Starting up a writer's career after the children are grown

A dozen books later, Libby Hughes tells how

How does someone wind up with a dozen books on after waiting to write them until her children were grown? How might others learn from such an experience?

To find out, I invited an e-mail conversation with my old friend Libby Hughes. I had lost touch with her years ago. Suddenly she was back in Cambridge, Mass., and having a book signing.

In those piles of shiny volumes were her young-adult biographies of George W. Bush, Nelson Mandela, Norman Schwarzkopf, Margaret Thatcher, Tiger Woods, Colin Powell, Benazir Bhutto, Christopher Reeve, and Yitzhak Rabin. Soon came John Grisham and, this year, Ronald Reagan. Among other things, she has somehow found time to edit the autobiography of Ginger Rogers.

In June, the Emma Willard School in Troy, N.Y., will give Libby Hughes a Life Achievement Award. And she's planning mother-and-son book signings with Mark Hughes, whose "Buzzmarketing" comes out in July. Let the buzz start here.

How did it all begin?

After my children were grown, I moved from Cape Cod to Birmingham, Ala., and started looking for a part-time job on a newspaper. They only wanted full-time. A friend of mine in the Chicago area suggested I write an anthology of 20 famous global women.

Your choice?

Yes, I wrote about Margaret Thatcher, Indira Gandhi, and Nien Cheng. I sent them around to 20 publishers. Four replied.

Not bad for a new venture.

They liked the writing, but not the idea of an anthology. Dillon Press had a biography series and asked me to do a full biography of Margaret Thatcher for young adults. I was on a plane immediately to do all the research.

I guess you'd advise writers to get going if there's even a faint knock of opportunity.

Absolutely. Next came Benazir Bhutto and Nelson Mandela. Macmillan bought out Dillon, and then an imprint of Simon & Schuster bought out Macmillan. Meanwhile, I kept writing for the new owners. In a kind of spinoff, they wanted me to do Valley Forge and West Point since I was going there for research on Norman Schwarzkopf. Christopher Reeve and Colin Powell were also added to the list.

So emerging authors may not know who their next publisher will be.

Finally, the imprint was bought out by a British company, and the rights to all the above books were returned to me. The Authors Guild collaborated with iUniverse Inc. out of Nebraska. Every one of these books was back in print for free to the author because I'm a member of the Authors Guild. They put them on all the major book websites.

So you were available in cyberspace?

Yes, but then Genesis Press out of Mississippi asked me to do a biography of Tiger Woods. Scholastic asked me to kick off their series of Great Life Stories with a biography of George W. Bush.

It all happened in about a dozen years?

Yes. And in 2001 I started a picture book on Ronald Reagan for Dutton. I realized I couldn't do it in 4,000 or 8,000 words and walked away from the contract. After Reagan passed away in 2004, I decided it was time to finish both the Reagan, aiming at 32,000 words, and John Grisham books. So I published those and Rabin myself through iUniverse. Rabin had been ready to publish through the Simon & Schuster imprint.

Did you expect to do more than one?

I hoped so, because I'm a workaholic and a writeaholic. I was on a roll!

Any secrets of getting published?

As you can see, a number of professional publishers put out most of my biographies for young adults. For under $1,000, anyone can publish a book. It only takes four to six weeks and it's out there. With a regular publisher it takes 18 months to two years.

Were there rejections?

When I started to shop Rabin and Grisham around there were a few rejections. iUniverse seemed the way to go.

Authors often say publishers should do more promotion.

Wow! You have hit on the "Author's Lament." Publishers lean on their blockbuster books to make the big money to help the other books along.

My books are mostly for libraries and schools, so they are advertised in catalogs. But I get out and beat the bushes to build up sales. Who else will do it? If I have a book signing through a bookstore, I don't make any money - they want 40 percent or more off the book. If I give a speech and sell books afterward, I make a profit. Recently, though, I've hired a PR firm in Boston to handle a lot of promotion. It's hard to write and promote.

I understand you just made a swing through the Midwest. Why was that?

When the Reagan book was finished, I let the city treasurer in Galesburg, Ill., know. He had helped me with research in 2001 and wanted me to come back to the five towns where Reagan grew up in Illinois and speak to kids, adults, libraries, and bookstores. So, I drove 3,400 miles talking to 3,000 kids and plenty of adults about the Reagan book; about colorful writing; about my adventures - being mugged in South Africa and caught in a riot in Pakistan. Kids love that stuff. While I was there I was researching a travel piece about Lincoln and Reagan in Illinois.

I recall your interest in the stage.

Yes, I received an MFA in acting at Boston University and became a professional actress here and in Kenya, South Africa, and Hong Kong. I was a drama critic on Cape Cod and began writing plays and musicals - 36 to be exact. Some have won awards and been produced off-off-Broadway.

What have you done lately, as they say?

I'm working on a musical about Ginger Rogers.

Was theater a help in writing books?

Absolutely. The marriage of journalism with playwriting brings simplicity to my writing. I was accused recently of trying to copy Ernest Hemingway, but I'm not. It's just the way I write.

How did you find the right wavelength to write for young people?

I don't write down to young people. I write simply and try to make it lively and colorful and make the end of each chapter like a mystery, so they'll want to know what happens next. When I write theater reviews, the writing is more sophisticated with a high-flying vocabulary!

Do you travel to all the places where your subjects lived?

Yes. It makes all the difference. Seeing the schools, the homes, the friends gives flesh and bones to descriptive writing. The kids know you have been there. It would be easy for me to sit at my computer and write the book without stepping out the front door. I can't do that.

Roderick Nordell is the Monitor's acting book editor.

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