I spent time with Sam at the Decatur Book Festival, where he was promoting “Unsafe On Any Campus?” The book about sexual assault won first-place awards in both the 2017 Florida Authors and Publishers President’s Book Awards in the Adult Non-Fiction category and the Royal Palm Literary Awards. (I encourage parents of college-bound students to read it.) Sam is a professor at Florida State University and I’d like to be the first to wish him a Happy Father’s Day!
Tell me about your background. Where you grew up, where you live now, education, work experience? Share some interesting things about yourself that we should know about.
I currently live in Tallahassee, Florida, but grew up in Ohio. In fact, until moving to Florida, I had a virtually uninterrupted legal residency in Ohio for 50 years. I raised my kids in a house one street away from the house I grew up in my hometown of Bellbrook. I had a job that required me to travel nationally and globally, but all my job needed was access to the internet and an airport. So, I did not have to move my family for my job. My work has taken me to China more than 30 times, nearly 100 cities in the U.S., and 43 U.S. states. This global perspective informs my writing which draws on multicultural themes and issues of identity. At the same time, virtual work allowed me to reap the benefits of a raising my children in a stable environment within five miles of two sets of grandparents, numerous cousins, and with friends they have known from elementary school through college.
What inspired you to write this book? What is the story behind the story?
I am the author of six novels and seven nonfiction books, so this question is a bit tricky! Each book has its own inspiration. This summer, SYP Publishing will release “Calusa Spirits,” the third book in the Pirate of Panther Bay series. This series was inspired by my desire to stretch my brain by stepping outside of nonfiction–I am an economist by profession—into a more creative space through writing fiction. At the time the series was conceived, I had a literary agent who challenged me to come up with a young-adult romance. I thought a series about pirates would be pretty cool, and I became really excited about it when the principle protagonist became a female pirate captain who was also an escaped slave. St. Nic, Inc., my second published novel, is a re-imagination of the Santa Claus myth prompted by the “big” question all kids ask when they become certain age: Is Santa Claus real? Santa Claus, in this case, is the great, great, great granddaughter of the original Santa Claus and a Millennial. The story is based in reality and takes place at the North Pole. Essentially, I found a real-world analogue for the elements of the mythology, and then threw international intrigue in to make it a real adventure.
My most recently published book, Unsafe On Any Campus? College Sexual Assault and What We Can Do About It, was prompted by the trauma of campus rape survivors that I got to know at Florida State University after I joined the faculty in 2011. Sexual assault is much larger and broader problem on college campuses than most people realize, but the solutions are not as straightforward as many assume (or hope). I felt the voices of rape survivors needed to be heard and coupled with practical solutions. The book is really a primer on campus sexual assault targeted toward parents of college-bound students in the hopes it would provide important information to a broad audience in a non-judgmental way, promote a wider discussion of the issue, and point toward practical ways we can address the problem. Unsafe On Any Campus? received a significant boost in visibility when it achieved first place finishes in the Royal Palm Literary Awards as well as at the Florida Authors and Publishers Association President’s Awards in 2017.
What has been your biggest challenge or obstacle?
My biggest challenge has been managing my various writing interests—just ask my publisher! I have been fortunate in that I have not suffered from writer’s block. So, my biggest challenges are carving out time to do the marketing necessary to make my books as successful as they should be, balancing my writing with my teaching course load at FSU, and getting enough sleep.
What has been your biggest “aha” moment or success?
My biggest “aha” moment, and the one that keeps me focused and sane, was when I realized I can only control what I can control, and I stopped trying to control the events I could not. I can control when I write, and what I write about. I can’t control how people will react to my writing, or whether they will be inspired to write a review. I can control how I relate to friends and colleagues, but I cannot control their behavior or how they react or interact with me. This has allowed me to stay much more focused on the things that matter most—being authentic, respecting and supporting the people I interact with, honoring people for what they bring into a relationship with me (not what I might want them to bring), and following through on the commitments I make. This perspective also provides opportunities for self-reflection and grounding myself in my core values. This mindfulness allows me to really focus on what’s important in my life without getting too distracted. I try to see all challenges as opportunities I have to discover.
What authors do you like to read? What books have had a strong influence on you or your writing?
I’ve given a lot of thought to this over the years. I don’t have a favorite author. I like good, authentic stories. I tend to gravitate toward those authors being vulnerable in their writing, whether fiction or nonfiction. I also tend to evaluate authors on a book-by-book basis. I love Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice but don’t feel beholden to liking all her books. I also think Veronica Roth’s Allegiant, the third book in young adult Divergent series is underappreciated for its depth and nuance. Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game is a fantastic story, both in depth and the way he tells it through the point of view of a uniquely gifted six-year-old, but I don’t particularly like science fiction as a genre. I also really enjoy reading memoirs written by ordinary, everyday people experiencing extraordinary events.
Do you write every single day? Any writing rituals?
My only ritual is meeting my deadlines! I have so many writing projects going at any one time that I have to write every day, whether for my job at Florida State University (writing commentary, policy studies, or marketing materials) or on my “own” time writing about pirates, Santa Claus, movie reviews, or contemporary film. I currently have regular contributions to several blogs with international platforms.
What are your interests outside of writing?
My main hobby outside of writing is snow skiing. I come from a long line of skiers–I have a picture of my mother on skis in 1948, and my father was one of the early presidents of the Dayton (Ohio) ski club. My family owned a small ski area in Ohio for 25 years, where I worked full-time before going to graduate school. I was also a volunteer member of the National Ski Patrol, becoming one of Ohio’s youngest patrollers to achieve the rank of Senior Patroller before heading to college in Maine. Florida has made this hobby difficult to sustain, but I can’t get it out of my blood. Outside of skiing, I have a black belt in the martial art of To-Shin Do, a self-defense-oriented form of ninjutsu that is the foundation for my self-defense workshops and seminars I lead at Florida State University. I have really enjoyed developing widely accessible martial arts curricula for student organizations ranging from one-hour introductions to a 12-week semester-long curriculum.
Share some tips for other Authors or Aspiring Authors: What would you do differently? What would you do the same? Please share anything you think would be beneficial to those reading this.
The single most important decision I made to improve my writing was joining a critique group. Care should be taken in joining a group–you have to be vulnerable and be in a group respecting that vulnerability while setting the right bar for quality–but the objective feedback and “tough love” pushed me in directions that ramped up my writing quality immeasurably. I have won more than 10 literary awards over the past six years, and I have no doubt the discipline and insight provided by my critique group is a reason why. In fact, I cite them in my book acknowledgements.
A second recommendation is to join a local writing group that holds regular programming on the art, craft, and business of writing. I did most of my fiction writing isolated and alone. This definitely held me back as a writer and understanding the business and marketing necessary to develop the following I need to be commercially successful. In Florida, I am an active member of the Tallahassee Writers Association, Florida Writers Association, and Florida Authors and Publishers Association. These groups have fantastic programming for writers, particularly those starting out or early in their career.
Renee Garrison is the award-winning author of The Anchor Clankers. To suggest an author interview, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org