I knew Sarah Fontenelle what seems like a lifetime ago — when we were both carefree twenty-somethings, acting in the occasional play at The Actor’s Theater of New Orleans. I knew Sarah was a psychologist, so I was surprised when I saw on Facebook that she and her father (also a psychologist) had started a publishing company called Le Bovier Publishing.
Sarah’s gushing Facebook post was about their second book, a memoir by Colleen Hildebrand called In the Ether, and Sarah’s intense passion for this book was so overwhelming and infectious that I contacted her right away. I had to find out more about the memoir and learn how Sarah had become an indie publisher.
I read In the Ether and immediately understood why Sarah found it so special. Here’s my summary:
When Colleen’s seventeen-year-old daughter, Abby, falls in love with Ryan, a charismatic and deeply troubled twenty-two-year-old Marine, straight-laced Colleen and her husband are less than thrilled… but they try to stay open-minded. Then, after a bar fight gone horribly wrong, Ryan is incarcerated. Facing a five-year sentence, his relationship with Abby deteriorates… but through back-and-forth letters, his connection to Colleen grows. It’s a heartbreaking story of an unlikely friendship between two very different people, and how much they had to learn from each other.
There is so much synchronicity and, as Colleen calls it, earthbound magic: both in the memoir itself and in the way the book became a reality. Read on to hear from Colleen and Sarah about the process of writing and publishing In the Ether, and about Le Bovier’s scrappy beginnings… and their big plans for the future.
Colleen, what made you decide to start writing In the Ether?
COLLEEN: I wrote the memoir for Abby and Ryan. While he was incarcerated, Ryan looked forward to receiving the early chapters, and later he hoped—as I did—that upon reading it, Abby would understand the past more clearly, as he learned to do. Ultimately—and I say this with bittersweet embarrassment—he and I thought the book would be the vehicle that restored and strengthened their relationship. I believed that my piecing it together would help them both make sense of a horrific situation, and it did, but fate had its own plans for an ending none of us had imagined.
What was the writing and editing process like?
COLLEEN: The writing process was unforced and cathartic for me, given that so much of the story arose from my own journals and letters. The process of arranging or outlining the story—of choosing which details were essential, what events of my life would best serve as a foundation on which my narrative voice could rest without sounding like the rantings of an intrusive mother, and how I could convey a broader truth through my own experience—came to me with surprising clarity. (I’ve had one highly intuitive person ask me if it makes sense that I channeled the manuscript from my higher self. It does.)
I began In the Ether as a work of “fiction” inspired by true events. It seemed a safe way to portray both Abby and Ryan without violating their boundaries. In hindsight, I realized the brief intent to fictionalize our experience gave me the freedom to write more authentically. As I wrote and they read, we realized the only fictional aspects were our names.
The editing process was painful, not because I had to “clean up” the writing, but because of the emotional reality of the conditions. The weight of grief simultaneously gave me purpose and pause. As I edited on my own, before working with Le Bovier, I struggled with revising anything. I wanted the story to stay true to what Ryan had read. In revising, I removed very little– and none of his story. When I began editing with Sarah, the process was smooth. We found a rhythm to our work that felt very productive, and I appreciated Le Bovier’s giving me such creative control.
Sarah, what made you decide to publish In the Ether?
SARAH: I’m a researcher and psychologist—I love to read academic journal articles and books about theories of human development. I also like papers and books that help my imagination “zoom out,” so to speak, like Prometheus Rising by Robert Anton Wilson—books and papers that stretch my ideas of reality to new dimensions. One of my all-time favorites is The Fourth Dimension (A Guided Tour of the Higher Universes) by Rudy Rucker—part mathematical, part theoretical, and magnificently brain breaking. I like books that make my brain hurt in the best possible way.
So I was surprised that I wanted to read more when I finished Colleen’s original submission to me (the first three chapters of In the Ether)—memoirs are not the kind of books I gravitate to. In every way, Colleen found me. And I’m glad she did! Her story is interesting and unexpected, and her writing is fluid, deeply vulnerable, and covers lots of ground. In it I saw the real micro-evolutions of two individuals: Ryan, the main subject of the book, and Colleen. Her ability to so precisely translate her thoughts and feelings into written word reveals a thorough excavation of self, a relatable openness that drives personal growth toward a deeper awareness of what so many deep thinkers throughout time have concluded: that there is meaning to everything—you just have to notice it.
