Author in bloom
With long-awaited, back-to-back book launches, Ann Garvin says the keys to her success have always been hustle and patience.
USA Today bestselling author and Tall Poppy Writers founder Ann Garvin is a lot like the heroines in her novels — plucky and flawed; charming and fiercely loyal; funny to beat the band, even (or especially) when the music gets dark.
But in other ways, she’s a riddle. An extrovert who prefers solitude (or, technically, the company of her dog, Peanut). A woman who can’t focus on one thing, unless it’s the thing — then that focus is singular and razor-sharp. A Ph.D. who couldn’t stand academia. A nurse who loved caring for patients but hated — well, the nursing part. A prolific wordsmith, even after you cut out the swear words.
Before she retired to write full time in 2019, Garvin, who turns 60 in August, sometimes found herself at odds with colleagues at the University of Wisconsin–Whitewater — where she was an exercise health professor and researcher for 20 years — particularly when she was the only woman in the room. It was the same story throughout her male-dominated doctorate program and while she was a nurse in the 1980s refusing to wear the required dress and hosiery (“I’m their caregiver,” she says wryly, “I’m not their waitress.”). The people who love her — and they are legion, from her former students to her adult daughters and ex-husband to the readers and writers she champions — really love her. But, “I’m not for everybody,” laughs Garvin in her signature East Coast-turned-Midwestern voice, which could be described as a warm, hearty squawk.
“I don’t fit in,” she shrugs, her ring-stacked fingers fluttering to her wayward curls as we chat through screens, each of us at our respective writing desks. She scratches a somber-looking Peanut, perched on her lap. “I’m a total weirdo.”
Now, five challenging years since her last book was published, Garvin is celebrating the May 1 launch of her fourth novel, “I Thought You Said This Would Work.” She’s got a deal for a fifth, scheduled for 2022, and snagged two 2019 Wisconsin Innovation Network awards for the Tall Poppy Writers national marketing collective she founded in 2013. This spring she secured a producing contract for a dedicated channel called Tall Poppy Presents and her own podcast with Los Angeles-based startup Speak. Not bad for someone who never planned to be a writer in the first place.
“It took me a really long time to be able to pull all of the things that I’m good at into a career,” Garvin says of the fateful moment that started it all: a 24-hour short story contest sponsored by the 2004 Wisconsin Book Festival. At the time, Garvin was a 43-year-old avid reader who “hero-worshipped” authors like Elizabeth Berg, Nora Ephron and Lorrie Moore — women, she says, who’d mastered writing “funny and sad” — but she’d never written fiction herself. Garvin entered the contest on a whim and won second place.
“It was, without a doubt, one of the most thrilling times ever in my life,” she says. “It was like, finally, somebody said, ‘Knock, knock, your voice is good’ after so many years of struggling [to fit in].”
Garvin was hooked. She began entering (and winning) more contests, waking at 5 a.m. to write before work or stealing away with her laptop at her daughters’ school sporting practices. It took a few years and a few classes, but she finished a novel — which was then rejected by more than 75 literary agents. But she kept pitching, distracting herself by writing a second book, and then a third. Finally, an agent bit — and quickly sold Garvin’s debut, “On Maggie’s Watch.” When it was released in 2010, Garvin learned some brutal truths: Most books sell very few copies, imprints fold and agents and editors leave. She became aware that female authors aren’t taken as seriously in the industry (case in point: the “women’s fiction” genre for which there is no male equivalent). Most of all, she learned that unknown authors are often left to market their books on their own.
“That’s when I realized I’d better make The Tall Poppies,” Garvin says. Her idea was simple — female authors banding together to promote each other’s work — and wildly successful. By the time Garvin’s second (2014) and third (2016) books were released, she had a collective of dozens of bestselling authors from around the country helping her promote, and vice versa. It didn’t take long to get the industry’s attention, either. While pitching a high-profile agent at a writer’s conference, he told her he liked her book ideas but, if she really wanted to succeed, she needed to become one of these Tall Poppies he kept hearing about. “I’m the tallest Poppy,” she told him, much to his surprise (she signed with his agency, Folio, soon after).
Still, Garvin struggled to write a fourth book that could sell. She kept trying to adapt her work to an elusive market, and her next two manuscripts ended up in a drawer. Her publisher was bought out by Simon & Schuster, which closed the imprint. Meanwhile, her marriage had fallen apart. Her mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and Garvin spent most of her time helping her dad care for her. This was all while raising kids, teaching at both UW–Whitewater and a Master of Fine Arts program in New Hampshire, managing Tall Poppy Writers and running a residency-based writing workshop called The Fifth Semester with fellow Madison author Erin Celello. Then, in 2018 — already a rough year in which she nursed her ex-husband through a health crisis — both her parents died.
“I was like, ‘That’s enough. I’m done,’ ” Garvin says. She retired from UW–Whitewater, sold the four-story Victorian family home in Stoughton and bought a sunny two-bedroom in Madison, where she hunkered down to focus solely on writing and marketing.
That’s what makes this year — her 60th — all the sweeter. Despite the pandemic and her ongoing grief, Garvin says life has never been better, because she finally embraced that “weirdness” that makes her who she is. She stopped trying to write books that might fit the market and instead wrote two in her established style, “funny and sad” — and they sold. She’s no longer drained by the effort it takes to wedge herself into other people’s boxes and still gets to indulge her primary character trait, caregiving, through her books and by championing other women’s writing.
“I love to give a leg up, because I didn’t get very many legs up,” Garvin says, adding that this birthday is bittersweet. “I’m proud of being an older woman and love what I’ve learned all these years, but I’m unhappy about it because I want as much time as I can possibly have.”
Maggie Ginsberg is an associate editor of Madison Magazine. Find a bonus Q&A with Garvin, along with other author Q&As, on madisonmagazine.com/books.
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