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  • Jessica Lahey, left, of Charlotte, Vt., and KJ Dell’Antonia, of Lyme, N.H., prepare to record their podcast #AmWriting on Dec. 21, 2018 in Lyme. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Authors KJ Dell’Antonia, left, of Lyme, N.H., and Jessica Lahey, of Charlotte, Vt., are creators of the podcast #AmWriting. They record the podcast at Dell'Antonia's home in Lyme. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Jessica Lahey, left, of Charlotte, Vt., and KJ Dell’Antonia, of Lyme, N.H., record their podcast #AmWriting on Dec. 21, 2018 in Lyme. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Friday, February 01, 2019

LYME — It wouldn’t be quite accurate to say that KJ Dell’Antonia and Jessica Lahey are winging it. Both women pull out pages of notes as they meet in a hastily tidied upstairs office in Dell’Antonia’s sprawling, well-appointed farmhouse to record the latest episode of their podcast. Both, too, are distinguished writers who know their way around an interview.

Still, there’s a sense of breezy spontaneity in the room, a feeling that unrestrained curiosity is in the driver’s seat, as they chat via Skype with Ruth Franklin, author of Shirley Jackson, A Rather Haunted Life, on a recent Friday afternoon.

They want to dive deep into the life and work of the inimitable Jackson. But they’re also hungry for the nitty gritty and unafraid to ask the questions more self-conscious hosts might deem banal.

They want to hear about how Franklin had to track down the descendants of letter writers to The New Yorker reacting to the publication of The Lottery. They want to know if she had to wear gloves while prowling the archives of the Library of Congress. They want, but also don’t want, to relive with Franklin the process of slogging through boxes and boxes of paperwork.

“You’re just giving me a headache,” Dell’Antonia says.

And then: “How do you know when you’re done? How do you know when it’s time to put on your big girl panties and start writing?”

In the crowded podcast landscape, these are the kinds of questions that distinguish #AmWriting, a series that blends the insights of an NPR interview with the how-to appeal of a great cooking show and the caffeine kick of a motivational speech — always with infusions of humor. Nearly 150 episodes in, the podcast is creating a community of published authors and wannabe writers alike, while fulfilling a dream for its hosts as they navigate the increasingly multimedia world of freelance writing.

“Our goal from the beginning was to be relentlessly helpful,” said Lahey, 48, a former Lyme resident now living in Charlotte, Vt., who drops in to tape the podcast on Friday afternoons on the way home from her part-time teaching job at Valley Vista, in Bradford, Vt. “So many people have helped me ... I’m trying to pay that forward.”

The outlet may be new, but the notion is not. Lahey, a teacher and mother of two, and Dell’Antonia, a former lawyer and mother of four, have forged influential writing careers from their desire to help fellow parents and educators shepherd children into adulthood. Neighbors until last year, when Lahey’s husband, Tim, took a new job, the pair have helped shape modern parenting philosophies and practices nationwide from their forest-fringed homes.

Dell’Antonia, 49, is author of the acclaimed 2018 book How to Be a Happier Parent and former lead editor of Motherlode, a New York Times parenting blog. Lahey, 48, wrote the Motherlode’s “Parent-teacher Conference” feature for three years and is the author of the 2015 bestseller The Gift of Failure.

A former New York City prosecutor, Dell’Antonia began writing in 2002, after relocating to New Hampshire with her husband, Rob Seelig, who had taken a job as lead counsel for White Mountain Insurance Group. She published Reading with Babies, Toddlers and Twos with co-author Susan Straub in 2006. “If you can just get somebody to let you write a book, you become an expert,” joked Dell’Antonia, who went on to become a regular contributor to Slate’s XX Factor, a blog about women’s issues, in addition to editing the Motherlode from 2011-2016 and contributing to various other high-profile publications. “My specialty is to make accessible the information that’s out there.”

