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Sanja Kulenovic

Q&A with Author Sanja Kulenovic

Sanja Kulenovic is a Russian-born Bosnian, now an American citizen, who has called Southern California home since the early 1990s, when she was stranded due to the Bosnian War. She studied economics and English language and literature at the University of Sarajevo, where several of her essays and short stories appeared in the university’s magazine. In 1993, she presented a speech at a United Nations-sponsored event for Bosnian women and children. Since then, Sanja has earned a master’s degree in economics and has been working as a financial analyst for an engineering corporation that helped rebuild Bosnia’s infrastructure after the war. She resides in Los Angeles with her husband and two daughters.

Sanja KulenovicWhat prompted you to write The Siege of Sarajevo and share your family’s personal experiences with readers?

It started about ten years ago, when I found a stack of letters my family and friends wrote to me from the besieged Sarajevo in the 1990s. My children were eleven and eight at the time and had no knowledge of the events that took place in the Balkans then, except that their “grandmas and grandpas lived through a war.” The more I read the letters to them, the more questions they asked, and I realized a had a job to do. I began organizing the letters by years and translating them into English, in the process creating an authentic and a very unique “historical document” intertwined with deep personal notes and my own story of immigrant life in America.

I wanted my daughters and other Bosnian immigrants’ children to learn what had happened in Sarajevo and to their families trapped in the longest siege history remembers. I wanted them to learn by reading the words of those who experienced it, not just history books. I wanted them to remember it and to keep it alive for the next generations to come.

I believe the story of Sarajevo, however unique, is also universal. It will make you laugh, cry, and appreciate ordinary things in life—for you never know when they might be out of your reach.

Which writers and works inspired you to put your own story on paper?

I love reading true stories and learning about other people’s experiences in life. But, for my book, I did not find inspiration in the works of others. This was a very personal endeavor, something I decided to do on my own.

The Siege of SarajevoAs a first-time author, what challenges did you face in your writing process, and how did you overcome them?

For me, the big questions were, Do I know how to write and can I do it in English? It is one thing to talk about your life with a group of close friends, preferably in Bosnian, and entirely different to put it on paper for a wider audience, readers you don’t know, in English. I had constant doubts about the quality of my work and would write, edit, delete, write again—which often felt like moving in circles with no end in sight. To overcome this, I started asking my family and friends to read my work, telling them it was still in early stages, to make them feel more comfortable critiquing it. This helped me gain much-needed confidence in my writing abilities as I realized that most of what I had done was actually decent work, not just “early drafts.”

Writing a book, like any other long-term project, requires persistence. That, to me, is the key, especially for first-time authors, who often embark on a writing journey without a clear plan—at least I did. But I was determined and disciplined. At times when I, for various reasons, could not write, I still thought about the book, researched, translated, sorted things out, and planned next steps. Even though it was ten years in the making, there was never any doubt in my mind that I would finish it.

What advice would you give to other aspiring authors who might be struggling to revisit personal traumas or tragedies?

This is a hard one. There aren’t any rules on this and everyone is different. For me, writing was often like a psychological therapy session, but at other times, it was a difficult and depressing task. The same is true for the readers: Some of my friends who lived through the war told me they could not read my book at all; others read it in one sitting and found it uplifting and positive.

My advice to everyone is to try. I think it can be a powerful healing process, because the primary focus of it is writing, not thinking per se. Even though you are revisiting unpleasant events of your life, you tend to look at them from a somewhat different angle and with an added dimension: how to put it all on paper. That, I found, takes away at least some of the burden.

What has been the most fulfilling part of the writing and publishing process for you?

When I finished the book, I felt more accomplished than ever before. This came as a big surprise to me at first, but I now understand it. Everything I had achieved in my life prior to writing a book, both personally and professionally, I expected of myself. I aspired to do certain things and I did them. But no one, including myself, expected me to write a book. It was not an ordinary thing in life; it was not something “needed,” such as a degree or a job, or something “required,” such as to be a good daughter or a good mother. I feel I have done something big, extraordinary, and I am greatly enjoying it!

What’s the primary takeaway you hope readers get from The Siege of Sarajevo?

Although Sarajevo’s siege was on prime-time news all over the world for years, I feel it has now been largely forgotten. Bosnia is a small country far away, and a new generation was born after the siege ended, more than twenty years ago. My wish, however, is to keep the story of Sarajevo alive, because it is worth telling. The heroism, stoicism, strength, and spirit that carried Sarajevans, my family included, through 1,425 days of siege is unparalleled. The Siege of Sarajevo is proof that “something to live for” is always there and is worth fighting for. I hope everyone who reads my book takes away some of it with them and becomes a little bit stronger in their own life battles.

