Cindy Callaghan left a 20-year corporate career to write books for tweens. And she’s making the most of what she calls Career 2.0. Her fifth title with publishers Simon & Schuster goes on sale this month, and Amazon Studios plans to release an original series based on her first book, “Just Add Magic”—a story about three friends who find a magic cookbook in an attic.
DT: Would you mind sharing a little background?
CC: I grew up in New Jersey. When I graduated from high school, I really wanted to go far away and sew my oats. I had also, at a very young age, had a big interest in TV, movies and Hollywood. So I was naturally drawn to going to school in California, which is what I did. I went to the University of Southern California (USC) for two years and had an amazing experience living on the West Coast. It was very different from the Northeast. I made wonderful friends.
But I had an epiphany that there are very few people who have big success in Hollywood or in the TV industry. I felt like that was a very risky proposition, and I was also far away from home and found myself getting homesick for, not only my family, but the Northeast. So I ended up transferring back East and found myself at the University of Delaware, which I enjoyed very much. I graduated with an English degree (in 1992). I loved the study of literature and writing. A short while later, I found myself getting a master’s in business.
I got an MBA from the University of Delaware (1996), and at the very tail end of that, I secured an internship at a local pharmaceutical company. One thing led to another. I got married. I had children. I got a full-time job there, and it blossomed into a wonderful career in communications. I was very satisfied. I had great success there. I was learning all the time, meeting interesting people and traveling to wonderful places.
DT: Why a career change?
CC: Something always nagged at me that I wanted to do more creative writing. I did a lot of business writing in my job. I was writing every day for work, but it wasn’t purely creative writing. And it wasn’t until I took an evening course on fiction writing that the floodgate opened, and I was brought back to something I loved so much a long time ago. And once I was bitten by the bug, I couldn’t stop and I didn’t want to. I just loved it. I started with small projects that grew into bigger projects, and I met more people through writing, both professionally and as a hobby. I had one project that was particularly strong. It was called “Kelly Quinn’s Secret Cooking Club.” And I finished it. I finished a whole novel. It was amazing. I edited it and revised it and revised it with lots of different critique partners and friends. And that’s the project that secured me representation from a literary agent. And that agent sold the book to Simon & Schuster, and a little while later, it was renamed and remarketed as “Just Add Magic.” That was my first publication. Things moved forward in the space of this tween girl that I really found that I not only liked, but that I had a really good voice for. Now I just secured my seventh book there.
DT: How did you come to write for tweens (ages 8-12)?
CC: So “Just Add Magic” came out. I had written a follow-up book called “Sydney MacKenzie Knocks ’Em Dead.” That book actually didn’t sell. It was submitted to publishers, but it wasn’t picked up. So I have a little bit of a gap between “Just Add Magic” and my next book, which was “Lost in London.” “Lost in London” is different than “Just Add Magic,” in that it’s much more urban and it’s an adventure around a foreign city. So they both are geared toward the same audience—tween girls—of which I was one, one day. (She laughs.) Interestingly, when I was a tween girl, I was what I’ll call a reluctant reader. I wasn’t the type of kid who was under the blankets with a flashlight reading in the middle of the night. I had trouble finding books that I really liked. I liked “Encyclopedia Brown,” but there weren’t a lot of books that I loved. That’s one of the things I always think about when I’m writing a book for tween girls—I just want to interest them. I’m not really big on there being a huge lesson or a huge moral, although I love the themes of friendship, family … but I want them to be entertained and laugh. And I want it to move fast so that they don’t put it down. So I really define my market not just as tween girls, but potentially tween girls who are reluctant readers to keep them interested and give them the reading bug.
DT: Talk about your other books.
CC: “Lost in London” did very well and continues to do very well. And I had another book I had been working on that took place in Ireland. That book is called, “Lucky Me.” Simon & Schuster published that one next. Even though it’s not called “Lost in,” it has that same “Lost in” theme and journey around Ireland. That also did well, so immediately thereafter, we talked about following up with—where else can we be lost? And I’m a little bit of a francophile—I minored in French and I’ve always had a huge interest in France and Paris—so, of course, I wanted to take a gang of girls to Paris, and it seemed like the next great stop. I had this huge interest in pizza and I had an idea for a pizza matchmaker story in the U.S., and I thought I could take that idea and put it in Rome and it would be even better. So those became the next two books. “Lost in Paris” just came out this past March and it’s doing very well. And “Lost in Rome” will come out in August. Just recently, in the past couple of weeks, I have a new deal that came out with Simon & Schuster for another “Lost in” book. I’m going to keep the city hush-hush because I don’t want to jinx it. But it’s a little closer to home, we’ll say. And then they bought “Sydney MacKenzie Knocks ’Em Dead,” my second book. It’s slated to come out in 2017. And I’m really excited because I love that story and the characters are so fun. It’s very different from the “Lost in” books and I’ve always wanted it to come to market.
DT: So, are you a millionaire yet?
CC: (She laughs.) Wouldn’t that be nice? No. I work very hard and luckily I have great literary representation, but I’m not in the millionaire club.
