Rita Dragonette is a writer who, after spending nearly thirty years telling the stories of others as an award-winning public relations executive, has returned to her original creative path. The Fourteenth of September, her debut novel, is based upon her personal experiences on campus during the Vietnam War. The novel, which came out from She Writes Press in September 2018, went into a second printing in January 2019. It has been designated a winner for Women’s Fiction in the 2018 Beverly Hills Book Awards, a finalist for two American Fiction Awards by American Book Fest, a finalist for two National Indie Excellence Awards, and has received an honorable mention in the Hollywood Book Festival. She is currently at work on three other books: an homage to The Sun Also Rises about expats chasing their last dream in San Miguel de Allende, a World War II novel based upon her interest in the impact of war on and through women, and a memoir in essays. She lives and writes in Chicago, where she also hosts literary salons to showcase authors and their new books to avid readers.
The Fourteenth of September: A Novelby Rita DragonettePublish: Sep 18, 2018Historical Fiction
Writing was always my avocation, but I knew it would never represent a career that would allow me to support myself. Instead, I entered the field of public relations, which was one of the options for an English major who didn’t want to teach. Though PR is ostensibly a writing “career,” I quickly moved into the strategic/creative area and then onto management, so there was little actual writing involved. And yet, there was always the absolute conviction that at some point—in actual retirement or earlier—I would return to my own writing. Finally, after about twenty-seven years in global agencies and my own, I sold my company and decided it was time. I did end up simultaneously starting a consulting business, which I thought would be manageable, but that also grew rapidly, and therefore my personal writing career was further delayed. Finally, about two years ago, when my manuscript was accepted for publication, I folded my last business and became a full-time writer.How has your family inspired and supported your dream to write?
I don’t come from a creative family, but the women in my family were all voracious readers. My mother always had a book with her, took us to the library and engendered reading “habits,” i.e., always take a book to a doctor’s appointment or anywhere where you have to wait. One of the best things about childhood was being sick and able to dive into the stack of five books (the library limit) that she’d picked out for me to read while convalescing. Recently, I was very touched when my brother and sister-in-law held a book signing for me at their home in Texas when I published The Fourteenth of September. I think they were more excited than I was.How has being an award-winning public relations executive helped you shape into a writer?
Plotting the narrative arc of a novel is, essentially, a strategic process so the analytic part of novel structure has always made a great deal of sense. In the main, however, marketing is a huge part of a writing career, and, though many writers find it painful, because of my PR background I’ve always relished it. I don’t think it’s “a necessary evil” to have to promote. I completely understand that it’s as important to get your story out to those who will enjoy it as it is to write it in the first place.How did you come up with the idea for The Fourteenth of September, your debut novel?
I had personal experience on campus during the late l969–1970 time frame of the novel and knew it was an important, yet often ignored and misunderstood, topic area ripe with story potential. I also knew that it had virtually never been “told” from a female POV, yet the women’s experience was every bit as significant as those of the men of the time. I put all this together into a story that poses a female dilemma that is as fraught as that of any male lottery draftee. The fourteenth of September is the #1 birthdate in the first lottery. I gave that birthday to my female protagonist to show that with a flip of a chromosome any of us could have been “in it” and off to Vietnam at a time when it was considered a death sentence. The experience of women in war may not until very recently been one of combat, but throughout time it’s always been one of impact. They have very exciting, important, and viable stories. This was one I just had to tell.Becoming an author after working in the public relations industry doesn’t sound that much of a struggle, or was it?
Ha! The global public relations business is very tough, it’s true, but so is breaking into ANY new field, particularly later in the game. Though the process is not mysterious, you still need to start from scratch learning a new craft, credentialing yourself, networking, understanding the soft as well as the hard rules of the road. I think the advantage I’ve had is that I knew it was a tall hill to climb. However, I’ve been constantly surprised, both by how much is transferable that I didn’t think would be, as well as how little of what I assumed would be a slam-dunk turned out to be easy. Entering a new profession of any kind is a difficult, humbling experience.Did you expect your first novel to be a designated a winner for Women’s Fiction in the 2018 Beverly Hills Book Awards?
What is it they say about accolades? You always hope but never expect. I do feel that awards are extremely important, particularly for a debut novelist. They help to credential you as a worthy and serious artist apart from the pack. I was absolutely delighted to win this award. I’m very proud of it.What were your school years like? Given that you write extensively on historical fiction and history, was history also your favorite subject back then?
History presents us with irresistible stories, and, in fact, my minor in college was history. In my younger years, I absolutely loved historical fiction. I would sweep through eras—ancient Egypt, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, Tudor England, any war. As I got older, I became more interested in contemporary fiction. It actually took me a while to realize that—as we celebrate the fiftieth anniversaries of the events in the book—it actually IS historical fiction. Having lived through the times, it felt like yesterday. I personally think the trajectory of my generation has taken us through so many challenges and eras that living history now has my attention.Who inspired the character of Judy Talton? How much do you relate to Judy as a woman?
