An interview with Anna-Marie O'Brien
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Today’s interview is with Anna-Marie O’Brien.
First, some key facts about Anna-Marie:
🌏 From Phoenix, Arizona (USA)
💬 “I finally felt capable of being a writer in my early 30’s. It took me another ten years to get started.”
🖊 Right in the middle of the planner-pantser spectrum
📖 Has a published memoir, Adventures of a Metalhead Librarian (Amazon link)
😮 Wrote the book ‘in real-time’ on Instagram
Let’s dive in!
Hi there! Firstly, what do you like to be called?
Hey Jas! My full name is a doozy: Anna-Marie O’Brien, and most people call me Anna-Marie if they can remember it, and people who know me well just call me AMO. I’m good with either.
I love your name, I’ve not come across it before! Where in the world do you currently reside, Anna-Marie?
I live in the suburbs of beautiful Phoenix, Arizona, USA.
Which subjects were your favourite ones as a child/teenager? Did you enjoy writing back then?
I was an early and avid reader - everything from Laura Ingalls Wilder to Judy Blume to Stephen King to Jackie Collins. I also loved all kinds of history, medieval history, Hollywood and old movie stars, and unexplained mysteries - UFO’s, Bigfoot, that kind of stuff. I always wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t know “how” to be a writer. Nobody really pushed a creative lifestyle because we were always in survival mode, financially.
And when did you first realise that you really enjoyed writing stories?
As a young teen, I often wrote long, colorful stories in note form to pass to my friends between classes, usually involving some famous rock star or actor. But when my 8th grade teacher started encouraging me formally, in class, is when I really started enjoying it. I wasn’t a good student at all - (for many reasons - you’ll have to read my memoir!) - so getting that early encouragement from a teacher was wonderful.
What was the earliest thing you wrote which felt meaningful, or has otherwise been memorable for you? Can you tell us a little about it?
In addition to writing lurid notes and the few things my 8th grade teacher helped me publish in the school periodical, it wasn’t until I was all the way through college and graduate school, after writing dozens of papers, that I felt my writing, cumulatively, meant something. After struggling through high school, and buckling down as an adult to get my formal education, I finally felt capable of being a writer in my early 30’s. It took me another ten years to get started.
That’s interesting. What do you feel ‘clicked’ for you to finally feel capable of being a writer? And, why did it take another ten years for you to “get started”?
Well, after my Master’s degree, I began my career as a librarian, and soon I was on a management path that had me working 50-60 hours a week, and then in the middle of that, I had two babies just a little over two years apart. So basically, I was busy with life, busy with a job, and busy with two babies in diapers - and then I burned out and hit a wall of exhaustion. When my daughter was three and my son was a year old, I quit my management job and started working part-time. It took me a year or so to unclench and relax and enjoy the breathing room. I started having deep, vivid dreams again. Being a writer had always called to me. What clicked was that I finally felt like I had something to say, a worthwhile story to tell and a little time every week to finally get it on the page.
Why did you choose to go down the self-published (‘indie’) route?
I actually had to come to a place of acceptance with it. I don’t think I’m unique amongst writers to have grand visions of a big agent/big publisher/big paycheck - but as this particular book progressed and I started jumping through all of the hoops to query agents - well, at some point I couldn’t hack it anymore. It made me feel dirty, desperate and a little sick. The thought of the process taking YEARS to get published was just depressing to me. I felt such relief - yes, relief! - when I started looking at all of the positives of self-publishing. I had to get my ego and fantasy out of the way, and then it all made wonderful sense.
I can TOTALLY get that. I can only imagine the relief you must have felt!
It was a huge weight off my shoulders, and off my mind, for sure.
So, what was the first book you wrote?
It’s the one I just published, ‘Adventures of a Metalhead Librarian’.
Oh, I love the title! What was the inspiration behind it?
It’s a memoir, so the inspiration was a real-life adventure I had when I was 18 years old and I moved to the big city and ended up working in the music business. Some really amazing things happened, and it took me years to come to terms with it all, to put it into context. This book helped me do it.
Can you talk to us about your experience writing this first book? What was your rough process from start-to-finish?
The process involved years and years, decades, even, of thinking about it. When I first started writing it, it was a mess. A jumbled collection of tidbits of memory, piles of complaining and wondering, mountains of pointless detail and no narrative. Post-it notes and old journals and scraps of my heart. Feeling desperate in 2014 after two years of floundering, I found a writing coach who coached intuitive empaths, like myself. Then, using some of her suggestions, I wrote and wrote and wrote. As I made progress, I studied story structure, storytelling, scenes, transitions, dialog, themes - and I started applying some of those techniques to my story. I also studied editing, both structural and stylistic, and I rearranged chapters as I tied the backstory to the main action. I edited, and then I edited some more. Eventually, I hired a proof-reader/editor to make sure things were tight and tidy. I sent the last draft out to a bunch of people who are in the book to get their blessings, and then I hired a formatter, and then a graphic designer for the book cover design. And after all that I took a deep breath and I hit publish. It took me five full years. (As an aside, I had a major health crisis while writing the book, so that slowed me down a bit, but it also gave me a bit of time off work. Instead of wallowing and being miserable and sick, I worked on my book and tried to make the most of an awful situation.)
