Meet Elle, An Author Who Rewrote Her Dreams with SparkPeople

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By: , SparkPeople Blogger
5/25/2011 5:16 AM   :  23 comments   :  9,433 Views

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When Chris "SparkGuy" Downie founded SparkPeople 10 years ago, weight loss wasn't the only thing on his mind. He wanted to help people be healthier, sure, but he also wanted to show them that setting small goals en route to larger ones could help them achieve success in all areas of their lives.

SparkPeople grew into the country's largest diet website and helped millions become healthier along the way. But most of you didn't stop there, including Elle Newmark, whom you'll meet today.

As Chris wrote in his NYT best-selling book, "The Spark":

"At the convention, I also met Elle Newmark, the member who landed a major book deal as part of her SparkPeople adventure and embarked on an exciting trip to Italy, the setting of her book. But she didn’t stop there, as she told us:

I just spent a month in India, researching my next book. That little hill in California near my home is laughable compared to the Himalayas where life is entirely vertical. I spent almost two weeks at altitudes between 6,000 and 8,000, and was able to see and do everything. This enhanced physical ability creates a sense of well-being, self-sufficiency, and plain old power that is priceless. I am 62 years old and I feel like the world is mine for the taking. I can go places and do things that would have been unthinkable 3 years ago. My SparkPeople experience wasn’t a dream come true, I never even dreamed this. All that happened to me was beyond what I ever dreamed."

That second book, "The Sandalwood Tree," has been published, and we're thrilled that Elle has been able to achieve such success. She took some time recently to answer some questions via email. As a fellow writer, I was truly inspired by her tale. I hope you will be too. She is as eloquent in email as she is in her prose, so I urge you to keep reading!

dailySpark: dailySpark: You've been a member of SparkPeople for several years now. How did you find the site?

Elle: On a trip to New York in 2002 I was chatting with a literary agent who had lost a tremendous amount of weight and written a successful book about it. Having struggled with weight, like most American women, I was as interested in her book as she was in mine. We met for coffee and I spotted her immediately. At 5-foot-10, she swanned into the room wearing a chic, size 8 power suit. She was beautiful, and I was impressed. It was she who told me about SparkPeople.

dailySpark: How did the momentum and confidence from your healthy lifestyle adventure lead to your writing and launching your first book--and getting the book deal? (That's a great story!)

Elle: I used to tell people – particularly my kids, who were always after me to get more exercise – that I simply couldn't fit any more exercise into my day because I needed to work slowly and gently with my body because of my medical history. Twenty-five years ago I had major back surgery, leaving me with 14 fused vertebrae and followed by osteoporosis, a hip replacement, a shattered knee, a broken arm. My body was frail and prone to break easily. Nevertheless, taking my friend's advice, I visited SparkPeople and that made me see exercise in a different way. Thinking myself already frail, I dared not risk activities that might leave me injured. But taking SparkPeople's advice about starting with tiny steps, and gradually moving up to slightly longer routine at a comfortable pace, made all the difference. My small, initial steps were enough to deny the excuses I had made in the past. SparkPeople demanded consistency. I learned not only to be consistent, but also that the rewards would follow.

This was very important, because while I had always been a writer, I was not a consistent writer. But when I started seeing results on the scale, and in my stamina and strength, I upped the stakes on the literary scale as well. I decided to write, as my second novel, an extended metaphor involving a chef (my father was a master chef) and political intrigue in early Renaissance Venice. This was a more complicated book than I had attempted before, but I was feeling good, I was feeling healthy, I was feeling confident, and for the first time I thought, "Maybe I can really do this."

When I finished my book, I did all the things you were supposed to do to get it published. I approached NY agents through polite query letters written according to established form, and in return, I received a pile of rejection letters, written according to form. But upon finishing my novel, I had a Spark Insight: I realized that I had stepped out of my comfort zone starting small with exercise to build a new level of stamina, a new outlook. Maybe stepping out of the established box again, taking small, focused, disciplined steps towards my goal would assist in getting published.

