ve been very cautious about ensuring that no character in my book is based on a specific client. At the same time, I think my novels are very much informed by my having been a psychologist and the moments in therapy of great hope and despair—as well as my own self-doubts and life challenges. For understanding human nature, there’s nothing like being in the room with someone who’s suffering with anxiety or depression or PTSD or is being harassed or stalked. Under the best of circumstances, the vulnerability and trust and truth-telling are life-changing. I also think developmentally about the characters in my novels—just as I would when working with a client. What happened in the past, that they are so cautious or impulsive or desperate now? Occasionally, I’ve even pulled out the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual), the diagnostic bible for clinicians, to look at the symptom lists. It’s tricky writing about therapy though, because nothing happens, often for many sessions. The real pace of therapy would make a dreadful novel.

ES: The novel’s title comes from a salsa term.  Billie is passionate about salsa dancing.  Are you a dancer?  Did you have to learn salsa to write those parts of the book?

EA: I’d always wanted to learn to dance. Then a number of years ago, my wife and I were anticipating being invited to a series of weddings—including both of my children’s. We arranged for a dance teacher to come to my house. We were admittedly clunky at first, but it’s been a fun addition to our lives, and we know enough not to embarrass ourselves out on the dance floor. In Cross Body Lead, it seemed natural that Billie would be a salsa dancer; it’s also a deep connection she shares with her dead father.

As an aside, the original title of the book was, The Year We Did Nothing, which I think captured the frustration of my protagonist, Billie Ochoa. That was before a global pandemic confined most of us to the narrow footprint of our homes. As the months of sheltering in place expanded, I became more and more aware that The Year We Did Nothing would evoke one thing only: COVID. I had to acknowledge the assumptions that would be made just from reading the title. It took some getting used to the new title, Cross Body Lead. Anyone who’s changed a character’s name mid-stream knows how tricky it is, like changing a baby’s name when they’re three years old. But I think Cross Body Lead is actually a better title. In Cuban salsa, the dance step cross body lead is known as, dile que no, which means: say no to her. It was a delicious discovery because many of the characters are told “no” in the course of the book.

ES: Talk a little about motivation and discipline for a novelist—especially a beginning novelist.  What has gotten you through the rough patches and seasons of doubt?

EA: While I’m not a gambler, writing reminds me of the slot machines in Vegas. The casinos keep you coming back with the intermittent schedule of reinforcement. Maybe this time I’ll write that really terrific sentence that sings. It happens, not as frequently as we’d like, and the process is pretty much a complete mystery. But there’s that moment of joy when you move a sentence around and suddenly, you’ve created something lovely. With a new book recently released, I’m trying to take in what those around are saying—wow, you wrote a book! Because whatever talent or skill there is to the craft, writing a novel—a decent one at least—takes persistence, and that’s something to admire. I’ve found it helpful to write every day, or most days, especially when I’m in the drafting stage. That way I’m immersed in the thread of the story. Like many writers, I try to stop for the day when I know where I’m going next. During these last two years of the pandemic, I’ve also found writing to be a refuge and a gift. In general, I’m a happier, easier person to be around when I’m writing, so that’s a gift too.

ES: With two novels complete and published, what are your plans now?  Is there another book in progress?    

EA: Yes! As I get older, I’m especially interested in how we make peace with our failings, our regrets. So this is the question my next novel asks. Tentatively called “Nesting in Place,” it figures a young woman who feels responsible for her sister’s death; she is drawn to birding as a path to forgiveness. During the pandemic, my wife and I took up birding, and I’m fascinated with how lovely the birds are—and how devious. Just like people.

***

The following excerpt from Chapter 2 of Cross Body Lead is reprinted by permission of Propertius Press.

Evelyn was gathering up her books and purse and laptop, heading out the classroom door when she felt a tap on her shoulder. She hadn’t noticed the tall guy approach her from behind. He was imposing, built like a football player. Instinctively, she backed away before realizing she’d met him at the history department social the Sunday before school started. She’d barely paid attention to him in class, except to notice that he sat in the last row, hunched over a desk that was painfully small for his oversized frame, as if he’d had to lever himself into the seat. She couldn’t recall him asking any questions or participating in the class discussions—something Dr. Ochoa required for a good grade.

