Bookpleasures.com welcomes as our guest author and ghostwriter Lisa Dickey who has helped write seventeen published nonfiction books, including eight New York Times bestsellers. Dickey began her career in St. Petersburg, Russia, writing articles for The Moscow Times and USA Today. She is an accomplished storyteller, appearing at live events such as the Moth Grand Slam. Lisa has just published Bears In The Streets: Three Journeys Across a Changing Russia.
Norm: Good day Lisa and thanks for participating in our interview.
How did you get started in writing? What keeps you going? As a follow up, how long did it take you to get your first major book contract and what was the book about?
Lisa: I’d always wanted to be a writer, but wasn’t sure how to start. In my twenties, I had a series of admin assistant jobs in Washington, DC and was bored to death, so in 1994, at age 26, I decided to move to Russia and start trying to write freelance stories.
I’d studied Russian in college, and lived in Moscow for seven months in the late 1980s, so this wasn’t completely insane. But it was close.
I wrote freelance feature articles for a while, then returned to DC, where a friend who received a contract with Random House asked me to help write her book.
That book led to another, and soon I had a thriving career as a ghostwriter and collaborator. I always wanted to do my own book, but it took twenty years to finally hit on something that I wanted to write—and could sell to a publisher. That’s Bears in the Streets, which just came out in January.
Norm: What has been your greatest challenge (professionally) that you’ve overcome in getting to where you’re at today?
Lisa: My greatest challenge was finally transitioning from writing other people’s books to writing my own. I had some fantastic clients and amazing experiences being a collaborator—and it also paid well—so it was easy to just keep taking those jobs.
Norm: Many people have the skills and drive to write a book, but failure to market and sell the book the right way is probably what keep a lot of people from finding success. Can you give us 2-3 strategies that have been effective for you in promoting your books?
Lisa: The best advice I can give is: Don’t be shy. Call people who might have useful media contacts for you. Take people to coffee and pick their brains. Don’t be afraid to ask your friends, colleagues and even acquaintances for help, because so much of the promotion game depends on connections.
Norm: In your opinion, what is the most difficult part of the writing process?
Lisa: When I first started writing for a living, my house was never cleaner. This is because I’d no sooner sit down at the computer than suddenly I’d think, “I should really get some laundry done,” or “The kitchen’s kind of a mess.” You have to keep yourself from succumbing to distractions that feel important but are really just an excuse not to focus.
Norm: What advice can you give aspiring writers that you wished you had received, or that you wished you would have listened to?
Lisa: I wish I’d realized how important it is not to take “no” for an answer. And the corollary would be: to realize that if an editor says “no” to your work, it doesn’t necessarily mean your work isn’t good or worthy of being published.
I mean, look at J.K. Rowling’s experience: her first Harry Potter book got turned down by dozens of publishing houses. She could have given up, but she didn’t. If you believe in your book, stick with it. Perseverance pays off.
Norm: What is the most important thing that people don't know about your the subject of your book, Bears In The Streets: Three Journeys Across a Changing Russia that they need to know?
Lisa: Many Americans have a preconception that Russian people are cold and unfriendly, but nothing could be further from the truth. While it’s true that they’re not particularly friendly to strangers, they are unbelievably warm, welcoming and generous to anyone who they have even a sliver of a connection to.
Norm: What motivated you to write the book and what purpose do you believe your story serves? What matters to you about the book?
Lisa: I wanted to show the human side of the Russian people. The only two things Americans talk about when we talk about Russia are 1. Putin and 2. Putin. There are 140-plus million other Russians, and it behoves us to get an idea of who they are, what motivates them, what matters to them. By interviewing the same people over a 20-year period, I wanted to give a deeper and more nuanced view of who the Russian people are.
Norm: Will you share a little bit about your book with us?
Lisa: In 1995, I traveled across the whole of Russia with an American photographer named Gary Matoso. We started in Vladivostok and made our way west, stopping in 11 cities along the way, with the goal of painting a portrait—in words and pictures—of how the Russian were living four years after the collapse of the USSR.
We talked to some fascinating people, from a farmer, to a group of gay friends, to the research scientists of Lake Baikal, to a rap star, and many more. It felt like a once-in-a-lifetime trip.
Ten years later, in 2005, I decided it would be fun to do that once-in-a-lifetime trip a second time. Gary couldn’t come, so I brought along another photographer, David Hillegas, and he and I did the whole journey over again. I was able to track down almost everyone we’d profiled in 1995, and I blogged about it for eleven weeks on Washingtonpost.com.
Ten years after that, in 2015, I did the whole trip a third time—this time alone. It was amazing to see all these same people again, to find out how their lives had changed. And Russia itself had changed dramatically in those two decades, socially, economically and otherwise. Bears in the Streets is my account of those three trips, the people I interviewed, and the changes I witnessed.
Norm: Why did you entitle your book Bears In The Streets: Three Journeys Across a Changing Russia?
Lisa: On the second day of my 2015 trip, a Russian woman said to me, “You Americans all think we just have bears wandering in the streets here.” I laughed but didn’t think much about it—until a week later, in another city, someone else said the same exact thing. And then it happened again… and again… and again. Six times in six different cities, Russians said this to me.
So… why do Russians think Americans think this? That’s one of the themes I explore in the book. Essentially, they believe we don’t respect post-Soviet Russia as a powerful nation in its own right.
Norm: As a traveler and fact/story-gatherer, what was your biggest challenge on the road with your book?
Lisa: One of the big challenges for me was trying to capture conversations and events as they happened, without carrying around a recorder or taking simultaneous notes. I wanted people to feel comfortable, and for events to unfold naturally—not for them to feel like I was a reporter, even though they all knew I was gathering material for a book.
So at some point each day, I’d hurry to make notes on my phone or computer, putting down everything I could remember from conversations. Sometimes I wished I could just record everything, but I think it would have changed the dynamic too much.
Norm: What was one of the most surprising things you learned in writing Bears In The Streets: Three Journeys Across a Changing Russia?
Lisa: Well, I’ve written (or helped write) so many other books that nothing surprised me all that much. But I will say that it was eye-opening to finally be writing in my own voice instead of someone else’s. It took a little while to get comfortable doing that, but once I did I really enjoyed it.
Norm: Are you working on any books/projects that you would like to share with us? (We would love to hear all about them!)
Lisa: I love the notion of revisiting people after long periods of time, as I did in Bears in the Streets, so I’m kicking around another idea that revolves around that theme. It would explore the question of whether the close relationships we develop early in life can be sustained over many years—even when we haven’t been in regular touch with those people.
Norm: Where can our readers find out more about you and Bears In The Streets: Three Journeys Across a Changing Russia?
Lisa: You can find lots of info on my WEBSITE
My 2-minute book trailer, with photos of the Russians I interviewed, is HERE
And here’s a fun link—my appearance on MORNING JOE, talking about the book.
Norm: As this interview comes to an end, what question do you wish that someone would ask about your book, but nobody has?
Lisa: Oh, that’s easy. I wish someone would ask me whether I’d mind if they buy 10,000 copies to distribute to all the movers and shakers who should see the book. (Spoiler alert: I wouldn’t mind.)
Norm: Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions. It's been an absolute pleasure to meet with you and read your work. Good luck with all of your future endeavors.