Just Keep Pushing
An Interview with Leah Vernon
Published by Siena Oristaglio on November 2nd, 2016
Last summer, The Void Academy gave a talk at Hippocamp, a conference for creative non-fiction writers in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. During our time there, we met Leah Vernon, a graduating creative writing MFA student from Wilkes University. Blown away by her incredible style and enthusiasm, we got to speaking and she mentioned she was considering self-publishing a young adult novel. One year later, we sat down to chat about her process of releasing this novel, Impure, as well as how she balances her work as a body-positive activist, fashion blogger, plus model, and fiction writer.
Siena Oristaglio: What do you want people to know about you and your art?
Leah Vernon: My name is Leah Vernon. I'm a fashion blogger, a body positive activist, a plus model, and I also write futuristic, dystopian, young adult and new adult novels. It's hard to categorize what I do, but my work is very inclusive and often starts a conversation. I'm not interested in the type of art that people walk away from saying, "There it was, it looked nice, let's move on." I want my art to deeply resonate with the reader or the viewer. In the thousand of things that I do, that's what I want people to get out of all of them.
SO: You recently put out a self-published novel. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
LV: I've been working on this novel for at least 77 years.
SO: Wow, you look great for being over 100 years old.
LV: Thank you. I drink a lot of water. [Laughs.] In seriousness, I've been working on this novel, Impure, for three and half years. The story is set 500 years into the future. We're in a tyrannical part of the United States where African Americans — who are highly technological and only believe in science — have enslaved the European race. It's very experimental. I did a research paper for my MFA aimed at trying to find novels that were similar to mine. I've seen reverse history done but it always take place in the past. My novel is reverse history in the future, and that's why I call it experimental. It also fits into the dystopian category because it's a "what would the world be like if...?" scenario. It's gritty and it's commercial. Generally, it's not about white versus black people — it's about how those who are given power are likely to misuse it. I've received a lot of great feedback from published authors as well as people who don't typically read novels at all, so I'm excited about that.
SO: You said that it falls into the Young Adult/New Adult Category. What does this mean to you?
LV: I've been reading young adult for a long time. I'm touching 30 years old, and I still enjoy young adult books. "Young adult" has many subcategories. To me, the genre is for ages 13 to early 20 year olds. New Adult is a newer sub-genre that is for late teens to people in their mid-20s. Sometimes when your book fits into both of those categories, it's categorized as a crossover. My characters are 15, 16, and 17, but there are also adult characters that play vital roles. Mine can cross genres, in that way.
SO: What has the process of self-publishing been like for you?
LV: I'm still a self-pub newbie. I was, for the longest time, against self-publishing. I grew up in an era where the thing to do was to get the big three publishing companies and a top notch literary agent and go from there. If you didn't go that route, the idea was that you obviously couldn't write because your writing was not good enough or commercial enough to "make it." Coming from that mentality, I never even entertained the option of self-publishing. Then, as I started receiving hundreds of rejection letters in the mail, I said to myself, "This is my third novel. I've put a lot of time and money into this. I've got writing degrees, I've read craft books, I've had beta readers, I've had great mentors, and publishers are still saying, 'No, we'll pass.'' How long until you say to yourself, "When is it going to be a 'yes'"?
Then I met two writers who were self-published authors and I started to see them at trade shows with their books selling out. I thought to myself, "Wait a minute. The tables have turned. I can actually do this myself without a publisher or an agent." I like to pick people's brains about stuff I'm interested in, so I asked both of them to lunch to talk about their self-publishing journeys. Speaking to those two writers gave me the confidence to move into self-publishing. They'd tell me, "If you get an agent, or you go through a publisher, you still have to do a lot of marketing for yourself. You still have to do a lot of promoting on your own." At that point, I thought, "I'm a blogger. I'm good at social media. I have a business degree in management. I think I can do this on my own." Between them encouraging me to do it and me looking at what they were doing, it became a natural choice. I had a novel in my computer, I just hadn't printed it.
Fast forward a bit — I didn't have all the answers when I self-published but I learned and am still learning a little bit, day by day. I just dove in. I told myself, "You have two months to get it together and put a book out into the world." The easiest part was the research part beforehand. The hard part was applying that research to real life scenarios. For example, with my illustrator — I thought that I could describe an image and an illustrator would magically capture it, maybe going back and forth two or three times. My illustrator and I went back and forth around 20 times! Things like that you can only learn from real-life experience. The other difficult part is the marketing — how do I connect to people in the most efficient way so I'm not wasting my time on people who will never be interested? Connecting my creative product to actual people who will buy the book is my biggest challenge now.
SO: What have the past three weeks been like since you launched the book?
