Sometimes, you have to give it all up to get what you want. That’s what happened with Katrina Leno, who went all in to turn her lifelong goal to be an author into a reality. This is an inspiring story for anyone who’s wondered what life could be like if…
Do you remember your first week in LA?
I remember being terrified. I just finished up a grad school program in Scotland. Before Scotland, I had been living in New York for four years. So I basically went from New York to Scotland and immediately to LA.
I moved into my boyfriend's apartment. We have only been dating for about ten months at that point. So when I moved in with him it was kind of just a temporary stop. I was also finishing up grad school. I was doing the last few months remotely.
I felt a lot of pressure to finish grad school, immediately get a job, immediately get a car, immediately get my own apartment. And then during that time, I was dealing with my first book, which was coming out a year from then. It was a lot. I don't remember specifics, but I just remember this feeling of sinking.
Did you come to LA because of your boyfriend?
Yeah. When I moved to Scotland, I knew that I didn't want to go back to New York. I'd been there for four years. I was a little bit tired of it. I also kind of felt like it had given me everything it could. So I knew I wanted to go somewhere else, but meeting my boyfriend, Shane, really felt... I felt really lucky because I had never considered LA. It had never crossed my mind.
Did you meet in New York?
I met him at a wedding in Vermont. He had been living in LA for two years at that point, I think. And so then he was like, "Well, you should obviously just come here," and I did. It was maybe the riskiest decision I've ever made in my life, but it definitely worked.
How was your experience in Scotland?
Scotland was a lot. It was great and it was terrible. There were positive things, and there were negative things.
Essentially, after about three and a half years in New York, I realized that I had been talking about being a writer. I worked as a retail manager but I really wanted to launch myself into writing. So I quit my job and I moved back in with my parents. I think I lived with them for about nine months. During that time, I wrote my first book. I got my agent. I sold my first two books and I applied to grad school and got in.
I chose Scotland for a couple of reasons. Number one, school is very affordable over there. So I did a one-year masters program in Edinburgh for creative writing. And I also picked Scotland because it's Scotland. I've always wanted to go.
It's very romantic. So everything about Scotland was great except I met Shane two days before I moved. And there was this very instant connection and it was like, “What are we going to do now?”
How did you deal with that?
Going to Scotland was so far outside of my comfort zone that I was having a lot of mixed feelings about it. Kind of like cold feet leading up to it. So I struggled a lot with, "Am I tricking myself into having feelings for someone because I don't want to go?"
When I got to Scotland, Shane asked if he could come to visit me. I arrived on September 23rd. He showed up on October 25th. He basically immediately came to visit. That was nerve-wracking.
I remember going to the airport and thinking to myself, “He's literally going to be here for a week and if I don't like him, there's nowhere for him to go.” But it was great. It was really magical. We did not know each other and for a full week we wandered around Edinburgh doing all these really fun things.
I ended up staying in Scotland for about ten months instead of a year, mostly because the program was so terrible.
It's nice to hear these stories. Jumping back to now, did you always want to be writer?
I always wanted to write. I've been writing since I was six. Just short stories. I wrote my first novel when I was probably 12. I mean, it was terrible. It was about The X-Files.
I was published for the first time when I was 16 in a literary journal called Connecticut Review, which I don't even think exists anymore. It was a short story. I was published again a few more times in college. I went to college for English with a focus in creative writing.
And then I kind of just…. I don't know if I was afraid of taking it too seriously or afraid of committing myself to it. But it took me until I was probably 27 when finally I was like, "What am I doing? This is something that I have been actively working toward my whole life. I write everyday. But then I go and work at a retail job, so why am I doing this?” I thought I might as well really try. I knew I loved doing it so much that the fear of failure was keeping me from even trying.
How did you overcome that fear?
I think that I tricked myself a little bit because I moved back to my parents’ house to write. I had this very strong fear of not succeeding and living with my parents forever.
I basically gave myself this ultimatum. Either write this book and succeed, or live with your parents in a part of Connecticut where you don’t want to live, and have bad self-esteem. And I think it really worked. I mean, I wrote the first draft of The Half Life of Molly Pierce in three weeks.
I started querying agents before I was finished, which you're not really supposed to do. But I heard how long the process takes. I started getting replies right away. And so the last day of writing Half Life took 12 hours, because someone requested the book and it was not done yet.
The short answer is, I just gave myself no other option.
So the book got picked up?
Yeah. I signed with HarperCollins for a two-book deal. What they do is buy the first book and then they buy whatever you write next.
