By Elizabeth Gracen:
I've know Helen Cassidy Page for many years now, and I am totally in debt to her for supporting and guiding me through my first YA fantasy book, Shalilly. Helen has always been in my corner, encouraging me to write, to create. She was the best friend to my recently deceased mother-in-law, and I know that they shared a special bond forged by time and experience. Helen is a unique, supremely talented author who inspires me to keep writing. I'm so happy to feature her work on Flapper Press and to have interviewed her about her work and influences.
Please meet Helen Cassidy Page!
EG: First of all, when I started my research for this interview, I was simply blown away by how prolific you are! So impressive! I don’t even know where to start other than to ask you if you are writing all the time—seriously! I have such romantic images of you sitting by a window with your laptop, a pot of hot tea nearby as you gaze out the window and contemplate your next story. Your work spans several genres and subjects. How do you decide what to write?
HCP: I enjoy writing almost anything. I write a lot of stories because I hope they will sell on Kindle, but I can’t write anything if my heart isn’t in the story. I’ve discovered I enjoy writing mysteries, and I’ve written cozies, which is a popular genre that works as a series, more lighthearted than thrillers or police procedurals. But I’ve also written romance thrillers, supernatural thrillers, and even children’s stories. I get invested in the characters and then the story takes off.
I’ve written a historical novel detailing the Irish famine, which I consider my literary work. I’ve published it in volumes, and while the book is finished, I’m still editing parts of it and hope to publish the remainder before too long.
EG: How did you first get started writing professionally?
HCP: I began writing in 1973 or thereabouts when John Schroeder, a cardiologist at Stanford, where I worked at the time, asked me to write a low-cholesterol cookbook with him. He knew that I had been giving cooking lessons because the local paper had done a feature on my classes for bachelors.
I’d been teaching French cooking at a time when Julia Child was the reigning food queen, and I had learned everything I knew from watching her shows and cooking out of her books.
Although I was an avid reader, I’d never considered writing. But I was game for anything and agreed to John’s project. His dream was to save the world from heart disease. I’m not sure I had any dreams beyond providing a stable home for my teenage daughter at the time. However, as soon as I sat down to write the first page of the book, a new world opened up for me. I knew I loved food and cooking, but I never believed it was my true passion, although I believed I had one. I just didn’t know how to find it.
As soon as I begin writing, though, I knew I’d found it. It was a profound moment. I’ll never forget it. We found a publisher for that first cookbook and when it was finished, I knew I wanted to write what I considered a “real” book. I had no idea what it would be, and it took years before I realized a cookbook was as real as any book, but that’s how I got started writing.
When I began promoting the cookbook, I met a writer who encouraged my dream of writing and eventually I began exploring fiction. I took classes, read books on craft, and basically dedicated my life to learning how to write and discovering myself as a writer. Fifty years after that first page of writing, I have now written many books, taught writing classes, mentored writers, and have an editing business.
Writing continues to challenge me, thrill me, humble me, and enrich my life. I’m not sure where I would be as a person if John Schroeder had not asked me to write a cookbook with him, because even after we finished that book, it took years before I was able to consider myself a writer, and now it is my whole life. But without his dream, I’m not sure I would have found it on my own, because I didn’t start out seeing myself as a writer.
EG: Do you have a particular genre that you prefer writing?
HCP: I enjoy writing almost anything, but my heart is in fiction. I have 55 titles on Amazon, some of them are books in both paperback and e-book, so about 30 original works.
I have also been writing personal essays on Medium.com since about May 2019. I haven’t counted my articles, but I would say about 400-plus articles, give or take. For almost a year, I wrote at least one piece a day, many times two articles. Then this summer, during the lockdown, I lost my focus, as many of my creative friends did, and I found it hard to write. I’m coming back from that dry period. I still don’t have a daily output, but I’m gaining on it.
EG: Who would you say are your major influences? Who are your favorite authors?
HCP: I’ve been influenced by different writers at different times of my writing life. In the early days, I needed encouragement that I could even do this. I had no training, no courses, just a love of words and stories. So I read books that talked about craft, and I practiced what I read.
