And she’s taking your questions as well!
Last week I sent Ms. Finlay some questions and she graciously agreed to answer them. As a researcher and English major in college, I am always interested in backstory, so most of my questions centered around that. I find that can always flesh out another layer in the meaning of a book, and I certainly think that’s true here. Here are the questions and her answers:
Why did you decide to write the book?
In January of 2008, I was developing a solo performance piece as a tribute to my mom but as I watched the primaries unfold, I was reminded of my own painful upbringing. The sexist, demeaning treatment Hillary Clinton received from pundits, “journalists,” and in the blogosphere had alarming parallels to the domestic abuse of women, and to my own mother, that were all too familiar. The bile in my throat could no longer be contained. I had to put my other work on the back burner and write about what I saw as an injustice to all of us.
Whether or not someone supported Hillary Clinton, I wanted Dirty Words on Clean Skin to function as a cautionary tale, sharing how mass media is able to shape and shift the narrative to exert a dangerous influence over our electoral process.
The book contains an extraordinary amount of documented research. How did you do your research?
During the primary season, I became a first-time blogger using the alias “Ani.” That seemed apropos since it was a nickname my mom had given me. I offered up a new article every other day for sites like No Quarter, one of the few that supported Hillary in 2008, and had gathered a lot of research during that period, printing out buckets of news articles and columns. When I started piecing the book together a year later, I had gathered enough printed material to fill the New York City phonebook and had to whittle it down from there.
The following year, with my “phone book” nearby, I parked myself on the couch with my laptop. Our cat, Caruso, curled up next to me with his paw on my thigh, encouraging me to write. He sat patiently, day after day and never once walked across my keyboard. He has more patience than I do. I Googled to find and check a lot of the quotes I used. I was surprised by how much I held in my memory. A few key words would unearth information from the depths. All the research was done there. I never left my house and even with my slight frame, I sat on that sofa for so long, I wore a hole in the cushions.
How long did it take you to pull all the quotes together? And did you enjoy the research process?
It took a couple of years. The book was challenging to write owing to a number of factors. First, I had never attempted to do anything like this, so I learned how to write a book by writing a book. Also, since I wrote it in the first person as something of an embedded citizen journalist, if you will, I had to strike the right balance between having enough of me in the story so you would trust me as a narrator, but then I had to get out of the way and let the facts speak for themselves.
As far as enjoying the process, the grotesque misogyny I witnessed enraged me enough to chew through the furniture, so I also had to write the book three times to write it once, if that makes sense. It’s an entertaining read that may be painful in parts as far as reliving the details of what occurred, however, it was crucial that the book not only be impeccably researched but civil in tone, since I wanted to reach people who had no idea of the truth of the events of the 2008 primaries, and the brainwashing that still exists today.
Due to the false narratives about Hillary Clinton and a number of powerful women, I knew that if any of the media culprits I called out on the carpet could find a flaw in my research, they would be more than happy to throw out the whole thing. I couldn’t allow that to happen. I mention this because there were certain events I did not include in the book since I couldn’t find written documentation to back them up – even though those of us working on the campaign knew they happened. 315 footnotes later, the case was made…
But what I did and do enjoy most is noodling with a paragraph until I like it. I find the process of writing most satisfying. The pen is mightier than the sword – in the long run, anyway.
The book contains a thread of your personal narrative in it. Why did you decide to include these personal narrative elements? Was there an emotional aspect to doing so?
It wasn’t my first choice to do this and I knew it would make it an unusual and also riskier non-fiction piece, in terms of trying to get it published. The personal narrative was important to include for three reasons. First, I wanted the reader to understand that I am not part of the literati and that I am as far outside the beltway as you can get, so I wasn’t part of the prevailing noise machine.
I also needed to share a short chapter of my family background to illustrate the parallels that inform the thesis of the book – that domestic abuse played out on a national level and had a devastating effect on those of us out here on the ground. Many view Hillary Clinton as an icon, one of the most powerful women in the world and therefore, a cardboard cutout in another stratosphere, to whom many cannot relate on a human level. I needed to find a way to tell the story so that the reader would give a damn about how she was treated. Drawing parallels between the personal and political humanized both of us – and all of her supporters.