“She’s wrong,” he said. His backpack was slung over his shoulder, and he was slouching, his face blank, making it hard to know if he was dead serious or joking.

“Excuse me?”

“About that guy Hirohito,” he said. “The Emperor. There’s no way we shoulda negotiated.”

Evelyn wasn’t sure what to say, so she smiled politely and started to turn away, but he was reaching out to shake her hand. Without realizing it, she’d been holding her books and laptop in front of her like a shield. It meant she had to move in closer to him. His handshake was firm, but his palms were sweaty.

“Eddie,” he said. “Eddie Pike. Remember? We hung out together at that party.” He was staring at her, expectantly.

As far as Evelyn was concerned, they hadn’t hung out together; it was more like he’d tagged along with her friends, Chad and Natalie—not that there was anything wrong with that. But Eddie had barely looked up from his new phone, scrolling through apps, checking email. Then he’d insisted on taking a selfie with them out on the deck. Natalie, who didn’t have any trouble being rude, thought he was creepy and didn’t want to go out on the deck—or anywhere else—with him. But Evelyn couldn’t see any harm in humoring the guy. Why not give him the benefit of the doubt? He’d seemed shy and insecure, the kind of guy who’s awkward but ultimately harmless. He’d asked for their contact information so he could send them the photo. The next day, she saw he’d posted the selfie on Instagram. In the photo, Eddie was leaning in toward her with his hand hovering above her shoulder—something she hadn’t realized at the time. Hanging with my friends #imacollegeboynow.

“Anyway, about the Emperor, that’s not what I wanted to say.” He paused, obviously working up the courage to ask her something. “I was thinking maybe you could show me around. You know, campus. I have to get my student ID. Some office behind the Graphic Design building. Wherever that is.” He offered her a sheepish grin, then looked away.

The layout of the campus wasn’t that hard to figure out and Evelyn was pretty sure he could find the building if he looked on a map. He seemed pathetic, misplaced, and she couldn’t tell if he was for real or if he was playing her. As much as she wanted to avoid spending any more time with him, she couldn’t figure out a polite way to say no. “Sure,” she said. “I have to go to the bookstore; it’s on the way.”

His face brightened. “Me, too,” he said.

As it turned out, two weeks into the semester, Eddie hadn’t picked up his financial aid check which meant he didn’t have money to buy his books. He’d been checking out the required textbooks from the reference desk in two-hour allotments, and he hadn’t bought notebooks or Scantrons for exams, either. “It wasn’t like this in the army,” he said. “They tell you exactly what you’re supposed to do. . . .”

When they got to the bookstore, he held the door for her and then followed her to the back of the store where rows of textbooks were stacked on six-foot metal shelves. Eddie tagged along close behind her. The puzzled look in his eyes suggested he had no idea how to find the books he needed. If this was an act, she thought, it was a pretty good one. But if he couldn’t figure out something as easy as finding a building or buying books, how was he going to get through his classes? “Everything’s arranged by subject and course number,” she said. They scanned the F-H shelves. Food Science and Nutrition. Geography. Graphic Communication. Health and Human Sexuality. History 257: America and the Cold War. She pointed out the two textbooks and supplemental readings required for the class. Of course, Evelyn had bought everything she needed before the start of the semester. She walked him to the Math and English sections to find the rest of his books. He was taking a remedial writing class and pre-calc.

Evelyn needed a lab notebook and safety glasses for her chemistry class. “I’ll meet you at the register,” she said. But Eddie stuck with her, like a small child afraid she’d run off without him. What’s with this guy? she thought, but she didn’t say anything, figuring he’d be off to his next class soon enough.

