I had a chance to “virtually” sit down with a truly amazing human being, Stephanie Yuhas, whose book American Goulash I’ve just reviewed for The New York Journal of Books. I call Stephanie “amazing” for many reasons – and the word doesn’t do her enough justice, really. She is an animator (with a BFA in animation for the University of the Arts, Philadelphia), filmmaker, writer, producer, director, actor, public speaker, arts activist – a true force to be reckoned with. With her husband, filmmaker Matt Conant, she runs Cinevore Studios and is co-founder of Project Twenty1, a non-profit organization through which they run a yearly 21-Day Filmmaking Competition and Philadelphia Film & Animation Festival. She mentions many of her other projects in the interview, and I invite you to explore each and every one, and to take a look at the incredible number of links provided at the end of the interview, for even more information.
DLS: American Goulash is called a ‘coming of age’ memoir, and in some places it is called creative non-fiction. It’s often said the lines between these two genres are blurred. How do you make the distinction?
SY: Memoirs are usually written by people who are older than I am, are celebrities/public figures, or have experienced some sort of life-changing event. When people say, “A memoir by award-winning author, Stephanie Yuhas,” I actually cringe. I’m not important. I’ m not famous. I’m just a goofball who happened to have an unusual childhood. But “comedic poignant ethnic creative non-fiction” is not a category on Amazon, so we had to classify the book as memoir. When I write fiction screenplays, I prefer writing the day-in-the-life stories of regular people who happen to be a little eccentric, so this time, I used my real life experiences as source material. I consider it creative non-fiction because I often focus more on what’s going on in my head as a creative person than try to portray a given day in history. What was the weather like outside on the day Nagymama pulled the door off of the bathroom? I have no idea, I was busy trying to cover my private parts. DLS: Memoir requires that the writer sift through years of memories and experiences in order to choose those which paint a particular picture, which act as a microcosm for the larger experience of the life. Can you talk about the way you went about exploring your memories in order to make those choices? SY: The original “American Goulash” was series of short stories, spanning from childhood to adulthood, written in no particular order and distributed for free online via a blog, almost as a free sample of a book I hope to write someday, if given the opportunity. It was intended to amuse people, make them nostalgic for their own old-world relatives, or to urge them to write down their own cultural family stories. It wasn’t until I signed with Booktrope that my editor, Kathy Harding, suggested I select a few essays and develop them into a focused coming-of-age story. Together, we sat down and charted what events happened that were integral to my decision to leave my family and made it into a brand new outline. A lot of material was cut in an effort to paint a picture of a girl caught between two worlds, forced to escape the only home she knew. It’s not even until now, in this interview, Debra, that I realize how much it mirrors in a much smaller way, my own family’s escape from oppression. You guys should pretend I meant to do that, ok? DLS: What was your goal in painting the larger picture? With what message did you want to leave your reader? SY: My goal was to give an example of how to beat the odds and make your personal dreams come true through hard work and learning from your mistakes. It’s easy to assign blame to people who have hurt you– whether they hurt you intentionally or not – and lose all hope. Many people have had far worse lives than I have; I want to speak to those people. If you can see a light at the end of the tunnel, keep digging until you burst through. The freedom to live your own life – even if it is very different from what your peers or family expects of you – is worth fighting for. I also want to subtly imply the important of arts education. Not everyone is an artist, but many people use some form of the arts as a means to communicate, a way to find their voice, or as an opportunity to work as a part of a team. For me, creativity, comedy, and imagination have been integral to coping with difficult life situations and crippling anxiety. Art has been my medicine. To cut arts and extracurricular funding from our school programs is dangerous to the mental health of our children and our culture as a whole.
DLS: American Goulash began as a blog, is that right? Did you find the process of keeping a blog helpful in creating the larger work? Can you offer some guidance on the process for those who might be interested in using this method?
