Friday, February 17, 2012

The Writer's Block Interviews: Katherine McCaughan



1)      What was your journey to becoming a writer?

Firstly, thank you Raychelle, for this interview. You have a great blog and I am very proud to be a part of it. As a former high school English teacher, I have been interested in literature for a long time. Then, many years ago, a friend suggested we write a book together. Well, we got a friendly divorce after Chapter 3, but I was hooked on the writing process.  I signed up for a writing class and discovered a whole new world of compatible people and a whole new life.

2)      Do you specialize in any particular genre? 

I have been published in short story, essay, book review and magazine article form and I have written a young adult novel. No, I guess I do not specialize. 

3)      Who are your favorite authors and how do they inspire your work? 
      Growing up in Australia, I read many English authors such as Enid Blyton. I also loved Canadian L.M. Montgomery. As an adult, I still love British literature and await the Man Booker awards every year. My taste is very eclectic. I love anything that is well written from which I learn something – history, psychology, anything about the human condition, so there are many, many authors I admire. When I really love a book, I will read it twice, firstly for the story and then to analyze the writing to see how the author involved me, the reader, in this other world. Authors I admire include Margaret Atwood, Pat Barker, Ian McEwan, Annie Proulx, Lorrie Moore, Tom Franklin to name just a few.  
4)      Tell us about your current project, Natasha Lands Down Under.   

      My young adult novel tells the story of a young girl, born in Shanghai, China, to Russian parents who flee to Australia in 1950 after the Communist takeover. Only the mother speaks English, so the characters are often actually speaking in Russian, although of course, the book is written in English. Being Russian in the West during the Cold war period had its own problems and Natasha’s family is often accused of being communists. The book covers the first year of Natasha’s new life with flashbacks to the war years. It explores the issues immigrants have as well as those of growing up and fitting in with your peers. I hope it shows people who have only ever lived in the country of their birth, the depth of the dislocation that occurs when a family migrates and the struggles of establishing a new life.

5)      How have your real life experiences influenced the plot of Natasha Lands Down Under?     
      It was because of my family history that I wrote the book. I had written down true stories of my family’s past so that my children would know what had happened to us before they were born. I was indeed born in China to Russian parents and migrated to Australia in 1950. Most of the stories in Natasha Lands Down Under that occur before arriving in Australia are actually true.  My father was almost shot for having U.S. dollars in his wallet, and my uncle was ‘displaced during World War 11. I created Natasha to carry these stories into a book.  The events that occur after the family is in Australia, however, are mostly fiction, although often based on experiences I have had or on situations that friends have encountered. 

6)      How did you choose your publisher? Describe that process.  

       I had sent my manuscript out to about three publishers and a few more agents. One publisher kept it for nine months, even sending me a note asking me to be patient and then I received a letter stating something like ‘even good manuscripts cannot all be published’. I’m sure we have all received those. So I took matters into my own hands. A writer friend who had used High Pitched Hum recommended the publisher to me, so I decided to use them to bring Natasha to the world. 

7)      How do you promote your work? What strategies have been most successful? 

      The one thing that has helped the most was that Natasha Lands Down Under won the Moonbeam Children’s Book Award for Young Adult, Historical/Cultural Fiction in 2009. It really gave it a boost.  I have made presentations at schools and community groups and have been invited to book fairs, as well as spoken at book group meetings. On-line activities help, too, such as this interview and a blogtalk radio interview I did for Angelica Harris’s program. As well I have a Fan page on Facebook.  My comprehensive web site has both discussion questions and a Teacher’s Guide.
8)      What do you plan to accomplish in 2012?                                                                                                                
      So far I have been concentrating on marketing my novel, but I hope to write for several blogs. I also enjoy helping writer friends by critiquing and editing their work.

9)      What advice would you give to budding writers?                                                                                                 
      It’s simple - keep writing. Hone your skills. Join a writer’s group. These groups are invaluable in supporting the writer while still critiquing the writing. If one group does not work for you, leave and find another, even if you have to start it yourself. It is also important to work on marketing skills, which often do not come naturally to people who are writers. 

10)   What is your definition of success as a writer?

