Behind the Literary Curtain: An Interview with Five Writers’ Assistants

Catherine Asaro, Neil Gaiman, Charlaine Harris, Nancy Holder, and Stephen King have more in common than just being great writers. They all have assistants working behind the scenes to make sure that schedules are met, calls are returned, travel is arranged, balls are kept in the air and not dropped, etc., etc., etc. The question is, “Who are these mysterious assistants who keep our favorite writers sane so that our next favorite book can be written, published, and read?”

Being an assistant myself, I thought it was high time to bring together a group of my talented peers to talk about the other side of the writing world. However, bringing five assistants together in one room at one time is likely to test the laws of the Universe and risk tearing a hole in the fabric of space and time. So, we’ve done the next best thing – we’ve conducted a virtual roundtable discussion, featuring five assistants who share their experiences, thoughts, and advice.

Meet the Assistants (in alphabetical order):

  • Marsha DeFilippo, assistant to Stephen King
  • Kate Dolan, assistant to Catherine Asaro
  • Lorraine Garland, assistant to Neil Gaiman
  • Erin Underwood, assistant to Nancy Holder
  • Paula Woldan, assistant to Charlaine Harris

How did you meet your boss? How did you get such a cool job?

MARSHA: This is a 2 part answer. My first experience working with Steve was as a Kelly Girl in 1986.  My assignment was to type the manuscript for The Eyes of the Dragon and had been scheduled to take a month, working 4 hours a day.  I was so enjoying the book, along with being a fast typist, that I finished in 2 weeks!  Not very smart for a temp job, though.  🙂  Steve was impressed with the job I’d done, though, so had me stay on to type the manuscript for The Tommyknockers.

About a year and a half later I received a call from his personal assistant asking if I would like to come to work for him part-time answering fan mail.   That was November of 1988 and I’ve been with him ever since moving up to full-time hours in 1990.

ERIN: I met Nancy through the Stonecoast MFA program. Not only was she one of my mentors, but she became one of my dear friends. Several years after I graduated she was looking for someone to help send out review copies of Crusade and to help get her web site up and running. Although we live on different coasts, things clicked and we’ve been a team ever since.

PAULA: Charlaine and I have known each other a long time.  Our oldest and youngest children are close in age so we shared friends and bumped into each other at school meetings etc.  When our two youngest were born we took them to baseball games, shopping, play groups.  Trust me if you go Christmas shopping with toddlers and everyone survives, you bond for life.

A few years ago we were coming back from an interview up in Conway and Charlaine asked if I would consider being her assistant since her life was getting a bit hectic.  We both agreed we would give it a try but if it affected our friendship we would make other plans.  So far it has worked out great and we still like each other just fine.

KATE: We met through Maryland Romance Writers. Catherine had used a part time assistant for many years and when her previous assistant moved, she sent a message out to the group seeking a new one. In addition to writing fiction, I had also been writing a newspaper column for nearly ten years and I was ready to switch to something else. So it turned out to be a great fit for me.

LORRAINE: He’d had just moved to America and needed someone to put his books on shelves (in order) in his new library. I did that, then there was more to do, so I figured I would stay until it was all done. 18 years now. Still not done.

If you had to pick only one, what trait or skill do you think an assistant must possess in order to get the job done? Why that trait or skill?

PAULA: I think you have to be flexible – mentally, emotionally, and physically.  Every day is a surprise.  Some days go according to plan (surprise!) and others because they didn’t (surprise).  Anything can happen from flights being diverted to last minute interviews to car troubles.  Sometimes you have to converse with people on the other side of the world so you are up at 3 a.m. tying up those loose ends. That’s what makes this job so much fun.  You just never know what will happen next, who you will be talking with or where you might be in two weeks’ time.

KATE: For me, the most important skill is the ability to change gears quickly. Catherine and I have very little time together each week and we need to share a lot of information, ask a lot of questions and iron out a lot of details about a variety of things during that brief window. Also, I get calls from her publicist and emails about almost any subject at all hours of the day and night, so I need to be able to switch into “assistant mode” at the drop of a hat.

ERIN: The ability to either jump over, plow through, or alter obstacles is pretty important. My personal motto is “get it done.” It’s something that I picked up while working in the software industry and facing impossibly long days where not being able to solve a problem could either mean a $100,000 sale didn’t go through or you were keeping a studio from hitting their production deadlines. The ability to turn obstacles into opportunities is a golden trait that requires a lot of creative thinking both inside and outside of “the box.” When all else fails, magic wands are very handy. Alakazam!

MARSHA: The ability not to be stressed by deadlines.  The job has ebbs and flows but particularly around publication time, it can be quite hectic organizing all the details related to publicity and promotion.  Unless you can keep your perspective that you will get through it, it can be quite stressful.

