For today’s interview, we spoke with author and entrepreneur Julie Zantopoulos. We were particularly excited to share this with our readers because Julie recently published a collection of short stories and poetry, Shoot Down the Wendy Bird. Her background is one of writing and editing for magazines and blogs, such as The Indie Chicks, but she also received a degree in Psychology. This makes her interpretation of humanity and the way we connect with one another all the more insightful. Here, she discusses her process, her thoughts on writer’s block, art in daily life, and what it means to write. You can also find her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
Interview by: Ashley Sapp
AS: You’ve been a blogger, writer, and editor – particularly for The Indie Chicks – for many years. What was different about the book writing process for you?
JZ: When you are a blogger, or are running a large magazine, you niche your writing. You have to write for specific audiences and with traffic, SEO, and keywords in mind. It is a lot more structured and organized than most people realize to write for your own blog or for a large publication. When I was writing the short fiction, flash fiction, and poetry that made it into my book, I was using it as a creative outlet – an escape from structured articles.
The main difference in the writing process was the lack of restrictions and the ability to be as creative as I wanted to be. I got to explore my emotions, work through issues, and get back to the core of what makes me love. Mind you, the stories were not written with the end goal of a book anywhere in sight, so the process was a little disjointed. The stories were not written as a cohesive collection, but I think they work really well together. I love that this book is a collection of creative exercises, prompts, and inspiration.
AS: My follow-up question is one I’ve posed to other bloggers before, which also became part of a series for an older blog of mine for a short while. I like this question because the answer is always a bit different, unique to the writer, but also universally understood. So, why do you write?
JZ: I have seen so many authors and writers say things along the lines of, “It’s like breathing to me.” Or, maybe that it helps them deal with introversion, depression, and also serves as a therapist and emotional outlet. While those things are certainly true for me, too, I take a more imaginative stance.
The real reason that I write is because it is the closest I’ll ever get to being magical. Creating something from nothing, conjuring characters from nowhere, and giving them life is pure magic. As a little girl, I loved all things fairy godmother, magic, and pixies. As a young adult, I read up on Wicca and anything having to do with magick. When I write, that’s the closest I get to being a part of a magical world. In the words of J.K. Rowling and Dumbledore, “Words are, in my not so humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic.”
Writing is a part of my life that makes me feel like anything is possible. It’s empowering, it’s humbling, and I’m proud to do it. At the end of the day, I write because I believe I was born to be a writer, connecting our world to a world where imagination still runs free and anything is possible.
AS: In Shoot Down the Wendy Bird, there is a commentary on relationships in all of their hardships, their messiness, their meaningfulness. How we relate to one another and connect is something that has always fascinated me, so I appreciated how you tackled so many perspectives and lenses of human connectivity (or lack thereof). What is your personal take on that connectivity and what attracted you to exploring this within your writing?
JZ: I am fascinated with human connections, how people interact, and relationships (romantic, family, and friends). I have a degree in Psychology, and it is an area that I continued to read up on long after college because it fascinates me. There is nothing more complex than a human’s innate drive to connect to others. We will never tire, as a species, of exploring our inner workings, and I think writing about it is so much fun.
As for my personal take on connectivity, from a very base level we crave to be part of a tribe, to be understood and loved. The complexities of that craving, the obstacles and conflicts that naturally arise from building those connections and the inner turmoil of romantic pairings, family drama, and personal introspection don’t end with angsty teens; they continue throughout life. This makes it life’s longest struggle – the struggle to balance your desire to fit in, be loved, and thrive as an individual while still being true to yourself. It is our greatest motivator as humans, and exploring it is what writers have been doing since the beginning of time. We document our tribe’s story and leave it for future generations to examine. From cave drawings to the modern novels, we explore this connectivity in the hopes that future generations understand them better.
AS: I attended a talk by George Saunders last year, where among topics such as writing processes, being a creative in normalcy, and finding creativity in even the considered-mundane, he also discussed how he selected particular stories and chose the order for those stories within his collection, Tenth of December. What was your process for selecting stories and poetry in your collection? I found it interesting that certain poems broke up sections of stories and would like to hear more about that.
