Young Adult Education Writing, Self-Publishing and Using Kickstarter: An Interview with ‘The Prescribed Burn' author Laryssa Wirstiuk Kerry Winfrey

When Laryssa emailed me about her debut collection of stories, The Prescribed Burn, one line stuck out to me: “stories for anyone who couldn’t relate to Holden Caulfield.” I loved and related (perhaps too much) to Holden Caulfield when I was in high school, and I reread my copy of The Catcher in the Rye so much that the spine broke and I had to tape it back together. But, to be honest, my boy Holden and I didn’t have all that much in common. He’s often held up as the prototypical depiction of adolescent angst, but there are a lot of people who never saw their experiences reflected in Holden’s rebellious ways.

So, naturally, I wanted to check out The Prescribed Burn right away. And I wasn’t disappointed! The Prescribed Burn is a collection of stories about Veda, a young artist who’s trying to figure out her life. We see her navigating her friendships as a child and sorting through relationships as a young adult. Veda’s always feeling confused, awkward, uncomfortable and out of place, which is something just about all of us an relate to.

As it turns out, the story of the book is just as interesting as the story in the book–Laryssa self-published The Prescribed Burn, getting funding through Kickstarter. She was nice enough to talk to me about her book, the world of Kickstarter, writing advice and the all-encompassing awesomeness of sweet potato fries.

1. Since a lot of HelloGiggles readers are still in high school, could you tell me what you were like back then? Did you already know you wanted to be a writer?

I attended a small all-girls private high school in suburban New Jersey, and I hated it. I resented my parents for taking me out of public school. They thought I’d be able to focus more on my studies and less on boys. I think I was about 16, a sophomore in high school, when I decided I liked writing. I didn’t start taking writing seriously until about age 18, after attending a summer camp for young writers. The first thing that inspired me to become interested in writing, after spending my life up to that point interested in art and design, was an English teacher who basically told me I was terrible at writing. I wanted so badly to prove her wrong. I told myself that I’d one day publish a book, just to spite her.

2. The promotional materials for your book use the line, “Stories for anyone who couldn’t relate to Holden Caulfield.” I’ll admit, I could totally relate to Holden Caulfield when I was in high school, but this line still caught my attention. Can you explain what you mean by this? And what did you want to accomplish with The Prescribed Burn that you didn’t find in other coming-of-age novels?

To be honest, I actually really like Holden Caulfield, and I can relate to him, to some extent. However, Holden Caulfield is the main character in one of the most iconic coming-of-age stories in modern literature, and many coming-of-age stories that students read in English literature classes are about young men: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, This Side of Paradise, Great Expectations, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, etc. Sure, I’ve read some coming-of-age novels about young women, but the young men are always the ones who seem most unapologetic about the way they fumble into adulthood. I wanted to write an honest, heart-wrenching, uncensored account of what it’s like to be a young woman coming of age in our time.

3.When you picture your ideal reader, who do you see?

I guess I see someone who I’d want as my friend: an intelligent, ambitious, and creative young woman. My writing teachers always told me, “Write the book that you want to read but that doesn’t exist yet.” I grew up admiring bold, confident, strong women, but I know that many women aren’t born that way – they must endure the process of growing into themselves. I wanted to depict that awkward growth process, and my ideal reader won’t be turned off by the reality of it.

4.How much of yourself did you put into Veda?

Some of the stories in my collection are loosely based on experiences I’ve had living in the New York City metro area, especially during the summers I was home from college. It wasn’t until I left for college in Baltimore that I felt an intense and unexpected longing for home. I think this period of being away from home really made me appreciate New Jersey more, and it made me think of it as a character rather than just a place. I like to say that many of my stories portray situations the way I wish they had happened, or they give me a chance to make peace with people from my real life.

5.What was the process of writing your book? How long did it take you, did you stick to a writing schedule, etc?

I started the stories in 2008, when I was in graduate school pursuing my Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. I presented a version of this book as my graduate school thesis in 2009 and continued to revise the stories after graduate school. I didn’t have a writing schedule, and I’d often feel guilty during whole stretches of time that passed without me writing. Then, I’d feel inspired and go on a writing binge; I would write for hours a day, but I could only sustain that kind of schedule for a week or two at most. I was very inconsistent with the writing and revising. At the end of 2011, I finally felt the collection was complete, and I spent the beginning of this year perfecting it.