LORRAINE: Seriously? One? If you are an Assistant it will never be ONE thing. You need LOTS and all the time, don’t stop and never never never give up.

What do you enjoy most about working for your boss?

KATE: Well, Catherine’s a warm, caring, creative fun person to work for, and her husband and daughter are terrific, too. The flexibility of the job is essential, too, for me because my life is always pulling me in about seven different directions at once.

ERIN: It’s a pleasure to work with someone who is not only a good friend, but someone whom you deeply admire. Plus, Nancy is a riot. She might look sweet, but she’s got a wicked sense of humor. I’m still not sure how such a nice person can come up with such scary stories! Maybe there’s a part of her that I don’t know yet.

MARSHA: He’s not just a great person to work for/with, he’s a great person.  He hasn’t let his celebrity status go to his head.

PAULA: I have certainly had a variety of jobs over the years and this really has been the best job I have ever had.  Charlaine is so funny and easy to get along with.  What you see is the way she is.  She is also incredibly hard working so it is nice to be able to lend a hand and feel you are making a difference.  I agree with Erin that having been friends for so long does make the job easier.

LORRAINE: The paycheck helps with the finer things I have become accustomed to in life, living indoors, eating.  Anyone who says the money doesn’t matter is lying. At the same time, there’re lots easier ways to make money; if you don’t love it, you’re not going to do this.

What is your favorite memory or experience on the job?

MARSHA: Maybe not exactly the question you’re asking, but my favorite part of the job is moderating Stephen’s Message Board.  It’s enabled me to make a direct connection with his fans and I believe that has helped me be a better personal assistant as I get to see both sides.

ERIN: After two months of planning, data mining, and research, it was really exciting to see Nancy’s web site go live. The second best moment was finally winning a game of Cursed Checkers against the evil autobot checkers player who rules the game. Really, it’s the little things that make me happy.

KATE: I think my favorite experience was working together to write a chapter for a textbook about the sub-genres of science fiction. We got to explore and analyze the work of so many amazing writers and trace the progression of the sub-genre from its origins in mythology through the 20th and 21st Centuries.

PAULA: Wow that is a hard question but I would have to say when we traveled in Europe last year.  We covered four countries in a couple of weeks but had such a great time and lots of adventures.  Did you know that bidets can be built into a regular toilet?  If you’re standing fully clothed in front of it and pull that handle on the wall, know what happens?……never mind.

LORRAINE: First time we hived a package. No, not a euphemism. Boss got Bees. There’s something very powerful about being covered in Bees.

Conversely, what memory or experience still makes you cringe and your toes curl?

PAULA: Are we back to the bidet story again?  All I can say is it is no fun touring Rome, during the coldest winter in 30 years, in wet clothes which are all you have because your suitcase is still in London and you just had to pull that handle.  Sigh.

ERIN: I can’t beat the bidet story. This memory doesn’t have anything to do with my job, but it still makes me want to crawl under a table. I was on a romantic date with a boyfriend and I leaned over to say something that I am sure was romantic and witty. I still remember the look of panic on his face and the awful smell that filled the restaurant when my hair went into the candle, igniting the massive amount of hairspray holding everything in place. Whoosh! Instant haircut. Luckily, I was able to put out the fire with my hand, but our white tablecloth was covered in ash and the whole place stank like burnt hair. Yeah. I’m going to go hide now.

KATE: Probably the same experience – the textbook chapter. It was a lot of work! And we kept finding new stories that we wanted to include, but of course we couldn’t include them all and so it was almost heartbreaking as we had to cut stuff out of our chapter. (We had written about enough for our own full-length textbook!)

MARSHA: Having to spend nearly half an hour with a truly delusional fan all the time wondering what would be the best escape plan if it came down to that.

LORRAINE: Hello? Being covered in Bees is really FREAKY!

What is the most important lesson that you have learned about supporting a writer? Or what is one of your biggest daily challenges?

ERIN: One of the biggest challenges is that Nancy is so nice. She wants to do everything and anything she can to help others even if that means doing an interview during a writing deadline or sending out books to charities. As she gets more and more popular, we’re having to say no more and more often, which isn’t easy for her.

MARSHA: Perhaps it’s to not take negative criticism (is that redundant?) personally.  It took a while to accept that no matter how hard you try, there are some people you will just not be able to please.

KATE: I only go into Catherine’s once a week, so the rest of the time, it can be a struggle to remember to work on some of the things I need to finish for her. For example, this last week, as soon as I got home I started focusing on a Girl Scout fundraising event that we were running.  Then once that was over, I got on other things on my to-do list. And then this morning I remembered that I haven’t looked at Catherine’s “to-do” list yet!

