A Conversation with Tiffany Gholar

A Bitter Pill to Swallow, teen, YA, book, cover, Tiffany Gholar, diverse books, mental health, teen

Tiffany Gholar is one talented lady. A Chicago-based artist and interior designer, she has three art books to her name (The Doll Project, Imperfect Things, and Post-Consumerism), and has this year published her first work of fiction, A Bitter Pill to Swallow.

A self-described ‘colorist at heart’, Tiffany’s artwork features bright, vibrant colours and rich textures, and the cover images of A Bitter Pill to Swallow hold that same sense of brilliant playfulness. But just like her art pieces, A Bitter Pill encourages readers to look past the candy colours to the deeper meaning within as we follow the story of four lost souls drawn together in an encounter at the Harrison School for Exceptional Youth that ends up changing their lives forever.

A Bitter Pill to Swallow is a warm, endearing coming-of-age tale about vulnerability and love, of courage and compassion, and learning to face your fears. Plus, it has two of my favourite elements in a novel – a story-within-a-story and a mystery to be unraveled!

Read on to find out more about Tiffany and the creative process behind A Bitter Pill to Swallow!

A Bitter Pill to Swallow, diverse books, teen, YA, book, cover, Tiffany Gholar, Devante

You recently published your first fiction book, A Bitter Pill to Swallow. Congratulations! Could you tell us what the book is about and what inspired you to write the story?

The book is about two African-American teenagers being treated for depression and post-traumatic stress disorder in early 90s Chicago. I was inspired to write the story while I was still a teenager, motivated by the lack of books about diverse teens. I set out to write the kind of book that I wanted to read.

Could you tell us a little more about your writing process for A Bitter Pill to Swallow?

Though I began writing it as a teenager and continued all the way through college, I took a long hiatus from working on my story – 10 years, in fact. It wasn’t until the 20th anniversary of when I began writing it was approaching that I felt inspired to make the changes I was planning to make to it. I ended up doing a major reboot. For the most part, the characters’ names are still the same, but I changed the plot from a suspense thriller to a straightforward drama. I spent several months researching and making notes. I read over 30 books, from case studies to textbooks for mental health professionals to firsthand accounts from people who had been treated in therapeutic boarding schools like the Harrison School in the novel. The school itself was inspired by a visit I made to The Orthogenic School, which was once on the campus of The University of Chicago where I went to college. It was one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. The environment is designed to heal. It challenged all my preconceived notions about residential facilities where mental illness is treated. After that, I knew I wanted to make major changes to my story. Some of the original elements remain, and the suspenseful story I wrote is reincorporated into this version as a story-within-a-story that one of the teenage characters, Janina, is writing.

A Bitter Pill to Swallow, teen, YA, book, cover, Tiffany Gholar, diverse books, Janina

You were an artist before you became a writer. Was it difficult making the transition between artist and writer?

Actually I was planning to become a writer before I got serious about my art. I started taking creative writing classes when I was 13, eventually incorporating it into my college major and even enrolling in an MFA program in fiction for a time. When I decided to start writing again, I did find certain aspects of it challenging at first, but reading some of the writing books that came out while I was taking a break from it proved very helpful. I also found that the area in my art studio that I had set up to do work on my computer is ideal for writing as well.

What was the biggest challenge you faced in your career and how did you overcome it?

The biggest challenge I’ve faced so far is the traditional publishing process. So much rejection is involved, and many agencies took so long to get back to me. It’s very competitive and there are not as many opportunities for books about diverse characters as there should be. I set a deadline for myself that I would apply to agents and small presses for one year, and if that didn’t work out I would publish the book myself. I was able to rely on what I had learned while publishing my art books, so the process was not quite as daunting as it could have been. While shopping around for editors, I met one who encouraged me to go ahead and publish independently, and I’m glad I listened to her.  Getting reviews for an independent book can also be a challenge, as many bloggers and publications are dead-set against doing them for books that aren’t traditionally published. But the stigma against independent authors continues to diminish, so that gives me hope.

A lot of writers these days are really interested in the idea of indie publishing. Would you mind giving us a brief description of the process of publishing independently?

From my experience, the independent publishing process is a very entrepreneurial one. It involves hiring people who can help with your project, coming up with a marketing strategy, then taking the time to execute it. A lot of experts have written articles saying that you can expect to work just as hard on marketing your book as you do writing it, and so far I have found that to be very accurate.

What do you enjoy most about being an artist/writer?

I enjoy the process of bringing my ideas to life.

And the cons?

The hardest part is making sure the right people know about my work and establishing a good customer base. It’s something I continue to work at.

What’s an average day like for you?

It really varies. I have a day job where I work on weekdays so evenings and weekends are when I have a chance to make art and indulge in my creative interests.

Name three of your biggest inspirations.

The books I read; the films and TV shows I watch; current events.

As a pre-teen, an episode of the 90s TV show Quantum Leap, called Shock Theater, that was set in a mental institution got me interested in psychology and was one of the things that inspired me to write the original version of my book. Later, I discovered the late 50s/early 60s police drama Naked City, which helped to inform some of Dr. Lutkin’s backstory, I think.

Any advice for aspiring writers/artists?

Be careful whose advice you take. Try to create a community of creative people around you who have good ideas and are helpful.

Finally, what’s next for the future?

My dream is to get the film version of A Bitter Pill to Swallow produced. I’m working with a very talented local independent filmmaker named Lonnie Edwards and hope that’ll happen soon!

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