Writing a Family History
Claire: Maria, On the Rocks is such an exciting story; when did you decide to share your family’s story?
Maria: Thank you, Claire. I appreciate your kind words. Interestingly enough, On the Rocks started some 17 years ago as a family history. I asked my father about the past during a tough time for our family.
I had intended for it to be a cathartic way for my father to reminisce about better years, but instead, he kept telling me amazing stories like, “Did I ever tell you the time that Johnny from down the street brought in a stripper after hours, and they got in a fight. He left in a fury, and I had to figure out how to get her home after she passed out in the bathroom naked?”
As a writer, I could tell that what he was saying was much larger than just a family history. It had commercial value and appeal. Ironically since I was little, he always said someone should write a book about his life. This just confirmed it. Hence, the concept of On the Rocks was born.
Voice and Perspective
Claire: You originally wanted to write the story from your perspective as a child but later elected to write it from your father’s perspective. Was it challenging to write in a man’s voice? Or to try and replicate your father’s voice?
Maria: You have identified one of the key features as to why it took 17 years for On the Rocks to become a reality! Voice and perspective are crucial to the writing pie, but they were also incredibly challenging to identify, so much so that I let the project collect dust for over five years.
It wasn’t until I brought my former AP English Teacher, Ruthie Robbins, into the project that she and her writing group in Buffalo, NY, helped to tease through this conundrum. They felt that the dual voice perspective was getting lost in the narrative, and there was one clear voice shouting on top of it all, it was the voice of my father, Joseph Costanzo, Jr. Hence, we took out all that was mine, which eventually will become my second book, and worked in his voice.
We are often asked if it was challenging to write as my father, mainly because we are two female authors. My dad is a grandiose, larger-than-life guy. His voice is undeniable, as are his ways. Once we picked his voice, we could write seamlessly throughout the narrative. We’ve been told by many who have pre-read the book that they can’t tell which of us wrote which sections. To us, it is the biggest compliment. I think we have Dad’s voice to thank in that matter!
A Co-author Close to Home
Claire: You co-wrote this book with your former English teacher and friend Ruthie Robbins who was very familiar with the restaurant and the people who frequented it. How did your mutual acquaintances and experiences affect your writing process?
Maria: Honestly, having Ruthie and all of our shared contacts and experiences affected On the Rocks in purely positive and wonderful ways. Ruthie and I interacted with many of the characters but in different ways. It was great to compare notes, and I think those notes made the story more rich.
We both steadfastly believe that there is no coincidence that we were partners. Our synergy around the project has been amazing. My weaknesses are her strengths and vice versa. She also has the local perspective of having grown up in the restaurant’s area and being of the same age and generation as my father. She also could speak and write from the customer’s perspective bringing things to light that I may have otherwise overlooked.
Claire: On the Rocks is based on the actual events of your father’s life but is written as a fiction novel. What tips can you share for writing dialogue?
Maria: I very much enjoyed a book co-written by my good friend Marilyn R. Atlas called Dating Your Character. As a Hollywood executive, she outlines how to write a compelling character. One of the key things she speaks about is getting to know your character just like you would a dating prospect. This can also really help with dialogue.
Now I’m not about dating my father (yuck), but when Ruthie and I wrote this book, we constantly thought about what we wanted to convey, and then we asked ourselves, “What would Joe do? How would Joe say this? How would he react to this?”
We would play scenes in our heads and write them down when we heard his voice. Then we’d let it sit overnight and take a second look to ensure it resonated and adjust accordingly.
Working with Lisa Tener
Claire: You worked with Lisa Tener in her Bring Your Book to Life® program. How did this program help you with writing On the Rocks?
Maria: I will always be grateful to Lisa Tener and her Bring Your Book to Life® program. When On the Rocks was no more than a mere idea, Lisa encouraged me every week to write. She used to tell us that just getting the pen to the paper was sometimes the most challenging part. She gave me the confidence to start putting ideas and words on the page even when I wasn’t ready to share them.
