Ami McConnell – founder of WriterFest Nashville and former Editor-in-Chief and Vice President at Simon & Schuster – stops in this morning for a conversation about books, roots, and wings; heaven on earth; new directions; imposter syndrome; and Kind Is The New Classy (co-authored with Candace Cameron Burke). She offers advice to aspiring writers that seems to me the best I’ve ever heard.
Hi Ami! Thank you for spending some time in the Bacon Neighborhood today!
You’ve had such an interesting and varied career in the book business as an editor, author, and now founder of WriterFest Nashville.
Where did you grow up, and what brought you to Nashville?
I grew up in Summerville, South Carolina, a quaint little town just outside of Charleston. There’s something about the humidity and rich history of the lowcountry that has fostered some of my favorite books. I’m thinking of Pat Conroy, Josephine Humphries, Sue Monk Kidd, Dorothea Benton Frank, Mary Alice Monroe, Karen White, and Marjory Wentworth. It’s such an evocative landscape. If a writer is from South Carolina, I’m bound to be drawn right into their work.
That said, I’ve been in Nashville since I was eighteen. This is home now.
Lipscomb University offered me a scholarship, so I came to visit in the spring of 1998. I fell in love with it right away. Even then, Nashville was my kind of town. Funny thing is, I think I love it even more today!
Please tell us about WriterFest…
WriterFest is my idea of heaven on earth. It’s a two-day event for writers of book, song, and film/tv. I invite people I respect and love – my favorite literary agents, film producers, editors, publishers, etc. We’re all about ways we can empower, inspire, and connect creative writers. We feature three amazing keynote speakers (a novelist, a songwriter, and a filmmaker) plus 15 breakout sessions, all focused on sharing what we know about creating the best written content. I love connecting writers with peers and with successful folks who curate and distribute creative writing. Parnassus has been a partner from the start, along with Lipscomb’s College of Arts and Entertainment, so we have a real grass-roots community feel, even though the talent is coming from all over – New York, LA, the works.
As an acquiring editor, I attended dozens and dozens of writer conferences, workshops, and book festival, sometimes as a speaker and sometimes accompanying my better-known authors when they’d keynote. My dream of WriterFest was really born out of those experiences. I wanted to bring together folks to share our Nashville vibe which, to me, is more collaborative and helpful than the competitive posture of so many gatherings. You’ll have to tell me what you think, Jennifer, but I think what we’ve created is pretty special.
I’d also love to hear more about your career as an Editor-in-Chief and Vice President at Simon & Schuster and senior acquiring editor at HarperCollins. I know this is a big question. Please paint a picture for us… what was it like to work in that world? From the outside, it seems very glamorous – and also very intense.
I loved commercial book publishing, even the part about working for huge publishing conglomerates which tends to get a pretty bad rep these days. The corporate aspect energized me. I felt lucky to be entrusted with capital to invest in books I believed in for purposes of a profit. Some days that could be tricky, all that balancing of art and commerce. What did it look like? Mostly, putting blood, sweat, and tears into helping authors reach their intended audience. It was about wooing. It was about contracts. It was about developmental editing and shepherding books through the design, sales, marketing, and publicity process. Then we let the market vote with dollars. Sometimes we had hits, sometimes not. But always it was a privilege and a blast. The talent I got to work with would just blow your hair back.
It’s funny. Writers talk about “imposter syndrome”. Editors have it too! Some days I’d think, “How do they trust me to do this important work? Millions are on the line. I’m just a reader!” I still get butterflies in my stomach when I send off an editorial letter, even when it’s to an author I’ve edited a dozen times or more. Anyway, turns out I was in the right place at the right time. I was able to begin managing teams while managing my own authors and the “lists” as we called them – the line up of books offered in a given season. After a couple of decades of that, Simon & Schuster shuttered the division where I was serving as Editor-in-Chief. My husband encouraged me to take some time off to get my feet under me again. After all, I’d been running at a pretty fast pace for a long time. It was really a sweet respite that I never had the wisdom to ask for, to be honest. It was during that time that I realized I wanted to try being on the other side of the desk for a while. Soon publishers and authors were hiring me for consulting and ghostwriting gigs. Here it is, three years later, and my own little business is going strong. Plus I get to do WriterFest, which allows me to stay plugged in to the publishing business. It’s the best of all possible worlds.
I understand that you are also the co-author, with Candace Cameron Burke, of the USA Today bestseller Kind Is the New Classy. What was that project like?
In a word, amazing. Candace inspires me on so many levels. She’s one of the most joyful people you’ll ever meet. People talk about living their best life – about living with intention and purpose. I’ve never seen anyone embody that so well as Candace. Add to that how accomplished she is and you’d be a bit intimidated, right? But she’s so kind and so creative. I loved working with her. Readers have responded so well to the book, too, which makes me happy.
Are you working on a book now?
