Lessons From Our Wild Rides Publishing Nonfiction Books and
Our Adventures in Marketing, with Jean Duffy and Bev Stohl
Manchester: Friendship can take you to different places. Jean Duffy and Bev Stohl’s circumstances took them on a road to forming a writer’s group, publishing their books, and eventually taking their knowledge with a how-to get your book published talk sharing their experiences and finding a way through the hard process.
I met Jean and Bev at the New Hampshire Writers’ Project 603 Conference, an annual event where writers attend for the keynote speaker as well as the classes offered. Theirs was one of the featured classes. My friend, David, and I shared a table at lunch with them. They are friendly, fun folks and we hit it off, which led me to want to talk to them for InDepthNH.
Jean is the author of Soccer Grannies: South African Women Who Inspire the World (Rowman & Littlefield, 2023) which explores her relationship with an amazing group of grannies who take up the sport for health, fun, and companionship. Bev’s book is Chomsky and Me: A Memoir (OR Books, 2023). For 24 years, Bev ran the MIT office for the father of modern linguistics, Noam Chomsky. The New York Times called Chomsky, “arguably the most important intellectual alive today.”
Jean kicked off the conversation by talking about her Soccer Grannies book.
“It’s the story of a team of women in South Africa. These are grandmothers 40 to 80 years old. And they started playing in the mid-2000s. They live very challenging lives, and yet they are strong and resilient. They just exude a joy for life. Whether they’re singing, dancing, or chasing the soccer ball.”
“Mama Beka is a community activist. She has won many awards for her work helping the impoverished in her community, which is the province of Limpopo. It’s the northernmost province in South Africa. She has built houses for people who don’t have decent shelter she has helped feed people by bringing bags of maize, and she has provided clothing. She’s helped young people with finishing education, just generally, you know, lots of good deeds. She was a radio talk show host. Her program involved people calling in and sharing what their challenges were and she would help them make connections and solve them. For instance, a family called in and they didn’t have enough financial resources to give a proper burial to their family member. So she rallied that together. Other times, she might find a wheelchair for someone.”
“At age 35, she was diagnosed with colon cancer, where she was very sick, and she was in the hospital. Rather than looking inside at her suffering, she looked outward and saw all these older women there and wondered why? Why are they all here, various older ages, things like diabetes and hypertension and just mobility issues? She talked to the doctor, and he said they live stressful lives, and they need exercise just like you’re going to need to recover from all these chemotherapy treatments. So when she left the hospital, she formed an exercise group. They started walking, and then slowly built it up to a little more aerobic exercise. One day they ran a field, and some teenage boys kicked the soccer ball in their direction accidentally. And one of the grannies rears back and boots it into the air. All the women started laughing because it didn’t go where she had intended. Beka ran over to the boys and said, show these grandmothers how to kick the ball. They spent the next half hour passing and jogging around the field chasing the ball, and they said Mama Beka This was fun, You want to do it again? That was how the soccer grannies team first started. She has now inspired over 200 teams across South Africa and other countries in Africa.”
Bev spoke about her memoir of working with Noam Chomsky, the father of linguistics. First, she explained what that means.
“He revolutionized the study of linguistics. He’s the guy who came along and said that language is a biological part of us. So we have lungs, and we have a heart. But we have this innate need or ability to make language. And, left to our own devices, we would make language. Someone put it to me like this, two babies washed up on an island. I thought that was a terrible way to start. But if they did, and everything else aside, would they find language? The answer is yes. Because they would find a way to communicate. They would use their own sounds or signs, and that sort of thing. So he’s the father of linguistics. We are born to want to make language.”
“He and I met probably my second or third day on the job. He came in, and he threw a bunch of things on the desk. He appeared to see me for the first time. I saw him sort of appear in front of me. And I said, Oh, Mr. Chomsky, Professor Chomsky, it must be strange. I was nervous. Must be strange to meet your new assistant for the first time. And I thought that didn’t sound right. But he said, Oh, don’t worry, it’s fine. You can call me Noam. He was very friendly and made me feel at ease right away. But the volume of work and the people who wanted a piece of him was a little bit mind-shattering just juggling his calendar. He needed to get his work done. I did get an assistant within about three months.”
