Despite the sub-zero temperatures and snow in Wheaton, Illinois on that January day in 2014—30-below, to be exact—Joanne Zienty ventured out to her local library branch. She was hoping someone there could help her mail out her book The Things We Save, before the deadline for submissions to the “Soon to Be Famous Illinois Author Project” passed.
“I didn’t find out about the contest until it was two or three days before the deadline to submit,” she said. “I thought, ‘I have to submit my book.’”
As if the weather wasn’t enough of an obstacle, fate threw in another snag. Although the library was open and had a copy of her self-published book, the woman who would have been in charge of submitting the piece—the contest rules dictated that the submissions must come from a librarian—wasn’t in that day and wasn’t scheduled to work the following day, either. If Zienty waited any longer, it would be too late. She had worked for six years on the manuscript, writing during school vacations and on weekends. To give up now was unthinkable. Then, a thinkable solution came forward.
“I thought, ‘you’re a librarian. You can submit it.’ I filled out the rest of the application and e-mailed it off with this huge explanation about self-nominating,” she said.
So, just as she had self-published the book via the website CreateSpace when her 30 query letters didn’t receive a response, she self-nominated her work. Next, she had to wait for the results to see how her story compared to the other 102 manuscripts submitted, one round at a time. “I made the top 15, then the top three. One [of the other finalists] was a mystery novel and the other was contemporary women’s fiction. I felt really good but didn’t think I’d win because the mystery book would be easier to promote.”
The Things We Save tells the story of a woman named Claire who returns to Chicago for her grandmother’s funeral and helps her father pack up items from her childhood home as he gets ready to sell it. In the process, she learns new truths and mends old relationships. Although Zienty originally assumed that her fictional family drama would appeal to women more than men and book groups more than casual readers, the 20 librarians from across the state who judged the works disagreed.
“When my name was announced… it was very validating to me that all of these strangers thought my book was good and worth promoting” she said. “It was incredible.”
Watch Zienty’s reaction of her win at the “Soon to Be Famous Illinois Author Project” ceremony on April 16, 2014 (starting at 39:15 in the video).
As the winner of the contest, the mother of two will embark on a year of promotion at public libraries throughout Illinois. She’ll participate in author events like booktalks and readings. With the publicity she’s earned, the Chicago native will be able to engage a much larger audience. Still, Zienty isn’t used to the attention.
“I’m still kind of dealing with everything that’s come with winning the project,” she said, “because now libraries want to schedule me to make appearances, and I’ve had interviews, and that hasn’t been my life before April. It’s an adjustment. I’m a writer, so I’m more likely to sit and observe others than step out into the spotlight.”
In addition to being a writer and observer, Zienty is a media specialist at the Forest Elementary School Library in Des Plaines, Illinois. Though this year was her first at the school, she’s been a media specialist for seven years and a teacher for a decade. “Teaching is a passion of mine. Writing is something I do on the side to amuse myself and entertain others as well.”
While the story is entertaining, it may have ties to more somber events. “My older brother passed away when I was nine, and he was 16,” she explained. “I put the emotions and memories from that experience into my writing. I’ve always been fascinated by artifacts that we save in our lives that we connect with other… people who are significant to our lives and events that take place. I wanted to look at how doing that can be a good thing to keep us connected to people and places we lost, but it can also be harmful if the memories connected to those things and the people are kind of holding us back from letting bad feelings and memories go.”
Another bit of personal information that ended up on the page was Zienty’s portrayal of the south side of Chicago. True to her roots, Zienty is a fan of the White Sox and the Blackhawks. She’s also a fan of a local business called Oberweis Dairy where she enjoys in blueberry pie ice cream, filled with blueberries and chunks of crust. As for Chicago’s best-known indulgence, deep dish pizza, she keeps it simple.
“I’m a pizza purist,” she said. “There’s a place called Giordano’s, and I’ll get a stuffed pizza with spinach, but I don’t generally put stuff on pizza.” In all of Chicago, however, she says her favorite thing is Lake Michigan, and the preserved open space of the lake front. “I can’t imagine not living near some body of water,” she said
Water happens to be the subject of Zienty’s next book, which is also set in and around the Great Lakes area. She characterizes it as Young Adult fiction and an adventure. Set in the future, this book will deal with the idea of climate change and global warming. When water becomes controlled by a corporation, three teenagers go on a quest to change the system.
“I like being topical, and I think it’s an important topic,” she said. “I kind of want to write a book that will offend both conservatives and liberals. Literature is meant to comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable. I read a quote that said publishers don’t want to read any more dystopian, but we’ve had [dystopian] forever.”
When asked to clarify, Zienty talks about Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Bradbury is one of her favorites, but her taste in literature runs the gamut.
“[F. Scott Fitzgerald] encapsulates description so well,” she said. “If I can ever write a description as well as Fitzgerald, I can die happy. Tom Wolfe just makes me laugh and is such a satirist.”
Philippa Gregory and Gillian Flynn were other must-read authors for Zienty, and it’s not surprising that the librarian, who describes herself as a question-asker and a people-watcher, feels more comfortable talking about others than talking about herself. Her 400-page work is a bit too adult for her students, so when they ask about her work, she talks to them about the self-publishing process. At her first appearance after her win, at the Wheaton Library that started it all, she put together a presentation about the important libraries in her life and the significance of each.
“I couldn’t imagine standing up there just talking about myself and my book,” she said. “It was exciting and a lot of fun but nerve-wracking, too.”
Now, more than six months after she braved freezing temperatures to submit her book, what does she think of winning?
“It’s been a hectic summer so far, but that’s alright. I’m enjoying it. “