Then I began to take some writing classes. I recall a shawl I wore every day, and in class I’d put it over my hands when I read my assignment because I was so nervous and self-conscious.
I fed off every word of encouragement and worked on things teachers told me were shortcomings. I took a class at College of the Redwoods in Mendocino, then adult education in San Francisco. My most influential teacher was Tom Jenks, who was an important editor in New York publishing until he came to San Francisco in the 90s. He probably edited every important American writer in the second half of the 20th century. I took his private classes for several years until I decided I had to get my teachers' voices out of my head and use what I had learned to make my own writing decisions.
EG: What is it like to be a writer living in San Francisco right now at this point in history?
HCP: Right now, as it is for everyone else, living in San Francisco is lonely and tenuous. I maintain a fairly strict quarantine because I’m high risk. However, every Saturday morning I Zoom with two writer friends for several hours. We’ve been in the same writing group for almost a quarter of a century. We work on each other’s books and talk about writing and this crazy time in our lives.
Before the pandemic, my writing life was pretty much the same. I worked every day but met with my friends in person, usually twice a month. So our connection is closer because the three of us live alone and see very few people. But our love of writing and desire to produce good work hasn’t changed. They are my lifeline to the outside world and the literary world.
They are extraordinary writers, readers, and editors, and I’m so fortunate to have them in my life.
EG: I would assume that you are still working with writers as a coach?
HCP: I do have my daily client work. I edit books for a small stable of clients, mostly novels. I choose not to expand my business to have time for my own writing. Most of my clients have been with me for many years, or many books, and have become friends.
EG: As a writing coach, what would you say to someone who is contemplating writing their first book? Do you have a basic philosophy on how to approach the process that makes it easy to get going and to keep going?
I encourage all writers to write something every day. I’m a big believer in cultivating a daily writing process, even if you’re not working on a specific project. I believe stories live within us, and for writers, they need teasing out. You can be writing exercises or just sketches for want of a riveting idea, and like throwing a hook and line in the sea, you can snag a story that’s just waiting for an opening.
So, my advice is to set aside at least 15 minutes a day to write. Every day. It’s a small enough chunk of time not to intimidate new writers, yet it is enough to get words on the page. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know where the piece is going. Just add to it until it begins to make sense to you or something else materializes in your imagination. The important thing is to keep the channel open by writing daily. You can have vivid thoughts about a story, but they can disappear like the wind unless you write them down or make serious notes.
Another thing I tell my students and new writers is that all writers run into brick walls. They lose their inspiration, or they don’t know what happens next. This is the time to keep writing because the answers are always in the work. Polish scenes for different parts of the story or work on a plotline that may be out of sequence if you write chronologically. Just don’t stare out the window hoping for inspiration or you’ll be at the mercy of inspiration. It comes and goes, but it’s not necessary for writing.
Plod on ahead until the fire of your imagination lifts you up again. You can always revise a dull piece of writing that you worked on during a lull when you believed you had nothing to say. But you can never revise a blank page.
EG: What’s next for you? What are you currently working on?
HCP: I have at least one novel in progress at any time. Currently, I’m working on a supernatural suspense series featuring two ghost-hunting brothers. It’s also a family story. Their mother is a wealth-management specialist who is also a member of a coven in an upscale neighborhood in the east bay. She offers spells and healing to people suffering loss and grief. Her husband was a demonslayer who died before the series started, but his spirit hovers over the stories, as does his nemesis and killer, the demon Plymon, who stalks the family.
I’m in love with this series. Book three is in the final stage of editing, and the stories become more complex with each outing. I find I’m able to include some of my own philosophy of life, even though I don’t chase ghosts or see spirits. The two brothers who share top billing in these books have become close to me, the way characters can. If the series gains readers, I’d like to do a spin-off on their mother, who is a witch doing white magic for people in trouble. She and her coven have typical suburban day jobs but live very witchy lives as soon as they leave their offices.
So my to-do list includes getting the rest of my Irish novel published and continuing with my supernatural series.
Helen Cassidy Page is a writer, editor, researcher, aging expert, life coach, sand tray coach. Find her many titles on her website.