Thursday, November 15, 2007

Author Interview: Janet Kay Jensen

My guest today is LDS author Janet Kay Jensen, who has written an intriguing novel, Don't You Marry the Mormon Boys, which has just been published by Cedar Fort, Inc. She is also the co-author, with Shaunda Kennedy Wenger, of The Book Lover’s Cookbook, Recipes Inspired by Great Works of Literature and the Passages that Feature Them.

Welcome, Janet. What made you start writing?

I always enjoyed my writing assignments in school. And my mother was a meticulous proof-reader. My parents were readers and educators. Mom was a librarian, so reading was always an important factor in our family life, too. From an early age, though, (9th grade), I knew I wanted to be a speech therapist. I don’t know how I knew it, I just did. And I realize that knowledge was a gift. I have seen so many college students flounder when trying to decide on a major. I just jumped into my major with both feet. Whenever I could, though, I always took a literature class.

My career as a speech-language pathologist was fulfilling in many ways, and I could certainly be creative with my therapy (new approaches, adapting materials to the needs of the client, etc.) But the writing had to be clear, concise, accurate, and logical. And when I supervised graduate students, their reports had to be edited and proofed, and evaluations had to be detailed and documented. And every year it was the same routine – a new crop of students who had to be taught the same skills. It’s challenging but didn’t foster creativity for me. I really felt something was missing.

How long have you been writing? When did you sell your first book?

I began writing seriously about ten years ago when I read a terrible book and though I liked the story, I knew I could write it better. So I played with that and really enjoyed the process. Then, a couple of years later, I saw an ad in the paper. The Cache Valley Chapter of the League of Utah Writers was meeting at the Logan library. I went to the meeting with apprehension, not knowing what to expect, not knowing if I belonged. I must say, there were some strange people at the meeting. Someone asked me what my genre was and I nearly replied that my sexual orientation was none of his business. I left the meeting thoroughly confused. But I decided to attend two more meetings, to give it a chance. I’m happy to say that at the next few gatherings there were some “normal” people there, whose comments made sense. I began to share some of my work and was thoroughly schooled in point of view. My mentors were wonderful and very patient.

Four of us then formed a small critique group that met every two weeks. We would read a portion of something we’d written, and then the group would give feedback. It was so constructive and helpful. I always left feeling energized, with more ideas.

I started writing Don’t You Marry the Mormon Boys in 2000, I think. But then something else took priority. A member of the chapter came to me with a proposal: a literary cookbook. We would find passages in literature that mentioned food and come up with original recipes to match. It sounded like an interesting project, so I agreed. For the next year I was reading and cooking and reading and cooking. And building up large fines at the library. My partner decided (boldly) to contact a few writers and see if they would contribute anecdotes or recipes. The first to sign on was Barbara Kingsolver. That added tremendous credibility to our project. When other authors heard she was on board, they were willing to participate. By the time it was published more than twenty authors had sent us recipes or anecdotes. They were wonderful. The result was a once-in-a-million experience: my partner caught the interest of an agent, we sent the entire manuscript to him, and he agreed to represent us. Within two weeks he had sold it to Ballantine.

Then our work became very intense. Though we had thought the manuscript was complete at that point, we still found more passages and recipes to add to the manuscript. And because it was organized like a traditional cookbook – soups, salads, main dishes, etc., we worked very hard to balance each section with a variety of foods. And we had to rewrite recipes according to a set formula, which made sense.

We learned, to our surprise, that it was our responsibility to obtain permission to use published works, and that we were also responsible to pay the fees the publishers required. That process was very challenging. My partner negotiated the agreements (172 of them) and I did the background research to find who owned the copyright. That’s not always easy, as many older companies don’t exist anymore.

We continued to add to the manuscript until the deadline, as we continued to find great literature and recipes we wanted to include. The Book Lover’s Cookbook, Recipes Inspired by Great Works of Literature and the Passages that Feature Them was published in October 2003 in hardback and March 2005 in paperback.

A large publisher has great influence; our book was reviewed by several national newspapers and other publications. But the best publicity came when an independent bookstore owner from Florida mentioned our book on National Public Radio, when asked for Christmas gift recommendations. She said it was one of her favorite new books, even though she didn’t cook. Then she read several selections from the book. NPR has clout. Immediately, sales on Amazon were astonishing: at one point, for an hour or so, our book was ranked as high as #6. It stayed in the top 30 for a couple of weeks. Checking our ranking on Amazon became compulsive; I would visit Amazon every hour or so to see how we were doing.

What type of writer are you? Do you plan ahead/plot or do you simply fly by the seat of your pants?

