The death of Elise’s daughter, Giana Natali, from a heroin overdose was the catalyst for Elise to shift careers and put her passion for writing into action. She published a memoir about her daughter and her first novel has just been released as well.
Tell us a little about your background.
I grew up in Philadelphia and the surrounding suburbs. I had a difficult early life. My father was an alcoholic who didn’t work after I was nine and died when I was a teenager. When my mother moved with my younger siblings to my grandmother’s, I quit school and left home. I was fifteen. Some years later, when I decided I wanted to go to college, I took a GED test and then went on to college and graduate school, both of which I loved. Fortunately, my family stabilized, and I am very close to my siblings.
My undergraduate degree is in early childhood/elementary education. Upon graduation, I taught for a few years and then moved into non-profit administration and grant writing in agencies that offered early childhood programs, after school and summer activities for K-12, tutoring, and other similar programs. My graduate degree is in English. I taught literature and composition as an adjunct in several Philadelphia area universities while I was working.
I have three living children and seven grandchildren with whom I spend a lot of time.
When did you start to think about making a change?
My youngest daughter, Giana Natali, died in 2014 from a heroin overdose. She was 33 and had been in active addiction for about two years. About eighteen months after my daughter died and I was in retirement age territory at age 64, I decided to leave my job and devote myself to writing.
I decided that I wanted to write about my daughter’s illness and death, but I wasn’t sure about the form or structure of what I was going to write. Throughout her treatment, both she and I grew increasingly skeptical about the content of her treatment (she was a medical professional), but we were reassured repeatedly by staff members at licensed facilities that they were doing the best things possible for her. I began to read and research opioid addiction, but unfortunately, not in time to urge decisions that might have altered the trajectory of Giana’s illness.
Certainly my daughter’s death and my desire to write about it was the catalyst for my next act, but I had always been an avid reader of poetry and fiction. While I was in graduate school studying literature, I audited several creative writing classes, published a few short stories, and wrote an unpublished novel. While my children were young and I was working, I participated in a writing group but didn’t produce any completed projects—there just wasn’t time.
What is your next act?
I am a full-time writer. My first book, Even if Your Heart Would Listen: Losing My Daughter to Heroin, was released in August 2019. After Giana’s death, I decided to access her voluminous treatment records and spent many months reviewing them and reading research related to them. I decided to write what is essentially a hybrid of memoir and medical non-fiction.
Since completing the memoir, I have continued to write non-fiction on various platforms, including an active blog on my website. I am also quite involved in advocacy for more effective drug policy and evidence-based treatment.
My novel, Watermark, was released this month. The novel is about the disappearance of an eighteen-year-old high school athlete, told from the points of view of her younger sister and her teammate in alternating chapters. It’s the first book of a planned series called The Broken Bell Series—all the books are set in Philadelphia. I’m working on the second one now. Philadelphia is known as a “gritty” city—in fact, our beloved Flyers hockey mascot is the famous Gritty—and I wanted to tell stories about regular folks in Philly neighborhoods. I love the “world-building” aspect of fiction and I feel as close to my characters as I do to my friends! And the city itself is like a character.
I feel that I made a good decision to change careers, and have no regrets, although of course I wish that it hadn’t been precipitated by my daughter’s death.
How hard was it to take the plunge?
It wasn’t hard at all. The worst thing that could possibly happen to me had already happened—quitting a job and taking a risk didn’t worry me at all. It was an easy transition: I already had a home office set up and a nest egg that could last a while.
How supportive were your family and friends?
I think some in my family were worried about my first book, understandably. They thought that delving into Giana’s death so deeply might be emotionally difficult, which of course it was. However, writing the book expanded my platform to speak about the issues related to the overdose crisis, and that has been helpful to me by giving my daughter’s death some meaning through cautioning and supporting other families.
Most of my friends have been incredibly supportive, both privately and publicly. Some are “beta readers” and some give my work shout-outs on social media. My message about drug policy has not resonated well with a few old friends who are unable to hear information that challenges their “received wisdom” about substance use and addiction. I am not terribly bothered by this; I have made so many new and compassionate friends through this process.
