The Penmen Profile: A Q&A with Memoirist Bobi Conn

by Pamme Boutselis

Bobi ConnA Kentucky native, Bobi Conn grew up in an Appalachian holler, withstanding a tumultuous childhood while developing an innate love for words and the natural beauty of her surroundings. Both still run deep and she’s instilled each in her debut publication – recently released – “In the Shadow of the Valley: A Memoir.”  The Penmen Review had a chance to ask Conn about her writing.

Have you always written?

I have been writing since I was in middle school – before that, I was an avid reader. I think I was in sixth grade when a teacher assigned us to write a story in a couple of pages, but mine went far beyond that. I remember that I “borrowed” a detail from “The Odyssey,” and I labored over the characters’ names. My peers were not impressed, but my teacher said it was good, and that sparked a love of writing from then on.

You’ve written a memoir. How did you choose the way your story would unfold in your book?

My memoir is mostly written chronologically, but something that was very important for me in writing it was to reflect the oral storytelling style common in Appalachia. I didn’t start out understanding exactly why my story meandered like it did, but eventually realized that this is how I tell stories in conversation, and how I grew up hearing them. I had never thought about it, so I even checked with others from eastern Kentucky to confirm whether their experience of storytelling was the same. This approach means that sometimes, scenes within my memoir transition into other, seemingly unrelated scenes, before circling back and reconnecting to the initial story. I think of it as a type of weaving – the threads of various events, people, and emotions are woven together to create a tapestry that unfolds with the passing of time. I think this style is fitting for my memoir, particularly, as I’ve had to continually reassess my life experiences, integrating new experiences with my memories, to create meaning in my life.

What did you learn about yourself as a result of writing this book?

It is bittersweet, but one important thing I have learned through writing this book is that my understanding of what is “normal” really doesn’t correspond to most people’s understanding. When I set out to connect some of my childhood experiences to decisions and choices I made as a young adult, I thought I had outgrown all of the limitations of my young adult self. Now, I see that some of my thinking and perceptions are still shaped by my early life, and I realize I may not be able to “fix” all of those things. At the same time, I now have greater compassion for myself, and I can focus on understanding myself better rather than waiting for others to understand me.

What challenges do you face in your writing, and how do you overcome them?

I’ve been a single mom for most of my adult life, and taking care of my children has always come before my writing, which means I have to be disciplined when it comes to managing my time and seizing the opportunities I have to write. When my kids were younger, having them go to bed on a consistent schedule gave me a window of time to write before I went to bed – I’m a night owl, so getting up to write before they awoke was never on the table. I’ve taken vacation days from my full-time job so I could write while they were in school, and if I know I can have an hour or several hours alone, I start writing as soon as that time begins. I also need a lot of time to let ideas take root and grow in my mind, so I view all of my leisure time as time to let my subconscious work with the ideas that I’m hungry to put into words.

What was the road to publication like for you?The book cover for "In the Shadow of the Valley" by Bobi Conn.

My memoir began as my creative writing thesis for my master’s degree. Shortly after I graduated in 2007, I sent out queries to various agents and one responded, but she explained to me that I needed to write at least another 40,000 words to have a suitable book length. Then, the stock market crashed in 2008 and the agency said they couldn’t take on another memoir in that climate. Over the next seven years, I occasionally sent out a flurry of queries, all of which were rejected or ignored.

In 2015, I saw an advertisement for a conference in the nearest city to me, and I saw that attendees could pay extra for a 15-minute meeting with one of two agents during the conference. I promptly signed up, chose the agent I wanted to meet with, and thankfully, she invited me to send my first fifty pages after we met. My memoir required more work before the agency signed me on, and the proposal process was then somewhat complex, but it all served to improve my book. I hope that now I could write a compelling query, but that face-to-face meeting was necessary for me at the time to overcome the first major hurdle to publishing.

How do you market your work?

Self-promotion is definitely not my forte. Thank goodness, my publisher has a great team that has put forth most of the effort in marketing my memoir. And of course, my agent marketed it before that. I am someone who needs support from others who are good in those roles. I think that’s part of why all of my query letters and emails were rejected – I’m not great at marketing. I am engaging in social media more so than I have in a long time, but my hope is that if I put out good work, it will largely speak for itself, especially with the support and wisdom of publishing experts.

What do you wish you knew when you first started writing that you know now?

That having a good editor is invaluable. I think most of us writers (and artists in general) probably have some protective pride about our work and don’t want others to try to improve it. I had to learn to trust my editor and when I did that, I saw how valuable her insights were. I’m used to questioning everything and defending myself, but when it came to working with her, I realized that my editor was also highly invested in the quality of my work. After I let my guard down, I started seeing how insightful some of her comments were – even if I thought a passage worked really well, she offered the perspective of both a reader and an expert in her field, and that led me to write things that were more clear, more thoughtful, or both.

What role did your education play in your development as a writer?

From the time I wrote my first (memorable) story in sixth grade until graduate school, my education has offered me places to think about, and sometimes talk about, the choices writers make, why they make them, and the effects of those choices. I am also grateful that I learned to read and was able to read so much as a young child – as an avid reader, I believe I picked up a lot of grammar and stylistic nuances that helped inform my writing style. In grade school, going to school was often a respite from the violence and confusion in our home, and in middle school, I discovered that writing my own stories allowed me to create worlds of my own, adding to the books I read to escape my misery. In my development as a writer, education, therefore, gave me the necessary tool of literacy, which we take for granted but should not, as well as an environment in which I could think about and talk about writing, which otherwise would not have been accessible to me.

Who are the authors that have inspired you most, and how have they inspired you?

When I read “Angela’s Ashes,” by Frank McCourt, I realized that a horrific experience can be told so beautifully, it renders a story that the reader does not want to leave. To me, that is the greatest accomplishment – to turn the ugly and painful into a work of art. I first read “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” by Gabriel García Márquez, when I was 16-years-old. I fell in love with magical realism then, which felt familiar to my own life, shaped in esoteric ways by the spiritual and natural forces that I found so freeing. I read “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy when I was 18, which was my first real introduction into fantasy, and I really love the way Tolkien creates a world that is so fully believable. That’s a crucial aspect of storytelling, to create a fully believable world for your readers, and I am fascinated by not only stories but the ways in which they are crafted.

If you could keep just three books in your library, which would you choose and why?

  • “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” because I am confident that there are numerous details in that book that I have missed when reading it several times thus far, and I suspect I would have to read it many times to fully grasp all of its complexities.
  • A large book of poems by Rūmī, the Sufi poet. In times when I needed spiritual inspiration, his work has spoken to me.
  • “Beloved” by Toni Morrison. Studying this book and thinking about the multiple possible worlds that she created, as well as the real-life story that inspired her book, represents some of the best achievements a writer can accomplish. Also, I don’t think another book has ever made me feel such a deep and lasting sorrow, and I always want to be able to access that depth of emotion.