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Online Exclusive: Extended Q&A with Ember Reichgott Junge

Ember Reichgott Junge, the grand prize winner of WD's 21st Annual Self-Published Book Awards, has had a fascinating career in politics and legislation. Her book Zero Chance of Passage: The Pioneering Charter School Story wowed the WD staff and judges, as well as several other national competitions. Below is an extended conversation we had with Reichgott Junge, shortly after she won the grand prize award. At the beginning of the interview, you'll find a lot of the nitty, gritty details of her whole story, which we couldn't find room to fit into the magazine. But from the middle to the end of the interview, there are plenty of self-publishing tips and advice, good for beginners and veterans.

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Former Minnesota State Senator Ember Reichgott Junge, age 60, is author of Minnesota’s 1991 first-in-nation charter school law, a winner of the 2000 Innovations in American Government Award from Harvard University’s JFK School of Government. The 18-year legislator served as Senate Assistant Majority Leader before stepping down from public service in 2000.

In honor of the 20th anniversary of chartering, Reichgott Junge wrote Zero Chance of Passage: The Pioneering Charter School Story, a candid memoir of her challenging journey of pioneering the first charter school law from idea to national movement. The book has won multiple national awards, including Third Grand Prize Winner for Nonfiction Books in the 2013 Next Generation Indie Book Awards, and Best Regional Book of the Year by Reader Views Literary Awards.

Reichgott Junge is a national spokesperson on charter public schools, past board member of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, and current board vice chair of Washington D.C. based Charter Schools Development Corporation (CSDC). She was inducted into the National Charter Schools Hall of Fame in 2008, and received the Brian Bennett Education Warrior Award from Democrats for Education Reform in 2012.

Describe your writing process for this book.

When I chose to retire from the Minnesota Senate after eighteen years of service at the end of 2000, two events occurred during my final year that underscored the significance of the passage of the charter school law in Minnesota. In May 2000, President Bill Clinton came to Minnesota to visit City Academy, the first charter school in the nation. He repeated his pledge to work toward the opening of 3,000 charter schools during his presidency. It was not lost on me that this was also his final year in office, and we would soon lose our chartering-champion-in-chief. Then, in October of 2000, the charter school law was selected as one of ten winners of the Innovations in American Government Award from the John F. Kennedy School at Harvard University. The selection committee was chaired by David Gergen.

2001 was fast approaching as the tenth anniversary of the passage of the 1991 charter school law in Minnesota. I wanted to do something to celebrate that milestone. It was already clear at that time that chartering was taking on a life of its own across the nation, and there were many different stories as to why and how chartering got started. Myths were becoming rampant and the story was being “altered” to fit various political agendas. It was also evident that the legislative history in Minnesota was not readily accessible because of the unusual way the law passed. People who researched legislative audiotapes would not find much under “charter school bill” because there really wasn’t one. The legislation was attached to larger education budget bills.

I started thinking about writing the story so that it would be preserved for the future. My two legislative assistants helped me organize the volumes of materials we had gathered on chartering from 1988 through 2000. We kept hard copies of multiple newspaper articles, documents, letters, etc. I am grateful this occurred before the internet was widely used, because the hard copies of first person documents were so helpful in the writing process.

My best intentions to write at least a magazine article around 2001 quickly faded as both of my parents became ill. My sister and I were the primary caretakers for our parents, who lived separately. My mother’s emphysema grew worse in 2000, and she passed away in April 2001. My father’s heart disease took his life in September 2001. Their passing, along with the death of my sister’s husband just two years prior, changed our world, and the charter school materials were filed away and forgotten.

Then one morning many years later, in December 2011, I woke up and realized that the 20th anniversary of the passage of the first charter school law was now fast approaching. It was time to write the story. By then chartering had expanded to nearly 2 million students in about 40 states, and various controversies were bubbling up in the states. It was time to set the historical record straight, which had all but been forgotten.

I was employed full-time throughout 2011 as Vice President and Chief Advancement Officer of the largest human services nonprofit in Minnesota, Lutheran Social Service of MN. But the upcoming anniversary motivated me. In addition, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools had scheduled the 2012 National Charter Schools Conference in Minnesota in June, 2012, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the opening of the first charter school in St. Paul in 1992. If I was ever going to write this story, this was the time.

