Thursday, March 15, 2012

Interview: Bryna Kranzler - The Accidental Anarchist: From the Diaries of Jacob Marateck

The Accidental Anarchist: From the Diaries of Jacob Marateck written by Bryna Kranzler is a story of surviving and living despite great suffering. This award winning book is definitely worth the read, both as a historical document and a story of one man's fight against oppression. 

The Accidental Anarchist is the WINNER of The USA "Best Books of 2011" Award in the Biography:Historical category

Finalist, ForeWord Review's 2011 Book of the Year: Biography

  "The Accidental Anarchist is a profound testament to the power of faith, and to the continued survival of the Jewish people." -Elie Wiesel

About The Book:

Genre: Historical Biography

The Accidental Anarchist, is the true story of Jacob Marateck, an Orthodox Jew who was sentenced to death 3 times in the early 1900s in Russia -- and lived to tell about it. He also happened to have been my grandfather. The book is based on the diaries that my grandfather, whom I never knew, began keeping in 1905 during the Russo-Japanese War. That was when he decided that he needed to help overthrow Czar Nicholas II (the last of the Romanov dynasty), which led to his 3rd death sentence.

There are characters and a uniquely Jewish situation, namely persecution and oppression. The book takes place at a time when anti-Semitism was the official government policy throughout the Russian-occupied territories, which included Poland. All Jews (who couldn’t buy their way out) were conscripted in the brutal anti-Semitic Russian army, which happened to be one of the Czar’s vehicles for conducting pogroms. So you can imagine what life was like for Jewish soldiers. In fact, even when my grandfather received a battlefield promotion (because the army had a problem with the Russian officers deserting their men during battle), the man under his command wanted to kill him at least as much as the enemy did. Yet Jacob Marateck survived poverty, starvation and the horrors of war with his sense of humor intact, and it is from his wry and ironic perspective that he shows what life was like for Jews in the early 1900s when it was always “open season” on persecuting Jews, as well as during the disastrous war in the incompetent Russian army.

About the Author, Writing & Publishing: 

Is writing a full-time job for you? If not what else do you do? I write, but I also handle the other responsibilities of a mother, even one with sort-of-grown children. In other words, I handle their insurance problems, manages bills and taxes, keep kitchen appliances that are past their usable lives in mostly working condition, and so on. I am also taking online classes toward a certificate in Copyediting, and whenever I feel like I’ve lost focus, I bake. I love to bake healthy versions of decadent desserts, and just this weekend decided to learn cake decorating (though I won’t take that up until I have a few things off my plate). I spend a lot of time pursuing speaking opportunities and book reviews in the hopes of creating some momentum for the book so that I don’t have to spend so much time promoting it and can go back to writing.

How many books have you self-published or have been published in the traditional manner? The Accidental Anarchist is not the only book I have written, but it is the only one I have published. I have two other novels in boxes or on the computer. One I would like to resurrect as a YA novel, but it’ll be a while before I have time to focus on that. The other one has a very important theme, but I want to figure out a different way to tell the story. I used to write short stories, but the more I read, the less confident I felt that I knew what a short story was supposed to be, or do; so many of them seemed to stop rather than end, and I felt that until I understood why the author stopped, I felt unequipped to write them any more. I like writing essays and articles, most of which I’d put into the category of Creative Non-Fiction. In other words, they’re based on reality but I enjoy a little flexibility with my version of events.

Why do you write? I write to know what I think. Although I’ve become comfortable as a speaker, there have been many times where I was not quick on my feet with a response, and honestly didn’t know how I felt until I sat down and wrote about it. In fact, I seem to be constitutionally unable to read without a writing implement in my hand (which, as you could imagine, made my kids unlikely to show me anything they wrote because I couldn’t help but make comments – not edit – in the margins.) even when I read published works, I rewrite the authors’ sentences in my head, which you can imagine slows me down as a reader.

