Interview by Lara Lillibridge
Suzette Mullen had been raised to play it safe–and she hated causing others pain. With college and law degrees, a kind and successful husband, two thriving adult sons, and an ocean-view vacation home, she lived a life many people would envy. But beneath the happy facade was a woman who watched her friends walk boldly through their lives and wondered what was holding her back from doing the same.
Digging into her past, Suzette uncovered a deeply buried truth: she’d been in love with her best friend–a woman–for nearly two decades–and still was. Leaning into these “unspeakable” feelings would put Suzette’s identity, relationships, and life of privilege at risk—but taking this leap might be her only chance to feel fully alive. As Suzette opened herself up to new possibilities, an unexpected visit to a new city helped her discover who she was meant to be.
Introspective, bittersweet, and empowering, The Only Way Through Is Out is both a coming-out and coming-of-age story, as well as a call to action for every human who is longing to live authentically but is afraid of the cost.
Suzette is the founder of Your Story Finder nonfiction book coaching and a founding board member of the Lancaster (PA) LGBTQ+ Coalition. Her “tiny love story,” the seed which became this book, was published in the New York Times “Modern Love” column. Our conversation is below.
Lara Lillibridge: I met you at HippoCamp: A Conference for Creative Nonfiction Writers, and I was excited to read in your book that you wound up in Lancaster [PA]. Are you still there?
Suzette Mullen: Yes, I’m still here! I’ve been in Lancaster since June of 2017, and it really feels like home now.
LL: You certainly make it sound much more artistic and vibrant and fun than I had thought.
SM: It really is. I love this little city. I think sometimes you don’t really know where you were meant to be until you’re there. That was definitely the case for me, as readers will find out in my memoir!
LL: Let’s start with your publishing journey. How did this book come about? Did you have an agent? Did you submit to a gazillion places? How did you go about that whole process?
SM: I decided to pursue traditional publication as my first option, and in 2020, I set a goal to be querying by my 60th birthday, which was in March of 2021. When I was ready to query, I had a complete manuscript that had gone through beta readers and many, many revisions, and also a book proposal. In winter 2021, I began querying. The result? A few form rejections and mostly crickets.
I didn’t wait too long before assessing. In addition to being a writer, I’m also a book coach, and I feel like I have a realistic vision of the marketplace and the odds of landing an agent. The fact that I wasn’t hearing anything back from agents was an indication to me that something was going on—maybe it was my query letter, maybe it was something else. So I reached out to Julie Artz, a book coaching colleague who had helped me with early drafts of my manuscript. One thing led to another, and I found myself doing a major revision of the book. I really tore my draft apart and I also revised my proposal.
At that point, we’re in winter 2022. I love having goals, because that’s how I get things done. I decided that my goal for 2022 was to have a publication contract in hand, either through a traditional publisher or a hybrid publisher. I began a second round of querying with a shorter, more curated list of agents and also a robust list of small presses, including university presses. I pitched agents and these small presses simultaneously because I didn’t want this process to drag on forever.
“I love having goals, because that’s how I get things done.”—Suzette Mullen
I designated Monday as query day and sent out as many queries as I could manage each week. Early on in this query round two, in March of 2022, I sent a query to the University of Wisconsin Press. A colleague had recommended them because they have a series focused LGBTQ+ memoir and biography. I sent my query letter, like all the others before, and went to lunch. When I returned to my laptop an hour later, I had a response to my query. The editor wanted to see my proposal!
I scrambled to tweak my proposal to better emphasize the LGBTQ+ angle since that was the series I pitched. All along, I believed I had two sets of ideal readers: women at midlife longing for something more in their next chapter and LGBTQ+ readers. After putting the LGBTQ+ angle more front and center, I sent the proposal to the editor.
A few weeks later they responded that they were excited about the possibilities for my book and they wanted the full manuscript. A couple of months later, in June 2022, they said they wanted to send my manuscript out for peer review—that’s an additional layer in the university press process. All books, journal articles—everything—has to pass peer review. I had no idea how long that process was going to take—how long was it going to take them to find peer reviewers? How long was it going to take these reviewers to read the book and all the things? It was a stressful summer of waiting.
LL: They did the peer review before the contract?
SM: Yes. My understanding is that some university presses offer a contract first, then they send the manuscript out for peer review—it’s a contract subject to peer review. But the University of Wisconsin Press was peer review first. They also asked for an exclusive at that point.
I had my manuscript out to several other small presses but there was no other press that I was an active conversation with. So I withdrew those submissions, which was a little scary. But on the other hand, I figured I could resubmit to those presses if things didn’t work out with the University of Wisconsin Press.
