Amy Engel was born in Kansas. Over the next couple of decades, she boomeranged around the world – to Iran and back to Kansas City, to Taiwan and back to Kansas City, from the University of Kansas to Georgetown University in Washington D.C., and finally back to Kansas City. Phew! With a law degree in hand, she worked for ten years as a criminal defense attorney.
After marrying a fellow attorney and having children, she decided to be a stay-at-home mother and writer. The writing took a little longer to become a reality than the mothering. One day, a flash of inspiration hit, and she wrote her debut young adult novel, The Book of Ivy. It was published in 2014, with the sequel, The Revolution of Ivy, following in 2015. In between writing those two books, she began work on an adult novel, The Roanoke Girls, which was published in March 2017.
She recently took a break from her busy schedule to talk about her writing life.
Do you have a favorite—or at least preferred—subject area or style (young adult vs. adult, etc.)? How difficult is it for you to write outside of that preference?
I love writing both YA and adult, although I think adult might be a little easier for me. I tend to gravitate towards darker themes and those are sometimes easier to explore in adult novels. Having said that, I don’t have much trouble switching back and forth between YA and adult.
Tell us about your path to becoming a writer: When did you decide to pursue that career, what steps did you take to get there, what detours and obstacles did you face?
How much time do you have? But seriously, my path was long and had a lot of detours. I always wanted to be a writer, but I had no real idea how to accomplish that goal. It seemed like something that happened for other people—people who had contacts in New York or knew someone in publishing. So after college at KU, I went on to law school at Georgetown and practiced law for ten years. But there was always that little voice in my head, urging me to keep writing. When my children were small, I decided to stay at home with them and gave myself a ten year window to try and get published. That seemed like a reasonable amount of time and I figured if ten years came and went and I still wasn’t published then maybe writing would remain a hobby. I wrote a YA novel but wasn't able to get an agent, so I trunked that book. Then I wrote IVY. Again, I wasn’t able to get an agent, but I had a lot more interest that time around so I wasn’t ready to give up on the book. I found a smaller publisher, Entangled Teen, that accepted manuscripts without an agent and sent them IVY. And a couple of months later they got in touch saying they wanted to publish the book and its sequel. For The Roanoke Girls I knew I would need an agent and new publisher as it was a different genre. I started querying agents and ended up with offers from several. I signed with Jodi Reamer of Writers House who sold the book to the Crown imprint of Random House.
What do you find most rewarding about the writing life?
On the purely practical side, I love being able to set my own schedule and have a career while still having time and flexibility for my family. But mainly I love having a job that involves creating worlds in my head and fleshing them out on paper. It’s such a dream come true.
What do you like least about being a writer?
Self-doubt is probably my least favorite thing about being a writer. That little voice that makes me second guess a story or the direction I’m going with a book. I think self-doubt can be a part of any career, but writing is a solitary endeavor so that voice in your head can get very loud. You just have to learn to write through it.
For our aspiring authors, can you speak to the editing and publishing experience in regards to Young Adult books: is it different with adult books? What has been your experience working with editors?
Well, my YA books were published by a smaller (although getting bigger by the day) publisher and my adult novel was with a Big Six publisher. But the experiences were remarkably similar. Publishing moves very slowly, no matter who is in charge. It’s just a slow business. Patience is key. My experience working with editors has been positive every step of the way, with both publishing houses. I have had amazing editors. They both urged me to push myself and gave me ideas of what needed improving, but left the particulars up to me. Editing is one of my favorite parts of writing and I’ve been really lucky to have worked with fabulous editors thus far!
What role have libraries played in your life (as both reader and a writer)?
So many of my earliest memories are of checking out books at libraries. We lived in Iran when I was very young and would check out books from the British consulate and sit in their beautiful rose garden to read them. Then, back in the States, I spent hours every week at the Plaza library in Kansas City. And to this day, I always have a huge stack of library books next to my bed. I can’t imagine my life without a local library in it!
Do you have favorite resources that support your writing? Books, websites, blogs that you revisit?
The single best book I’ve read about the craft of writing is On Writing by Stephen King. I’ve read it half a dozen times, at least. When I was trying to get published, the forums at the absolutewrite.com website were invaluable. They have information on literary agents and publishing houses, crafting query letters, and the steps to take as you’re moving through the process. I used to spend hours reading the forums and taking notes. I can’t recommend that website highly enough.
If you could give advice to your inner young writer, what would it be? Is writing what you imagined it to be when you first decided you wanted to be an author?
I would tell my inner young writer not to worry so much. Try not to overthink the story. Learn discipline when it comes to writing. The beginning is always fun. The middle is where it gets hard, stick with it. Read anything and everything you can get your hands on, even things you may not like. Sometimes reading books you don’t like teaches you as much about the kind of writer you want to be as reading books you love. Find your own voice. Accept criticism and grow a thick skin.
Writing is different than what I thought it would be when I was very young and wanted to be an author. Back then I thought you just sat down and wrote books and they flowed easily every time and you made a million dollars, the end. But the reality is that writing is a job, so there are days when I don’t feel like writing and days where it’s really hard. And there are parts of a writing career (like travel and book promotion) that don’t involve much writing at all. But it still all needs to get done. Having said that, 90% of the time it’s the most amazing, pinch-me-I’m-dreaming job in the world.
What is your least favorite word?
I honestly don’t have one. I don’t have a favorite, either.
What are you reading?
I just finished Ill Will by Dan Chaon, and I’m getting ready to start The Arrangement by Sarah Dunn.
What is the best writing advice that you have received?
Don’t talk about what you’re writing too much while you’re writing it. That nugget of wisdom is from Stephen King’s book On Writing (referenced above) and it’s worth its weight in gold. I’ve killed several books by talking them to death. Write the book. Talk about it later, once it’s done.
What is the worst writing advice that you have received?
Write what you know. Who actually does that? I doubt Gillian Flynn is an expert on psychopaths committing murder or that Stephenie Meyer is intimately acquainted with vampires. Write what inspires you; write what interests you; write what you HAVE to write.
If you joined the circus, what act would you most want to perform?
Oh boy, none of them? I don’t like swinging of any kind; I get the worst motion sickness. So trapeze-type acts would be out. And nothing with animals. I don’t think they belong in the circus. And clowns are terrifying. Maybe fire-eating, that seems like it could be fun.
If you had to be trapped in a TV show for a month, which show would you choose?
Can I pick an old show? I would love to be trapped on LOST. A mysterious, beautiful island populated by interesting people with troubled pasts? Yes, please.