A conversation with non-fiction and now fiction author Amy Shojai

There are so many roads to being a published fiction author. I’m currently navigating that road after years of freelance journalism and a non-fiction book under my belt. Amy Shojai is the accomplished author national authority on pet care and behavior. I met Amy through the same publishing house (Cool Gus Publishing) that published my book, ‘Caring for Your Special Needs Dog.’ Amy is author to numerous pet books but next month she debuts her first fiction novel, a thriller titled ‘Lost and Found.’

            As someone paving a similar path I’m of course intrigued to know about Amy’s road to publication. Everyone has their own unique journey so I was thrilled to have the opportunity to speak with author Amy Shojai.

How long have you been writing non-fiction?

I began writing nonfiction articles in the mid1980s and at this point have lost count as to the numbers of articles and columns–well over 2,000 at last count. *s* I was contacted by a publisher to write my first two books after she read some of these articles. My first nonfiction book was published in 1992 by Bantam/Doubleday/Dell and since that time I’ve been very fortunate to have had two-dozen nonfiction dog and cat care and behavior books published.

When and what inspired you to start writing fiction?

Actually I always wanted to write fiction, and most of my attempts included animal characters, so LOST AND FOUND (my debut thriller) runs true to form.

I wrote my first novel, a rip-off of Beautiful Joe, when I was in fourth grade. It was illustrated (by me), and bound/published (by me) using shoe laces and cardboard from the back of yellow tablets. Yes, I had dogs and cats and horses and other critters on the brain even then, and read every book I could that included them. And I’ve always been a voracious reader.

When I got married we lived in a very small town with little outside entertainment, no jobs available, and only one TV station accessible. I’d nearly exhausted the local library. Like many readers, at some point I read something that made me thing, “I could write something better than this!” but I had never had the time. Finally I had no excuse. So I began writing fiction. I wrote (counting on fingers…) six complete novels and two partials. The first four were typed on my old Royal typewriter, and boy, was that a bugger to try and edit before computers. They will never see the light of day, thank goodness!

Describe your journey to fiction publication.

Long, arduous, frustrating, exciting, heartbreaking, nerve wracking…and worth every angst along the way! Part of the journey is described in the previous question. While I attempted to find an agent for my fiction, I wrote personal experience stories about dog and cat care since I’d become a veterinary technician by this point. That eventually led to more and more nonfiction assignments, and I began to create a platform–before anyone knew what ‘platform’ was. I had submitted my sixth completed novel, what today would be described as YA Horror, to a well known agent and she told me she didn’t handle YA because it didn’t sell. (My how times change, eh?) But she liked my publishing credits and said she’d be interested in me pitching a nonfiction book.

But nope, I ignored that invite because I wanted to write FICTION. And I continued to write the nonfiction articles about 40-50 a year, and along the way ended up being asked to write my first three nonfiction books by editors based on my “platform.” Finally I had a near-miss for a BIG nonfiction book, and when the publisher backed out I remembered what the agent had said–especially since she was a last minute speaker at an upcoming writer conference I planned to attend. So I faxed her (yes, that was a no-no), and she called me within 10 minutes, and I had an agent. We sold about 16 nonfiction pet books together and I was so busy and very successful with spokesperson contracts and tours with major pet food companies, that I had no time to think about fiction.

Then the Internet changed nonfiction pet book sale dynamics. Once again I had time to think about fiction. So I began working once again toward that dream of publishing a novel. Five years later–yes, FIVE YEARS!–my debut novel LOST AND FOUND will be published.

How has been a seasoned non-fiction author helped your fiction writing?

This has helped tremendously. First, I already know that the chance for success is very small but that the odds increase simply by plowing ahead. Successful authors don’t quit.

Second, as a nonfiction author I know how to research, understand editing, have gone through the process of start-to-finish book writing, and understand it takes a huge effort and many people to make it happen.

Third, and probably most important, I am a much better writer now. Those early fiction works, though they may be crappiocca, taught me how to write, allowed me to experiment and make mistakes, and gave me the confidence to know that I could finish a novel. Writing so many nonfiction books gave me the discipline to schedule work, follow through, and learn from my readers what is important and how I can answer their needs. Nonfiction also gave me my platform, an existing readership and way to reach them that will help enormously with LOST AND FOUND, because the story includes my nonfiction expertise of dog (and cat) training and care. Heck, the book even includes dog viewpoint! Didn’t you always wonder what your dog thinks? Now you can find out from the canine perspective.

What’s been your greatest challenge throughout this journey?