The joy I feel in having my work make a difference, however small, in another person’s view of the world. When people tell me they learned a lot of history while enjoying reading my book, then I feel that I have succeeded in what I set out to do. 

Author Bio:

Katherine McCaughan was born in Shanghai, China to Russian parents who fled to Australia in 1950 after the Communist Revolution. She graduated from the University of Sydney and Sydney Teachers’ College, and taught English and History at the high school level. In 1977, with her husband and three children, she moved to Chicago, Illinois, where she worked in real estate and relocation. It was in Chicago that McCaughan began writing down family stories from the dangerous and tense times the family faced during the Second World War, the Japanese occupation of China and the civil war that followed.

In 1993, with her children in college, she and her husband moved to Hong Kong where they lived for ten years.  Here McCaughan wrote book reviews for B- International Magazine, personal essays for AWARE magazine, published a short story in Australia, and taught creative writing at the Hong Kong YWCA. The nostalgia brought on by the Chinese and British cultures in Hong Kong inspired the interweaving of the family stories into a fictional novel, Natasha Lands Down Under. Drawing on her experiences, the novel explores issues of migration and adaptation.
McCaughan was invited to be a ‘featured author’ at the Amelia Island Book Festival in February, 2010, and to take part in the Florida Heritage Book Festival in St. Augustine in September 2010. She has spoken at many schools, book groups and community organizations. A podcast of an interview she gave to Angelica Harris and Siggy Buckley can be found at  She now spends her summers in Chicago and the rest of the year in Jacksonville, Florida.



Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Writer's Block Interviews: John Barlow

1)      What was your journey to becoming a writer?

I’ve been writing since I was young. Three full novels in my twenties, all unpublished! Then, when I was in my early thirties, I had a novella published in the Paris Review, and that led to a two-book deal with HarperCollins in the US (fiction) followed by a book with Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Meanwhile, I quit my job as a university teacher and went full-time. Apart from my own writing, I make ends meet by working as a ghost-writer, and I occasionally do features for a food magazine and other bits of journalism.

2)      Do you specialize in any particular genre(s)?

No. I’ve published ‘imaginative’ literary fiction, a travelogue, and now a crime-mystery. As a reader I like anything well written and absorbing, so that’s what I try to do as a writer.

3)      Who are your favorite authors? How do they inspire your work?

John Updike, because he can write about everyday life with such surprising eloquence. James Ellroy, because you just cannot stop reading one of his books once you’ve started. Ray Carver, because I simply don’t believe how consistently amazing he is, every line, every phrase.

4)      List your accolades. To whom or what do you credit your accomplishments?

I won the Paris Review’s Discovery Prize with my first published work. I’m quite proud of that, and it certainly opened some doors for me. I also have a PhD in Applied Linguistics, and I think that made me more sensitive to language and how it works. I am also grateful that for the last eight years I’ve managed to earn a living from writing, one way or another. For that I have my wife to thank, who not only puts up with an (*ahem*) irregular income stream, but is constantly and unwaveringly supportive. Thanks, Susana! You’re great!

5)      Tell us about your most current project, Hope Road.

It’s about a man who grew up in a criminal family, but who has tried to escape the life of crime. However, he finds himself involved in a murder investigation, and things start to unravel. It’s a character-based mystery. You might call it a ‘psychological mystery’ or ‘literary crime’. It’s set in the English city of Leeds, like Kate Atkinson’s Started Early, Took My Dog. There’s a traditional crime to solve, but it’s also about how people deceive those who love them most. You can read it even if you don’t much like whodunits.

6)      Have your real-life experiences influenced the plot of Hope Road?

Yes! I found out last year that an uncle of mine was an arms dealer and thief. He was found dead on a flight from Amsterdam in ’84, his throat cut. I’d never been told this. It got me thinking about crimes and families, how the two things interact.

7)      How do you promote your work? What strategies have been the most successful?

Indie publishing is an experiment for me. I’m just a few weeks into the publicity for Hope Road, but I’ve found the best approach seems to be to write guest posts or do interviews for book bloggers. It’s more difficult to get people to do a review, simply because most bloggers are absolutely swamped with books to review. I will also do giveaways of the ebook, in the hope that recipients might post a review on Goodreads or somewhere similar. Does any of this translate into an increase in readers? I dunno yet. But if you really believe in the book, it’s not a bad thing to have to stand up and shout about it.

