The Penmen Profile: Janice Holly Booth, Author and Adventurista

by Gabbi Hall

Photo from a genre and Janice Holly Booth has probably written it. Janice, an adventurista and former court recorder, has  published two books: a true crime novel, “A Voice out of Nowhere: Inside the mind of a mass murderer” and a memoir, “Only Pack What You Can Carry.” Janice is also a speaker and freelance magazine writer. She spoke with The Penmen Review about her writing career and the road to publication.

Have you always written?
When I was a little girl, my mother read me bedtime stories. Although I was too young to read or write, I had strong ideas about how those bedtime stories could be made more compelling, so I’d take a pencil, scratch out all the existing words, and replace them with my own indecipherable hieroglyphics. I remember feeling very satisfied that the stories were finally being told the right way (although I did get punished for defacing the books). Later in life, writing always seemed central to whatever I was doing. I kept extensive travel journals in the decade I traveled solo (those journals formed the basis for my National Geographic book, “Only Pack What You Can Carry”). When I worked as a nonprofit CEO for 20+ years, grant-writing comprised a huge chunk of my work, and what is grant-writing if not storytelling? (Or, in some cases, fiction!) I’ve been lucky enough to have published short stories, essays, literary criticism or travelogues during the years I had a “real” job. So, yes, I’ve always written, even if it was on a napkin in a dark bar somewhere in New Mexico.

What’s your process in developing your storyline and characters?
I know it sounds impossible, but the characters come to me when they have a story to tell. I simply follow their lead. A good example is when I was working in criminal court as a court recorder, seeing day in and day out the worst of what people are capable of doing to each other. By the end of a murder trial, I would know details about the victim that perhaps her parents or husband didn’t know. It was a forced kind of intimacy, and I wasn’t sure how to honor or handle it. In waltzed a character named Celeste who had her own ideas about what to do with all that information. The short story was called “Necrophilia: Loving the Dead.”

What challenges do you face in your writing, and how do you overcome them?
Time is the biggest challenge – unfettered time and limitless energy are two commodities that are scarcer now than ever. I like to have a big chunk of time when I don’t have to worry about mundane bothers like laundry or cooking dinner. For me, the best solution when I am deep in a project and really have to have days to focus is to go to an artist retreat somewhere. I’ve been very fortunate to have been able to do that. Of course, you can make your own retreat, but it takes enormous discipline. When you can go off to a rustic cabin in the mountains where there’s no Internet connection, phone reception or television, it’s just you, your story and your characters. You have to work really hard at not getting anything done when you’re in an environment like that!

What has the road to publication been like for you?
I started with short story fiction and that process was pretty easy – send it in, see it published or see it returned in the dreaded SASE. No real editing or hair pulling. My first book, “Only Pack What You Can Carry,” with National Geographic was another story (no pun intended). There were many sets of eyes reading my work and providing what was often conflicting feedback. The eventual book was not what I had originally submitted, so I had to do a major rewrite in a very short period of time. It was grueling and frustrating and, at one point, I literally went blind in one eye. That’s another story, but it was a real metaphor for the brutality of the process.

How do you market your work?
With Nat Geo, I relied on their team to guide me. With my new book, “A Voice out of Nowhere,” I used what I’d learned from that journey to apply it to my marketing efforts. Social media is one avenue, but I think it’s overrated. You have to be focused. For example, with Twitter (which I said I’d never use), I search hashtags that are relevant to my books. Then, I participate in those conversations. I participate in discussion forums on mental illness (the subject of my second book). I use HARO religiously – it has garnered me some pretty unbelievable publicity. Speaking gigs are great for marketing, too. Word-of-mouth. I also use a PR firm that distributes press releases to thousands of outlets in North America (the jury is still out on the effectiveness of this approach). But one thing’s for sure: it is very difficult to get your voice heard above the thousands of other voices screaming for attention. Bottom line: your product has to be quality if you expect it to do well in the long-term.

What do you know now that you wish you knew back then?
That even if you are picked up by a major publisher, you are going to have to do the bulk of publicity yourself. As a writer, I hate that. I’d rather be writing, not hawking. But knowing it now will help me create a platform for my next book well in advance of its release. That’s a critical piece of marketing; unfortunately, it often coincides with the mad dash to finish the book. One could hire a publicist, but they are expensive and I’ve found them to be mostly useless.

Who are the writers that have inspired you most, and how have they inspired you?
There are many, but I’ll choose one: Kurt Vonnegut. I read “Breakfast of Champions” when I was a teenager and up until I read that book my world had been monochromatic. The world just seemed so sad and ridiculous and hopeless; I saw everything in shades of grey. Vonnegut also saw the world as sad and ridiculous, but he made it funny! At 17, while reading BOC, I discovered my sense of humor. I felt so liberated. Later on in life I would meet Mr. Vonnegut and let’s just say that in private he was not as charming as he was on the page, but I was still star-struck and will always adore his unique view of the world.

If you keep just three books in your library, which would you choose and why?
Well, “Breakfast of Champions,” of course, for sentimental reasons. And I’d have to pick my own two, wouldn’t I? That makes three right there. Whew, that was easy!