Welcome to Chicago North Shore Moms Meet a Mom series where we feature our local mamas – what they’re up to personally and professionally. To date, we’ve feature just under 100 women, woah mama!
Today’s Meet a Mom feature is children’s author, Liesl Shurtliff! I first met up with Liesl at my big kid’s elementary school during a book reading and signing. We love local authors and thus, we are excited to introduce her to you! The Hyde Park mama of four kids has her hands full juggling e-learning, writing and publishing her book series! Learn about how Liesl (pronounced Lee•zle) has been surviving quarantine life under one roof with four kiddos ages 2 to 16, how in the world she continues to write through the chaos, fave apps that help make that possible, and sound advice to any mom who wants to start writing. Welcome Liesl!
Hi Liesl! Please introduce yourself. Where are you from originally? What city do you live in now? What brought you here?
Hi, I’m Liesl Shurtliff. I was born and (mostly) raised in Salt Lake City, Utah. I have lived in Chicago (Hyde Park neighborhood) for fifteen years. We moved here for my husband’s job just after graduating from college and quickly put down roots. I love everything about living in this city, but I do miss the mountains!
You’re a mama! How many kiddos do you have and how old are they?
I have four amazing kids—one girl and three boys. Whitney, (16) Ty, (13) Christopher, (11) and Freddy (2).
What’s your favorite thing about being a mom?
I love watching my kids grow into such amazing and unique human beings. Parenting is kind of a paradox. We can have a huge influence on our kids, but they also come with their own unique personalities and preferences. (After four kids I truly know this!) I love the process of influencing them, molding them, helping them reach their full potential, but also just letting them be who they are.
Parenting has always been tough, but especially now during the quarantine. Please share your favorite mom tips that make your everyday life a little easier…
I had all kinds of good advice and tips to share, but none of it seems to apply in our current circumstances, so I’ll share the advice that’s helped me the most during the COVID 19 pandemic: Lower your expectations. For yourself. For your kids. For your partner. For the world in general. Set small goals and celebrate when you achieve them. Nothing spells misery quite like unmet expectations, so keep ‘em low for now!
Well said, mama! If you have any podcasts or apps that help inspire you, calm you, help you run your business or organize your life, what are your faves?
Freedom, Endel, and Headspace are a few of my favorite apps that help me stay calm and productive.
As a writer, it’s important that I block off large chunks of time for deep focus. There are so many distractions both electronic and otherwise. The Freedom app allows you to block distracting websites and apps so you’re not tempted to go check Facebook, Twitter, shop online, etc. Endel is a music app specifically designed for focus, relaxation, or sleep. Headspace is a meditation app that has helped me with focus, relaxation, and even creative mindset.
What is one thing people would be surprised to know about you…
I started off in musical theater! I majored in Music Dance and Theater in college and always planned to develop my career in that field. After I had my first child I started writing as a creative outlet during naptime. I thought I would return to theater eventually, but the writing took off and I never looked back.
When we can once again venture out, what are your favorite places to spend with the family in Chicago?
It’s Chicago so, there are so many! A few are:
- Lake Michigan (specifically for me The Point in Hyde Park near 57th Street Beach)
- Museum of Science and Industry
- Jackson Park and the Japanese gardens
- Little Goat Diner
- 61st Street Farmer’s Market (amazing taco stand!)
What are your favorite local takeout restaurants?
A few of our favorite Chicago takeout restaurants are:
What do you and your family do to keep busy during these long days in quarantine?
The kids have online school that is keeping them busy for a portion of the day. We’ve been able to continue music lessons online. We go for family walks through the neighborhood. We’re baking, reading, and Zooming with family and friends. Admittedly we are watching more TV, but we’re watching as as family and having a fun time.
You are a children’s author! Please tell us more!
Yes! I’m a children’s author. I write fantasy/adventure novels for kids 8-12, but they are also great for families to read and enjoy together. I have a series of fairytales called the (Fairly) True Tales series, and a time travel trilogy called Time Castaways. My goal is to write books that delight children and turn them into lifelong readers. The greatest compliment I can receive is when a kid tells me they didn’t like reading until they found my books.
How did you publish your first book?
I wrote for several years (including two novels that will remain in a drawer) before I wrote what would become my first published novel, Rump. It took me about a year to write (including lots of rewrites and revisions.) I then searched for a literary agent to represent me, which included a lot of query letters and rejections over the course of a month. Once I found an agent to represent me, she took charge of submitting to publishers. More rejections over the course of a few weeks, and then a ‘yes’ from Knopf/Random House. It was a really exciting moment! From the time I signed the contract with Random House it was about two years to publication, in which time the book underwent several rounds of revisions and edits, design, marketing and publicity. There are a lot of things that go into making and selling a book, many that I never take part in. So it’s a long process, one that takes a great deal of patience and hard work, but I do love it. With several books under my belt now, I can speed up the process in a few ways, but it can take a while to get that first book out there.
