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    Noted author shares trade secrets

    Writing - and selling - fiction is a business, and a tough one, Rosellen Brown tells college writing students.

    By KAREN LACHENAUER
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published January 31, 2002


    TARPON SPRINGS -- Her fiction has won many awards, yet she still shops in thrift stores.

    Her best-selling novel, Before and After, has been translated into 23 languages and was turned into a movie.

    Still, she said she and her teacher husband "did without a lot. We drove old cars. We have never owned a house."

    That's the life to expect if you want to be a writer, author Rosellen Brown told a small group of St. Petersburg College creative writing students this week.

    The author of five novels and several books of poetry, short stories and essays, Brown was in town Tuesday for Tarpon Springs Library's "Live! at the Library" series of author visits. She lives in Chicago, where she teaches in the graduate creative writing program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

    Before her public appearance, Brown met with four SPC students to discuss the craft and business of writing.

    Several of the students are also enrolled in other college writing programs but all have a work seeking a publisher or about to be published. Three of the four took creative writing classes online and only met through the writers' club at a campus coffee house run by SPC communications instructor Ned Johnson.

    Ramona Bethke, a University of Tampa student going for her creative writing bachelor's degree, is writing the final chapter of Silent Retribution. The book has a prison psychologist who was sexually abused as a child turn the tables on a death row inmate, torturing him.

    Bethke told Brown how she almost gave $400 to a so-called literary agent to send her poetry to various publishers.

    That con is "as old as the hills," said Brown, who wrote the foreword to Penguin Putnam's Literary Agents: The Essential Guide for Writers. She mentioned one large agency which exacts a reading fee, but otherwise "never send an agent money," she said.

    Melissa Grubbs, 26, of Largo, has written a novel about a recent Muslim refugee from Kosovo and two others reacting to the Sept. 11 terrorist bombing of the World Trade Center.

    "You're very fast," Brown said.

    Grubbs said she had Johnson's deadlines to egg her on, plus a classmate asking to see more.

    Brown encouraged Grubbs to find an agent and try the trade, or mainstream, publishers.

    "You're the kind of writer who may make a lot more money than I'll ever make," she told Grubbs, a creative writing major at the University of South Florida.

    After the hourlong student forum, Brown compared her 1992 novel Before and After with the 1996 movie version starring Meryl Streep and Liam Neeson. Like many writers whose books have been made into movies, she thinks the film version is "terrible."

    As an author, Brown loves to explore social dynamics once a monkey wrench, often a crime, has been thrown into the middle. In Before and After, the 16-year-old son of a well-to-do family beats a girl to death in an uncontrollable rage. The father's instinct is to save his son by destroying evidence, while the mother wants to tell the truth, and the whole family must wrestle with the social backlash.

    Brown said she went to great pains to keep the boy from going to jail in the book because, as one character observes, that "just doesn't happen" to white, middle-class boys. But the movie reduced a prolonged attack to a single blow, and in response to reaction from focus groups, sent the boy to jail.

    After the movie came out, the book's sales slumped. It also fell off many book club reading lists. People who had seen only the movie wondered, "What is there to talk about?"

    Plenty, Brown said. Before and After scared a lot of parents, she said.

    "The question it raises is, 'How well do you know your child, your spouse, yourself?' " she said.

    Exploring such questions is one of the rewards of being a writer.

    "I have some question I want to investigate," she said. "I follow it where it wants to go."

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