Monica Shepard is a civil litigation paralegal by day and creates blog (or blawg as she tends to refer to them) posts consisting of legal research and content that reflects real-life personal injury cases. Her fiction derives from a compulsive curiosity and a chaotic imagination and her heart is drawn to mainstream fiction with strong plots.

Monica has taken the plunge into the world of writing and has decided to share her insatiable curiosity for humanity and a bottomless empathy with her readers. All her works are loosely based on actual events and seasoned with stunning inventiveness. Her stream-of-consciousness style of writing will give you an unparalleled, up close and personal experience.

She is a Rhode Island native who is presently residing in West Warwick. She comes from a large family of musicians and other likeminded artists, including her young virtuoso-pianist son and amateur-comedian husband.

1) First, I want to thank you Monica for taking the time to do this interview with me! When did you know that writing is what you were called to do? What is it about being a writer that you love the most? What about being a writer do you find frustrating?

The pleasure is mine; thank you for reaching out to me! Well, I’ve always been a daydreamer, albeit probably what they’d call a “maladaptive” one, but when I was twelve years old, this behavior culminated into an interesting detective novel—my first one. I designed a cover for it and everything. I’ve always had this need to mimic what I observe, not just with the written word, but also musically (I’m a singer and an amateur pianist) and in the visual arts (I do cake-decorating and, very occasionally, sketching and painting). I love anything that allows me to express myself, being that I’m so introverted and sometimes feel like mayhem in a jar. On the other hand, I’m also a perfectionist, which I’ve found too often works against me, and that’s where the real struggle in my writing lies. That’s the reason it’s taken me nearly three years to submit my novel to an editor, and I’m sure plenty of writers can relate.

2) Can you tell us a little about your book and where our readers can find out more about the book and you? You grew up in a large family full of artsy creative types. Do you think that helped to fuel your imagination and do you think that some of your inspiration for your stories and characters now stems from that creative upbringing?

My book, Higher You Build Them, is a contemporary work about a corrupt, unfaithful pharmaceutical-executive who’s out of touch with the realities of his illegal marketing schemes, but he becomes conflicted when the C.E.O. starts pressuring him to market fentanyl off-label. You can read more about it on my website: www.monicashepard.com, where you can stay updated by signing up for my newsletter.

I absolutely do believe that the artistic side of my family has inspired my writing in many ways. Just about everyone in my family is creatively endowed to some degree, particularly in music (sisters, uncles, cousins—in fact, music was what brought my parents together, who toured across the country in a band!) I always tell my twelve-year-old, who is a multi-instrumentalist and a sketcher (and something of a writer), that he has the heart of an artist. It’s become clear to me how this trait influences generation upon generation.

3) You are a civil litigation paralegal during the day, so how do you mange to even fit writing into your already busy schedule? Does your work as a paralegal help to shape your stories in any way? What is a typical day look like for you in terms of your writing routine?

A lack of childcare has limited my work hours, and in whatever way this has freed up some writing time, I can expect to show up each morning to a growing pile of work on my desk that I sometimes need to complete at home. It’s a challenge; yes, but I’ve gained a ton of experience in civil litigation which I do employ in my writing (one of my characters is an attorney). I’ve also begun a legal “blawg” on our website, which is updated every week (www.law4ri.com). There is usually a lot on my plate, so I try to wake up early to get in as much writing as possible before I have to cajole my son onto the school bus. By the end of the day, I’m usually pretty tired, and it’s difficult to squeeze more writing time in between making dinner and my son’s (loud and not-conducive-to-writing) lessons or practices. My best writing is done during the couple of quiet hours I have in the morning.

4) Do you prepare an outline and character sketches for your novels? How long does it take for you to complete a novel? What projects are you currently working on? 

I do outline, although that tends to go out the window the way it has with Higher You Build Them. My editor has pointed out that I’ve strayed too far from the plot and become too focused on the literary descriptions and character development, but he’s helping me get back on the right track. That’s the other reason why it’s taken me nearly three years! So, I’m still revising my first novel, and I have been sketching out a sequel in which my protagonist blows the whistle against his former company for marketing fentanyl off-label with some added thriller elements. As for character sketches, those just kind of fall into place, although my characters are based on various muses, usually actors (they don’t mind you watching them repeatedly; it would be hard to get away with that kind of intense scrutiny and analysis on real-life people!)

5) What’s the first book you can remember reading that really moved you emotionally? Who is your favorite author? What book are you currently reading?

Interestingly, even though I’m not a romance reader, it was Me Before You by Jojo Moyes. It was the first work of fiction that pulled me in since high school, but I’ve been a non-fiction reader for years (books on Zen, science, psychology, philosophy, evolution, the fabric of the universe, etc.) A friend re-introduced me to the world of fiction, which rekindled my love of writing. My favorite author, on the other hand, is Wally Lamb, and right now I’m reading We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates (another favorite).