I asked how the two of them came together. Jean explained she and Bev met in a classic memoir-in-progress class.
“It was a 10-week class that was coming to an end. Bev asked if anybody was interested in meeting and forming a writing group, and five of us raised our hands. Going on six years later, we are still meeting on a regular basis. That writing group has been, I think, a very pivotal part of our success. We call it the Page Six writing group; we bring five to six pages. And when people ask questions, what about this or that we say that’s on page seven.”
Bev and Jean’s seminar is called Lessons From Our Wild Rides Publishing Nonfiction Books and Our Adventures in Marketing, with Jean Duffy and Bev Stohl. I began by asking about the genesis of the class they teach and how it was designed.
Bev began. “Jean is an engineer. She is used to spreadsheets and that sort of thing. She just threw together every single thing you could possibly think of along with some slides. We met with the skeleton of what Jean had put together and filled it in. We discussed it, and what would you do and what would I do, and we must have met three times. We’d go to this little coffee place where people perform their readings in Arlington just to kind of be in that atmosphere. We met there several times and met at one of our houses. How would we do it? How would we get ourselves out there to people? I’ve done stand-up comedy, I’m more of an extrovert. She was the power behind it all and we would make changes and I would go and change my clothes to do something, and Jean would almost already have everything back to me to be proofread again.”
“What was beautiful about it is that Jean is a natural teacher. I can see how she became the one in her soccer group to sort of put this all together because she does it and she gets other people on board. But she doesn’t ever make you feel like she’s more capable, you’re less capable of this. So it’s just been a beautiful partnership. I’m very grateful for it.”
How did you break the class down?
Jean fielded this. “We talked briefly about the writing phase of creating our first manuscript. Then we talked about finding a publisher and promoting our books. “For each of those, we shared our approach separately. And then for publishing and promotion, the main things we were presenting, we also gave some educational pieces, and we each did one of those.”
Bev continued, “I’ve done some tutoring in the past for writing, especially for adult learners. We learned that a lot of people have this understanding that writing goes in a straight line, you have an idea, you write it, and it’s done. They say, gee, you’re such a wonderful writer. They don’t know how many edits we make. We have one slide in our presentation that shows a neat, straight line from the idea to the outcome – the book. Then we show the reality – a long, squiggly line of edits darting back and forth and in circles between the idea and the book.”
“I have to say that there was a transition point. I mean, Jean was always quiet. She was the one that we’d have to ask at the end of the discussion. Jean, do you have anything to say? She just kind of sat there patiently listening. As we worked together, I saw more of her personality. I saw this whole Jean who was kind of sitting and hiding herself a little bit. Although her wonderful insights always came out, I could see the other part of her personality. I was so thankful and grateful for her. I felt like I couldn’t have done this without Jean. She pushed me to do this almost before I was ready. I almost see two little girls holding hands and jumping in the water together. That’s sort of how it feels to me. I love that image. We did go to her place and go in the water. She has a lake. Even that was sort of symbolic. Jean was standing up, you know, on the board. What do you call it, Jean?”
“A paddle board.”
“I was behind her in the kayak, and it was sort of the same thing.”
Jean finished with, “Bev is just a super loving, caring human being. So she’s a pleasure to work with. And, you know, the whole stand-up comedy is just a perfect addition. Like, who would you want to partner with if you’ve got a dry engineer? It’s great. We’re a great pair, I think.”
Join Jean Duffy and Bev Stohl with me for a live Zoom event, called Storytelling and Publishing: Capturing and Sharing the Human Experience, on Thursday, October 26 at 7 p.m. along with Laura Beretsky whose book Seizing Control will be published later this year and deals with her journey with Epilepsy. Rounding out the panel will be Masheri Chapelle, Board Chair for the NH Writers’ Project, indie publisher, and owner of Polarstar Publishing. Save your place at the fun, informative event at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/storytelling-and-publishing-capturing-and-sharing-the-human-experience-tickets-713787998117?aff=oddtdtcreator