With my employment as a nonprofit executive, I knew I couldn’t do this alone. I decided to hire a skilled professional to assist me with the project. This was the most important decision I made! Dana Schroeder had been writing about chartering and other examples of “redesign” of public services since 1992. She was my main partner for brainstorming, outlining, and feedback. She did the necessary research at the capitol and Minnesota Historical Society. Most importantly, she was the person who interviewed 14 of the 15 major players in the story. I thought it was important to have someone objective interview these participants. I was too close to the story and thought I already knew most of it. She interviewed the participants and provided me transcripts.

I also worked closely with Ted Kolderie, the then 82-year old visionary behind the chartering idea. Dana interviewed Ted, but I went through all his files and supplemented my own. Ted’s advancing age was another reason I thought it important to write the story now. He is critical to the entire story.

Starting in February 2011, I devoted nearly every evening and weekend to writing the first draft of the story from these files and from memory. It was like an addiction. I could not wait to get home each night to write. Meanwhile, Dana was in the process of the interviews. And as I read the transcripts, I learned so many things about the original pioneering story that nobody knew. Now I realized how important this book had become—it would be the first time that the whole story would come together.

I incorporated a few of the completed interviews into the draft manuscript by June 2011, and took the manuscript to the 2011 National Charter Schools Conference. There I talked with several possible publishers for the story. By September 2011, we had interviewed all the players and incorporated their views into the book. The draft manuscript was now ready for editing.

Describe the process of publishing this book.

At least one publisher/editor expressed interest in the book and read the manuscript. He told me they were interested in working with me if I would rewrite the story in certain ways. I responded, “but that’s not how the story happened!” I also was concerned that their timeline might not allow us to publish the book before the 2012 national charter schools conference. He could not guarantee the timeline. So I decided to explore self-publishing in-depth.

As a first-time author, I needed mentoring in this self-publishing process. I chose to work with Beaver’s Pond Press in Edina, MN, because they have a successful ten-year track record of working with authors in the Twin Cities, and I knew several of them. They connected me with a quality editor, designer, and printer. I was able to concentrate on writing, editing, developing the appendix, and getting the photos. Again, I couldn’t have met the deadline without this help. And I learned a tremendous amount during this maiden voyage.

What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced self-publishing?

I work best with a team, and sometimes self-publishing can be lonely. That’s why I was pleased to have Dana, Ted and others to help keep me on track. I’m glad I had that team, because the first editor I had personally selected did not do an adequate job. My team had to gently tell me I needed to spend money on further editing. BPP recommended a second editor who vastly improved the manuscript. On the opposite note, there were also times during the process where I felt that Beaver's Pond Press was telling me the book was “good enough” but in my heart I knew it wasn’t. I have high expectations for the quality of my work, and generally, I wanted to push the envelope even further. For example, I wasn’t satisfied with the first, second or even third covers that were designed. I sought counsel from my sister, an excellent writer/marketer herself, multiple friends, family, and others. They encouraged me to keep trying.

What are the most important benefits of self-publishing?

The author has control of the manuscript and book design. The author has control of the publication timeline. The author sets expectations for the book and works to meet them. I love every part of my book because I had input in all aspects of it.

What surprised you about the self-publishing process?

Writing the initial manuscript was the easy part! The longest part, which was unexpected (September 2011 to May 2012), was when the book was finally published. During that time, the book went through two edits, design, cover design, appendices, additional interviews and fact checks. We sent manuscripts to reviewers to get early comments. We prepared for the launch by developing promotional materials about the book. All of this kept me writing and editing nearly full-time on evenings and weekends throughout. That was a big surprise!

What’s your advice to other self-publishing authors?

Live your possibility. Sit down and start writing. Once you are into the writing process, it is hard to stop. Build (and hire, if necessary) a writing and feedback team you trust. Get plenty of feedback and use it in making important decisions. Above all, trust your instincts. It is your book. Don’t yield to others because they are the “professionals.” They may have other reasons for their decisions such as cost-control, time management, etc. that do not align with your vision for the best book you can create.

How long have you been writing? How did you start?