I have been part of a writing group for many years, and the members were very helpful as they read draft after draft and offered constructive and helpful critiques.
What challenges did you encounter?
I came to this from work that was highly task-oriented with multiple externally imposed deadlines. Structuring my time and establishing my own deadlines required ongoing effort. I also worked in a strong team environment and I must admit that I miss that aspect of my former career a lot. I am building my presence in a mostly virtual community of indie writers—it’s different!
A future challenge is going to be financial. I taught a college class last semester and will probably need to do so in the future as well. Fortunately, I enjoy it.
What did you learn about yourself through this process?
On the positive side, I confirmed that I am tenacious and reasonably well-organized, and learned that I am surprisingly good at working solo. But I also learned that if I let myself, I can waste a lot of time, and that I shrink from self-promotion. Despite some initial reluctance, I’ve been persistent about learning new social media and technical skills and I’m proud of the progress I’ve made. Twitter is still a work in progress.
Looking back, is there anything you’d have done differently?
I would have researched and learned more about the current publishing environment, although maybe that would have discouraged me!
What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
Make sure to think through the financial aspects of the change and plan for that. Discuss your plans with those closest to you; their support or at least their understanding is important.
What advice do you have for those interested in pursuing writing?
I think I benefitted enormously from being part of a writing group for many years. Not only did the technical aspects of my writing improve, but I learned to accept critical feedback graciously. I wouldn’t quit a full-time job to write without some experience doing it.
Getting published these days is very arduous. You are expected to have a platform, be a blogger, part-publicist, social media wizard, and a competent public speaker. And oh yes, you must have an active website!
Unless you are well-known for some reason—like you are a recent Olympic gold-medal swimmer and you’re writing about swimming—you are going to need to hire a publicist. (Actually, Michael Phelps probably has a publicist, too.) They are invaluable for helping an author chose various platforms for marketing and promotion and to help with the work of sending out advance reader copies, getting reviews, and so forth.
What resources do you recommend for would-be writers?
First, I would say that reading intentionally has taught me more about writing than anything else.
That said, anybody thinking of becoming a full-time writer of books should become familiar with, and a member of, Goodreads, a huge social media platform for readers and writers. I have an author page there and try to post regularly. One can keep a running list of the books you are reading and planning to read, and you can post and write reviews. Big advice: Don’t be negative. If you really disliked a book or didn’t finish it, don’t post. Writers can run a book giveaway on Goodreads for a modest cost, which results in significant exposure. There are a wide variety of specialty groups to join depending on what you write and/or read.
I would recommend “liking” a variety of Facebook author pages—good to see what they post and participate in discussions. I have a page and also follow a number of writers. There’s a very large community of writers on Instagram—these days virtual book tours on that platform are a must (your publicist should set this up for you.)
As users know, Twitter can be a contentious space, but if you are intentional about communicating about your work and avoid getting sucked into rants by others, it’s a good platform to connect with readers. Actually, that advice extends to all these platforms—be kind and supportive of fellow authors.
All of these platforms can be used to drive traffic to your own website. For example, I am currently writing a blog called The Corona Diaries on my website and using all these channels to direct people there, where they also see information about my books.
There are many organizations that offer support to writers in a variety of formats including retreats, workshops, conferences, genre-specific groups, and much more. I belong to Women’s Fiction Writers Association and the National Association of Memoir Writers, as well as several Facebook groups. I utilize a platform, She Writes, associated with my publisher, Spark Press.
Here I offer a caution: the object is to write! One can become so overloaded with social media and sites and groups and classes that the writing never happens! Must keep focused.
What’s next for you?
I am currently writing the second book in The Broken Bell Series, which is tentatively titled The Preparation Room. I have ideas for a third book in the series. I would love to do some travel writing but in the time of Covid-19, I don’t know if it’s likely. Fortunately, I’m very content sitting at my computer!
Contact Elise Schiller:
Contact page: https://eliseschiller.com/contact/
Even if Your Heart Would Listen: Losing My Daughter to Heroin
Watermark: The Broken Bell series