When you are writing something new do you ask someone's opinion about it? I’m sensitive about talking about projects until I have my ‘elevator speech,’ because I’ve learned that until I can summarize my project in one sentence, I’m really not ready to write it. And there’s nothing more destructive to creativity than getting a tepid response to an idea you think is wonderful. When I have my ‘elevator pitch’ I know I can communicate it consistent with my thinking, and in general I’ll get a positive or at least a respectful reaction to it.

When you write do you need absolute concentration and quiet? I need either absolute quiet, or I need noise that has nothing to do with me. For several years, I wrote in Starbucks, Panera and other public places where I was under no obligation to talk to anybody. (When you get to the point at which people know you by name, it’s time to move to another spot or you’ll never get anything done). But I sought out those environments because when I worked at home, I realized that I’d hear the laundry of dinner calling me whenever I got to a touch spot in my writing, whereas if I committed to sit at Starbucks for 8 or 10 hours a day, I had to do something, and that something was writing.

Do you believe or have you experienced "writer's block"? If so, when and why? I don’t experience writer’s block; I experience “writer’s distraction.” I take on too many projects at once, and all of them feel URGENT. That tends to make me jump from one thing to another, whether it’s contacting people regarding speaking opportunities, offering book excerpts to magazines, soliciting reviews of my book, writing reviews (I write book, movie and theater reviews for my Facebook page), writing an editorial (as the result of participating in the OpEd project), writing articles about aspects of the time in which my book is set that I plan to send to History publications, writing new talks for different audiences, and dealing with the ‘business’ of publishing, ie., how can I accomplish more without spending anything other than my own time. Fortunately, I and other people keep coming up with new ideas for me to pursue; I just don’t have time to do it all, but I don’t foresee running out of opportunities for a long time to come.

Do you incorporate incidents from your own personal life into your works? In The Accidental Anarchist, I remained true to my grandfather’s experiences, but there was one point where I felt he would have, or must have, had a powerful emotional reaction, though he didn’t write about it. Maybe it was too overwhelmingly emotional for him to share, though he was remarkably honest with his feelings about other sensitive topics. In that case, I extrapolated from my own feelings and how I believed, from what he’d written about so many other incidents, how he would have responded. But aside from The Accidental Anarchist, virtually everything else I write or have written draws from some personal experience, even if I don’t realize it at the time.

Do you write what you think the public wants to read or what you feel to be your inner-expression and forget about the public? If I wrote what the public wants to read, I’d be a lot more successful. I have a lot of respect who can apply their talent, or skill, or craft, to a mainstream story (and by mainstream I include vampires). But at my current stage, I can still only write about things that have meaning for me.

If you did Self-Publish why did you do it?  My grandfather began keeping his diary in 1905, during the Russo-Japanese War, when he decided that he needed to help overthrow the Czar. He wrote until he was distracted by people shooting at him, by being sentenced to death repeatedly, and being sent to, and escaping from Siberia. When he returned home for Warsaw, his family urged him to flee to the U.S. (but only after taking a wife, because who knew what kind of women he would find in the U.S.?) where he retold his stories from the war, as well as what life was like for Jews living under Russian occupation, with the same sense of humor and irony with which he wrote. His listeners urged him to finish writing everything down, but he didn’t have time to do so – at least not until the Depression. And once he started writing again, he didn’t stop for the next 20 years. On the day in 1950 that he finished writing, he asked my mother if she wanted to help him translate the diaries since he wrote primarily in Yiddish, with a little bit of Russian and Polish thrown in. She was delighted; she had grown up hearing her father’s stories as every Sunday he read to her and her siblings the stories he had written that week. They made plans to start the very next day, but he died that very night. Years later, my mother was dating my father who was the first Orthodox writer in Hollywood. Her mother whispered to her to “Show him Papa’s Diaries.” My father was from Germany, so he, too, was fluent in Yiddish, and was just as captivated as my grandfather’s audience’s always had been with the remarkable tone with which he told his stories about very difficult experiences. After my parents married, they spent many years translating the 28 handwritten notebooks that constituted my grandfather’s diaries, and in 1976, they published a portion of the stories under the title, The Samurai of Vishigrod. My father had always intended to publish the remaining stories, be he, too, passed away before he could complete the task. Then a few years ago, my mother, who was already in her 80s, made it clear that she wanted to see her father’s story told within her lifetime. And I knew that if I went the traditional route, with an agent and a publisher, she might not live to see the finished product, whereas by choosing to self-publish, she has been able to enjoy hearing me talk about the long history to publication (over 100 years and 3 generations) and enjoy people’s reactions to her father’s experiences.