You mention ‘intuitive empaths’ - I’m one of those, too! For those reading this who might not be aware of what one of those is, can you talk to us about what one of those is?
Sure. It’s a term that I’m only recently becoming comfortable with, and I tend not to want to label myself like this, but I’ve always been aware I was a bit “different”, even as a little kid. I’ve always been fascinated by the woo-woo subject - astrology, tarot, unexplained phenomena - all things I studied out of curiosity, which made me more open and aware that I have a strong antennae and that I can “receive” information in my brain. Sometimes I just “know” things. I can tune into people’s energy and feel things deeply, I have moments of astounding deja vu, and I sometimes the dreams I have at night come true in the near future. I tend to “see” things before they happen, or to know the outcome before most people. I tend to get strong feelings about people or situations. I think most children have these capabilities and outgrow them, but I feel like my abilities are growing stronger the older I get.
You also mentioned your writing coach. In what ways did he/she help you, specifically? And why was it particularly helpful that he/she coaches ‘intuitive empaths?
I tend to be a loner, and I don’t enjoy big crowds of people, and the thought of driving all over town trying to find a writing group full of strangers sounded like pure hell to me. PURE HELL. I wanted feedback and someone to talk to about the writing and creative process. I didn’t want to bog down my own writing having to reciprocate for another writer in a group - I had to be selfish to stay focused. So, when I found a coach - Lauren Sapala - who worked with INFJ’s and other HSP, it was a real revelation. There was no “program” or deadlines or worksheets to do - just one person to talk to every few months about my project. It was such a relief to me. She isn’t a therapist, but much of it was similar to “talk therapy” and was invaluable to me. She speaks my energetic language, and she understood how it feels to be wired like this, how I receive information in my brain. She is one of my closest confidants. Having one sympathetic ear from another writer was exactly what I needed to soldier through this book, and the emotional support from her was a complete game changer.
Do you tend to be more of a ‘planner’ or a ‘pantser’?
I tend to be right in the middle. I always do a little plotting and planning at first - just to get my brain onto paper. I think of it as a map. I am super ADD at times, and I get distracted easily - so having a map to refer back to is very helpful for me. A reminder of where I am, or what I was thinking, especially as I get started. I also think there is some energetic value to writing things down by hand - setting your intention, activating the thoughts in your brain. There is a certain magic to it.Then, after plotting a bit, I find I can “pants it” comfortably. I can let loose with the piece I’m writing because I know it has a purpose. With this particular book I planned and plotted and then didn’t look at it again for three years. When I went back and looked, I was surprised - I cleaved pretty close to my original map, without being truly conscious of it.
I love the idea of having a ‘map’. I feel like I could probably do with one of those for my own writing… and, YES, I totally hear you when it comes to the magic of old-school pen-to-paper writing. There is something about that, isn’t there?
Yes, for sure! Manifesting your dreams requires intention and focus, and writing those things down is the first step toward a favorable outcome. Having a map helps focus those intentions. It’s a map to the next horizon, in case you get lost or distracted.
Do you have a preference for writing for any particular genres(s), or about any particular topics or themes (however broad or narrow)?
I’ve rather enjoyed writing memoir, and I may do a few more. There are a few non-fiction topics I’d love to write about - motherhood, the writing life, music, marriage - and I have one big fiction project knocking around my head that I will need to write eventually. It’s a big one that’s been bugging me for years, but I have no idea how to write fiction. Which is great, because I’m always up for learning new things.
That sounds exciting… I’ll watch that space! :) When/where do you tend to get your best writing done?
I don’t have my own private office, and my writing desk is between the kitchen and living room in an open-plan house, so my best work gets done when I’m alone, in the mornings before the family gets up. But really, anytime I can carve out a few hours and be alone in my house is good for me to get some writing done. Otherwise, I’m in the middle of the chaos and sharing a computer with kids.
How do you balance your writing with other life commitments?
I wrote my book while I was working part-time, and I went back to a full-time schedule about a year ago, and I’ll admit I am doing poorly at balancing it all right now. I work full-time 45+ hours a week outside the house, plus I have two kids, a husband, house, dog. I haven’t settled in to my next project, so I’m not panicking yet. I’ll report back from the front lines as I dig in. Wish me luck.
Wow, you sound like you have a lot going on. I hope you settle smoothly into that next project of yours.
Yes, me too! Thank you.
