Author Interview, Ronnie K. Stephens, Universe in the Key of Matryoshka

Educator Ronnie K. Stephens drew strength from his students to write his first book, a collection of poems. He explains the difference between editing poetry and prose this way: "rewriting poetry is like sanding and whittling the knots from a piece of wood, while rewriting prose is like buttressing the frame and hanging the drywall." Read his full Author Interview below!

1. List the titles of your published books (include publisher and year published) plus your author website/Facebook page links.

Universe in the Key of Matryoshka

Timber Mouse Publishing (2014)

They Rewrote Themselves Legendary

Timber Mouse Publishing (2017)

2. When did you start writing your first book? Where did the idea come from? Include the synopsis. My first book is a collection of poems spanning roughly seven years, but over half the book came together in my 2nd and 3rd years of public education. I found an incredible source of inspiration in the strength of my students, and the magic of becoming a father took hold. The collection itself became an anthology of sorts, with each section highlight one vital space, or universe, in my life.

3. What was the hardest part about writing your first book? What hurdles did you have to overcome? The hardest part of the first book was selecting the right poems for a cohesive collection. I had over 400 poems, and at least 100 poems that felt polished enough for the manuscript. However, more and more poetry publishers are seeking collections which come together with an underlying narrative or theme. I went through eight separate versions of the final collection before finding poems that could speak to each other all the way through the book.

4. Once your manuscript was finished, what did you do? I believed that each of the eight versions of the manuscript were complete, so I submitted it to various indie poetry publishers at each stage. I was most hopeful about Write Bloody Publishing, and the eighth version was actually a finalist in their manuscript contest. Ultimately, the press committed to seven titles that publishing year, and the editor informed me that my manuscript was eighth on the list. He personally loved the collection, and he asked my permission to forward it to the editor of Timber Mouse Publishing, a poetry press that was just finding its legs. The editor of Timber Mouse Publishing, Kevin Burke, was a dreamboat as personally committed to publishing quality poetry as he was to combatting injustice. Basically, it was a partnership I was excited to explore, and one I remain ever humble for forging.

5. What did you expect from the editing process? How was the experience? I didn’t really know what to expect from the initial editing process. I had gone through many versions of the manuscript, swapping and rearranging poems at every stage. Once accepted, I think that I expected the manuscript to go on to the printers as it was. That, of course, was naïve. Kevin plugged me in with two editors, one of whom turned out to be absolutely brilliant and insightful, Ariana Brown. She gave me notes on each poem, and picked up on my tendency to write women from a place of victimhood. That was absolutely not my goal with the collection, and working with her helped reshape many of the poems to situate female voices as sources of strength and survival. In short, she helped me take a collection I liked and mold it into a collection that I can be proud of.

6. Describe what re-writing involves and how it makes you feel. How is it different than the initial writing? Rewriting, at least in poetry, often involves honing in on specific words, line breaks, and images. Unlike revising my novel, which was more about insert layers of depth and further developing specific elements of the narrative, rewriting poetry becomes more about cutting. The best way I can describe it is this: rewriting poetry is like sanding and whittling the knots from a piece of wood, while rewriting prose is like buttressing the frame and hanging the drywall.

7. Did you have non-editors read your book for feedback (Alpha Readers)? What did you get out of that? Moving from the sixth version to the eighth version, I asked about seven readers to provide feedback ranging from broad commentary to line edits. That process was, for the most part, helpful in collecting information about which poems and lines were most commonly identified as problematic. I then worked closely with Dane Kuttler, a friend and fellow poet, to revise based on the comments I’d received. Dane was and is one of the friends I turn to most often during editing, as she understands my voice and is tremendous at helping me tend to problems without losing sight of myself in a given piece.

8. Who designed your cover? How much input did you have? How important is the cover design? Desarae Lee, my best friend, provided the artwork for my cover. I had complete control, and I essentially asked Desarae for permission to use an image of hers that I had been enthralled with for quite some time. My editor loved the image, and the designer did a great job rendering it for the book. As I began marketing the book, the comment I most often received was that the cover art pulled readers in because it was so subtle and surreal. Honestly, I think that a number of people bought the book at shows because they liked the cover. (Carrie's Note: The cover is how I found Ronnie and asked if I could interview him!)

9. How did you go forward with publishing? Why? How was that experience? Once the collection was ready for print, my editor took over. He ordered a proof, did the last pass of copyediting himself, and ordered the first run of the book. His distributor made the book available via Powell’s, Amazon, and Barnes and Noble. It was a seamless process, really.

