~ Interview by Melina Kantor
It’s our pleasure to welcome author Heidi Cullinan to the blog! She’s here to tell us about her life as an author and to share some wonderful advice.
Welcome Heidi, and thank you so much for joining us!
Q: You’ve been writing forever! Are there any similarities between your first novel, The Life and Times of Michelle Matthews, that you wrote when you were 12 (wow!), and the novels you write now?
A: I’ve never written a story that didn’t at least have romantic elements. Happily my writing skills have improved a bit in thirty years from that first one, though.
Q: When you taught seventh grade language arts, what were the top three things you wanted your students to learn about creating rich and meaningful stories?
A: We didn’t teach creative writing on my team; we were part of a rich middle-to-high school arc, and our job was to teach students how to function well in workshop. They came to seventh grade having always worked independently but under a teacher’s direction, and our task was to get them from that to completely autonomous, self-directed writing workshop in eighth grade. We focused more on how to keep one’s self on task, how to plan out the steps of proposing, creating, and delivering a paper. They did do one creative writing assignment (some chose to do more when they were turned lose to make their own assignments) but largely we were focused on the process, not the specifics. They got that in eighth grade, which I didn’t teach.
It was largely the girls who wrote fiction, though not exclusively. The most common stories were sagas. When I made the assignments I told them they had a twenty page limit, but I always got students who came up begging for five more pages because their stories weren’t done. Usually those last five pages were epilogue of how everyone got married and had kids and what jobs everyone had. As far as objective story quality, they definitely had plenty I could have commented on, but that wasn’t the lesson. The lesson was feeling good about writing and learning how to self-start. A lot of sagas started to get trimmed the next year, though.
Q: In 2012, you served as president of RWA’s LGBTQ-specific Rainbow Romance Writers chapter, and you are quite the advocate of LGBT rights. How have being involved in the Rainbow Romance chapter and all your volunteer work impacted your writing?
A: While I never want to make my writing about an overt political message, it’s impossible to shut out my awareness of how vital the conversation about human rights is. My work in RRW was focused on helping bridge our work into the mainstream—we were largely accepted, but in the second month of my tenure as president we faced an issue where a chapter (now defunct) held a contest and banned LGBT entries. It’s a lot of changing minds, but we made that our slogan: changing minds, one heart at a time. I think that sums up all LGBT stories aimed at the mainstream. Though honestly a lot of it is about being heard. I started out in the G of the rainbow alphabet for a lot of reasons, but in the next two years I’ll hit all the letters of that alphabet. There’s more and more variety every day, which is wonderful.
Q: Do you have a favorite place to write, or does it depend on your mood / what you’re writing?
A: I have a lot of chronic pain issues, so I generally write at my very ergonomically correct desk. I keep switching out my desk chair, trying to find the ideal setup, but the bottom line is I have to take breaks, stretch, and move around. Sometimes I take my laptop to a chair with an ottoman, which is great for my lower back but tends to send my neck to bad places. I have occasionally tried the standing desk, but it seriously kills my legs and knees. I have fantasies of writing in outer space. Probably I should move to Glenwood Springs, Colorado. I do much better in the higher altitude, and they have a hot springs public swimming pool. Of course, then I probably wouldn’t write, I’d just live in the pool and wander the beautiful mountains.
Q: In your opinion, what is the appeal of contemporary romance?
A: That everything you read about could actually happen. Even if the plot is a bit unlikely—in my most recent contemporary, I imagine an idealized assisted living facility which, while lovely, no one will ever build—everything feels so immediate and real. Romance is always about hope, and so contemporary romance is hope right now.
Q: What is one piece of advice you give writers just starting out or not yet published?
A: Read everything, write everything, and develop your instinct. There are a million rule books, and a lot of them are important, but the most important rule book is the one you write for yourself, and no one can do that for you. Getting published isn’t about doing everything right. It’s about finding your own voice and learning how to most effectively communicate it with the world. Writing can be a hobby, but being published is about communicating with readers.
Don’t be afraid to try the untrodden path, either—in fact, while there’s more work, there’s more opportunity. When I wrote my first gay romance, I had no idea where in the world I would publish it, and self-publishing hadn’t bloomed into its full potential yet. I wrote two novels and aimed them at what I thought was completely dark space. It turns out I was actually aiming at a teeming galaxy. I can’t promise there’s always a galaxy waiting at the end of everyone’s journey. But I do know chartering un-navigated space is amazing and more rewarding than duking it out over the same four inches of space as everyone else.
Heidi Cullinan has always loved a good love story, provided it has a happy ending. She enjoys writing across many genres but loves above all to write happy, romantic endings for LGBT characters because there just aren’t enough of those stories out there. When Heidi isn’t writing, she enjoys cooking, reading, knitting, listening to music, and watching television with her husband and teenaged daughter. Heidi is a vocal advocate for LGBT rights and is proud to be from the first Midwestern state with full marriage equality. Find out more about Heidi, including her social networks, at www.heidicullinan.com.