Pismo couple supported each other in quest to become published authors

Through years of toil, Mark Parsons and Wendelin Van Draanen supported each other in their quest to become published authors

ppemberton@thetribunenews.comMarch 9, 2014 

Before Wendelin Van Draanen became a popular author of young adult novels, she received 10 years’ worth of rejections.

Those setbacks, which arrived in the mail with cruel consistency, might have discouraged most aspiring novelists. But Van Draanen’s husband, Mark Huntley Parsons, motivated her to keep at it.

“I said, ‘Keep working on this,’ ” said Parsons, of Pismo Beach. "‘There are people out there who are going to want to read this, and they’re going to love it, and it’s going to mean a lot to them.’ ”

Based on those rejections, Van Draanen said, she should have given up her dream and stuck to her job as a high school teacher.

“He’s the reason that I didn’t quit,” said Van Draanen, who would eventually become a critically acclaimed author of more than two dozen books.

Years later, when Parsons decided he wanted to try to write a young adult novel, it was Van Draanen’s turn to offer support.

“I’m his cheerleader, and I’m his first critic,” she said.

With the publication of “Road Rash” (Random House, $16.99) — the story of a teenage drummer with dreams of rock ’n’ roll stardom — both husband and wife have now become novelists with major publishing house deals.

Initially, Parsons was the more successful writer, publishing a short story and dozens of magazine articles. But once Van Draanen got her first book published, her career soared, with one of her novels — “Flipped” — being made into a major movie.

“With each new book of mine that got published, the teeter-totter shifted,” she wrote in her blog, “Wendelin’s Blog.” “And since Mark had started off as a writer of fiction, he was now the one wishing for a different sort of publishing success, and his focus shifted from nonfiction to writing novels.”

Thirteen years ago, an agent agreed to pitch a novel he wrote about terrorism, but it didn’t get published.

“I wrote my bad novel,” he said. “Luckily, it didn’t sell.”

But he continued to write about what he knew — drumming and music — as a regular writer for Modern Drummer magazine.

Parsons first began drumming around the seventh grade and has played in a slew of bands.

“I did it full-time for a few years, but it was rough,” he said. “The worst gigs are when the band outnumbers the audience.”

A former security trainer at the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, he eventually added nonfiction how-to books to his credentials. A few years ago, he began another nonfiction writing project, but then decided it wasn’t what he wanted to do.

“I wasn’t excited about writing it at all,” he said, noting that it was going to require a lot of research and outlines. “It was like doing homework.”

Instead, he decided to return to fiction.

“I said to heck with it. What if I didn’t care about trying to sell, and I just wanted to write?” he said. “So I started to write it. And I loved the process.”

With this novel, he’d still write about drumming — but he’d make stuff up. His main character is a 17-year-old percussionist named Zach, who winds up touring parts of the country with a band named Bad Habit.

While most of Zach’s story came from Parsons’ head, he can relate to being a touring drummer.

“We played a lot of those same places in the book,” Parsons said. “The whole Northern Rockies, up through Montana, Wyoming and Canada and back.”

Parsons almost made his lead character a guitarist. But ultimately he remained faithful to drummers, whom he sees as the underdogs of the music world.

His fictional drummer is a teen with both rock ’n’ roll and love fantasies. Along the way, he discovers that keeping a beat in a band is actually much easier than keeping the peace.

While Parsons could conceivably try to tap into Van Draanen’s established audience, Parsons doesn’t mention his wife during interviews unless he’s asked. Press materials for his book don’t mention the connection, either.

“I don’t hide it — I’m proud of everything she’s done,” he said. But, he added, “I don’t want to appear like I’m riding on her coattails.”

At their home, which offers sweeping views of the ocean and hills around Pismo, the couple rehearses with the family band, Risky Whippet, which also features their sons, Colton and Connor. They also share an office, a music studio and ideas. “When we go on long trips together, we talk plot,” Parsons said.

Van Draanen said she doesn’t use every suggestion her husband has, but some have stuck — like her character Sammy Keyes’ tendency to wave at inappropriate times.

“He’s like a factory of ideas,” Van Draanen said.

They’ll have plenty of time to talk plot during their upcoming He Said, She Said Author Road Tour, which will take them through 18 states, visiting 40 bookstores. They’ll travel in a minivan decorated with their book covers.

“I’m really quite a homebody,” said Van Draanen, who will promote her latest, “Sammy Keyes and the Killer Cruise” (Random House, $16.99). “But I look at it as an adventure — and we’re likely to repeat it.”

A second leg of the tour is expected in the fall, when Van Draanen publishes her final Sammy Keyes book.

As Parsons promotes his first novel, ironically, the two will be traveling much like Bad Habit, the band in “Road Rash,” even hitting some of the same towns.

“Except you don’t have to haul all those drums around,” Parsons said.

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