Peter Bowling Anderson

Q&A with Author Peter Bowling Anderson

Peter Bowling Anderson has a master’s degree in communications/writing from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, an M.A. in teaching from Centenary College, and a special education certification from LSU Shreveport. His writing has appeared in a variety of publications, but perhaps his most important work experience came as a tutor and assistant for Richard Herrin, a man with cerebral palsy who unexpectedly became Peter’s friend, mentor, teacher, and inspiration. Life at 8 mph: How a Man with Cerebral Palsy Taught Me the Secret to Happiness is Peter’s account of an extraordinary friendship and the joys that can be found by saying yes to the unknown.

What prompted you to write your memoir and share your personal experiences with readers?

It was an idea I’d toyed with for several years since my time ended with Richard. I thought our time together would make a good inspirational tale, but I was involved in other projects. Then I got married, and then we had our son, Henry, so it kept getting pushed to the back burner. … An opportunity finally arose in 2017 to tackle it, and though it had been five years since we’d worked together, I was lucky enough to have the support and endless patience of Richard and his wife, Della, who answered all of my many, many questions to fill in the gaps and sweep away the cobwebs as I wrote the book. I knew Richard and I had experienced enough hilarious and poignant moments that it would make an entertaining tale if I could just get it down on paper, and thankfully, I finally did.

Which writers and works inspired you to put your own story on paper? Who has influenced your writing style?

My favorite authors are Richard Ford and Cormac McCarthy. They both write literary fiction about the “blue-collar” world. Ford’s stories are primarily set in the North, McCarthy’s in the South. Their writing is profoundly insightful, the type of prose I can reread several times and still learn new things. They mix in humor, too, which I think is important and I try to do. Annie Dillard, Norman Maclean, and Richard Russo are three other authors I love, as well as Anne Tyler. I like authors with a good ear for dialogue, a great sense of humor, and a keen sense of why people react the way they do in certain situations. Richard Ford once said in an interview that he wasn’t interested in the crisis but in how people reacted to the crisis, because that was the most informative aspect. I agree. I hope my book makes people think about how they might react, or have reacted in the past, in certain situations with someone with a physical challenge, and what they can glean from it.

What makes a great memoir? What advice would you give to other aspiring authors who might be struggling to get started with a memoir?

Two things I’ve noticed in effective memoirs are transparency and pace. In Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, or Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, or Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It, they all keep the story moving. There’s no indulgent, laborious fixation on a particular passage of time. These authors all understood that, while their stories were fascinating in different ways, they were still their stories, and to keep readers intrigued, they needed to keep the action moving forward. Everyone has a story to tell, but if you want anyone to listen to the whole thing, you better keep it moving. I tried to do that, as well as to be transparent and not hold anything back, as these authors did. I believe the reader can tell when a writer is being authentic and unguarded or writing merely to impress. Candor seems to be the most memorable approach.

life at 8mphWhat challenges did you face in creating memorable scenes that seamlessly brought together multiple storylines?

I’d written another memoir a few years earlier about the ten dogs we had in our home while I was growing up. There were lots of humorous stories, but one thing I noticed when it was finished was that it tended to feel a bit too anecdotal, with just one story followed by another unrelated story. The only common thread was that all the stories concerned the dogs. So with this memoir, I wanted the story to have a definitive narrative arc, which, thankfully, it did naturally all on its own. When I took the job working with Richard, it was the last job I wanted and I thought I’d hate it. Later, I began warming up to him and to the job, and by the end of the book it turned out to be the best position I ever had. This memoir goes from Point A to Point B to Point C, rather than being just a series of stories. I think having that arc helps it flow more smoothly and keeps all of our experiences connected.

Your writing style is both earnest and humorous. How did you strike that balance?

Lots of practice, and years of bad writing. I began writing at nineteen, and my first attempts tended to err on the mawkish side. I wanted so desperately to move people that I went overboard and made it melodramatic. It took me a while to rein it in, and in particular, to learn the valuable lesson that it’s much easier to touch people if I’ve already made them laugh. When a writer can make the reader laugh, it establishes a bond, or acceptance, that then allows poignancy a much easier path. I think of it as a relationship between two friends—if they’ve already bonded over good times, they’ll be more likely to lower their emotional guards when it’s time for serious discussions.

What has been the most fulfilling part of the writing and publishing process for you?

On the writing end, it was extremely fulfilling to finally get Richard’s story down on paper. I’d told him years ago that I would one day write a book about our time together, so the guilt had weighed on me rather heavily as the years passed. Plus, I thought people would benefit from reading the story, so I wanted to get it done. … To have Richard’s story finally cross the ultimate finish line to be published so the public can read it is as satisfying as anything I’ve ever accomplished.

What’s the primary takeaway you hope readers get from Life at 8 mph?