When you market your book what path did you chose? Why? And what has not worked out for you and what has worked for you? What I didn’t realize was that writing the book was the ‘easy’ part; the hard part is selling it. While Amazon is a great equalizer, simply having the book available for sale or download doesn’t let people know what it’s about or why they should buy it. Even marquis authors give book talks and lectures for that same reason. So the hard part has been trying to get the word out without spending a lot of money (though if you calculate the opportunity cost of the time I spend marketing it, it adds up to a lot of money). I didn’t know that it was necessary to develop an author platform before publishing, and made all sorts of other mistakes. But those mistakes, as well as what I should have done, are actually the topic of my next book: “Everything I Did Wrong When I Self-Published My Book, and How You Can Avoid Making the Same Mistakes.”

How much time do you spend on marketing your own work? Probably 50 hours a week, when you exclude the time I spend on other pursuits or necessities as I described earlier in this interview.

If you self-published tell us in order the route you went, e.g. Kindle to Print to Smashwords or whatever you did. I published the paperback first, and within about a week made the download available through Smashwords and Amazon. I went through Smashwords because they could convert the book into each of the download formats at the same time (once you figured out why the file was rejected; they may be good at doing the conversion, though they’re terrible about communicating what formatting problem you need to correct in order for the conversions to be done properly)

Which publishing sources would your recommend? And which would you not recommend? I went through Lightning Source, which does a good job, although it drives me crazy that they don’t work on weekends. When you’re counting the number of working days to get your book printed, not working on the weekends really slows things down. I have, however, been concerned that Amazon is making it difficult for some authors to sell their books unless it has been printed by CreateSpace. I don’t want to be forced into that arrangement, but If the trend of Amazon listing books not printed by CreateSpace as “Availability: 2-3 weeks” (though this has not yet happened to me) continued, I may have to have my book available to Amazon through CreateSpace, but depending on cost, may continue to order my inventory through LightningSource (though it seems as if LightningSource or someone else would file a Restraint of Trade suit – wouldn’t you think?

How much time and effort did you put into the cover of your book? I firmly believe that people do just a book by its cover, so I decided that that was an area where I would spend money. I advertised on Elance for an experience book jacket designer. Half the people who responded had never designed a book cover, so I tossed those resumes. The remainder all had created covers for non-fiction books, which made me realize that I wanted a book jacket that made The Accidental Anarchist look more like fiction than non-fiction, and I wrote it to read that way. Only one of the applicants had done fiction covers, too. He also happened to be in Russia, which was a nice coincidence since most of the book is set in Russia. Although I never spoke to him directly, we exchanged a lot of emails, and I had a very good feeling about him. When he presented me with 4 covers from which to choose, I knew I had made the right decision to hire them. All of them were excellent, and it was difficult to choose among them. I took a poll among my family and friends, and conducted one online, from my blog. Two covers got about equal votes. I was also choosing between two titles: The Accidental Anarchist or This Way to the Firing Squad. So I printed two mockup covers, each with two titles, and took the four mockups to my local independent bookstore. I showed the covers to the booksellers and asked what they thought. The booksellers preferred The Accidental Anarchist for the title, but they were split on the cover design. They suggested that I consult another bookseller across the street from them, a guy who sells used books, but brings in amazing authors to speak. I laid out the covers in front of him and asked what he thought. He looked at all them, moved them around, thought some more, and then pointed to the one. He was so certain in his choice that I went with the one he picked, and I’m glad I did. It’s mysterious in a way that makes you take a second look. It conveys a sense of the era in which the story takes place, and has an element about it that makes you a little uncomfortable, but intrigued enough to turn it over and read what it’s about.