I like to have a story in mind. I’ll think it through and leave it simmering on the back burner for a while. It’s always there as I go about my daily routines, and once in a while ideas come to the forefront and I add them to my mental outline. My first novel developed fairly logically in my mind and then I started to write it. I had a general idea about my main characters, settings, and plot. Then something interesting happened. I had a minor character, a Healer in Appalachia, who became a major character. I inserted her in various scenes I’d already written, as she added color and humor and wisdom. I researched natural remedies so she could prescribe them to other characters. Some remedies and superstitions were so delightful, I inserted them at the beginning of each chapter that took place in Kentucky. Miss Carolina became a solid fixture and I loved her. Actually, she is based on my husband’s late aunt, a woman who faced life unflinchingly and with great humor and wisdom.

I took a portion of the manuscript to Writers@Work. Everyone else in our class of fifteen students had brought first chapters; mine was near the middle. We discussed several students’ work each day. I was terrified. I knew I’d be thoroughly attacked for not establishing characters, setting, etc., elements you normally include in a first chapter. Fortunately, the teacher was a compassionate and tactful man, and he introduced my manuscript as a “set point – something you don’t often see in current literature.” It’s a scene that shows what the character is all about, even though it doesn’t necessarily move the story forward. I’d never heard the term, but it described my work accurately. Therefore the class was forgiving and evaluated it accordingly.

However, I met with an editor for an evaluation and that was a memorable interview. My book is about modern day polygamy and he was a New Yorker who had no idea what was happening west of the Mississippi. He didn’t know polygamy even existed in America. My manuscript contained a chapter where my main character tells tall tales about polygamy to his new neighbors; he eventually apologizes and tells them he was just playing a joke at their expense.

The editor began his remarks by saying that he was a New Yorker and an atheist/agnostic/Jew. He added, however, that he was taught to never make fun of anyone’s religion, and that my manuscript was highly offensive to him. I explained that polygamy is part of the culture where I live, and is part of my own heritage. I felt, as a member of this culture, that I had the right to poke a little fun at all of us. I mentioned black comedians who joke about black issues, and Jewish comedians who focus on the quirks of Jewish people, redneck comedians, etc., and that we accept them because they belong to the community that is the subject of their jokes. The editor didn’t buy it. He didn’t want to address my writing skills or my style, either. He couldn’t get beyond his gut reaction to my subject and how I addressed it. I ended the interview by thanking him, shaking his hand, and walking away with the appearance of dignity. Later, I learned that every student he met with was offended in some way, and he was even more patronizing to some of them than he had been to me. In my workshop evaluation I stated that a protective order should be placed on this man, keeping him a hundred yards away from any new writer.

Then The Book Lover’s Cookbook took center stage for about three years. We made more than fifty presentations. Book clubs in Cache Valley (and there must be more than a hundred of them!) invited us to come to their meetings. Many people cooked recipes from the book. Response to the book was wonderful. We made a couple of brief TV appearances and did several radio interviews. We also worked hard on publicity by contacting local and state newspapers, radio stations, etc. So Don’t you Marry the Mormon Boys sat on the shelf for quite a while.

How do you choose your characters' names?

It varies. Sometimes I just pick names I like. Andy McBride was named after my ancestor, Thomas McBride, who was killed at Haun’s Mill. It was a way of paying tribute to him. Louisa is a name from my genealogy, too, and it fit a woman from an old-fashioned community. Obadiah, as I pictured him, simply needed a biblical name. He’s tall and gangly and he has a booming voice, but he also plays classical guitar by ear. Miss Carolina, the Healer, needed to be addressed as “Miss” out of respect, I think. My fictional polygamous community was originally named Zion’s Creek; then the TV series Big Love came along and used Creek as part of its community’s name, so I changed Louisa’s town to Gabriel’s Landing. Hawthorn Valley, Kentucky, was named after the hawthorn tree. You have to live with names to be comfortable with them, I think. I remember naming our three sons – it was very difficult to agree on a name we both liked, and then to start calling this little person by a name, that’s strange, too.

What type of writing schedule do you have?

Mornings usually work best for me. I’ll often be writing in my pajamas, as I’m doing right now. Bad habit if someone rings the doorbell. Sometimes an idea will come to me just before I go to sleep and I’ll jot it down. I can’t write too late at night- then I’m too wound up to sleep. Writing The Book Lover’s Cookbook and some related articles had me up at all hours. It was largely my choice to write on such an erratic schedule and it wasn’t healthy.

How do you handle life interruptions?

We are empty nesters, so it’s generally pretty quiet around our house. I’m sure I have fewer interruptions than many writers.

When I am under time constraints or feeling particularly creative, I’ll turn off the phone and ignore the doorbell. A few people know my cell phone number, if I remember to turn it on, and anyone with a real emergency can find my husband at work. I do have a very bad habit of checking my email frequently while I’m writing.

