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Balancing Act | Author Elise Schiller on Social Services, Personal Projects, and Self-Publishing

A road with cars, buildings and people.

When you're in a demanding career, free time is at a premium. And it isn't wrong to want to relax during your rare moments to yourself. But many Idealists have personal goals outside of their professional responsibilities. How do you balance the rigors of work and ambitious personal projects?

Elise Schiller is one such person who has succeeded at doing both concurrently. She is a nonprofit professional with over thirty years of experience providing education and youth services in inner-city Philadelphia, and she has published numerous short stories. Recently she released her debut novel Watermark, in which Angel Ferente, a talented competitive swimmer, disappears mysteriously. Angel’s younger sister Alex and her swim teammate Jeannine narrate their search for Angel and, in the process, provide readers with perspective on the challenges within their community:

In September I started high school. Like so many other kids I had missed a lot of school. In eighth grade I was absent over seventy days, almost half the year. It really wasn’t such a big deal; in my school, a third of the kids were out every day. Virtually all my absences were unexcused; except for times when I had to stay home because Joy or Kathleen was sick, Pic didn’t know when I went to school and when I didn’t, and I never asked her to write a note. I didn’t have to. When you were absent the school made this automated phone call to your home phone after advisory. Well, our advisory was after second period, past ten o’clock, because if they had it first thing in the morning, so many kids were late that they would have marked half the school absent every day. So the automated call came in the early afternoon, when no one was at my house to answer the phone, and we didn’t have voice mail. So, no problem.

Here we talk to Elise about the issues confronted in her book, the balance between working and pursuing personal projects, and her decision to self-publish.

Elise Schiller, Author of Watermark

You have teaching experience and you worked for education nonprofits, so it seems as if your professional background is connected to your subject matter. Did this inspire the book at all?

Well, first of all I would say it’s often true that people write about what they’re familiar with, and I live in the city. You know, not in a nearby neighborhood--in the city. It’s where I’ve worked for decades. So the setting and the characters and the issues associated with poverty in the novel are very familiar to me. It wasn’t meant to be polemic, or a declaration, “I’m going to expose the ills of inner-city Philadelphia.” It was much more that I wanted to write something about girls. I wanted to write something about teenagers living in marginalized situations. And I started off with the idea that kids, regardless of their socioeconomic status, often find identity and support in youth activities, especially sports.

Is any of the content of the novel based on specific professional experiences you’ve had?

The characters are really an amalgam of my imagination and my encounters with different families. There are a number of real experiences that are the kernels for some of what happens in the book. For example, there’s a scene in the book where there’s a shooting outside of a school and a kid gets hit. You know, that happens all the time. So, it’s not that I just dreamed this up. I tried to present a lot with a kind of nonchalance that comes with that happening on a daily basis if you live in the middle of it.

In the book, two of the characters cut school a lot. In fact, very little happens. There’s a whole truancy prevention system that’s supposed to deal with this, but families are always moving, they’re in and out of shelters, the information has all kinds of privacy about it so it moves slowly from school to the protective services, to the courts, and by the time they get around to actually getting a parent to show up to deal with it, it’s April. And the next year we just start it all over again.

You mentioned earlier you had no intention of using your novel as a platform for any political or social agenda. It seems more like you created characters and then told their story. Were you trying to tackle anything deliberately, or just letting it come up over the course of your characters’ story?

I would say the latter. You know, I deliberately chose these girls in this setting. One of the things I find so interesting is that, you know, we’re very segregated. Everybody knows that. But there are spaces in the city where poor black, white, hispanic, and other live together, and where race is addressed fairly routinely in a sort of everyday kind of way. You know, I’m white, but I live in a neighborhood that is probably about eighty percent black. I can’t tell you how many times issues of race come up and are discussed straight up, open, on the table, and that’s happening among kids too. And it runs the gamut from your sort of everyday, “What is that food you’re eating?” to sexual mythology about black men. It’s all out there. And that occurs in the book. I wanted that sort of racial miasma to be presented realistically. If I had set out to raise racial issues, I don’t think it would have worked. But it works because this is the life they live. It’s just that very few people describe it.

How long did it take you to write the novel?

I wrote the first scenes for the book probably fifteen years ago.I was working with a writing group, which I highly recommend to people. I had a great writing group; I’m still working with them. And then I actually put it aside for a while and wrote some other stuff, and then I came back to it. It was off and on, until finally about a year ago, I said, “You know what? I have to do this. I’m finishing this.” And then I quit my job for a variety of reasons, not just for the book, but that really helped get the final push. I just devoted a few months to just that and got it done.

Were there skills developed in your professional experiences that helped you along this process?