Speaking of lots going on what is your ‘day job’ / how do you support yourself financially alongside your writing?
My day job is working as a Youth Librarian for a public library here in the Phoenix area. It’s a good steady job in a nice community, and gives me plenty of material for my next book. I have seen a lot here, and I think people will be surprised when I write about it.
That sounds fascinating. And it’s nice that it helps give you things to write about, too. How do you market your books?
I’ve been doing all the usual stuff. Ads, author appearances, connecting with people on my social networks. I don’t have a master plan. I do what I can, when I can afford to, and as my time allows. I’m trying not to stress myself out about it, and I’m trying not to be annoying.
Oh, what sorts of appearances have you done? For those who might not know how to ‘get into’ that kinda stuff, how was it that these appearances came about?
So far, I’ve done an appearance on a podcast with someone who found me on Twitter, and I’ve appeared at a local book festival hosted by the city I work in to sell and sign books. I also had an author event here at the library I work at. Some of it has been organic, and some of it has been me, looking for opportunities. I don’t think new authors have to kill themselves with marketing, but doing a little something every day towards marketing can push the energy in the direction you want it to go. Opportunities will appear if you do the work.
What one thing has led to most of your book sales thus far?
I’ve built a nice following on my Instagram and Facebook, and just making sure I take the time to interact and get to know people there has been super great for sales. I wrote the book “in real time” on Instagram - so my first readers/customers were many people who had watched me write it and waited YEARS to read it.
Wow! What was “real time” writing like? Did you feel comfortable writing ‘out in the open’ like that? Did you get this particular idea from somewhere else, or come up with it yourself?
Being open on my Instagram about the writing process, and where I was at, and posting content that was interesting, really, really helped me find my writer’s voice, and my confidence as a writer. It was just me, being me, there was no “idea” behind it. People respond to authenticity and humor. I posted through my health crisis, my writing milestones, my daily life and kids, fun memories, and all of my victories and some of the challenges. It wasn’t a calculated thing at all, very organic. There was no strategy. The support and friendships I’ve found there have been monumental to me as a writer. Truly.
What stories do you like to read yourself? Do you have any favourite genres?
I am a non-fiction reader, mostly. True crime, mystery, biography, history - I love it. Also a ton of writing how-to, creativity, and alternate history. I used to be a huge fiction/romance reader, but not so much anymore.
How about favourite books and authors? (especially self-published authors/indies, but traditional is perfectly fine, too!)
Being in the fog of writing a book, I’m a bit ashamed to say that I haven’t done as much reading for pleasure for a few years. I loved David Wilcock’s The Synchronicity Key. Randy Blythe’s book ‘Dark Days’, about his time in a Czech prison. I adore Lauren Sapala and her books, especially ‘Firefly Magic’ and her writing books about being an intuitive. Elizabeth Gilbert’s ‘Big Magic’ is great for writers. Cheryl Strayed’s ‘Wild’ is what moved me to get serious about writing my book. My favorite old-school romance writer is Kathleen E. Woodiwiss.
Are there any books that you’re currently working on, or planning for the future?
I have so many books planned! So many! Ha Ha. My next book is a memoir about my wayward library career and all the dirt and grit that comes from working as a public librarian. I have the book mapped out. I start writing in the New Year.
Ooh, ‘dirt and grit’ sounds intriguing. I’ll have to keep an eye out for that one! I can also relate to having lots of ideas for books.
Make sure you write those ideas down! They will go into your “idea farm”. Someday you might go looking for an idea and you’ll find those breadcrumbs and it will be like finding gold.
Now aside from your writing, how do you like to spend your time?
I wish I could say I had some really exciting hobbies, but I don’t. I hang with my kids and enjoy family time. I love to cook. I try and get enough sleep. I write. Honestly, I like to keep things simple.
Keeping things simple is right up my street, too. Where can we find you online (website & social media), & where can we purchase your books?
You can find me at annamarieobrien.com for my website, and I’m on Twitter and Facebook. But my main channel is Instagram @metalheadlibrarian. I consider it my main blog, and I post almost daily there. My book is available on Amazon in paperback or Kindle, or you can order a copy through your favorite small bookshop via Ingram.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with us before you go?
I’ve had a lot of great feedback on my book, and I asked for help when I needed it. In addition to writing more books,I want to be of service to other writers, because I know a few things now. So, if anyone out there needs help with beta-reading or editing their writing projects, please feel free to contact me. I work especially well with intuitives, empaths, or other HSP who want good, heart-based feedback on their work. We need to stick together! Thank you so much for the conversation, and best of luck.
That’s so kind of you. I’m sure other HSPs and empaths reading this will be really grateful, and find it very helpful to know that there’s someone they can come to with this stuff if they’d like any help.
It’s been a pleasure talking to you, Anna-Marie, thanks so much for taking part.