How does a writer judge success?

I’d like to introduce my friend Donna Nordmark Aviles, who just returned from a book tour in Kansas. Donna is the author of three children’s books – all independently published – which retell her family history: Fly, Little Bird, Fly; Beyond the Orphan Train; and Peanut Butter for Cupcakes. Donna’s grandfather was part of the Orphan Train Movement, which shipped city orphans west for foster care. Taken into state custody for one day’s truancy, Oliver Nordmark was wrenched from his family and shipped west — along with his younger brother — in what would become a compelling story of perseverance and ingenuity.

Donna’s own venture into the world of self-publishing is no less inspiring – and a fitting tribute to Oliver’s life. Her answers to my interview questions were so interesting that I’ve split them into two posts. First I’ll talk about her successes in the publishing world. Next week, I’ll share how she brought her family’s story to light.

1. Donna, you just completed a 2-week book tour in Kansas! Where did you go, and where did you make presentations?

Oh, the book tour was fabulous! Everyone was so welcoming and excited to have me there. I traveled first to Salina, Kansas in the central part of the state, about an hour north of Wichita. For the first week of the tour I visited schools in Salina – Elementary and Middle – for a total of 19 school visits. Then, in the evenings I had three presentations. The first was at the Eagle Crest Retirement Center, the second at the Salina Public Library, and the third was at the Kansas Wesleyan University where I spoke, not only on my books and the Orphan Train Movement, but also on independent publishing and how to integrate my books and this subject into school curriculum. Students who were majoring in both History and Elementary Ed. were in attendance. The next stop on the book tour was about an hour north of Salina at a town called Concordia, Kansas. This is the home of the National Orphan Train Complex where I gave a talk and book signing followed by a brunch at the local Tea Room. It was incredible – I actually met members of the Gish family. William Gish is the farmer who took in my great uncle, Edward Nordmark, from the Orphan Train in Ionia, KS back in 1908.

Moving on to the second week of the book tour, I visited schools in the surrounding area of Salina including Concordia, Gypsum, Lindsborg, and Solomon. In total, I gave 29 presentations in two weeks to literally thousands of people. It was really quite amazing and frankly, I’m hooked! I am already putting feelers out for a 2010 fall book tour or a spring 2011 tour. (Any takers???) The opportunity to reach that many people with the missing history of the Orphan Trains is just not to be missed!

2. What was your favorite part of the Kansas tour?

There were so many wonderful things associated with the book tour but my favorite part would have to be the kids. They were so excited to have me come to their schools. Most had read at least part of the first book and many had read all of the first two books, so they were eager to hear what I had to say and their insightful questions and comments revealed the extent of their interest and concern for the more than 250,000 children involved in this 75 year “social experiment” which is now recognized as our country’s first foster care system.

3. The American reading public can be judgmental toward self-published authors. Have you encountered this bias? How did you build the kind of credibility necessary to get booked for an all-expense paid 2-week book tour?

I have been very fortunate in that I have only had one instance of negative judgment based on the publishing format of my book. And believe it or not, it was my VERY FIRST talk which I gave at a 55 and over community’s genealogy society meeting. The phrases “vanity book” and “probably full of inaccuracies” were tossed about and I was really taken aback. But…I soldiered on and explained the process and got through it. Since then, I have not had a problem. I don’t advertise that my books are independently published (I prefer that to “self published”) but if asked, I don’t hide it. I equate the process to indie music or film and explain the benefits and difficulties associated with it.

As far as the book tour goes….I think that the books were able to speak for themselves with the Salina Arts & Humanities Commission, who funded the trip. In addition to that, the information on my website is very detailed and probably helped as well. I have a lot of information there about bringing an author to your school along with detailed lesson plans for each of my three books and quotes from teachers and students who have heard my presentation and read my books. The book trailer video, pages on the history of the Orphan Trains & the Great Depression probably helped as well, along with the fact that all three books are recipients of independent book awards. And frankly, I think the bottom line is that a good book is just that – a good book. Once that is recognized, the publishers name has very little to do with it.

4. Now, this next bit just makes authors salivate uncontrollably. Tell us about the film option deal!

The film option was totally unexpected and quite mind blowing considering how it came about. I grew up in the small town of Kennett Square, PA, and in April of 2007, the newspaper in that town ran an article about my first two books. That article was read by Michael Rotko of neighboring Unionville, PA who happens to have a son, Bill Rotko (BREACH, Univ. Pic) – a screenwriter in Los Angeles. He faxed the newspaper article to his son who contacted me two days later stating that he was interested in purchasing a film option on the books. By the end of July we had signed the contract for an 18 mo. period.

Unfortunately the very next thing that happened was the Writers Strike that we all read about followed by A&E picking up Bill Rotko’s series THE BEAST starring Patrick Swayze. All of that left little time to pursue studio funding for a movie based on my books, and sadly the option expired before anything meaningful was accomplished. A disappointment for sure, but at least I know that the story has the potential to be told in a visual media format and the rights are again available for large or small screen as well as stage. I am hopeful that another screenwriter or producer will recognize the universal message in Oliver and Edward’s story, pick up the rights and run with it! In the meantime, I will continue to promote the story, as well as the history of the orphan trains in an effort to reach as many people as possible.

Thank you, Donna! Next week, I will post the second half of this interview, in which Donna talks about the books themselves and how she ended up publishing her family story. In the meantime, I suggest you check out Donna’s blog and her website.

A success story indeed!