I’ve always loved writing. My older sister was an excellent writer and an English major, and writing was a passion we shared. She was an editor for our high school newspaper and I later became editor-in-chief for the same newspaper. Feature writing was my first love. I graduated high school at age 16 in 1970, and was asked by The North Hennepin Post Editor Carol Pine to be a summer reporter/intern for our suburban weekly newspaper. I started by writing obituaries, and by end of summer I was covering city council meetings.

I thought I would be a journalist. I continued to write columns for The North Hennepin Post during college. Then I took an internship during college in Washington D.C. for U.S. Senator Walter Mondale, and the political bug bit me. I went on to politics and law from there.

I never stopped writing. I continued writing for law periodicals as a lawyer and wrote commentaries as a legislator. After retirement from the state senate in 2000, I worked as a freelance writer for Capitol Report, Minnesota Lawyer, and related publications. In 2000, I was invited to join the political panel regulars on a weekly public affairs show called At Issue with Tom Hauser on the ABC affiliate station. Over the years I began providing political analysis for Almanac, a weekly public affairs show on Twin Cities Public Television, and for the local Fox news station as well.

What are the challenges of writing nonfiction? Of real life events?

Nonfiction is about real people. A good writer must maintain integrity with the facts, and that is not always easy. Sometimes there are disputes around the facts, or information cannot be confirmed. Those are tough decisions for an author to make. In addition, you are writing about people’s lives and reputations. Every person interviewed for this story was my friend. Even the opponents were my friends. I needed to be especially careful to maintain integrity with each of the interviewees. While I could share my feelings and even anger of the time in my memoir, I also needed to fairly represent their points of view through their specific, unedited quotes. That’s why Dana’s objectivity was so helpful in that process. When Ted suggested that one of the opponents, Louise Sundin, be given opportunity to write a commentary in the appendix about how her views came around in 20 years, I knew that would be the best way to make sure the opponents’ views maintained integrity.

Do you write in any other categories or genres?

As a freelance journalist, I have written editorial commentaries, political news stories, stories focused on policy changes and new laws, and feature stories on interesting people in the news. I’ve written some humorous magazine stories, including a collection of “door-knocking” stories gathered during political campaigns. Any future book writing will stay in nonfiction or memoir, as that is what I love most and do best.

What elements do you think make a successful nonfiction book?

I believe a successful nonfiction book tells a story. The themes are very clear, and readers come away with new perspectives that shape their views of the future. Historical detail is accurate, supported with evidence, and mixed with real human stories, so the reader is not bogged down by detail. Storytelling is essential to emphasize the key themes.

What advice has had the biggest impact on your success in life and as an author?

Congresswoman Bella Abzug advised, “Reinvent yourself every 10 years.” I’m on my fourth full-time career now as an author (previously state senator, lawyer, and nonprofit executive). When I started writing my book, I set my goal to publish before the age of 60, and my book was released before my 59th birthday. You are never too old to start writing! Now I’m reinventing myself for the next decade, and though I don’t know exactly where that will lead, the search is great fun.

What are the keys that have made your book a success?

The story itself is a remarkable story that needed to be told. How do you take an idea to national movement? While the story is historical, it is very relevant for today. We need to restore the “Reform Center” to American politics today. There are too few examples of innovative policy solutions coming from the middle of the political spectrum with bipartisan support. Innovation doesn’t come from the extremes. This is what sustained this major change in American public education over twenty years.

The interviews added life to the story, and surprised me as the writer. I wrote with real wonder at all I was learning. The documentation was first-person from letters, news articles, and legislative testimony. You can’t argue with that. This allowed the pioneering charter school story to rise above controversy about chartering.

Finally, the story was written with the drama surrounding it. I relived my emotions in writing the story. There were days I cried as I remembered the lows, frustrations, and losses. Other days I couldn’t believe how high I felt…look at what we had created together!

What do you think are the biggest benefits and challenges of writing nonfiction?

Writing nonfiction preserves history, but also informs the future. Writing nonfiction isn’t about writing a best-seller. It is telling a story accurately and with integrity that needs to be preserved for the ages. In my view, nonfiction memoirs/stories are more inspiring than fiction, because they are real. My hope is that the tumultuous journey I and my colleagues shared in chartering will inspire the chartering pioneers of today, policymakers of today, and anyone who attempts major change in their work or personal lives.

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To see the rest of the story on Ember, be sure to check out the March/April 2014 issue of Writer's Digest.

March/April 2014 Writer's Digest
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