Yeah. You don't give them a summary. You don't give them anything. Obviously they can refuse it if they don't like it.
So I met with them and the book went immediately into edits. They edited the book and I think the whole editing process was pretty much done by the time I went to Scotland.
Amazing! How do you go about promoting a book?
So book tours aren’t really done anymore unless you’re super famous, like a celebrity or any sort of public figure who's written a book. But if you're a debut author or not really a bestselling author, then publishers don't assign book tours anymore because people don't really go.
For Half Life, I did one bookstore signing in Manhattan Beach. Only my friends went. I think that I needed to do that for myself to see that strangers don't go to these things. You know what I mean? I think I needed to do it just to get it out of my system.
So it's a lot of self-promotion. It's a lot of social media. It's a lot of networking. It's a lot of word-of-mouth. And then on HarperCollins' end, they print ARCs of the book, which means Advanced Reading Copy. Basically, the ARC is like a paperback and they bring that to book fairs and that creates pre-publishing buzz. I would say that 90 percent of a book's success has to do with word-of-mouth.
How do you even make that happen?
Harper sends you this 50-page document about how to be successful at social media. It's intense. I mean, I have a personal Facebook, a personal Instagram. So three or four years ago, I made a Twitter for my book, I made a website for my book, and I made a Facebook author page for my book. And I really floundered for a very long time in social media. It's not necessarily in my nature to do it.
But I feel like in the interim between book one and book two, I've really figured it out. I realized that I don't have to put anything out there that I don't want. So it doesn't have to feel like self-promotion; it’s more organic, like I talk about the books that I’m reading.
There's this huge YA [Young Adult] community that I didn't even know existed before my first book. It's very daunting at first. I'm getting emails from actual teens and getting emails from people my age in their 30s. I'm getting emails from everyone: "Do you want to be on my blog?" or "Can I do your cover release?" And at first, it was just really overwhelming. Kind of keeping everything straight and then knowing who to respond to.
But I've met a lot of really positive, great people who love books. They love reading books. They love talking about books. So learning where I fit in that community and who I want to talk to, and that's been nice.
What is it about that genre that appeals to you so much?
I never wanted to write YA. When I was growing up, I read a lot. I went right from middle grade to reading really inappropriate adult stuff. So when I was like 11, 12, 13 years old, I was reading mostly stuff like Stephen King novels or Thomas Harris' Silence of the Lambs.
Just really dark stuff. That was, what, 15 years ago? So I feel like even 15 years ago, there kind of wasn't a YA category. There was Judy Blume.
I feel like now you walk into a bookstore and there's a Young Adult section. Fifteen years ago, YA was lumped in with children's books and there was big divide between that stuff and books like To Kill a Mockingbird.
That's young adult?
Yeah. So mostly Young Adult, the way I understand it, is that your protagonist is a young adult. So in To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout is maybe like 12.
Obviously, everyone reads it. It's a classic book. But that's why I feel like Young Adult is so accessible to everyone now, because you don't have to be 16 to want to read about a 16-year-old.
Right. How about Catcher in the Rye?
Catcher in the Rye is Young Adult.
YA is a much broader category than I thought. In that case, do you see yourself as exclusively a YA author?
A lot of people don't realize how much you can do within YA. I feel like my first novel was very dark. It's about mental illness. It's about depression, suicide attempts.
So I think that you can almost do anything you want in YA. In the YA world, we're constantly having to hear criticism from people who think that YA is less important.
I don't necessarily know what could be more important than writing books for young adults. At that age, I was incredibly depressed. I had been diagnosed with depression when I was 13. I feel like if I had all these amazing books available to me then that dealt with mental illness, dealt with depression—how can someone say that's not important?
When I was 13, I felt really alone and that's probably why I was reading Silence of Lambs every night. And so I love that there's this massive explosion of YA.
Tell me about your second novel.
The second novel is called The Lost & Found. It's definitely not as dark as my first book. It's about two teens. One of them lives in Downtown LA. One of them lives in Maryland. And if I say it's not dark, it's going to sound a little dark. Basically, they both experienced really massive tragedies when they were very young. These massive tragedies have become a part of their lives now. It's helped shape their identity. They meet in an online support group. And for their own separate reasons, they decided to take a road trip to Austin. And one lovely side effect of that is that they get to meet in person for the first time. So it's a road trip book. It's also a little magical realism.
When I approached The Lost & Found, I was coming off of a full year and a half of having another novel rejected.