I thought Colleen’s documented journey was an important one for readers to experience, to expand their own thinking and beliefs about family and love.
Colleen, In the Ether is such an intimate book; were you ever worried about putting so much of your family’s personal life out into the world?
COLLEEN: In May of 2017, I began writing, always with the intent to publish. After the first ten chapters, I realized it was not fiction but memoir, and I had some decisions to make. I had no qualms about revealing my own life, but I wanted to protect the privacy of Abby, Ryan, and Ryan’s family. Abby advised me to “tell it like it is.” Ryan said he had no problems with any of it either, but he agreed using pseudonyms for family would be best. I chose to use them for my extended family, too.
I believe most people assume that their challenges, concerns, and experiences are a bit more unique than they really are, which is understandable since we all feel so intensely. But that’s just it: we all feel intensely. We are all human, flawed, filled with every emotion. I chose not to concern myself with what people thought of my life; I decided to trust that, being human, my experience (or some version of it) would be common to most readers, and I did not and do not fear judgment for telling the truth about how I feel. All three of us chose to believe honesty might make someone in the world feel less alone.
Sarah, you and your father, Scuddy F. Fontenelle, III, Ph.D., run a psychology practice in New Orleans and recently started Le Bovier Publishing. What made you decide to become an indie publisher?
SARAH: My dad and I are very passionate about our psychology practice—we love the work we do and are honored to help families and children with their greatest struggles. We feel very lucky to get to do what we do.
Scuddy, my dad, has been in private practice for forty years. He has a lot of insight to offer parents, and he wrote a book for them years ago. I offered to help him finish it, and in the process of doing so, I came up with ideas for several other books (without finishing the first one). Being the dreamer in the family, I can manifest a lot of ideas, but I’m not typically the one to finish things.
So, in my ever-restless brain, I thought starting our own publishing company—for all of those unfinished books—would be easier than trying to convince an already established publishing company to take a chance on us. We would have total control, write as much or as little as we liked, and could publish in our own time. I even had a name picked out—Le Bovier, for our French philosopher ancestor Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle, who was a deep thinker and prolific writer, someone my father and I love to research and talk about. I was besotted with the idea of honoring Bernard with a publishing company and promoting books with big ideas.
Naturally, and to my dad’s ever-wise opinion that I take on too much, I jumped from writing book drafts to registering Le Bovier Publishing with the State of Louisiana and creating a website… without a clue as to what publishers even do! And I’ve been busy ever since. Before you could say “is that parenting book finished, yet?”, I had the opportunity to publish books by two other people, who became the fuel for me to see their projects through to publication. This meant a lot of hours of learning how to start and run a publishing company. They were counting on me—I simply had to do it.
It has been a difficult and stressful journey, and not something I would necessarily endorse if you also have a full-time job and small children, unless you’re super passionate about it—but I have grown in confidence that I can do hard things and finish things (like that parenting book!), because that is what happens when we keep pushing ourselves beyond perceived limits.
I think I shocked my dad, who is more of a silent partner in Le Bovier, when I handed him our first two tangible books: Without a World (by Kristen Illarmo) and In the Ether (by Colleen Hildebrand). The next one will definitely be his parenting book. He might literally faint when he sees it because I’m sure he has given up hope it will ever be done!
Way to jump blindly and passionately into something new! What have you learned so far about the publishing process?
SARAH: Publishing is a process, like anything, and at times a painfully tedious one. It involves multiple read-throughs of manuscripts with a fine-toothed editing comb, patience and weeks of time for detailed formatting in Microsoft Word, learning about the different platforms for selling various book formats, and my most hated task: marketing and promotion.
I don’t have the time to do marketing properly, nor the funds to hire someone (yet!), and it is such a behemoth! The time and energy it takes to make and share quality content for, say, social media, at a rate needed to boost success, can be soul crushing. I have also had to embrace cold-calling and emailing bookstores, book reviewers, and journalists, only to never hear back—from anyone. I’m also not a fan at the business side of things, like figuring out how to print shipping labels and pay royalties and taxes, but in doing so, I think I’ve grown my brain a bit, and I certainly have a new appreciation for anyone who runs a small business.
