Interview with Author and Journalist Cathy Alter

*Doing a little soul searching? Check out this exclusive interview with Cathy Alter and come back next week for a chance to enter a TEN book giveaway and win an copy of Cathy’s non-fiction book, Up for Renewal!

Cathy Alter is a DC-based author and journalist. Her articles have appeared in national newspapers and magazines including The Washington Post, Washingtonian, The Atlantic, The Huffington Post, Self, Fitness, Prevention, and McSweeney’s. Cathy’s nonfiction books include Virgin Territory: Stories from the Road to Womanhood and Up For Renewal: What Magazines Taught Me About Love, Sex, and Starting Over. In Up for Renewal, Cathy turned to magazines’ advice and tips for one year in an attempt to revitalize her life.

But before I get to the interview, I have a few things to say:

Back when I was in college and only had dreams of being a full time writer, I had an epiphany that years later bloomed into this website. I was complaining to my husband that I had no idea how to become an author. How in the world does someone write for a living? While I was a book worm to the core, the world of publishing seemed veiled in secrecy. How do they (authors) do it? That’s all I could think about. I didn’t know anyone who was an author or had anything published.  That’s when it finally hit me.

Why don’t I ask one? That’s when I found Cathy Alter and her novel, Up for Renewal. I sent an email telling her in three sentences that I was a writer and was wondering if she had any tips for someone like me…you know, with no idea. To my utter shock, she responded. I was in awe. For writers, authors are like celebrities. Better than celebrities.

Seeing her email was like receiving an invitation to the Oscars. What’s more, her response was lengthy, informative, and above all warm. That one little email gave me hope. Authors weren’t unreachable. They weren’t mystical creatures. They were real people who, for the most part, were more than happy to help other aspiring writers.

When I created this blog in February, my goal was to contact as many authors as I could and publish their stories, their tips to publishing. Not only giving any writers out there the help the needed but to show everyone who gawks at writers for trying to get published, that it is possible. And it’s all thanks to Cathy for her encouraging response to me.

I can’t tell you how excited I am to bring this exclusive interview with Cathy, share her secrets into the publishing world, and gab about her killer novel, Up for Renewal.

1) Your articles have appeared in national newspapers and magazines. I have to ask what every writer wants to know. How did you get there?

I got there the same way people get to Carnegie Hall: Practice, Practice, Practice! Okay, seriously…I started off doing any small jobs I could, even if the writing wasn’t for the most glamorous or well-known publications. My first real writing gig was a monthly fashion column that appeared in an insert that went into my hometown’s free newspaper. I just wrote it like I was writing for Women’s Wear Daily. After a year, I had some pretty good clips, which I then used as my resume to get bigger and better clips. I would write for free or write for friends who had contacts at upstart publications. Noting was beneath me!

2) How would a writer go about pursuing publication in a magazine or newspaper?

First of all, you have to do your homework. Study current and back issues of the publications you want to write for. Once you get a sense of the kind of stories they publish, what sort of word count the stories have, and what they’ve run in past, I would look at the masthead and pitch an editor that heads up the section you’re interested in writing for (fashion, culture, sports, health). For readers who don’t know how to craft a pitch letter, there are places like Media Bistro that offer samples of pitch letters. But basically, when I’m pitching an editor, I make pretend I’m running to catch a bus and I have only a few seconds to get the main idea across to the editor. If you don’t know what your story is about or how to say that idea in one sentence or less, you won’t be able to pitch it. So really think about your pitch before you try and explain it to an editor.

3) You’ve written two nonfiction books. What steps are involved the publishing?

You need to get an agent first and foremost. A tip for finding an agent is to find books similar in topic or writing to what you’re looking to do and flip in the back to the writer’s acknowledgements. They always thank their agent right away. So that’s how one can find an agent who specializes in selling the kind of book you’re interested in writing. Then, you write to that agent and say that you’re aware they represent this book or this author and you think you and your idea might be a good fit.

4) What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

There is really no better advice then to write, practice your craft, and, if possible, develop a niche. If you have a hobby you love, knitting or gardening, become an expert in that hobby and write about it. It really helps to specialize. I love writing about pop culture, which means I watch and think about Real Housewives or New Jersey way more than I ought to!