I had been writing a novel that I thought would be my second book, but it just wasn’t working. I’d hear, "Oh, do this edit. Oh, do this edit. Oh, do this edit." After three or four edits, I finally reached this point where I couldn’t work on the book anymore. It wasn’t the same book. Firstly, I was really bored by it. Secondly, I couldn’t stomach the idea of trying to do a fourth or a fifth rewrite. And so I wrote The Lost & Found in about two or three months over the summer. I seem to only write books in the summer for some reason.
I took bits and pieces from different stories I've written over the course of my life. I wrote this really weird play when I was 23 or something, where a girl gets stabbed with a pen. And that teeny little idea from that one play ended up becoming Frances, one of the girls in The Lost & Found. Her tragedy is that her father stabbed her with a fountain pen when she was little. So I just took that idea and started writing.
I think it's a lot more hopeful than my first book. It’s a lot funnier. There's more romance. It still has some darkness, because that’s who I am. Everything I write is going to have a little bit of darkness.
And so now you're an author full-time?
Yes. I also do freelance copyediting during the week. So that's been great. But yeah, I quit my last retail job two years ago. I signed a new two-book deal in November. I have a third book coming out in a year called Everything All at Once. And then I'm currently working on book four.
Do you look back at that moment when you moved in with your parents and see how your life went a different way?
I can't even talk about it, because the feeling is so big. But yeah, I think about that decision all the time. I think about everything I was feeling: the fear, the excitement, the adrenaline, everything. And I feel really proud of myself for making that decision. I don't think I would have been able to do any of this had I tried to do it while still having a job.
You threw it all in. That takes balls.
Thank you. And then again, there are plenty of writers who have full-time careers and also write books. But it's very hard for me because I write so much.
You’re also a musician?
Yes. I grew up trained in the piano. I played the piano and then I learned guitar when I was in my teens. Then I kind of put it away for a really long time. And when I wrote Half Life, there's a scene where the characters go to a coffee shop and someone plays a song. I was driving one day and I thought that it would be cool if I could write that song so we could use it to promote the book. Because, like I said, a lot of promoting a book is based your own ideas and your own ways to create content.
I had never really tried to write a song before, and at that point, I wasn't really playing guitar that much. And so I made up this melody. I had never even sung a note in front of anyone before.
I said to Shane, "I think I just wrote a song. Can you figure out what notes I'm singing and what chords I'm playing?" So we sat down and wrote this entire song called Louella in a couple of hours. I thought it was really great, because there's no pressure for me with songwriting or playing music. There's a lot of pressure now with writing, of course.
I feel like it taps into the same thing, the same way of storytelling for me. So I bought a guitar and I figured out that I really like writing songs. And Shane, of course, is a genius guitar player. So we put it together.
It's so great that you can do it together.
Yeah. It's been really nice. Our band is called The July. We released our album Everything Is Fine last year. It is really nice to both have this creative outlet, where we can either write songs together or we can bring songs or a few chords to each other. Yeah, it's been really nice.
Do you think that music will be a bigger part in your future?
I think right now, it's something that I enjoy. Shane and I are both really busy and we both work full-time.
So I think right now, we're taking it very relaxed. We released the EP just because it felt really nice to say, "This is something that we worked on together."
We definitely have an idea for the second album and we have an idea about how to record it. And we have songs written and we’re still writing songs. But it's nice that it's so relaxed.
What’s the best piece of advice you could give?
People ask me a lot about how to get published. How do I find an agent? How do I submit a great letter? So the best advice I can give is to have as much knowledge as you can. Research the industry. Understand why YA books are selling right now. If you want to write YA, you should read a ton of YA. If you want to write adult, you should read a ton of adult fiction.
Knowledge is twofold. You hear a lot that the publishing world is really hard to break into. But I think that is a myth, because most people just don't do their homework. So most people query agents incorrectly. Or they send them five chapters of their book, when the agent only asked for one. Those are little things.
I think knowledge also alleviates a lot of internal fears—that's the other side of it for me. So get any knowledge that can make you feel empowered with the decision that you're going to make.
I think it really is 90 percent determination and drive and knowledge, versus 10 percent talent. I know some people have a hard time with that idea, because it puts more of the work on them.
What does LA mean to you?
I think LA means not overthinking things. There's a real spontaneity here, and there was spontaneity in my decision to move here. There's spontaneity in how much is available to do here, how big the city is.
California is so beautiful.
I really feel like LA is just living in the now. Living very much in the moment and not feeling too tied down to anything.
Find out more about Katrina and her upcoming books at katrinaleno.com
Photography by Magdalena Wielopolski ©