This month we are shining our Spotlight on my dear friend, Miriam Landis. Miriam and I lived in Miami Beach at the same time when I was a cellist in the New World Symphony and she was a Dancer in the Miami City Ballet. My, how time flies! She’s here to talk about being a professional dancer, being a freshman in college in her mid-20s, and how she manages to write, dance, teach, run a brand-new publishing house, AND raise 4 young kids.
She is the author of the forthcoming middle-grade novel Lauren in the Limelight, and two young adult novels, Girl in Motion and Girl on Pointe (previously published as Breaking Pointe). Somewhere in between when we were tearing it up on the beach and this latest book release, she was also a 2022 LitCamp fellow, an assistant editor at Simon & Schuster, Hyperion, and the Amazon Books team, a Stanford grad, an online media manager for Island Books, and, as you’ll soon find out, a bunch of other cool stuff. When not writing, she can be found teaching and enjoying life in the Pacific Northwest.
TFTL: Welcome, Miriam! Can you tell us a bit about your path from Miami City Ballet Dancer to Published Author? It wasn’t exactly a direct line, was it?
ML: Hi Kate, I’m so glad to be here, and thanks for having me. You’re correct, my path was full of zigzags. I left Miami City Ballet when I was 22, ready to pursue a college degree and broaden my horizons. That year, I moved home to Salt Lake City and spent a year at the University of Utah. I decided to major in premed, thinking I needed to do the hardest things I could think of to justify leaving my ballet career (are you picking up on some masochistic tendencies here?).
After my freshman year, I transferred to Stanford and did another year of premed. Then I switched again after shadowing several doctors and realizing I wasn’t wired to see people in pain every day, not after watching the most beautiful, healthy people every day of my life in my past career. So I became an English major and leaned more into writing.
I wrote for the Stanford Daily and started on my first novel, probably as therapy. I was trying to figure out why I couldn’t seem to find my place in the world. After my junior year, I took an internship at Simon & Schuster in New York and went back there after graduation. I spent several years in New York publishing houses as an assistant editor, and at the same time, I had a literary agent who tried to sell my first YA novels to a publishing house. Twilight was hot at the time, and my stories weren’t fantasy or vampires, but they also weren’t well-written. I had the concept but not the craft of writing.
I gave up and stuck those books in a drawer. Time went on and I took a job on the Amazon Books team in Seattle. I met my husband, and he pulled my novels out of a drawer and encouraged me to self-publish them. That was right around the time Amazon launched its first self-publishing platform, CreateSpace, so it was an easy thing to do. But after working with top authors in the big publishing houses, I knew there was a stigma around self-published authors at that time and felt terrible about myself for doing it, like I was a failure and this was a vanity project.
We did the bare minimum and published them in 2010 and 2012, without an editor or interior or cover designer or marketing and publicity, just us. I put them on my Facebook page and appeared on one or two ballet blogs. To our shock, those books sold over 10,000 copies in the years that followed. So we discovered there was a real market for ballet fiction for teens, and there was hardly anything in the category.
Several years of failed IVF followed, and then, twins and two other babies. I kept writing by blogging for my local independent bookstore and went back to teaching ballet.
During COVID-19, I started writing fiction again in earnest. That took me into several years of agent querying and writer’s conferences. I tried my hand at adult fiction and also wrote another ballet novel, this one for middle-grade readers. After two years of looking for an agent and hearing that ballet was too niche of a subject, my husband and I decided I knew enough and believed in my projects enough to invest in my work as a business. We started our own publishing company, Rhododendron Press.
Lauren in the Limelight is our debut title hitting shelves this fall, and we’ll be publishing new editions of my old novels, Girl in Motion and Girl on Pointe (previously titled Breaking Pointe) under the umbrella of Rhododendron Press. I’ve completely revised and improved them (20 more years of life experience and learning the craft of writing has given me a new perspective on those stories), and this time, they’ll be edited and designed with brand new covers and interiors, and a new author’s note. I have a very special person/dancer who will be on the new covers: Sarah-Gabrielle Ryan at Pacific Northwest Ballet. I’m so excited to have her involved.
The road to publication feels like a lifetime journey. There were so many times I wondered what I was doing and why, and it is now only just starting to become clear that it was all an education that led me to where I am now.
TFTL: What was it like for you to leave ballet behind and start fresh in a completely different field? Have you always been drawn to the world of writing and literature? Or was this brand new territory for you?
ML: Ballet was my entire world since I was a child, and especially in my teens. Leaving was a shock. I’m sure you can relate, Kate, as ballet requires the same kind of exclusive focus as professional-level musical training. Ballet was an essential part of my identity, not just something I did. During the four years I danced with Miami City Ballet, we danced about 8 hours a day, 6 days a week. I was very depressed when I left because I wasn’t sure who I was when dance wasn’t part of the equation. Over time, I developed a sense of excitement and possibility the further I ventured from that identity. Building up the courage to go out of my comfort zone took a long time.
