While she’d written articles for magazines and newspapers, Ann’s dream was always to complete and publish a full-length book. She made good on that goal with her newly-released work about the rich history of women’s self-education clubs in the US.
Tell us a little about your background…
I grew up in Dallas, Texas in the post-war years. I was valedictorian of Hillcrest High School in the Preston Hollow neighborhood of Dallas when I graduated in 1963. My father, who was from Omaha, and my mother, who came from Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania, met at Carnegie Tech, now Carnegie Mellon, where they have long since endowed a scholarship—education was a huge thing in our house. I was accepted, early admission, to both Stanford and Duke and chose to go to Duke, where there was a fine English Literature program and where no one from my high school had ever been accepted. Every year, our school sent students to Stanford, and I really wanted to set out on my own and make my own mark.
After graduating from Duke with a B.A. in English in 1967, I went directly to a summer-long publishing procedures course, then run by Radcliffe College in Cambridge, MA, to learn the art of editing—my career interest at the time. I worked briefly as an advertising copywriter but quickly moved on to a job in New York City at EP Dutton publishing company as an assistant children’s book editor and a publicity assistant. I am embarrassed now to admit that I switched jobs rapidly at this point in my life; within the next few years, I worked on the campaign for John Lindsay’s mayoral run, did PR for New York City’s Health Services Administration, and joined Harper’s Bazaar, working my way up from fact-checker to Assistant Feature Editor.
During the summer of 1969, I met my husband, Dick Costello, at The Post House in Southampton, Long Island. I was renting a tiny cottage with many women—I had a half-share, so I went every other weekend—and a group of my friends were visiting us that weekend, staying in a tent in our back yard, as the house was so small. Dick was at the restaurant/bar with a group of young men who all worked in NYC and were renting a dilapidated beach house together, and we were all there for happy hour. We were all starving all the time, as we made so little money, and when Dick said that his group had week-old spaghetti in the refrigerator back at their house, we all piled into cars and drove over there, where we ate pasta and played a card game—hearts, I think.
Dick tracked me down the next weekend I was there by remembering where I said our little cottage was located, several towns away from his beach house. No phone, but he found me. When he knocked on our door, I was sitting on the floor playing cards and my long hair was in huge, pink plastic rollers. He was not too horrified by the sight and we went out that night, to a country fair. The rest is history. We were married on Oct. 24, 1970, at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City, then walked across the street, wedding party and guests in tow, to our cocktail reception at the St. Regis Hotel’s Astor Library. We planned and paid for our own wedding, so I got to make all the decisions, including wearing a mid-length dress.
I left Harper’s Bazaar while pregnant with my first son. Dick and I moved from New York City to the far northern suburbs (Chappaqua, NY), where I had a second son and Dick commuted into the city. I did some freelance editing and, when the boys were in junior high and high school, I sold real estate locally, which allowed me the flexibility to get to their track meets and such.
Then, in 1993, I applied to, and was barely accepted—I think I was originally on the waiting list—into a new program at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. It was aimed at part-time students who had careers and couldn’t complete the Master’s course in the usual one-year span. There were hundreds of applicants for something like 15 spots, so I felt extremely lucky. My family was behind me all the way. I quit real estate and commuted by train or car from Chappaqua daily and was able to keep the family fed, clean, and functioning, somehow, while doing the reporting, course work, and writing involved.
One funny thing, which would be hard to understand today, is that in 1993 when I had to go into Columbia’s hallowed halls and sit at a computer to take my entrance exam, I was almost totally computer illiterate but was able to cram enough experience into the weeks before the exam to be able to use the school’s computers to answer the questions. I also had to cram about current events, which we were quizzed on in the entrance exam. One night, before the exam, I woke up from a feverish sleep and muttered, “Bosnia!” I realized that I was confused about that very complicated and horrific conflict, which was then in the news daily, and I had to get up to speed on that. I read lots and lots of news magazines and newspapers leading up to the actual test, and I must have done well.
So here I was, having hot flashes in my journalism classes, surrounded by 20-somethings. Pretty funny, actually. One young woman in my book-writing seminar asked me if I’d known her mother-in-law at Duke, and it turned out she had been in my sorority. There was definitely a huge age divide for me, but I just put one foot in front of the other. I also believe that I was older than all of my regular professors. That gets a little weird.
