Q & A
What's your background?
I’m from a small town in West Virginia called Bridgeport. I usually lead with that, because I’m awfully proud of my roots. My mom was pregnant with my sister, and I was three years old when my father died of a heart attack. Mom raised us alone in that little town, but our circumstances didn’t seem tragic to me. From my perspective, we had a very happy, middle class upbringing. I still enjoy spending time in West Virginia whenever I have a chance.
Career-wise, I sort of bounced around after college and never quite found my niche. I was a nonprofit fundraiser for nearly fifteen years, but these days I’m only working part-time. With the rest of my time, I write and have a few private strength and conditioning clients who come to my home or train remotely following my guidance.
Maybe I never found that elusive career because I should have been writing more all along. Regardless, it’s been an interesting and mostly enjoyable journey.
How did you become a writer?
I was kind of a late bloomer. We had a great English department at my high school, but I didn’t enjoy writing. It felt too hard; too much like work. And it is hard. You really have to be willing to put yourself through some intense self-discovery in order to write something decent.
I even had to have an after-school meeting with my English teacher during my Senior year about my belligerence in class. I guess I was going through some dumb teenager stuff, but she obviously reached me or I wouldn't have been acting out like that.
Anyway, all my teachers stuck to a pretty rigid schedule of reading and writing about our reading, whether we wanted to or not. I can't say I loved that, but I did have a good foundation for when I discovered in college that I actually enjoyed writing, despite the amount of immersion it can entail, and went on to major in Journalism.
My initial thought when I went the Journalism route wasn’t to become some amazing investigative reporter, like I think it is with a lot of serious Journalism students. Hell, I rarely even watched the news. I just wanted to be a sports writer for the hometown newspaper. That never materialized, but I have written a couple of lengthy pieces on my high school’s amazing football success and get as much of a thrill out of that as I do about writing so-called important stuff.
It is odd, though, that I wasn't a Journalism student in high school, considering we had such a fine program. The teacher who ran that department only recently retired and was there for something like 50 years. I’d probably be further along now if I’d taken advantage of some of those opportunities as a kid.
I started to find a voice by writing about a topic I love—weight training—for a niche publication called HARDGAINER magazine in the 1990s. A few years ago, I wrote a book called Inside the Mind of an Iron Icon with my good friend, Stuart McRobert, the publisher of that magazine. Only since my daughter died in 2013 have I started expanding my voice to write about grief coping through my blog and about all kinds of human interest topics for websites like Thought Catalog and Elephant Journal.
I don’t read much fiction. This is blasphemy, I suppose, but I’d rather watch the movie and be done with it in two hours. I’m mostly an essayist/columnist, in keeping with my journalistic roots.
Why was publishing Will Little Roo Ever…? so important to you?
My first book was the strength training book, Inside the Mind of an Iron Icon. This beautifully illustrated children's picture book—many thanks to my talented illustrator, Jacob Below, for bringing my words to life—is obviously much different. It's inspired by my daughter, Ruby, and the challenges she faced with developmental delays, but it's not entirely her story. It's my take on the emotional journey of every child and family who finds themselves in a similar situation.
I guess I have two reasons for being passionate enough about this little story to go so far as to run a successful Kickstarter campaign to raise enough money to publish it. Primarily, I hope to create an atmosphere of acceptance and belonging for all children and their parents. Whatever the reality is, mild delays or more extensive, it's going to be okay because of that unbreakable parent/child bond of love.
I'm also doing it as a legacy to Roo, as we affectionately called her, and her fighting spirit. She woke up happy and grateful to be alive every day. The smallest things we all take for granted were fascinating to her. I once saw her stop dead in her tracks in the middle of the sidewalk and bend over to inspect something on the ground. When I couldn't get her to budge from her spot after several minutes, I finally figured out what had grabbed her attention so fiercely. It was a tiny bug barely bigger than a speck of dust she'd somehow noticed while running along, despite the fact I hardly saw it even with my nose buried in cement. When I took the time to marvel with her, this little bug really was pretty amazing. If you'd like to read more of my thoughts on the importance to all of us of creating our legacies, check out my article, He's Coming. Are You Ready?.
What was the hardest part about writing it?
I wrote the first draft while Ruby was alive and healthy and originally just circulated that to family and friends one year around Christmas. I don’t really like to say it came to me rather easily, because that creates the impression that writing should somehow be “inspired.” To the contrary, my experience is that most writing is a laborious and tedious process. The initial words for this story, however, did flow pretty well after I had the idea and framework in mind.
Fine tuning it for publication was another matter. I was mostly content during Ruby’s lifetime for the story just to be shared with family, and I wasn’t quite so particular about every little aspect of the structure. After her death, it started to represent something more to me, and I developed a strong desire to put it out into the world. I tinkered off and on for months before I had it just right.
Do you have a favorite part of the book?
I guess I was naïve when I wrote Will Little Roo Ever…?, because I didn’t give much thought at all to how important the opening sentences might be. Researching my craft later, I read about openings and the fervor there is about them. Some aspiring writers even commit the opening lines of their favorite novels to memory and wax poetically about them.
If I’d have put a lot of thought into my opening, I’d have probably gotten bound up and not arrived at anything nearly as strong. In my blissful ignorance, here’s what I wrote:
The only thing little Roo ever did early was come into the world.
After her early arrival, she was late for just about everything else.
Though this obsessing over openings is probably overwrought, I am pleased with that one.
As a children’s book author, what’s your favorite children’s book?
I appreciate many children's books, but I have a special place in my heart for I Like Myself, by Karen Beaumont. It's wonderfully written with a catchy, rhyming verse, but it's really my favorite because my daughter loved for me to read it to her, as I’m doing in this photo.
What advice might you offer to aspiring writers?
You have to write if you call yourself a writer. And then you have to share it, even if you have to give it away for free at first.
Okay, so what are you going to write about?
A friend and I were sharing a couple beers, and he told me that his father advised him when he was a child to “read something you enjoy.” It didn’t have to be heavy reading. It could be a comic book or the sports page or whatever. Just read because you’re curious about the topic and want to know more or because the story speaks to you. Don’t force yourself to read something that’s putting you to sleep.
What great advice!
I say the same thing about writing. Write about something you really want to explore or that moves you. You could choose any topic, really, as long as you immerse yourself in learning about it—gardening as an example. Once you develop some expertise, start sharing your knowledge with others. From there, perhaps you'll branch out into other areas like I did. That approach is what drew me to writing, and I hope it brings out the best in your writing as well.
What story are you most proud of writing?
I’m most proud of 5 Lessons from Kids on how to Stop being so Damn Mean to Each Other. Its practical message reached over 8,000 readers and hopefully gave them some actionable advice they could use to improve their own relationships. Since I learned most everything I shared in that article from my daughter, it’s also an example of yet another way she continues to touch lives here on earth.
Is there a central message you hope to spread through your books?
Will Little Roo Ever…? breaks the mold of a lot of my writing. Its message is clearly one of hope and acceptance, whereas some of my essays are kind of bleakly realistic. I’ll probably continue writing unvarnished essays that show the world exactly as I see it in my grumpy adult state.
When I write children’s stories, I hope to try to see through my inner child’s eyes and convey that childlike hope and innocence. If I ever forget how to look at the world with a child’s eyes, then I won’t be any good as a children’s author.
When you're not at a computer, where are you most likely to be?
If I’m not writing, I like to lift weights or travel with my fiance. I also occasionally beat a golf ball around a golf course, but I wouldn’t really call what I’m doing “golfing.” Physical activity and enjoying the outdoors helps balance the mental demands of writing for me.