As far as your question about my background in writing and literature, the answer is yes, absolutely. I read constantly as a kid, often inappropriate things past bedtime, under the covers with a flashlight. I’m talking Stephen King and Flowers in the Attic at about thirteen years old. English was my favorite class at school and I was always writing stories. Even when I was dancing professionally, the only thing I seriously ventured into outside of ballet were a few writing classes. I kept a journal for years.
As I mentioned before, at Stanford, I quit premed and switched my major from Human Biology to English Literature. One of the reasons that happened (there were a few), is that I’d started writing a very popular sex column for The Stanford Daily. It was under a pseudonym (it still is) but I had a close friend who knew I was the author and she kept insisting I was missing my calling (Ha!). She helped connect me to my first internship in publishing at Simon & Schuster. My first summer there, I was in heaven. I’d always thought ballet was my primary focus, but when I think back on it, writing and literature was probably lurking even deeper in my coming of age.
That publishing internship challenged everything I knew about reading, and taught me to reach farther and read wider than I ever had before. In school you read what’s assigned to you, and then if you do have leisure time, you usually read a book a friend recommends or something that sort of falls in your lap. In college, I read Austen, Melville, Woolf–all the stuff you’re supposed to read. But once I entered the business of publishing, I had to read current fiction and nonfiction, form my own confident opinions, and be able to hold my own in industry conversations. My brain had no choice but to expand beyond my comfort zone.
TFTL: What was it like to be an a-typical student at Stanford?
ML: The age thing was difficult. I felt so much older than the undergrads and had such a different life experience. I’d also been out of school for years, and even after a year at the University of Utah, my academics were rusty. My first year in a transfer dorm, I had a roommate five years younger than me and the bathroom was down the hall. After having my own apartment, income, and professional reputation, the entire experience was humbling.
The other thing that’s terrible and wonderful about Stanford is that everyone who goes there is already extraordinary. So while I may have been unique having been a professional dancer, the kids around me won Olympic medals, founded their own startups, and published groundbreaking academic papers. As dancers, it’s easy to become so immersed in your own world that you forget how amazing non-dancers are. With that Stanford peer group, I saw myself in a completely different way.
I was lucky that the year I came to Stanford, there were two other women who had danced in ballet companies that transferred in as older students. My academics were excellent, but I believe my ballet life is why Stanford accepted me. The admissions committee there has a deep respect for dancers and they could see the value in what I and the other professional dancers accomplished. Those other women became lifelong friends and were a huge support through that transition.
TFTL: Aside from the obvious story material, how has your professional training as a dancer helped your writing career?
ML: Now that I’m a dance teacher and a mom, the benefits of dance training are glaringly clear. All of my kids take ballet at the Pacific Northwest Ballet School, not because I want them to become professional dancers, but because I want them to gain the life skills I did. Here are some of the things I learned how to do as a dancer that turned out to be essential for writing and publishing a book:
TFTL: You have 4 young kids at home. How do you find time for your writing work? Did you ever (or do you still?) struggle to find the balance between wanting to be with the kids, and wanting to work? How have you navigated that?
ML: Every time someone asks me how I do it, I say, “Minute to minute. Also, I don’t have a choice, I got myself into this!” I write whenever I can find time to write, and I don’t dilly-dally when the opportunities come. There have been seasons I couldn’t write at all, especially when I had little babies and couldn’t sleep or think. But I always came back to it. I try to get up at least an hour before the kids do to get some writing done, but that goes in waves. Sometimes I’m just too tired, or they decide to get up when I do despite my best efforts to sneak around.
I try to think of my life in seasons when I feel that struggle of wanting to work and wanting to be with the kids. There are long periods of time when my life is all about the kids, and then the schedules will upend and I have periods where I’m all about my work. I love that at this age all my kids dance, so going to ballet class is often a family affair.
I do wish I had more time to just be with my husband though. We are total partners in running our crazy ship, but he has a huge job too, and often we are both too busy to sit down and have the time we want together. He’s my favorite person in the world and I couldn’t do all the things I do without him. We both hope there will be a time when the kids are older that we can travel together. Like I said, it all seems to happen in seasons.
TFTL: Your messaging resonates with young dancers and professionals alike. What are you talking about that no one else has been saying in this space?
ML: If I had a dollar for every time my kids said, “Mom, what are you talking about?” I’d be rich. What AM I talking about?
In the books I’ve written so far, I’m writing for my younger self, my ballet students, and my kids. Many ballet kids I know (myself included) get into a mindset that no one understands their world and what they’re trying to do, because historically, the ballet world is exclusive and opaque. I wanted characters and stories that would make kids who are passionate about a particular activity feel seen.
When I joined Miami City Ballet, I often thought, why didn’t anyone tell me what this is really like? In particular, all the feelings, and social and political dynamics. What you find in the dance section at bookstores is mostly nonfiction, memoirs of famous dancers whose experiences are rare and not the norm, histories of the art form, or manuals or stories of the great ballets.
