Davida G. Breier was born in Miami, FL. She's spent the last two decades in various roles within the book industry and currently works for Johns Hopkins University Press. Davida lives in Maryland with her family, a pack of wee rescue dogs, a rescue tortoise, and two companion chickens.
Welcome Davida and congratulations on your recent novel, Sinkhole. What is Sinkhole about and why did you choose Florida as its setting?
Thank you! Sinkhole was published in May this year and is a suspense novel, as well as a coming-of-age novel, with a touch of Southern Gothic. It is set in the 1980s in Central Florida which becomes a very claustrophobic setting for the three main characters.
I chose Florida for a few different reasons - it’s a very tactile place with the atmosphere and the weather but it’s also a very good place to talk about class. Having spent my childhood in South Florida, I wanted to show wild Florida and the beauty of it, which is often overlooked. When most people think of Florida they often think of the beaches and Disneyland, but they don’t think of the wild places in between. So there were a lot of reasons I decided to set it there.
Sinkhole is your debut novel. What made you want to write a novel?
I have always wanted to write a novel and I thought back to when I was in my twenties and I dismissed the idea thinking, ‘you don’t have enough life experience’ or ‘no you’re not qualified’; I came up with a lot of excuses of why I couldn’t or shouldn’t. Then not long before my 45th birthday, I thought if I keep making excuses then I’m never going to do this! The fear of never getting to do something was actually greater than the fear of actually doing it. So I started writing it at the very end of 2016 and was working on it until the beginning of 2018.
I read a bit about some of the methods you used to write such as the spreadsheets and the playlists, can you talk us through those? And how did you find the writing process?
I went at this blind, trying to figure out what processes worked for me. While I had always written, I had never really written fiction before. I found that getting to know the characters was one of the hardest parts so I tried to think of ways to get to understand them: I created spreadsheets that showed all their birthdays and how old they were when certain life events happened. I created a spreadsheet of their school schedules so I could see what their days would look like (were they getting up at 7am and going straight into an English class? When did they have PE? When did they have lunch?). Those spreadsheets were my way of tracking the characters and what they were doing.
The characters were also very distinct in their music tastes so I created a playlist for each of them, thinking: what would they listen to in 1985? How would that influence them or be part of their pop culture references of that time? I spent a lot of time trying to get into their heads.
Did you base your characters on people you knew?
There were little conversations or references from my own life but no one was wholly based on people I knew. There were certainly little pieces of ‘oh that was interesting I’ll use that’ or ‘oh I remember that’, but not any whole characters. Not even the dog was based on a dog I know, he was just a dog that appeared!
Other than getting into the characters’ head, what other challenges did you find when writing the book and how did you push yourself to keep going?
The main challenges were figuring out a good process and how to maintain a pace, and often finding the time. I was working full time and have a family so there are a lot of things I’m responsible for! Ultimately what I ended up having to do was setting a goal of finishing it in a year but by September of that year I only had about 14,000 words written. So I made a spreadsheet (again!) and tracked a daily goal; I needed to write 500 words a day to stay on track. I found that even if I didn’t keep the words or I had missed a day I would make up for it on the weekend, and that really helped set a pace to keep me going.
In a way, as the characters developed, I wanted to tell their stories and they drove the writing forward and helped me keep going. They would show up even when I wasn’t working on the novel and would say “hey, what if I did this? What if I said this?”. They do take on a life of their own after a while!
Would you change anything about the book now?
Perhaps a few very small things. I love audiobooks and had an opportunity to listen to the audiobook version and that’s a very different experience. It made me think I’d change one or two sentences but I’m pleased with the work and everything I learned from this process I’ll put into the second book that I’m working on now.
Before I ask about your second book, which is very exciting, I believe you were involved in the cover design of Sinkhole - can you tell us about that?
Originally I sent the staff at the University of New Orleans Press a stack of photos I had taken in Lorida (Florida), where the novel is set, just to get a feel for the place. Last summer I received an email with nine cover designs - three really stood out to me and I found one which hit the perfect note. I didn’t realise at the time that the photo was one of the ones I sent. They had altered in such a way I didn’t recognize the image. The photo used on the cover is actually one of mine.
Sinkhole has received some fantastic reviews. How did you promote it and how important have the reviews been in driving success?
I started working on promotional pieces as soon as the contract was signed. I wrote letters to 400 bookshops - tailored specifically to independent booksellers. I also do the usual - I write a newsletter, I’m posting online, and I’m active in a few writing communities. I think one of the best things I did was work out what I am and am not good at. I worked with Kaye Publicity and they did a fantastic job pitching and finding opportunities. The University of New Orleans Press has also been so supportive. It really takes a group of people working together, each doing what they do best.
The reviews have been very helpful - especially The New York Times review. I know that debut authors from relatively small presses don’t usually receive that level of attention. It gave a certain level of weight to the work, which I don't think I gave it myself.
Have you managed to put on many in-person events and has that been important for you?
My launch was at Atomic Books (in Baltimore) and I also had an event at Park Books (in Severna Park). I haven’t been able to travel as much as I’d hoped but what I’ve learned is that it doesn't always have to be an in-person event. Now in modern day book marketing, in-person isn’t always the best opportunity and you can find and reach an audience in new ways. I received also received traffic from online marketing, so a mixture is great.
What is your role at Johns Hopkins University Press?
I work in two different divisions - I am the director of HFS which is our fulfilment division and we provide distribution services for university presses and nonprofits. I’m also the co-director of marketing and sales for the book division. I’ve been there for almost 13 years and before that I worked for other book distributors and non-profits. It’s almost always been something related to books or publishing.
How much has working in publishing influenced how you’ve marketed, promoted and even written Sinkhole?
My experience in publishing has certainly affected the marketing and promotional side because I know which types of media impact where. There’s a level of visibility which most authors don’t have right away on a debut novel. This helped to understand what realistic goals were and where books needed to be within the whole publishing ecosystem. For example, I see a lot of first time authors sending everyone to Amazon which can be short-sighted if you are looking to connect with your audience or with local booksellers. I also looked at a long-term goal with libraries, where I might find new readers.
What’s the next step for you Davida? Tell us about your second book!
I have realised that publishing is where I truly belong and it’s home for me. I am working on my second book. I’m still working out the plot and characters but it will be another suspense novel and set in Florida again. As much as my broad experience in the industry has helped me as an author, being an author has also helped me be better at my day job. Both sides go hand-in-hand.
And finally, what tips can you give someone embarking on their first book?
Keep going. Look to other writers for inspiration but find your own voice. Put in the work, day in and day out, and find a way forward that works for you. Everyone has their own path.