I graduated with my Master’s in Journalism in 1995, on my 50th birthday. My husband gave me a wonderful surprise party to celebrate both events. My sons were very proud of their mother as well.
By then, I had already begun writing feature articles from the Westchester County area for the New York Times, a lifetime dream. I often wrote about non-mainline religions: I went to a mosque quite a bit for one piece on Muslims in Westchester and did another on a new mega-church being built by the Mormons. I did a long piece from Sing Sing prison—even going into Sing Sing twice—about a volunteer church group there. I also looked for human interest stories: The very first piece I sold to the NY Times was about the Ecuadorean immigrants living by the thousands in basements in Ossining, NY.
When my husband and I moved to Los Angeles in 1996, newspapers were discontinuing the use of freelance writers for the kinds of pieces I was doing. All I was able to sell were travel stories, and my best were from Dick and my 120-day trip around the world in 2002 and from our first trip to Bora Bora and Tahiti—I made more money for the photos I took on these trips than I did for the articles themselves! I worked briefly as a stringer for the Time magazine office in L.A., and then even found that I had to give that up due to the constraints of family life. I was able to sell a few pieces to newspapers after that, but, mostly, I did volunteer work for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and served on many boards.
When did you start to think about taking on a new challenge?
In 2010, at the age of 65, I determined that I needed to write a book before I died or got too old to sit upright at my computer; I was literally running out of time. I’ve wanted to write and publish a book since I was a little girl. Once published, a book is a permanent record of the author for posterity and proof that she or he has a life of the mind. Also, with this book, I was adding something to what might be called the public record—information that no one had ever tried to get or compile showing women’s history over the past 140 years in an area few know anything about.
What is your next act? Tell us about what you are doing and what you love about it.
I have just published my first book, Smart Women: The Search for America’s Historic All-Women Study Clubs. In it, I recount my four-year quest to locate, often visit, and describe today’s 100-year-old, all-women self-education clubs. This was a challenging task as they are located all over America and are often so private as to be virtually invisible, with no central organization or knowledge of each other, but I was able to find more than 90 such clubs.
These clubs are fascinating survivors from an era just after the Civil War when women couldn’t apply to most colleges and were told they shouldn’t leave the home. In their earliest days, the study groups also contributed to the civic welfare of their towns—often by helping to found their town’s first library—and served to get women out of the house and into the world. Today’s all-women study clubs have no civic component but still fashion their meetings as their founding great-grandmothers did, with members taking turns giving original papers and then usually, but not always, adjourning for tea or lunch.
I visited clubs in New York, Oregon, Colorado, Alabama, Texas, Maine, and Northern California, where I was always received warmly and with tremendous graciousness by club members, despite the fact that these groups are very private and do not publicize what they do. The women in these groups have done so much for their communities; their generosity of spirit and interest in preserving what is civil in civilization was immediately obvious to me.
These attributes can spill over into skills in an area I call “Extreme Hostessing.” All of the groups I studied meet in members’ living rooms or in a church parlor and most – not all – include refreshments, usually a tea table. At The Nineteenth Century Club, in Birmingham, AL, I sat with club members in a lovely living room and heard a member deliver her original paper on “Saints and Sinners in the Business World” and then we all adjourned to the dining room, where there was a tea table laden with every imaginable sweet or savory that the Southern tradition is famous for. The table was completely covered with food. A coffee and tea service, plus cold drinks, anchored the display. Every biscuit, every cookie, every dish had been prepared by our hostess or a family member. When one member saw my jaw drop at the spectacle, she leaned close to me and whispered, by way of explanation, “You are in The South.”
Before visiting the groups in the book, I had to do lots of prep work – first finding the groups, usually by word of mouth (they don’t belong to a central organization and don’t have any connection to or knowledge of each other, for the most part), scheduling, transportation, and hotel arrangements, and coordinating with all of the historic all-women study clubs I needed to visit in one geographic area. With the exception of Dallas, TX, I had never been in any of the cities and towns I visited, so I usually had to find my way in new surroundings, and that added a dimension of adventure to my research trips.
In a few towns, club members organized themselves to move me from meeting to meeting, and that was greatly appreciated. In another example of the women’s courtesy, hospitality, and organizational skills, members of two groups in cold, rainy Eugene, Oregon, with no real connection to each other, managed to return a raincoat to me that I’d left in the hall closet at my first meeting of the day. The coat was taken to the symphony that night by a member of one group, passed on to a member of another group, and delivered to me at my hotel by that member the next day.
