Author Jean Skartsiaris knows a little about perseverance. For the past 20 years, she’s been slowly but steadily working on the novel she always wanted to write.
During that time, she raised a family in University Park, wrote two young adult books, and started a career as a sonographer at Texas Health Presbyterian. This past December, her efforts finally paid off with the release of Dance Like You Mean It.
The humorous story involves a family woman who is worn down by the routines and obligations of life as a working mother and wife. The protagonist, Cassie, finds her creative outlet by writing a steamy romance novel. Trouble is, she’s too shy to take credit for her work, lest the community look down on her.
“I knew it would be a good book if I could figure out how to write it,” Skartsiaris said.
In the late 1990s, Skartsiaris was watching the television news magazine 20/20 with her mother. The episode that evening involved a punk rock singer who was also a mom.
“She had spiked her hair, she’d put duck tape on her nipples and she screamed into a microphone,” Skartsiaris recalled. “And she was making a ton of money.”
Her mom, who raised four children on her own, took one look at the spectacle and said, “If I only knew that’s all I had to do to raise you kids.”
Skartsiaris’ mom died a short time later in 1998. However, her one-off comment sparked the idea of a novel about a mom writing a risqué book. There was only one problem: at the time, Skartsiaris was a photographer working for a legal office. She had never written a book, and had no idea where to begin.
“I didn’t know how to write,” she said “It was kind of a hot mess.”
Eventually, she joined the Writer’s Path program as SMU in the early 2000s. The program helps aspiring writers edit their work. The best students are given the opportunity to travel to New York and present their work to publishers. In 2002, Skartsiaris got her chance.
“They told me the story was great but the writing terrible.”
Seemingly at a dead end, she put the book away for a few years before taking another stab at it. However, instead of continuing her manuscript, she began writing a book called Surviving Life, which revolves around the relationship between a mother and her teenage daughter. After self-publishing it in 2013, she again turned her attention back to Dance Like You Mean It but still couldn’t get it right.
Skartsiaris released her second self-published book Snow Globe in early 2015. Shortly thereafter, she knew she had to attempt Dance Like You Mean It once more.
“I decided to dust off the old manuscript and really get serious this time,” she said.
She enlisted the help of an agent and was able to get a publisher. Skartsiaris, who said she writes better away from the house, spent hours at Starbucks typing away. The characters themselves are what kept her going.
“They aren’t real of course, but they become a little bit of your psyche,” she said.
In the book, Cassie bears many similarities to Skartsiaris herself. Cassie also works at a hospital and faces the challenges of dealing with a teenage daughter.
However, in a case of life imitating art, those plot points were written long before Skartsiaris worked in the medical world or had a teenage daughter. She jokes that she should have written about winning the lottery instead.
“Am I Cassie? I don’t know. Probably a little bit,” Skartsiaris said. “(I’m) also a little bit of the teenager in there, because I was a little brat.”
As for the book’s love scenes, Skartsiaris said she couldn’t help but laugh as she was writing some of the more adult parts.
“There’s a lot of sex in there, but it’s silly, fun, tongue-in-cheek stuff,” she said. “There are certain words that I won’t use. It was just fun.”
Also, fun is the process of promoting the book. Skartsiaris has been making the rounds at area bookstores, sharing excerpts and meeting readers. And while it might seem like a good time for her to take a break, she is actually almost finished with her next project.
The Magdalenes will be a book that focuses on nuns and prostitutes. Skartsiaris said it was inspired by a friend who worked at a halfway house in Nashville run by a church.
“I like telling a story, but I’m not always articulate when you put me in a big room, she said. “Writing is cathartic, and I think it’s a release for me.”