Like me, she blogs about life after Corporate America and (like me) she’s fun, intelligent, and witty. (Okay, my son would call that last little bit a “self call” but again, I couldn’t resist.) It’s precisely for all of these reasons – and to demonstrate that there is life after Corporate America – that I thought you might enjoy meeting Joanne Tombrakos, and hearing about her first novel, The Secrets They Kept.
Joanne, when you left Corporate America you planned – among other things – to write. Is it everything you hoped it would be?
Yes and no. Does it look the way I thought it would? No. I thought I would have sold my novel to a big publishing house. I hadn’t even thought about self-publishing. I didn’t think I would coach or do any sales consulting. And I didn’t count on the economic meltdown that followed my departure in the fall of 2008.
The only thing I hoped it would be was happier. I wanted to stimulate both sides of my brain, not just the one that held the sharpened pencil and looked at spreadsheets. I wanted to feel passionate and challenged about my work again. I wanted more personal fulfillment. In that respect the answer is yes, it’s everything I hoped for.
I was really impressed with The Secrets They Kept. As I was reading the story the dialogue drew me in. Even though you write about a Greek family like your own, in the language I could hear Jewish mothers, Italian mothers, and even French-Canadian mothers. Do you find it surprising how universal the language of motherhood is?
I’m glad you reacted that way! I wanted the interaction to be relatable to more than just a Greek-American reader. And no, I am not surprised about the universality of the language. To me the mother-daughter dynamic has no distinction in race or ethnicity. The fortunate thing for me is that the Greeks have a flair for the dramatic, so it makes it easier to illustrate a point!
Joanne, you chose to tackle two very difficult topics in this story – secrets, and mental illness. Why those topics?
I can’t say there was a plan behind that. But then this novel started as an exercise in a writing class in which the assignment was to create a character. I had no story line in mind. But it was there Elena was born, so let’s say she led me to those topics. Of course she was fueled by my fascination with secret keeping and how in the process of keeping our truths from others, we deny ourselves our own truths.
As for choosing mental illness, I didn’t want Yannis to be a bad guy. I wanted there to be an explanation for his behavior that was beyond his control. Until recently diseases like these were shrouded in secrecy and shame. Before medication, individuals suffering from something like what was once called manic-depression could be locked away so no one knew. That seemed to fit into my secrecy theme.
I love that the story centered on the women and their complex relationships – too few novels do. Why do you think that is?
I read something recently in which Steven Spielberg was quoted as saying the problem with story today is that people have forgotten how to tell it. Characters drive the story. Yet we often get so focused on the plot and action, at the expense of the character development. My personal opinion is that novels have taken a back seat to tell all memoirs. Corporate decisions on what is getting bought are too often made not necessarily by what might be considered a good read, but by what will sell the most in the shortest period of time. Look at the rejection history of a wonderful novel like The Help. The complexity and depth of the characters are what drove the story line, yet she had a crazy, difficult time getting someone to publish it.
You chose to be your own publisher for this novel. I suspect that your business background came in very handy as you learned to be a publisher as well as a writer. What was the biggest challenge you found doing it yourself?
Letting myself take a break! I have a perfectionist streak that is embedded in my DNA, which can pose some challenges when there is no one to delegate to. But as you said, my business background is an asset. When I got my first job in radio sales it was a draw against commission position. I was told, that essentially I was creating my own business. The company gave me a phone, a desk, someone to take messages, because this was 1983 and our phone system did not have voice mail yet. But otherwise, I had to look at what I did as if I was in business for myself. That’s exactly how I operate now as a writer, coach, speaker and author. Except there is no draw!
I can totally relate to that drive for perfectionism! With one novel under your belt, what can we expect next from you?
I have a second already written, that needs a professional edit. This one is about a woman who was seduced by the corporate world in the eighties. Not that I know anything about that! I also have some ideas for non-fiction. The thing that is so great about being an entrepreneur is you don’t have to pigeon hole yourself into just one thing. I can write fiction and non-fiction, I can coach and I can even do some sales consulting when the opportunity strikes. It just requires good time management, another skill I honed in my corporate days!
Joanne Tombrakos is a writer, business coach and speaker who inspires and creates change. She blogs on living and working after corporate America at onewomanseye. Joanne was born to first generation Greek-Americans. She lives in New York City. The Secrets They Kept is her first novel.