A well-known speaker and expert on relationship issues, she also the author of 13 self-help books in 17 languages, including Love Styles: How To Celebrate Your Differences and Money, Sex, and Kids: Stop Fighting about the Three Things That Can Ruin Your Marriage.
But whether advising clients, hosting workshops or writing books, for Dr. Tessina, it’s all about dealing with life issues. As she says, “Self-help is what I do and who I am.” (For more information, visit her website.)
How long have you been writing? When did you start? What was your “writer dream”—your goal— when you began to write? Has it changed over the years? What is your “writer dream” now?
I never dreamed of being a writer. I’m afraid it just happened to me. There may be some standard process other writers follow to get published, but for me it was accidental. Publishing was a very different business in 1980, when my first book was published. Small publishers thrived, and an unknown had a chance.
Boy, was I unknown: In 1975, divorced, bereft, and despairing, I took the psychotherapy training that became the basis for restructuring my life, and met Riley K. Smith, who became a lifelong friend, colleague and co-author. We both joined in a cooperative living situation with seven others. We wanted consensus, not majority vote, so Riley and I developed a way to solve problems cooperatively and reach consensus.
This led to teaching a class at Los Angeles Community College, called “How to be a Couple and Still be Free.” Hundreds of people showed up for those classes. We had to get bigger rooms. We needed a workbook, but every relationship book on the market in 1975 recommended sacrifice (compromise), and not cooperation. So, we cobbled together a primitive, typed manual.
Then Riley ran into Al Saunders, whose bookstore he had frequented. “I own Newcastle publishing company,” said Al. “I publish New Age and self-help books.” Riley replied “I’m writing a sort of self-help book,” and our first book was born.
My original dream was to be a singer, but after two years of music school on scholarship, I realized I didn’t like that very tough business. My writer dream now is to reach as many people as I can. I know I help them, because I hear from them, and that’s what I aspire to do.
When did you first know that you were a writer?
After my third book was published, and I went on a big book tour. I’ve always been a voracious reader, and as a result I tested out of all writing classes in college, so I’ve never had a writing class. Writing just came naturally to me, and what I learned about commercial writing, I learned mostly from my excellent editors.
Who are three of your favorite authors and why?
Ken Wilbur, an astoundingly original thinker who inspires and challenges me to do better. Daniel Goleman, who teaches me things I long to know, and causes me to look at life and history from a different angle. Jane Austin, who writes about love and family in her time in a way that inspires me.
Courtesy of James Lipton, host of “Inside the Actor’s Studio,” what profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
I did attempt it. I wanted to be an opera singer — and I still study voice. But, I decided the professional struggle took the joy out of singing for me. I didn’t discover my talent for therapy until I was 30; and then I went back to school and made it my life.
Where do you do most of your writing?
I have an office, which is cluttered but efficient, and I also write on a large laptop on a rolling stand which is in the living room, so I’m not so isolated from my husband in the evening.
Where is the strangest place you’ve written?
In 1998, sailing between the Maldives and Goa, India, I finished the edits of a book for publication in the fairly cramped cabin of a luxury liner on a world cruise for which my husband had been hired to teach ballroom dance.
When do you usually write: are you a morning writer, late night writer, any-time-you-can-grab-a-minute writer?
I’m an any-time- I- can-grab- a- minute writer. I see clients in my home, so any time a client is not scheduled, or if someone cancels last minute, I can go to my office and write. I write a lot at night, while my husband and I are watching TV.
How do you write: longhand, on a computer, dictate and then transcribe?
I do everything on the computer or laptop, unless I’m jotting a note in my counseling office (a new idea or technique I’ve just come up with) on a pad with a pen.
What do you usually wear when you’re writing? Do you “dress for work” or dress for comfort?
Whatever I happen to be in, including my “schmata” (yiddish for rag) which is a colorful, shapeless little shift made from a pareo. I buy them in Mexico, and wear them whenever I’m home and not going out.