10. How have you marketed your first book? I relied most heavily on social media, specifically Facebook and Instagram, to market the book. My largest sales, though, have always come from live readings. Because I have five children under 10 years old, touring is largely impossible, but I take local readings as often as I can. I also urge those who have read the book to share their experience on social media, as well as leave reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. The truth is that marketing poetry is difficult without hitting the road, but it’s not impossible.

11. How was the initial feedback from readers? Readers responded very well to the collection, especially high school students and educators. Since much of the book draws on the strength of my own students, I think the poems most often speak to those who enjoy stories of perseverance and those who are moved by the incredible bridge between teacher and student.

12. How have sales been on your first book? Did they go as expected? What helps you the most to sell books? Sales for the first book have been okay, but I’m certainly not the author my publisher leans on to bring in money. Without touring, it took me roughly a year to sell through the first run, which is what I expected. As I mentioned earlier, selling at live readings is by far my most lucrative outlet. I think I have shipped a dozen or so books in the last year, yet I’ve sold forty copies between two small readings.

13. Talk about print vs ebook. Do you get more sales with one than the other? I don’t actually have an ebook for the first collection yet because my publisher doesn’t push for digital versions of the books, and I signed a contract which gave all digital rights to the publisher for the first three years following publication. That was actually a great learning experience, as neither of us thought much about the rights with that first collection, but I’m now mindful to inquire as to which versions a publisher actually intends to put out. If there’s no intent to publish audiobooks or ebooks, I work to secure those rights so that I can pursue them myself.

14. Did you set the prices of your print and ebooks? How do you decide how to price them? I did not set the price of my book, as the publisher has a standard price for paperback poetry collections based on printing cost and contracted royalties. With my second collection, though, we spent a lot of time identifying a cover price, as the collection is full color with a hardback cover. Ultimately, we aimed for a cover price based on expected print cost and the profit margin for paperbacks with the press. That cover price has been effective, as the first run has almost sold out already.

15. What made you decide to write more books? How were those experiences (writing/editing) compared with your first book? Did you do anything differently? The second book was something that I had talked to Desarae about for several years. She’s an incredible artist, and I often used her illustrations as starting points for my poems. The goal was to eventually put together a collection entirely inspired by Desarae’s artwork. After roughly a decade, I had compiled forty poems and we began lining up the poems with the illustrations that inspired them. The process was almost effortless, and the first version I sent to my publisher received very few edits at all. We had a new designer, whose work with layout took the book to places I couldn’t conceive. The final product is an absolutely gorgeous collection of art and verse.

16. Anything different in the publishing process for your other books? The publishing process is pretty similar with Timber Mouse Publishing, and I suspect that I will follow the same process if I put together a third collection. However, I’ve put a lot more energy into my novel over the past 18 months, and that publishing process is very different. I’ve worked closely with a mentor, and I sent what I believed was a final draft to an outside reader about six months ago. That outside reader, an editor at Sky Horse Publishing, provided me with wonderful commentary and I put together a revision to send back to her. I relied on a number of beta readers before finalizing the revision. Recently, I sent that revision to an agent as well, who made several comments about further revising the draft. Since so few publishers consider novels submitted directly, I’ve found that I need to craft a book that appeals to both editor and agent just to get the manuscript under consideration.

17. When did you consider yourself a "writer"? I have considered myself a writer since midway through college, when I began writing poetry seriously. I was submitting regularly, working toward chapbook and full-length collections, and continually honing my craft. Since then, I’ve completed a novel, written over thirty articles, and started a memoir. Writing is inescapable for me.

18. When do you write? What motivates you to write? Since I was five kids and teach full time, I write whenever I can. Sometimes, that means typing out a full chapter on my phone in the bath. Often, it means arriving to work thirty minutes or an hour early and hammering out a couple thousand words. The most fruitful times, though, are days when my wife arranges for me to write without any distraction for an entire day. While writing my novel, I had four dedicated writing days over a six month period, and those four days accounted for 40,000 words in the novel.

19. What do aspiring authors ask you? Most aspiring writers I know are students, so they ask me for commentary and inspiration. I work with a nonprofit organization teaching poetry to high school students, and I often end up counseling students as much about their personal struggles as I do their writing. For us, writing is always a place of healing, and we spend a lot of time talking through how to use writing as therapy without isolating ourselves or succumbing to the emotions that fuel our writing.

20. What advice can you offer for aspiring authors about writing, editing, publishing, and marketing? Be diligent, patient, and precise. Publishing is not an easy industry, but it will push your writing to places that you likely won’t reach on your own. Set your ego aside, avoid the trap of self-publishing, and really dig into the traditional route. There are plenty of small presses out there which match any author’s aesthetic, and even political, tastes. Find the one(s) that speak to you and go for it.

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