I was originally going to have three female narrators tell the story of The Fourteenth of September, but it became clear that it was a complicated narrative in a complicated historical time, and I needed a single lens for the reader to experience it properly. Of course, Judy is largely based on my personal experiences, so I certainly relate as closely as you can to a character. Judy resembles me, but isn’t me. I was able to make her more thoughtful, more brave, more of the way I wished I’d behaved, I suppose. I tried to make her an everywoman that anyone of the time could understand, with a relatable personal journey so that you would wonder what you would do, step by step, were you in her shoes, facing her choices and her dilemma.The Fourteenth of September is set on a Midwest college campus in 1969. How much did you research to write this book?
I actually modeled the fictional Central Illinois University against my own alma mater. I wanted a big school, with kids from all over, who were low to middle class and without options. To get into college was a huge deal, and it was an opportunity too valuable to be cavalier with—the outcome would determine the rest of your life. I used the landmarks I knew and altered a few, adding some things. The actual research was primarily about dates. I was surprised, for example, to realize that the first Draft Lottery was the day we returned from Thanksgiving vacation—how cruel, really, if you think about it. I had to compress a great deal of activity, including Judy’s entire radicalization, into just a few months. It was a huge writing challenge. Finally, I had to change the arc of a major character that I wanted to end up in Vietnam. I just couldn’t, within an accurate historical time frame, get him there before the story ended. So, I had to adjust, and a major event now happens during basic training.What do you enjoy most about being an author? Are there any downsides?
I’ve always worked very hard. It’s something that was just bred into me (and that I hope I can learn to let up on a bit in the future), but I’d always been putting that effort against someone else’s objective. I must admit that it is a different mindset to know that it’s for yourself. That part of it is wonderful, and also to be able to work on your own stuff—at whatever rate and in whatever order you choose—is great. In that respect, it’s like being in your own personal candy store. Are there downsides? Of course. Writing, as we know, is an isolating profession. You have to do it alone. And, you can come to feel, for example, if you’ve had nose to computer keys for a week that a long weekend of the same can kick the pizzazz out of your enthusiasm. You have to work carefully, I’ve found, to ensure a balance. Because even if you love it, writing is still work. You have to give yourself play and interaction with the rest of the world. I’m a very social person, which benefitted me greatly in the PR world. When I’m writing and it’s going well, it’s thrilling. When it isn’t you can easily feel sorry for yourself and wonder why you are putting yourself through this very difficult task. After all, no one is forcing you to do it.How often do you write in a week? Do you try to write a certain goal number of words or chapters a day or do you just go with the flow?
Oh, how I’d love to say that I work three hours a day upon rising before dawn. Unfortunately, though I’ve been at this for a number of years, it’s a challenge for me to have a predictable schedule, and it’s always a struggle to get butt-in-chair-time. I find for example, now that I’m working on a second novel, that the marketing of the first still takes precedence. Why? Deadlines. I worked to deadline for my entire career, and it’s a challenge to be in free fall. The writing life, for me, is still a series of tricks and rewards I play on myself to stay motivated. I haven’t found the formula yet.What is the sweetest fan-mail that you have ever received?
Oh, how to choose. I get so many by people who’ve known me from my former life who assumed writing a book was just an aspiration, and they’ve read it and are shocked I’m actually a good novelist. Those are always wonderful. I’ll share a message that is still warming my heart from this morning. It’s from my eighth-grade boyfriend, on Instagram, after he saw a video of me from a huge awards event last week. “I’m looking at you walking across the stage. You look great, confident, and I am proud, feel great love for you and amazing respect for what you have done, where you came from and are going. It’s awesome.” People are really wonderful. There is nothing like getting a comment like that, or a great review. You know you connected. You can’t believe what a difference it makes.There are a lot of authors out there now, so how do you keep your books and your writing unique so that they stand out from the rest?
I actually can’t think about that. I have stories that I’m compelled to tell that involve characters and “worlds” I’ve created that I’ve been interested in spending years with. I’ve certainly been influenced by the work of other artists, but imitation doesn’t occur to me. I am interested in reading books that challenge and blow me away, and that’s how I’d like others to feel about my writing. There is so much room for originality—in character, story, dialogue, you name it. If you’re true to your subject, you’ll be singular and therefore uniquely interesting. I don’t want to read what I’ve read before, and I trust other readers feel the same.What are you currently working on?
I was single-focused for thirteen years on my last book and I don’t want to do that again, so I’m currently working on two. My second novel is an homage to The Sun Also Rises. It’s about older expats who have come to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, with their last dreams. I’m also working on a memoir in essays.Before AllAuthor, what other websites did you use for featuring and promoting your books? Has AllAuthor been better or worse than some of these sites?
I’ve used a wide range of tactics for promoting my debut novel, including working through publicists, and I also benefit by referrals from authors at the same publisher for those promotional opportunities that are particularly promising.
I feel that AllAuthor has been extremely comprehensive and consistent in offering options that make sense in building a sustainable groundswell of interest in my novel. I’m impressed.
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