8)      What do you plan to accomplish in 2012?

The second book in the series. Hope Road is the first in a proposed series of nine books, all loosely based on a criminal dynasty.

9)      What advice would you give to budding writers?

Just write. Don’t get too caught up in the excitement of e-publishing. The indie revolution is a tremendous development for writers, of course, but in the end writing is just about you and the page. And turn Twitter off!

10)   What is your definition of success as a writer?

Anyone who can carry readers right to the last page of a book has done something special. Reading is not a passive activity, you have to want to do it, and readers can easily find other things to do if a book is not holding their attention. So if you can take readers with you and keep their interest, that’s an achievement.

 Author's Bio:

John Barlow was born in Leeds, England in 1967. He studied English Literature at Cambridge University and worked as a university teacher before becoming a full-time writer in 2004. In the US his fiction has been published by HarperCollins and his non-fiction by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. His work has been translated into six languages.

Contact John:


Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Writer's Block Interviews: The Alphabet Kids

1)      Where did the concept of The Alphabet Kids originate?

Allegra Joyce Kassin, our Chief Executive Officer, created the Alphabet Kids concept. She is a devoted mother of five and grandmother of seven, who was in search of literature that highlighted children from all different kinds of backgrounds and cultures. It was her original idea.

After being introduced to Emmy-winner and humanitarian Patrice Samara by a business colleague, they teamed up to fully develop the concept and the brand... and the rest is history! 

Mrs. Kassin and Ms. Samara believe that Alphabet Kids filled a void. “Our goal is to help our youngest learners everywhere to love themselves, embrace diversity and understand that friendships can be created despite cultural or physical differences.”

2)      Tell us about the characters and the cultures they represent.

Our characters are Allegra (Italian-American), Elena (Hispanic-American), Isaac (Jewish-American), Oni (African-American), Umar (Arab-American), and Yang (Chinese-American).  We also embrace many other cultures from around the world and physical types through our website, community-based activities, and features in the Alphabet Kids Magazine.

Our timeless stories follow the Kids fun adventures as they learn to embrace their cultural heritage and other life lessons. With the population of the United States becoming more diverse each day, it is important that everyone - especially children - understand how to co-exist with others who may be different.

3)      What is the mission of The Alphabet Kids?

The Alphabet Kids have a mission to spread multicultural understanding from the start and help children love who they are and realize that people who are different can be very good friends! 

4)      Tell us about the team of experts who contribute to this series.

  • Patrice Samara is the co-author of all the Alphabet Kids books.
  • Neme Alperstein, author of Isaac’s Zoo; Subject matter expert; Educational Advisory Committee
  • Abed Awad, Esq, co-author of Umar’s Magic Oven; Middle Eastern subject expert          
  • Michelle Bodden, co-author of Oni’s Good Hair Day; African-American expert; Educational Advisory Committee         
  • Dr. Jingyi Hong, Co-author of Yang’s New Dance, Chinese subject expert and cross-cultural communications expert; Educational Advisory Committee          
  • Liana Pérez, Co-author of Elena’s Birthday Surprise; Hispanic subject matter expert; Educational Advisory Committee
  • Vivian Treves, Co-author of Allegra’s Apple Tree; Italian subject matter expert; Educational Advisory Committee
  • Isaac J. Kassin, Co-author with Patrice Samara of Alphabet Kids Go to the Planetarium  (2012)
 To read all of the experts' bios, follow this link: 

5)      What kinds of activities and resources does The Alphabet Kids website offer?

In addition to giving updates on all of our activities, around the country, we have reviews of movies suitable for families and children, and offer free, downloadable activities for children, and educational tips for parents and educators.

6)      What is the “You Buy One, We Give One” program?

Committed to social responsibility, we instituted the Alphabet Kids Buy One-Give One Literacy Program, donating books to children in need through myriad literacy programs nationwide. For each book, sold we donate one book to a child in need. Each member of the Alphabet Kids team is deeply committed to supporting our charitable activities by visiting schools, community and faith-based organizations, schools & hospitals across the United States and around the world. We distribute books through established charities we support such as the Melvin Van Peebles Foundation and The Fatherhood Task Force of South Florida's Fatherhood Reading Squad.

