A Moment with M.B. Earnhardt

marybethearnhardtThis is Jordan McNeil here for Jenny speaking with new fiction author M.B. Earnheardt. Her debut novel Switch-A-Wish has been released as an eBook in September and paperback in October by Three Worlds Press, and she currently teaches journalism at Youngstown State University. So, why don’t we start with what Switch-A-Wish is about?

It’s essentially a married couple who are kind of living a life that looks very good from the outside, but they’re having marital problems. They’re at a decision point in their marriage: do they stay married or should they get a divorce and go their separate ways? The male character, Chris, he’s contemplating having an affair; the wife is frustrated with being at home all the time with the kids. Those are kind of common themes, I think, in marriages.

So they make a wish with their kids at night, and they wish the other person knew what it was like to be them. And the wish comes true (laughs). Then they have to live in each other’s lives, essentially, and they start to get to know each other and start to see perspectives differently.

So it’s kind of like a Freaky Friday thing for grown-ups?

Yes. Freaky Friday was probably my favorite book, so yes (laughs). Though I never wanted to switch with my mom, ‘cause I thought she got me. But other people I would happily switch with.

Was there something specific that inspired this story? A life event, a dream, a conversation, or something like that?

I was actually dropping my kids off at daycare, and Adam was off doing something that sounded, you know, a lot more fun than what I was doing. I think I was pregnant at the time and it was freezing out and no one was cooperating with me. And I was like ‘God, I wish he could just freaking understand for one second’—and he does, I mean, but I remember having that thought when I was driving away. And then I thought ‘Wow, that would make a great movie of the week or Lifetime movie or something.’

Now, I know at least for me and a few people that I talked to that this novel was kind of a secret—like, we didn’t know that you were into fiction writing, let alone that you had a novel published until you announced the release over the summer. Was there a reason that it was secret?

Well, I don’t think I wrote it ever thinking that anyone else would read it. I like to give myself ‘life assignments’ just to see if I can do them. So this was like an assignment: ‘Can I do this?’

I actually doubted that I could—I was like ‘You know, that’s a lot of words’—because it’s like eighty thousand words is the minimum for a novel. And that’s a lot of words.

Yes, yes it is.

(laughs). Especially when you’re used to doing academic journal writing or news writing, where you kind of pop in, do what you’re going to do, and then you jump back out. So I did it more as a personal challenge.

And also, I missed writing. It was really hard for a while here at work to actually get to the point where I could do any reporting. I started working on a couple magazine features that I wanted to send out and try to freelance, and I was just hitting walls. I would schedule an interview with a source, and then I couldn’t do it because my job here was precluding me from doing it. I had a couple research proposals through the Institutional Review Board that got approved, but then I could never get to the data collection because, you know, I’m grading papers, and doing committee work, and I’m trying to do all this other stuff.

So I thought this was a good way of writing where I wasn’t wasting other people’s time. It was a way that I could tell a story, keep up with my writing skills, and even stretch my writing skills because I’ve never had the freedom to say ‘This would make such a better story than real life!’ I’ve been kind of confined by real life, and it’s like ‘Well, yeah, people can swap bodies, right? It doesn’t have to be real.’ It was very freeing. So I didn’t do it necessarily to see it go anywhere, but when I did it, I thought ‘Well, this is not terrible.’

Then Adam read it, and he thought it was good—which of course he would (laughs)—but then he kind of stepped in and took care of the business stuff. He was the one that wrote the query letter, sent it out, and really tried to sell it. You know, I wrote it and then I kind of walked away from it and was like ‘Well, that was a good experience. Maybe I’ll do it again because I learned some stuff,’ but I didn’t think it would really go anywhere.

So was this your first foray into creative writing?

Oh, yeah.

Pretty successful one then, I guess.

I guess (laughs). We’ll see—fingers crossed, right? But yeah, it was fun.

switchawishHow long did it take you to write it, do you remember?

I wrote probably about the first thirty thousand words when I was home with Sadie, my third kid. And then I didn’t do anything, right, ‘cause then things got really busy. Then I finished it after Oscar was born and I was home with him because I was like ‘What did I do to pass these days with the baby last time? Oh, I worked on that book—where is that book?’ And that didn’t take very long after I went back and got into it.

So, I’d say, altogether maybe five months, but they weren’t consecutive.

You said Adam did most of the pushing to get it published. Did you have any part in that, or was it all kind of just him and you just waited until he was like ‘By the way, it got sold.’

Well, I had written a query letter—obviously, I’ve done stuff like that in the past—initially for like ten people. I found ten agents that I was like ‘This would be so cool,’ and then I didn’t like anybody else, so when those ten said ‘no,’ I said ‘To hell with it, it’s not very good.’

But then Adam picked it up and kept at it. Actually, the way we got the publisher was through #PitMad — are you familiar with that?

That’s the thing on Twitter, right?

