The Write Stuff

Several Delaware authors have achieved success in the literary world thanks to their talent and plenty of perseverance

It’s publication day for Wilmington author David Teague’s new children’s book, The Red Hat, and rather than popping champagne he’s spending this dreary December morning working and running a few errands.

Though it’s not a 90,000-word novel, the slim picture book represents nearly five years of Teague’s life—five years of working with his agent, his illustrator, and, especially, his editor, as he attempted to hit the required word count.

“I was on the phone with this dude every day to get 400 words down to 350,” Teague says of his editor.

Consider that trimming that much from his original manuscript is equivalent to a novelist cutting thousands of words —and that it took five years to get it right—and you have a glimpse into the challenge of perfecting a book it takes 10 minutes to read to your child at bedtime.

It’s one of those tasks that many aspiring authors don’t consider when dreaming of a writing career, but gut-wrenching edits—and all the hard work it takes to get to a completed manuscript—are the realities of the writing life.

And then, once the manuscript is completed, the real challenge begins: finding a publisher. Sure, an amateur writer can get his or her work into paper or electronic print thanks to a booming self- and indie-publishing landscape, but landing a contract from a traditional publishing house—typically New York-based and offering a paid advance and royalties on future earnings—seems to be more and more difficult for new writers.

Despite these challenges, Teague and several other Delaware authors have achieved a level of commercial success. Indeed, while Delaware might be small in square mileage, it seems to be big on literary talent. And the ways in which these writers came to realize their dreams are as varied as the writers themselves.

A Childhood Ambition

Rachel Simon

For some, the process of becoming a writer begins in childhood. Wilmington’s Rachel Simon, author of the bestselling memoir Riding the Bus with My Sister, remembers telling people as far back as the age of 7 that she planned to be a writer when she grew up. From that moment on, every step she took led her along that career path.

Unlike many authors, however, Simon didn’t hold fast to a single genre. Her debut work was an anthology, Little Nightmares, Little Dreams. It received wide critical acclaim but disappointing sales. Her second book and first novel, The Magic Touch, was a magical realism written as a fictional biography.

Her third book, an examination of the psychological impact of being a writer, took a sharp turn away from the literary fiction that got her started.

But she still hadn’t achieved that big breakthrough she’d hope for. Surprisingly, at that point she had no intention of writing about her sister, Beth, who has an intellectual disability and spent her days riding public transportation. It was only on the suggestion of her editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer, for whom she wrote Commentary page essays, that she tackled the subject at all.

The breakthrough came when she was introduced through a writer friend to former New York agent Anne Dubuisson, who encouraged her to write the book that would become Riding the Bus.

Abandoning the “Serious Novel”

David Teague

For Teague, his earliest attempts at writing began in his 20s. But his literary sights weren’t set on children’s books or middle grade fiction.

“I grew up in Arkansas and read lots of William Faulkner and thought, ‘I’ve got to write some giant serious novel about man’s inhumanity to man.’ I was clearly taking myself way too seriously—writing some big novel about race and justice and so on.”

Teague cranked out 49 manuscripts with no success. It wasn’t until he had children of his own and began telling them bedtime stories that he was able to relax and speak in his own voice. “It occurred to me that these [stories] were a lot better,” he says.

And so began his drift away from the “giant serious novel” to middle-grade fiction and children’s picture books. It’s a change that’s served him well; he has co-authored two middle-grade novels with his wife, author Marisa de los Santos, written two children’s picture books, including The Red Hat (Disney-Hyperion), and authored his first solo work of middle-grade fiction, Henry Cicada’s Extraordinary Elktonium Escapade (HarperCollins, 2015).

Hockessin writer Sharon Roat’s journey to successful author of the young adult novel Between the Notes (HarperTeen, 2015) began when she sought a professional change, shifting from the public relations business to young adult fiction.