And today is a great day for independent authors! We have tools now that make it possible to self publish, and that is exciting. The flip side is that it’s much harder to get noticed. I’d like to believe the cream rises to the top, but if it does, it is a slow rise. Publishing, overall, is noticing something meaningful and campaigning for it. Not many people are willing to take a chance on something that is not already socially validated, which speaks to how far we have to go with regard to healthy risk-taking and independent thinking. I will say, though, despite all my griping, I have learned that the publishing journey—like any journey—is meaningful, regardless of objective measure of success. It feels really good to work behind the scenes to create a platform for talented writers who might otherwise go unnoticed.
Colleen, you are also an English teacher and an artist. Did you ever think you might write a book one day?
COLLEEN: I thought I would write a book; I just thought it would be poetry or fiction. I have waited my whole life to “know” what my story would be. In teaching novels and seeing what popular fiction young people read, I have always wanted to write something that might have the effect of encouraging people to believe in something wonderful and want to read, like J.K. Rowling and dare I say Stephanie Meyer were able to do with their fantastical fiction. I, however, wanted to tell a story that was firmly grounded in reality, that would offer the bittersweetness of earthbound magic. While I am far too realistic to believe my reach could ever match even a fraction of theirs, I hope those who do read In the Ether feel moved to believe in or seek something greater, see something beautiful in their own existences.
Sarah, what is Le Bovier Publishing looking for in book submissions?
SARAH: We want to publish books that speak to our highest human potential. That means we look for books that challenge us to think in new ways, inspire noble action, awaken childlike wonder, and speak with great diplomacy. We are open to most genres, so long as the book is edifying and elicits a sense of awe. We are not interested in “beach reads” or books filled with strongly-held opinion and fixed belief; rather, we want to publish books that elicit curiosity and questioning.
We also are very much open to books that make us laugh until we cry. And ghost stories. Real ghost stories and real stories of synchronicity.
Colleen, what advice do you have for people trying to write a memoir?
COLLEEN: Be brave, speak your truth, and remember that no matter how isolated your own fears, challenges, and traumas make you feel, you heal by finding yourself in others and allowing others to find themselves in you.
Sarah, what advice do you have for memoirists hoping to publish their personal stories?
SARAH: Aside from the standard “manage your expectations, be authentic, and never give up,” I would say: contribute something new. You may have an interesting story, and that’s great, but I would much rather read an interesting story that has something new and big to say. Be bold and find ways to make your story multidimensional.
Also, be open to the thoughts of others. Writing to publish is a process of creation that, I believe, belongs to the ether, not the author. That sounds weird, but I think once you’ve done your part, such as writing a good draft, you must share it with others and listen to what they have to say about it. Your memoir will be a much better piece of art if you allow it to evolve beyond your initial expectations, though you certainly do not want to bend on things that are important to you.
I tend to think originality stems from traversing a path that is balanced between instinct and intentionality—sometimes you have to intentionally override your natural inclinations to get to something really good, and there is no better way to do that than to elicit feedback from others and truly consider what is provided to you without taking it personally. Let your work breathe, and always allow space for comedy!
I wish I had good advice for promoting books, but the best I can say at this point is: be willing to cast an exceptionally large net over and over again if you wish to catch the attention of just one person.
Thanks so much to Colleen and Sarah for sharing their thoughts! I am simply fascinated. Fascinated by Sarah’s passion to dive head-first into publishing meaningful books, and fascinated by Colleen’s journey to write and publish her story. To me, Colleen’s experience proves: if a book is meant to be published, you’ll find a way. It may not be the way you imagined, but it’ll be a journey well worth taking.
Author Colleen Hildebrand, a native and lifetime resident of Louisiana, attended the University of New Orleans for her undergraduate degree in secondary English education. Much later she earned her master’s degree in English and certification in gifted education at Southeastern Louisiana University. When she is not teaching in her classroom, you might find her tapping away at the keys of her laptop, contemplating an image on her easel, literally running the streets with her dog, Opal, or just relaxing and binge watching the latest Netflix series with her more-than-patient husband, Scott. Her memoir, In the Ether, was published in September 2022 by Le Bovier Publishing.
Based in the Greater New Orleans area, Le Bovier Publishing is the passion project of Scuddy F. Fontenelle, III, Ph.D., and his daughter, Sarah Fontenelle, Ph.D. The father-daughter duo run a successful psychology practice and share a love of Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle, their French ancestor. Scuddy and Sarah both feel a deep connection to Bernard and his philosophy of diplomacy and wonder. They created Le Bovier as a platform for sharing ideas that unique speak to the value of tradition and progress, doing their part to integrate minds instead of divide them. (Find Le Bovier on Instagram here.)