7)      Tell us about your current projects and what is next in the series.

In 2012, we will be launching the Alphabet Kids Science & Technology Series. Our premier book in that series is "The Alphabet Kids Go to the Planetarium". (See answer to question 10 below) We have been working closely with the Melvin Van Peebles Foundation with a mission to encourage literacy and careers in science.  Alphabet Kids will also be working with the Black Spectrum Theater in New York City to produce plays based on the Alphabet Kids stories. Their Executive Director, Carl Clay is a visionary when it comes to bringing theatrical productions to schools and encouraging the community to attend theater performances.

8)      How do you promote The Alphabet Kids? What strategies have been the most successful?

Alphabet Kids utilizes various methods to get the word out about our books, curriculum, teacher training, music and other products.

We have an extensive PR program, utilize social media, and tour around the country.

We have done a licensing deal with Select Italy, a tour company and created "Amazing Family Tours" focusing on family travel and utilizing our book content as an educational spring board.

We have also done co-promotions with wonderful, innovative  organizations such as BurdaStyle and Footzy Rolls.

We meet with school superintendent, teachers, homeschoolers,, parents and the media to discuss related topics. We visit schools,  hospitals, community centers, faith-based organizations and also attend as many educational and trade shows as possible.

2011 was an important year for the Alphabet Kids Series, culminating with an appearance on NBC's Today Show in an interview by Jenna Bush Hager, Education Correspondent on December 24!

9)      Tell us about your music CD, “Music for the World”.

The CD is available on our website ( By way of background, The Pihcintu Multicultural Chorus welcomes immigrant children from around the globe, remarkably helping to rescue young lives blown apart by the horrific conditions from which many of them have fled. War-torn villages, bloodshed, refugee camps, famine, and political turmoil were devastating realities for so many of these young singers before being embraced by the warmth, companionship and harmony of a loving musical environment.

For these children, the power of survival eases – but never erases – the memory of unthinkable atrocities, physical danger and personal tragedy. Filmed in Portland, Maine, an ever-expanding international resettlement community, there was fertile ground to bring together young survivors from diverse backgrounds, helping them to adapt to a new home and connect them with local children in a healing, musical setting.

Con Fullam, an award-winning producer, musician, and songwriter, combined his passion for music with a deep concern for the effect of world issues on children by creating the Pihcintu Multicultural Chorus. When he was five, his father died and music became his salvation. Fullam’s dream was to help others in need through music and he began The Chorus with the help and encouragement of countless citizens and supporters.

The American Indian word Pihcintu means, “When she sings, her voice carries far,” a sentiment that truly embodies the spirit of the CD and a new documentary film. Emmy-award winning Patrice Samara, Producer/Director, shot the documentary over numerous months capturing multiple rehearsals and  she produced the CD.  Music for the World follows the singers as they prepare for their recording session and concert, highlighting the stories of these unique young singers who range in age from 9 to 20. With families originally from Cambodia, China, Congo, El Salvador, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Uganda, Viet Nam, West Indies, and Zambia plus other countries, the girls bond with children whose families have lived in the United States and Canada for generations. The Chorus has touched the hearts people of all ages everywhere and being in their presence is a life-enhancing experience. The children, their stories and their music are transformative for the singers and their audiences alike. Through the healing power of music, these vulnerable, yet brave, young women have learned to trust, hope…and laugh again.

10)   What can young readers expect from The Alphabet Kids in 2012?

We will be releasing a special addition book called " The Alphabet Kids Go to the Planetarium". The book is co-written by Isaac J Kassin, a sixteen-year-old honor's student and Emmy-winner Patrice Samara. We wanted to encourage our reader's to learn more about science and encourage careers in the field of technology.

In 2012, we will also be working with the Black Spectrum Theater in New York City to produce plays based on the Alphabet Kids stories.