Is writing your full-time career? Part-time career?
Half-time career. My private counseling practice is my primary career, and the writing is a perfect complement.
On average, how much time do you spend writing a day? Do you have a schedule that you keep?
I usually write two to four hours, depending on the day. No set schedule for writing.
How do you blend your writing life with your “real life”—do you find it challenging to make time for both sides? If so, what are some of the difficulties and how do you resolve them?
My life blends pretty well. Working out of my home with both the therapy practice and writing is very compatible. I’ve got lots to do, so I carve out personal time just the way I schedule therapy clients and writing time. Weekends belong mostly to time with my husband. Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday are counseling days. Thursday is my day for myself. Within that, I still have plenty of time to write.
What stimulates your creativity or serves as a writing inspiration? Conversely, what creates a major writer’s block for you?
If I find myself avoiding writing something, I sit down and spell-check or format just to get me into it. It seems to work every time. Inspiration comes from my clients, and helping them with life issues.
Each of my books draws on the knowledge gained in my years of clinical work with individuals and couples. As I discovered a body of information needed by my clients, a book forms. My books are the concrete result of experiences in helping people overcome resistance, fears and emotional wounds. On my blog, I answer real questions people ask me via email (identifying information changed.) My newsletter is short articles based on issues arising in counseling.
What part of the writing process do you enjoy the most? The least?
I love writing, usually. What I dislike is book promotion.
What is your most recent book or published piece? What inspired this?
My most recent book is Love Styles: How To Celebrate Your Differences and it’s my new venture into self-publishing. My latest newsletter article is “Less Talk, More Action”.
How long did it take you to write your first book? Was it easier or harder than you expected?
In those pre-computer days, we wrote it on typewriters, and cut and pasted with scissors and tape. It was a mess! The book took five years from beginning to publication in 1980. How to Be a Couple and Still Be Free became Newcastle’s best-selling book.
The last two books I did for Adams Media — Money, Sex, and Kids: Stop Fighting about the Three Things That Can Ruin Your Marriage and The Commuter Marriage: Keep Your Relationship Close While You’re Far Apart — I was able to write in six months, through the magic of computers and e-mail (for sending manuscripts and editing)
Did you have an agent at the time?
I didn’t have an agent for the first or second book. A representative of my first publisher Newcastle Books introduced me to J.P. Tarcher, and repped my third book, which was my first with Tarcher. After Tarcher was sold, in about 1998, I met an agent at an American Society of Journalists and Authors panel I was on in San Francisco, and Laurie Harper of The Sebastian Literary Agency became my agent, and she still is, although she and I are both semi-retired now.
Are there aspects of the publishing business that you have found particularly challenging or difficult? Conversely, have there been aspects or experiences that surprised or touched you or that you thoroughly enjoyed?
The hardest part, and I’ll bet you have heard this before, is the promotion. Promotion is very expensive unless I do it myself. Over the years, I’ve learned a lot about book promotion, and also promotion itself has gone through many changes. It’s a constant challenge, and it never really ends. It’s difficult to feel I’ve ever done enough.
However, I’ve had a lot of wonderful experiences as a book author. I loved being a J.P. Tarcher author, and Jeremy took personal interest in his authors, and sent me on old-style first-class book tours of 23 cities. It was great to have personal contact with the publisher. I got to have dinner with him and his wife, Shari Lewis. His editors were first-rate, and gave me a valuable education. At Tarcher, I finally felt like a pro.
When I was published by HCI, they invited me to sign at the BookExpo in Los Angeles in May, 1999, which led to the Spanish edition and exciting tours of Mexico, Columbia and Costa Rica, including the FIL (International Book Fair) in Guadalajara, Mexico.
In 2010, Princess Cruises invited me (because of my “Dr. Romance” blog) to be an expert at their Princess “Love Boat” Romance Summit, which meant a free Caribbean cruise and lots of swag.
