My ALLi author guest this episode is Mary Ladd, who began her career as a food writer and editor before she was hit with both cancer and long COVID, which changed the trajectory of her life. Now, she successfully crowdfunds books written by and for others who are facing severe health crises.
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Listen to the Inspirational Indie Author Interview: Mary LaddOn the Inspirational Indie Authors Podcast, @howard_lovy features Mary Ladd, who was hit with both cancer and long COVID. Now, she successfully crowdfunds books written by and for others who are facing severe health crises. Click To Tweet
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Inspirational Indie Author Interview: Mary Ladd. About the Author
The Long COVID Reader founding editor has written about meat clothing, withered sexuality, and pizza champions for the San Francisco Chronicle, Playboy, Wildfire, and the best-selling 642 Things to Write About and Lit Starts books. Mary collaborated with Anthony Bourdain and created The Wig Diaries: An Irreverent Cancer Book (2019) with illustrator Don Asmussen. You can find Mary on Kickstarter, her website, and Instagram.
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Howard Lovy has been a journalist for more than 35 years, and now amplifies the voices of independent author-publishers and works with authors as a developmental editor. Find Howard at howardlovy.com, LinkedIn and X.
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Read the Transcripts to Inspirational Indie Author Interview: Mary Ladd
Howard Lovy: My guest this episode is Mary Ladd, who began her career as a food writer and editor before she was hit with both cancer and long-COVID, which changed the trajectory of her life.
Now, she successfully crowdfunds books written by and for others who are facing severe health crises. I'll let Mary Ladd tell her story.
Mary Ladd: Hi, my name is Mary Ladd. I'm an author, and now publisher, based in San Francisco. I am publishing The Long COVID Reader. I'm a long-COVID hauler, long hauler, and it's going to be the stories, essays and poems with 45 long haulers; it's a very meaningful project.
I've also collaborated with Anthony Bourdain, and I published 10 years ago, a book called The Wig Diaries; it was an irreverent breast cancer book.
I focus on health and essays, and I used to do a lot of food writing.
I was born in San Francisco and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, and libraries and reading were always a very big part of my family. My mom was an elementary school teacher and I have a younger brother, and she and my dad always made time for us to be able to access books, libraries, do the book orders in school.
We used to do those, you know, you fill out a little paper form, and I contributed to a newspaper. We had a newspaper in elementary school. It was a science fiction piece, and they cut the ending, and so that was my first experience with writing and editing. Then later in life, I was the editor of my high school newspaper. Then I did some humour writing in college.
Then I've done marketing writing for corporations, and gone kind of back and forth between, you know, it would be like a part time thing, the writing, but it was really, it's always been.
I've won some contests at a very young age and got some, you know, when others tell me I'm good at it and that I should keep going, and I would come back to that. It's this feeling that I can't not write, but I especially can't not read, and I go to a lot of book events online as well as in person.
I've been with someone for 20 years. He's a literary journal editor, and we met at the San Francisco Chronicle. So, I have also done writing for newspapers and websites, and that sort of thing. Writing and books is really me, and it's important to me, and it keeps me going. I love it.
Howard Lovy: Mary majored in communications and found herself writing every chance she could.
Mary Ladd: Actually, I have an aunt who's on TV. She does news, and I thought that I wanted to be on TV or work in TV production, and then I interned at a TV station, I realized that TV station wasn't the direction I wanted to go.
So, I think that I wanted to just keep writing, but I wasn't sure how to do it, if that makes sense. So, I would end up writing in most of the kind of corporate positions I took you know, internal communications, that sort of thing.
I've written daily deals. I've done some interesting and fun writing. I love even writing about hot dogs, that sort of thing, and then the food writing became especially important.
I worked in movies. That was my first job out of college, booking extras and people who are, you know, it was for the movie Scream. So, there wasn't really a lot of writing in that sphere, but it was still storytelling, being part of a story that's being told.
Howard Lovy: It was through her husband that Mary met author and chef Anthony Bourdain.
Mary Ladd: That came about actually from my husband, Oscar Villalon. They became friends at a giant book expo in Chicago, and it was right before Kitchen Confidential came out. Anthony Bourdain didn't know anyone there, and he and Oscar stayed up all night talking, and they went and listened to some music.