6) What has been your most significant achievement as a writer thus far? Where do you see yourself within your career in the next five years?

My most significant achievement was finding the courage to submit my manuscript to a professional editor. I’m such a perfectionist that I didn’t even send it to beta readers before doing this which, probably, wasn’t in my best interest. But writing a novel means opening your heart, making yourself vulnerable and sometimes digging down into your “inner crazy”, so sharing that with someone you don’t know is a huge, huge leap. On that note, it’s very difficult to say where I see myself in the next five years, but one thing I know is that writing has become my passion. I’d love to be able to write full-time, although my less-confident side sometimes questions how realistic an aspiration that is.

7) Have you had to deal with rejection so far in your writing career? If so, did it have any impact on your actual writing or how you felt about yourself as a writer? What do you think about the changes that have taken place within the publishing industry over the last decade or so in terms of tradition and self-publishing?

Aside from self-rejection, I haven’t yet faced rejection per se, although I do see that day coming soon, and I dread it! However, I’ve always perceived rejection in a strange way, so as a writer, my idea of it has been my editor’s responses to the first draft of my manuscript. The problem is that this was certainly not rejection in any way; rather, guidance and encouragement, but criticism is the very thing that cripples a perfectionist, and to say I had to work through this simple test would be an understatement. I think rejection in writing, much like constructive criticism (which often accompanies a rejection from a literary agent), is too often taken for exactly what it isn’t: failure.

How did I deal with it? Initially, I ran out, knocked back a few drinks and came to terms with giving up, which completely shocked me. My own reaction contradicted the “suck it up, cupcake” attitude I’d promised to take when I’d anticipated the unfavorable comments not two weeks earlier. Once I convinced myself that I am human; that these emotions are normal, and pulled myself together, I realized that I’d only been reading the bad things he’d told me and completely ignored the many good things. I’d been looking at it the wrong way.

There are two things we don’t always realize about constructive criticism: first, that it’s meant to make us better at what we do; second, that it takes a lot of courage for someone to give you that necessary roasting. Your friends and family won’t usually tell you if they see a problem, but withholding that ruthless critique and straight advice is the worst thing they can do for you. That’s why I’m so grateful to Peter Gelfan of the Editorial Department for his time and wisdom, and for laboring through and weeding out the overkill to make Higher You Build Them the best it can be. Thanks to him, I’m confident that the quality will be great regardless of the number of readers or even whether it finds an agent, and that he is helping me become a better writer. To me, that’s priceless.

That said, my personal preference does veer toward traditional publishing. If there’s one thing that perfectionism has taught me, it’s that our refusal to accept that we’re not perfect causes us to resist the fresh perspective we so desperately need. It makes us pull the “publish” trigger on our first novel without making sure it’s ready, leaving much to be desired in many self-published works which, in my reading experience, frequently seem too rushed. However, on the rare occasion that the novel is edited and polished to its full potential, I’m all for self-publishing, and for all I know, I may end up going that route. I guess we’ll see.

8) Do you believe that there is ever a point in life where it’s too late for an aspiring writer to become successful in this industry? Do you feel a late start would hinder their chances?

As I near age forty (and probably manuscript-draft number forty), I find myself contemplating this question more and more often. But in fact, when I started this almost three years ago, it wasn’t half the story that it is now, which has taught me that the older we get, the more we have to contribute. I like to think as long as we’re persistent and strive for quality, age can only further our success in the industry. 

9) So many writers say that they hate reading their own work? Do you like to read your own work back after the story is done or do you think that you would be too critical of your writing to do that?

I’m addicted to reading it now, while I still have a chance to mold and shape it, but I have a feeling once it’s published, I won’t want to touch it. The fact that I’ve reread it a thousand times has made it what it is now, and I can see myself avoiding it just because I’ll know there’s no changing it anymore. Like many artists, I’ve always been my own worst critic when faced with my own “completed” creative endeavors. Leonardo da Vinci himself said that art is never complete, only abandoned.

10) I feel like writing is a remarkable tool to help people not only express themselves, but also to cope emotionally and mentally. I know for me I write to be and feel more authentic. What unique quality is there about you, about your art, that you feel represents your authenticity? How does writing help you to be more empowered in your purpose? 

That’s a great question! Since my first novel describes a successful, yet corrupt businessman on his way to becoming a Big Pharma C.E.O., you might never guess that his story hits closer to home than I let on. I can’t say what it’s like to be in in Eric’s situation, but the story is really just a unique twist on certain aspects of reality which I’ve experienced personally, and so I can confidently say that I am “writing what I know”. I may have embellished and certainly enlarged upon certain details, but the intensity and the emotions are the same. In that sense, I feel as though I’m sharing my own experiences and how I’ve learned to cope when things go wrong.

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