Although their members have run school boards and town councils and often are professional women, very few people know about these private groups. It is a shocking lapse in the histories of our towns because the groups were so important to the civic health of their communities back when they were launched—often helping to found the first library, the first kindergarten, or the first art museum in a town—and are still providing a vital function these days. While they no longer have a civic component, they continue to keep women’s minds young and strong and are an example of the best of civilization in a rather rude world.
I found so many women in their later years still giving original research papers or otherwise participating in their beloved literary societies that I quickly determined that belonging to similar groups where women are organized to do some brain work, share this information, and then socialize, are terrific life-enhancers and, perhaps, life-extenders. This, of course, has been proven scientifically: brain work combined with the bonds of friendship = happy, healthy seniors. Women are far better than men at organizing to self-educate…For example, look at the great number of women’s book clubs compared to all-male groups.
How hard was it to take the plunge? How did you prepare?
In 2011, I attended a seminar for Columbia alumni on “how to get published,” given by a beloved journalism professor, Samuel Freedman. I had taken a semester of a grueling book-writing class back in 1995, also given by Sam, so this was a much-needed refresher course. I also read everything I could find on “how to find an agent,” “how to write a book proposal,” etc.
My first idea was to write about why women band together in groups to self-educate and share information, and men, mostly, do not. Then I got an email from an old college friend, Lucie Mason Bynum, who was working on a paper on communication through music for her literary society in Birmingham, AL, “Cadmean Circle.” When she told me that there were others in her town and possibly in the country, I was off and running. These groups are highly private and do not publicize or reach out to the public. If Lucie had not asked for and gotten permission for me to attend that first meeting and then introduced me to members of two other groups in her town, I never could have gotten started on the project.
What challenges did you encounter?
I struggled to find an agent or a publisher for the four-plus years that I worked on the book and got close several times with university presses, but, alas, no one was really interested, not even schools with Women’s Studies programs and with the archives for these historic study clubs. Truly, I got few if any responses from the agents I queried. A first-time author has to be prepared for that kind of rejection.
My chore then became finding the best self-publishing company. This was an excruciating process that took an entire summer. I researched sites online where writers talked about and rated their self-publishing experience, and I found a few books which did the same thing. Lulu came out the winner. Next time around, I’d avoid doing anything so close to a directory and would try for the more popular and far simpler form of non-fiction writing: the narrative non-fiction, with a single strong storyline. And, if and when I do write another book, I hope that agents will see my track record and will be interested in dealing with me.
I had to give up so much to write my book. The research, travel, mapping out, writing, and rewriting were very time-intensive. Dick was highly supportive, even when I was flying all over the country and racking up miles on a rental car, staying in motels, etc. Also, because of the book’s highly factual nature, there were hundreds and hundreds of facts, quotes, and endnotes, and they were just murder to check and re-check and often change, in this day of URL’s, which can go dead at any time. I’ve spent this summer almost entirely indoors, at my computer, as my book went through its final stages. Really, getting a book published is grueling work. If you’re prepared for that, you can push on through.
I am starting from zero on promotion and social media, but I was determined to take the plunge. I wrote PR for NYC at one time and I know how to put a press release together but, of course, social media is a horse of a different color. I can be found at lulu.com and then by putting Ann Dodds Costello in the search engine. I also have a beautiful author’s website at www.anndoddscostello.com, with a blog page, on which I am hoping to hear about other historic women’s literary societies still “hiding in plain sight ” throughout America.
The Facebook page, Smart Women, has gotten over 2,000 hits and hundreds of “likes,” and my book and I have been or will be featured at literary events in various states. One event, the January opening of a new Women’s Studies center at the University of Pennsylvania, is exactly on target for the kind of outreach I think the book needs and deserves—getting known to academics in the Women’s Studies area—but I welcome all grass-roots suggestions and communication. Smart Women is the only record of the surviving women’s study clubs from the days before women could vote, and we should try to make it as complete and accurate a record of their names and histories as possible. Women today stand on these women’s shoulders, and these groups and their members should be acknowledged.
Were there times when you thought about giving up? What/who kept you going?
