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Novel Ideas - Robin Friedman: Author, Journalist, and Jersey Girl
05/02/2008 - By Gayle Davis
Author, Journalist, & Jersey Girl
Living In Marlboro typically features stories about people who do just that – live here. For this issue, however, we decided to put a spin on it. Israeli-born Robin Ben-Joseph Friedman came to Marlboro from Staten Island...
...and spent some of her teenage years at Marlboro High School, from which she graduated in 1986. But soon after leaving college and landing a job, she moved up to northwest New Jersey. Although the former Mustang “doesn’t live here anymore,” what makes her story especially interesting is that she is now a published author whose latest book, “The Girlfriend Project,” takes place at her alma mater, with just a slight twist…the setting is at “Marlborough” High. When this Jersey girl sits down at her computer to write, she tends to incorporate some sort of memory she has from her time spent in Monmouth County, and makes it a point to always pay tribute to some area of the Garden State.
Robin developed an interest in writing at an early age. In this interview, you’ll learn of the major influences on her career, challenges she’s faced along the way, how she has dealt with rejection, and how she finally got published!
This homegrown writer has been putting the pen to the paper for as long as she can remember, and now she’s seeing great results! With three published books under her belt and two more on the way, Robin is thrilled, but she takes each day as it comes and relishes the creative process. More importantly, she has stayed grounded and is humbled by her success.
Living In Marlboro sat down with Robin Friedman one Sunday afternoon at a local coffee shop – she loves coffee! – and learned about her journey to becoming a published author and journalist.
LIM: Tell me a little bit about where you were born, grew up, and so forth.
RF: I was born in Israel, in Tel Aviv. After that I spent time on my mom’s kibbutz. I was 5 when we came to the United States; first we moved to Brooklyn, then Staten Island, and then Marlboro.
LIM: How long did you live in Marlboro?
RF: I moved [there] when I was 15 or 16…I think 15…and I didn’t leave until after I got my first apartment when I got a job.
LIIM: Although you didn’t live in Marlboro for that long, what impact did it have on you during your teenage years? Tell me about your time here.
RF: It was very pretty…I always liked that. It was located very centrally to a lot of shore spots and places we liked to go to, especially when we were teens and finally got our licenses. I know it’s more suburban now, but back then it was a little more rural. The people [at that time] all seemed to be similar in background – class, economic circumstances, and religion, which I guess made it feel like you were in a community with people just like you – so it was a very secure, positive place to be as a teenager.
LIM: Where did you like to hang out back in the day?
RF: Well, there were a lot of pizza parlors all over. I actually worked at McDonald’s in the drive-thru on Route 9. I think it’s still there.
LIM: Yes, on Route 520 and Route 9!
RF: We hung out every weekend at the Manalapan Diner, which was close by. We were there, literally, every week, so we gave them a lot of business!
LIM: You went to Marlboro High School. Did you have a favorite teacher or one who left an impression that you still carry with you to this day?
RF: Yes…Mr. Giebas, who taught English. He was not only a great teacher, but he was very outgoing and had high energy. He made writing and reading seem cool and fun. I think he really made me love the idea of writing and reading in general because he was so passionate about books. I think it maybe rubbed off on me in an unconscious way because I didn’t ultimately decide right then and there what I was going to do, but I think he had an influence.
LIM: What grade were you in when you had him?
RF: I think it was junior year. He made us read a lot of classic books that were written at a higher level that we wouldn’t have normally read on our own. I think it was good for us to be exposed to that kind of writing.
LIM: What were some of your jobs and interests while you were in high school?
RF: I worked at McDonald’s. After that I got a job at the Marlboro Public Library. I was what you would call a “page,” which is a student who reshelves books that have been returned. They also help people find what they need and check out books. I also worked at Great Adventure during the summers, and all of my friends worked there, too! I worked at a newspaper called the Freehold Transcript [now the News Transcript] while I was in high school, and then, in college, I worked for the Red Bank Register and the Asbury Park Press.
LIM: You had some interesting jobs at the high school as well…
RF: Yes. I worked for the school paper called “The Hitching Post,” and I was on the yearbook committee where I took photos. I did write a story for “The Hitching Post” that ended up on the front page, and that was very exciting for me as a young girl.
LIM: So do you think you were consciously gearing yourself up for the career you have now, or do you think it was something you were always interested in?
RF: I have always loved writing ever since I was real little…about 5. So I don’t know if I planned on what kind of writing I wanted to do, but I seemed to gravitate toward journalism only because that’s where it seemed you could do it for a living. As far as writing books…I think that it just sort of happened on its own.
