Author of 'Perceived Threat' novel explains the journey that started as a dental hygienist
BY Cathy Hester Seckman, RDH
If you're a dental hygienist, your lifetime niche is right there waiting for you, and it's a comforting thing. You know your place in the world. But nothing says you can't build another niche-or two-or four-if the spirit moves you. Meet Elissa Koopmans Schwartz, RDH, MA, JD, of Novi, Michigan, and Miller Place, New York. Her life (so far) is complicated and fascinating, so settle in and enjoy the story.
"I started dental hygiene school," Elissa begins, "immediately after I graduated from high school in 1973. I was the oldest of four children, and my parents said they could only afford two years of college for me. I knew I wanted to pursue a career that involved science, so I researched the programs at our local community college, Grand Rapids Junior College (JC), and decided on dental hygiene. Growing up, I had a wonderful dentist, Dr. Gerald Moore, and all my dental experiences had been positive. I liked the idea of working in preventive dentistry. The science curriculum was quite interesting to me, and I was extremely happy to be among the 18 students admitted to the program.
"It was a big surprise," she continues, "when I got to school and my classmates started talking about dental anesthesia. Dr. Moore had always caught cavities very early. 'What are you talking about?' I asked my classmates. 'I've never had a shot. I didn't know there was a shot.'"
By the time she graduated from JC in 1975, Elissa had decided it would be fulfilling to be a dental hygiene instructor. First, though, she worked two years for Dr. Moore's son-in-law, Dr. Paul Rockwell, whom Elissa also found to be a wonderful dentist, and Dr. Thomas Bander, whose office was across the street from Rockwell's. She then entered the University of Michigan (U of M) in Ann Arbor as a full-time student in the occupational education program. She had already taken some prerequisites at Grand Valley State College in Allendale, Michigan, near her home in Jenison, so was able to finish a bachelor's degree in education in 1978.
"I lived on campus in Ann Arbor, but since we didn't have classes on Fridays, I would go back home to Jenison on Thursday night and work Fridays at Dr. Bander's office."
After graduation, Elissa was hired as the first dental assisting instructor at the newly opened Ottawa Area Vocational Center in Holland, Michigan, a position she kept for three years.
"It was a school for high school students in Ottawa County. They would spend half of each day at their regular high school and the other half at the vocational center. I taught juniors and seniors in a one-year program and placed them at internships in local dental offices."
At the same time, she completed a master's degree in education at U of M while working summers at the Jenison office of Dr. Dale Mohr. During the school year, she worked a couple of early evenings a week. Late-day appointments, she remembers, were always popular with patients who needed after-work appointments.
The call of the law
While attending classes at U of M, Elissa had regularly walked past the law school and one day decided to stop and pick up a catalog.
"While I was in high school, I had occasionally thought it would be interesting to be an attorney. However, I was pulled more toward science, and so put the idea of law school in the back of my mind. Law school is a graduate program anyway, so it hadn't been an immediate consideration at the time. As I neared the completion of my bachelor's degree and perused the catalog, my interest in studying law reignited. I decided that after I taught school for a few years and was ready for another challenge, I would go to law school."
After saving much of her earnings from teaching, Elissa was accepted to Wayne State University Law School in Detroit in 1981, and quickly decided on a concentration in estate planning.
"That didn't surprise me, because I consider it preventive law. By drafting estate plans that meet both the needs and wants of my clients and that also comply with federal and state laws, problems are avoided, both for my clients and for their families after their deaths."
Elissa was the first hygienist to be licensed as an attorney in Michigan.
While in law school, she continued to work for Dr. Mohr during holidays and for the first two summers of law school. In 1983, she spent the summer clerking at a law firm in Grand Rapids, then called Varnum Riddering Wierengo and Christenson. She graduated with a juris doctor in 1984.
After practicing at a small law firm for 13 years, Elissa established her own firm in 1997. She is licensed to practice law in both Michigan and New York.
"Despite practicing law and not actively working in hygiene, I still take the Michigan-mandated continuing education courses to stay current and maintain my hygiene license. When I am in Michigan, if my local component, the Oakland County Dental Hygienists' Association, has meetings, I often attend. I am an example of a hygienist who wants to remain licensed, but has experienced several other careers."
