South Dakota Writers – Interview with BJ Sheldon
I was drawn to many aspects of the Black Hills, during the years that I vacationed here (1999-2005). The spectacular geography, the historical significance, the laidback attitudes of this region. But I chose to move here for one specific reason: I knew this was where I was going to find my tribe.
I knew, without any proof, that in these thar Hills I would find kindred souls: artists, writers, and other transplants as well. People who were well-read and open-minded. Individuals who felt inspired, even driven, to create. People who were also seeking connections.
I did find this group of people, this family of friends, but it took many years. There were lots of missteps, along the way.
How I found the right people, the real people that would become part of my inner circle, was based upon two significant factors: First, a business network that I joined nearly three years ago (The OWN, a network that supports women in business) and second, the other authors I have been privileged to meet. For me, as an author, this second factor is most critical. There are many people who can create in a vacuum. There are actors and playwrights and dancers and artists who don’t need anything from the outside world to get inspired. There are many who rely on their instincts to fuel their creative endeavors and passions. But I’m not one of those people. I need a tribe to not only come up with ideas but to motivate my writing goals.
Last year I was excited to join South Dakota Writes, a networking community for our state’s authors. Their Facebook page defines South Dakota Writes purpose as “to organize people with a passion for writing in South Dakota by creating a vibrant online and offline community. This group will share information and events that may be of interest to writers in South Dakota”.
Through South Dakota Writes, which was founded by Jason Kurtz (an author and English teacher based in Harrisburg) I have been able to network and celebrate with other artists throughout our region. I needed to know that these folks exist and that they were creating their milestones and opportunities. I need to know that there are writers in our area that are trying to accomplish what I have and those who have far exceeded my wildest literary ambitions. It is with this in mind that I wanted to sit down for some one-on-one interviews with some of the writers based in the Black Hills and pick their brains on what having a local writer’s community means for each of them.
For my first interview, I wanted to talk with an author who achieved her success through Independent publishing. BJ Sheldon is the author of two trilogies, The Dusty Chronicles and the Gibborim Series, both of which were released through Whiskey Creek Press of Nashville. BJ and I met at Hazel & Oak café in downtown Rapid City. Over curry chicken salad and coffee, we talked about writing, publishing and what it meant to be a South Dakota writer. We spoke first about BJ’s history and what brought her to our area.
“I grew up in northwest Iowa. This was the mid-80s. When the rug came out from under farming, my dad decided to sell the family farm, and we moved to Phoenix. I lived there twenty-six years. I married my first husband, and we had two children together. Then I married my second husband and had another daughter — my third. When our youngest was eleven, my husband decided to join the military. That was in 2005. He joined the Army Reserves but spent more time in active duty than inactive. When he came back from his second deployment, he had some injuries and so was looking for something different to do. He had been awarded some medals and the military was very impressed with him, so they sent him to Fort Dix in New Jersey to do some training. We were at Fort Dix/Maguire for twenty months when his medical issues caught up with him. He had the chance to retire and we had to decide where to go. We either could go back to Phoenix, or to Michigan where my husband is from. Or we could go back to Iowa where I was raised and still had a family. But my brother lived here in Rapid and raised his kids here. We decided to give Rapid City a try. A lot of people ask me ‘Oh, you moved here on purpose?’. I like it here. We go back to Phoenix to see my parents and now, that’s where my new grandchild is. She’s four months old. I’m a grandma!”
BJ has written several books, many geared to a Young Adult audience but dealing in rather deep subject matters including the supernatural. I wanted to know what inspired her writing career. Like many authors, it began with a love for reading as a child.
“I was a frustration to my kindergarten teacher. I was already reading. I was that kid so far ahead of everyone else and when I was bored, I was trouble! I would read everything I would get my hands on. My mom would drop me off at the library so she could go grocery shopping. The librarian would see me hanging out in the children’s book section. She came over and said ‘follow me’ and took me to the older children’s section where there were chapter books. From there I quickly moved my way into the teen section. I ended up writing my first book in 4th grade. It was a really bad book! This was around the same time as Marylou Retton and the 1984 Olympics so my story was about a gymnast that found God. Then, I would write little short stories and in high school, I wrote poetry.”
After adolescence, BJ wanted to continue her writing ambitions but in a new direction.