“I think what appeals broadly in young adult literature is you can relate to the characters,” she says. “We’ve all been teens, even if this teen is set in a fantastical or dystopian world. YA is written in a very immediate, relatable way.”

She began her transition by immersing herself in the YA segment, reading books that spanned nearly every genre within it.

She found it relatively easy to channel her inner teen. “I think we all remember what it’s like to be a teen—at least I do. So I didn’t find that it was that difficult to write from that perspective. You have to write in a way that feels current without being dated in a couple of years. And it helps when you have an editor who says this reference or that might feel dated.”

Maggie Thrash

Also taking teen angst as the theme of her first published work is Newark writer Maggie Thrash, author of the illustrated memoir Honor Girl (Candlewick, 2015). Already favorably written up in the New York Times Book Review, Honor Girl tells an autobiographical story about a teen girl’s summer at Christian camp, during which she falls in love with a female counselor.

“I knew that this event this summer is the crux of so much of my life and I knew I needed to tell this and get it out of my system before I could do anything else,” she says. “I was barely even out to most of the people in my life and my family, and this was just clogging up the works of my heart. So now I can write fiction, which has always been my main goal.”

For Wilmington suspense and thriller author J. Gregory Smith, jumping into the deep end of the pool as a novice author was the first step to the publication of his debut novel Final Price (Thomas & Mercer, 2010).

“I’d always wanted to be a writer, and lots of people say they’ve got a good book in them but they never get around to writing it,” he says. “So finally I said, ‘OK, if you want to be a writer, then write a book.’ And I did and it was not good. But I did get to the end of a full manuscript and that told me, ‘OK, you can do this. Now let’s try and do it better.’”

J. Gregory Smith-cmyk
J. Gregory Smith

Also a veteran of the public relations business, Smith found himself working as a car salesman during a lull in his PR career. But despite a love for cars, he found that he had far less love for the idea of selling them. “So after one really frustrating day, I came up with the idea of a serial-killing car salesman,” he says.

The completion of the novel happened to coincide with Amazon’s big push in 2010 to create its own publishing imprint for mysteries and thrillers, Thomas & Mercer. Final Price was one of its early acquisitions, and Thomas & Mercer has since published three subsequent Smith works.

A Foot in the Door

As mentioned, finding a publisher is in most cases an arduous task. Authors hand manuscripts off to beta readers or otherwise workshop them into better shape. Query letters are carefully crafted, then snail-mailed or emailed to agents and publishers in an attempt to get someone—anyone—to take note of a fresh literary offering.

Unlike many aspiring authors, Teague had one major advantage: he happened to be married to one. His wife, Marisa de los Santos, is an established name in literary fiction, thus giving Teague entre into the publishing world.

Just being able to talk to agents and other publishing industry types without navigating the gauntlet of the slush pile (the stack of unsolicited manuscripts sent to agents or publishers) is a huge help, and Teague appreciates his good luck in that regard. It was those early connections that allowed him to co-author two middle-grade novels with his wife, further laying the foundation for successful publication of Henry Cicada.

The novel comes out this month, but it had a difficult birth. The initial pitch 10 years ago led to a “maybe later” from his agent, followed by the question, “How about a picture book in the meantime?” That picture book ended up being The Red Hat.

For most other authors, having a friend or family member in the publishing business is about as probable as hitting the Powerball. Getting their feet in the door came from plenty of legwork chasing down potential agents and publishers, then putting in the hours to contact them and present their best work.

Rachel Simon’s long career is in part attributable to her doggedness in pursuing publishing professionals combined with good luck and the wisdom to take advantage of it. During her first big break—winning the short story competition that came with a free trip to the Writers at Work conference in Park City, Utah—she easily could have squandered the opportunity. Instead, she showed up at the conference with a polished version of her short story anthology for interested agents and editors to review.

Later, when she was at an artistic crossroads, she took the opportunity to meet with former agent Anne Dubuisson and vent about the difficulties of dealing with the publishing industry.