Betrayal leads to writing
But the story isn't over yet. After Elissa was divorced in 2002, she discovered another career in which she had an interest.
"When I explained to friends that my ex-husband had been a serial adulterer who picked up women in AOL chat rooms, I would then say, 'Let me hear about what's happening in your life.' Often, their responses were that they wanted to hear more about my situation. Since there was so much interest in the investigation I had conducted during my marriage into my now ex-husband's secret life, I decided to write a book about it."
She spent the next few years writing "Carnal Betrayal," ending up with a 750-page memoir that she separated into a book and its sequel. Some literary agents she contacted expressed interest, but told her AOL was essentially out of date. Elissa already understood that a memoir by a noncelebrity would be difficult to market. Disillusioned, she put the manuscripts aside.
"What the experience taught me is that I absolutely have a passion for writing. I'm a writer. When I'd first seen that people were interested in the details of my investigation, and I decided to give writing a shot, I said to myself, 'Wow, I really enjoy this writing!' So when I was finished, I decided I'd write another book someday, this time delving into fiction."
By that time, Elissa was dividing her time between Michigan, where her law practice is primarily located, and New York, where her children live.
"I bought a house in Miller Place 11 years ago as a vacation home for me and my children. The town is on the north shore of Long Island, and my house looks out on the Long Island Sound, facing New Haven, Connecticut. Since my children now live in New York City, I spend a lot of time in New York, and have some clients there too."
Her children are Stephanie, 27, a buyer at Bloomingdale's in Manhattan, and Jared, 24, a freelance 3-D computer animator for film who lives in Brooklyn.
The two-home lifestyle works well for Elissa, since she is self-employed and does most of her work on the computer.
"I have a home office in Michigan and a business office available to me there as well. When I'm in New York, I work out of my home. When Michigan clients need to see me, I schedule them for a time when I know I'll be in Michigan. I can do a lot of work by phone, email, and regular mail. If there would be an emergency, I could always hop in my car and be there in 12 hours."
She also does something that she says is highly unusual for lawyers.
"I make house calls. I have a lot of elderly clients. Some aren't driving anymore or don't want to rely on people for rides. Some have severe arthritis or other conditions that make moving around difficult. It's just easier for them if they don't have to leave their homes to meet with me. Clients don't even have to be elderly or homebound for me to make a house call; they just like the idea of not having to go to a law office. People appreciate the convenience, and it makes them happy, so I am happy to do it. I've even been known to bring witnesses to homes for signings."
While she was busy with a two-state law practice and continuing education to keep up with current dental hygiene practice, Elissa was also thinking about writing. She did some copywriting for a website design company, but was still interested in creative writing.
"It was a few years after writing "Carnal Betrayal" that the idea for "Perceived Threat" came to me. I developed most of the ideas while driving between Michigan and New York. As I drive, the phone isn't ringing and there's no computer to take my focus away, so my mind wanders and ideas for the story flow in."
It took 18 months to write "Perceived Threat," and publishing took almost another year. The murder mystery and political thriller was published by Two Harbors Press, a division of Hillcrest Media, on April 28 under the pen name Elisa Koopmans. Her son, Jared, designed and produced the front cover.
On June 19, at the Grolier Club in Manhattan, Elissa received an award for "Perceived Threat" in the General Fiction category from the New York Book Festival. Awards are given to fewer than 5% of the entries to this competition and are given to books that have the potential to win wider recognition and exhibit outstanding storytelling.
Elissa admits to being dismayed by the realities of the publishing business.
"Online retailers such as Amazon buy books at a 55% discount, so authors immediately lose that much profit. Then the distributor for the book takes 18%, and there's a deduction for printing charges and the costs of shipping to retailers. By the time all these discounts and costs are paid, there is very little left for the author. Still, it is the love of writing and constant flow of new ideas for stories that keeps me writing novels."
Because of her inability to find a literary agent for her first manuscript, Elissa didn't look for one for "Perceived Threat." Instead, she started researching the subject of self-publishing. Part of that research included reading "The Fine Print of Self-Publishing" by Mark Levine, owner of Hillcrest Media. Hillcrest has imprints that publish traditionally and also serve self-publishers like Elissa.