I said yes to the exclusive in June 2022 and heard back from the editor around Labor Day weekend. The peer reviews were in and the reviewers were excited about my book! The editor sent me the peer review reports, asked me to respond to their feedback, and draft a revision plan based on that feedback. I did just that, and shortly thereafter, they said they wanted to offer me a contract.
We negotiated a little, and in a perfect move from the universe, I signed my book contract on National Coming Out Day, in October 2022. I mean, you can’t make this stuff up, right?
LL: That’s awesome. I mean, seriously.
SM: I know! After I signed my contract, I did one more revision based on the peer review feedback and turned in my manuscript by the end of the year. Next we went through the typical copyediting and proofreading process. Once the manuscript was out of my hands, I focused on book promotion.
LL: Now let’s talk about your title. Because I know that went through some changes after you signed your contract.
SM: Yes, now it’s a fun story, but at the time it was a little disorienting. I pitched and sold the book with the title Graveyard of Safe Choices, which reflected my understanding of what my story was really about. Often, we come to the page with an experience we feel compelled to unpack, and as we write we make connections and come to understand our deeper story, at least that was my experience.
As I wrote and revised, I began to see a pattern in my past about making safe choices, which led me to include a sentence in my draft about having “a graveyard of safe choices.” When somebody suggested that as my title, I loved the idea. Everyone I mentioned the title to seemed to love it as well, so that’s the title I pitched the book with.
Initially, the editors at the press expressed some concern about the Graveyard title. They said that marketing felt it was perhaps a little too on the nose. I told them I was open to other possibilities, then forgot about all about our conversation. Five months later, after the book was through copyediting, I received an email from the editor-in-chief with the subject line “Title Talk.” Marketing said that Graveyard of Safe Choices was not going to fly. “In all honesty,” the email stated, “that title could be viewed as a bummer of a story.” The editorial team had been trying to come up with a different title, and they were really struggling to find one.
So I went back to my people and did some brainstorming. Within twenty-four hours, one of my colleagues helped me come up with The Only Way Through Is Out. Five minutes after I emailed my editor with the new title idea, he responded: “We all love it and we’re so mad that we didn’t come up with it ourselves!” Now it feels like it was always meant to be.
LL: I hope you didn’t buy too many name branded items.
SM: Fortunately, no, I didn’t! One of the things I’ve learned in this process is the importance of advocating for yourself. It’s my first book, so I don’t have anything to compare it to, but the relationship with everyone on the team at University of Wisconsin Press has been so collaborative. For example, I wasn’t happy—at all—with the first cover design they presented, and I tactfully let them know. They came back with a completely different design that I love.
“One of the things I’ve learned in this process is the importance of advocating for yourself.”—Suzette Mullen
LL: And by crossing off “Safe and Comfortable” you get that same feeling, but it’s a call back to the queer community with the bold, capitalized word ‘out.’
SM: Exactly. I’m really happy with the cover—and the title!
LL: So you mentioned that you worked with a book coach, and you are a book coach. Can you talk about how that works from both ends? What you got out of it and what you hope to help others with? What exactly does a book coach do?
SM: Great question. The book coaching profession is fairly new—it emerged out of shifts in the publishing industry. Back in the day, editors were much more hands-on helping authors develop their books. Yes, this still does happen with certain authors, but for most of us, our manuscripts have to be pretty darned good to even get those gatekeepers to pay attention. So book coaching was born out of necessity.
Before I wrote The Only Way Through Is Out, I’d written another memoir, which I never pitched. I had worked with a book coach on that first book, so when I decided to write this one, I knew I had to work with a coach again. For me, having deadlines and accountability is essential. I don’t have the discipline to just do it on my own.
As a freelance editor, I had actually already been doing some book coaching but didn’t realize that that’s what I was doing! I decided to uplevel and invest in training from Author Accelerator, the book coaching company I hired my book coach through. I’m now certified as a fiction, nonfiction, and memoir coach through Author Accelerator, and continue to be supported by them.
A book coach can do many things, but the main difference between a book coach and an editor is that with a book coach there’s more of an ongoing relationship. I love to work with authors at the very beginning of the process and help them define their idea, clarify what the story is really about, who their ideal readers are, and the point they want to make. But book coaches can come in at many different points along the way: some work from the very beginning to the very end; some specialize in specific stages of the process.