Yeah, because I’m married to a social media expert, right? (laughs). So, he’s on Twitter and he’s like ‘Oh my gosh, they do this thing where agents and small published on this day check Twitter for the hastag #PitMad. And if they favorite your tweet, then you send them your query letter and first three chapters.’ Those are kind of the rules of #PitMad. And he’s like ‘I’m going to do this.’

He did it once, and it didn’t go anywhere. But he did it again, and I think March was the one where we picked up the publisher. He loves to do stuff like that, you know? Just to say he did it. So he sent it out through that and we got a couple of likes, but the publisher read it that night and had the contract to us in like two days.

Oh wow.

Yeah. And then we sent the contract to Chris Barzak—he knew, he kept my secret (laughs)—and he looked it over and said it looked pretty standard. So, that’s how it happened.

Are you planning on having a celebratory party-type thing?  Be like ‘Hey I released this book!’ or haven’t you thought about that yet?

Probably. Adam is working with the promotional team, and he’s kind of setting all that up.

Of course he is.

(laughs). Yeah. The acquisitions editor, who ended up reading the book and acquiring it for the publisher, is now the promotions person. So she knows about Adam and how he’s doing the business side of it. So they’re cooking up some stuff. I know they have press releases that they’re going to send out to the bookstores. And there’s a woman that I went to college with that owns a tea shop in Pittsburgh, and they do stuff like this in her tea loft. So she wants me to come down and do something there.

So just like working the network. And I mean, he’s been great at that. The Facebook author page has about eleven hundred likes.


I know, right?

And that’s another fast turnaround, because that was just made recently, right? Towards the end of summer?

Yeah, he did that in, I think, July or August. But he knows how to do it, right? I have this advantage, this secret weapon of someone who actually knows what the heck they’re doing, and who believes in me and believes in the product.

I don’t know if you feel this way, but this is like the scariest thing I think I’ve ever done. I am petrified and horrified; I’m going to have to be drunk to face people and let them know that I did this (laughs). I’m worried about my academic reputation; I’m worried what people will think about me; I’m worried that they’ll think my husband was trying to have an affair, because in the book the husband has an affair. All this stuff is hitting me and has me terrified. So, I’m lucky in that I have this other person who’s willing to put me out there when I’m not willing to do that. I think that that is a big advantage that I have, cause then I don’t have to any of that, he does it for me.

But I push him in other ways—I run his life behind the scenes too.

I know the eBook was released a little while ago. Have you received any reviews yet? Or haven’t you been watching that? I’ve heard from people that sometimes they hunt down reviews and comments, and other times they’re like ‘I’m just going to step back and not look at that.’

Yeah, because it’s personal, right? I think Adam said there’s one review out there. The publisher asked us to come up with a list of places where we wanted to send it, but most of them wouldn’t take it ‘til it had an ISBN, so it was hard to do it prior to the actual release. Like I couldn’t have an author’s page on GoodReads, I guess, until it had an ISBN, so there’s some of this stuff that you can’t engage in until it’s already out there.

But I know that they’re trying to send it some places to get reviews. When we met with Chris, Adam asked ‘How do you get reviews?’ My question was ‘How do you stop people from doing this?’ (laughs). So I don’t know that I’m necessarily excited about that part of it, but, you know, it is what it is. It’s out there and people are going to judge you, but I’m stronger for having done something that scares me, even if it’s not successful. I know that.

Are you going to come back to creative writing in the future? Write another novel eventually, or are you more like ‘Okay, I did the thing, and it was published. That was cool, but I’m done. I’m going to stick with journalism.’?

I am working on something, mostly because I feel like I learned stuff through the process of writing this. Like I said, I was ready to just leave it as a file on my desktop and be like ‘That’s something that I did,’ and then work on something else, taking the lessons that I learned from that and getting better. I’m not stupid; I know my first attempt out isn’t my best work. I could probably do better.

I think eventually I’d like to do something in creative nonfiction, when my kids get older. And this is helpful, right, because my tendency to be really dry.

Right, because journalism is to the point and concise.

Even worse is academic writing! (laughs). And I’m a social scientist, so there’s stats and Cronbach’s alphas and all this stuff in the writing that I’ve been doing. If I ever did something in creative nonfiction, there’s a different expectation, so this is helping me figure out how you tell a story, how you build character.

I also think that anybody who’s interested in media and who wants to be successful, you can’t be a one-trick pony any more. I have my academic brand, and I’m good at what I do — I can whip out an experiment, I can do surveys, I am amazing at statistics. People would probably be shocked to hear that, but I’m so good at statistics, it’s scary. So I don’t want to just keep doing the stuff that I’m good at; I want to do the stuff that scares me and makes me think ‘Wow, maybe I’m not really good at that.’ And it turns out that sharing something that’s personal is a hell of a lot scarier than doing statistics. (laughs). It takes a lot more bravery.

Switch-A-Wish can be found on Amazon, or through M.B. Earnheardt’s website, mbearnheardt.com.