About writing, selling books, and the solitude behind making it all work out

Logan Pass in Glacier National Park

From the summit in Glacier National Park, mountain vistas and cumulus clouds stretch as far as the imagination. (Photo by Kevin S. Giles)

You’re taking a break now that you have three books on the market?

¶ A break from writing, yes. From selling, no. I don’t know which is tougher, the writing or the selling. It’s perfectly satisfying to publish a book, ending years of research and writing and editing. For a while that accomplishment alone is a sustaining comfort. I’ve held my first book when it arrives from the printer and look it over with some dismay that I distilled all that work into two pounds of paper. Once the early fascination wears off, I start working to enlist readers. What’s the point of leaving a book unread?

Tell us about your latest book, the biography of our nation’s first congresswoman?

Writing this biography of Jeannette Rankin required me to shift gears from my novel about a boy and a black 1955 Chevy.

¶ I’m confident that One Woman Against War: The Jeannette Rankin Story, is a very good book. It’s solidly researched and written. I timed publication to coincide with the 2017 presidential election because just about everybody thought Hillary Clinton would win and I pictured sales built on the “first woman” idea. When Donald Trump won, sales of this book slowed to a crawl. There’s a great deal of rancor going on, focused on the here and now, and people are sharply tuned to news out of Washington. At least in the short term, my book about an iconic pacifist in the Twentieth Century remains in search of a flash point for sales. The story of Jeannette Rankin won’t go away anytime soon, if ever, because her legacy found a permanent place in United States history. I could see a movie about her. I always have believed that, from the time I wrote my first Jeannette Rankin biography years ago. That first book had a different title, Flight of the Dove. I liked that title but I thought my new and improved biography should have an updated title that reflected the work I put into it. One Woman Against War also places a stronger emphasis on Rankin’s lifelong pacifism, which of course is what she was all about. Every time I say, “peace be with you,” I think of Jeannette Rankin.

Take me to Kevin's books: One Woman Against War, Summer of the Black Chevy, Jerry's Riot


What about your recent novel? Did readers like it?

¶ Yes. They still do. I continue to hear people say that when they read Summer of the Black Chevy it awakened memories in their youth. I loved writing that novel. It’s as much a

Summer of the Black Chevy by Kevin S. Giles

A novel is an adventure into the imagination.

showcase of my own youth as a journey into the imagination. It felt real and sincere to me as I wrote it. Maybe that’s why readers feel the same thing. Writing fiction from imagination is far different from writing a biography where facts matter. I had the makings of Summer of the Black Chevy years before I drafted a plot. Friends from my hometown in Montana inspired me to write the novel. We named ourselves “the Hooligans” for no other reason that we’re long past the need for pretentious fancy titles. After I published Summer of the Black Chevy in 2015 I began putting One Woman Against War in shape for publication. It was a grinding of the gears, so to speak, going from a novel to a biography that was so completely different in every respect. I can think of a dozen other automobile metaphors to describe the differences between these books. One’s like being on the open road, the other like driving in a crowd. You get the idea.

What’s unique about your books? It must be difficult to get noticed with a million of them out there.

¶ True. A very high percentage of books go nowhere. They die in their infancy for lack of promotion. Some die regardless of promotion. Even while we’re talking about this, many new books appear on the market, all competing for readers. Most authors, like me, are mere mortals. Until we earn our stripes and rule the markets like the big popular fiction writers, we duke it out for smaller audiences.

How did your western Montana upbringing influence your writing?

¶ I think of it as a spiritual influence. I look at the mountains in my native state and see peace. I also see imagination. I see wonder and adventure and solitude. A writer’s life is all those things. I belong with those mountains. Montanans know what I mean. I’ve met many people over the years who feel the same about their native prairies and seashores. I’m quite sure most writers feel a kinship with the land.

What do you tell young writers?

¶ To write and rewrite. Without context and encouragement, such advice is dull and uninspiring to kids, but that’s the essence of success. A writer writes, period. I spent an hour recently talking with 50 second- and third-graders about writing. Two things struck me right away: the quality of their questions, and their respectful listening. I showed them my books and told them that I revised each of them dozens of times. The importance of revision can’t be understated. Words written in silence sound different from words read aloud. Writers and readers decide whether a story stands a test of time. I write first drafts that I think read well and hold promise but when I read them a few days later, I often start over. These young writers at the school, thanks to Becky Giles and Linda Rodgers, practice revision as a requirement of good writing.

What stops many people from writing?

¶ It’s done in solitude. It’s hard work for no apparent reward for all the time it forms in the mind and through all those revisions. Technical skills matter, too: spelling, sentence structure, metaphors and similes and active tense and all the other details we learned in high school English. We wouldn’t build a house without technical skills and knowing how the pieces fit together and the same is true of a book. Finally, if a publishable book emerges, readers will judge it. That combination of solitude and public exposure discourages most people from writing. Writing requires patience and perseverance, much like music. You’ve got to love it.

Kevin S. Giles is an American journalist and author whose books have roots in his native western Montana. He published One Woman Against War in October 2016. Two other books take place in his hometown of Deer Lodge: a novel, “Summer of the Black Chevy” (2015) and the nonfiction work, “Jerry’s Riot: The True Story of Montana’s 1959 Prison Disturbance.” (2005)