Jane, I want to begin by saying that I so enjoyed your recent interview with Bob Welch, author of 12 books, founder of the Beachside Writers Workshop and your first writing instructor. It tickled me to read your account of your first day of class with Bob because it mirrors the emotion I felt the day I walked into your class at my first BWW in 2009.
But I left buoyed up and with confidence to write my first novel. I’m already registered for 2012 Beachside Writers in March—my third!—and look forward again to a weekend of instruction, challenge and encouragement from two very multi-talented authors. It’s a cozy mini-conference, complete with delectable meals, lovingly prepared.
You inspire so many with your novels and nonfiction alike. How many books have you published and how many awards have you received?
I can hardly believe this but my 23rd book will come out in April; I have a novella in a collection coming out in June and I’m working on a novel DUE April 1 and a devotional coming out in 2013. I just contracted for another novella that won’t be released until 2013. All but my grief-related books are still in print. As for awards: all very humbling. I’ll just tell of a couple: The Wrangler for my very first novel A Sweetness to the Soul. It’s given by the Western Heritage Center and Barbara Kingsolver and Larry Mc Murtry have also won it. The WILLA Literary Award came for a book based on my grandmother’s life, A Flickering Light which delighted me. I’ve been a finalist a number of times for the Christy, the WILLA, and the Oregon Book Award. And twice I received awards “for my body of work.” I like having the word “award” and “my body” in the same sentence. This past year The Daughter’s Walk was named USABestBooks.com winner for general fiction and this past year my first novella was in a collection that made it on the New York Times Best-seller list which isn’t an award but pretty amazing. It’s the subjects I pick that earns attention I think, those remarkable women…
Which title landed your first contract? How did you go about getting that first offer?
Homestead was my very first contract. I wrote a proposal for this nonfiction memoir-like book. I say memoir-like because I didn’t really know that’s what it was! It was 75 pages long with ten sample chapters (not recommended). I sent it off to the publisher of a book called Walk Across America that some will remember from the 1980s. I waited. Six months later I got a call asking if the manuscript was still available. They had the only ten chapters I’d written. Anyway, the publisher was Word and they bought it and get this, got an endorsement for the front cover from Barbara Jenkins, co author of Walk Across America. I was jazzed!
Is there one person or author that inspired you to write? What propelled you into that first class with Bob?
A wonderful high school English teacher who urged my parents to send me on to college (which they did). She’s in her 80s and when I visited with her last year in Wisconsin she told me she still had a short piece I’d written in high school on the vine, Virginia Creeper. She said after she read that she knew she just needed to get out of my way. Besides Bob, I also had another Bob who taught a journalism course at a community college. He had great insights and took a personal interest in my writing. And teachers along the way both in college and graduate school -courses that had nothing to do with writing, really – kept saying I had a unique way with words. Those moments stayed with me and when later I asked that question, “what will I do with my life?” and the answer came “write”, I drew upon those mentors to help me through the rejections.
To say you are a prolific writer is something of an understatement. Does your next story bubble up as soon as you write The End to your latest work, or has it been brewing in your head with a bunch, just waiting for their turn?
I say they’re like first graders in a TAG class saying “Choose me! Choose me!” A story may have come to me years ago but it takes several years of cooking before it moves to the front burner. Then my editor may suggest one of the other stories and we’ll work out which one to do next. A writing teacher once suggested that as soon as a manuscript is sent out to begin immediately on the next one. That’s wise I think and keeps me from obsessing about the mail…”
And along those same lines, do you ever work on more than one project at a time?
Yes. I’ve just finished final edits for Where Lilacs Still Bloom and I’m researching and writing One Glorious Ambition (due in April) and I’m working on a devotional due in June and a story for another novella is percolating so they are each in different phases.
How do you do that? What is your method of keeping everything in its place?
I’m not very good at it but I have a big box for projects and as I come across research pieces that are relevant – books in museums or at historical societies, news articles, notes from antique road shows, etc – they go in the box. Each work in progress has a paper folder but also several computer folders and the novels all have a character list and a time line that gets added to as I write. The time line includes important historical events that I’ve documented in the lives of the characters and public events that might be talked about by characters. I’m always researching even while I’m finishing the final manuscript. The paper folders are often big three ring binders that hold maps and genealogy material and photographs.