LIM: You graduated from which college?
LIM: So, what was your first “real job” after you gratuated?
RF: I was an editorial assistant at Princeton University in the Department of Molecular Biology. My job was to put together this monthly journal. It was very technical and dealt with genetics. So that’s what I did for 4 years.
LIM: What came next?
RF: After that I got a job in New York City for a publishing house called Walker & Company in their children’s books department. Actually, that’s really how I developed an interest in children’s books – starting out on the other side as an editorial assistant and reading a lot, especially in what is called the “slush pile.” This is where authors submit manuscripts that are read and maybe one out of a thousand is accepted for publication. I think that’s what gave me the idea to try writing on my own, specifically for kids.
LIM: So how did you get started?
RF: Well, I started writing picture books – books for real little kids that have illustrations – and I did a lot of those and sent them out, but I didn’t have any luck. They were rejected, and then I thought [that] maybe I want to write a novel, but just that word was intimidating. I had never taken a class or read any books about how someone writes a novel. I didn’t really know what I needed to do to write one, or how to do it. I figured what I needed to do was to read other novels. I read about a hundred novels for teens. I read them very closely…paying attention to how they start and how they end; what happens in certain scenes; how the author transitions from one event to the other; what does the beginning of a chapter read like; what does the end read like…and I think after reading so many, I said, “Maybe I could try it!” So I sat down and started writing straight through and finished a draft. I went back and revised it and sent it out and it was accepted!
LIM: And what was that first book?
RF: It’s called “How I Survived My Summer Vacation and Lived to Write the Story.” It’s based on my husband’s childhood in Matawan.
LIM: How did you market yourself?
RF: I decided I wanted to write more and to be an author. I read a lot about publicity and promotion, building a career, and that kind of thing. I think slowly…it took time. I just did a little bit over the years, and it helped me to become an author.
LIM: Did it help that you worked at the publishing company?
RF: I knew a lot of the ins and outs, I guess. I knew lots of the terminology that many beginning authors wouldn’t know, like: what an option clause is; how much of a royalty is reasonable to expect; what an average advance is; what returns are; what discounts are; what a book fair is; what a book club is; what sub-rights are. So yeah, I knew things that I guess gave me an advantage to knowing how the whole system worked. I like to say it was like “boot camp” because I learned about publishing from the inside out and from the outside in.
LIM: Do you have a particular style or audience that you write for?
RF: I would say that my favorite reading group is between 10 and 14 years old.
LIM: Tell me about some of the other books you have written.
RF: My book after “How I Survived My Summer Vacation” is “The Silent Witness.” It’s a true story about the Civil War – a complete departure from what I had written as my first book. Basically, my husband and I were watching the miniseries that Ken Burns did. The very first episode was about a family in Virginia, the McLeans, and how they played this amazing role in the war. I thought, “What a nice gem of a story.” It had a nice beginning and ending. It was so interesting and compelling [that] I wondered why nobody had captured this as a picture book or story for kids. My husband said, “That’s because you are going to do it!” The thing was, I had never written non-fiction; it would involve a lot of research, facts, and details. “That’s something that experts do,” I told my husband. I didn’t have any expertise in the Civil War, but I figured I would try it, so I did. I wrote a manuscript and sent it out, and it was accepted! So that became my second book.
LIM: What is the title of your latest book?
RF: “The Girlfriend Project.” That came out in April of 2007. It will be in paperback this summer (2008). For that, again, I decided to try something else, to write for an older audience.
LIM: It takes place at your old stomping ground, Marlboro High. Can you give us a brief description of the story and tell us how you drew parallels from your own experiences living here?
RF: Well, I wanted to write about teens, and I have no teens of my own…the only reference point I had was my own teen years, which were very vivid in my mind. So I thought, “Well, some things don’t change.” I mean, the world is different now than when I was a teenager, but some things are timeless…the way teenagers feel about each other, and that kind of thing. I said, “I think I can capture that if I think back to what it was like when I was in high school. That was the starting point for me to set the book at a fictional high school called Marlborough, spelled with a “ugh” at the end, and to build it around the town, Monmouth County, and New Jersey. That is the background for the story that is basically a romance told from a boy’s point of view.
LIM: Care to share a bit of the story with us?
