Of all the authors who I’ve interviewed for this column, Josephine Ensign is the writer who has worked the hardest and waited the longest to find the right publisher for her book. I have immense respect both for her talent and her dedication. She first took my Nonfiction Book Proposal class back in 2003 which is when she began putting together the book that became Catching Homelessness: A Nurse’s Story of Falling Through the Safety Net. She was also one of the original members of the Shipping Group which started in 2010 and she set a great example for all of us: sending her work out regularly and getting published, all the time improving her writing craft by taking classes (Artist Trust Edge), attending writing conferences (Chuckanut), participating in unique opportunities (Lo-Fi at the Smoke Farm), and applying for and receiving fellowships (Jack Straw) and residencies (Hedgebrook).
Tell me about the development of the book.
Early in my career as a nurse and an aspiring writer I wrote a draft of what became the opening chapter of my book. The story of my relationship with a homeless patient who died of AIDS and made me his “Next of Kin” haunted and taunted me. I wanted to write an entire book about my experiences as a young nurse providing health care to the homeless in Richmond, Virginia, while also becoming homeless myself, but I was working full-time in the School of Nursing at the University of Washington and raising two children. I was finally able to concentrate on writing the book once I had obtained tenure and the youngest child had been launched. Having spent all of those years writing in the academic world, it took concerted effort (and firm coaching from kind people such as Waverly Fitzgerald!) to develop my true writing voice.
What helped you during the writing process?
I developed a strict writing routine of going to my quiet home office, tuning everything out for at least an hour each morning, and working on my writing. I had decided to write most of the book chapters so they could easily be turned into stand-alone essays, and I began sending out the essays for publication in literary journals. As they began to receive useful editorial feedback and then publication, this helped me deepen my creative nonfiction writing skills as well as my self-confidence as a “real writer.” During this time, I was also involved with the monthly writing/support group, The Shipping Group. Meeting each month at the wonderfully supportive Elliott Bay Book Company bolstered my identity as a writer.
Tell me about how you found your publisher.
Catching Homelessness is a carefully researched book that is also a work of creative nonfiction. But that made it challenging to find the right publisher. I had several high-profile academic presses consider publishing it and then decide against it because it wasn’t academic enough. And then, of course, indie and trade publishers told me it wasn’t literary enough or that they only published memoirs by famous people. I was considering self-publishing, although I didn’t want to go that route. Then, during my residency at Hedgebrook, I learned about the hybrid publisher She Writes Press and decided to check them out. At the same time, my book was accepted by a hybrid press that specializes in books about health and medical policy but I decided to go with She Writes Press instead. I felt they could do a better job of distributing and promoting Catching Homelessness.
What was the publishing process like?
A hybrid press is a press that screens submissions and accepts only certain books for publication but charges the author for some services such as editing and cover design. With She Writes Press, authors retain a certain amount of creative input, but certainly not control. For instance, they wanted me to change the title of my book from Catching Homelessness (which has been its working title from the beginning) to something they considered more commercial—and with more of a focus on its memoir qualities. I felt strongly about the title as it works on at least three different levels that are integral to the book. So I insisted on keeping that title. I didn’t want a subtitle, but I compromised on that. I also wanted to use a piece of original artwork as part of the cover design. But they decided it was too abstract and gave me a set of four cover design choices, all using stock photo images. Some of the choices were so clichéd and depressing, but I decided I could live with the image of a young woman holding a cardboard sign. It’s been a steep learning curve and not without some bumps along the way, but I’m happy with my publisher.
How are you letting people know about your book?
I’m active on social media and that is the main way I get the word out about my book. Six years ago when I began writing in earnest, I started a blog, “Medical Margins,” on health policy and nursing, as a way to build my author platform. But a funny thing happened along the way and I actually love the immediacy and freedom of expression of the blog format and it has taken on a life of its own. I use the blog/website to publicize not only Catching Homelessness but also my current/future book projects.
I’m also working with a great publicist, Eva Zimmerman, who also works for Seal Press—a small feminist press I admire. Eva has done a lot of the legwork: sending out copies of my book for possible reviews, interviews, and those sorts of things. I am also fortunate to have received promotional help from people I work with at the University of Washington. And Karen Maeda Allman from Elliott Bay Book Company has been wonderfully supportive.
Eva connected me with Psychology Today and I now have an “Expert” blog on their site called “Catching Homelessness” on health policy, homelessness, and trauma-informed care. I’m also doing a giveaway on Goodreads. And I created a YouTube book trailer.
The first official book launch for Catching Homelessness happens on Tuesday, August 23 at 7 PM at Elliott Bay Book Company. It’s co-presented by Mary’s Place, an organization that works to empower homeless women, children and families. Donations and a portion of book sales from the reading will benefit Mary’s Place. I also am doing a reading and book-signing on October 11 in Richmond, Virginia where the book takes place and a reading at the University Bookstore on October 17, co-sponsored by ROOTS Young Adult Shelter.
I have just completed a second book manuscript, currently titled Soul Stories: Voices from the Margins about the boundaries of narrative in health and healing in the context of trauma and homelessness. It is a much bolder, more literary, and more scholarly-grounded book and it includes a companion digital humanities component. It is under review by several academic presses, so here’s hoping…
Catching Homelessness has been named the University of Washington Health Sciences Common Book for academic year 2016/17, meaning that it will be read and discussed by students, faculty, and staff across all six health science schools. I am incredibly honored to have my book used for this purpose. This is why I wrote the book in the first place: to provoke consideration and conversation about these important issues.
Any advice for other writers looking for publishers?
Keep your options open, don’t give up if you really believe in your work, and ask many different people for advice as you make decisions. Also, the publishing world is changing rapidly, so just because a particular publisher didn’t seem right for you last year doesn’t mean that’s the case now.
Josephine Ensign is a writer and a nurse. She teaches health policy and health humanities at the University of Washington in Seattle. Her essays have appeared in The Sun, Front Porch Journal, The Oberlin Alumni Magazine, Pulse: Voices from the Heart of Medicine, Silk Road, The Intima, The Examined Life Journal, Johns Hopkins Public Health Magazine, and in the nonfiction anthology: I Wasn’t Strong Like This When I Started Out: True Stories of Becoming a Nurse edited by Lee Gutkind.