LV: I had this idea in my head that I was going to bust out two readings per week after I launched the book. Realistically, did that happen? Of course not. I had zero funds — I had maxed my credit cards out just to print the books — so I went around the city and asked people who had businesses to allow me to read in their space for free. Crazy idea, I know, but everyone said yes. I just had to pool my resources and notify everyone who had been asking me for years, "Where can I get your book? When you sell it, let me know." The week of the launch, I had two readings and the second week I had one reading. I turned to social media and my phone book and tapped into my network saying, "Okay, I have three readings. Which one can you make?" Did I sell as many books as I thought I was going to sell? Not yet. Some people who had expressed interest still haven't purchased the book, and I'm still trying to connect to people in a way that's not overbearing. This week and next week is about online marketing, hitting book bloggers, trying to find schools and colleges that may want a fictional book on race relations or other elements in my book that could be used for teaching. I want to hit larger masses of people who want something crazy to read. I don't want to spend an hour trying to convince one person to read my book when I could convince the leader of a book club who will buy 20 books.
SO: I can see your business degree shining through here. Did you have any moments at those readings where it simply felt great to have the book out in the world?
Yes. At the first reading, I was fairly nervous. People come very late to events, so it was 30 minutes in and nobody was there. But then people started to flood in, and I thought, "Oh my god, it's happening." I gave the synopsis, read a chapter, received a round of applause, and then opened the floor for questions. Someone asked, "How do you feel now that your book is out in the world?" I just busted out crying. It felt great to have a tangible object to hold. When you're a writer, your work is so often on the computer or on a website but not actually in your hand. I feel very accomplished about it.
I thought people on the internet didn't read. But when I started putting out great content — pictures that spoke accompanied by writing that created conversations, I found that it was actually much more successful in terms of engagement and conversion.
SO: I imagine that would feel gratifying to get the book into the hands of readers. In regards to marketing and promotion, what do you feel right now works best about how you use the internet as an artist?
LV: Currently, my Instagram is geared towards body positivity and fashion. A lot of people on Instagram didn't know that I was also a fiction author. That has been a little bit of an issue for me because when I post something about my writing, they're not used to it and the engagement is lower than when I post a body positivity post. I've been on Instagram for maybe four years now, and three of those years have been focused on modeling, blogging, and body positivity. If I had just come off rip building my foundation as a writer on Instagram, I believe there would be more turnover there now. On Facebook, it's a bit different, because I have consistently shared more of my written work on that platform. The thing that really makes a difference with respect to building an audience connected to my work is content. It's the quality of the visuals that I post, and the quality of the words that I put with those visuals. Those things are crucial on Facebook and on Instagram as well as on other platforms. Posts have to be visually appealing — the photo has to speak to people first — and then you hit 'em with the words. I used to be an "Insta-blogger," just posting pretty pictures, but then I thought, let me try being "real human being Leah," not "Insta-blogger" Leah. I said to myself, "You write well. You have multiple degrees in writing. Why are you hiding it?" I think the answer was that I thought people on the internet didn't read. But when I started putting out great content — pictures that spoke accompanied by writing that created conversations, I found that it was actually much more successful in terms of engagement and conversion.
SO: I've noticed this in talking to many artists — there's an assumption that people don't read on the internet. Usually, when that theory is tested, it turns out to be false. I think that generally, when we as audience members like an artist, we want to know what's in their head and what their process is like. You said that you have a degree in business and multiple degrees in writing. Is there anything that you've learned through experience that you wish someone had told you about the business of art when you were just starting out?
LV: The first piece of advice I'd give to younger artist Leah would be to have confidence in your work enough to share it. I stopped writing for many years because I didn't have confidence in my work. In my experience, confidence only comes when you have people supporting you who tell you when your work is good and when it's not. As in, "Truthfully, I know you can do better than this." Whether these people are mentors or classmates, you need people around you who may or may not be in your field but are still your cohorts and will be honest with you. Artists need to be patted on the back and told that they're doing a good job and they need to told when something isn't working. I know I wasted time that I could have been cultivating my writing skills or photography skills in a state of self-loathing, telling myself constantly, "You're a black girl, you're Muslim, you're fat, you're from Detroit, you're poor. You cannot be in the creative field. There are no avenues for you. Just stop." If I had someone — like I have now — that I could have shared my work with who would have told me, "That's not the case. You can do it. Just keep pushing," my experience would have been totally different. That's something I wish they taught in school — to find people around you who will be honest with you and then to share your work and your feelings about your work with them.
The second thing I will say is along a similar vein because it's also about the power of connection. When I was younger, I used to think that I didn't need to talk to anybody to make it anywhere. I didn't need to connect with other people, whether artists, arts supporters, or anyone else. I thought didn't need a community to make it – I was going to ride my work only. That was totally false. Looking back on it, I wish I had opened myself up earlier to building connections to other people and other artists. You can't have a community if you don't share your work. When artists ask me for advice, especially artists who are a little timid or untrusting of people in general, I tell them that this is a necessary situation — you have to get out there, you have to build a community because people are not going to buy or engage with your work if you don't. Those are the two major things I wish younger Leah would have known.