SY: American Goulash began as a short student animation, Nagymama. The short got its 15 minutes of fame when it was featured on Nicktoons, as well as the front page of YouTube and MySpace, so there was this whole fan-base of people saying, “More! More!” Unfortunately, the animation took me about a year to draw by hand! I received a grant through the Leeway Foundation to get the resources to build a multimedia cultural storytelling blog, write a series of essays, and even do a handful of live performances. I always wanted to write a book, but I did not see the point of spending time on writing one and getting endless rejection letters, especially since I had no connections or experience in the publishing industry. I had just wasted a year of my life working with a company that promised to get one of my television series projects on the air, so I didn’t want to start the process of going into development on something as large as a book only to have it die by the hands of “the powers that be”. What is the purpose of writing if no one sees it? Blogs might not sound glamorous, but they have more reach than people think when marketed and timed correctly. It’s a win-win: if a blog speaks to people, they share it. If it doesn’t speak to people, then at least it was a cathartic writing experience and I can rework it later and try again. Stories have no expiration date, and the message is always more important than the media. If you have a story that isn’t reaching people, try to submit it to a different online media outlet, turn it into a performance, or try it out on guests at a party. Through the grace of Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit, a blog about starting my business in elementary school went viral, which lead to some e-mails and phone calls from some downright sketchy publishing companies. I researched every one of them and got nothing but red flags. One of them was so rude that I transcribed the phone call I had with her and published it to the website. I assumed that writing a piece against a pandering publishing industry would blacklist me for sure, but instead, a good friend of mine shared the piece on social media, and one of his friends worked for BookTrope. They made me an offer, helped me build a team, and published me in December.
DLS: Much of your work is in film, video and animation. Can you talk a bit about how the methodologies of these more visual genres are different from the creative methods required of a writer?
SY: There was a huge learning curve for me, going from screenwriter to author. One of the notes I got from my editor was, “Stephanie! What does everyone look like?” When I write for screen, I often write strong voices with no physical description so the director can choose who (s)he would like to play for the part without my influence. When casting, I often use genderless character names in the initial scripts so the actors can audition for the part they are dying to play, not for some pre-conceived age, race, or gender. Beyond screenwriting, it took a little time to get used to writing in prose again. I was bumped into the honors program at my middle school, everything from that point on focused on analytical reports, debates, and technical writing. Like any language, if you don’t use it, you lose it. It was not until attending arts school that I was allowed to write anything creative (of course, I did it on the side, but it was never graded and I never had any “notes,” which are incredibly valuable.) Even my blogs were more transcriptions that prose, because in my case, the Internet responded better to it.
DLS: People sometimes shy away from writing non-fiction, afraid to hurt people who are still alive, or besmirch those who have passed away. Did you have any such concerns with American Goulash? How did you handle them?
SY: For one thing, I put the book off for several years! I had many, many conversations with several Booktrope editors, fellow authors, friends, and family before I would wrap my head around the idea of writing about real people. No memoir writer can capture a person to their core. All they can do is capture what they meant to THEM. The world wants to label people like comic books – heroes and villains. That’s not how life works. We are all heroes sometimes, villains other times, because we are imperfect. Our actions and words affect each person each day. The unhelpful secretary that was always mean to me is someone’s child who someone loved dearly and who was someone else’s angel. The kids on the bus that burned me with cigarettes might have been children who were abused at home. It all comes from somewhere; and all I can do as a writer is document how that butterfly effect becomes a part of my world. The difference between writing fiction and memoir is that the characters in fiction have backstories that you invent. I have to count on my imperfect perception and interpret that data and how it affected me, and who I am today. I can promise no more than that; and all I can do is hope that people understand and respect my viewpoint. The hardest part, honestly, was talking to family, because they sort of wrote me off. Even when trying to collect family histories, Nagymama and Anyu focused more on what we were going to eat that day than talking about the past. When I finally asked my mother, “Is this painful for you to relive? If it is, I will stop asking,” to which she replied, “No. I just don’t think anybody vould care!” When Nagymama got fan mail from the YouTube feature, she didn’t quite understand where it was coming from, but she seemed happy to have the attention. If I had waited for her to pass before writing the story, like some people advised me to do, she could have missed her own 15 minutes of fame. Once the book came along, I think my mom and the rest of the family either didn’t believe me or weren’t interested. We’re all very different people and I don’t think the old-world part of my family is ever going to really understand what I do because it’s so different from their worlds. They are salt-of-the-earth people, whose major concerns are survival and feeding themselves. As an artist in the USA, I understand that I have a lot of privilege and freedom to express myself. It dawned on me that the best thing I could do for them was paint a portrait, from my perspective, of a transitional life – if for anything, to encourage young people like myself who live in a world of iPhones and Facebook, to sit down and talk to their parents and grandparents, before it’s too late. Every moment, every damned sandwich, is archived today. But what about the stories that happened before Instagram? I wanted to capture them before my memories fade. Nagymama is gone now – she lived 102 years. What is left of her? If she never wrote down her story and no one else will, then I will paint a portrait of my life, with her in it – the poignant moments I remember that lead me here today, for better, for worse. I did the best I could to disguise places and names of people who are still alive, and focus more on my own stories, feelings, etc. I thought, if I’m going to talk about other people, I should tell some of my own most personal, embarrassing stories out of fairness. I would hope people know that in order to tell my own truths and experiences, I need to show how other peoples’ words and actions affected me. This is not a story about “you should’t have done that!” – it’s a story of, “This is what I did because [so-and-so] did that.” In the end, I have no regrets and I place no blame on anyone. I am who I am based on the experiences and lessons I have learned from those around me. I am stronger for the hardships, but I am also happy because of the love and support I’ve found in unusual places along the journey. Ironically, after all of this, I have become very good friends with Mohan, my childhood bully. We’ve had some great conversations about the psychology of our childhood behavior – it’s all kind of funny to the both of us now. He even came to my wedding!