I want readers to remember that people with injuries, illnesses, physical challenges, etc., still have many valuable things to offer. Just because they’re restricted in some way doesn’t mean they’re incapable of blessing our lives. In fact, their unique situation often offers them a specific perspective that allows them insight we simply don’t, or can’t, see. It behooves us to take the time to listen to what they have to say. Also, I hope readers pay attention to the fact that working with Richard was the last thing I wanted to do, yet it turned out to be the best job I ever had. Way too often, we decide what will work for us or be beneficial for us before we’ve even given it a try, and we end up missing out on so many wonderful experiences that would allow us to grow in immeasurable ways. In fact, as I look back at my life, almost every time I was certain I didn’t want to do something because I wouldn’t like it but then I finally did it anyway, it wound up being the perfect choice and I was fortunate and grateful I took a chance. Opportunities don’t always come packaged the way we’d envisioned, but we need to open them anyway, like all gifts, before tossing them out. There might be fine diamonds stuffed in those socks. 

Aimee Ross

Q&A with ‘Permanent Marker’ Author Aimee Ross

Aimee Ross was living a perfectly normal life raising three kids, married to her high school sweetheart, and teaching at her high school alma mater. Life was perfect—right until it wasn’t.

Unhappy in her marriage, Aimee asked for a divorce. Three days later, she suffered a heart attack at age forty-one. Five months after that, she survived a near-fatal car crash caused by an intoxicated driver.

Her physical recovery took months and left her body marked by scars. The emotional recovery, though, would take longer, as Aimee sought to forgive the man who almost killed her—and to forgive herself for tearing apart her family.

Permanent Marker takes readers on a journey of healing, proving that from darkness can come new light, new love, and a renewed purpose for life.

What prompted you to write your memoir and share your very personal experiences with readers?

I had to understand what happened to me: Who had I been, and who did I become? I knew I was different. I knew something life-changing had happened to me, and I needed to understand how it had affected me so deeply. Sharing the experiences is education at its basic level—teaching and learning from each other. It’s so ingrained in me that I don’t know how not to share.

How did reliving your most painful experiences—a divorce, a heart attack, a near-fatal car crash—affect you? Did it feel therapeutic, or was it harder than you anticipated?

I’ve been working on this for more than six years, to tell the truth. When I first started writing, it was only about the accident. Before I knew it, the story of my divorce and heart attack was bubbling out of me without control. Within months, I realized that even though I’d chosen to get divorced, the heart attack and accident just happened to me; my first reaction was that karma was paying me back. Guilt made me wonder if I’d deserved all of what happened, and ultimately, that’s when I started asking the bigger questions of myself through writing that most definitely—as the book explains—became my therapy. I cried a lot and processed a lot. And thank goodness, because it worked. (But I’ve always believed in writing as a cathartic, insightful experience, says this veteran English teacher.)

Which writers and works inspired you to put your own story on paper? Who has influenced your writing style?

Darin Strauss’s Half a Life and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love both inspired me. Strauss experienced a traumatic accident as well, and as a result, he dealt with his guilt through writing his memoir—I took strength from that. Early in Gilbert’s book, she briefly writes about the end of her marriage, and it has always stuck with me.

My younger sister is a humor writer, and she’s been influencing and guiding my writing for years, no matter whether I was working on an essay, a lesson plan, a presentation, or an application. I’m also a huge fan of Abigail Thomas’s writing style, which I studied during my MFA. She writes almost conversationally, and she experiments with voice and chronology (or lack of) brilliantly. Both Jill Christman’s (Darkroom) and Cheryl Strayed’s (Wild) writing also have influenced my style and not just their books—both women are prolific essay writers with unique, straightforward creative voices.

What makes a great memoir? What advice would you give to other aspiring authors who might be struggling to get started with a memoir?

A great memoir, no matter the writer’s experience, makes you feel as if you have been through it with her. Not only does the writer have a voice that’s relatable and realistic, her story has universal qualities that help you identify with it while making you feel something.

After hearing the same advice over and over again, from editors, writers, and publishers alike, I decided, “Hey, maybe, they all know something I don’t (duh, Aimee),” so here it is: Figure out the story you want to tell and why it needs to be told. Then get it all out in writing. Every bit of it. After you do that, then you look for patterns and similarities and gaps, or ways you could experiment or change the structure.

What has been the most fulfilling part of the writing and publishing process for you?

For me, it has been the challenge of the writing itself: telling my story the best way I can and finding just the right words to say what I want. That gives me a tremendous feeling of satisfaction. When I can read something I’ve written over and over again in a quest for perfection and feel proud, that’s fulfilling, too.

What’s the primary takeaway you hope readers get from Permanent Marker?

Ultimately, I think we’re all asking the same questions of ourselves—Why am I here? What is my purpose in life? How do I get through this struggle?—and memoir is the perfect genre to find possible answers in others’ experiences to help us answer our own.