The San Francisco Writers' Grotto — An Interview with Julia Scheeres
Last updated: 07/31/2017
In the past few weeks, we’ve been exploring different subjects around the writing craft on the Reedsy blog, giving a place for our exceptional editors’ experience and knowledge to be shared with writers. Today, we want to delve deeper into the subjects of creativity and craft, and interview Julia Scheeres. On top of being a bestselling author and a Reedsy editor, she teaches writing at a fantastic storytellers’ collective in San Francisco.
This collective, The Grotto, is actually what we focus on most during our chat. Its founding story is an inspiring one. But we also discuss the narrative non-fiction genre (and in particular memoir), approaching agents, and the benefits of traditional publishing. We hope you enjoy the interview! As usual, the transcript is provided below.
I’m really pleased to welcome Julia Scheeres to the Reedsy podcast. So, Julia, you’re a NYT bestselling memoir author, as well as an editor on Reedsy and a teacher at the San Francisco Grotto. Why don’t you give us a bit of background on that?
Sure! My first book is a memoir called Jesus Land, that was published in 2005 by a very small independent publisher here in the US. And for whatever reason, it became a NYT bestseller and also a London Times bestseller. My second book, published in 2012, was about the Jonestown massacre. So they’re both narrative non-fiction. The first one is of course very personal because it’s a memoir — it’s my story — and the other one is more a work of literary journalism.
And you’re also an editor specializing in narrative non-fiction, right?
That’s right. I teach memoir and narrative non-fiction, locally here in San Francisco at the writers’ collective I belong to. I also teach through Stanford University and I’ve been a visiting writer at different other universities, but I also work with private clients, more and more.
Sometimes someone will give me their entire manuscript, and I will do an entire in-depth structural edit; and other times I work as a writing coach, helping the writer develop the story that they’re trying to tell, and meet with them on a regular basis to go over the work.
So tell us a bit about this writing collective that you belong to: The SF Writers Grotto. How did it get started?
I joined the Grotto in 2004 when I was writing my first book. It’s a collective of writers that was started by 3 friends, who were kind of lonely writing alone in their apartments, and decided to start a “collective”. So they rented an apartment in San Francisco, and they worked there together, and had a lot of fun — they were young and unmarried at the time. They would go out for drinks after work — it was kind of a little boys club!
But today, after many iterations in move — we just celebrated our 20th anniversary —, we’re a collective of over 100 people, who are either members (who have an office at The SF Writers' Grotto), or freelance there, or are fellows. And it’s just a great space! It’s a great space to be with other writers and network. I have my little office there that I share with a fiction writer and it’s wonderful to have a place that you can go into where there’s no messy house, no dishes piled up, no baby clothes strewn about; it’s just purely professional writing. And we all eat lunch together and talk about writing, about agents, we run pitch ideas by each other: it’s a fantastically supportive environment.
Yes I can definitely relate to that. It’s a bit like us startups and our co-working spaces, where we get to work alongside other startups and founders and exchange introductions, talk about our challenges, etc. So when I came across the Grotto, I thought “that’s a fantastic initiative for writers”! Do you find that being alongside other creative people (not necessarily all authors) also fosters creativity?
We’re all writers, or rather storytellers of some sort at The San Francisco Writers' Grotto. And “telling stories” is what really matters in the end, so often at lunch we’ll discuss the best way to approach a story, possible sources for a story, and more creative points like that. It’s a very rewarding and kind of high-minded place to belong to because these people are obsessed with telling great stories just as much as I am.
And the networking is amazing as well. I can write an essay or an oped piece and I’ll send out an email to the mailing list: “who’s got a contact at the NYT oped pages?” and I’ll usually get an introduction. It’s that type of thing, personal introductions to career changing contacts.
Now, since the Writers’ Grotto began in 1994 it’s grown up a lot, where do you see the working space going in the next few years?
Right now, it’s a little precarious for us in San Francisco, because where we are, in the south of Market District, there’s a lot of startups and technology companies. So our rent keeps going up, it went up by a third last year.
So we’re trying to find ways to support ourselves, and to support the fiction writers, who maybe don’t make as much as, say, the magazine writers or the big name writers. So one way that we help support each other is that we offer classes through The Grotto. All classes are taught by working writers who specialize in the area that they’re teaching, who are actually published in the area that they’re teaching.
So yes, we’re currently feeling the squeeze of being creative types in a city like San Francisco that’s going through a huge metamorphosis right now. But we’re going to make it work, we’re really determined, because it’s too good a community to let it die.
Now let’s talk a little bit about what you teach: memoir and narrative non-fiction. We recently had a blog post on our blog by one of our editors about memoirs, and how it is a very competitive genre where it is hard for first-time authors with a small following to rise. Would you agree with that?
No. I think that in the United States it’s easier to be published in memoir. Publishers love memoir because there is a true story behind it. You are a product that they can then get on television or radio interviews: there’s something there, it’s not just made up. That is the appeal of memoir. Of course it is a crowded market and it’s not easy to get published but if you have an amazing story to tell, or if you are a born storyteller with something insightful to say in memoir, by all means, that would be the route to getting published. It’d be much easier than fictionalising your first story into a novel.
That makes sense. And it’s the difference of opinions I love to see among professional editors, because, of course, if you specialize in fiction you’re going to think differently and see the market differently from someone who specializes in memoir. Now my last question would be about self-publishing: is it a path you recommend to the memoir authors you work with?
I would always try a traditional publisher first. I still see self-publishing as a little bit of a second-class vehicle, because you don’t have the support of a traditional publisher, you don’t have the marketing department, the contacts, the distribution channels, etc.
In the US there’s all kinds of independent publishers — not vanity publishers or self-publishing companies — which are great! They do a fantastic job editing and packaging your book. I also tell my students and clients to make sure they’re getting some kind of feedback. You don’t just write your book and submit it, you first need to get feedback from beta readers and from a professional.
That’s an excellent point. A lot of the requests that we receive are from authors looking to go the traditional route, but wanting to strengthen their manuscript before querying agents. Do you think that makes sense?
Of course. I mean, you want to submit your best book to an agent, otherwise they’ll turn you down. You really want someone who can critique you and give you constructive criticism. This is what I do with my clients: I read through the manuscript and I see what the narrative arc is, what the character arc is. If it’s memoir, I look at what the larger theme is, and how to best start the book. The first 10 pages I usually spend a lot of time working on, because they’re crucial on grabbing a reader’s attention.
Thank you so much for this advice, Julia, and for the presentation of The Grotto!
Photo credit: Lea Suzuki / The Chronicle
Have you tried writing in a writers' collective space? What do you think about the SF Grotto? Let us know your thoughts, or any questions for Julia, in the comments below!