Finally, since I’m not a reporter with some big name, including that human element added to people’s trust in me and gave me a particular type of street cred someone viewing this from the outside looking in would not have.
And yes, it was emotional to include the personal (which I did as briefly as possible), but I stuck to my guns by including it, even though literary agents warned me not to. I felt being honest about every aspect of my life and reactions would help people who were not as involved get why the events of the last five years mattered so much to so many.
Can you explain the process of taking the book from the idea stage to the publishing page? For example, how long did it take to write the book? How did you find a publisher? What was the editing process? How long did it take to publish once it was completed?
Writing it took longer than I thought because of the difficulty of sculpting the double narrative I was determined to use. I also had to keep walking away from the material to gain perspective. By 2011, I could finally pull in all the pundits’ and DNC’s vile quotes without my head exploding! And Lord knows I could have kept noodling with the words forever – but that was likely more foot dragging due to fear of signing my real name to this than anything else. Since I’ve been a working actor for many years, I was afraid of the possible repercussions. I decided standing up for myself mattered more. Finally, I just made myself be done with it.
Since I’ve already shared my concept for the book, this is a good place to credit my consulting editor, Benée Knauer. In 2010, she was the literary editor at an agency I pitched. She liked the concept of the book, so I gave her my first draft, which had all the raw bones, but was not organized properly. I hired her to do an editorial analysis. She read the draft several times and gave me a 20 page “report” on what she felt the strengths or problems were. We then had a 4-hour conference call going through her notes and hashing out my ideas. By the end of it, my tongue was hanging out. I was so drained and hungry that I was chewing peanut M&Ms just to keep coherent. If there was a chapter she wasn’t quite getting, I’d tell her what I was trying to do and she would say, “Serve it up!” And I did.
I went back to the laptop (and the groove in my couch), reworked the chapters, beefed up the research, cleaned up the timeline, brought the book up through the beginning of the 2012 election cycle and sent her back the finished product for a final read and cite check. At the same time, I had queried a bunch of literary agents and gotten some serious interest. In the end, they demanded too many changes, and wanted the personal stuff taken out – which I think (as you have noted) is what gives the book more weight. In the end, I decided to hold my original vision and self-publish. From the time of that decision to the actual printing was about four months of pre-marketing, photo licensing, hiring someone to design my website and cover book design (both done by the wonderful Kelly Rice of TreeFrog Marketing), hiring a publicist and embracing social media to get the word out there.
I had no idea what I was doing and, to borrow the words of Robin Williams, I felt like I was “riding a psychotic horse toward a burning stable.”
Anything else you might like to add?
The book is now on the curriculum at Pasadena City College and I am looking to get the book into other colleges. It has been accepted to the Clinton Presidential Library and was #1 on Women in Politics books on Amazon for 16 weeks. I’ve done over a hundred radio interviews at venues large and small around the nation and am now a regular commentator on both The Jerry Doyle Show (#3 in syndication around the country) and America’s Radio News Network. I’m now a contributor to Epic Times, an independent news site that will have its official launch in the next couple of weeks. I’ve also had the privilege of speaking to some wonderful groups like MENSA, NOW-NY, USC, NAPW and the Women’s Leadership Forum and co-host a weekly blog radio show with John Smart – Finlay & Smart Talk.
By the way, Dirty Words on Clean Skin is dedicated to my mom and I have now started on my next book – which is more about our journey together.
Writing Dirty Words on Clean Skin turned into the adventure of my life and I’m so grateful for the kind support of my husband, my friends and my blogger family, who championed these efforts all along the way.
Thank you, Anna, for taking such an interest in my process and my work.
If you have any questions for her about the book, please feel free to ask them in comments. She’ll be hanging around our humble little blogging hole for a bit this afternoon and will be happy to respond!
If you read the book, or dusted off your copy per my request last week, also feel free to offer up your opinion of the book, etc.
Please visit Anita Finlay and subscribe to her blog at http://www.anitafinlay.com
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