So, fast forward to when Oscar and I were dating, we'd been dating for some time, and Anthony Bourdain was on TV and he said, oh, there's Tony. I said, oh? And he said, yeah, that's my friend, and then he started to explain it, and I said, oh, and he said, yeah, we hang out when he comes to town.
So, we would hang out, whenever he came to town, we would drive him to events, we ate very elaborate meals with him, and also some just fun meals, you know, staying up late drinking, talking, and it's whatever the hotel lobby is serving. So, lots of quality time with him. He's very interested in literature, books, writing, and we actually didn't talk as much about food that you would think.
He was very opinionated. There was also a shyness to him, and very gracious with any human that wanted to interact with him. So, I think there was a softer side to him that would show up.
Howard Lovy: Mary enjoyed writing about food, but an unexpected health problem forced her to make a transition.
Mary Ladd: That came about when I was diagnosed with breast cancer a decade ago, and I had been going to very elaborate food events, such as what Anthony puts on TV. Lots of booze, lots of very rich foods, and it became clear when I was going through, I had triple negative breast cancer, and that's the most aggressive, deadliest form of breast cancer, and I needed to change what I ate and that was just more to feel better while I was going through treatment, and also to cut out the booze, that sort of thing.
I realized that food writing, for me, it was always tricky and challenging to find staff positions, you're kind of chasing the new, exciting, hot thing.
So, I'm very close with two food writer friends and they kind of helped me see that there are other things I could write about. So, that was the universe.
Also, I belong to The Writer's Grotto, and I noticed there, that's an organization with a hundred something writers and filmmakers and essayists, and I noticed that people do multiple genres, and then I realized I don't need to just do food writing, and actually I can't.
So, I would send out email messages because people wanted to know how I was doing health-wise, and some folks said, are you going to write for O Magazine? Are you going to do a book? And I said, I don't know how to do either of those things. So, I started to just connect with people and support other people who were trying new things. I never got into O Magazine, but I did figure out how to self-publish The Wig Diaries.
I had a friend who was, he had also had a bout with cancer, and so we did a creative collaboration, and then I was able to pitch more health pieces to different outlets.
Oh, I had chemo, and it's called the red devil because it's so severe. Seven surgeries, multiple infections. I also had a preventative hysterectomy.
So, I could still eat fried chicken, pizza, carbs, pastries, the things that I really love, but I started to get more vegetables and fruit, just because people were helping me with food. They were bringing food by; I did what's called a meal train. I needed community support. I was very weak.
So, it was more that I felt so much better energy wise, and it just seemed to make the treatment a bit more bearable. So, I still eat those things that I enjoy, but it's a lot less and I'm definitely not eating, I'm just not as interested in a multi-course meal.
I lost a whole bunch of weight with cancer too, just from changing what I ate, and it was for the best, but it took about two weeks for my body to be really excited, you know, just like lots of salads and just to embrace that world of vegetables, et cetera.
Howard Lovy: Mary wrote The Wig Diaries, which is an irreverent look at cancer. Publishers weren't sure what to make of it, so she launched a Kickstarter campaign.
Mary Ladd: So, it's a series of essays and pieces. It's dark humour, and my collaborator was Don Asmussen. He was, he passed away. He was an AP illustrator, and he did something called Bad Reporter.
We were friends. We'd been friends since my Chronicle days, and so I said, will you illustrate this? And he said, sure.
So, we would meet near the San Francisco Chronicle, and I would send him the pieces I had written. Some of these pieces had been published in magazines, and others were published private items that I had sent to friends and then edited, and then I just had a team help me.
Regan McMahon, I know her from the San Francisco Chronicle, she decided to copy edit it.
Don and I, we do have, and through Oscar, my husband, we do have enough connections through agents, publishers and so forth, and Don had done two books before, but because it's cancer, a lot of folks said, we just don't know what to do with this book, because it deviated from a norm; it did use a lot of humour and how do you categorize it?
So, I just decided, rather than wait, I felt a sense of urgency, I want to get this book out and not have to wait. So, I decided to do the Kickstarter, and that again was just a suggestion. Someone said, people would love to support you and your work, and I forget that piece. So, I decided to do a Kickstarter.