Our goal for 2012 is to mount a bus tour called "Alphabet Kids Many Face-Many Places Tour". On our first part of the tour schedule, we are planning to go to Portland, OR, Seattle, WA, San Francisco, Sacramento, and Los Angeles, CA. We plan to go to schools, hospitals and community centers such as the Boys & Girls Clubs and YMCAs to meet our fans. We will be visiting Mayors, community leaders and PTAs in as many communities across the country as possible to connect with our readers in person! We have a mission and we take that mission very seriously. WE want the world to be a much more understanding and tolerant place for everyone...especially the children.

Connect with The Alphabet Kids:

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Writer's Block Interviews: Writer and Founder of Storiad, Ramzi Hajj

1)      What is Storiad and how did it get started?

Storiad is a networked marketplace dedicated to the art and business of writing. Storiad’s goal is to provide writers with intuitive technology to help them better: 1) connect & collaborate with one another; 2) reach a wider readership base by making it easy to disseminate & market their written work; and 3) connect with publishers, editors, & film producers active in the written media acquisition market.

My name is Ramzi Hajj, writer and founder of Storiad. The idea for Storiad originated with a conversation with my wife Jennifer about the business of writing. At some point during the conversation, someone said: “Too bad there isn’t a LinkedIn just for writers.” This got us to talking about how to use professional online networks to connect with other writers, publishers, and audiences. After much discussion on what this “LinkedIn for writers” would look like, the only question remaining was: “why not build one?”

Why not, indeed! So with coordination, planning, trial & error, some luck, long days, and (of course) a great team, Storiad was built and launched in 2011. Now writers have a unique place to congregate, connect, market and sell.

2)      Why should writers use Storiad?

Writing can be a very solitary endeavor. One of the things we as writers sometimes forget to do is establish a network of contacts. The adage (or has it become too much of a cliché?) holds true: “It’s not so much what you know as it is who you know.” In the writing world, the who you know includes other writers, editors, publishers, film producers, agents, and a dedicated reading audience. Storiad is designed to help writers build that network of contacts, be it for creative, collaborative, and/or commercial purposes. With Storiad, writers can manage and share their writing-related activities from one platform. Here writers can -

ü  Share biographical, professional & contact information;
ü  Collaborate and network with other writers;
ü  Build project portfolios to share excerpts of available work;
ü  Blog to keep readers and potential buyers up-to-date;
ü  Advertise available books/eBooks, or writing-related services;
ü  Access Storiad’s proprietary written media marketplace; and
ü  Access Storiad’s ready-made network of readers, writers and media professionals

The best answer we can think of to the question “Why network?” is this: “… because you never know who in the wide-world is looking to read, buy, produce that very thing you’ve written, are writing, or will write.” Storiad makes it easy to get yourself and your story out there.

3)      What additional services are available to both writers and media professionals?

When writers create a Storiad account, they also receive a Vox Storiad blogging account. It’s a great way for writers to keep the reading audience and potential buyers of their work up-to-date on their writing activities. Writers can also request access to Storiad’s social media outlets to automatically broadcast each new blog posting to the Storiad network.

Writers have the option to access the interactive Storiad 411 advertising platform. It’s a great way for members to advertise writing-related services, including published books, author readings, editorial services, and much more.

Storiad Marketplace is where writers and media professionals interact. Storiad works with publishers, editors, film producers, and agents to determine the types of projects they’re most interested in receiving and developing. Writers, in turn, respond. This feature has been very popular with media professionals as it allows them to both control the types of submissions they receive and to search Storiad Marketplace for authors (and their work) they may not otherwise have a chance to meet.  Similarly, writers have told us they appreciate the opportunity to tailor their submissions to meet the business needs of media professionals. It removes a lot of the guesswork (and frustration) from the submission process. In addition, by just being on Storiad, they’ve increased their chances of having their work seen by media professionals they may not otherwise have a chance to interact with. It’s a win-win for all involved.

4)      Please share some of your more notable success stories.

When Storiad members succeed, we succeed. As writers ourselves, we are genuinely happy to hear from writers who have used Storiad to help them better connect with other writers, media professionals, and/or reading audiences. And this happens all the time. It gives us a real, tangible sense of accomplishment. Plus it really helps us better develop and test new Storiad products and features. And when we hear that a certain publisher or film producer has found their next project on Storiad, then we are really, REALLY happy.

