We spoke to five Central Florida authors to learn about their latest books, their careers and what advice they have for aspiring writers.
Finding Local Inspiration
“I always knew that I wanted to write novels,” Kristin Harmel says. “That was always kind of the end goal.”
Harmel, a resident of Dr. Phillips, began writing her first novel when she was 24 after a life-changing summer spent in Paris. Now she is set to debut her 12th novel, “The Room on Rue Amélie,” which is expected in March 2018.
“It feels like just the strongest book I’ve ever written,” she says. “It was just one of those ones where I started writing it and it felt like, ‘Okay, I think this is working. This feels good to me.’”
“The Room on Rue Amélie” has a special connection to Winter Park as it was partially inspired by Virginia d’Albert-Lake who is an alumna of Rollins College. D’Albert-Lake moved to France before the start of World War II and stayed after the war broke out to help Allied soldiers escape.
“It just felt like fate that she had an Orlando connection,” Harmel says.
In Harmel’s 2016 novel “When We Meet Again,” she also spent time digging up some Florida history. This time it was about German prisoners of war in the Sunshine State during World War II.
“People can’t believe there were German soldiers working in the Orlando area in orange groves in the 1940s,” she says. “It’s one of those books that if people have an interest in Florida history, it might be worth picking up.”
Before she became a full-time novelist, Harmel worked as a reporter for People magazine.
“I would actually get up early in the morning and for an hour before I started my People job, I would work on my book,” she says. “So for one hour every weekday, I worked on writing a novel until it was done.”
That novel became “How to Sleep with a Movie Star,” which is a modern-day fairy tale about a woman who unexpectedly finds herself waking up in bed next to Hollywood’s hottest actor.
“I enjoy books that are very escapist,” she says. “I kind of think of them as Sex in the City in a book. And that is still one of my favorite TV shows, so to pick up a book that reminds me of that, then I’m happy.”
Today, Harmel describes her more recent books as mainstream fiction that features women protagonists. It’s a descriptor that she uses for her 2012 international best-selling novel, “The Sweetness of Forgetting.” But with each book Harmel says her writing evolves and that she expects it to continue to do so.
“I have a 1-year-old son now,” she says. “Maybe 10 years from now, when he is 11, I will like writing middle grade or young adult because that’s the kind of world I’m living in. You know what I mean? So, we’ll just kind of see where life takes me.”
Her Advice: “Set your alarm an hour earlier than you normally set if for. Invest in an automatic coffee maker so your coffee is made when you get up. Drag yourself out of bed, pour yourself that cup of coffee, sit down in the chair, don’t turn on the internet and write for an hour. You’d be surprised at how much you can get down.”
Telling Her Story
“I’ve been a fan of Jack Kerouac since I was a kid,” says Suleika Jaouad.
Jaouad is the fall writer-in-residence at the Kerouac House, which is located in College Park, just north of downtown Orlando. The Kerouac Project of Orlando is a nonprofit that was founded after Bob Kealing, who was a reporter with Orlando’s NBC affiliate, discovered that Kerouac had lived in a two-room apartment at the back of a house in Central Florida for a short time with his mother. It was during this time residing in Orlando that the iconic Beat Generation author typed the original manuscript for “The Dharma Bums.”
As the home was in disrepair, a group of locals banded together to save it and were able to purchase the property with the financial help of an interested benefactor. From there the writer-in-residence program began hosting authors, poets and novelists.
Jaouad came to prominence when she began writing a column for The New York Times called “Life, Interrupted,” which documented her life as a 20-something with cancer. Now in remission, she has contributed to books such as “Me, My Hair, And I: Twenty-seven Women Untangle an Obsession” and has written for magazines such as Glamour.
Jaouad has been to Central Florida before but says that the state is still an enigma to her and she’s looking forward to exploring it.
“I feel like a newbie when it comes to Florida,” she says.
During her time at the Kerouac House, Jaouad will be working on her first book, “Between Two Kingdoms,” which is forthcoming from Random House. It is a fitting project for the house, as Kerouac is most famous for his novel “On The Road” that was based on his travels across the United States and Jaouad’s “Between Two Kingdoms” is a memoir that is partly about a road trip she had taken.
Jaouad says she feels the most satisfaction from her writing when it is challenging to produce.
“The pieces I’ve been most proud of have often been the stories I’ve been most afraid to write,” she says.
Her Advice: “The internet is an amazing tool for those starting their career.”
Food for Thought
“I found my voice in writing when I moved into food,” says Heather McPherson.
McPherson, a longtime Central Florida resident who currently resides in Mount Dora, is a cookbook writer who was the food editor at the Orlando Sentinel for about 28 years. She describes her career as “cops to quiche” because for the first 10 years of her career she was in hard news and then moved into food writing.
“Obviously, I like to play with my food or I wouldn’t be doing this for a living still,“ she says.
In 2016, McPherson left her job at the Orlando Sentinel to work in public relations and focus more of her energy on writing cookbooks. In 2018, she will release her seventh cookbook called, “Mojito: Celebrating the Refreshing Flavors from the Glass to the Plate.”
“From my very first mojito, I’ve always been very fascinated by the flavor profile,” she says. “And that’s what people who cook a lot do. It’s like, if you like lemon chicken, you start to think about, ‘How can I use these with something else?’ If you’re really into food, that’s how your mind works.”
Passionate about Florida agriculture, McPherson has published two cookbooks centered on the state’s food and where it all comes from with co-authors Pam Brandon and Katie Farmand.
“Since Jeanne Voltz’s iconic Florida cookbook, there really hadn’t been a modern picture of what Florida agriculture looks like,” she says.