PAULA: I think you have to be really committed to the author and the works they create.   You are representing them interacting with readers, publicists, reporters, booksellers so it’s important that you understand the message they are trying to convey to the public through their writings.  Daily challenge…….  If I could clone Charlaine, life would be easy. Charlaine has been in the writing business for almost 30 years and is very loyal to those who helped her during the lean times.  It is especially hard for Charlaine to turn down their requests for interviews, conventions, signings, etc.  If she could, she would do them all!

LORRAINE: Well, really, HE supports me. If he couldn’t support an Assistant, I wouldn’t be one.

When you were a child, what was your answer to the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

MARSHA: To be a secretary like my mom.  Obviously dating myself there as a child of the late 50s, early 60s when being a secretary, teacher, or a nurse were the primary career choices for little girls.

KATE: It depends on when you asked me. First, I wanted to be a racecar driver (with pink hair and a pink dog, if that gives you any idea how old I was) Then I wanted to be an actor so I could live in pretend worlds.  Years later I realized the best way to achieve that escapist career is to write fiction.

ERIN: When I was a kid I planned on owning a horse ranch where I would raise racehorses like the Black Stallion. I even wanted to be a jockey, but that dream disappeared inch-by-inch as I doubled in height practically overnight.

PAULA: Grow up?  Still working on that.  Let’s see, when I was a kid (that would be the Jurassic period) I wanted to be a conservation officer.  I think I may have deviated a little since then.

LORRAINE: A musician, but they told me I couldn’t do both. (grow up AND be a musician, get it?? I slay myself!!)

When you’re not hard at work making the writing world turn ’round, what do you do for fun?

PAULA: I love to read and try to find time whenever it’s possible.  What can I say?

MARSHA: Reading, gardening, and I don’t think there’s a craft I’ve discovered that I haven’t liked.  My current hobby is making jewelry since the options for gardening are extremely limited in Maine in the winter.   🙂

KATE: Most of my energy is focused on my kids these days. They’re in 7th and 9th grades, so not too much longer before they’re gone. My son is very active in sports and scouts and my daughter also does scouts and competes and performs on a jump rope team. So now I’m a part-time jump rope coach and full-time chauffeur.  Working for Catherine and writing my own stories are just things I get to do in my spare time.

When I really get to goof off, I love to read (of course), take long walks and participate in living history encampments.

ERIN: That is a hard question. I’m a work-a-holic in the truest sense, which means even when I’m relaxing I’m working. However, when I do get a real chance to relax, I love reading, watching television, and hanging out with my two dogs and my husband. In the rare case that I can actually get away from town, I love touring England and Ireland. Scotland is next on my list.

LORRAINE: Roller Derby and Dressage. And I play in a band. Skating, Riding and Rock are very relaxing for a girl  after a long hard day. Also I rescue Bengals.

What is your favorite book or story written by your boss? Why do you like that one specifically?

ERIN: I’m not sure if I’m allowed to say this since it’s not yet published, but I loved Damned, which is Book 2 of the Crusade series. It really knocked my socks off. What I love about this book is that you get into the heart of the story and the characters. Plus, I love a good action-adventure vampire story where the vamps are bad news.

PAULA: I know it is corny but I really do enjoy all of Charlaine’s series, so it would be difficult to pick just one book but there are books with attached memories.  A Bone to Pick was the first book Charlaine lent me.  It was an ARC and I didn’t even know what that was.  I was really honored to have had a chance to read the book before it was released.  Dead Until Dark would be another choice because Toni Kelner and I were at the banquet when Charlaine received her Anthony for it.

KATE: My favorite is The Ruby Dice.  It’s an almost sad story of two leaders who think the other has it made (until they finally meet at the end). It really makes you think – other people’s lives may look wonderful from the outside, but you don’t know what they’re going through.

MARSHA: Not sure that I could pick just one.  The top 5 are The Talisman, The Dark Tower series, Duma Key, The Eyes of the Dragon (because it was the first and a fantasy to boot), and the one coming out in November of 2011 titled 11/22/63.   In all of those it was the combination of the story and the characters that resonated for me.

LORRAINE: Graveyard Book. Because I’ve always felt cheated at NOT being raised in a graveyard by, er, Things.

If you could have a do-over in your life, what one thing would you change and why?

KATE: Boy it’s hard to pick just one. That’s because I have a terrible temper and so many times I’ve said things that really didn’t need to be said or at least not in the way I said them.

ERIN: I would have found a way to stay in college right out of high school rather than returning as an adult student at the age of 32 to finally get my diploma. If I had done things differently, I would never have come to Cambridge, and I would be living an alternate life. Not such a good thing since I really like this one.

MARSHA: Probably nothing, not because I did everything right but because changing that one thing could affect so many others including some times that have been good that might have been missed if I’d changed something that happened earlier.