“Every single thing I would tell her that was discouraging, particularly the inexplicable ones, she would say, ‘Oh, I know why that happened,’” Simon says. “And she would decode for me unspoken rules in publishing that I had violated inadvertently, along with all of these things that I didn’t know, because as the lone-wolf author, you don’t really know the protocol. So it’s very easy to get in your own way.”

As their conversation wrapped up, Dubuisson suggested that Simon’s agent had lost faith in her and that she should find a new one, and Dubuisson offered to help Simon write a query letter for a new agent.

“And I said, ‘With what?’” Simon says. “And she said, ‘Well, you wrote an article that was out in today’s paper. That’s a very commercial idea. Trust me.’”

That Commentary article, assigned to Simon by her editor at the Inquirer, was about spending a day riding the bus with her developmentally disabled sister, and was the seed that grew into Riding the Bus with My Sister.

Had Simon not chosen to follow her new friend’s advice, her career could very well have stalled at book three. Instead, she’s an internationally known author and speaker with adaptations of her work across a variety of media.

Sharon Roat also attests to the power of persistence in getting that foot in the door for her debut novel, Between the Notes.

Sharon Roat

“The query that landed me my agent was my 30th, and I know people who got their agent on their 80th,” she says. “I’m aware that success in writing is 10 percent talent and 90 percent perseverance. It’s very subjective, so part of it is that you have to keep improving your work and part of it is you have to keep trying and showing it to different people.
“You want to find someone who feels as passionate about your work as you do, so making that match is the challenge.”

More Who’ve Made It

The number of successful writers in The First State—both native and imported—seems out of proportion to its small size. Here are a few other first-rate authors with First State connections.

Marisa de los Santos – She is a well-known and highly-regarded author of literary fiction (and the wife of David Teague). The paperback edition of her latest novel, The Precious One, debuted in December.

Charles Todd – The prolific mother-son team of Charles and Caroline Todd has over 10 years produced more than two dozen novels that serve as simultaneous period suspense thrillers and historical novels. The latest is 2015’s A Pattern of Lies.

Lara Zeises – Writing for young adults, with titles such as The Sweet Life of Stella Madison and Bringing Up the Bones, University of Delaware graduate Zeises aims for that spot between teen sweetness (and drama) and adult challenges.

Dianne Salerni – Though she calls Chester County, Pa., her home now, this young adult author is a Delaware girl through and through, with a St. Mark’s High School diploma to prove it. Her latest novel, The Morrigan’s Curse, is due for release this month.

Rockin’ In the Real World

The Wilmington School of Rock builds the next wave of local musicians through the rigors of performance

It’s a Saturday night at JB McGinnes Pub & Grille, nestled in a New Castle strip mall just off Basin Road, and the band is setting up for the evening’s show.

Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that tonight’s performers are a Doors tribute band, promising a good two hours of the Lizard King’s better known hits and lesser known spoken word pieces. That being the case, 30 minutes into the set, a voice that’s the sonic spitting image of late lead singer Jim Morrison blasts from the amplifiers, backed by a tight rhythm section and a deadon rendering of Ray Manzarek’s signature keyboard and organ stylings. Basketball and MMA wrestling silently play on the establishment’s flat-screen TVs, but all eyes are on the band as they channel the sounds of the 1960s.

But rather than being a band of Baby Boomers, it turns out that not one of the performers is old enough to be served a beer, several aren’t old enough to drive themselves to the gig, and a couple—if asked—would probably prefer to order off the kids’ menu. They’re all students at Wilmington’s School of Rock, and what the audience is hearing is the sound of them passing an exam with flying colors.

That crowd is heavy on supportive friends and family of the performers, but even the regulars, many of whom likely grew up on The Doors or were marinated in them when they were in heavy rotation on FM radio stations like WMMR or the old WYSP, are also impressed. Indeed, a casual listener would be hard-pressed to distinguish the vocals and guitar riffs of Greg McKinnon or Tyler Dill from Morrison himself.