Tamara Palmer is a friend, she's a writer, she writes about music and food. She reminded me that in January, Kickstarter runs the Make 100, and she said, if you make 100 copies of this book, I bet you could find 100 people to buy it. So, that's why I decided to do Kickstarter, because it felt like the stakes were lower, and it ended up helping me understand then how do I use IngramSpark and get it uploaded, and then over to Amazon.
I didn't use any Kickstarter experts to teach me how to do it.
Don had such a huge following because he was quite well known as an illustrator, and so we had a lot of our friends, his friends and his fans. He has a pretty big fan base who supported it, and then others who just found out about it from promotions.
Howard Lovy: And just when she thought she had a handle on her cancer, Mary caught a case of long-COVID.
Mary Ladd: Yeah, I am vaccinated and boosted, but in February 2022, I got COVID, and it seemed pretty severe, and really soon after it just lingered and very mysterious symptoms. Skin would peel off. It felt like I had a bird in my right ear. I all of a sudden had food allergies. So, it brings back the food piece, allergic to vegetables and fruit, and it causes this constriction, you know, like breathing issues. I don't need an EpiPen, but it feels like maybe I do.
I was very sick for weeks, but I of course had bills to pay. It was this juggling, this struggle.
I was asked to judge a writer's contest and it was related to the pandemic, and so I said, sure, I'll judge that.
While I was reading these wonderful pieces, I realized, I contribute to a breast cancer publication, and I teach writing. It's called Wildfire Magazine and I really value it. It's for the younger breast cancer community, but I found myself wondering around this time, where is the Wildfire Magazine for the long-COVID?
Because it was very clear I had long-COVID. The symptoms, it's a lot of fatigue and dizziness, things like that. So, I decided to research it and it seemed like there hasn't been an anthology out with creative writing, and I decided, why don't I try creating one? I know how to do a book; I could do this.
Lydia Sviatoslavsky, she had helped me with the promotions and almost everything related to The Wig Diaries. So, I'd been in touch with her because she helps me with a lot of projects would, what do you think? Should we do this? So, we decided to do an open call for people and give them guidelines of what we were looking for.
We launched a soft launch last November, and I decided to give my debt myself a deadline of October to finish it, because I'm close to the LitQuake Festival here in the Bay Area, and there are also offshoots throughout the world. That's where I launched The Wig Diaries. So, I thought, if we could get the book ready by LitQuick in October, then perhaps we can have a book event with them, and I will be reading in about 10 days with LitQuick, but the response was global.
Lydia and I set up various emails and social media, and we've heard from people from around the world. We had a team of editors that we brought on, and it was similar to that writing contest I had done, where people look over a certain number of submissions and then offer their feedback.
It's a bigger collaboration than The Wig Diaries, and I decided to do the Kickstarter because I haven't been paid for this, and I did talk to an agent this summer at the Community of Writers, and he asked me to send him the information when the book has been uploaded, basically.
So, at first, I thought he wanted to support the Kickstarter, but my friend, she said, no, he's interested in the book. So, I think that it's a book that there are millions of people who have long-COVID, and so it's important to get our stories out.
Howard Lovy: Mary is planning to make it a series of books for other people who have long-COVID.
Mary Ladd: It feels like I changed my business model. I was a copywriter before the pandemic, and I think that I'm a publisher now. I probably want to continue to do long-COVID books. Similar to this one. This is a template. We could use similar cover and add.
So, it's called The Long COVID Reader, and that's akin to the bathroom reader, which is a really popular book.
It can help, this first one is for people who actually have long-COVID, but some of the folks who submitted their writing, they are a caregiver for someone with long-COVID. There's also researchers. I'm in two long-COVID research studies at UC San Francisco.
So, perhaps we could do one from people who are researchers as well as in the healthcare industry and have COVID stories to tell.
Howard Lovy: Meanwhile, Mary continues to feel the effects of long-COVID.
Mary Ladd: So, I would say I feel not great, not energetic, or probably 80 percent of the time there's some lingering fatigue, and long-COVID disrupts the sleep terribly for me.
So, I would say my health is, there are days where I completely crash, where it feels like my eyes are baking from within and my head, like horrible headaches.
But I don't know another way because I can work part-time, it's majority of the time, but I need to work from my bed at home. I can't go into an office. I have to plan things out. I can't go to the grocery store the same day I have to go to a meeting with people.
