When OnMilwaukee.com interviewed Lesley Kagen in early 2007, the Milwaukee author -- and co-owner of Restaurant Hama -- was riding high on the success of her debut novel, "Whistling in the Dark."
That Kagen was something of a "late bloomer" as a novelist didn't seem to matter one iota to readers or to reviewers. The industry standard Publisher's Weekly raved about Kagen and her book, saying "Kagen sharply depicts the vulnerability of children in any era" and calling Salley O'Malley, "an enchanting protagonist."
The result? "Whistling in the Dark" has sold impressively, shifting more than 100,000 copies so far.
Although Kagen has said, "Getting published is the hardest thing I've ever done next to parenting," she appears to have had little trouble conjuring a quick follow-up and that work, "Land of a Hundred Wonders," is published in paperback on Aug. 5.
With a new book in shops tomorrow, we thought it was high time we revisited Kagen to ask about her rapid success, her new book, her Milwaukee restaurant and more. Enjoy this Milwaukee Talks with author Lesley Kagen.
OMC: Were you surprised by the success of "Whistling in the Dark"?
LK: Not surprised, gobsmacked! The chances of having even a moderately successful novel these days is astronomical. To make The New York Times Bestseller List, it, shoot, now you're making me cry. I've considered having that engraved on my tombstone, by the way. Here lies Lesley Kagen. She was a New York Times Bestseller author, you know.
OMC: How did the success affect your daily life? Did a lot of new people start coming into Restaurant Hama with the book tucked under their arm?
LK: Our regular customers have been so supportive! And yes, new folks are coming in every day. We have a gorgeous party room so a lot of the book clubs meet there and I join them. We talk and eat and drink and have a ball!
OMC: Was there a lot of pressure to write a follow-up that would duplicate or build on that success? How did that affect your ability to write?
LK: No, no pressure. I'm a high-octane kind of gal. My new novel, "Land of a Hundred Wonders," was a thrill to write.
OMC: The new book isn't set in Milwaukee. Does that mean Milwaukee doesn't creep in at all, even if unnamed? Do you find a lot of fodder here?
LK: I love that word -- fodder. No, the next story takes place in small town Kentucky, 1973. No brats. No cheese curds. Only fried chicken and sweet tea. I love Milwaukee, but wanted to explore a different culture this time around.
OMC: Does the restaurant help? You must see a lot of different people come through there on a daily basis.
LK: Actually, with all that's been going on with the books, I don't get into Hama as much as I used to. My husband, Pete, manages it most of the time. Both books are displayed prominently near the cash register and my sweetie makes sure that all our customers know what's going on. Many of them have been dining at Hama for years and years, so they get to come along on this new and wonderful ride!
LK: I'll always be involved with Hama. I love our customers and our staff. They're like family. But, I have to admit, it's getting tougher and tougher to spend long periods of time there. It's not just the writing that takes me away. After your book is published there are book club visits and tours and interviews that need my attention.
OMC: Tell us a bit about how you succeeded in becoming a published author.
LK: In order to get a book published these days, you need to be represented by a literary agent. I thought, how hard could this be? I'll send a query letter and these agents will ask to see sample pages of "Whistling in the Dark" and we'll be off! I'll be a published author in no time! Ha!
The manuscript was rejected for representation by 133 literary agents. Demoralizing is the word that comes to mind. Doomed is good, too. Thank God I've got the personality of a wire-haired terrier. I didn't give up and eventually found an agent that liked the story and was willing to go to bat for it with the publishers.
OMC: Do you think the fact that you're in Milwaukee and they're in New York was a drawback?
LK: Maybe to some. New Yorkers seem to think that the world ends at Staten Island. I had a publishing assistant phone to ask me, "Do you milk cows?" She was just asking for it, so, of course, being the smart-mouth that I am, I was forced to tell her, "Only when I'm done churning the butter and weaving the wool."
OMC: Tell us about Milwaukee's writing "scene," as you see it. Is there one? Are there people that are making a living here as creative writers?
LK: I've met some wonderful writers at seminars this past year. Kris Radish is terrific and a wonderful human being. Same goes for Lauren Fox, CJ Hribal and Liam Callanan and many others, so yes, there is a vibrant writing scene in Milwaukee, and all over Wisconsin. Christina Schwarz is fabulous, Michael Perry is outstanding, and a new writer, Jess Riley is doing a great job. Writing is a solitary endeavor so authors get to see much of each other, but it's fun to compare notes when we do.
OMC: Are you already working on a third book? Can you tell us anything about it?
LK: Yup, I'm about a third into a new story, but I can't tell you anything about it. Sorry, I'm superstitious.
OMC: When is it due?
LK: It's not due at any specific time. I'm hoping to have it finished by the holidays and ready for publication in the fall of 2009.
OMC: Lastly, what advice do you have for Milwaukee's aspiring creative writers.
LK: Write every day and don't ever give up.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.