Interview With Author A.Y. Berthiaume

# Please introduce yourself and your book(s)!

I have been a writer since I was five, when my love of writing began. And I wrote all the time. I published my own stories into folders or filled journals with stories and shared them with friends. I entered contests and went to writing conferences. This is what started my writing journey, which eventually led me to Dear Universe, I Get it Now, my breakout memoir that was published in November of 2020.

When I was in college, one of my majors was creative writing. And in grad school I finally decided to go all-in and get my Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing (concentration in nonfiction). But then I graduated and I couldn’t find a job back in Vermont where my MFA translated to a paying job with benefits. The closest I came to being steeped in writing life was being a part of a statewide writing organization.

Despite having this love my whole life and the formal training, I never truly considered myself a real writer. I kept thinking that real writers had books. You weren’t real until you were published. And even though I had been published, I had this narrow idea that published meant traditional publication. It took me some time and some reflection to realize that this is not the truth I held it to be.

Somewhere around the time that my son was close to turning two, my marriage was falling apart, and I was rethinking all areas of my life, I started to look at myself and my journey differently. And by the time I sat down to write this book I finally had discovered that I was not only born to be a writer, but had been one all along.

In a lot of ways, Dear Universe, I Get it Now is tackling this very journey and personal dilemma.

I want readers to feel empowered, to seek answers to their deepest questions; to choose to live more authentically and find the ways to do that in a way that works for them; to go after their dream or pursue their passion.

Honestly, I want them to define what their life means to them and how they want to live it – because we only get to be here (in this current form/state depending on what you believe) once and we don’t know how long we have. And it’s all of this that underlies my tag line: Be Brave. Be You. It’s Time. That’s what Dear Universe, I Get it Now is all about.

# There’s a lot of heavy subject matter included in your book. Was there any letter that was more difficult to write than others? Or any that stood out for early readers more than others?

The letters about the death of my roommate, my sexual assault, and my miscarriage were the hardest ones to write emotionally. I cried through each of them and left the desk exhausted after each draft. However, the letters about my achievement identity and playground racism were the most difficult to write from a content standpoint. There was so much to say; I always felt they were cumbersome and unclear. They underwent heavy rewriting every time. I feel like I’ll look back on this book in another five years and still feel like they aren’t quite right.

Interestingly enough, the letter that had the most disagreement among readers was the letter about playing ninja turtles. My first wave of readers grumbled about my making that chapter about gender stereotypes and sexism, so I rewrote it and focused it differently. Then during the last wave of reading, there were readers who couldn’t understand how gender and sexism wasn’t addressed. Because I had originally written that chapter from the “gender” lens, I decided that was what the chapter wanted to be and so I reverted it back.

# As a mom and business owner, how did you find time to write Dear Universe?

I focused on one letter at a time. I had a notebook with the list of letters I was going to include. Each time I wrote a letter, I highlighted it (which was my way of crossing it off). I had to write mostly in the evenings I didn’t have my son or on weekends. If it was a weekend I had him, I would draft letters during his nap time. If it was a weekend I didn’t, I tried to block off chunks of time and do writing sprints where I would write as much as possible without censoring myself in that block of time.

I’ve always been a powerful “reviser.” So I knew if I could just get the words down on the page, it would be easier later. The main thing was just picking off a little at a time and anytime I got an idea for the book that wasn’t about the draft itself (marketing, publishing, etc.), I wrote it down so I wouldn’t lose the thought. But also so that it wouldn’t distract me from getting the draft done. There were times I had to minimize social engagements or skip them altogether to write in those small windows of time that my schedule afforded. Somehow though, bit by bit, it got done.

# What was the greatest challenge in writing this memoir? The greatest joy?

The greatest challenge was losing momentum during various parts of the process. Right before I finished the first draft, my grandmother passed away. The timing was around Thanksgiving and so between that loss and moving into the holiday season, I didn’t get back to it until a few months later. Once I did, I operated at warp speed. I finished the first draft, sent it to readers, collected feedback and then turned out a second draft.

Then COVID-19 landed in the U.S., daycares closed, life turned upside down, and I could barely balance keeping my business going and doing the mom thing, so the book sat for a few months again. As such, the book’s timeline has expanded well beyond the original plan.

The greatest joy has been the satisfaction of finally completing my first (real) published work and making this dream come true. I don’t care how corny that sounds. It’s the truth.

# What were your expectations for writing and publishing your first book? Have they changed since then?

Honestly, in the beginning I set the bar really low for myself. I basically told myself, “Let’s get it done and good enough.” This was a mental trick I played on myself. I’ve been so tied to either perfectionism or the belief that I don’t have anything good enough to say that I’ve walked away from projects when they get too difficult. Even if I had ridiculous momentum when I first conceived of the project or began to draft.

So, by telling myself it didn’t need to be long and it didn’t need to be perfect, it helped me keep both my perfectionism and my inferiority in check. I didn’t start out wanting to write my magnum opus. I wanted the book to be an actual tangible product that I could place in front of leads for my business and say, “I’ve written a book (here it is), now let’s talk about how I can write yours.” For me, having it published, professional, and polished were the main ideas. For the longest time I even referred to this work as a “marketing stunt.”

Somewhere along the way my companion called me out. “Stop calling it that,” he said. “It’s more than that and you know it.” He was right and it made me really think about what exactly I wanted for this work. My original idea – to use it with potential clients – was still true, but it was no stunt. I wasn’t half-assing the writing or the process or the revisions even if I was trying to keep my perfectionism in check. And as I wrote, revised, and let readers review, not only did I feel the only worth of my words, but reader feedback was always overwhelmingly positive. My imposter syndrome (“I didn’t have anything to say.”) really eased.