SO: Those are both great pieces of advice. As we discussed, you have two separate aspects of your practice — you have the fashion blogger aspect as well as your career as a fiction writer. In an ideal world, do you have a sense of what the balance of time devoted versus income earned from each would be?
LV: I have never really thought about that! [Laughs.] My days are very imbalanced currently. Fashion blogging is a field I just fell into, literally, because of the writing. Writing has always been my foundation. Now that I'm in fashion blogging, I really enjoy it. But I'm a writer at heart, and I think I'd want the majority of my time to be spent cultivating my writing skills, marketing, and talking to people about my writing. The fashion world is prejudiced in all kinds of ways — including against body type, religion, and race. The writing world is a little less biased because they look not just at you as a person but also at the words you've created, the worlds and characters that you've cultivated. In fashion, it's all about how you look and therefore it's a bit shallow. As a creative, I don't feel that my looks are that important — what matters more is my mind and what I create. In an ideal world, I think I'd be making a full-time living as a writer and have time for fashion blogging on the side. I don't think I'd ever stop fashion blogging because even with how shallow it is, the fact that I'm a fat, non-conforming Muslim girl from Detroit creates waves in this industry. There are not many people who look like me and believe what I believe doing this work. I think that's why I'm still in the industry. Just being myself — an educated fashion blogger who is not just pretty, who doesn't have the straightest teeth, who has to cover my body because I'm Muslim — makes my work in that industry less shallow.
The fact that I'm a fat, non-conforming Muslim girl from Detroit creates waves in this industry.
SO: I'm seeing this theme of breaking standards in both aspects of your creative life. Do people ever tell you that your work has made them feel that they could forge their own path?
LV: Sometimes, as a creative, you put things out into the world and you don't know how they will be received — you can only hope that they'll make people who experience the work feel some type of way, maybe close to what you felt when you were creating it. Now that I'm a little bit more established as a blogger, I have people come up to me all the time and say, "Oh my god, are you Leah V? I just want to tell you that I've never seen what you're doing done before. You're rocking it. You're big, you're bodacious, and your confidence is on a 2000-level. You make me feel like I can wear my turban, or I can wear bold-ass lipstick, or I can be short, fat, and black and still be killing the game." When people tell me things like that, I don't know if you can it see when I blush, but I do. I always try to keep it real in those situations though. I try to be honest and say, "Just so you know, I have my days when I'm not feeling it at all, when I don't want to take any pictures or selfies." People have this idea of you when they only see you on Instagram. They think, "Oh my god, she's glamorous, even when she goes to Walmart. When she's at Kroger, she wears furs." No. I have my low days, I have my high days. I want my community to know that you can be confident, you can be bodacious and unapologetic, but you also have days where you're just not feeling it and that's okay. I think people think they have to be perfect at every moment and they just don't. Even if you see so-called perfect bloggers, trust me, they have their days. It's so important to understand that. But yeah, people come up to me often and say, "I'm inspired by you. I want to do more now, I want to wear colors, I'm prouder of my fat body or my curvy body, or even my skinny body." Because, you know, I'm body positive which means that every body is a good body.
SO: I know a lot of artists who have mental block around social media because they feel like it's comprised of people posting about their perfect lives all the time. I personally think it's brave to share when things are difficult because every human being goes through that. Let me ask another question: if you could imagine taking a course right now focused on an aspect of arts business, what would it look like?
LV: I'd want a course geared towards artists who don't live in New York or LA or one of those big cities where people from small cities imagine you just move to and start making money immediately — though that's probably totally false. I live in Detroit and it's very small, so I find it hard to connect on a larger scale. I think right now, my biggest issue and what I want to learn more thoroughly is how to connect to people or entities that want to purchase my artwork. You can have ideas about how you want to market your work, as I do, but let's say I want to do a book club, or a college, or a high school, or I want to sell it to a book store — each one is it's own unique scenario, and each one has to be approached differently. My question is how to convert my ideas of marketing into actually landing sales. And how to balance that all out with my creative life, still having to create content. I think that's a major thing for me and I'd love to have a class that broke it down.
To add to that, there are certain parts of the world that a book might be better sold than others, so I'd also want the course to cover how to connect and sell to places that aren't local. Let's say Chicago is known for liking Afro-Futurism or multi-cultural dystopia, maybe there's a segment of readers there that might want to purchase the book. How do I seek them out and approach them as a person that's living somewhere else? Internationally, the UK has a lot of books like mine. Many UK authors have done reverse histories just in the past, so what if I want to sell books the UK? How would I go about that? How would I tap into that network?
SO: What you're saying is you'd like a course that covered the bird's eye view of how smaller, very specific marketing activities can be joined to create sustainable revenue streams. Perhaps the second half of the course would be about how to balance that with the practice of art-making itself and communicating about the art with a broader community. As you know, we ask this question because as we create our curriculum, we want to be able to respond to our community's needs. This is a big one, and it's very important. Thanks, Leah.
LV: Thank you!
Related article: This Is My Job: An Interview With Caroline Rothstein