Always! I’m helping a music celebrity with her memoir now. Next up is a book about managing your money with another celebrity. I have a book coming out next spring called Faithful Daughter: True, Inspiring Stories Celebrating a Mother’s Love and Legacy, just in time for Mother’s Day 2020. It includes my own essays plus over thirty from my writer friends. We had a good time putting that together. Lots of tears and laughter.
What do you think about Nashville’s literary community? What do you think is best about it – and where do you think it needs to grow?
I feel so lucky to be in Nashville at this particular moment. It’s such a great city for creative people. When I visit Manhattan or LA, people are always confiding that it’s their dream to move here. The best thing about our literary community is that it’s welcoming. It’s not a bridge club you need to be invited to. All you need to do is show up to a packed book signing on a Friday night at Parnassus where you’ll find yourself sitting next to someone who wrote ten number one country hits and behind someone who produced a new documentary on HBO. That’s Nashville for you!
I’m a little wary of speaking of Nashville’s literary community as if we can isolate books from the creative culture here as a whole. Books, film, music – they’re interconnected. Still, I’m particularly keen on the Nashville Public Library and what they do for this city. Nationally we are a major literary city since we have Ingram here and now Amazon and of course HarperCollins. In fact, all the major publishers have editors on the ground in this city. And our writers? Oh my goodness do we have amazing writers. I can’t say enough about that.
Where do we have to grow? I hope we’ll stay supportive of the work creatives do, whether it’s our cup of tea or not. In New York, for instance, publishers tend to lose sight of what most Americans want to read in favor of what’s in vogue in their insular culture. WriterFest Nashville aims to help us stay nimble and open to grassroots creativity. Along with great organizations like Salon@615, The Porch, Nashville Film Festival, and others, we support and connect writers of all genres. We’re committed to that.
What did you like to read as a kid? What kinds of books do you like to read now?
Dad taught school and my mom is a voracious reader, so books were everything for me growing up. As a preteen, I thought I’d hit the lottery when I discovered Judy Blume. Deenie; Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret; Blubber. Anything she wrote, I’d read. Then as a teen, I migrated toward books written in the context of the south. Josephine Humphries. Clyde Edgerton. Peter Taylor. Flannery O’Connor. And don’t get me started on Lee Smith. I adore her!
What do I like to read now? Everything. I love it when a book is as pleasurable to read alone as it is to discuss with friends. That’s the amazing thing about book clubs. You get to enjoy the book once alone and then again with company.
What’s the most intriguing book you’ve read in the last year or so?
Educated by Tara Westover. Such a curious story! I’m fascinated by self-marginalized groups and Westover’s particular brand of finding her way out of that and counting the costs had me captivated. And the writing is exquisite. I loved it.
JT Ellison’s Lie to Me was my introduction to her work and now I’m reading everything she’s written. Her plots and storyworlds are so riveting. My editor brain doesn’t even engage to notice structure or characterization or diction, all the usual things I can’t help but keep track of. She’s a genius.
My book group just finished Where the Crawdads Sing which was delicious. Would Reese Witherspoon steer us wrong?! Now it’s The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. Then I’ve promised myself I get to read A Woman Is No Man by Etaf Rum because if author Claire Gibson tells me I need to read something, I do.
Oh Ami, you’ve just added two books to my list.
Do you always finish a book you start?
If I’m not digging a book, I put it aside and move on. That said, sometimes a book I’ve set aside resurfaces later and the timing is perfect. Godric, by Fredrick Buechner, for instance. I tried to read it once and felt exasperated by it. A few years later a friend insisted I try it again and, it was nothing short of life-changing.
How do you decide what to read next?
I keep a short stack by my bed that includes a novel, essays, a nonfiction book, some poetry. Each night I ask my intuition what I need. No reason to force it, right? Right now I’m alternating between The Road Back to You by Ian Morgan Cron and The Goldfinch. And I like to mix in a little Billy Collins and Mary Oliver – one poem at a time.
Where is your favorite place to read?
There’s a comfy chair in my little den that I love to read in. It’s tucked into a corner next to a window. My cat loves to perch on the back of the chair and fall asleep, purring in my ear. I also love our back porch. It’s perfect for reading. But honestly I can read anywhere. I take books out to coffee shops and out to lunch by myself. They’re the best companions! I do have one stipulation though. I draw the line at reading books on my iphone. I adore the heft and weight of an actual, paper book. An iphone won’t do for me.
And finally – What advice do you offer aspiring writers?
Just write. Thinking and dreaming and talking about the book you want to write counts for something, but it’s not writing. If you find that gratifying, keep it at it. Being a writer involves loads of butt-in-the-chair time. If you don’t enjoy that task and find that you prefer “having written”, writing is probably not good for you. There’s just more of it to do tomorrow.
If you discover you enjoy writing, then here’s my best advice: Love your reader. When you write out of a sense of joy and love, what you create will be so attractive. It’s a strange alchemy. Love the work, love the reader. We readers will love you for it. It sounds reductive, but that’s the way it works, in my experience.
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For more information on WriterFest Nashville – Nov 22-23, 2019 – click here.