“I wanted to be a journalist. My first choice in college was journalism but my dad told me ‘no daughter of mine would be a dirty lying journalist’ so I did what dad wanted! I couldn’t even finish the first semester at college. I went back a second time (as an English major) when my second daughter was a baby. We (she and her first husband) broke up a year later. I was let go in 2009 from a job I hated and I was out of work for about nine months. My daughter’s birthday was coming up and I decided to write her a story. It was a bad story – ‘Skyler and the Saga of the Sages’ — but this was when the cobwebs got cleared away and I remembered how much I used to love this in high school.”
She began writing her first series, by hand, after moving to Rapid.
“I wrote it during lunch breaks at the job and then my husband had this old laptop he used on his first deployment. It became an obsession. I like (writing) YA because I like the concept of teenagers. Having raised three of them, they have this uncanny way to see the world in a different way than we do and most think that they are going to live forever. They just can bounce back from things. I’m also drawn to the supernatural because life is complicated and heavy and dark. I like being able to take reality and twisting it and making it something else.”
Like many Black Hills-based writers, BJ takes inspiration from our environment.
“My ‘Gibborim’ series takes place in the Black Hills. There are fallen angels and demons and it’s twisted!” Writing in fantasy/supernatural gives her the liberty to create new worlds. “There’s no rigid rules that it has to be (a certain) way, whereas with contemporary fiction there is. I like being able to make things up. I’m not normal. My way of dealing with reality is making my own reality!”
BJ Sheldon’s works are published by an independent press based in Nashville Tennessee (with her most recent series on a new imprint by that same independent publisher). We spoke about the publishing experience:
“When I first started out I went down the traditional route and started researching agent queries and wasn’t really getting anywhere. Then I got on Twitter. That’s how I found my publisher. They liked the concept of my book. I had won an award (Readers Favorite, Silver Medal, 2011). Whiskey Creek Press signed me to a three-book deal. With the indie presses, you wind up paying for a lot of the up-front costs yourself. I’ve just started getting checks this year. But it helped me learn about to design, how to market.”
As a result of her relationship with Whiskey Creek, BJ has had the opportunity to network with many other authors including Utopia, an annual writer’s conference and convention. She says this has helped her get over her natural shyness. “There are people there of all aspects of publishing – self-published, indie and traditional.”
“There are people there of all aspects of publishing – self-published, indie and traditional.”
BJ had planned to self-publish her second series, The Gibborim Series, but Whiskey Press reached out to her and offered her a chance to publish on their new imprint, geared toward YA supernatural fiction. As luck would have it, they wanted another trilogy. But she does hope to try other publishing methods at some point, just for the experience.
And then we delved into the heart of the matter, the community of authors we find ourselves part of here in the Black Hills. As BJ explained,
“When I first came here I thought I was the only writer! Then I went to a meeting of Black Hills authors but I didn’t quite fit in. Most were publishing works of non-fiction. Even the South Dakota Festival of Books is mostly non-fiction works, so I still felt like an outsider. I made friends with this girl, Katie, who self-publishes. Apparently, the day before I met her some New York Times, bestselling author had been on a panel with her and literally walked off when she learned that Katie was self-published. But then I met Jonas Lee (the Black Hills-based author of the ‘Carter Gabel’ trilogy – a YA series about time-traveling – which was self-published) who’s become a good friend. So, I told Katie ‘you need to find your tribe, ’ and she’s already booked tickets to the next Utopia Convention.”
BJ has learned that strong marketing — no matter whether you’re self-published or publish through traditional or independent presses — is key to the success of any author. That, and good editing.
“It hurts the craft (poor editing). There are far too many people, especially in self-publishing, who don’t take the time to make sure that what they’re putting out there is the best representation of themselves. You can’t edit your own writing. With this South Dakota Writes group, we listen to each other and network and ask the questions. I’ve got all these new writer friends, doing great work. It’s nice to get together with them.”
She wants to see more community and connection between the South Dakota writing community.
“Listen to the people around you who have experience, who want to help and not just scoff at them. Otherwise, you’re just going to continue to be stuck where you are. I hope that with the South Dakota Writes group, that a lot of people are going to learn from each other. I hope those who are doing well, who have succeeded will have enough compassion to help other people learn how to improve.”
For more information on the BJ Sheldon and her published works, I encourage you to check out her website at http://bjsheldon.webs.com/. Please follow this ongoing series here at The Sioux Empire as I meet with other South Dakota authors in the near future!