Lahey, who moved to New Hampshire in 2004, met Dell’Antonia through a friend about 10 years ago, when Lahey was teaching middle school at Crossroads Academy, a private K-8 school in Lyme. Together they came up with the idea for the “Parent-Teacher Conference” column.

“I was really fortunate to find this unoccupied niche which was the intersection of parenting and education,” said Lahey, who has also written for The Atlantic and The Washington Post and has another book coming out later this year. “I suddenly found myself both an education expert and parenting expert. I felt a huge pressure to live up to that.”

Both women strove to bring substance to a topic that tends to get less ink in serious publications than, say, sports, and that often takes the shape of personal essays or utilitarian advice.

“KJ and I both went to law school ... and I think the two of us come to parenting with a very skeptical and objective eye when it comes to the research and stories about what works and what doesn’t,” Lahey said. “Both of us know that the truth often lies in the gray area between two opinions.”

Despite their belief in the value of what they were doing, the friends felt ready for a change of subject as they began brainstorming new creative ventures. Both fans of podcasts and both successful public speakers, they knew they wanted to do a podcast of their own. But with the youngest of their kids nearing adolescence, they didn’t want to go with the obvious topic.

Casting around, they eventually decided they wanted to focus on writing. As they talked it over, they realized that, while there were plenty of podcasts about the art and craft of writing, there were few that bothered with the mechanics of a writing career and the prosaic concerns of freelancers.

“I became a journalist through a backdoor,” Lahey said. “I thought, why not tell other people how to get in?”

Launched in May 2016 with an episode about the many ways they procrastinate (shoveling cow manure, in Lahey’s case) and clever strategies they’ve devised for sticking to their schedules, #AmWriting immediately set a tone at once earnest and edgy, practical and profound. Produced by Andrew Parella, production manager for New Hampshire Public Radio, the show has tackled writerly topics ranging from finding an agent to finding a quiet spot to work. The pair, with regular assistance from local romance writer Sarina Bowen (a pseudonym), discuss researching and interviewing, blogging and pitching, filing taxes and the importance of getting up once in a while to do squats.

“We try to be super practical about how to get from point A to point B,” said Dell’Antonia, who recently finished writing a novel and is working on finding a publisher. “Not a lot of people take a professional approach to a freelance career.”

Peppered with tips and reminders to “keep your butt in the chair,” the series also provides heartier sustenance for writers in the form of interviews with such heavyweight authors as Anna Quindlen and David Sedaris, as well creating a meeting place of sorts. The podcast’s Facebook group has 1,000-plus members and is regularly abuzz with conversations related to the latest episodes.

“I think one of my favorite parts of it is the community we’ve built,” Lahey said.

Franklin, the Shirley Jackson biographer, was quick to offer praise for the podcast while prepping for her interview with Lahey and Dell’Antonia.

“I rely on you guys so much for your good spirit and good cheer,” she said.

For some listeners, the podcast has played an even more critical role. Stacy Kim, a writer in New York, recently wrote to Lahey and Dell’Antonia to describe how she listened to the podcast every Friday while in the hospital with her daughter, who was undergoing treatment for a rare bone cancer. Drawing on the pair’s advice, she told them, she got an essay about her experiences published in the Washington Post last month.

Commercially, #AmWriting is beginning to show signs of success as well. The podcast series has reached nearly half a million listens and recently secured its first sponsor, Author Accelerator, a website that matches “book coaches” with aspiring authors. To become profitable, some podcasters join podcast advertising networks, while others seek sponsorships or join a membership platform such as Patreon, which allows them to run a subscription service. Lahey and Dell’Antonia are still exploring their options for growth.

Both know, however, that success isn’t always a straight line. Lahey, for example, traces the origins of her bestselling book to an article she wrote for The Atlantic — for free.

And having conquered the obstacles they now coach and crack wise about — having successfully kept their butts in their chairs — they’re entitled to sit back and enjoy their latest gig, with modest aspirations.

“It will be nice when it doesn’t cost us money,” Dell’Antonia said.

Sarah Earle can be reached at searle@vnews.com and 603-727-3268.