Inteview with author Karen Winters Schwartz, author of “Where are the Cocoa Puffs?”

Tell us a little about yourself
Let’s see…. I am an optometrist, a mother, a writer, a keeper of a plethora of creatures, an advocate for mental illness and a recently published novelist. I was born and raised in Ohio and went to The Ohio State University forever. I met my husband in Chicago at an optometric student conference. We married and moved to Central New York, and bought a house on the shores of Otisco Lake. We’ve been together for twenty-four years: buried two good dogs, raised two beautiful daughters and watched one million, three hundred thousand and five Canada geese wing over our house.

Can you tell us a little about your book?

Where Are the Cocoa Puffs?: A Family’s Journey Through Bipolar Disorder, is just that: a novel that follows a family through the tragedy of mental illness; but it’s not tragic. Even more so than my other three novels, Cocoa Puffs is written from my heart; it’s an honest, raw snapshot of a family who’s going through a crisis. In my little world, no matter how dark and desperate things seem, I always manage to find humor – even if it’s very dark. One of the novel’s strongest assets is its humor, and the way levity is interweaved with the dark and desperate moments – very much like the bipolar condition itself.

Here’s my short short synopsis (Yes. I guess we writers really must write them….): As eighteen-year-old Amanda spirals into mania, her father, psychiatrist Dr. Jerry Benson, sees the realization of his worst fears: his daughter is not just moody, but truly ill. With his words, his diagnosis—manic depressive illness—his world and that of his family is forever altered.

What would you like readers to take away from your book?
What I want, more than anything else, is for the readers of this book to enjoy the journey – to be entertained. And as my readers are enchanted by my incredible wit and amazing ability to spin a very simple tale, I’d like them to take away a little better understanding of mental illness and its far reaching effects. Seriously, I tried to write a story that would be a pleasure to read, without bogging it down with too much sadness. I guess I want, most of all, for them to take away hope and empathy and compassion toward those people struggling either directly or indirectly with these illnesses.

Why did you decide to write about mental illness?
Interestingly, I wrote my first book over twelve years ago. As you know, I’m an optometrist. Before that, I used to do scientific research. And although I’d written some creative pieces when I was younger, I was not trained in English or fiction writing. What motivated me to pick up my computer, over twelve years ago, and start pounding out a story was (I’m almost embarrassed to admit) a dream. I woke up one morning during my mid-life crisis and said, “Damn! That was a good, powerful dream! I better write a novel!” And I did. That first novel was about a man and his attempt to come to grips with his diagnosis of schizophrenia. I wrote my second novel quickly thereafter, which also dealt indirectly with mental illness. And then, devastated by my first handful of rejection letters, I wrote nothing for ten years.
Then, when mental illness assaulted my world in a very personal way, I was moved to write again, but this time with honesty that can only be achieved by living through the effects of a loved one’s illness.


How much research did you do for your book, and how did you go about it?

For my first novel, I did a ton of research – back then there really wasn’t so much going on with the Internet, so I read a lot of memoirs and textbooks on mental illness. I did the same sort of thing with Where Are the Cocoa Puffs?; only it was so much easier with the Internet at my fingertips. I’d also gone through the Family Training and Education Class taught here in Syracuse by Sheila Le Gacy, which contained a wealth of information. I became involved in NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness), became a board member of NAMI Syracuse and got to know many wonderful people who helped me and inspired me while writing Cocoa Puffs.

What is your all-time favorite book, and why?

That’s really hard. I have so many favorite books…but I guess if someone had a gun to my head, I’d yell out, “Prodigal Summer! (Please don’t shoot!) by Barbara Kingsolver!” I love the way she writes. Her stories are character-driven, which is how I like to write; and in that particular novel, I just love the way she slowly and smoothly weaves the three stories together. And the scene with the old man when he thinks he’s had a stroke and really he has a large snapping turtle attached to his boot! You just don’t get any better than that!

Do you have a specific place and time where you write?

In the summertime I write outside with my adorable little buddy on my lap (my Eee PC netbook) and my iPod, playing either Dave Matthews Band or Neil Young, in my ears. Usually I’m in the shade on our little brick patio at the side of the house. It’s tucked away; I still have a great view of Otisco Lake and often, people can’t find me. In the winter, which is a long, long time in Central New York, I write in our living room, facing the lake, or if people keep bugging me, I withdraw to our bedroom. As far as time – whenever I can. If I’m in the middle of a novel, I write constantly, either in my head or actually typing away. It’s very all-consuming…but damn, it’s fun!