If you are a Kindle publisher, did you join KDP and if so what were experiences there and how would you judge it? My book is available as a Kindle download, though I did that before KDP was set up. Although I like the breadth of how they can market your book, the 55% discount is onerous. When I started, I gave Amazon that 55% discount, but then they cut the price of my book so dramatically (which they told me was “the publisher’s decision,” not knowing that I was the publisher) that I was concerned it looked like they didn’t think they could sell it. When I scaled back the discount to 40%, Amazon began selling the book at the retail price, which I feel gives it greater credibility in the marketplace.

Exactly what formats is your book in? (Nook, Paper, Kindle, Sony, Ipad..etc and etc.) My book is available in paperback as well as for the Kindle, iPad, Nook, Sony Reader, Kobo. Aldiko, Palm; also cell phone applications and HTML for reading online.

How did you decide on the price of your book?  Just as you would do when selling a house, you look at “comparables.” In fiction, most paperbacks seem to sell for $14.95, so that’s the maximum price a self-published author, in particular, should probably charge. The Biography category had a much wider price range, and I chose $18.00, for chai, figuring that it was a number with which Jewish readers would feel comfortable (though to date no one has pointed out the that price is chai, so I guess I was wrong about that).

What advice would you give other authors or other people starting out? To people starting out writing, I would say, “Start young!” If you’re a teenager or young adult, publish in your school newspaper, and start sending out stories to magazines that are open to submissions from young people (such as Stone Soup, if you’re very young). And keep sending out pieces until you start getting personal rejection letters; that’ll let you know you’re on the right track, and have an opening. If you’re older when you start out – well, that’s tougher. That’s the way I did it since I couldn’t afford to keep writing once I finished college; I needed a job. I should have made time to write at night, but I was newly married, and writing wasn’t how I wanted to spend my evenings. It did make things a lot harder when I restarted my writing career. But if you’re starting out later, write for free; write for non-profit organizations, or any entity that will accept what you’ve written if they don’t have to pay you for it. Get a lot of experience and feedback that way so when you do submit to a publication that may actually pay you $25, you can say “I’ve published at least 50 articles in such-and-such,” or “each of my posts on get over 2000 hits, each.”

Do you consider yourself a success in writing, a wannabe, a failure or just misunderstood? Among the people who’ve read The Accidental Anarchist, I’m definitely a success, and I feel very good about what I’ve accomplished, too.

Excluding free giveaways (such as KDP) - have you ever made it into the top 100 of a list and stayed there for over 2 weeks? I’ve made it into the top 100-selling Jewish biographies, and have been the #3 or 4 download in Japanese History and #5 or 6 download in Russian history quite a few times

Name one thing you absolutely hate about the publishing and writing world. I can’t say I hate it because it’s a fact of life, but the skills it takes to be good at promoting your book are exactly the opposite of the nature of a writer. Fortunately, during those years that I had to focus on making a living and wasn’t writing, I was working in marketing and public relations, and those skills have come in very handy.

Name one thing you love about the publishing and writing world. Writers probably discount this fact, but the vast majority of people can’t imagine sitting down for a year or more and writing something that people will read. 

What is your ultimate dream in writing and having your books published? I don’t mind traveling and speaking; it’s actually energizing. However it will be nice when more people contact me to speak than my having to contact them. 

To Contact Bryna Kranzler & Reviews Of The Book:

Twitter: @BrynaKranzler

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