Tyler Dill, 18, channels Jim Morrison at JB McGinnes. (Photo by Tim Hawk)

Three-quarters of the way through the show, Dill tears through “Twentieth Century Fox” while Eric Svalgard, the School of Rock music director, leans in to the sound board operator. “I’m so happy with this show!” he declares.

Just a day earlier and 125 miles north in New York City, auditions were taking place for another show—this one the Broadway version of the 2003 movie that everyone thinks of when they hear the words “School of Rock”—the one that Paul Green, who created the first School of Rock Music in a Race Street walkup in Philadelphia in 2002, says was inspired by his own school. It’s also the movie that’s the basis for a live-action series set to debut on Nickelodeon, the kid-centric cable network.

All of this might be called a School of Rock Renaissance. But don’t sarcastically ask these kids if their teacher will be Jack Black. This is the real world, man, and they’ve got far too much rockin’ to do.

The name Paul Green looms large in the history of the School of Rock for good reason. It was his manic, single-minded, often over-the-top teaching style as founder and supreme overlord of the Paul Green School of Rock Music (PGSORM) that was the focus of the documentary film Rock School. And, Green insisted at the time, it was his style that formed the basis for the Jack Black character Dewey Finn in the 2003 feature film.

Izzi Sneider, 16, plays the bass during a performance with School of Rock. (Photo by Tim Hawk)
Izzi Sneider, 16, plays the bass during a performance with School of Rock. (Photo by Tim Hawk)

Since its inception, the purpose of the school has been to teach kids musicianship and performance using classic rock as the source material. Throughout the year, rotating groups of students perform theme shows based around a single artist, band, style of music or particular decade—David Bowie, all ’80s, “bad” music (where they reinterpret “bad” songs into new versions), and one show featuring any song with a heavy dose of cowbell percussion.

Green was bought out by an investor in 2009, and the school’s name was changed to simply School of Rock. There followed an explosive expansion beyond the first few schools in the Delaware Valley to places like San Francisco, New York City, Austin, and Utah, and eventually to more than 300 locations in the United States and Mexico.

Despite all the noise about Green, the documentary and the iconic movie, the dude did some fine work. An inordinate number of regional and national acts now feature grown-up players who honed their youthful chops under Green’s tutelage. One of them is Eric Svalgard’s daughter, singer-songwriter Madi Diaz. It was her time at the PGSORM that eventually drew Svalgard, a Berklee College of Music-trained keyboardist, into a role not just as rock parent, but as rock mentor.

When Svalgard saw his daughter perform in her first School of Rock show—featuring the paragons of punk rock—he realized what Green was creating.

“When I saw all these 14- and 15-year-old kids doing the Ramones and the Sex Pistols, I just fell in love with the idea [of the school],” he says. “And at that time, 2001, there was nothing like it. No one was doing anything like that.”

His father had recently passed away, and Svalgard was in the midst of a life reevaluation, wondering what he would end up doing for the next 20 years. At the time, he was earning six figures a year selling woodwork in New York for a Coatesville company. Then the school’s keyboard instructor abruptly resigned, and Svalgard’s love for Green’s mission led to a volunteer teaching gig at the school one day a week. That day became two, then eventually grew into an official $12-an-hour part-time job.

“I found Rock School. So I started weaning myself from my high-paying job and started working there three days a week,” he says. “And then [Green] sold his first franchise to one of the students’ parents, and that was Downingtown.”

Eric Svalgard (back row) and some of his students. Unlike traditional bands, School of Rock students have to learn how to play with everyone. (Photo by Tim Hawk)
Eric Svalgard (back row) and some of his students. Unlike traditional bands, School of Rock students have to learn how to play with everyone. (Photo by Tim Hawk)

Svalgard would go on to serve as music director at the Downingtown location, eventually moving on to open the Wilmington school after being invited to play keyboards with a Frank Zappa tribute band Project Object. That gig not only helped him further refine his keyboard skills, but also reinforced his commitment to keeping things true to the rock spirit. That led him to striking out on his own by opening a new branch of the School of Rock at Wilmington’s Grand Opera House.