"I found his approach straightforward and transparent. His contract is available online so it can be read in advance. As an attorney, I liked that. Everything is upfront. Hillcrest doesn't take royalties on book sales, and the author retains all rights to the book. I was able to speak directly with Mark before I contracted with Hillcrest.
"Although I fronted the cost of publication, I had the same editors, same printer, everything, as an author who is traditionally contracted with Hillcrest. While my book is available through online retailers such as Amazon, I have an author website through my publisher where I sell books directly: www.elisakoopmansbooks.com. I also sell books in person, at signings, and at other events. I'm just now starting to explore having "Perceived Threat" sold in bookstores."
Elissa describes the moment she opened a mailing carton filled with copies of her first published novel.
"The publisher sent an email on April 2 that the advance books had been shipped, and they came the next day. I opened the box with a feeling of awe. I just couldn't believe that after all this time, thinking about writing and publishing, I was actually holding the book in my hands. It was a real book. I kept thinking, 'This is surreal. This is a dream you've had for so long, but you're going to wake up in a minute and realize it's still a dream.'"
Needless to say, it wasn't a dream. Elissa's first novel is for sale, and she's already working on a second. "No One Will Ever Know" is a mystery that involves murder.
"I can't reveal too much, but this is actually different than a murder mystery. The idea for the murder aspect first came to me after I heard a news article on television. The heroine is a dentist. The story outlines the dynamics between a new husband and wife, and what he keeps secret from her about his life before she entered it. As the marriage goes on, she's slowly unraveling the secret of his past, and what he's doing while they're married, and what results from how he's living and what she discovers."
With everything going on in her life, Elissa doesn't have a lot of time for hobbies, but she does have a black and white Chihuahua named Oreo whom she calls her "sweet companion." She also has a favorite activity, working the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade with her daughter.
"Stephanie and I have done this for the last two years. Our assignment has been to escort the stilt walkers who accompany one of the floats. They have to be monitored, for example, in case their stilts start to come loose, or they're not keeping up, or there's unevenness in the road ahead of them.
"Last year, our float had to turn a corner and halt at a certain place in front of the NBC cameras for a performance. The man directing the floats told the driver to turn too far toward the reviewing stands. That forced the float right into my stilt walker. She didn't fall, but she knocked into me and pushed me against the metal barricades in front of the stands. We moved really fast to get out of the float's way, the barricades were repositioned, and the TV audience never knew the turn had been less than perfect.
"I love the parade, with its crowds and excitement. The energy is electric. Last Thanksgiving, I saw Hoda Kotb of the "Today Show" standing at the curb. I ran over to her for a second and said, 'One of these days I'm going to make it onto your ambush makeover segment.' She very kindly said I didn't need a makeover, and I ran back to my stilt walker and kept on moving. It's all so much fun. I'll keep marching with the parade as long as my legs will carry me."
Elissa's peripatetic life as a traveling lawyer and writer fits her perfectly. Practicing law is her profession, and writing is her avocation.
"Writing isn't a hobby; it's a serious addition to my career. I want to see if I can be successful as a writer."
But that doesn't mean she has forgotten her first profession.
"I still love hygiene very much. I left active practice solely to pursue another challenge. I've just always liked looking for new challenges, and I'm still open to taking on more. One of these days, I'll find a job that uses all of my skills: writing, teaching, the law, and the dental field. I keep my eyes open. Every now and then I search for jobs in the New York City area that fit with my skills. Despite not working as a hygienist for many years, I've never let go of the possibility that one of these days I may find the ideal position for which my hygiene training and experience are valuable.
"No matter which skill of mine provides my main livelihood, I will continue to write novels. It is a passion that is here to stay."
Anyone wishing to contact Elissa Koopmans Schwartz can find her at [email protected] for legal issues; or [email protected] regarding "Perceived Threat." Her author website is www.elisakoopmansbooks.com. RDH
Cathy Hester Seckman, RDH, has worked in pediatric dentistry for 12 years. She is a frequent contributor to dental magazines, works part-time as an indexer, and is the author of two novels and more than a dozen short stories.