Interview with Kelly Wittmann

A couple of days ago I reviewed Kelly Wittmann’s new Ebook “Remember Big: A Novel” and it turned out that there was also drama in Kelly’s own life. This spurred me to try something new (for me) and publish an interview where Kelly tells her story and shares her perspective on the World of independent publishing.

What’s an author to do when she discovers she has a brain tumor just as she’s about to publish two books? Kelly Wittmann talks about the trauma and the drama.

So, you were in the midst of…

My agent, Sara Camilli, and I were just about to publish two books: a novel, Remember Big, and Bill Searcey’s autobiography, High Tide: A Story of Football, Freefall, and Forgiveness. Remember Big was finished, but I still had five chapters to write on High Tide, which I was co-writing and editing. I went to the dentist in early October of 2012 to have a wisdom tooth removed, and my whole world turned upside down. The pain just would not go away. It covered almost the entire left side of my head and face and was constant.

What did you do?

I went to one specialist after the next for seven months. Had a CT scan that supposedly showed nothing. I was misdiagnosed by two neurologists with Trigeminal neuralgia, which was terrifying. It’s called “The Suicide Disease.”

Yet you kept going to other doctors?

Yes. I just felt that something else was going on. I tried to have a MRI, but between my claustrophobia and the sheer exhaustion, I just couldn’t do it. It felt like I was being buried alive. Finally, I found a place that did seated MRIs, and the procedure itself went okay. But when I got home, the voice mail was beeping, and I just knew… “It’s very important that you call us back immediately. Right away.”

Oh, boy.

Yeah. I called the pain specialist’s office back, and they said that he was in surgery, but that it was very important that I come in—four hours later. My husband, Michael, and I spent the next four hours thinking the worst and just freaking out. It was a total nightmare. And when the time for the appointment finally came, the doctor walked into his office with this big, burly, male nurse who stood by the door! He was obviously there to control me if I fainted, got hysterical, or tried to flee. So I thought, “Wonderful. Can’t wait to hear this.”

What did the doctor say?

He said, “A large mass was found in your brain, on the left side.” Whatever the prognosis, I just wanted to get it over with. So I immediately said, “Can I survive this?”, and I’ll never forget the sound of his voice: “Yes. Yes.” It was a Stage-1 meningioma, which is a benign tumor that rarely comes back after it’s been removed, but it was big—larger than an egg. I felt like the weight of the world had been lifted off my shoulders. I didn’t care that I had to have major surgery; I was thrilled to finally know what was wrong, and I almost jumped for joy. There was finally hope that the pain would end.

What would you tell others who are having serious head or facial pain?

Don’t settle for a CT scan. Get a MRI as soon as possible. Please, I beg you. Two neurologists failed to see this very large tumor on a CT scan.

Who performed your surgery and where?

Dr. Richard Byrne performed the four-hour surgery at Rush University Medical Center on April 15th. He warned me that the pain might not go away, but I felt really calm about it and it went away immediately. By the time I went home, I wasn’t even bothering to take Tylenol. The surgery was not half as bad as I thought it would be. It’s a teaching hospital, of course, and afterwards all these “kids” were snapping their fingers in my face and saying, “Kelly, it’s over. It’s all done.” But I wouldn’t believe them because I felt so coherent. It took them about fifteen minutes to convince me. Anyway, everyone at Rush was wonderful. Their nursing staff is top notch.

That was the same day as the Boston bombing, wasn’t it?

Yes. They wheeled me into the ICU and my husband and parents were there. Michael turned on the TV and said, “Look, someone bombed the Boston Marathon.” For the next four days, we just sat there flipping back and forth between the news channels. I can’t honestly say I didn’t think of my own condition at all, but I still felt like the luckiest person alive compared to what those people were going through.

Was Bill Searcey’s book finished by this time?

Yes, I finished it right before I found out I had the tumor. I didn’t know what was wrong, but I knew it was really bad, and I thought, “No way am I checking out like this.” I was going to finish that book come hell or high water. Bill and my agent, Sara, couldn’t have been more supportive. They’ve really become true friends to me at this point.

Why did you decide to be the co-author/editor on Bill’s book, High Tide?

Well, his story combined the two things I love most in this world: history and football. And Bill is one of those people who has an endless supply of crazy stories about all the interesting and eccentric people he’s known, not to mention his own wild antics. What more could a writer ask for?

And what about Remember Big, your novel about a former professional golfer who’s in the grips of a mid-life crisis? What is it like to publish that kind of work through an agent?

Luckily, I have an agent who is also a terrific editor. She helps me whip all this stuff into shape. And I do think that for something like literary fiction—for lack of a better term—having that name on the book tells the reader, “Well, she can’t totally suck.”

Yes, the phrase “literary fiction” is a battleground these days, isn’t it?

It certainly is, but a tiny battleground. Most people are too concerned with vampires and zombies to notice.

Is that a slam?

Not at all. If the genres are “not as well-written as literary,” it’s only because every Tom, Dick, and Harry is trying to break into them these days. Ergo, a lot of bad writers. But the ones who are good are good. And they’re actually making money, which must be nice.

But you wouldn’t know?

Not yet, but hope springs eternal. That’s kind of my motto these days: “Hope springs eternal.”

Finally, how do you feel about where independent publishing is going, and what advice would you give to authors who are going to self publish or publish through an agent?

It’s always better to have a good agent than to not have a good agent, but plenty of writers are doing very well going it alone. Be careful about the categories under which you list your book, or you may confuse readers. Don’t set your price too low and do constant free giveaways; if you want readers to respect your work, respect it yourself. Your covers are so important; spend the time and money on them that your books deserve. You don’t have to spend a fortune on it. I hired a designer in Nashville named Sam Torode ( who created two wonderful covers for a very fair price. So, I would advise that writers do some major homework on these things, but also realize that mistakes are going to be made and that’s okay: just correct them and get on with it.

As far as where indie publishing is going, I think it will continue to exist uneasily with traditional publishing for a long, long time. To think that the Big Six are just going to throw up their hands and say “We give up” is very naïve. They’re not going anywhere. But in my opinion, there’s room for everybody.


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