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JJ Barnes The Table Read

Written by JJ Barnes

I interviewed Kathy O’Shea about her book, So Much More Than A Headache. She describes what motivated her to write it and how she went from idea to publication.

Tell me a bit about who you are.

Kathy O'Shea, author of So Much More Than A Headache, interview on The Table Read
Kathy O’Shea, author of So Much More Than A Headache

I have been a professor of English at Monroe Community College for 34 years and a migraine sufferer for 44 years. My husband, a retired English professor, my two beautiful golden retrievers, Oliver (named after the poet Mary Oliver) and Gretta (named for a character in James Joyce’s novella, “The Dead”) and our cat, Gato live in Rochester, NY.

I love to travel, love adventure (I’ve been dogsledding in Eli, Minnesota when it was minus 45degrees, walked glaciers in Iceland, and rafted in the ANWAR in Alaska. I am a 49-year Buffalo Bills and New York Yankees fanatic, love the arts, classical and rock music, and, of course, love to read.

When did you first WANT to write a book?

I had never really set out to write a book. When I first started researching authors writing about migraine disease, I did so as a typical “go to” for me when I’m struggling with anything. When in crisis, turn to literature.

When did you take a step to start writing?

After researching author after author for months, ones who had either suffered from migraine or created characters/personas who did, I first decided to write an essay of my own. It’s now in the book– “I Know Upon Awakening.”

How long did it take you to complete your first book from the first idea to release?

The process was about three years.

What made you want to write So Much More Than A Headache?

I was in the middle of an intractable migraine; I feared it would take permanent residence.  I was helpless and feeling very scared and lonely. No one fully understood that migraine is “just a headache,” that it affects your entire being,  my headache specialist had retired several months earlier.

I was actually at work and had come back from teaching a class and talking to the chair of my department, when I realized what I needed to do was to turn to what I always have in times of grief or crisis— I needed to read some literature! So, I went to my office to reread Joan Didion’s essay “In Bed,” which had found me when I was in graduate school. I closed my office door and just sobbed— remembering that somebody does “get it.” 

At that moment, I realized there must be a lot of writers who have had migraine, and the research began. When I finally did realize that there was potential for an anthology and discovered that no such work seemed to have yet been written, I thought long and hard about who my audience would be and what my reasons would be to edit such an anthology.

I wanted (want) migraine sufferers, their families and friends, and medical professionals to locate even that one piece of literature that moves them, makes them feel less alone, educates them, and creates empathy.

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What were your biggest challenges with writing So Much More Than A Headache?

 So Much More Than A Headache by Kathy O'Shea, author interview on The Table Read
So Much More Than A Headache by Kathy O’Shea

I had never really published before and had no idea how arduous the process is:  finding the right potential publisher, writing a proposal, facing reader reviews, obtaining the necessary approvals, writing and keeping track of draft after draft, going through copy-editing, and learning to market my work. The challenge was that I was always learning as we went.

The other major challenge was coming to grip with the “permissions” process, discovering how time-consuming it is to eventually get permissions from authors, publishers, estates so I could include the 54 pieces I have. At the same time, I was ignorant about how costly and sometimes prohibitive the permissions cost is for some literature. If it weren’t for the generosity of Dr. Frederick Godley, President of theAssociation of Migraine Disorders, I would not have been able to fund the project.

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What was your research process for So Much More Than A Headache?

I actually started by looking for other essays about migraine, and I discovered that back in 2008, The New York Times carried a blog on migraine, and some truly great writers wrote there about their experience with migraine (two of them ended up in my book). I then used databases and Migraine organizations to help me dig deeper and found this process one of the most enjoyable in compiling the book. A researcher always discovers that one piece leads to another and then another.

How did you plan the structure of So Much More Than A Headache?

I knew from the beginning I didn’t want to organize the book chronologically, but I wasn’t certain how I did want to.  I slowly realized that there were overlapping themes throughout many of the pieces.

 I focused on audience, as well, thinking about how they could best relate to the literature, and then I came up with the five themes around which the book is organized. Some of the works could be placed in several of the chapters, as they touch on several themes. When thinking about two essays in particular, “In Bed” and “Half-Skull Days,” though, I knew they couldn’t be placed in just one of these areas, so I decided to frame the collection with these two works.

Did you get support with editing, and how much editing did So Much More Than A Headache need?

After the two reader reviews came back, I had to do significant organizational revision and broaden my targeted audience. The final editing stages came through several revisions, having asked (several times) colleagues, friends, and my husband (also an English professor) to edit “just one more time”. The series editor contributed significant feedback and suggestions, as well. I also received assistance from the publisher in terms of copy editing, which was very helpful.

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What is the first piece of writing advice you would give to anyone inspired to write a book?

Learn the process, develop patience, and accept critical readings as opportunities for the book to grow.

The wonderful part, though, is the passion, immersion, and commitment a writer feels when working on a book.

Can you give me a hint about any further books you’re planning to write?

I have no immediate plans for a next project.

And, finally, are your proud of your accomplishment? Was it worth the effort?

I’m very proud. It’s probably my most meaningful accomplishment. Yes, it was worth all of the diligence, deadlines, writing blocks, and the painstaking process. I feel I have produced something can be so incredibly helpful to its audiences; that’s my greatest hope. The problem is finding ways to get the book into the hands of those people who can most benefit from it. The marketing is difficult and sometimes frustrating.

Thanks to opportunities like the one you afforded me, we can find avenues to expand awareness.    

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Pop all your book, website and social media links here so the readers can find you:


Facebook: So Much More than a Headache

Twitter: @KathyO’Shea1

Linked In: Migrainelit

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