Say what you want about advertising, but there are thousands of super talented people working in this industry. And while I’ve only been working as a copywriter/content write for a few years, I feel so blessed to have already met a plethora of those “holy shit, you’re good” kind of creatives. Such is the case with the insanely talented writer, Stefanie Lyons. She was a creative director at my previous ad agency, which essentially means she is the top creative dog; the person who guides the writing and art direction before the client sees it (aka my boss). But outside the “9-5” (in quotes because, as anyone in advertising can attest to, this isn’t your typical 9-5 job), she’s a passionate author who very recently published her first fictional work.
While some of these interviews will be (or have been) edited for consistency’s sake, I will say I did very little (read: no) editing to this particular one. Because when a writer that you admire agrees to be interviewed for your blog, you let her do her thing.
With all that said, I give you the wonderful Stefanie Lyons…
Tell us a little bit about your journey. Where are you from? What lead you to pursuing a career in advertising and creative writing, especially in Chicago?
I’m from a small town in Kansas. It’s a wonderful place to grow up as a creative person because there’s not a lot going on so I had to use my imagination. I didn’t have access to a lot of indie stuff (pre-Internet), but what I did have access to gave me the chance to explore deeply and really exhaust and dissect those things. Where there’s not a lot of stimuli around you, you live in your head. To this day I still love living in my head.
I ended up in advertising because I didn’t know how to sustain myself as a fiction writer without teaching. I’d spent my whole life in school, so teaching seemed like an awful notion. I chose advertising because someone told me I wouldn’t have to take any math courses to graduate. Sold! (I hated math.)
Why Chicago? Because my best friend at the time said, “If you want to start out in Chicago, I’ll go with you.” So that settled that.
What was your family and upbringing like? Was creativity part of your childhood?
Creativity was a huge part of my childhood. My parents were raised not to pursue this when they were growing up, but they were both creative souls, so they fostered it in us. I had a piano, guitar, clarinet, and notebooks filled with poetry. I wrote music and created parts for my friends, depending on what instrument they wanted to play. It was joyous. For Christmas one year—by my request—Santa brought me a dictionary, rhyming dictionary and a thesaurus. Best. Christmas. Ever.
What attracted you to writing? Or, when do you first remember being interested in writing?
I can’t say what attracted me, but I can say that I have always known I wanted to be a fiction writer. Not to just write, but become a writer of books. An author. I was a huge reader as a kid, but not only that, I wanted to know about the author of the book and what their life was like, so that was a pretty early clue to what was going on in my head.
Who has had the biggest impact on your life as a writer, thus far?
Judy Blume. Charles Bukowski. Theodore Dreiser. Anne Carson. In no particular order.
Do you think living the Midwest has fostered or hindered your creativity?
I’ve never left the Midwest, so I can’t say. I haven’t felt like it has hindered it, but maybe someday when I move, I’ll look back and have a better answer.
Best places in the Midwest to get inspired?
These next few questions come to me at a particularly interesting time. I grew up in the Midwest and thought it was awful at the time, but now that I’m older, I’m realizing that all my creative inspiration as of late stems from this very thing—growing up in the Midwest–so it has taken on a new meaning for me. I’ve had a reawakening, so to speak.
So, to answer this question, there are a lot of places to get inspired here. In St. John, Kansas, there’s a river and rickety bridge near where I grew up that I call my Walden Pond. It’s poem-inducing.
I like to hibernate in hotels around the area. Or do Airbnb. Tryon Farm in Michigan City, Indiana is spectacular. They have walking paths and adorable Mid-Century Modern homes tucked into the landscape.
The latest and greatest inspiring spot for me is the Chicago Athletic Association Hotel’s lobby. They refurbished it from the 1890s and it’s gorgeous. It’s the perfect place to work on something of the historical fiction sort.
And Dark Matter coffee’s Star Lounge Coffee Bar is, in my mind, the last of the 90s-style coffee shops. So, it’s another great place to go and feel like I’m back in time while I write. Guess this is a thing for me—nostalgia—now that I’m writing up my recos.
Anything you’d change about the creative community here in the Midwest?
I’ve been a part of varying creative communities here in Chicago, and the one thing I can say is that while it’s a great way to meet people, it’s even cooler that you can shape your path here. If you’re the type that wants to create something or grow something into your own thing, there’s an audience here, but there’s also a lot of opportunity. It’s yours for the taking. I love that.
Do you think the Midwest influences your work? In what way(s)?
The more pastoral parts of the Midwest now influence my work. I used to be stimulated by activity and the hubbub of city living. Now, I’m hugely inspired by watching a bird sitting on a branch or listening to the wind blow through the trees. I know, I sound like a douchebag, but that’s what getting older has done to me!
Would you ever love to write full-time or do you like the balance between a semi-traditional 9-5 job (advertising) and a creative passion?
Right now, this is the perfect balance for me. I love doing both, and I think they inform one another.
What’s one piece of advice you’d give your younger self?
What was your favorite part about writing and publishing your latest novel, Dating Down?
Writing the novel was a lot of fun. And painful. And all-consuming. However, two times after it was finished, I had that “oh wow!” experience which made up for everything else:
- When the email arrived with the offer (and yes, in this day and age, the acceptance came out of the blue via email).
- When I saw the art department’s rough layout of the cover. Both times I was overwhelmed with excitement and disbelief, followed by an “oh crap, this is real” type of moment.
Do you think the publishing industry is dead? If given the opportunity, would you have self-published or did you enjoy working with a publishing house?
The publishing industry is going through transition, but it isn’t dead.
Personally, I had no desire to self-publish. I wanted my work to be out there, distributed through the regular channels. I’m old school like that. And I wanted an agent so I could make a career of this. And that “keep learning” part of my advice, I learned a ton from the editor and the publisher, and my debut novel group. It’s an entirely unknown world that you can only understand once you’ve journeyed through it, so I would’ve missed all of that. And it was a great process for me.
Any plans to publish another novel?
Hopefully. My agent is shopping my second one right now, so finger’s crossed.
Have any words of wisdom for someone looking to publish their work?
Never quit. Take classes. Keep learning. Explore the world with open eyes. And never quit.
What kind of legacy do you want to leave behind?
A big, fat, wonderful collection of stories, well told.
Is the Midwest home?
For now, totally.
Are you creatively satisfied?
That’s an interesting question. I’m going to answer this from a book/author POV and not an advertising one.
Satisfied, no. Fulfilled, yes. As a writer, I will never be satisfied. Once I accomplish one goal, it leads me directly to the next. It’s a limitless world out there—storytelling. Which is awesome. So I’m never able to hang up my hat and feel like it’s all good, all said and done. However, the process, the writing, the learning, the growing, my ability to stretch and create something newer, fresher, totally different from the last time (and hopefully better each time) that part is totally fulfilling. Do I feel satisfied? No, because there’s always a better version or another more creative story in me yet to come.
How do you stay inspired?
I don’t think it’s a matter of inspiration, because I think it’s more about hard work. I just do it. (Sorry, Nike. Don’t sue me.) I write and make time to write even when there’s seemingly no time. Because if I don’t write, I’m massively difficult to live with. I do get jolts of inspiration, usually from something I read in another novel, but mostly, for me, it’s just about hard work.
Although, I just downloaded a brainwave app that’s supposed to stimulate creativity, so if this works, then maybe I can work less hard.
Bubbler or water fountain?
Since I had to Google “bubbler” I’d definitely say water fountain. ☺
Thin crust or deep dish?
Thin crust. No question.
Stop light or traffic light?
Either. I don’t drive, so …neither really.
Where can we find you?