The checkout line was long, snaking around rows of metal stanchions. Evelyn didn’t have much to say, but Eddie kept the conversation going, telling her where he was living in the dorms, and how, after being in Afghanistan, he’d taken a few classes at the community college and worked for his brother up in San Jose at his auto body shop. As evidence, he showed her his hands, which were clean but callused. Then he complimented her on the dress she was wearing.

“Not many girls get dressed up anymore,” he said. “That color looks good on you.”

Evelyn was wearing a pleated skirt and a paisley green and gold cotton blouse she’d bought at a boutique in downtown Monterey. It was true, she prided herself on her sense of style. Her friend, Natalie, called her a clothes horse, but she wasn’t used to having a guy notice what she was wearing. Staring and catcalls? Sure, but this was different. Her previous boyfriend, Derek, who was a year older than Evelyn, hadn’t known how to compliment a girl—although that was the least of his issues. Even so, it seemed an odd thing to say, and she hoped it wasn’t his idea of a pick-up line.

It took them twenty minutes to make their way to the cashier. Eddie couldn’t believe how much his books cost. “It’s more than I was paying for rent back home.” He pulled out a debit card and reluctantly handed it to the cashier. “Now I really have to figure out where the financial aid office is.”

Evelyn had planned on meeting Natalie and Chad in the cafeteria, but she looked at her phone and realized there wasn’t enough time to have lunch with them and get to her next class. She felt exhausted trying to make idle conversation with Eddie, and she didn’t especially want to chaperone him any longer than necessary, but the financial aid office was the next building over and then, of course, there was showing him the Graphic Design building for his ID photo. Evelyn texted Natalie to let her know she couldn’t make it to lunch. She knew better than to tell her how she’d felt pressured into helping Eddie out. She’d never hear the end of it.

They headed over to the administration building; the Office of Financial Aid was on the first floor. The line was long, but fortunately, seemed to be moving at a steady pace. Eddie was talking about how at first he thought he was fighting in Afghanistan for a good cause, but then he saw how pointless it all was. “I’d enlisted. Maybe I didn’t know what else to do with my life. Seemed like a way to make a difference.”

She motioned toward the scar above his eyebrow. “You get that in Afghanistan?”

He nodded, but then he looked away. “I don’t like to talk about it.”

There was an awkward silence. Evelyn was sorry she’d brought it up. A student behind them was talking in a stage whisper about using her financial aid check to get the utilities turned back on. Evelyn’s parents made too much money for her to be eligible for financial aid, but still, it was something she could relate to—way more than being in the military.

“It’s been tough,” he said, “coming back, I mean.” He was staring at the front of the line, making it seem as though he was talking not to Evelyn but to himself. “Geez. Even got so bad, I thought about killing myself.” He glanced over at her like he was checking out her reaction, but as soon as she looked in his direction, he turned away.

Evelyn was so unsettled by his words she barely heard the rest of what he said, something about the woman who’d saved him. If she could have figured out a polite way to excuse herself without seeming mean or uncaring, she would have. “I’m sorry,” she said. “That must have been horrible.”

The line was shrinking, and there were only a few students ahead of them. “I don’t tell many people that,” he said. “Scares them off. But you’re being really great.” He smiled, then pulled out his phone. He briefly scrolled through his email before slipping the phone back in his pocket.

“I don’t mind,” she said.

Later, when he would accuse her of leading him on, she’d look back at that moment with regret for not having been clearer with him from the start. . . .

***

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Evelyn Somers is the longtime associate editor of the Missouri Review. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared widely in journals, and her work has been longlisted for Best American Essays, among other honors. She recently finished a comic novel about an empty-nester and her supernatural pet and is at work on a new novel, a love story about animal rights.

2 thoughts on “From Self-Published to Small Press Novelist: Q&A with Elie Axelroth

  1. Thank you for this interesting post. Elie Axelroth’s story is very much like my own as a developing novelist including the writing courses and writer’s workshop experience.
    My novel was also published by a legacy publisher after self-publishing two novels on my own. You can’t keep these boomers down!

  2. Pingback: Cross Body Lead: Dancing Up a Storm - Elie Axelroth

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