I have been friends with author Lori Leachman for over twenty years. In that time, I’ve heard many stories about Lamar Leachman, her storied father, and his great love affair with his wife, Lori’s mother Paula. Those stories have become even more poignant now that we better understand Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) and its terrible impact on many athletes. Lori’s published a book about her parents and I asked her if she’d answer a few questions.
Dabney: What made you write this book?
Lori: I never had any ambition or intent to write a book, although when my father died, I knew there was a story there.
I tried to get friends of mine who were writers to write it, but they told me, “It is your story, and you have to be the one to write it.” So I did nothing. I think really the book was perking during that time. Then, one day as I was reading, I said to myself, “I have a story, and I think I know how to tell it.” So I sat down and started writing vignettes. Within a week I had all but two chapters outlined.
I was motivated to get the story on paper for my mother. My mom was slow to recover after my father’s death. I thought that if I could write the whole story, my mother would be able to get past the last twenty years, and see their life together in its entirety- the good and the bad. About a year into it, I was reading nothing but memoirs, and was reading Sally Mann’s memoir Hold Still. In it there is a sentence, The photograph becomes the memory. When I read that, I knew it to be true, and thought to myself, “The story can become the memory.” This made me rededicate myself to the efforts. The King of Halloween and Miss Firecracker Queen is the result.
Dabney: Tell me about the love story.
Lori: The love story is that of my parents, over their fifty plus years of marriage. My parents had a marriage in which they would lock themselves in their bedroom in the afternoon and not come out until dinner. It was physical, and passionate, and more than a little bit filled with friction over the years. Growing up, all of us children initially thought my dad was the center of our universe. Over time we came to realize that it was really our mother who made the entire enterprise viable. What we did not know and understand until my father’s death, is that my mother CHOOSE my father, and as she said, After that, he did not have a chance. This single act of choice defined my mother’s life.
Dabney: What has been the best part of publishing the book for you and your family?
Lori: So far what has been most rewarding with respect to the book is the positive feedback my mother is getting. Friends from long past, other coaches’ and players’ wives, and even some family members have emailed her to say what an amazing woman she is- which, by the way, she is. This is especially sweet, because I learned right before publication that my mother was not too happy about the prospect of all our private mess being made public.
In addition to liberating my mother from the pain of the most immediate past, the book was also worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in therapy for me. To write memoir in an open and honest way, you must do some soul searching and own some of your own mess and hang-ups. The list of things I learned about myself is long, but here I will list the two most important. (1) The reason I have always been so judgmental, is that I always felt judged as a child. The was a function of my birth order (2nd), and the competitive nature of our household. (2) I married my second husband because he was the smartest guy I had ever met. Since I was the smart one in the family, this made sense, and cemented my place. Writing the book made me realize I did not need that any more. That realization enabled me to leave my marriage of twenty years.
Dabney: The worst?
Lori: The worst thing to come from writing the book is the constant stream of self promoting that you must do if you want the book to succeed. I am a girl who bought all of her own Girl Scout cookies as a kid, because I did not want to sell them. I am also challenged and late with respect to the technology game. Moving a book requires self promotion using technology. So I am leaning on young people and seasoned veterans to aid me in my journey.
Dabney: How does your family now feel about the book?
Lori: The entire Leachman clan has rallied around the book. They have all been supportive, and for the most part, pleased with the product. If you read the book, you will learn that my older sister Lisa is my nemesis throughout the book. Outside of my mother, she is the only one who could have asked me to edit some things out (e.g. her breast augmentation), and I would have done it. Instead she told me, “It is your story and you have to tell it your way.” Bless her!
In addition, my sons now know their grandfather in a totally different and positive way.
Dabney: How has the sporting world responded to the book?
Lori: Ahhh, the sporting world. So far the reception from the collegiate and professional football world has been muted. Individuals who played for, or coached along side my father, or heard of him through his reputation, have been very supportive. Wives of current and former players are also reading and reacting positively to the book. Folks more broadly interested in sports outside of football have also been positive. For example, I did a reading and discussion for Varsity Letters ( a monthly event for and about sports and sports writing) in Manhattan. The discussion was cogent and informed. A senior editor for Sports Illustrated was there and bought my book.