JZ: This was probably one of the most trying parts of publishing my book and the area in which I questioned myself, and my decisions, the most. As many who have read my book can attest, a lot of my stories lean toward the darker side, and I wanted to be sure that the tone did not get too low before coming back up again. It is hard when you are an emotional writer to not leak some of that into your writing, but I still wanted the main focus of the book to be empowering and somewhat whimsical.
When I was looking over the stories and poetry, I tried to get stories that weren’t too similar in theme or topic. I realized during this process that I write a lot about topics that directly affect me and that some stories were too similar. I picked my favorite of that grouping and ran with it. I cut some stories that I felt were too dark, some that I realized after re-reading that I wasn’t proud of, and a few that I just couldn’t edit to a place I was happy with. The work didn’t stop once I had my final roster of stories, though.
I initially organized the stories in sections (childhood, family, love, heartbreak, loss/depression, and fantasy) and then had a quote for each section to split up the stories. Once I had the sections, it was a matter of balancing the stories within each so that you didn’t get too bogged down in the seriousness of some stories. I tried to give you something more intense and then follow it up with a poem or something light-hearted. I also tried to arrange the sections so that you had an ebb and flow of emotions. I am very aware that the book can come across as heavy, and given my writing style, there really was no escaping that. It was about balancing where I could.
It is so important for the overall reader experience to get this part of short story collections correctly. The process caused a lot of second-guessing, moving around, and sleepless nights. I still look at the book and second-guess my decisions, but at the end of the day, I’m still really happy with it and that’s what matters.
AS: I think many creatives occasionally run into the problem of remaining inspired. When the inspiration fails, there is also this despairing notion that we are doing something wrong, that we are not good enough for our own work. Part of why I loved Saunders’s talk is that he spoke of how there is art in every day life. Your collection of stories seems to invoke that philosophy quite well, which I found particularly grabbing as I read them. Our readers and our contributors also seek to find art in the every day. What are your suggestions for that? What inspires you in the every day?
JZ: My opinion is not popular with many, but I just never understood writer’s block. There is inspiration everywhere, in everything, and if you are living a present life, then it is impossible not be inspired. If you are engaged in your life, then there is inspiration to be found everywhere. Life is so nuanced, and each day and interaction can be used as inspiration for writing. Everyday things work themselves into your subconscious, your characters, your plot, and your stories. It is in the small moments that the most touching things can be seen.
I love that my stories are short but powerful, quick but moving, and that you can connect with the characters even though you don’t know them outside of the snapshot I give you of their lives. The stories are like voyeuristic people watching, and if you stay awake in your life, then those stories write themselves for you. Be observant and use what you’ve seen when you sit down to write.
Live a passionate life, care deeply about your writing or craft, and you will be inspired. Let go of doubt, let go of the idea that you need to have the whole plot figured out before you sit down, and write. Make writing a happy habit you take part in each day, and see what happens. The hardest part is simply starting, but once you do, the words find you and writer’s block becomes a thing of the past.
AS: Are you currently working on other projects? What is your routine like – do you set aside specific times to write?
JZ: Right now, I have two websites that I’m running. I have JulieZantopoulos.com where I have updates on my writing, tips and advice for bloggers and aspiring authors, writing prompts, and more. I also have NobodysBeautyGuru launching in March, which will be a beauty blog run with a friend and dedicated to my obsession with makeup, skincare, and hair care from non-experts whose beauty language you can understand. I am also working on my first full-length novel, which is a young adult fantasy that I’ve had in the works for a few years now but am finally making time for.
As a writer, I am pretty forgiving of myself and my moods and don’t force the writing when I know I won’t produce something I’m not happy with, but I do write every day. My schedule changes day to day so I don’t have a set time of the day that I write, but I do make sure that I am writing every day. I don’t have any word count set per day, and I don’t care if I only write a web of creative thought or two chapters, so long as I make it a point to think creatively and write daily. I truly believe that making writing, or whatever your passion may be, a part of your daily life is essential to success.