So, a lot of my work is remote, and I have to keep it that way.
Our bookstore event next month will be remote, and so I say no to a majority of the things that I'm invited to, because my energy, it just crashes.
Howard Lovy: But with the help of her colleagues and artificial intelligence, she is able to get the work done.
But on a different timescale.
Mary Ladd: Yes, there's a trick. It's called AI. I love it, and it helps me create an outline, and then my muddled brain can say, that's right, that's what the thoughts are.
I feed it a Google doc and it provides an outline, and then I can edit that and write from that.
That helps me, because I'll just tell myself, why don't you just work on this for 30-minutes, and then I can do that. I can do it for 30 minutes.
Also, for the whole production timeline, since I'm not the only one with long-COVID, some of the other freelance team, they're immunocompromised or they have various health and life things. This is the first project where I've worked, where there's some flexibility with deadlines, with people being responsive to emails. We have to honour that. That's completely new to me, but it's the only way if you have long-COVID.
If you have a crash and it's happening for three weeks then just let that person do anything and everything they need to do, or not do. They need to be resting, then we can figure it out, or we can find a different way.
Howard Lovy: Mary has some tips for others who want to successfully crowdfund their project.
Mary Ladd: Oh, I have some great tips. Do not be shy about using your email to email your friends in advance of the campaign. You want to figure out if you can line up a certain amount of people to buy your product, your book, within the first 48 hours.
Kickstarter is looking to see how many people buy within that time, and they also want to know where are the users coming from? Is it various IP addresses? So, definitely communicate with your friends.
So, I let my community know, it's really important, if you're going to support this, please do it in the first two days.
Also, if you meet your goal, Kickstarter starts to promote you, you get moved to something called Projects We Love, and then that opens it up to, there are a lot of people on Kickstarter that support 50 projects, 70 projects, they are passionate fans of Kickstarter. What's new? What's exciting?
Oh, keep it very simple. For The Wig Diaries, I offered $500 to go to lunch with me, et cetera, et cetera. Nope. You just want to offer two print books, one print book, one eBook, and then offer a promo price for both of those.
We learned that it for us, it works better to not do it for the first two days, but just say we have a small number of these, and so that builds excitement. So, people will buy that.
Also, you can add 1 other category, which we did. We added a $30 category, and a $1 category. That allows people to participate if they want to just send a dollar, they want to send $30, and I've had some $100 pledges. They just support this campaign.
So, I guess get rid of your shyness and know that your book is amazing and wonderful, and people want to support you. Even friends you haven't seen or talked to in 18 years will be very excited. You are an author; they want your book. They want to know, you know, this is my friend, she did this book and so you're giving them bragging rights, but you're also giving them a chance to support you and you're someone they care about, and your work is important to them.
Just keep in mind that there's a lot of people, they are not doing work that is creative, like us, exciting. So, they really want a piece of that experience.
So, I had to talk myself up. Yesterday, I sent emails to people, and I just had to remind myself of when I was doing magazine sales as a kid from my elementary school. Just keep going, just send the email. You never know. They might buy two books, one for themselves and one for their neighbour, friend, et cetera.
You're really giving people a chance. So just quiet that voice that says, why am I doing this?
Howard Lovy: Mary did not expect her career to go the way it has, but she was happy with the way things turned out.
Mary Ladd: I'm happy with where I am because I am able to see, I can get out of my selfish, scared brain of thinking I should have done more as a writer, and instead, when I focus on community and the way the happiness and excitement that people have with doing their own writing or reading something that's been created, that speaks to their experience, it's very meaningful. It's bigger than me.
Is this what I planned as a writer? No, I thought that I would be a food editor. I thought it would be totally different, but this is what is meant to be, and I am happy. I'm excited.
This project, I feel like I've been preparing it, maybe for my entire life, because it's bringing community together and I really enjoy it.
There's a lot of stress to it and yet there's a ton of support, and when I stay in that, yes, this is where I'm meant to be.
Do I wish I didn't have long-COVID or cancer? I can't really focus on that. It's more, okay, what can I learn from it? What can I share with the world to help others who want to heal?
Not medically heal, but we heal ourselves by being able to walk through these extremely difficult experiences.
All of us are going to have some sort of health challenge, or someone we love will have a health challenge. So, what are the tools that we can offer and help each other?