LL: Well, it’s interesting, because, you know, to me, the word ‘editor’ makes me think of red pencil correcting, where as coach, it has more enthusiasm, Thinking about my son’s athletic coaches, I picture a coach as someone getting you to the goal and forcing you to practice, and helping you get from where you are to where you want to be.
SM: While the editorial part is absolutely important, in my own experience from both sides of the coaching relationship, I think the emotional support and the project management support is at least as important. I can’t tell you how many times along the way I would reach out to my book coach when the “doubt demons” were whispering in my ears. You know, all the things we go through as writers: “Nobody’s answering my query letters, my book is terrible,” etc. It’s so important to have somebody by our side that we can reach out to when we’re having those moments of doubt. I love being that support for the writers I work with.
“It’s so important to have somebody by our side that we can reach out to when we’re having those moments of doubt.”—Suzette Mullen
“It’s so important to have somebody by our side that we can reach out to when we’re having those moments of doubt.”—Suzette Mullen
LL: One thing that you said that is something that I find very interesting is audience. I didn’t know with my first book, Girlish, that the publishing world would see it as a queer book. I saw it as more a book for the general audience—mostly straight people who always told me I should write a book about having lesbian parents. Of course, the book went off in other directions besides just having lesbian parents. But anyway, I think that the more you understand your audience before the book comes out, the better it is.
When I think about your book, when you talked about two possible audiences, the first title was perfect for the women thinking of making a change and who are unhappy with their life, but when you were part of an LGBTQ+ series, that needed to be a little bit more on point for that. Those are the things that I think writers don’t always think about, particularly the first time around, right? Who is my audience? How do I, you know, make sure the right person winds up with a book or that it’s shelved in the right part of the bookstore?
SM: My philosophy as a book coach is that it’s important to get as clear as you can on foundational questions like who is your ideal reader before you start to write. As you write forward things can change—nothing is set in stone. But asking those questions first was very important to my process in a number of ways. For example, one of my ideal readers was somebody I’m very close to who is not queer, as far as I know. I always had her in the front of my mind as I was writing. Especially while I was revising, I was always asking myself: Is this going to speak to her? In your first draft, you’re just writing all the things. But in revision, you’re sculpting and making more strategic decisions.
Another example: there’s a faith theme in my memoir, and in earlier drafts, it was fairly prominent. During revision, I thought more deeply about my readers and the impact of my language on them. Many of my readers are either LGBTQ+ folx who may have been harmed and traumatized by the church or readers who identify as spiritual but not necessarily religious.
I had to really think about how I was going to authentically present my faith experience and not further harm, traumatize, or turn off my readers. I’m hopeful I was successful in balancing these interests. Understanding your audience is so important, particularly in revision. As you decide what to include and what to cut, think about the impact on your reader.
LL: So you talked about this ideal reader in your mind. Do you have a writer’s group? Or do you have readers that you work with regularly? Or what’s your support system, like from, you know, creating that first draft forward?
SM: As I mentioned, I hired a book coach, and as part of a large coaching community, I also had the privilege and joy of having a peer group to exchange work with. Now I’m not part of a formal writing group, but I have a lot of people in a lot of different pockets who I can lean on and ask questions of. I attend an in-person writing group in Lancaster that meets once a month–we chat over snacks and drinks, then write in silence. I’m also in several writing-related Facebook groups.
LL: So you are really immersed in the writing community in a bunch of different ways.
SM: Yeah, this is a great third chapter of my life. I pretty much spend my days either writing or book coaching. My life is all about words and books.
LL: Speaking of books, what books were foundational to you?
SM: I read a lot of memoir because I love it, write it, and coach it. A lot of that memoir is by queer authors because my book coaching business focuses on helping LGBTQ+ writers. But I also love fiction because story is story, right? And particularly now that I’ve gone through the process of writing and structuring my own book and all the challenges of learning how to craft a narrative and a narrative arc, and how to use flashbacks and all the things, I appreciate that even more in the authors that I love. I’m a huge Elizabeth Strout fan and Ann Patchett fan. Whatever they’ve written, I’m gonna read it. I’m currently reading Tom Lake, Ann Patchett’s current novel.
Let me try to answer your question more directly! My first memoir mentor was Mary Karr. In 2013 after I decided to take this writing thing seriously, I went to the Southampton Writers Conference and was fortunate to take a two-week workshop from her. Karr was just finishing her draft of what became The Art of Memoir, so I learned a lot about memoir from that book and from her. I also love Anne Lamott—the way she writes about serious things with humor, including writing about faith. Her books helped me see that it was possible to write about faith in a way that felt inclusive and not harmful or traumatizing. And back to LGBTQ+ memoir, one of my recent favorites is The Family Outing by Jessi Hempel, which is an incredible book.