What was the best writing advice you’ve ever gotten, and what was the worst?

The best advice I ever received was from my wonderful, amazing editor, Lorna Lynch. She’s given me tons of great advice, but the best was when I was complaining about my frustrations with the whole publishing modus operandi and she wrote to me and said, “Suffer the fools as you go along. They’re a necessary part of the process.” Then she went on to tell me how wonderful my writing was. How could I not love her?!
The worst was from someone who told me I would never have my manuscript accepted if I changed character point of view within a scene. I fretted over this for quite a while as I purposefully wrote Where Are the Cocoa Puffs? from all my main characters’ points of view, within the same scene, because of the manic nature of what I was writing about. Happily, she was wrong! The people at Goodman Beck Publishing (my publisher) fully understood what I was trying to do and loved the way the book flows.

What are your favorite writing resources?

I love the website: Writersdigest.com. It’s a great writing community. My favorite book on writing is: Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. Stephen King’s book On Writing is great also.

What’s your writing process like? Do you outline, or do you just pick
up your pen (keyboard) and start writing?

I do not outline. I usually have an idea of where I’m going and if I am suddenly hit with a pivotal moment in the novel, I’ll write that scene first and then write toward it. But in general, I just start writing, get to know my characters; and they lead the way.


What are you working on now?

I just finished a major rewrite on my very first novel. I think it turned out pretty darn good. It’s most likely the next novel I’ll put out there for publication. I changed the main protagonist’s name to Reese and plan to rename it Reese’s Pieces! Seriously! It was my husband’s idea! I’ll probably give it a subtitle of: One Man’s Journey Through Schizophrenia. My fourth novel: The Possibility of Bananas, a fun, sad little romp set in Belize, is also polished and ready to go. I’ve started my fifth novel, also set in Belize, which deals with the cultural and economic dichotomy in the small fishing village of Hopkins, Belize. Weird, but it seems all my novels, so far, have ended up with food in their titles!

Where can readers find you on the web?

www.karenwintersschwartz.com

Where can readers find your book?

The novel will be in all the major, and hopefully, independent booksellers throughout the country. I really like to support small independent bookstores. If your favorite bookseller doesn’t have it, ask them, “Where Are the Cocoa Puffs?” It’s also listed on all the major online sites of booksellers.

Any last words?
Yes. Buy the book!

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12 thoughts on “Inteview with author Karen Winters Schwartz, author of “Where are the Cocoa Puffs?”

  1. J. Aday Kennedy

    I don’t use a formal outline, but I have to have general plot points– I usually plot the story generally & then I usually stray from it.
    Blessings,
    J. Aday Kennedy
    The Differently-Abled Writer & Speaker

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  2. Calandra Gildemeister

    I Entirely realize what your stance in this topic is. Even though I would disagree on several of the finer points, I feel you did a remarkable job outlining it. Sure beats the need to research it on my own. Thanks.

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  3. Barbara Ehrentreu

    Peggy, great interview!!!

    Karen, I also have been involved with mental illness with my daughter and I know the toll that it takes on a family. She had a bout of depression, then social anxiety and finally health anxiety. She has been on meds on and off since 16. It’s good that you can write about it so close to your life. I’m also glad that you kept subbing even when rejected.

    I also don’t outline, but I do find that some scenes require a bit more organization to keep events in the order you want.

    I used to live in upstate NY in Cortland and then lived in Vestal and finally moved to Buffalo. Very familiar with the scenery up there.:)

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  5. karen winters schwartz

    Thanks everyone, for your comments! Last week was my official book launch event (CRAZY FUN!) and I didn’t even realize this was posted! Sorry I didn’t respond earlier. Thank you, Peggy!

    Tomorrow I give my first speaking presentation for Where Are the Cocoa Puffs? at the NAMI Syracuse Conference. Wish me luck! I’m slightly petrified!

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  6. Deanna Jewel

    Congrats on your release and on all the books you have in the works. You certainly have things scheduled well for yourself. What an inspiration to all of us who write!

    Best of luck to you!

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