RF: It’s about a 17-year-old teen named Reed Walton who lives in Marlborough. He’s really smart, takes AP classes, and wants to be a doctor one day. The only problem is [that] he’s never had a girlfriend…he’s never even kissed a girl! And now that he’s a senior, he would really like to change that, so over the summer, before senior year starts, his braces come off, he gets taller, decides he’s going to wear contacts instead of glasses, and lo and behold, he’s like a hottie! All the girls notice, and his friends decide they are going to capitalize on that and are going to create “The Girlfriend Project” to get him a girlfriend. The story takes off from there.
LIM: What are some of the other local points of interest in the book?
RF: Well, he lives in Marlborough and goes to Marlborough High School. There’s a scene at The Melting Pot in Red Bank. They also go to the beach in Belmar and Manasquan, and they make a lot of important decisions at the Marlborough Diner, which is a tribute to the Manalapan Diner. It’s very heavy on New Jersey. There are a lot of statistics and facts about the state. There’s a subplot about the motto contest we had a few years ago, where New Jersey was to come up with a new state motto and people sent in suggestions; so it sort of pokes fun at that. It’s a real valentine to the Garden State!
LIM: Has it been successful?
RF: Yes, yes. It’s doing well. I get a lot of e-mails from young girls that tell me how much they love it. What I really like is that it makes them think more than they normally would about how a boy might feel. They may have never given much thought to boys’ feelings before and now they do.
LIM: You have another book coming out called “Nothing.” What’s the plot of that story?
RF: I never seem to do the same thing twice. I always seem to be doing new things. That is also a novel for teens. It’s contemporary, but it’s not funny. It’s very serious, although it has light moments. It’s about a 17-year-old boy who develops bulimia, which is an eating disorder. Most people don’t really relate it to affecting boys…they associate it [more] with girls. So it’s very new in that sense. There are hardly any books about boys with eating disorders.
LIM: Do you have any long-term goals?
RF: I would like to keep on writing. I love to meet readers. I love the e-mails I get from fans. My favorite thing is just capturing something in a page or a book – something that really interests me – and having it resonate in a book with other people. That is my ultimate favorite part of this whole thing.
LIM: You work full time for the New Jersey Jewish News?
LIM: What’s your role there?
RF: I’m the special projects editor. It’s a weekly paper for a Jewish audience, but every month we have special supplements and magazines. We cover topics like weddings, bar mitzvahs, fashion, home design, travel, and lifestyle kind of subjects. Basically, I manage them and do some writing and editing, and get involved in the design, too!
LIM: When you aren’t writing, what are some of your other passions?
RF: I love cooking and I love baking! Actually, the boy character, Reed, in “The Girlfriend Project” bakes with his grandmother. I also love cats. I have two, and, of course, in the book Reed’s friends have cats. I love gardening, and I love road trips and coffee!
LIM: I read on your website that you have your own version of 27 Dresses?
RF: I have always loved getting dressed up. I know it’s a trend in America to dress down. People over the last 50 years used to dress up, but now not as much. I mean, women used to wear gloves and hats and that type of thing…I love that. I have a lot of embellished jewelry, hats, gloves, feather boas…and I have gowns!
LIM: When do you wear all of this stuff?
RF: Whenever there is some occasion to dress up, like New Year’s Eve, I wear a gown with gloves.
LIM: Are you the only person wearing a gown?
RF: Yes! And my husband wears a tuxedo. We’re the only ones who dress this way, and they expect it! So if we were to come differently, they would say, “Where’s your gown?” And, of course, if we get invited to a party, a wedding, or bar mitzvah…I’m always looking for a place to get dressed up.
LIM: You mentioned your husband is from Matawan. Is there “a tale of two cities” here?
RF: No, we met at a Halloween party.
LIM: Were you wearing a gown?
RF: No, I was a witch actually! We were on line for the bathroom and he asked me if I was a good witch or a bad witch, and we’ve been together ever since!
LIM: So did you answer the question? Which type of witch were you?
RF: Oh, I was a good witch!
LIM: We’ve just learned the beginnings of the Robin Friedman story. If we were to meet again in 10 years, what would you like to see added to your biography?
RF: Wow! Well, I hope to have written more books; I hope to have met more readers and more teens. And I hope to still be close to all of the things I love, that are important to me.
LIM: Big, bigger…what’s your dream?
RF: I don’t have that kind of dream…to want fame, fortune, or glory. To me that isn’t as satisfying as just personally capturing and writing things that resonate with other people. To me that’s so much more satisfying than any big dream or event, although I wouldn’t mind. I enjoy crafting things and creating them on a day-to-day basis rather than any big bang! That doesn’t seem to last as long. It’s ultimately about what I am creating, and that’s where the fulfillment comes from for me.
For more information about author Robin Friedman, visit her website: www.robinfriedman.com
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