LL: Oh, I bought that but I haven’t read it yet.
SM: So good. Jessi actually blurbed The Only Way Through Is Out! It’s so vulnerable to reach out to other authors to ask them for blurbs, especially authors further ahead of you. It’s just very vulnerable and scary! I didn’t have a connection with Jessi, although I followed her on Instagram, and I’d been liking her posts and commenting on them, but we didn’t have any other connection. I was so happy—and pleasantly surprised—when she agreed to blurb my book! The other LGBTQ+ memoir I’ve recently read is Pageboy by Elliott Page, the actor. Fantastic on so many levels.
LL: I haven’t read that, but several people have just raved about it. I hear that that book is very artful. And it is not like celebrity memoir at all.
SM: From what I can tell, I really believe Elliott Page actually wrote the book. I’m sure he had help like we all do, right? But this doesn’t appear to be a book that was ghostwritten. It is structurally very interesting and done very well. I don’t listen to a lot of audiobooks, but I happened to listen to this one, which was narrated by the author. But now I need to get the book itself and read it. It’s really incredible.
LL: That’s great. You have nudged me to move both of those up on my to-be-read list.
So now your book comes out in February?
SM: Yes! February 13!
LL: How are you dealing with prepublication butterflies or soul-crushing anxiety, or whichever end of that spectrum you wind up at?
SM: I think what I’m feeling now mimics the emotional roller coaster of the writing process. You know: Is this any good? Is anybody going to care? Fortunately, I feel very supported, both by the University of Wisconsin Press’s publicity manager and the independent publicist I hired. With a solid team behind me, I don’t feel like I’m just flying out there without a safety net. And I’m trying to be methodical and do my best to trust the people I’ve got on my team. Do the things I have said I’m going to do or they tell me I need to do!
As we’re recording this interview, we’re getting some podcasts and interviews lined up, and I am going to do some book events. We’ve got the launch event set for Lancaster, in collaboration with Pocket Books, which is a local independent bookstore. The event will be at the new public library because the meeting space at the bookstore is small, but Pocket Books is running the event for me. I’ve also got an event lined up in Houston at Brazos Bookstore because I lived in Houston for 25 years—when people read the book, they’ll see there’s a big Houston connection.
I would say right now I have my moments of, oh my gosh, what have I done? All the worries and fears creep in. And then I’m trying to just enjoy that I am where I am. You know, when you start writing a book, being on the cusp of publication is where you hope you’ll arrive someday, and I am here now. And while it is stressful and anxiety-provoking and vulnerable, it’s also what I really worked very hard to get to, for many years. So I’m trying to feel some of the joy in the experience as well.
LL: Lastly, do you have any advice for writers who are struggling to write their first draft?
SM: Yes, I do. First, try to be patient with yourself. Your first draft can take a while. When you’re writing your first book, all you see are the finished books on your bookshelf, and you have no idea what it took to get from where you are right now to that final product, so be patient with yourself. Second, find community and support. If you have the resources to hire a book coach, great, but you don’t have to pay someone to support you. But you need to have some sort of support system because very few writers can do this on their own. Whether it’s the accountability you need to put your butt in the chair or the encouragement you need to not give up when the doubt demons appear, you have to have people to support you.
The final piece of advice I would give is to do some planning work first, you know those foundational questions we talked about earlier. Try to get really clear on why you want to write this book, what you’ve come to the page to say, and who your ideal reader is. If you can spend some time thinking through those questions, you will set yourself up to write a first draft that has more focus. It’s still going to be a first draft, but it will be further along than if you just started writing.
LL: Perfect. But I will say I loved reading your book, as someone not too far behind you, age wise. I really could relate to so much. I mean, we talk about audience, and while you may have a specific audience, it also is such a universal story, at least for me as a woman with children who are growing up and you know, looking at what do I want from life and the fear of starting over. So personally, I absolutely loved it. And it was a privilege to read.
SM: Thank you. One question I always ask my writers is this: When someone finishes reading your book—when they close the cover—what do you want them to feel? What do you want them to take away? I want the readers of The Only Way Through Is Out to come away believing that it’s never too late to live out loud, to live authentically, whatever that looks like for them. It doesn’t mean everybody’s going to come out as queer or leave a marriage or do something super dramatic, but I think many of us have longings and desires we’re afraid to lean into. I want people to know is that it isn’t too late for a new beginning—it isn’t too late to write a new story for themselves.
LL: Thank you so much.