PAULA: Not that my life has been perfect or I made all the right choices but, as Jimmy Buffet would say, “yesterday’s over my shoulder and I can’t look backwards too long there’s just too much to see waiting in front of me……..”

LORRAINE: I would have got FITTER, sooner. I was an athlete growing up, and I would have gone further at it, and I would have learned to play music BETTER, and been really good. I would have gotten My Little Pony at age 5 and been a proper rider by now, but other than that… Everything led HERE, so who’s complaining?

And a bonus question: If an author is struggling to keep up with the day to day business of writing, but doesn’t have an assistant to whip his world into shape, what assistantly advice can you give him to preserve his sanity and his writing time?

KATE: Hmmn, I think that author would be me.  I think I find the best balance when I remember to carve out separate time for writing only (that means no emails, blogs, etc.) and to do that, I often have to go to a different computer. The wireless internet connection in my house is pretty bad, so if I work on my netbook, I can’t fall prey to the temptation to check email or read someone’s blog in that moment when I pause to struggle with a phrase.  I also take my netbook to jumprope practice, baseball games, etc.  It may be too busy for me to really get into my character’s heads, but I can probably manage to write a blog or a synopsis or something useful.

ERIN: Set up a professional email address where all of your “work” related email can be directed. Something like mailforyourname@something.com would give you some amount of control over the mail flowing through your in box. That way you personal messages don’t get mixed up with fan mail, review requests, etc.

PAULA: I highly recommend Google’s calendar.  It sends you pop up and e-mail reminders, you have room for contact info, it allows you to go several years in advance, it’s quick and easy to use.  I have also found that setting up files in your e-mail account is really time saving in the long run.  I create one for each major event.  This year we are heading back to Dragoncon and I have emails and contacts from the last visit as well as maps and websites I e-mailed to myself.  I just have to click on that file and the info is waiting.  Just be sure your account has lots of storage.

MARSHA: Don’t sweat the small stuff and back up, back up, back up.  🙂

LORRAINE: WARNING: Do not attempt to pursue this profession with out an Assistant. There is no sanity in doing so.

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17 Responses to Behind the Literary Curtain: An Interview with Five Writers’ Assistants

  1. Nancy Holder says:

    Oh, my wonderful, fabulous, talented, kind, bestie Erin! This is such an amazing article and I got a little choked up reading it. All you ladies are so witty and bright! You are fantastic! Paula, you need to check out Japanese toilets some day. Sigh…Japan…:(

    I’m also happy to remind MY WRITING PARTNER that Erin and I write a column for SFWA together. 🙂 Love you always, Erin!

    –Nancy

  2. Redhead says:

    what a wonderful article! thank you so much for this! i love stuff like this, the background, the behind the scenes. 🙂

  3. Marjorie says:

    Interesting stuff. Those are five lucky writers, methinks!

  4. Bri says:

    Being a somewhat passable writer myself, this is fabulous. Although I only know one of the author’s on the list (I’M SORRY!! I promise to pick up a book by each soon I swear cause I love new authors). Most somehow think all the authors manage all this themselves, or let publishing handle the details and fail to realize just how… well complicated the entire behind-the-scenes process to writing can be. As an author you don’t want to disappoint your fans, but if you don’t focus on the writing aspect then you will ultimately do just that. So you really need someone else to handle the “other” side of it so you can do what you do best. Writing. That way all the fan emails are taken care of, all the publishing details are ironed out for you, and you have someone you trust around you to make sure you’re doing everything you need to. Even if you want to sometimes just lock the door, and dive into the work with both feet and a rock to keep you under.
    As much as the writing is important, communications with your audience is equally important. So from a person who thoroughly enjoys one aspect, and understands the other since 99% of my day involves making sure everyone is where they need to be doing what they need to be doing. THANK YOU!

    • You’re right. Once you start general fan mail on top of business related writing mail and …. everything else! Having an assistant really does help, even if it’s only for a few hours per month to take care of the mundane tasks.

  5. sally says:

    Huh, well there you go. I didn’t know you were Nancy’s PA.
    Always things to learn.

  6. Gina says:

    Great post. A truly interesting look at all (well, certainly not all…maybe most?) that goes on behind the scenes in your very important role…and from quite a group! Bookmarks up to each of you and all the work you do to help make the author’s worlds go round a bit smoother…. ^_^

  7. Pingback: Sunday Pleasures #94 « Shanna Germain

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  9. MOSHE PRIGAN says:

    I am from Israel. I have just randomlly stumbled upon this wonderful and very interesting interviews with such big-impact authors that I decided on spot to subscribe to your site. Just wonderful.

  10. Patricia says:

    I am really humbled by all the details shared on hub pages.

  11. Simone says:

    Good info. Lucky me I found your website by accident (stumbleupon).
    I’ve saved as a favorite for later!

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