6.What made you decide to go the self-publishing route with The Prescribed Burn?

Ever since I decided that my goal was to publish a book, I had the idea that I would publish more traditionally: get a literary agent and secure a contract with a big publishing company. However, I was about 17 at the time and didn’t know very much about the publishing industry. After years spent talking to writers and teachers, and after a few internships in the publishing industry, I started to realize that perhaps the traditional publishing route was not for me. I’m a total control freak, and I happen to have experience in marketing, publishing, design, public relations, editing – basically all the skills that are needed to publish a book. At the beginning of this year, I submitted my manuscript to literary agents but soon became very frustrated by the process. I felt like I was wasting time that I could have been putting toward developing my book. Deciding to self publish was one of the best choices I’ve ever made. Producing the book, which took me all summer, was one of the most enjoyable activities I’ve ever done because it required me to use so many of my skills and talents.

7.What was your experience with Kickstarter like? Did some of the donors surprise you?

I never in a million years would have considered running a Kickstarter campaign if not for the encouragement of my friend Mark, who’s a children’s comic book artist. He had successfully run a Kickstarter campaign to help him publish a book, and he had nothing but good things to say about the service. Hesitant to ask anyone for money, I felt awkward at first. But realizing I wouldn’t have enough money to print 1,000 copies of my book myself, I had to take a chance on Kickstarter and completely devote myself to the task. I don’t think I’ve ever hustled as hard as I did during the month of my Kickstarter campaign. I was completely floored by the support from friends, family, acquaintances, and even a few strangers.

8.You must be exhausted–being a writer, publisher, publicist, and a teacher? How do you make the time to do everything?

Funny you should ask that because, as I write this, I’m thinking about how tired I am. I just finished grading a stack of research papers and have about a million other things I need to do before I can go to sleep. In November, I was involved in a project called National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), which encourages writers to complete a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. It’s kind of insane. At the same time, I’m also planning an event to benefit Hurricane Sandy victims with a dozen other artists and writers. I’m lucky to have a supportive boyfriend who doesn’t take it personally when I need time for myself or when I need some quiet so I can finish my work. Getting enough sleep is key, and eating healthy food helps. Above all, maintaining balance is about being kind to yourself. You and I are human, and we can only do so much. If we have one bad day, we simply make the best effort to move forward tomorrow.

9.What writers inspire you?

As a teenager, I related to poetry more than short stories and novels, and I was in love with the poet Louise Gluck. When I started reading short stories, I discovered Lorrie Moore. Two reviewers have compared my work to Moore’s work, and I am both flattered and not surprised – how could I not have been influenced by her when I spent so much time reading her work? I also admire any writers who can pull off experimental writing without sounding cheesy or like they have something to prove; Nicholson Baker is like that. He’s not afraid to try anything in his writing.

10.What young adult books do you think everyone should read?

A Wrinkle in Time, Lord of the Flies, Persepolis, The Giver, A Separate Peace.

11.Overall, what’s been the best part of your experience writing and publishing The Prescribed Burn?

The best part about writing The Prescribed Burn was proving to myself that I could finish a book-length project and feel proud of it. The best part about publishing the book is being able to share it with strangers.

12.What advice would you give to HelloGiggles readers who want to be writers?

The best advice I can give to aspiring writers is to believe in yourself even when you don’t believe in yourself. The publishing industry is ridiculously competitive, and many talented writers never get published simply because they are unlucky or they feel uncomfortable being advocates for their own work. No one in the world is going to believe in your work as much as you do, and you have to be able to keep pushing and trying, even without any outside encouragement. Also, feel free to send me an e-mail! I love talking to budding writers.

13.And one last, super-important question: if you could only eat one thing for the rest of your life, what would it be?

Sweet potato fries.

A huge thanks to Laryssa for being such a great interview subject! You can visit the website for The Prescribed Burn and buy the book on Amazon!

Images via The Prescribed Burn

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  1. Very interesting! I’ll definitely check out the book.

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