I decided to self publish, and felt a small glow of triumph when I saw my book available for sale on Amazon. And yet I wanted the real deal, I dreamed of bestseller status, and somehow my Amazon listing looked so lonely and obscure, and I knew that more was needed. So I decided to hold a virtual book launch party. I built a website that would be active on a specific date, contacting potential partner websites – they would announce my "party" to their email subscribers, in exchange for my featuring their downloads at the party. I sent homemade, individually chocolate-dipped cookies along with copies of the book and book launch invitations to book reviewers. (More than 1,000 cookies!) And finally, I invited several hundred New York agents to the "party" as well.

The day arrived; the website got hits; the book started selling. By lunch, I was getting offers of representation from major agents. In less than two weeks, the book went to auction, and I had a two-book publishing deal with Simon and Schuster. Small steps, steady progress, huge reward.

Before SparkPeople = overweight, unpublished, depressed, wandering in the abyss and always hungry.

After SparkPeople = slimmer, more energy and stamina, and more confident. Still hungry, but hungry for life.


dailySpark: What goals did you achieve with the help of the SparkPeople community?

Elle: I don't even know where to begin. I started with SparkPeople only hoping to lose a few pounds and become a little more fit, but I found that one thing connects to another. I started noticing changes in other areas of my life, even in areas where I hadn't set explicit goals. My mood was generally cheerier. I found myself smiling for no reason. I took more time and interest in my appearance.

I achieved my first goal – 15 pounds – rather quickly, because it wasn't a terribly large number. But I kept doing the SparkPeople program because I liked it – it improved the quality of my day. I also hoped to improve my general health. All I did was walk; I didn't go to gyms or use fancy machines. But I live in hilly territory, with orange and lemon orchards, and some of the hills are very steep. There's nothing more challenging than a walk up or even down such a slope, and I actually worked up a sweat, from exercise, for the first time in my life.

dailySpark: Chris "SparkGuy" Downie is one of your biggest fans. Tell us a bit about how you two first met.

Elle: With SparkPeople, Chris has created a method for incorporating different areas of our lives and allowing them to interact with each other and benefit from each other. I found that, indeed, my healthier body was interwoven with my higher productivity in writing, because of the increased stamina that both of those activities required. So I'm an equally big fan of Chris for creating this variegated lifestyle that is enriched with many facets.

I first contacted Chris to invite him to sponsor the book launch party for "The Book of Unholy Mischief." But we didn't meet in person until I went down to the SparkPeople Convention in San Diego. Actually, I was going to meet a friend I had made online through SparkPeople, who I'd been chatting with for about two years. But since I was going to the convention, Chris asked if I would mind saying a few words about how incorporating a new lifestyle had helped me on the road to my book deal. Of course, I was only too happy to oblige.

dailySpark: What advice do you have for other SparkPeople members who are aspiring writers?

Elle: I have the same advice for writers as I have for any SparkPeople or any people endeavoring to reach a goal. As Winston Churchill said, with the shadow of bombs falling over London, "Never, never, never, never give up."

dailySpark: How did setting health and fitness goals help you achieve success in other aspects of life?

Elle: SparkPeople teaches that routine is important; certain things must happen every day, like your food log, and exercise. This discipline transferred to my writing – I must write a certain amount every day, I must edit. I found that my set of must-do's were creating a web of healthy living about me.

A principle goal of mine was not just to write, but to be a better writer. One of the reasons I had always given for not exercising was that I didn't have the time – I had to write. When you're on a streak, you can't break the streak. What if I went for a walk and came back to writer's block? We couldn't have that! But the biggest surprise of all was that my SparkPeople regimen made me more prolifically creative. Some of my best metaphors were born strolling through a shady orchard. The solutions to many writerly questions concerning point of view or dialog appeared in flashes while I struggled up one of the steep hills near my house. Soon, I no longer thought of my walks as exercise. They were periods of thinking; they were my writing time. I started carrying around a little pad and pencil, but soon I was interrupting my walks too constantly to write down ideas, and I had to get a tape recorder. Finally, I started to compete with myself to walk more, to write more, and that's when you know you're getting serious.

dailySpark: Your latest book, "The Sandalwood Tree," is set in India as it gains independence from British rule. Your first book, "The Book of Unholy Mischief"/"The Chef's Apprentice," was set in Italy during the early Renaissance. How do you research your works?

Elle: I start by loving a place, I craft the story-line, and then I start reading its history at the time of my story. But to describe the sights, smells and sounds of a place, to really create a tangible word image of an exotic locale, I need to travel. I lived in Germany for seven years and spent much time traveling in Italy. I doubt anyone could visit Venice without feeling the weight of its history and without sensing the mysterious aura of the place.