5) What has been your favorite author experience so far?

I love when someone comes up to me at an event or emails me after reading my book and tells me how much they related to my story. I remember one woman told me that after she read my book, she broke up with her deadbeat boyfriend because she was so inspired to find someone who treated her nicely after reading about my own struggles with jerky boyfriends. I don’t necessarily want to be a home wrecker, but I was happy my story helped her through a tough relationship and hopefully onto a better one.

6) What do you when you’re not writing?

I love to go antiquing, so I am usually scrounging around flea markets and estate sales. And when I’m not doing that, I’m glued to Ebay. It’s bordering on obsession. Actually, it’s a good thing I collect small things or I’d really be in trouble.

7) Your first novel, Virgin Territory: Stories from the Road to Womanhood, holds first time anecdotes from women of all ages. What was the funniest story you heard?

Oh there are so many! One that sticks out to me is a story about a high school basketball player getting her period for the first time right before a really important game. She was too embarrassed to tell anyone or to actually ask someone for a pad or tampon. So, she just balled up a gigantic wad of toilet paper and shoved it into her underwear. Unfortunately, about halfway through the game, it started to unravel and travel out of her underwear and down her leg, leaving a trail of yucky toilet paper all over the basketball court–in front of a packed house. Can you imagine?! It’s hilarious, mortifying, and so relatable all at once- qualities that are hallmarks of all really good stories.

8 ) Tell me about your latest book, Up for Renewal:

My life was really in the crapper. I was newly divorced and pretty much going insane–dating really inappropriate men, hanging around with a fast crowd, and partying way too much. I was spending money like crazy, eating most of my meals out of the vending machine at work, and was pretty much impossible to be around. My good friend finally called me up and told me I needed to stop behaving like an idiot or else our friendship was really going to suffer. She gave the tough love I needed. So, I sat down and figured out a way to get my life back and turned my life over to all the How-To advice in women’s magazines, since they’re always talking about how to do everything better. I figured I’d take them up on their offer.

9) Move over Eat, Pray, Love: You lived your life by listening to magazine’s advice for one whole year. You were eating, praying, and loving way before Julia Roberts signed on for that movie. What did you learn from the experience?

I learned that if you ever need to scrub out the burned stuff on the bottom of a pan but don’t have a scouring pad, a crumpled up piece of tin foil works just as well. Just kidding! What I really learned was that if you’re unhappy with your life, you have to take an active role in changing it. Whether you read women’s magazines for a year, Eat, Pray, and Love your way around the world, or stop buying items from China–whatever. You have to just do something. For me, experiencing these small victories–of wrapping a sandwich in saran wrap (which I learned from Real Simple Magazine), to having a more authentic conversation with my mother really added up to something pretty huge.

10) If you were stranded on an island only allowed one magazine, which would you choose and why?

New York Magazine for sure. I think the writing is really sharp and smart. Jennifer Senior is one of my favorite journalists and she always has a piece that makes me want to be her. It’s like learning how to be a better tennis player- you have to play with someone better. That’s what Senior is for me. My writing gets better by reading better writers.

11) I couldn’t stop laughing when I read your article on The Huffington Post titled, “A Public Apology to Bruce Willis.” You describe meeting Bruce, jumping up and down, and screaming his full name. So I have to ask, have you met any new celebrities lately?

There isn’t a ton of celebrities in D.C. My latest celebrity sighting was pretty good though. A few weeks ago, I passed Bradley Cooper and Renee Zwellweger in my neighborhood. I was very well behaved when I saw them. However, that was mostly because another woman was doing my job for me and chasing them down the street yelling, “Excuse me! Excuse me!” Renee looked pissed!!

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4 thoughts on “Interview with Author and Journalist Cathy Alter

  1. Melissa says:

    Sounds like a great book! Thanks for sharing such an interesting interview. I know people who could use this book but they don’t believe it could really inspire them at all. That’s their problem though. I want to read it!!! And yay for her being DC-based. Want to hook up an introduction for us sometime? 😉

  2. Krista says:

    This book sounds like a good read!

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