Editor, Writer, Mother: Tiffany Vakilian shares her influences and experiences

Tiffany (back row, third from right) and her band, the Soul City Survivors, at the time of their gig at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Photo via Tiffany Vakilian.

I love being a freelancer, but no one who does it would ever say it was easy.

You were inspired by Ilona and Andrew Gordon, who write as a team under the pen name of Ilona Andrews; you’ve credited their Kate Daniels series, which plays around with fantasy magic and technology in a futuristic Atlanta, as singularly life-changing. You’ve also read J.R.R. Tolkien at roughly the same time of life as I did (completing “The Hobbit, or There and Back Again” [1937] in third grade), as well as the characters and songs of Lewis Carroll (“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!”) and the poetry of author Alice Walker (best known for her award-winning 1982 novel “The Color Purple”). You’ve also reference Psalms and the Song of Solomon from the Bible as passages of brutal honesty. You are currently working on a young adult fantasy novel right now, and a book of poetry scheduled to be released next year, all supposedly targeting the “geeky 14-year-old” audience yearning for Tolstoy, superheroes, and hip-hop poetry. Could you tell me more about the direction that you currently are taking with your work?

I’m constantly putting poetry on my blog, and a lot of that addresses loving self, loving the ‘haters’, and going after that destiny only meant for you. To that end, I’m editing other books, and finishing up my own works. I GET to do this, and I’m just as humbled as I am ambitious. I have a toddler at home though, so all of my timelines are subject to her growth and development. I may have a book out in the next few months, or it’ll be out next year.

I have clients all over the world, and I’m influenced by their perspectives (as I would be by anyone I meet). I want to seek out that expanded worldview so that it comes through in my stories, poetry, speaking events and workshops, etc. I love a good book like I love an old friend, because they teach me.

That’s how I ended up President of the San Diego Book Awards (by the way, we have some changes coming, and I’m so excited about them). They too, engage me and make for life-poetry. I am a walking parable being witnessed (this is good or bad, depending on where you are looking), and I intend to be and have all I can, so when I walk out of this form of life, I’ll have left it all on the field, and my children can pick up the baton and keep running.

 

That seems an excellent ambition for anyone with kids. As a father who writes, I’m very interested in how other parents who write handle the balancing act involved with that sort of lifestyle. Lauren Groff (“Fates and Furies,” “Delicate Edible Birds”), who recently visited Wroclaw during a literature festival sponsored by a major Polish book chain, spoke of how she has had to rely on her husband to do just about everything, from taking care of diapers and dealing with bottles, to getting the kids ready for the day and taking them to school. But then there is the example set by Toni Morrison (“Beloved”), who, according to Groff, keeps her doors open to her boys all day long, letting them run in whenever they want. What’s it like for you?

Homeostasis is fluctuation for me right now. I write (if I wake in time) for about 1000 words or so in the mornings. Lately we’ve had out-of-town guests, preparations for our own vacations, and the war with perfection (which presents as laziness), I muddle through and try to forgive myself for not being able to do it all.

I work from home and watch my princess as well. She’s a huge (though beloved) distraction from my personal writing. But so are the clients. I love being a freelancer, but no one who does it would ever say it was easy (especially if they knew what they were doing).

 

Do you have any tips for being able to juggle kids and work? Other than staying up at all hours of the night and getting up early the next day (getting little to no sleep in the process)?

GRACE & EXCELLENCE – eschew perfection with all available energy (do the best you can on all fronts, including self-care). Anything else is blowing smoke up someone’s butt. The women who do it all with perfection have skeletons in the closet we do NOT want to know about.

 

Staying away from perfection is something I do quite well at, it seems, though it’s often not on purpose. Nevertheless, though it seems simple, doing the best you can seems to be good advice.

The next question is more along the lines of what you are doing. Although I would guess that your poetry carries deeper meaning to you, tell me instead about the young adult fantasy novel you are working on. What makes it special enough for you to want to write it?

I started it in my senior year of high school. The main character has been one of my deepest secrets and closest friends for that long. She was/is the embodiment of me at 14-15, if I weren’t caring so much what others thought that I silenced myself and followed more than I should have lead. Plus she talks mad smack, makes up words, and is a sassy genius.

 

What’s an example of the more amusing words that she would make up?

I think one of the first ones she made up was ohmylortwhat. It is what it claims to be. She doesn’t use colloquial curse words (she doesn’t need to with some of her phrasing). Just because it seems to be the norm on so many fronts now, I don’t want to lose that respect for parental authority, even as she finds her own voice.

 

Tiffany Vakilian is President of the San Diego Book Awards Association in its 25th year. (As of press time, there is still a couple days left to submit your nominations for this year’s awards.)