I love that your novels are based on historical events with courageous heroines. Have you always been a history buff? How do you find such amazing women to write about?
The amazing women are often footnotes in biographies and history books featuring men. Virginia Woolf wrote that “women’s fiction must be invented, both uncovered and made up.” I started writing fiction when I couldn’t find enough information about Jane Sherar, an early pioneer I wanted to write about. I found information about her husband, brother, and father – she had no son; but many historical women are made up of “reflected history” where they reflect the lives of the men around them. Fiction allows me to make that reflection real. I became interested in history in college when I took a speech writing class. We had to analyze the world’s most memorable speeches from Cicero to Churchill to Nixon. To do that, one needed to know what was going on in the world, the context and voila, there was history. Now I see history as the spine of my story and the characters are the flesh and blood. I love getting history through the eyes of people rather than date books.
I love what you refer to as “reflected history”. But your latest work, BARCELONA CALLING, is quite a departure from your historical novels, and I had such fun reading it! What enticed you to write contemporary women’s fiction? Did you enjoy the change of pace with the novel?
It was sort of a challenge from an editor because I kept saying someday I’d write a book about an author who loses her way and thinks if only she could get Oprah to know her name all would be well. I wanted to call it “Oprah Doesn’t Know My Name” but couldn’t due to trademark issues (though titles can’t be copyrighted so I could have called it Gone with the Wind.) My editor said I should go for it so I did. It was fun to try something different. One of the challenges of contemporary works is that everyone has their own experience with a cell phone or a television program or even riding a subway while readers of historical novels tend to accept the writer’s view of what it is like walking beside a covered wagon – if the presentation is authentically provided.
One of my favorite books is HOMESTEAD, your account of the home you carved out in rugged rattlesnake country with your husband, Jerry. What inspired you to do that? If you could narrow it down to one revelation from the experience, what would that be?
What inspired us was believing we were called to go there as crazy as that was! We wanted to see if we really could make a life on a remote piece of property and to trust that if we stepped out on a cloud of faith that we wouldn’t fall through. To narrow it down? Hmm…I’d say what I just said about the cloud but also that God is in the details and never deserts us even in times of trial. Oh, and that God’s blessings are even greater than we could imagine. I certainly never imagined I’d have a writing career and that all began from a little voice saying “write” which is what I did on that remote ranch for 26 years.
You keep what looks like a very busy schedule. How do you manage your time for writing, book signings and teaching? What do you do to relax away from it all?
I’m not sure I do manage well…I have ulcers! But that aside, I have an events coordinator and also a social media coordinator and both help me stay on track with scheduling. They remind me to take a breather. I usually don’t schedule events between mid-December and April as I’m writing eight to ten hours a day. I get up really early, try to be at the computer by 5:30 and stop for breakfast with Jerry then back at it followed by lunch and then I can do the everyday things of living but the story is always still bubbling through my day. To relax, I take the dogs for a walk and I read, of course!
Your next release is in April for WHERE LILACS STILL BLOOM, a novel about Hulda Klager, a self-taught horticulturalist whose beautiful lilac gardens are open to the public. I’m already signed up to attend your presentation and book signing that will benefit the gardens. Can you share a little about how the story of Hulda blossomed?
It’ll be so good to see you there! The gardens are open year round but for three weeks, when the lilacs are most likely to be in bloom the house Hulda lived in is open for tours and lilacs are available for purchase and this helps support this nonprofit historical site. A descendant is the one who told me of Hulda. She’d send me little notices of Lilac Days and she’d write after she’d read my other books and she kept saying she thought Hulda’s story was perfect for me. One day I attended the gardens at her invitation, took the tour and was overwhelmed with the goodness of this story, the perseverance of a simple housewife and how her generosity came full circle to help her through her darkest time. I thought “we need a story like that to encourage us all” so I hope it does.
I feel I could interview you for a month and not cover everything! Is there anything you would like to add? Any tidbit you’re dying to share but no one ever asks?
I’m pretty chatty and may have already lost your readers! If not, I’d just like to say thank you to the people who have made room in their lives for my stories. I’m looking forward to reading yours before long!
Thank you so very much! Your novels are always an inspiration to me and it was fun to peek behind the scenes. Thank you for the encouragement you give through your novels, devotions and teaching!