“The opportunity to be at the Grand was unique and awesome, and I loved being there—just being surrounded by the opera at the time, an experimental theater group and the First State Ballet,” he says. “I recognized that there were going to be roadblocks. Rock is not ballet. Rock is not classical music. And although many classical musicians understand rock, they still don’t want to have to hear it in the background. And so it was a difficult marriage for us.”

In 2009, the Wilmington School of Rock relocated out of the city to Prices Corner, where it makes its home in an unassuming office park adjacent to Wal-Mart. “Moving was the best thing to ever happen to the business,” Svalgard says.

Inside, the space couldn’t be more different from that of the Grand Opera House. Rather than being surrounded by classic opera house architecture, students instead work among posters of rock gods and goddesses, with the walls of one room in the midst of being covered with vinyl LPs.

It’s here that the students at the School of Rock have found their home away from home, a place that has taken nascent—or perhaps totally undiscovered—musical skill and turned it to the cause of rock.

The core members of the band Zymology are a perfect example. Twins Bill and Josh Sweren (bass and drums, respectively) and guitarist Brendan Moriak are all School of Rock students who credit Svalgard and his wife, owner and General Manager Carol Forsyth, with opening their eyes to the foundations of rock while significantly boosting their musical skills.

“I had been playing violin, so I’d already been in music and I wanted to play guitar, and my cousin’s friend in Virginia was talking about School of Rock, and I remember I was so confused,” Moriak says. “I was like, ‘You’re in a band? Who’s your lead singer?’ And he said, ‘Well, it changes.’”

That constantly rotating team of musicians and vocalists is part of what makes the School of Rock curriculum special, because rather than settling in with three or four players as in a traditional band, students have to learn how to play with everyone. It results not just in bands like Zymology being formed outside the school, but in the perpetuation of music in kids’ lives long after they might have given it up.

“If School of Rock wasn’t here, I probably would have just dropped violin and given up music in general,” Moriak says. “I may have continued drums, because I did drums in the eighth grade, but the whole guitar thing and recording music wouldn’t have been there.”
His bandmates agree, pointing out that for many, pursuit of a classical instrument is often considered an end unto itself by parents and music instructors. Even with those who take up guitar—the cornerstone rock instrument—there’s little emphasis on learning how to play in a band.

“[Guitar instructor] Chris [Gordon] and Eric both have a lot of experience, which can help with the performance side,” says Bill Sweren.

Drum student Maddie Sneider, who performed in the Doors show, says the School of Rock made all the difference in her continuing with her instrument and improving her performance.

“It’s gotten a lot better,” she says. “I was just taking lessons. I wasn’t doing anything like this. And then I got kind of bored with that because I wanted to play music and rock out and have fun.”

With traditional lessons, little emphasis, too, is put on the mechanics of actually running a band, and it’s another thing that School of Rock students learn. Josh Sweren has stepped up as his band’s manager.

“I’m the only reason we’ve gotten this far,” he deadpans, and in agreeing, Moriak emphasizes that everyone has his or her own role in the group, whether it’s songwriting, management or tech.

“It’s kind of frustrating at this age when they’re trying to do a band,” says Beth Sneider, mom to Maddie, her twin brother Jacob (bass and guitar) and their sister Izzi (bass), all School of Rock students. “Everyone has different schedules, so if you’re missing a singer for an hour practice then nothing gets done. Here, people will fill in. You can still get so much done.”

The school became so important that the Sneider family eventually chose to relocate from Pennsylvania to Wilmington to be closer to it. All of them—parent and kids—know that the school has made a major positive impact on their lives.

“When you play what you want to play, you feel like there are a lot more things you can play, and then you just get lost in it,” Jacob says.