Today, I had the opportunity to interview Pam Zollman, one of the founding members of Romance Writers of America.
Pam Zollman is the award-winning author of 40 children’s books and numerous short stories and articles. Her middle-grade novel Don’t Bug Me!(Holiday House, 2001) has been translated into other languages. It was a Sunshine Sate Young Reader book, in the Florida Battle of the Books, and was one of Bank Street College of Education’s Best Books of 2002. A Chick Grows Up(Scholastic, 2005) was an honor book for the Maryland Blue Crab Readers Choice Award in 2006. Many of her books are included on school and library reading lists, and her Life Cycle series for Scholastic have been translated into Spanish. Her short story, “Millie’s Garden,” won first place in Highlights for Children’s annual fiction contest in 1996.
So many aspiring writers think there is a set path to getting published, would you tell us about your journey to publication?
I think every writer I know has taken a different path. It seems that some of friends didn't start writing until later in life. Me? I was seven. I wrote a rhyming poem about a bee and a tree and my family loved it...so much so that my mother can probably recite it for you if asked (or even if *not* asked). I won a silver dollar in elementary school for a poem about the American Revolution. I wrote a novel when I was twelve (it was "only" 50 pages and I didn't do a lick of research, even though it took place in France and I'd never been there). I wrote short stories in high school and college. My teachers all through school encouraged me to write. So, my family and teachers set me on the writer's path at a very young age. When I look back now, I think it was expected of me to someday become a rich and famous writer. Well, I'm neither rich nor famous, and I still rhyme bee and tree, but I am a writer. My family and teachers may have pushed me in that direction, but it was a direction that I loved. I've always loved reading, and as a child I wanted to read all the books in the downtown Houston library. I was dismayed when I discovered that the library bought hundreds of new books every year. Dismayed, but not discouraged. In fact, that was when I decided I wanted to write books that would be in that same library.
I know you were an integral part of the original RWA group, can you tell me the story of how it began.
I first met Rita Estrada and Parris Afton Bonds back in mid 70s when I attended my first writers conference (the Southwest Writers Conference, which was held on the University of Houston campus). It was Rita’s first conference, as well. We met in the registration line. Also in line was Kit O’Brien Jones (a published romance author) who took us under her wing and introduced us to a lot of people. We all stayed in the hotel on campus and spent time after hours in our rooms getting to know each other.
After the conference, a few of us met informally in an occasional critique group. Rita, Kit, Mary Tate Ingles, and I all lived fairly close to each other on the far northwest side of Houston. Parris lived at that time in Dallas, I believe. We went to the next several Southwest Writers Conferences and Rita brought her mother, Rita Gallagher. We asked the conference people for more romance workshops. The next year (1979, I think) we met Vivian Stephens, an editor with Dell Candlelight Romances, and we dreamed of a writers conference focused only on romance.
Rita Estrada has always dreamed big. People say I dream big, and if that’s true, then I was taught how by Rita. She talked about starting a writers group just for romance writers and having a conference. She and Parris started talking to a lot of other romance writers that we all knew, and Rita decided that we should all meet and discuss forming a group. I had just had my first baby (Keith) in April of 1980. He was around 8 months old when I took him with me to that first gathering of romance writers (both published and unpublished) in the bank conference room, December 1980. There were 40 or so people attending, and we quickly formed a new writers group, called Romance Writers of America. We elected officers, and Rita Estrada became our first president. We decided to have our first conference the following June 1981 at a hotel in The Woodlands (just north of Houston). From December 1980 until June 1981, we offered a charter membership of $15 annually for life and we were amazed at how many people joined us. We were hoping for around 100 people at our first conference. Well, the media found out about us and we wound up with close to 800 people there, including editors, agents, writers, and media. It was a mad house! We crammed people into class rooms, we ran out of food, and we had to shuttle people from other hotels (because the hotel where the conference was being held was too small).
Have you heard the story about the editor who was in a bathroom stall and was handed a manuscript under the door? Well, this is the conference where it first happened, and the editor was Vivian Stephens.
We had our first writing conference at that conference and awarded the Golden Heart to the winning unpublished manuscript. Since then, we added the Golden Medallion for the winning published manuscript, as well as dividing into a variety of categories. The Golden Medallion was changed to The RITA to honor Rita Clay Estrada, our co-founder (Vivian Stephens is credited as our other co-founder and has the RWA Vivian Stephens Industry Standards award in her name).
After the conference, RWA had so many members across the nation that we had to divide into chapters. Houston, itself, had four chapters, and Rita asked me to organize the Northwest Houston chapter. We met for the first time in September 1981 and I was elected president, serving for three years. RWA’s first headquarters were in Rita’s dining room. I went there once a week, when Keith was in Mother’s Day Out, and spent time helping with all the paperwork that such a fast-growing organization generated. We were in her dining room for several years, before we finally moved into an office. Rita Gallagher (Rita’s mom) started the monthly newsletter, The Romance Writers Report, which is now a glossy magazine, and I helped proofread it and write articles.
While I was president of the Northwest Houston chapter, I wanted to have an autograph party for several people who had books coming out that year, Rita Estrada being one of them. Rita said, “Think bigger.” So, I decided to include all the romance writers in the Houston area who had new books coming out. Rita said, “Think bigger.” So, I included the surrounding states...and wound up with 33 authors from Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Louisiana. We called it Autograph Extravaganza and held it at the newly opened Willowbrook Mall in far northwest Houston. The mall was very excited about this three-day event and gave us free advertising in the food court, plus the media covered some of the events. We had authors sitting at tables up and down the mall. We sold t-shirts and pens to autograph those t-shirts. Publishers donated books, and we had so many that we gave away bundles of books every hour. The other three chapters (West Houston, Bay Area, and one other that didn’t last and I can’t remember what it was called) helped us with transporting the authors and putting them up in their homes. The authors all paid their own way because we didn’t have enough money.
Pam is continuing to reach out to new writers through her local writing studio, The Writer’s Plot. Through this unique experience she offers the opportunity for writers to grow and network with one another and industry professionals.