For sure. It got very involved and almost insane, keeping all of the information straight, keeping the several hundred women correspondents and interviewees in the different groups straight, and then to keep on trying to get it published when no one wanted to be my agent and no one wanted to publish the book. What kept me going was that desire to see my name on a book cover before I died.
What did you learn about yourself through this process?
Actually, I’ve always known that I can get a job done. I’m pretty determined and tremendously organized, but I guess the process of going to Journalism School and writing a book later in life proves that I haven’t lost those qualities as I’ve aged.
What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention, and possibly publication, later in life?
Go for it. I kept my family as my priority, and that was best for me, but when I finally had kids old enough for me to branch out and get out of the house, it was inevitable that I’d find a way to do it.
On pursuing journalism late in life: I would be hard-pressed to recommend the goal of newspaper journalism these days for anyone who has to support himself or herself, as the print mediums are dying, but real journalism is the most important element of democracy there is, and it is now almost a sacred calling to keep it going. There are always other branches of journalism, of course. One need not aim for a job in print.
On pursuing the path of a published author of a book: if you are writing fiction, find a writing group. If you are writing non-fiction, find the best sounding board and advisor or reader you can. You cannot work in a vacuum. Everyone needs feedback. I did not do enough of this, and the result was a tortuous final edit and galley approval process.
What resources do you recommend?
There’s always that wonderful book on writing, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, by the divinely funny author, Anne Lamott. There are others, like the classic, Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, by Natalie Goldberg, and On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King. I find them all to be more inspirational than practically helpful.
I draw inspiration from Joan Didion, whose writing reflects on what it means to be a woman today. I also enjoyed the nonfiction work on the fight for equal rights at the New York Times, The Girls in the Balcony: Women, Men, and The New York Times, by Nan Robertson. And I just read a memoir by an amazing woman, Helen Macdonald, who trained a fierce goshawk in order to recover from her tremendous grief when her father died unexpectedly. It is called H Is for Hawk and was so well-reviewed that many women’s book groups are reading it now.
I’d say that you’d want to sign up for adult education courses at the best school you have access to. If you are deadly serious about writing non-fiction and have a story ready to tell, check into Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and see what you think of their program for older students. They have a book-writing course, run for many years by Samuel Freedman, that is excellent. Sam has seen something like 70 of his students get publishing contracts for the work they’ve started in his class.
For self-publishing, I wouldn’t recommend working with Lulu, as they drove me crazy all summer. I didn’t feel that their editing process (which I was paying for) was very good, and everything took so long. Their Customer Service people NEVER, EVER returned a call from me when I was having a problem or had a question; I had to keep chasing them, wasting vast amounts of time and effort. Then, when I gave the final approval for the manuscript to be published, many of the links to the book and to me on the Lulu site did not work for a good five days. I finally got a manager who helped me, but I was so upset by the time I heard from her that I was beside myself. Also, only Lulu carries my book for the first six to eight weeks, and then Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc. will be able to offer it. That is exasperating, too. So…my experience was not great, but I have a book to show for it.
What’s next for you?
At the age of 70, assuming my health holds up, I hope to keep writing books and articles. I sold a story about a modern gypsy caravan this summer to the magazine Maine Boats and Harbors, to appear in their winter edition. I had my day of reporting on the story, found a photographer and worked with her on the shoot, wrote the piece, got it in on time, and felt like I was back in the saddle again. That was fun, and I hope to keep writing for publication.
I’m still grappling with the idea of doing another book, as this one involved a lot of hard work and travel. I’m hoping I can come up with a subject next time around which won’t require endless endnotes and rabid fact-checking.
Dick and I have two wonderful sons. Our unmarried son lives in L.A. not too far from us, and our married son lives in far-away Brooklyn with his wife and 22-month-old daughter, Violet, who is the light of our lives. She and her parents come out to see us in L.A., and we try to visit NYC to see them a few times a year, too, and we see them briefly at our vacation home in Maine in the summertime. Violet will have a baby brother in mid-March, 2016, so we are looking forward to that, too. Being a grandparent is the best.
Contact Ann Dodds Costello at AnnCos@aol.com
If you know of other groups that fit the parameters of my book, but which I was not able to track down, please let me know.
This book is for anyone is involved in Women’s Studies in colleges and universities or who cares about the history of American women.