Sue Staats Interviews September Emerging Writer Ana Cotham

Stories on Stage attendees will be familiar with Ana Cotham, who has been a volunteer with the reading series since its inception. She’s at the table welcoming you to the reading, and she’s happy to sell you raffle tickets and books, and accept your donation.

Ana is also a fiction writer, and her short story, “A Love of Olives, A Fear of Squirrels,” is being read this month.   But when you dig into her background, you wonder how she has time to write fiction at all—because Ana is also a freelance writer, the technical editor for a local consulting firm, and the volunteer data manager for Happy Tails Pet Sanctuary. I wondered how she managed to keep all these balls in the air, and when she found time to craft her stories.

Ana, you seem to be everywhere—I see your stories in Sacramento Magazine, you’re associated with Solano Magazine and UC Davis Health Magazine, you work part-time for Pacific Municipal Consultants as their technical editor. How do you manage all of these assignments? Are you unusually disciplined? Or, just quick?

I’m neither naturally disciplined nor quick; I just drink a lot of coffee and beg for deadline extensions! I also love my yellow legal pads; I write down everything I need to do that week, everything from work assignments to, say, doing the dishes or buying milk. Putting tasks on paper helps with the discipline—when it’s on paper, you don’t need to juggle it in your head—and crossing them off is just satisfying. Sometimes I’ll write down something I just DID in order to cross it off. Sometimes it’s about immediate gratification!

Tell me a little about your writing and editing life—what’s it like to earn a living as a freelance writer?

The stress of money aside, I generally like the freelance work I do, and not just because I can write in my pajamas. I like my assignments, usually topics like lifestyle, wedding, travel, health care, personality profiles—the best ones are both fun and informational, for me and hopefully for the audience. That said, I am now 50% employed by PMC, and I loooooove having a steady job. Knowing that at least some money is coming my way every other Thursday is a huge relief. Plus, it’s good to get out of the house and talk to real live people. When you are cloistered with deadlines for days on end, you (and by “you” I mean “I”) forget how to, you know, put the words together to make the sentences when actually trying to communicate with someone that isn’t a cat.

So how do you find time for fiction writing?

Finding the time for fiction is probably—no, it IS—my biggest problem right now. I can go for days without touching my own work, even if I’m thinking about it. It’s difficult to write and edit all day and then come home and write and edit some more. The energy just isn’t there. Also, because I prefer having large chunks of time to work on my own stuff, sometimes I don’t feel that the time is there. As a freelancer, if I have the time, I feel guilty about not using it on paying work. This is no different from any writer who juggles more than one hat. It’s a common and ongoing struggle. But I’ve been trying to reframe it as, “Well, this short story may not be paying NOW, but it should turn me into a multimillionaire SOON, so the investment is worth it!”

 Tell me about “A Love of Olives, a Fear of Squirrels,” the story being read at SoS. It’s such a great title – what inspired it?

The inspiration behind it—well, I’m happy to be able to put into print that I was inspired by a book called Spook by Mary Roach, who is a … humor science writer? Is the best description of her work? She is fabulous and I want to be her groupie. There, I said it. Anyway, there was a line in the book that triggered the “what if …” that writers love, and I followed it.

But, of course, the “what if” was just the diving board. The story hinges its “what if” around grief and family and relationships—I hope, anyway. I feel like maybe the story isn’t quite done. My writers group, Wordforge, thinks it needs to be a novel. But they’re all novelists, so they’re biased.

What’s your goal a writer?

Honestly, right now, I think I need attainable, reachable goals. Finish a first draft of this novel. Finish a third draft of that short story. Dedicate time to submitting again. But mostly WRITE. Last week at my Wordforge meeting, we talked about the six things a writer had to do in life: “Read read read, write write write.” We amended it to include “Submit submit submit.” I have the first part down, and as soon as I have a better handle on the next two, well, then I’m sure those multimillion-dollar deals will follow. Isn’t that how this writing stuff works?

Gosh, I hope so—I’m counting on it! Ana, thanks very much, and congratulations on having your story selected for Stories on Stage.

Sue Staats recently received her MFA in Fiction from Pacific University. She’s currently revising her novella, The Mitchell Boys, and working on a collection of linked short stories. Her short story “No Hero, No Sharks” was runner-up for the 2011 Gulf Coast Prize in Fiction, a finalist for the 2011 Reynolds Price Fiction Award, and was published this spring in The Farallon Review. Her fiction, non-fiction and poetry have also been published numerous times in Susurrus, the literary journal of Sacramento City College.

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