DT: I was kind of joking, but are you making a decent living as an author? I don’t mean to make you feel awkward.
CC: It is a little bit awkward. I think a decent living is relative. I’m rewarded because I’m able to get paid to do what I love. I don’t know that many people who can say that. I can work in my sweatpants at home if I want. I can go to Paris to work if I want because it’s research. I make my own schedule. It’s the type of career that really involves my family and friends because we talk about it, and they’re all involved in the process in some way. It’s really a dream job. And I loved my corporate job, too. It’s very different. I kind of think of it as Career 2.0. It’s my second career. I treat my writing very much as a business. I make a schedule. I set goals for myself. In addition to writing, I do a lot of promotion for my books. I have a strong public relations background from my professional career before this. And I apply all of those learnings to what I do with my writing.
DT: You talk about encouraging the next generation of readers. Is that what you meant by saying you are targeting reluctant readers?
CC: Yes, that’s exactly what I meant. I really didn’t find the joy of reading until later. Really, it was after college. During college, being an English major, I read a lot. But I wasn’t reading for enjoyment. And it wasn’t until that gap I had between college and grad school that I started browsing around bookstores and picking things up. And I tried lots of different things and fell in love with thrillers. Michael Connelly’s book called “The Poet” was probably one of the first books—that and Grisham’s “The Firm” were the first books that I loved and devoured and thought, “My gosh, I really love this.” And to this day, I read a lot of legal thrillers, and I don’t write—well, I do write adult books, which haven’t been published, one of which is a thriller. But I like to apply those same writing techniques—fast pace, short chapters, lots of dialogue—in my writing for tweens. Because, personally, I like a book that moves fast. And I like to apply that principle to tween books as well.
DT: Can we talk about the Amazon series and how it came about?
CC: Sure. This is a story of serendipity because so many bizarre things had to collide to make this happen. I told you I went to USC my first two years, and, like everyone, I had freshman roommates. Fast forward many, many years. I’m living in Delaware and I’m on Facebook and I find my freshman-year college roommate. And she lived in Pennsylvania. So we meet for lunch—we had lost touch—and we’re talking and it turns out she had stayed in L.A. and was writing for an animated series for like 20 years. And I told her that I had a book published and that I always thought “Just Add Magic” had more potential beyond being a book. I had always thought of it very visually, even episodically, or as a movie. But I really didn’t know what to do with that or where to go next. And she didn’t know either. She said, “I can give you the name of my film agent, but I’m not sure she’s going to be the right person to help you. But she might be able to give you some ideas of what to do next.” I connected with that woman. I sent her a copy of the book. We spoke on the phone a couple of times. But then I didn’t hear from her, and I figured it just kind of fell by the wayside. Months and months went by, and I was in the carpool line at Padua picking up my daughter and the phone rings. It’s a call from L.A. I’ve learned to always take a call when it comes in from an L.A. area code. And it was her. She said, “I finished your book. I loved it, and I want to represent it.” So she submitted it to studios.
DT: This gets even better, doesn’t it?
CC: Meanwhile, I went to a conference in New York City called ThrillerFest. It’s the crème de la crème of thriller authors who come together once a year. It’s an amazing experience. I told you one of the first books I read was “The Poet” by Michael Connelly. I love his books. I’ve read them all. I love his detective. His name is Harry Bosh. And Connelly is the keynote speaker at ThrillerFest while I’m there. I’m trying to meet him and I want to get my picture taken with him. One of the things he said in the keynote was, “there’s exciting things coming up for my character Harry Bosh.” He said, “I can’t tell you what it is because I don’t want to jinx it.” I was really curious what he had going on. Was it going to be a movie? So that evening, I went to a session called “Book to Film.” During that session, another call came in from L.A., and it was the agent, who said, “Amazon is interested.” There was so much irony there because that’s the session I was at and that’s the phone call I got. And I was there with Michael Connelly. Then a couple of weeks later, Michael Connelly issued a press release that his series was coming out on Amazon. So he and I are like Amazon siblings, and he doesn’t even know it. (She laughs.)
DT: How did the whole pilot thing go?
CC: The pilot episode aired this past February. I had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity last summer to go to L.A. for the filming of the pilot with my 11-year-old daughter. And we got to be on set and watch it happen. And then I got to see the pilot come out and see it with my friends and family. Then the series was green-lit a handful of weeks later for 12 more episodes. So I have to pinch myself. I feel like I’m telling a story when I’m saying it, but this is really something that I have lived through and I continue to. It’s just wonderful. That little gang of “Just Add Magic” girls have literally been in my head—it came out in 2010, and I started working on it in 2000, so they’ve been in my head for 15 years and now I can see them on the screen. It’s just amazing. It gives me goose bumps when I talk about it.
DT: When does it air?
CC: I’m not positive because they are doing 12 more episodes, and the development and production takes time. I’m not certain.
DT: Anything else you’d like to add?
CC: I would love to be able to inspire young girls to read. I think it’s an amazing gift, and it’s something I missed out on because I wasn’t into it. If I can change that in some way, that’s a win.