Storiad has received numerous media outlet mentions (including on, as well as requests for blog & radio interviews, and group presentations. For example, we were recently asked by the University of California Long Beach to give a presentation on networking at their annual writer’s conference. It was great to share our “online” concept in the “offline” world, because we know the importance of building face-to-face relationships.

5)      What are the media pros who use Storiad seeking in the way of quality and professionalism from writers?

In general terms, there can be no substitute for the compelling, well-crafted story. Yet, even that tends to be rather subjective. One media pro’s “A+” manuscript, say, is another’s “C+“. However, all media pros do agree that there can be no telling where the next great story may come from. They tell us that they are on Storiad to better their chances of finding that great (maybe undiscovered) author and story they may not otherwise find through the more “traditional” channels. And writers tell us that is just fine with them.

In practical terms, these same media pros also tell us they are also looking for writers who are eager to sell themselves and their published work. That is one of the reasons why we strongly encourage writers on Storiad to take the time to complete their profile in a thorough and professional manner. The Storiad profile (like the more “traditional” cover letter), for example, is the writer’s chance to really make a great first impression. Editors & publishers tell us that, when searching for a particular piece of work on Storiad, they carefully read the attached profile first. The harsh reality is that poorly composed (or poorly edited) profiles don’t get the same kind of consideration that more polished, compelling profiles do. Of course, the nice thing about an online profile is that writers can make as many changes to it as needed until they are completely satisfied with how it reads.

6)      What advice would you give to writers using Storiad for the first time?

We can’t stress enough how important networking can be to writers. Both artistically and commercially, we feel an expansive network can only help writers better reach the audiences they deserve. And like any other field, networking is a subtle combination of who and what we know. To build a productive network, we encourage writers to think of their writing career in terms of their writing assets. These assets may include:

ü  Original ideas;
ü  Command of the language;
ü  Story-structuring abilities;
ü  Completed projects (manuscripts, scripts, anthologies, etc);
ü  Publication history ;
ü  Marketing approach;
ü  Writers, media professional, and reader contacts.

Among others, to be sure.

All of the above work in tandem, the whole being more valuable than any of the individual parts. So when it comes time to build their Storiad platforms, we encourage writers to really take advantage of all the features and services designed to maximize exposure of their writing assets.

7)      What is the most rewarding aspect of providing this type of forum?

This one is easy to answer: our product development brain-storming sessions. Storiad actively seeks input from writers and media professionals on those features and services they’d like to see Storiad develop. And we receive thoughtful and creative ideas on a daily basis. The development team meets once a month to begin the process of translating those ideas we’ve collected into functioning Storiad features and services. These meetings are always lively discussions, with the obligatory dry erase pen and whiteboard at the ready. The ideas flow at a furious pace, one building atop another, the dry erase pen squeaking along the white board surface. It’s collaboration at its best, as ideas grow from whimsy, to real possibility, then on to development, then testing, and finally … launch. It’s a true labor of love. Since some features require longer “lead times” than others, we are at work on a continual stream of short, medium, and long projects. Our suggestion box is always open to ideas and comments.

8)      What is next for Storiad in 2012?

In January 2012 we launched an expanded writer’s platform with lots of new features and services. With every upgrade, we aim to provide more and more tools for writers to better connect, communicate, market and sell their work. The response from writers to our latest release has been very enthusiastic.

In the coming months, we will be rolling-out upgrades to our media professional’s platform to make it even easier for media pros to find the right writers and right projects at the right time. In addition, we will be introducing some very creative ways for media professionals to conduct their book & author publicity campaigns online. This is something almost every editor and publisher we’ve spoken to has expressed an interest in seeing developed.

We are also working on some very cool features designed to facilitate real-time interactions between writers and media professionals. Now, we can’t go into too much detail at this time, but we can say that it will be unlike anything presently available for writers on the Internet.

And finally, Storiad will be partnering with various writing-related websites to develop even more outlets for writers to showcase their work and get their story out there.

We invite writers and media professionals to join us on Facebook and Twitter for updates on these and many more Storiad developments.

Thank you for your time. We hope to see you on the Storiad network soon.

Become a Storiader:
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