However, sports writers and venues that cover just football have so far not been interested. I believe this is due to two things: most importantly, the fact that my father’s decline was caused by CTE; secondly, the voice in the book is feminine.
Dabney: What have you learned about the publishing process?
Lori: Everything about publishing is frustrating if you do not already have a brand and platform. There are thousands of new books that make it to print each year. For a publisher this means that they throw out the books like spaghetti on a wall, and see what sticks. Only if you stick will they put resources behind you. The average number of sales for a first time author in the first year of publication is 250 books! The average TOTAL sales for a new book is 1000 copies! Given these numbers, readers must know that the average writer never makes any money on a book.
Furthermore, the best seller lists are not really that. The New York Times list is a curated list which means that the editors pick the books not based strictly on sales. The Denver Post Best Seller List is determined solely by sales in that week from one bookstore, The Tattered Cover, in Denver. Amazon best seller lists mean almost nothing because, depending on your book category, you can be the best seller because there are only eight books in that genre.
I could go on…The actual process of finding an agent is a crap shoot-it is all a numbers game. For example, I sent it over 200 query letters for representation. I got three agents and one acquisitions agent who responded positively.
In short, publishing is not for the faint of heart or mission.
Dabney: What recommendations do you have for first time authors?
Lori: I am a first time creative writer myself. I had no idea when I began how long the odds are of actually making it into print with a dedicated publisher. I now think my ignorance was probably for the best. I could simply focus on the merits of my project and not anticipate the end game. So, my best advice is to know the niche and strength of your story, seek outside feedback on your writing and structural choices from every informed source that you can, read, read, read, and write every day
In addition, build yourself a digital platform. You will have to do this if you actually get a book in print, so just bite the bullet and start. This is something I did not do, and I am playing catch up.
Dabney: What’s next for you? Do you plan to write more books?
Lori: Right now it is all about the book. I have an upcoming tour of western bookstores in October and November. I will be in Phoenix, Sedona, Flagstaff, Denver, San Francisco, and, I hope, a few more spots. I am working on cementing a few events around Christmas and the Super Bowl in early February. I am hoping to partner with the Concussion Legacy Foundation to help families dealing with cognitive decline. I want to have a voice in the space regarding the future of football, reform of the game, and player issues.
As for another book, I have the outlines of two. One is on paper and one is in my head. Since I work best when doing one thing at a time, I am focused on promoting this book. But, I keep a notebook with me at all times and I use it to record a catching turn of phrase, a thought I want to pursue, words that speak volumes, etc. I read through that every couple of weeks to keep me thinking and perking on my next topic.
Dabney: Thanks for talking with me!
Lori: Thanks for having me.
Lori is giving away a copy of her book to one reader. She’s offering a print copy sent anywhere in the US and Canada or a ebook–good anywhere in the world! Just make a comment below to be entered in this drawing.
Lori Leachman is a professor of economics at Duke University. She has been teaching economics at the university level for over thirty-five years. She earned her Ph.D. in economics in 1987, from the University of South Carolina.
At the age of fifty, Dr. Leachman realized that her life was passing and there were a number of things outside of academics that she wanted to pursue. She took a semester off, and enrolled in a painting course at a local university. That course started her on her second path of professional development, as an artist. Since that time, she has exhibited and sold her art work in a number of galleries and public venues in the Durham area. You can view her art at www.lorileachman.net.
Dr. Leachman never had an aspiration to write creatively. However, in 2012 when her father died, she knew she had a story that deserved to be told. She shared that story with a number of writer friends, trying to pique their interest. They all told her that it was her story, and she needed to be the one to write it. Over the course of the next few years, Ms. Leachman let the story gestate. In 2015, while on vacation in France, she began writing vignettes. Within a few months she had an outline of the story. Over the next two years the story presented here emerged.
Lori Leachman lives and teaches in Durham, North Carolina for half of the year. The other half of the year she lives in Sedona, Arizona where she writes and paints, and is close to her two grown sons who live on the West Coast.