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Lawyer-turned-author scores with ‘Dork Diaries’

Robin Hamilton
Lawyer-turned-author scores with ‘Dork Diaries’

Photo courtesy of Rachel Renée Russell

The “Dork Diaries” is a multi-million dollar children’s book franchise, based on a middle school girl trying to find her way in the world.

The woman channeling the voice of an angst-ridden 8th grader is Rachel Renée Russell, an attractive, affable African American mother of two grown daughters.

In 2008, she traded in her position as a bankruptcy attorney to devote all her time to writing. She is now one of the highest grossing African American writers in the country, with three of her books spending a combined 108 weeks on The New York Times Best Sellers List.

How did the “Dork Diaries” come about?

I’ve always enjoyed writing. Even as a child, I would make storybooks, and give them to my brothers and sisters. I seriously considered being a children’s author when I was an undergrad at Northwestern, and I had a writing professor who did a picture book, and he said I wouldn’t have a good chance to make it. I actually got one of my lowest grades in my college career because of him. He gave me a C.

So, I put that idea on hold, and went to law school. But after I got married and had two kids, there was a lot of drama, and my daughters were a little dorky [laughs]. My kids would dress different and go against the grain. Ultimately, I took them out of public school, and I placed them in a Catholic School, and they got along fine. So, the books came out of their experiences. 

Did you always know you wanted to be a writer? How did that happen?

After my girls got out of school, I decided to join online writing groups. Most of us were just trying to get published, and some of them were African American groups. The online classes offered ideas about plotting. I really just started it as a hobby. I decided I wanted to try something lighthearted. I thought ‘Let me try one of those teen drama stories.’ I enjoyed it. It was fun. The girls would give me ideas, and I got to 100 pages.

I even entered a competition in Chicago, called “Fire and Ice,” and it won second prize. So I started to send them to literary agents. I sent 10 queries, and got seven responses back expressing interest. One agency was particularly interested, and really liked the writing. This agent thought it would be a big book. It took off from there.

When did you decide to leave your position as an attorney?

After the manuscripts went to auction. You’re lucky if one person was interested. And you know, I loved my work. I was a consumer bankruptcy attorney, dealing with people drowning in debt. I felt like the fairy godmother who could help make the debt go away. I would always say ‘the law gives people a way to get a fresh start.’

But when my books went to auction, that’s when I started thinking. I just wouldn’t have time to do both. Most books only start for $20,000. I ended selling two of them for $75,000 each. My next two sold for more, and just recently I sold my latest two installments for $3.2 million!

I decided I was going to take off. But I decided to keep my license. I think I’m going to hold on to it, just in case [laughs].

Do you feel pressure when your books are bought for that much?

I do, but I look at the books, and think, ‘If I was able to do this in less than 24 months, and they are successful, then I should be able to do it many more times.’  Many times, the editor will try to rush it, and push me, but I won’t be pushed.

You just finished your fourth manuscript. What is your writing process?

Actually, I’m still trying to figure it out. The book is kind of unusual, because it is a diary. My next book is working around the month of January. I think about the days of the month. I have ‘x’ number of days for each entry. So, I know I have to be halfway finished by the 15th/16th of the month.

Then I think about topics and concepts that I know that young teens are going to like. Usually in the mornings, I answer e-mails and talk to my editor and agent.  My best writing is done at 11 p.m. to 4 a.m. I am very much a night person. My best, wackiest, writing comes after midnight. 

What have you learned about the publishing industry? What has been the most surprising to you?

What was surprising to me is that if you are told that it is released in a year, it is a rush, and a headache. We finished my book in February and they were on the shelves four or five months later. I know now that it is all BS. When the publishing industry wants it, they can get stuff out as soon as they want.

They seem to be inflexible and unmoving — but no, they move it as long or as quickly as they want.  

Your 26-year-old daughter Nicki, on whom the series is based, is your illustrator. Was this planned, or did she volunteer?

She volunteered. I had contacted several artists. I looked for an illustrator for a year, and she kept saying ‘I can do this.’ So finally, I let her give me some samples, and she blew me away.  I’ve been hooked ever since.  

What has been the most challenging on this journey? The most rewarding?

The most challenging has been keeping deadlines. I am horrible at deadlines. If a book isn’t good enough, I won’t send it. If I don’t think it’s funny enough, if I think the book can be better, I will take another week. Deadlines are my most challenging piece.

The most rewarding is knowing that the book series lets other girls see that being your own person is good. Being offbeat is good. The most inspiring thing is putting it out there, and embracing the message of following your own path. 

For more information about the series, visit www.dorkdiaries.com.