DLS: Do you have any plans to write another book-length work?
SY: Yes. I see American Goulash as a trilogy at least, with transmedia elements such as live performances. I’ve developed a fictionalized version for television as well and I am seeking partners with distribution contacts. Again, the message is more important than the medium, so I am happy to work in whatever way touches the largest number of people. After working for over a decade as a producer, I’ve developed a flexible, shotgun approach to projects because opportunities always tend to arise in the places where I least expect them.
DLS: You worked with Booktrope, which calls itself “team publishing”, to bring out your book. Can you talk to our readers about this process? Why did you decide to work with Booktrope instead of self-publishing, or instead of looking for an agent and going the older, more traditional route with its publication?
SY: Booktrope initially did not take unsolicited requests – you needed to have a recommendation of a published author within the system or Booktrope staff. After Booktrope contacted me, I submitted my manuscript like any author would, and then I got the greenlight, which meant that this whole back-door area of the website opened to me. Team publishing meant that I got to go through all of their staff, or as they like to call “team” members – editors, book managers, proofreaders, illustrators, etc. – and filter them by who was looking to partner with authors within my genre. My team members and I spoke to each other on the phone or Skype (they are a Seattle company and I’m based in Philadelphia). I signed on with BookTrope, then my selected team members within the group, and a “Team Stephanie Yuhas” group was generated. There, we made our own schedules, deadlines, and deliverables and used resources within the community to complete the work. What I really liked about the experience is that BookTrope helped me meet a ton of other creative authors to learn from. What is good for one author on the platform is good for the others. We share tips and tricks, cross-promote our work, submit short stories to each other’s analogies and websites, and dissect the ever-changing book-delivery technologies. Everyone is kind and fun-loving, far from the “ever-man-for-himself” mentality I’ve heard of in other industries. But as a small press, it doesn’t come with billboards and sexy Manhattan rooftop launch parties. This type of publishing is not for the faint of heart – my team has to work around the clock to climb the charts in the same playing field as celebrity authors with multimillion dollar marketing budgets. We can’t sit on our laurels and wait for NPR or the New York Times to call us. We must constantly reach, push, and promote (and not just by tweeting “Buy my book! Buy my book!”” ala Jay Sherman). I’ve self-published DVDs in the past – Nerd vs. Geek through Cinevore Studios and several short film anthologies through my non-profit, Project Twenty1. It’s almost impossible to get any sales or credibility if you aren’t on a label of any kind, and I for one have no desire to become a distribution company. For future titles, yes, I would be interested in getting agented and going through a traditional publishing route – but only if that means I can focus more time on writing instead of having to do so much heavy lifting in the field of marketing. Man, I hate it – I’m actually surprised that I have any friends left! But I also enjoyed the experience of team publishing so much that I’d be open to doing it again. We have so many balls in the air with our new segment Moot on WHYY, original series pitches, and commercial productions that it’s difficult to choose which projects to spend time on. At the end of the day, it all boils down to opportunities, good partners, and demand from my humble, but extremely loyal readers and viewers. I prioritize the project that picks up steam and resources first. Ideas are never an issue!
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
So now, I am sure, you see why I say that Stephanie is a truly amazing person. Here are some links if you would like to explore more of the many things Stephanie does
Author Site: StephanieYuhas.com
Narrative Fiction Projects: Cinevore.com
Commercial Work: CrystallineStudios.com
Facebook Book Page: Facebook.com/AmericanGoulash
Author Page: Facebook.com/StephanieYuhas
Twitter Book Page: Twitter.com/AmericanGoulash
Author Page: Twitter.com/StephanieYuhas
YouTube: American Goulash: Youtube.com/Lotusdove
Other Films by Stephanie Yuhas: YouTube.com/CinevoreFilm