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Truth About Assistants: Interview with Emily Suess, former assistant for John Green

With the stress of writing, keeping up with blogs/Twitter/Angry Birds, and oh yeah that family too, pretty much every writer has thought at one point or another about hiring an assistant. But what would an assistant really do? We asked Emily Suess, a freelance writer from Indianapolis, to talk about her time working as an assistant to John Green while he wrote 2008's PAPER TOWNS.

Firstly, tell us a little about yourself.
Right now I'm a part-time freelance writer and full-time catalog editor for a company in the automotive industry. I live in Indianapolis, but spent the first 18 years of my life in one of those really small towns in Southern Indiana where everyone's always up in your business.

Had you worked as a personal assistant or something similar before working with John Green?
Before I worked for John, I spent several years working as your average administrative assistant (which is something akin to saying I was completely miserable). I spent a few years in municipal government before accepting a job at a community college. After six months there I was looking again, and I took a new position at an elementary school. The elementary school job was so horrible I decided I didn't have a choice but to go back to college. I enrolled full-time at IUPUI at the age of 25 and took a part-time position as an editorial assistant at The Saturday Evening Post. My class schedule changed and life happened, so I resigned my position at the SEP during my second year.

How did you come to be John's assistant?
After leaving the Post, I kept my eyes peeled for other part-time positions. John advertised for an assistant, and I replied with my resume. I didn't know at the time that I was applying for a job to work for John Green—I just knew that a writer was hiring an assistant. I could have been applying for a job to assist an author of high school algebra textbooks for all I knew.

How long did you work with him?
About a year. Just one day a week from 8:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. I would've stayed longer, but I graduated, got divorced, and needed a full-time job with health insurance.

What were some typical things that were part of your assistant job?
I'd help John compile research, assist him in managing his social networking sites, make a run to the post office, occasionally watch the Vlogbrothers YouTube videos, and serve as a sort of beta reader for some of his WIPs.

What did a typical day look like?
Well, I'd start by marking a few dozen MySpace friend requests as spam. You know, the ones from users named ~*xoKissyFacexo*~ and junk. Then I'd help him sort through like 7 million emails so he could answer the really important ones first. Then I might read through a manuscript, run an errand, or do some fact checking.

What was your favorite part of the job?

Least favorite?
Going to the post office. The postal workers in his zip code were rude and prone to yelling at customers. I remember this one time specifically an employee was yelling at people standing in line to use the machine to send their packages. (The machine was a self-checkout kiosk.)

Well, I opted to stay in her line rather than move to a new one. When I got to the counter and told her what I wanted to do, she yelled angrily, "You could have done this at the kiosk!" She's lucky she got quiet, 26-year-old Emily instead of today's non-sh*t-taking, 31-year-old Emily.

I know you're a freelance writer now, but do you also have an interest in writing novels?
Absolutely. At the rate I'm going, however, I'll be lucky to have a first draft by 2030.

When you worked as an assistant, did you have much time to focus on your own work?
When I worked for John I had time for everything. I was enrolled in college fulltime, working the front desk at a psychiatric clinic one day a week, and running a blog in my free time. Working as a literary assistant was like getting paid to do a hobby. It was nothing at all like the soul-sucking "real" jobs I'd had in the past.

I think a lot of people dream of having an assistant, but in your opinion, at what point does having an assistant make sense for a writer?
I say if you can afford to hire one, do it now. Remember that I only worked 6 hours a week for John, so it's not like you have to come up with a full-time salary and benefits to get started.

Would you recommend seeking work as an assistant to aspiring writers/publishing professionals?
Yes! Even if I hadn't learned a thing about writing or the publishing industry, it was inspirational to work for someone who creates for a living—particularly after the string of institutional jobs I'd held previously.

Thank you so much for answering our questions, Emily! Learn more about her on her blog, and on Twitter!

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  1. Great interview, Emily! I love reading about your life adventures and how you keep moving forward despite some miserable jobs. You entertain us readers along the way.

    Hope you get the novel done before 2030.

  2. Thanks for the interview, Emily! And YA Highway for bringing it to us. It does sound very inspiring reading about someone who tried so many options... (I'm almost 25 and back at university full-time, so I can relate a little!)

    When I met bestselling author Sabrina Jeffries, she was looking for an assistant, but she admitted to not wanting an aspiring writer in that position. Because she wants someone to stick around... Not for just a year. Aspiring writers will always eventually move on to their own projects, though. Then again, it's possible that she's thinking of hiring someone for more than a few hours a day, or else that wouldn't be very fair...

  3. Thanks Sarah and Emily! It's definitely fascinating to read about your position with John, Emily, and how you found the things you love to do that still allow for your own creative endeavors.

  4. Wow, this is super interesting! I actually didn't know writers would want to hire assistants like Emily. Thanks for the edifying interview!

  5. @Leora: Aww, thanks. So glad you stopped by, and fingers crossed I'll find some time to knock out that novel ahead of schedule.

    @asiamorela: Glad to add my two cents to the conversation, and good luck with your studies. I loved my college years, even though I wasn't your typical student.

    @Kristin and Yahong: So glad you enjoyed my babbling. :)

  6. It's funny how, around 30 years of age, you learn how to not take crap from people anymore.

  7. @Jill: You are so, so right. One of many reasons I have no desire to relive my 20s. :)


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