Fiction and movies about tween and teen and younger professional ballet dancers, serious dancers, is rare. I can count on two hands the books and movies in that space, and many of them are sensationalized and focused on the negative aspects of the ballet world.
So what am I talking about in my books? I’m talking about individual characters navigating the intense and professional track of a ballet dancer. I want readers to watch how they deal with the struggles, failures, and triumphs, and use the lessons my characters learn to figure out their place in the world. After so many years in dance, I feel a responsibility to bring the community of people who love ballet together around the positive aspects of our art form. My hope is that my books will open conversations about the way the ballet world works and help us make the dance culture more inclusive, empathetic, and welcoming.
TFTL: You still teach dance (in all your spare time!) What do you love about teaching adult beginners?
ML: I do! I love my job and all the ages that I teach, but the adult dancers hold a special place in my heart. They’re the students who show up purely because they want to, for themselves (which is also why I’m there). Dancing with adults is very different than with kids, who are in the process of figuring out their why. My adult students are also very much a community of like-minded individuals, and I get to see them at their best selves in the studio, with the distractions and stresses of life put aside so we can all be in the moment. The adult students are very much my community and a connection I cherish.
TFTL: What 3 thoughts, habits, or behaviors have helped you the most in getting to where you are today?
ML: 1) Do a little bit every day.
2) Lean into love and friendship: adjust each other’s crowns.
3) Remind yourself that the naysayers don’t understand your mission, but you
TFTL: What is the best piece of advice someone has given you?
ML: My adviser at Stanford, Seth Lerer, gave me the best piece of advice. I’ve done Stanford alumni interviews for the past decade, and I always pass what he said on to the high school seniors. He told me to get up close with the people I aspire to be like. At the time, he meant to choose my classes based on whether a full professor and expert in the field was teaching, rather than the subject. But I’ve used that concept as a guiding light throughout my professional career. I often asked to work for people and at places where I wanted to be. They didn’t always work out, but because I tried to make active choices about who I put myself next to, I learned many skills from the best in several fields.
I actually received that same advice long before college, now that I think about it. When I still lived at home in Salt Lake City, a family friend set me up on a phone call with a soloist at New York City Ballet named Miriam Mahdaviani (I guess he thought we had the name thing in common). I was fifteen and wondering what direction I should go with my ballet training. She flat out said that if I wanted to be a professional, I should go straight to the top of the field and get myself to New York. I took her advice to heart and the next school year I moved to New York to train year-round at the School of American Ballet. That decision changed the entire course of my life.
TFTL: What is the worst?
ML: Someone told me I should make my own baby food. Obviously that person never had twins.
TFTL: You created your own publishing house! Can you tell us a bit about that? How did it come about?
ML: Oh, boy. Yes, I did, and I haven’t fully digested the implications or how I made it here. You know that saying, if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself? A famous editor told me at a juried writer’s conference that no one was waiting for my book. He was right! The person who was waiting for my book was me. The upshot is, after two decades of rejection from agents and editors in the publishing industry, I reached an age where I had acquired enough knowledge and insight into the way books are made and sold that I knew what had to be done. Same thing with the ballet industry. I knew my earlier books sold. I knew why I was writing them and who they were for. I knew they would mean something to my students.
I’m lucky to have a partner who said he was tired of watching me taking in all this rejection and letting other people decide how I should feel about myself. I also had an adult student who asked me what I was so afraid of, and that shook me up.
Getting older, watching my kids grow up fast, facing health scares, losing people I love–it’s all part of middle age. But it also is a true coming of age and the realization that you have one life and you better go whole hog so you don’t have regrets.
TFTL: What is your favorite thing about being a writer? What is the hardest?
ML: Two favorite things: 1) I love creating something out of nothing. Any creative person takes great joy in that process. 2) The same reason I loved performing as a dancer: I love connecting with others by giving them a gift that makes their world more joyous and beautiful.
Two hardest things: 1) Being a perfectionist and dealing with self-criticism. 2) Putting yourself out there and being vulnerable to criticism and rejection.
TFTL: Now that the book is out, what’s next for you?
Besides mom and family duties and teaching, I’ve spent the last two years working on a new adult novel that’s less about ballet and more about high-stakes art. So that’s waiting for me, but mostly I want to spend time with my family and friends and keep teaching and dancing. Oh yes, one of my big goals in the next few years is to get back into taking ballet class regularly. With dance and writing, I enjoy the process, so that’s basically my goal, to continue the process with both. I just need to find the time…
TFTL: Where can people find you?
TFTL: What is the best way for people to show their support for what you are doing?
ML I’d be grateful for anyone who buys my books and posts reviews on Amazon, Goodreads, and on their social media. As a start-up indie publisher, it really does take a village. I’m incredibly grateful for community support.
Thank you for having me, Kate! You’ve inspired me for over twenty years, since we met when you were at New World Symphony and I was at Miami City Ballet. Your friendship has been a gift. Let’s adjust each other’s crowns when we’re a hundred years old, OK?
TFTL: Ditto, my friend! and you got it. I’m honored to be on your crown-adjusting team 😉
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