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Characters1A Writer at Play: Talking with Trisha Sugarek

By Ellen Fleischer

Trisha Sugarek has been writing for four decades. Her works include plays, mysteries, children’s books, general fiction, and poetry. She has thirty years of experience in the theater, both as an actor and a director. These days, she is a fulltime writer, blogger, and frequent contributor to Indyfest Magazine. This month, Trisha moves to the other side of the interview process and talks with us about her experience, her writing process, and her latest ten-minute play for the classroom, The Trans-G Kid.

IM: How long have you been writing professionally?
TS: Since 1996.

IM: Is this something that you’d always planned on doing, or did you have different goals when you were starting out?
TS: I never planned on being a playwright or writer. After thirty years in theatre as an actor/director, I was then drawn to try my hand at writing a stage play. It seemed a natural transition.

93-Sugarek-3IM: To what degree would you say that the techniques you picked up as an actor have helped you in your writing?
TS: Writing a stage play, solely with dialogue, was so easy. Must have been those thousands of scripts I had read over three decades. My experience as an actor taught me that, when writing, you have to ‘see’ the stage. For example, if the actor exits on the right side, needs a costume change and enters on the left a few moments later, have you written that window of time into the play with the other actors?

IM: Have you found that it’s easier to get under a character’s skin, for example?
TS: Absolutely. A competent actor studies their character not only in the timeframe of the play but explores what experiences they have before, and even after the play ends.

IM: You’ve also sat in the director’s chair on more than one occasion. How has that experience informed your writing?
TS: Directing is all about ‘control’. When and why the actors should move: is the ‘picture’ on stage pleasing or discordant with regard to the dialogue? Is the actor giving the director the emotion (whatever it is) that the director needs? Does the lighting enhance what is going on and not distract? I’ve often joked that directing actors is like herding a bunch of chickens. It takes a strong, steady hand. Writing, for me, is the opposite. You will have a better story in the end, if you give up control. I am a writer whose characters almost always take control of their own stories leaving me to become the typist. In interviewing other bestselling authors, I am not unique. It happens to others as well.

93-Sugarek-4IM: Could you describe your writing process to us? How do you go from inspiration to publication?
TS: I marinate, speculate and hibernate. I will write for days in my head. And not just when I am quietly sitting at home. Sometimes, while driving, I will quickly call my voicemail to make a note about an idea, a piece of dialogue, or a plot twist. I go from inspiration to publication by, what I call, ‘slamming out the first draft’. Then it’s re-write, re-write, re-write, and then, re-write some more. I go through the manuscript over and over. I try to have a couple of trusted friends read it and give me honest feedback. In recent years, I have hired a professional editor to go over the last draft. It has resulted in much-needed editing and always given me two or more new chapters. Sometimes, I have more than one manuscript going. Don’t be afraid to let your work ‘rest’. Write something else. I find writing my blog re-energizes me.

IM: You’re a blogger, an interviewer, an author and a playwright, and you’ve written in a variety of genres, which include fiction, poetry, mystery, juvenile, and theatre. Can you describe some of the elements/incidents/events that have inspired you? (Feel free to discuss some of your earlier works in detail).
TS: Most of my stories have come to me; picked me. I like to tell the story of sitting in a prison waiting room (yep! I said prison) one Sunday morning, in the countryside of Illinois. Waiting to visit a convicted murderer whom I had written a play about (Cook County Justice). The room was filled with women and children of all ages. Sisters, wives, and mothers, they sat, docile as sheep from years of this routine, come to visit their men. They all had their shoes untied. Their eyes pleaded with me, figuratively, to write their stories. These were not women who were wacky enough to have a jail house romance and/or marry a convicted felon. No, these were women you meet every day, who had children and families and normal lives, until one day, their husband made a stupid mistake. I couldn’t wait to get out of there and begin my research and write a play about these brave women. (Women Outside the Walls).

Years later, fans of the stage play begged me to write the rest of their story. (Remember the time restrictions of a play mentioned above.) So, one day, I sat down and stared at a blank screen which represented page one of a 350-page novel. I was terrified! Next came a biographical novel (Wild Violets) of my mother’s days as a flapper and entrepreneur during the roaring twenties, in San Francisco.

A similar experience gave birth to my mystery series, The World of Murder. I had written a ten-minute play (for the classroom) which was a murder mystery. Again, fans and friends told me, ‘we love your detectives; please write a story.’ The Art of Murder became book one, and I am currently writing book six of the series. Funny how these things happen!

93-Sugarek-2IM: Do you have any tips or tricks for getting through periods when the creative juices aren’t flowing as easily?
TS: Writers, don’t beat yourself up. Don’t add pressure to an already scary place. Creative juices tend to ebb and flow. I am revitalized and energized by reading another author. Other good writers tend to inspire me. I interview bestselling authors on my blog and the stories about their writing processes always stimulate me. I’ll write a ten-minute play or a piece of poetry to ‘re-boot’ myself.