That’s always a difficult balance. Of course, you do more than write. Tell me about the changes you are ushering into the San Diego Book Awards as its President. Are they the reason you took on the role, or do they represent targets of opportunity?

I love the San Diego Book Awards, and am honored to serve as President. But I’m also willing to admit some things were/are dated about the contest and awards. I wanted to make strategic use of our brilliant volunteers, and use technology to make things easier for entrants, judges, and board members. For example, instead of an awards ceremony, we’ve given cash prizes to all winners (not just the Chet and Geisel). The association has such awesome history, and prolific people involved. Audrey Geisel (God rest her) gave permission for SDBA to use her husband’s name for the award, and SDBA wants to honor that. Chet Cunningham, the founder, was so excited to see the changes in SDBA before his passing in 2017. His family is still in touch, and appreciative of our efforts. There are cool things happening that will be released soon, and things are only getting better.

 

That’s always good to hear. Looking further into your background, it seems you’ve spent a lot of your life either in the Mid-Atlantic States or down in the Desert Southwest. However, you’ve also spent time on the road touring as a member of a band. I’m sure you have quite a few stories to share from that period in your life. Any favorites?

I “gire and gimble in my wabe”, trying not to be too “mimsy”– but whimsy makes for some awesome storytelling. And what is life, if not one marathon of a story? But you’ve asked for one, so here ya go.

I performed at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio, in my twenties (that sounds hilariously nostalgic), and I can still hear the horns and feel the stage under my feet. We played the Superfly intro, and it was all I could do to keep from coughing onstage. I was getting over a cold that weekend.

Somehow I spilled NyQuil cough syrup on my paper airline ticket, and it was thrown out. I can’t remember if I did it, but I know the trash got taken out, and the ticket was gone. Plus, I had a Baltimore Ravens (American football team) bag in the Cleveland Airport (and there is bad blood between Baltimore and Cleveland). Luckily I was nice to the TSA security people, and they let me board my plane on time (I had to purchase a new ticket, so I was already pressed for time).

Eventually the ticket was refunded, but we had a photo shoot while we were in Cleveland, and when I look at it, I never remember feeling sick, only that I met Sam Moore (of R&B group “Sam and Dave,” renowned for their performance of Isaac Hayes and David Porter’s “Soul Man”) and watched him play with his grandkids. I kinda remember setting down a syrupy ticket, but I also remember feeling like a star in a photo shoot when we were walking around the Rock Hall. One picture makes me feel especially beautiful and in my element and full of joy. I don’t look like I’m on NyQuil or anything. Now, when I look at it, I hope my daughter finds me beautiful.

 

I tend to think that your daughter will always find you beautiful – the image of our parents that we have when we are the youngest children usually defines for us the type of person we find beautiful. Of course we can test this out – do you find your own mother beautiful?

Does today end in ‘y’?

 

So then from where comes the doubts?

Good question. Maybe that’s something I’ll explore in my poetry.

 

Spoken like a true poet. Tell me a bit more about your performance at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I imagine not a lot of bands get to play that venue. How did you get the gig?

I was in a Motown review band, and the leader submitted our demo. The story is really, really long, but maybe I’ll write about it in a memoir sometime. I remember the Wednesday practice I was on fire, and I was excited. But Thursday morning (we were leaving very early Friday), I woke with a burn in my throat. I was so mad! The piano player was only mildly surprised that I was “randomly selected” in Santa Barbara (the only one in our group of 13, and the only one of color at the airport).

We came in there playing our hearts out, and we shut that place down. I can say that with confidence–because we were the only band they didn’t mention when they were giving out awards. I think it was because the band leader gave some merch (or tried to give some merch) to Sam Moore and the other judges right after we performed. When we got home, he got us all last place ribbons, and we had a good laugh about it. Then we went back to performing in Santa Barbara, and up and down California.

 

So, what can you say that you learned from the experience? Is there anything you’d do different?

I wouldn’t have performed SICK. That’s for sure. Anything else, I can’t even remember.

 

Makes perfect sense. What was Sam Moore like in person? I’m sure he wasn’t the only other star you had the opportunity to meet in person – who were some of the others?

I didn’t know who he was, so I just watched this older Black man with his (I assume) grandkids running around him. We were taking pictures, and I felt like a star. I can blame the medication now. Which reminds me, I found the picture! I also found the performance–someone uploaded it to YouTube! I was so proud that I survived it, but now that I listen to it, I can tell I was high on NyQuil! I have so many amazing memories from that night. But the best part is, I lived it. I’ve “done that venue,” and no matter what, I am proud of that part of my life.

 

So what’s the next big goal, or are you just keeping your options open for any other super cool thing to come along?

I don’t know, but whatever it is, God help me do it all the way, because none of us get out of here alive.