The many letters and emails I get from readers who tell me my books helped them are the most satisfying.
Any interesting stories from book signing events?
On the Mexico tour, I was to appear on TV Azteca, in Mexico City ‑‑ the biggest national channel. The show was like our “Today” show (called “Consello De Mujer”‑‑”The Stamp of a Woman” ‑‑ meaning women’s style). While we were waiting to go on, we were watching the taping, and they had a poor unhappy kangaroo, in a harness, who had chafed herself against the leash, trying to get loose. It was a sad sight. The kangaroo was pooping all over the floor, and during the segment, the gorgeous TV personality tried to feed the kangaroo biscuits (Purina kangaroo chow?). But it was not cooperating.
So, when I got onto the set, and was being miked, and the same woman said to me that she was excited about my book, and thought we would have a great segment, I said “I’ll probably be easier than the kangaroo.” I thought she was going to fall off the couch, she laughed so hard, and she almost didn’t get herself back together before the camera came on. It was a very fun moment.
What are some unusual (or irritating!) questions, comments or theories you’ve heard from non-writers when they find out you’re a writer?
Everyone thinks writing a book is easy! Lots of people say “I want to write a book, will you help me?” and I tell them to write an outline, an introduction and a chapter, then contact me. They never do.
Based on your own experience, what tips do you have for authors who are preparing for their “maiden voyage” on the sea of publication?
Build a platform before you write a book. Publishers no longer send authors on book tours, and they give very limited PR help. Using a combination of a blog, Twitter, a Facebook Fan Page, published articles or short stories, and speaking; build a following of people who like your work. Publishers and even agents will want to see evidence that your book has a market before they will be interested in it or in you.
These days, I recommend to new authors that they consider self-publishing a book. E-books and POD (print on demand) books are very cheap to publish, and you can promote and sell those books yourself. Keep a record. When you can demonstrate that you’re selling a few thousand books, publishers will be interested. You get to keep a much larger percentage when you self-publish, and if you get successful, you may prefer to do it that way. The advantage of having a commercial publisher is that they have great distribution.
What is the next project you have in the works?
I have three books that have gone out of print, because the publishers failed, and I’m preparing to self-publish them in e-book and POD formats. I’m also preparing a proposal of a book from my newsletter articles, which my agent suggested, and believes will sell.
What was your favorite childhood book? Is there one that, now as an adult, you read again?
I have a few. I replaced some of what seemed missing out of my childhood with Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, Little Men and Jo’s Boys. As a small child, I loved the Mother West Wind series of books, and went searching for them as an adult. As a teen, I loved The Once and Future King by T.H. White, and still re-read it on occasion.
What type of books do you prefer: non-fiction, fiction, essays, poetry?
I love fiction and poetry, but these days, I read more non-fiction psychology. I also love historical novels.
Where do you do most of your reading (room or location?)
My living room or out at a restaurant, over lunch. I like reading onboard ship, also.
What book are you reading now?
Jackie O, On the Couch by Alma H. Bond, PhD
What book—or author—do you find yourself reading again?
Nora Lofts, Jane Austin
Which three authors would you love to have a “One on One” with?
Ken Wilbur, James Hillman, Karl Jung
What’s the worst advice anyone gave you about being a writer? What’s the best?
I’ve had so much excellent advice; I can’t even begin to sort it out. All of my editors have been great teachers.
How do you define success as a writer?
Because I write self-help, my success comes when people tell me my books and articles help them. I’ve also had plenty of success in terms of being published, book signings and tours, and amazing experiences in several countries – all because I’m a writer.
What advice do you have for other writers who are contemplating pursuing a writing career?
Understand what you want out of being a writer. What do you want to say? Whom do you want to reach? What is your objective? That will focus your writing, and give you a criterion for success.
What do you want your writer’s epitaph to be?
She helped people heal their lives.
My thanks to Dr. Tessina for being part of One on One: Insights Into the Writer’s Life!