I had yearned to see India for as long as I could remember, but was intimidated by the profound otherness of the place. It took me many years of travel before I worked up the nerve to visit, in 2001. But again the exotic experience served as my muse, and I started writing "The Sandalwood Tree". I also started researching 19th century English social customs, British Rule, and Partition. Once I had a decent understanding of the history, I went back to India for another trip, to add a final polish to my prose, and hoping to evoke the richness of that country for my readers.

dailySpark: Your first book has a strong food component. What role does food play in your own life, and why did you choose to make it key theme in your book?

Elle: My father was an Italian master chef, so I was raised not only with an appreciation of fine food, but with the sense that food is representative of one's work ethic and one's aesthetic. With so much baggage attending to food, weight loss can be a challenge. Our family, like so many, celebrated over food, condoled with food, showed love with food. But also, we taught and learned and derived our livelihood from food. SparkPeople taught me the balance necessary to appreciate food as an element of health, along with exercise and discipline.

But the fact that "The Book of Unholy Mischief" is so food-centric is not simply because of this food-focus in my life. Food is a profound metaphor for all our needs, for wealth or simplicity, for discipline or excess. The dramatic potential of food is tremendous!

dailySpark: As a writer, how do you use SparkPeople's goal-setting techniques to meet your deadlines?

Elle: As I mentioned before, the aspect of SparkPeople that revolutionized my work is the requirement of consistency. Exercise and meal planning are examples of daily ritual that focus on a long-term goal and lifestyle change. Daily writing, researching and editing are similarly difficult disciplines, with daily work aimed at a long term goal. You can't expect to lose weight or get fit with a sudden one week burst of effort, and neither can you expect to research, write, edit, re-write and sell a novel in fits and starts of work.

dailySpark: I read that you crossed off a life's goal: Rent Italian villa. Tell us a bit about that trip and what made it so special. I heard some SparkPeople friends came to visit you. What was it like to meet them for the first time?

Elle: Oh, that was a marvelous trip! You're right, I'd always dreamed of spending some time in a villa in Northern Italy, near where my family came from. I had the idea to hold a writer's workshop and retreat for a week, in a house in the village of and Lenno, on Lake Como, and arranged some speaking engagements in nearby Milan as well. But I am completely willing to mix business with pleasure, so I took the house for a full month, and before the workshop I hosted family and friends, including some of the wonderful friends I had made through SparkPeople.

That month was special in so many ways, not least was the mingling of my passions -- travel, grandchildren, writing, and friends. Meeting my Spark-friends had the potential, of course, to feel odd -- to share a bond with someone you've never met might seem strange. But in fact, they were every bit as lively, lovely, loving and fun as I had expected. That month was truly one of life's gifts to me.

dailySpark: What's next for you?

Elle: My next book is largely written. It takes place in the rain forest of Central America, where I traveled about 10 years ago. So next is more work -- editing, re-writing, editing some more. I'm glad to say that "next" is more of the same: following my passions.

What has SparkPeople inspired you to achieve? What is your passion? Have you read Elle's books?