I also learned little bits and pieces about the publishing process. One of my favorite sessions was at the end when she had her agent friend Regina Brooks visit the class. Regina gave everyone great notes about their projects and feedback about what would help them to be more commercially viable. This got the wheel turning for me. Thankful and grateful I’ll always be to Lisa and the program.
Seventeen Years in the Making
Claire: You’ve been working on this book for seventeen years! Has it been an emotional experience to see it finally get published?
Maria: A resounding YES to this question! My father is not well. When I was trying to finish the book, his eyesight failed due to diabetes. He had to have major back surgery. He had to have emergency open-heart surgery. His kidneys failed, and he went on dialysis. He had not one, but two kidney transplants. The first failed 50 days after, and the second landed him in a medically induced coma after an unexpected drug reaction during transplant surgery. In between those major medical events, he had also been hospitalized for major issues, sometimes for more than two months at a time.
While this was all happening, I struggled with two cross-country moves: getting married, having two children, moving into our first home, settling in NJ, finding a career, etc. Hence, I wasn’t certain I could ever deliver on this dream of writing a book. However, I kept on persisting, but even that process was challenging.
The Submission Process
When we finished the manuscript, we went out to 265 agents over nine months. 108 ghosted us, 140 rejected us, 17 requested, and finally, my dream agent Leticia Gomez offered. We went on submission during the fall of 2021, and we did not receive our offer from Koehler Books for 13 months. We got close, but even during the submission process, this project didn’t look like it would happen.
Hence, when our ARCs first came in the mail and I got to hold them, it was a surreal experience. The most similar way to describe it is how I felt when I held my children for the first time. So much passion, adversity, and persistence had to happen to make this a reality. I am still in awe that we made it through and am so grateful that the book has exceeded all expectations. It’s like The Little Engine That Could in real life.
Writing Compelling Characters
Claire: In the book, your father, Joseph Costanzo Jr., is a dynamic, multifaceted character. What was your experience trying to flesh out this complex character that readers want to root for despite his flaws?
Maria: Again, this is also why it took 17 years to write. When I was writing solo, I could easily write all the good. Everyone wants to celebrate all the greatness they’ve put into the world. There is no doubt that my father has put lots of great into this world. The reviews, celebrities, awards, and people’s lives that he changed were easy for my dad to talk about and easy for me to write.
However, what makes a character compelling is not only the rise, but the fall. People relate to human elements; part of that is admitting fault and mistakes and identifying what was learned. Ruthie so beautifully helped me and my father to see this and be open to equally putting these elements in ink. It was a process, and sometimes it was tough, but ultimately, we all decided to tell the entire story and not leave anything for interpretation.
Today, all can be Googled, and his case was public record. However, what wasn’t there was his perspective on what happened, why, and what was learned. Once we essentially took back our pen and started to write these elements, the story flowed and became what it is today.
Titles with Meaning
Claire: Your title, On the Rocks, perfectly alludes to your father’s struggles, the bar, and the setting, the Rocks. Where in your writing/publishing process did you develop this title? Were there any other contenders?
Maria: On the Rocks was always our first choice, and I had it initially. We were elated that both our agent and our publisher also agreed. As part of the process, we had to develop alternate titles. We also toyed with “Life on the Rocks” and “Rocks to Riches (and Back Again).” We are glad that everything worked out with our first choice, as I know this isn’t always the case when you work with a publisher.
Claire: Your website mentions that you are working on a second manuscript. What have you learned from the writing and publishing process with On the Rocks that you will use when writing and publishing What I Learned on the Bus?
Maria: There isn’t enough interview left for me to tell you all the learnings from On the Rocks. I can tell you that writing a book can be similar to being a first-time parent. You read research, talk to people, but until it happens, you have no idea what you are getting into. Every kid and all paths to parenting are different and unique, same with books.
However, having gone through this, I take away the experience of knowing the publishing process, what happens when, and its inner workings. I also have found many resources, Lisa included, that I regularly share on my weekly Clubhouse Room dedicated to Book Publishing, Food is Religion Club, Wednesdays at noon. I join other publishing professionals, writers, bloggers, and chefs, and we share for free what we’ve learned about what to do and what not to do during that hour. Everyone is welcome to the conversation.