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Novel tackles teen bullying and self-esteem

Alum Sharon Neiss-Arbess explores drama-filled world of high school in her first novel
January 29, 2018
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By Matthew Scribner

Many people dream of escaping their lives of corporate drudgery to write a novel. Sharon Neiss-Arbess, BA 93, decided to take the plunge and actually do it. 

Sharon-Neiss Arbess Sharon-Neiss Arbess is busy promoting her first novel, Me and My So-Called Friends.

With a short story already published in Living Legacies: A Collection of Inspirational Contemporary Jewish Women, Neiss-Arbess is busy promoting her book Me and My So-Called Friends (Love & Lifestyle, 2015).

Aimed at tweens, young teens and their families, the novel tells a story of a teen girl struggling with backstabbing friends, embarrassing situations and peer pressure. She talks about her novel’s perennially popular topic and her writing process from her home in Toronto.

What did you study at Concordia?

SNA: “Communication studies — I switched from a major to specialization due to my desire to learn as much as I could from the program.

My favourite courses were scriptwriting and advanced scriptwriting with Michael Donovan [former lecturer, BA 81]. I really enjoyed those courses because it pushed my creative skills and I learned that I had a talent for dialogue and writing stories.”

What did you do once you graduated?

SNA: “I worked in retail advertising right after I graduated from Concordia. After a year, I realized that I needed some computer skills, so I went to Algonquin College in Ottawa for two years to study advertising. After that, I worked for some small advertising shops and then was hired at Sears as a copywriter.

Once I had my son, I wanted to spend more time with him and I also wanted to write. I had a story brewing in my head for many years and I had to get it out. I decided to create my own office at my neighbourhood coffee shop. I actually mirrored that from Michael Donovan, who used to write his screenplays near his home in Dollard-des-Ormeaux [Que.] at the Dunkin’ Donuts.”

Tell us about your writing process.

SNA: “I began writing three times a week, two hours at a time. I didn’t want to do it every day because I was afraid I would get writer’s block.

There were days when I wrote five pages and there were days when I wrote seven pages and there were days when I didn’t write at all. It just wasn’t coming out. And that was okay because I knew the next time I’d come in, I’d write more. And that’s what happened.

The first draft took nine months. Initially, I did try to publish the book at a traditional publisher. I only tried about 10 publishers and I got rejected from everybody, which was of course a demoralizing experience; but looking back, it wasn’t meant to be at the time.

I decided to put away my book on the shelf and work on other projects. I also had my third child. After several years, I felt it was time to visit my manuscript again. I was psychologically ready. I hadn’t looked at it in a long time, and I changed as a person and so did the story.”

How did you get the book published?

Me and My So-Called Friends - cover Neiss-Arbess’s book deals with serious themes in a humorous way.

SNA: “My girlfriend is a university professor and she’s got a keen eye. I said to her, ‘Would you mind reading my book?’ She said, ‘Sure!’

A week later she called me and said ‘So I booked you for a reading at our temple,’ and I was like, ‘What? Oh my God, I’ve got to get it published now.’

I knew this small publishing company in Guelph [Ont.] that likes to publish books with strong female leads and life lessons. I had to pay a little bit of money up front, but I own all the rights to my book. They published it and distributed it to Amazon, Barnes and Noble and Indigo, along with many other platforms. As an added bonus, my eldest son designed the cover.

I had my first reading two years ago and then I started taking it to bookstores around my neighbourhood and did some more readings at some synagogues. I was asked by some schools to come in and do a reading along with a lesson plan, and that was so much fun.”

Who do you want to reach with your book?

SNA: “You’ve probably heard of a series on Netflix called 13 Reasons Why. It’s based on a book by Jay Asher.

My book and 13 Reasons Why have a lot of similarities but — and this is a big ‘but’ — my book does not have two rape scenes and a suicide scene. They’re both about a girl who goes through a very hard school year, but in my book she gets through by finding support she survives, whereas in 13 Reasons Why she kills herself.

So if a parent is looking for a book to talk about struggles and choices, but also learning that you can get through it when you find the right resources, they should read my book.

One of my ‘Aha!’ moments came when a daughter of a friend read it. She read halfway through and she said to her mother, ‘You know mom, this book isn’t for me. They talk about drugs and they’re at a party and they’re kissing and all this and I think it’s too mature for me.’

And the mother said, ‘Wait a minute—this is actually good.’ She asked her daughter, ‘How do you feel about the decisions the main character made?’

That starts the conversation early. And why not do it through a humorous and funny story?”

Did Concordia help you with your career and with your writing?

SNA: “I think some of the courses I took definitely helped me. The people I worked with were really great. We were very dedicated and wanted to succeed.

I especially enjoyed the group projects. I loved collaborating with people and bringing different strengths to the table. At Concordia, you not only wrote papers but you were also doing these great group projects and producing TV commercials and photo sessions. I really enjoyed it.”

Do you have any advice to share about teenage bullying?

SNA: “You can’t escape it. It’s everywhere. You have to learn how to survive. I’m trying to help build stronger women who realize that if certain friends are not making you feel good, you should leave. No one’s holding you hostage. Find people who make you feel good.”

#CUalumni

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