2016 Non-Fiction Book of the Year
"SLEEPING ON CONCRETE is a story of the fragility of the human mind." ★★★★★
- Robert Blake Whitehill, author of the Ben Blackshaw series of thrillers
Hello Ms. Ashkenas! Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
I'm twenty-five years old and live in Fairfax Virginia. Currently I'm a full-time writer. My first children's book, Sammy's Flame, will be released on March 25, 2018 through Acorn Publishing. Releasing a children's book is really important to me because as a toddler I was diagnosed on the autism spectrum, and was placed in special education throughout my entire public-school career. Understanding children's books was a huge milestone for me.
When I was seventeen, during my senior year of high school, I started having delusional beliefs, including a fear that the government was tracking me, that President Obama was personally trying to kill me, and that an army of street signs was trying to kidnap my friends. I began to self-harm (primarily head banging) and was placed in an inpatient adolescent psychiatric unit for my own safety. The following several years included off and on psychosis, and I bounced in and out of psychiatric hospitals. Eventually I attended Northern Virginia Community College and got in trouble with the Secret Service because I was pacing around a room that contained Dr. Jill Biden, who at the time was the Vice-President’s wife. When the Secret Service brought me to the hospital I told them I could kill the president if I chose to, so they brought me to jail. These experiences are the primary focus of my memoir, Sleeping on Concrete: My Life as a Transgendered Schizophrenic, re-releasing through Acorn Publishing in 2018.
What inspired you to become an author?
I’ve always loved writing. When I was eighteen, and I started having psychotic symptoms, I decided to document my experience in a journal. After five years of writing about my mental illness, that journal became Sleeping on Concrete.
What brought about the creation of your memoir, Sleeping on Concrete?
Ever since I was diagnosed with schizophrenia, I’ve been reading accounts of mental illness. I noticed there was a void in the market. Many family members had written excellent accounts of their loved one’s illness. But memoirs written by ill people themselves often suffered due to the disjointedness of their thoughts. I felt I’d recovered to a point where I could give an inside perspective of psychosis in a way that was organized and was easy to read, which unfortunately is a rarity in today’s market.
Did you take any liberties with the characters in your memoir or are they all real people you know?
The story is a work of non-fiction. The only thing I made up is some of the dialogue, which I always tried to make close to what the characters actually said. Every character is a real person, although I changed their names for privacy concerns. I am my own protagonist.
What are your responsibilities as a writer?
As a memoirist, my job is to tell the truth in a way that is entertaining and meaningful. My life has its own natural narrative arc. The most important thing to me was to make the story read like a novel, but with a story that happens to be true.
How do you stay motivated and inspired?
Writing is what I love to do. It’s easy to stay motivated, because I truly enjoy my craft. My policy is to try to get at least a little bit of work done each day. It could be writing a new scene, editing an old scene or doing research for a scene I’m about to write. If I miss a day, it’s no big deal. Over time I’ll have a piece of writing I’m proud of.
Is there a writing book you would recommend?
I’m a big fan of Getting Your Book Published for Dummies. It gives a good guide throughout the whole process of writing as well as seeing your book to print.
What were the biggest learning experience(s) or surprise(s) throughout the publishing/writing process?
When you write a memoir you always learn a lot about yourself, because the protagonist you’re developing is you. That was a big learning experience. I learned how I deal with the problems I’ve faced, which made it all the more important to me to publish my story.
As far as surprises, I was hugely surprised at how hard it is to break into the publishing industry. I had countless agents tell me the book was amazing but they could never sell it. All in all, I was rejected by about a hundred different agents. Eventually I decided to go without an agent.
How did you get started in writing? From little short stories to novels or was it the other way around?
Sleeping on Concrete is my first book. Other than the occasional article here and there, I had never written anything else of note. It started just as a coping skill. I wanted to document my experience with psychosis. But after witnessing what the mentally ill suffer through in our criminal justice system, I felt like my story needed to be told.
What type of authors influenced your writing?
The most important thing you need to do if you want to have a career as a writer is to read as much as you can. And there are two kinds of books that are the most important to read. The first is the classics. My favorite author is Dickens, and reading his work has really helped me find my voice as a writer.
The second kind of books you need to read are things similar to what you want to write. For me that meant mental illness memoirs. By reading those I was able to find out where my project fit into the market place.
The single author that’s influenced my writing the most is Ralph Ellison. Invisible Man made me realize that the mentally ill in America, as a community, are ourselves invisible. Because of deinstitutionalization, there simply aren’t enough hospital beds anymore. So we often become either homeless or stuck in jail.
What made you decide to publish your work with Acorn Publishing?
After several years of trying and failing to get an agent, I decided to self-publish the book through CreateSpace. It’s a somewhat risky venture, because self-published books rarely do well, and if they don’t do well it makes future agents and publishers you may submit to think of you as a failure. But I was lucky. For me, self-publishing is what helped me get the story out there and develop a writing platform. After self-publishing my project got picked up by Acorn, and I’m extremely excited to soon be putting out a new edition with them as the publisher. And I’m in good company. To put it simply, Acorn publishes good books. And I love how they don’t limit themselves to only one genre. It makes for a wide array of great reads.
What advice would you give to young writers?
READ! Read as much as you can. Also, keep a journal. And when you start on a project you hope to publish, make sure you know everything about your characters, be they fictional or real. Make your readers care about what happens to them. Great plots make for a good read through, but great characters are what’s going to make people want to read your story over and over again, because it’ll be like visiting old friends. I still reread the Harry Potter series every year because I love the characters so much.