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Comments

  • 11TERRY20
    23
    Hi everyone!
    "The Book of Unholy Mischief" is my favorite book - ever! So I read everything I can concerning Elle. I read her novel before I joined SP and it is the reason I joined SP. I joined because of Elle's use of SP to build not only the health she wanted but the creative life she wanted. She is my role model in SP and in writing. Here's a big "Spark Cheers!" to Elle and Stepfanie. Thanks to you Both. Keep writing, writing, and writing more. - 9/25/2012   11:07:35 AM
  • 22
    This article was so inspirational for me. Everything Elle said spoke to me. She said how much the consistency that SparkPeople inspires helps her. I've (finally!) discovered that that's what I need, too. I used to pride myself as being someone who wasn't imprisoned by routines, someone who could think outside the box and do what she wanted, when she wanted. Well, I gradually figured out that I NEED routines and consistency to be able to get healthier and fitter. And I really liked what Elle said about that consistency helping her in other areas of her life, like writing. So now I'm even more determined to make healthy routines and stick to them. It's hard undoing habits you've had for decades, but it's important. This article has reaffirmed how important it is. - 9/2/2012   6:06:50 PM
  • 21
    Elle is correct in that Sparks and the healthy life style that it promotes, is a life changing event! My entire life is better since I found this web site! Thank you! - 8/5/2011   11:03:07 AM
  • 20
    Great Blog,
    This book is now on my list to read.
    I agree with Elle - the confidence you glean from achieving each small goal grows and grows - doubling almost. The limits of what you can achieve are just the ones self imposed and they begin to vanish as you achieve success. - 6/14/2011   10:20:14 PM
  • 19
    Both Elle and Stepfanie are to be commended for presenting such an excellent article. I enjoyed every word of it and now will get the book to read. Thanks! - 6/1/2011   4:47:16 PM
  • 18
    Great article and great to see a Spark member lauded for an accomplishment other than completing a marathon. Fantastic achievement!!! - 5/30/2011   1:08:45 PM
  • 17
    What a motivational blog! Thank you. - 5/30/2011   6:40:55 AM
  • 16
    Kudos to Elle and for her inisght ab out consistency as a practice we can apply to many parts of our life. I always value spontaneity and think that consistency is boring-but she shows how consistency in weightloss, exercise, tracking, writing led to amazing adventures and I am sure many moments of spontaneous creativity. - 5/27/2011   12:22:51 PM
  • CYNNANE
    15
    Looks like I will have some fiction to read after my thesis defense. :) Adding this to my list. - 5/26/2011   7:02:22 PM
  • 14
    Hey Elle! Wow...amazing to say I "knew" you when! We hung out here together, mostly on the Thich Nhat Hanh and Thanksgiving Community teams.

    What an amazing success story you are! Like Vivian, I read (and thoroughly enjoyed) Unholy Mischief and with my Eastern leanings, I'm especially looking forward to The Sandalwood Tree! And look at you...THIRD BOOK almost done -- phenomenal! I'm about to leave for a land a bit further south than that covered in it...summer in Andean Ecuador!

    The article is extraordinary...just like you!

    Bright blessings,
    Maha - 5/26/2011   10:43:21 AM
  • 13
    Awesome article. I have her first book but not the second one yet. I know that I will pick it up soon. Congratulations on all your successes.

    - 5/26/2011   10:09:29 AM
  • 12
    Congratulations. One never knows where those first steps might lead. You've had an amazing journey. - 5/26/2011   9:20:21 AM
  • GREENMOUSE
    11
    Congratulations! How everything fits together in life!! - 5/25/2011   11:00:40 PM
  • 10
    Now I want to read this book! - 5/25/2011   10:08:30 PM
  • 9
    Omg! This is one of the best articles I have read on sparkpeople. Why? It goes beyond discussions of best health and fitness practice to the why and how of living a creative life.
    To me, fit and healthy is NOT an aim in and of itself.
    The discipline of fit and healthy builds an environment of consistency that contains my creative endeavors! You are a shiny shiny star Ellen!
    - 5/25/2011   9:24:08 PM
  • NJ_HOU
    8
    Wonderful article !!! Congratulations ! - 5/25/2011   3:17:14 PM
  • 7
    Based on this interview, I want to read the books. What an inspiration she is. - 5/25/2011   12:37:33 PM
  • 6
    Her books sound so interesting. I would so love to travel, maybe someday. - 5/25/2011   11:31:39 AM
  • 5
    Very inspiring! - 5/25/2011   9:11:08 AM
  • 4
    I like this a lot! Not only for what Ms. Newmark has to say about her book and the writing experience, but about the cohesiveness of a well-lived life. Thanks to both Stepfanie and Ms. Newmark for a good start to the middle of the week. - 5/25/2011   9:07:09 AM
  • 3
    Awesome article, I am also enjoying the book right now. Thank you so much for sharing with us. - 5/25/2011   8:59:24 AM
  • STARWYNDE
    2
    I was very surprised to see this article, as this is the book I am enjoying right now! I picked it up at the library because I am always looking for books about India. My husband is Indian, and we spent three weeks there at the end of last year. The story is engrossing, and her descriptions of the Indian experience are excellent. Thank you SparkPeople! - 5/25/2011   6:57:45 AM
  • TSBEZO
    1
    Good article. - 5/25/2011   6:20:05 AM

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