About two drafts in and I realized I felt really, really good about this book. Like in my heart, my gut. My intuition started to say, “Hey, you have no idea where this book could go. So why not shoot for the stars.” I decided then I was going to go after Amazon Bestseller status. I was going to bust out all the stops. I was going to have launches and giveaways and get it into as many hands as possible. I was going to let it be my big debut into the world of books as I had always dreamed.

The book didn’t make it to Bestselling #1 but it was #11 one day on Amazon for ebooks and I felt pretty damn happy about that. Now I’m thrilled to have a published book and to talk to people about it. And my favorite part is hearing how it makes people feel when they’ve read it.

This book is just the beginning for me.

# How has your creation process improved over time?

I would say my process has improved over time as I’ve moved away from strict unwritten rules (read: mental head games), such as needing to set an hour or more aside to be productive. I got wise to my perfectionism and my imposter syndrome, and realized that trying to find long stretches of writing time was more about avoiding the blank page, big projects, and/or feeling like I needed that long window of time in order to make things perfect. Now, I work with the method I call a writing sprint (usually 15 minutes, or more if time allows) which is more realistic to my schedule, and doesn’t allow time for self-censorship. I can get a messy draft done faster by short consistent increments and feel better about it rather than stressing about the unrealistic unicorn-hour that never presents itself and only ever leaves me wanting more time that never manifests.

I also accept more now that there’s a lot of time that IS writing time, even if my pen never touches paper or my fingers never hit the keyboard. I’m a thinker and a planner and I often do a lot of mental processing before any word actually gets written.

Lastly, as I’ve worked within my business writing for others, I’ve gotten more acquainted with sometimes, “good is good enough” in order to meet deadlines, and that has retrained my brain for my own work to allow things to be imperfect and yet still impactful.

# Were there any surprises for you while writing this book? Did you learn anything about yourself or others or life that you didn’t know before?

The thing that surprised me the most was how easily it seemed to come onto the page. Even though I knew after the first draft that it was far from done, I could already tell it was powerful and meaningful. Each wave of readers proved to be true with their feedback. Each draft, the power I felt from the book grew. Each wave of reader feedback seemed to surmount the feedback from before. In that, I think what I learned about myself (or, perhaps, validated) is that I really do have a gift and I really do have something to say, and people really do want to hear it.

# Did you worry about upsetting loved ones, and did this impact your truth-telling?

I always worry about that. I’ve been worrying about that since high school. And this has been a large part of the journey to get here – overcoming that fear. The fear of upsetting people. The fear of being judged. The fear of being misunderstood. The fear of being looked at or treated differently as the result of something that has been shared.

With this particular book, my biggest fear was in writing about my marriage and about motherhood. I don’t need anyone’s permission to tell my story, but I do take seriously that my story is never a story that is in isolation. It crosses over with others. And there are two sides to any story. My ex and I have an amicable relationship and we co-parent well. We share the custody of our son. My son is not even in school yet; he’s still very young. While it was important to me to be honest in this work and not leave out the messy parts, I did hold myself to a standard of choosing very carefully what I shared and how I shared it as married or not, my ex, my son, and myself are a unit and as such, that demands a certain type of privacy and delicacy.

I have chosen to be a writer and share my experiences but those aren’t their choices so I have to be respectful of that. I was conscious, of course, of all the people who appeared in my work, as evident by changing all names and only giving a few characteristics, but my son and his father were the two I was most concerned with.

# I’m starting to dust off my old love for writing. Where do I begin?

You begin by writing. That is, to get your ass in the chair and start. You don’t need to be married to a particular idea or project. You don’t need to worry about getting it right the first time. You just need to do it. Put a few sentences down. Doesn’t matter if it’s on the computer or in a notebook or on the chalkboard hanging in your kid’s room. Just write. Set some manageable writing goals as you begin, such as each day I’ll write uninterrupted for 15 minutes about whatever comes to me. Get the practice of writing each day, or most days, established first and then worry about working on a specific piece.

# What are your plans for future books?

I have loads of other book ideas, but now that I’ve written this one, I can see a long line of letter-styled books that focus on a variety of themes. I’ve had one memoir that I’ve attempted multiple times that is all about my failed love life (from like 17 years old to 24 – pre-marriage/divorce) and maybe that’s next – either in this format or something else. I can also see spin-offs of Dear Universe, like an edited collection of letters written by other people centered on a theme. Kind of in the spirit of Chicken Soup for the Soul. Or I’ve always loved the whole idea behind subscription boxes. So what about a subscription box that is all about bravery and living authentically? All I can say is, I’m just getting started.

# Favorite place you’ve visited/place you want to visit.

I really want to go to Prince Edward Island to see where Anne of Green Gables took place, but I also LOVED Florence, Italy when I went and I would totally go back and stay for weeks.

# Your most unrealistic dream job.

Gift giver. I love putting together gifts for others, not just picking them out, but also packaging them up in lovely ways.

# If your book ever becomes a movie and you get final say over the cast, which actors would you hire to play your characters?

I don’t have it all figured out yet, but Jennifer Goodwin would play me. Tom Hanks would play my dad. I originally thought Susan Sarandon for my mom but then I found out she can’t stand her, so now I’m thinking of Bette Midler. Kathy Bates would play Lonnie.

Links

Website: http://www.ayberthiaume.com/dearuniverse/ 

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/ayberthiaume/

Instagram: @ayberthiaume

Twitter: @berthiaume_y

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/ayberthiaume

Pinterest: https://www.pinterest.com/AYBerthiaume/_saved/