As with the rest of my life, the greatest challenge has been finding the time to git-er-done. One of the reasons LOST AND FOUND took five years to complete was that my nonfiction commitments paid the bills. Fiction work had to be fit into the empty spaces on weekends, evenings, and for a little over a semester I wrote on the book in between teaching high school choir classes.

The other challenge was concentration. With nonfiction I have no problem multitasking. I’ve researched and written multiple articles or even books at the same time. One year I researched and wrote three books, much of the writing in airports or on planes while touring, and never had a problem concentrating on the topic or switching gears to the next.

But writing fiction (at least for me) requires no distractions, so that I can fall into that world I’m creating. The phone’s interruption, or the cat or dog demanding attention, takes me out of the moment and it can be a struggle to get back into the story. I’ve gotten much better the longer I worked on the book, and believe the next novels won’t be quite such a struggle. Paws crossed on that!

Greatest joy?
Oh, there have been so many joyous moments along the way. Probably the first was finishing the dang thing! And then, with trembling a-plenty, I sent the manuscript out to several “early readers” for their thoughts and comments–and they liked it. Wow. I started breathing again.

An even bigger joy was when I heard from my editor they wanted to publish the book. Yay! And that was very shortly followed by another huge thrill that LOST AND FOUND had qualified me to be accepted into the International Thriller Writers Debut Author Program.

Most recently, though, best-selling thriller author D.P. Lyle read the book and gave me an AWESOME cover quote for the book!

I have to say, though, that the biggest thrill will be when my parents have the opportunity to read the book after it’s released on September 20. They’ve been encouraging supporters throughout this journey.

I understand you have incorporated your love for animals into “Lost and Found.” Did you use your real furry babies for inspiration or were these characters true fiction like the human cast?

I’ve heard different opinions on how much of “truth” to put into fiction. Perhaps I’m cliche but quite a bit of reality is in LOST AND FOUND in terms of the furry cast, and to a much lesser extent the human characters.

The main character, September Day, is an animal behaviorist and so I drew on my own experiences for her background. She has a trained Maine Coon cat, and has also trained a German shepherd service dog for her autistic nephew. Scenes in the book demonstrate how these animal characters were trained, and as I said earlier, the dog has his own chapters and his own personality and character arch just as human fiction characters do.

I live with a Siamese wannabe (Seren) and the Magical-Dawg (a German shepherd) so yes, both inspired me in different ways. Maine Coon cats are quite different than Siamese, though. And the dog character in the book is a nine-month-old puppy so I channeled my memories of Magic as a youngster. I have to admit, writing the dog and cat scenes were great fun, and thus far they’ve been favorites with early readers.

What did you wish you knew going into your journey to fiction publication?

I wish that I’d jumped on board the fiction train much earlier. There was a two-year period of time when my nonfiction book career changed and I banged my head against the wall–and then went into mourning when it wouldn’t stay the same. I might be two years ahead, if I’d not spent that time wishing for bygone times, instead of embracing the future.

What advice do you have for other authors out there wanting to write both non-fiction and fiction?

DO IT! Be brave. Be fearless. Or rather, do it despite the fear. Publishing changes so quickly these days that current and future authors must be prepared to move quickly and ride the wave–or risk drowning in the might-have-beens.

 

You can read Amy Shojai’s debut thriller ‘Lost and Found’ September 20.

In the meantime, crazy move is going full speed ahead for us. The move date is September 7th and that will be here before we know it. Sorry if I’m not online as much!

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5 thoughts on “A conversation with non-fiction and now fiction author Amy Shojai

  1. jennymilch says:

    I admire you for being able to make the switch, Amy. And I relate to all your adjectives about the publication journey–especially how it’s worth every angst.

  2. jodierennerediting says:

    Interesting! Looking forward to reading your debut thriller, Amy! And if you or other suspense-thriller or crime fiction writers are ever looking for a freelance editor who specializes in the genre, that would be me!

  3. donnagalanti says:

    Amy, loved reading your story -especially now that we’ve met and can share our ITW debut author experiences together! We must all have those first novels that dont see the light of day. But you forged on and made this one happen! I wish you must success. I too wrote non fiction with that yearning to write my novel! You have traveled a long road and can only go up from here. And I LOVE the new cover! -Donna

  4. Amy, you have such high energy. I can’t wait to read Lost and Found.

    Joanie

  5. Jenny Hansen says:

    It was fun to listen to all the ways your non-fiction got in the way of your fiction. I straddle the fence too so I LOVED this interview. Plus, our Amy rocks. 🙂

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