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Chicago Author Spotlight: Claire Zulkey

By Betsy Mikel in Arts & Entertainment on Apr 19, 2010 5:40PM

An Off Year by Claire Zulkey
Last fall, Claire Zulkey published a book that was 10 years in the making. An Off Year is a young adult novel about Claire Zulkey herself and not about Claire Zulkey herself. She started writing it her freshman year of college when she was the exact same age as Cecily, her book's main character. At the time, Zulkey was facing a lot of the same challenges she gives to Cecily's character. As Zulkey developed this character, a story eventually evolved. Now it is a shiny real live book about a young high school graduate who has every reason to continue along an ambitious and successful path to college. But she is not so sure she feels like being ambitious and successful. And so her "off year" follows. Time Out Chicago describes Cecily's year unfolding "in a haze of television, professional help and vague guilt, as she tries to locate the core of her ambivalence."

This weekend, Zulkey will be speaking on a panel at StoryStudio's Shameless Shelf-Promotion: How to Market Your Writing event. She spoke to us about her book, her writing process, and what promoting a book actually means.

Chicagoist: An Off Year is marketed as a young adult book. Is that what you originally intended?

Claire Zulkey: It took forever to come together and be published. I started writing it when I was in college, and I started writing it just for fun. Before that I didn't even know it was a YA book. But I don't think it would have found its legs in any other format. When I started doing some research on the YA genre, it occured to me that that's what it was.

C: But a lot of people who aren't young adults are still reading this book. Is YA not that limiting of a genre?

CZ: I started out with a character before a plot, and the more I worked on it, the more I saw it was something I believed in as an adult. It's okay as you're transitioning into adulthood to question everything you're expected to go along with. That was something I would have been happy to tell myself at the age. I feel the negative reviews are coming from people who don't see it through my eyes.

C: So this took a long time to evolve into a published book. What have you taken away from the experience?

CZ: The number one lesson I have come away with is that it's really hard. People feel frustrated because they haven't finished a book. It sounds really simplistic, but it's a big deal… writing it, editing it, selling it. If anything, the experience has almost freaked me out, because now I know how much goes into it. For the next ones, I'm going to try to do a lot better with at least having an idea for a beginning, middle, and end. It's way too much fun to start something. Planning seems so anti-writer and artist.

C: What advice do you have for other writers trying to get published?

CZ: Keep trying. Keep it up. If you had told me it would take 10 years to publish a book, I don't know if I would have done it. I also believe in writing every day, but not necessarily writing the book every day. It's not fun to work on it if I don't enjoy it. And talk to other writers. Go to readings to meet other writers. Chicago is a great place for people who share similar passions as you, but who can be down-to-earth about them.

Claire Zulkey will be speaking with James Kennedy, author of The Order of Odd-Fish, and TV writer and essayist Johanna Stein at StoryStudio Chicago, 4043 North Ravenswood Avenue. The event is on Saturday, April 24 and starts at 10:30 a.m. It's $10 for non-members and $8 for members. Register here.