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But she set writing aside for several years while working at a community mental health center in blue-collar western New Jersey. Her specialty was working with children, and she handled some cases that "sunk deep claws into me," including a "little five-year-old cherub of a child—her mom brought her in—who had killed the family pet." This inspired her first suspense novel, "180,000 unpublishable words" which nonetheless got good responses from some of the many agents she queried. Cutting 60,000 words from the manuscript, Milchman found her first agent in 2000. But getting published eluded her, time after time.
"When the rejection got too degrading, I'd start another book," she explains. "The books were the fun part. The stories, and my husband, were what kept me going." Still, she worried about the effect her frustration might have on her children. "Is the message 'Don't give up on your passion,' or is the message 'The publishing industry sucks and will beat you down?'" she says. When Cover of Snow finally sold, "It felt surreal. I didn't believe it at first."
She was determined to celebrate—and to ensure that her debut book would reach readers. Enter the book tour.
"On the first one, my publisher thought I was crazy," she admits. In a blog for Writers Unboxed, Milchman wrote, "Do you know how many empty rooms you'll walk into? was the general sentiment. And sure, there were some. But thanks to the stellar, engaged, and creative booksellers of this country, plus my kick-butt independent publicists, I also walked into a fair number of rooms filled with dozens—occasionally hundreds—of readers. And when my debut went into its sixth printing in hardcover, my publisher offered to help set up the tour for my second novel. With a third book about to come out, they have taken on part of the cost as well. I think when one of the world's biggest media conglomerates says, 'This turned out to be a good idea,' you know you're onto something."
She's certainly found a way to stand out in the crowd. As the publishing industry continues to spin like a tilting roulette wheel, many authors have found inventive ways to take the helm of their own careers: blogs, social media, YouTube chats, book trailers, author events via Skype. But Milchman is doing it old-school, making in-person appearances at brick-and-mortar stores where books are hand-sold and readers gather to listen and buy autographed copies. It's the literary equivalent of a garage band hitting the road in a bus—she's given each tour a name that would look right at home on a roadie's t-shirt: Let It Snow Tour 2013, Over the Falls Tour 2014, and the current Bring on the Night Tour. As of this writing, she's in Wisconsin, en route to a two-event day. She sounds so delighted it seems churlish to ask if anyone's tired of driving.
Milchman started networking before she was published, founding Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day in 2010. That year, the December event was celebrated by 80 bookstores; now more than 700 participate. She's also vice president of author programming for International Thriller Writers, and loves giving authors advice about touring. Her near-evangelical fervor for making connections among writers and book-lovers appears to come straight from the heart. In print and in person, she talks about the heightened importance of face-to-face interactions in an increasingly digital age.
Her author events have the vibe of a creative revival meeting. She rarely reads from her books, but talks about their characters and evolution. She's fascinated by the Adirondacks and Catskills, with their stunning beauty, harsh weather, and idiosyncratic inhabitants. "There's a culture clash between the oldtimers and newcomers—they used to be known as 'summer people,' but now they're year-round people." These class rifts permeate As Night Falls, as the two convicts invade a mansion whose luxury features—state-of-the-art soundproofing, floating staircase, and wine cellar—become plot points. So do the complex dynamics of its inhabitants: a resourceful psychologist, her adventure-guide husband, their newly rebellious 15-year-old daughter, and a quirky rescue dog.
Even as she describes her book, Milchman shares the spotlight with her audience, inviting them into the conversation with questions about creativity, inspiration, and obstacles. She listens as well as she speaks, effortlessly picking up threads and weaving observations from audience members into the discourse. Her warmth is both practiced and genuine: she gives good Jenny Milchman.