Who are your influencers and/or mentors that helped you become the writer that you are today?
Kirby Larson was my first mentor and writing instructor. My writing has been influenced by Shannon Hale, Roald Dahl, Gail Carson Levine, Sharon Creech, J.K. Rowling, and Shel Silverstein.
What general advice can you give other mamas out there who are looking to re-enter the workforce for the first time in a long time?
Get ‘your people’ on board and communicate your needs and desires. It was key for me in the beginning of my writing endeavors, as well as the early stages of my career, to communicate with my husband what my goals were and what he could do to help. Be specific. Don’t just say “I need your support,” because that can mean any number of things. Say, “I need to block of X number of hours every week,” or “I’d like to…but it will require…”
Also, be prepared to feel overwhelmed, have doubts, and/or feelings of guilt as you re-enter the workforce. This is normal, but not necessarily a sign that you are doing the wrong thing. It will take time to adjust.
Are your children part of your editing crew?
Not so much. They do read my books and fight over who gets to read it first, which is cute, but I don’t necessarily have them read during the editing phase. Maybe I should, but they’ve got their own things going on, and I usually need feedback faster than they can give it. Also, though kids can tell you whether they like something or not, they’re not always able to articulate why in a way that’s truly helpful, except one time my son did read my book and point out that a few chapters were too long, and that was really helpful!
I can’t imagine navigating elearning for four children! How do you manage that?
Oof, not gonna lie, it’s been hard! My older two are mostly independent and need very little help. My 5th grader has required a little more help/supervision. My husband is able to help keep him on track with assignments, and I’m on call if he needs help with something. Our two-year-old obviously isn’t in school, but he misses his storytime at the library and museum visits. We’ve been engaging with the library’s online storytime and lots of walks to Jackson Park. Luckily, he’s also pretty good about playing by himself. He loves puzzles and books. He’ll “read” to himself for a solid hour! Dream child.
Are you able to write still with four children under one roof?
Yes, but I’ve had to adjust my expectations for myself. I set smaller goals and celebrate whatever I can accomplish. I try not to freak out when I get interrupted or the day goes up in smoke. I communicate to my family when I need some uninterrupted time. They’re usually pretty good about respecting that.
How important is it for you to have a career of writing outside of being a mother?
Extremely important, though it was surprising to me to realize how important it was to me. All my life I assumed I would be a stay-at-home mom and not pursue work outside of home and family, at least not until my kids were all in school and fairly independent. Maybe a hobby here and there, but not a full-blow career. I admire women who have the luxury to stay at home with their children AND find joy in it, but I learned pretty quickly that it was not the best situation for me from a mental/emotional standpoint. I’m much happier working, and a much better mom because of it.
Do you have any advice to those who wish to start writing?
It depends on what you want to write, but I’d say the best thing you can do in any case is simply start writing. Set some small goals for yourself (i.e. a daily word count or time frame in which you will write.) Getting started is the hardest part. Write for magazines and periodicals, both online and print. This a great way to dip your toes into the publishing world. Join a critique group, attend some conferences, and take a writing course or two. There are many, and some fine ones right here in Chicago. Story Studio offers some great classes and is offering them all online right now. Gotham Writer’s Workshop also has a wide variety of online courses, and Institute for Writers offers courses that give you one-on-one mentoring with a seasoned, published author, which I think is extremely helpful. But at the end of the day, read, write, repeat. That’s the most important part, and it’s something you can do for free and at home.
Where can we find your books?
I always encourage readers to buy local, especially now when so many bookshops are struggling. There are many fine independent bookshops in Chicago. 57th Street Books is my neighborhood indie. The Book Cellar, The Book Stall, Lake Forest Book Store and Anderson’s Bookshop are all local bookshops that I love. You can also shop on bookshop.org, which is basically an online bookshop that gives a portion of the profits to an independent bookshop of your choice.
What’s on the horizon for writing? Future aspirations, plans….
I’m just tying up my Time Castaways trilogy. We’re in the final stages of edits of the third book, which will be released sometime this fall. This has been a very intense project. Three novels in three years, plus adding a new baby in the midst of it, and a pandemic to top it all off. I have to admit I’m a little tired! Still, I’m excited for the future projects I have in the works. I have a couple of picture book manuscripts I’m getting ready to submit to publishers and several ideas for more novels in the middle-grade and young adult age groups, but I intend to take a little more time with them. I’m learning more about work-life balance and how to pace myself. I’m definitely a go-getter and love my work, but we all have our limits. I want to make sure I don’t burn myself out and lose sight of the most important thing in life—my family.