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Interview with Joshua Sipper, author of Runaway Swimmer

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Joshua Sipper grew up in a small town called Luverne, Alabama where his rich family history and Native American heritage inspired him to write his first full length novel, Runaway Swimmer.

Though Joshua’s novel has not yet been picked up for publishing, he did go through all the necessary steps to get a book published, something few of us can claim.

Many of us have ideas for books and novels, but few of us put pen to paper and even fewer of us go through the process of getting a book published, assuming we even know the said process.

I interviewed Joshua in the hopes that he could offer advice and ideas to budding authors as well as his thoughts on inspiration and the actual process of finally writing a book. I came away learning that success in the field of writing is not so much based on how much you can make in sales of books you write, but in the fulfillment and reward one finds in finishing a task as daunting as researching for and writing a novel.

I am sure, being a fan of literature that you had always wanted to write a book. What finally inspired you to put pen to paper and write your first book?

I had toyed with the idea of the book all the way back during my junior year of college. So, I was about 21 when the idea first took root. There were several false starts and changes that happened along the way, including entire rewrites. I’d get 50 pages into it and then start over again (a strategy I still use for other books). The inspiration was really a combination of things. Probably the most significant part, though, was the fact that my wife was about to have our first son and I was suddenly 29 (on the verge of 30). I knew that if I didn’t start then, I might never write any book, much less the one I had struggled with for so long.

I understand the book is loosely based on your family history and your Native American heritage. How did you go about researching for your first book, Runaway Swimmer? Did you consult family journals or speak with family members who know the history, or both?

This is really where another aspect of inspiration hit. For years, my family has handed down a rich oral history of stories, mostly through my Great Aunt Luna. My Dad and I used to go sit for hours and listen to her tell stories about our ancestors. That was when I first considered that the story of George Washington Skipper’s abduction by the Cherokee on the eve of the Trail of Tears might make an intriguing tale. The specifics were filled in by my father’s deep genealogical research. He has hundreds of documents (original and copies) that give dates, places, descriptions, etc. One of the most exciting for me is Samuel Skipper’s enlistment record. It literally gives a physical description of my 5X great grandfather! I mean, how many people have that kind of family information?

With family history that rich, I can see why you found such easy inspiration to write a historical-fiction novel! But I also understand you have written other books with entirely different subjects. How much different was your researching for your other books than for Runaway Swimmer?

The Tower Quail, my second novel, is based loosely on other family issues. A close family member was a lonely and depressed teen who climbed this microwave tower near our home on many occasions, seeking solitude. In fact, my own brother also climbed it once, just to see what it was like. The time/dimensional travel aspect evolved from the loneliness and need to succeed that so many teens feel.

Dear Mrs. Johnson is another story altogether (no pun). The idea started in the bathroom (as most ideas do) as I read the back of an air freshener can. After all the ingredients and caution messages, there was a number and an address where you could contact Helen Johnson with questions and concerns. The idea turned immediately into a home-bound, overweight person who finds solace in writing this stranger and explains how he became like he is. It’s a book about so many things we have all experienced (loneliness, fear, self-hate, etc.) and how those things shape us. It’s also about how we can reject that and become another person.

Can you give a brief synopsis of your first book, Runaway Swimmer, and perhaps give a taste of what your other books are about?

Runaway Swimmer begins with John Skipper and his adventure to find Sally Hinote, the Cherokee girl who becomes his wife. After several life-changing events, they choose to start over in Alabama. They have 3 boys. The youngest (George Washington Skipper) is taken by a tribe of Cherokee at the beginning of the great Indian relocation. From that point on, the book tracks GW and his oldest brother Samuel. Samuel blames himself for GW’s apparent death and lives to protect all of his loved ones. When his son enlists in the Confederate Army, Samuel follows him to protect him. Unbeknownst to Samuel, GW (now named Runaway Swimmer) is the head Sergeant where Samuel and his son are sent to train. The rest of the story deals with the encounters they all have with each other and choices Runaway has to make about his birth family and Cherokee family.

When writing, do you plan your story in chapter format or do you just write continually, and divide into chapters later in the writing process?

For Runaway Swimmer, I planned it out a little and did some research, but the writing process itself was very organic. Most of the time, I sit down with an idea and just write. The idea grows and leads and I simply follow. It’s almost collaboration between me and the story. We grow and change together.

I understand your writing process is not as high tech as budding authors would expect. You actually use pencil and paper to write. Do you prefer to hand write rather than type?

It has been proved by scientists that there is a creative flow that happens when putting pen to paper that does not occur when typing on a computer. I didn’t know that when I first began to write. I just felt more inspired and comfortable that way. But, I can see why people would be more creative making art on the page the way people have for millennia. It’s hardwired into us.

On to the business side of things, what steps did you take in attempting to get your first book published? Were you successful? If not, what emotional challenges did you face when you learned that no one wanted to publish your book? Any advice for authors who get rejected the first few times? Or never get published at all?

Don’t worry about publication, but try your hardest to get published. I know that’s a contradiction, but you have to respect your work enough to try to get published and respect yourself enough to know that if you don’t make it the first time, you aren’t a failure and you’re allowed to try as many times as you like. My recommendation to anyone who wants to get a book published is to buy a Writer’s Market or sign-up with Writer’s Market online. You’ll find up-to-date information on hundreds of reputable publishers capable of publishing your book.

What kind of scams and schemes are out there that new authors are subject to fall for? Did you give in to any of these schemes in your early writing days?

There are more schemes and scams than I can name. The main ones to watch out for are vanity presses and Print On Demand (POD) companies. Vanity Presses are exactly what they sound like. You pay to have your book “published.” PODs do the same, except they offer very minute marketing, ISBN, and a few other helpful things that might get your book onto a bookstore bookshelf. But, with both VPs and PODs, you are VERY unlikely to sell any books. You have to watch out for fake competitions, too. There are plenty of reputable publishers and competitions to be found out there in Writer’s Market.

Also, there is a site called Preditors and Editors that differentiates between bad and good publishers and agents. Check it out before you ever agree to send your work to a company.

Have you ever tried online publishing? What are the pros and cons to this type of publishing?

I was in close negotiations at one point with an online publisher and then backed out. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with publishing online, but it’s very unlikely that your book will be seen or will sell. The best way to sell your book is still through traditional publishing first. If you get as popular as Stephen King, then maybe you can sell books and stories online. Otherwise, you’re going out on a limb.

Finally, non-authors may want to know how do you find time to sit and write with 2 kids?

My writing time is very limited. When I write, it is usually after the kids are in bed and I can have some quiet time to myself. The problem is tearing yourself away from all the other distractions like TV, food, games, etc. You simply have to make a commitment to writing and do it. It’s the same concept applied to losing weight, quitting smoking, or removing yourself from any other addiction, just sort of in reverse.

While Sipper’s books have not yet been published, he is offering it for free on the book’s website. You can go to RunawaySwimmer.com, click “Excerpt” at the bottom of the home page, then scroll to the very bottom of the “Excerpt” page to find a link for getting a free copy of Runaway Swimmer in PDF form.

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