There was a lot that happened at work besides the experiences that I think helped me in the long run. One is I always had twenty balls in the air. If you’re going to try to write while you’re working you better know how to multitask and create a schedule and stick to it. I did a lot of grant writing in my jobs, so that requires planning out a writing schedule and sticking to it if you’re going to meet your deadline. All of that work experience was very helpful, because frankly if you’re going to do this, you have to take kind of a professional attitude toward it, or you’re not going to do it. That said, it’s really, really hard to be productive while you’re working full-time in a demanding job and raising kids. I wish the book had been out there eight years ago, but I just couldn’t get it done. What I did at first was decide I better get an agent, so I researched how to get an agent. For two years I submitted to agents waiting for them to reject it before I sent to the next agent. And sometimes you don’t even hear from them. So I decided to self-publish. And all of that was very easy, except what I didn’t realize is that the agent and the publisher in the traditional track help you with the promotion. The only thing that I wasn’t prepared for was this promotional push.

What went into the decision to self-publish? Is there anything you wish you’d known ahead of time?

Yeah, there are a couple of things I wish I’d known ahead of time. The first thing is that I would have engaged the publicist before the book was published, because it would be very helpful to have lead-up publicity, but I didn’t know. I have to say I used a company called Create Space which publishes books and also works with people on film, and they were wonderful. They were easy, they were supportive. I asked them a million questions and they all got responded to very, very quickly. I don’t have any problems about having done that. I’m working on another book and toying with what to do about this, but I may go the same way. You know, I’d love to have the juggernaut of publicity you can get out of a publishing house, but they only do that for their famous writers, anyway. They don’t do that for new writers. So I probably wouldn’t have gotten it.

You mentioned your experience with grant-making schedules. Do you have other tips for people trying to balance professional responsibilities and also work on a personal project of this magnitude?

One thing I would say is I hurt myself by having these lapses. It’s one thing to have a lapse of three days, that’s no big deal. But if you have a lapse of a few months, it takes you a bit to get back to writing. Every time I had to do something I had to reread the whole book. I could start and four or five weeks later I still hadn’t written anything new because I was reading and editing and rewriting. So I think you have to make a commitment to be consistent and work continually, and unless there’s some great crisis in your life don’t put it aside, even if you only do it for half an hour. The other thing, I know this isn’t true for everybody, but I tend to write better when I’m not home. It’s better for me to go to the library, to go to Starbucks. I used to go to my office on weekends and write there, just because at home there are too many opportunities to be distracted. And I would say, if you reach a point where it’s hard and instead of persevering you go and decide to do the laundry, it’s time to work out of the house. Because It’s a lot easier to do the laundry than it is to get over a hump in your project.

You have experience in nonprofits, so what do you think is the role of the nonprofit community in confronting some of the issues your book depicts?

When you look at a fairly massive problem like urban education, and you look at systems that are clearly dysfunctional, the nonprofit community can advocate. The nonprofit community can help individuals do better. For example, I’ve been involved in tons of tutoring programs, and there’s no question that the best of those programs helped kids jump levels in reading and math. I’ve been involved in summer youth employment and subsidized employment for teenagers where, yes, this kid got a job for the summer which provided some income and some soft skill training. But it didn’t fix youth unemployment, and it won’t fix youth unemployment, just as whatever we do is not going to fix school districts. Those fixes have to happen through government. And that can be discouraging because things move at a snail’s pace, and they’re very political, and they’re not very effective a lot of the time.

One of the biggest problems that I see, especially with midsize direct-service nonprofits, is that they’re often governed by volunteer boards and, well-intentioned as some of those folks may be, their experience is usually in some area that is quite different from the programmatic focus of the non-profit. Many non-profit board members are lawyers, or working in large companies or in finance, brought on to help with individual donor fundraising or provide legal or HR advice. In order to make wise decisions about programmatic aspects, theyhave to commit to knowing how the nonprofit does its work, right in the community it serves, and be empathetic to the perspective and the needs of the recipients of the services. For example, a Board may want to cut a program because it cannot break even with the contractual money provided—high quality early childhood programs are a good example. But if that program is vital to the community, the better answer--but far more difficult--is coming up with a plan to close the funding gap. So being a non-profit Board member requires a significant commitment of time, as well as passion for the mission.

But it seems like you have a healthy skepticism. It’s this notion that if people are devoting their lives to fixing issues, we need that push for accountability.

I think so. And there are some interesting models. For example, there are tax dollars generating universal slots for Pre-K, and some school districts are granting that out to high-performing nonprofit organizations that run early childhood programs. The school district still provides certain kinds of professional development, technical assistance, data access, but these nonprofits ensure that Pre-K programs are smaller spaces, not run by some gigantic school, but instead a community site with four to six classrooms. They’re not intimidating for the families or the children, and they’re still high-quality. I think that’s an interesting model--that collaborative model. But some of these very intractable issues, beginning with poverty and then the school district, child protective services, child welfare services--it’s difficult to fix those with nonprofits.

To culminate, as a writer, what were you hoping readers would take from your book?

First of all, I’m hoping that people who are not familiar with the setting and the issues in the book take away a new, broader view, and that some of that view is positive and empathetic. I hope they get the idea that there are a lot of kids living in these circumstances who are bright, and interesting, who have great talent, and just need a shot. And truly I hope that they like these characters. That’s important to me. That they like the characters and that they think that an interesting and engaging book can be written about girls like this.

Elise Schiller’s novel Watermark is available for purchase on Amazon.

By Alex Witkowski

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