“Field to Feast: Recipes Celebrating Florida Farmers, Chefs and Artisans” and its spinoff “Good Catch: Recipes and Stories Celebrating the Best of Florida’s Waters” were McPherson, Farmand and Brandon’s attempt to provide an update to what the state’s food scene looks like now.
“We wanted to tell the stories of the people, not just recipes,” she says. “We all have recipes. We have tons of recipes. But I think what people are looking at in cookbooks these days is the story. ‘Why am I eating this? Why is it special?’”
McPherson’s personal collection of cookbooks spans about 500 different titles. She says the cookbook genre is one where people still like to hold physical books in their hands, rather than an iPad, partly because cooking is such an evocative experience itself.
“When you cook — obviously it’s a hands-on thing but — it’s an emotional thing,” she says. “You smell. You feel texture. There’s a strength in certain batters when you’re stirring that spoon.”
Her Advice: “Engage the community. Writers tend to be very solo artists. I think that that might work for some novels but in cookbooks you’ve got to engage. You’ve got to be out. You’ve got to talk to chefs. You’ve got to talk to farmers.”
Celebrating Fellow Writers
“There’s kind of like this invisible wall between writers and readers,” Kacey Kowars says. “And with the demise of the bookstore, it has really even increased that distance.”
Kowars, a teacher at The First Academy in Southwest Orlando, decided to try and lessen the distance between reader and writer in 2004 when he began recording conversations with authors that he’d met over the years and then distributing those recordings online. When he started this endeavor, podcasts weren’t a thing and iPhones had yet to appear, so Kowars recorded on a dual cassette tape recorder.
“It’s like the Flintstones now when you think about it,” he says.
Over the years, Kowars developed relationships with many of the authors he interviewed, so he decided to chronicle his connections to writers such as Michael Connelly and James Lee Burke in a series of essays titled “A Celebration of Words.” He published it this year in paperback and on Amazon as an e-book. All proceeds from the sale of his books are donated to programs that promote reading for children.
“I never thought to myself that, ‘One of these days I’m going to write books about these writers and make money doing it,’’’ he says. “It was the passion for people to hear my interviews.”
Although an avid reader when he was a child, Kowars’ devotion to his literary heroes really began in 1984 when he quit drinking because he drank too much, and he started reading because he read too little. One of the first books he picked up was “The Times are Never So Bad” by Andre Dubus. Kowars was stunned by how much he related to the writer’s prose, so he wrote Dubus a letter. He was not expecting to ever hear anything back, but, to his surprise, he found a letter from Dubus in his mailbox on Feb. 5, 1985. Those letters sparked a friendship that lasted for 15 years until Dubus’ death in 1999.
Kowars wrote an essay chronicling his friendship with Dubus, and it was published in 2001 in a book of tributes to the late author.
“I realized that I’m a better reader than I am a writer,” Kowars says. ”But I’m a good enough writer to where I can take these stories of knowing writers and write nonfiction pieces, write essays about the writers. So that is how I kind of landed on [this].”
Kowars uses his books in teaching Advanced Placement English Language and Composition at The First Academy where he tries to inspire his students to love reading and follow their passions too.
“It sets a good example for students that their teacher, who is 60 years old, is still writing and publishing books now,” he says.
His Advice: “The focus should be on writing fabulous work and not rushing what you write into publication. You need to show it to friends. You need to show it to other writers. You need to resist the urge to put up second drafts when actually what you need is the 10th draft.”
Humor for Moms
“I’m always late but now I can’t blame it on my kid,” Norine Dworkin-McDaniel says. “Let me tell you, having a baby is like a get-out-of-jail-free card for everything. You’re running late — blame it on the baby. You want to cancel plans with your mom — blame it on the baby. You want to leave this lame party — blame it on the baby.”
Dworkin-McDaniel, a Winter Garden resident of 12 years, is full of amusing quips like this about parenting. This particular one is from her Science of Parenthood Live show where Dworkin-McDaniel expands on the funny witticisms of her book “Science of Parenthood: Thoroughly Unscientific Explanations for Utterly Baffling Parenting Situations,” which was published in 2015 and illustrated by Dworkin-McDaniel’s longtime friend Jessica Ziegler.
The idea for the book came from Dworkin-McDaniel’s son Fletcher who, when he was in second grade at Innovation Montessori Ocoee, learned about Newton’s laws of motion. He came home to excitedly tell his parents about how an object at rest will remain at rest unless acted on by an external force.
“As he’s explaining it to me, it suddenly hit me that it sounded just like him with his video games,” Dworkin-McDaniel says. “So, I jumped up from the table and I jotted down, ‘Newton’s first law of parenting: A child at rest will remain at rest until you need your iPad back.’”
Dworkin-McDaniel shared this parenting truism on Facebook and received lots of positive feedback from family and friends. Soon enough, she was on the phone convincing Ziegler to design the illustrations to go along with her words.
“The book is 100 percent autobiographical,” she says. “Most everything happened to either me or Jessica.”
Including this line from the book that happened to Dworkin-McDaniel: “Toxic Shock Syndrome: A parent’s psychological state on discovering that her tot has gotten his diaper off and smeared the walls, crib, bedding and himself with poop.”
Dworkin-McDaniel says that incidents like that one allow parents to relate to one another’s struggles in a way that was more difficult before the advent of mommy blogs and parenting websites.
“You know, you have these, ‘Oh, okay it’s not just me. It’s not just my kid,’” she says. “My kid is not the only one who’s eating out of the cat box or my kid is not the only one licking the windowsill.”
Her Advice: “There are two parts to being an author: one is writing the book and the other is promoting the book. And book promotion is a full-time job. You have to be on and ready to promote.”