IM: Recently, you’ve written The Trans-G Kid, a one-act play about a transgendered teen. What can you share with us about this work?
TS: Celebrity transgendered people have been in the news and I was struck by the staggering statistics about transgender teens’ suicide rates. It is horrifying. The Trans-G Kid was a perfect addition to my collection of ten-minute plays for the classroom. Perhaps the play will save just one kid. I can only hope.

IM: How did you go about researching the issues before you started the writing process?
TS: As an example, I’ll tell you about a saga I am still writing (it is currently resting). Song of the Yukon is about my auntie, a musician who, at age 17, ran away from home and, disguised as a boy, hired onto a steamer bound for Alaska, eventually homesteading outside of Tanana. The only problem I had was that it was 1920. Fairbanks was a single-building trading post. Transportation was by sled and dogs, riverboat, or foot. Thank the stars for Google! My research was extensive as I wanted, of course, to be as accurate as I could be. Who knew that surface gold is only found in the bend of a creek or stream that has black sand as part of its riverbed? What was a barn raising? How was meat preserved in those days? What were the riverboats like that transported people and supplies? How could you chink a log cabin using sphagnum moss? I was about half way through my manuscript when all the ‘Alaska reality’ shows hit the airways. Great stuff and really helpful with my research!

IM: Were there any surprises along the way? (Research causing you to revise plot points, characters running with the story and taking it in a different direction from what you’d originally envisioned, encountering support where you’d expected to meet resistance or vice-versa, etc.)
TS: Surprise is a good day! I know I’m really doing a good job if my characters tell me, in no uncertain terms, that it’s time for them to take over. I love my role as the typist! I won’t tell you much about Charlie (the protagonist in Women Outside the Walls) taking my story and turning it upside down. I wouldn’t want it to be a spoiler! But suffice it to say, Charlie took charge and caused me a four-month delay, while I researched the situation he threw at me. And Arnold Miller, a quirky actor, (The Act of Murder) who sauntered off the elevator, at the Food Network Building, in The Taste of Murder and nearly mowed down my two detectives. Where’d he come from?

Wild Violets is about my mother raising two kids during the roaring twenties. She was a force: played on a semi-professional women’s basketball team, owned her own bar and grill, worked all day and danced all night. This novel started out based on the stories my mother told me while growing up but eventually the fictional Violet took over, telling me she could tell her own story.

IM: How are you handling the marketing and promotion angle?
TS: After three years my blog has finally gotten traction. I have grown my readership on social media to seven million plus. I faithfully post twice a week and that’s a tough thing to maintain. Thinking up subjects, (always about writing) that maybe my readers will enjoy. I interview bestselling authors and that gets people to my web site where, hopefully, they will look at my books. I have give-aways, free audio book promotions, and ask people to review my books on Amazon.

IM: Was it always your intention to self-publish your work?
TS: Funny you should ask. No. I tried for years to get a publishing house to represent me. All the writers out there will confirm this when I tell you that it’s a hamster wheel! Publisher: Do you have a literary agent? Agent: Do you have a publisher? Publisher: Do you have an agent? When I started self-publishing, it was a dirty word. You were accused of writing a ‘vanity book’. You had to warehouse 20,000 books and schlep them everywhere. Then print on-demand was born and self-publishing platforms/programs were offered and that was a turning point for me. I am both actually; four of my plays are published by Samuel French, Inc., the biggest and best script publisher in the world, and I am so grateful to them. But they rejected forty of my other plays… and I was tired of waiting. It wasn’t that my work was no good; it was that it was not commercial enough. So I self-published and never looked back. My bestsellers are The Bullies, a ten-minute play for the classroom (one of 27), my journal/handbook, The Creative Writer’s Journal, and Ten Minutes to Curtain (a collection of ten-minute plays).

IM: What’s next on the horizon for you?
TS: Working on unfinished manuscripts. Book 6, (Beneath) The Bridge of Murder in my World of Murder series is about finished. It is about the serial killings of the homeless of NYC. This series has been a real joy to write. Contemporary true crime. Featuring my two murder cops, who are great partners, but couldn’t be more different from each other.

IM: Finally, where can our readers find your works and how can they stay on top of what you’re up to?
TS: Web Site: http://www.writeratplay.com/
Blog: http://www.writeratplay.com/category/a-writers-take/
Twitter: @writeratplay4
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/writeratplay
Purchasing: http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=trisha+sugarek&rh=n%3A283155%2Ck%3Atrisha+sugarek
Audio-Books: http://www.audible.com/search/ref=a_hp_tseft?advsearchKeywords=Trisha+sugarek&filterby=field-keywords&x=7&y=12



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