The biggest life interruption for me was injuring my back and having major surgery a year ago. It takes a full year to recover. I discovered that I absolutely could not be creative for over a year-- first, because of the injury, and then because of the surgery. Pain and fatigue and stress just took over. Mormon Boys was finished by then (other than some minor changes I made later), and I had made a major effort to send out queries before the surgery, (all rejections) but everything else in my writing life basically came to a halt.

Do you get blocked? Any hints on how to stave it off?

I do. Suggest a scene and I can probably write it. It’s coming up with the idea for the scene that can be difficult for me. I have difficulty visualizing my storyline as a diagram. I don’t go by formulas, which is probably to my detriment. One colleague read chapter one and said, “Now you need to introduce a threat: the other man!” It didn’t feel right for me, so I didn’t do it.

Meeting with my critique group helps immensely. When I’m stuck they’ll make good suggestions. My sisters are always a phone call away to brainstorm with me. My immediate family is supportive of my writing, but they have not read my novel, not a page of it! Maybe they will when it’s published in a few months. Who knows? There are some people who are very helpful in the process, and can think along the same lines, and others who just don’t operate that way. My husband is an attorney and usually reads nonfiction when he has a chance. My three sons are away at universities, studying medicine, exercise physiology, and computer engineering. When it comes to reading and writing, they’re just not kindred spirits. That’s okay; I just find help elsewhere.

I love the theater and I read quite a bit. I’m hoping some of those influences will find their way into my style. Maybe I should just sleep with a good book under my pillow.

What have you always dreamed of writing, but haven't yet?

Hmmm. Yesterday I set a goal to publish at least ten novels. What have I dreamed of writing? Something more literary, I think, several notches above my current level.

A writer in my group called me the Robert Kirby of Northern Utah. What a compliment. I really would like to develop more humor in my writing. When I do write humorous pieces, it really is fun. I think my best piece so far is an essay, “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Speedo,” about my second son’s one and only bodybuilding competition. Some experiences are so dreadful, they’re actually funny. Oddly enough, it’s my second son who’s inspired many of my humorous pieces.

I plan to attend the Erma Bombeck Humor Writers Workshop in April 2008. It’s held in Dayton, Ohio, where Erma was born, and since my son, his wife and my new granddaughter live in Dayton, and it’s taking place on my birthday, karma is telling me I must go. So I need to gear up on humorous writing when I complete my current novel.

I am starting this second career later in life than most, but hopefully I can integrate life experience and wisdom into my work. Still, I plan to have a long and satisfying run at it.

What one thing do you like most about writing? Least?

Most? When the creative juices are flowing and I’m moving forward. When I can read my work and get a laugh in response. When I feel productive.

Least? When I’m blocked, when the process is slow as tar, and when I get rejection letters. And it’s generally not healthy to compare myself to other writers who turn out several books a year. At this point, that just isn’t a feat I could accomplish. My work needs to mellow and I’m constantly revising and polishing to make the words flow more naturally, and to make the images more vivid. Leaving it for a while and then returning with fresh eyes is always helpful, too.

What is your next project?

I am about two thirds into the sequel to Mormon Boys. It’s titled Zina. Louisa in the first book has a sister, Zina, who leaves during the night; she overhears her father agreeing to let an older man court her, and she can’t bear the thought of plural marriage. So she simply leaves, and they don’t hear from her for ten years. Her story was originally part of Mormon Boys, but I had to take her out and promise her a book of her own. It was too difficult for me to write two storylines that were not chronologically compatible. I think it can be done but I don’t have the skill yet. So I’m writing Zina’s story now. I haven’t found as much humor to put in it, however, so at this point it has a darker, more sober tone than Mormon Boys.

I’ve also started a novel addressing illiteracy and the lengths people will go to in order to hide it. I’m an adult literacy tutor and I have learned so much from my student. He’s inspired me to develop a story around the concept. And I plan to quote him directly, if he approves.

I also have a trilogy on the shelf. It’s one of my earlier efforts. I think the story concept is viable and since I have developed into a better writer since then, a rewrite is just the ticket. It takes place in Ireland and New England and it follows several different characters whose lives intertwine.

The above novels, Grace Will Lead Us Home, and O’Connor’s Honor, do not have LDS characters or themes at all. I hope they’ll be acceptable to a larger market, though LDS readers shouldn’t find anything offensive in them. It is truly a challenge to write for the LDS market. We need good LDS fiction, but it also has to be believable. And honest.

One element I always seem to add to my writing is animals. I have two dogs, and their unconditional acceptance and affection are wonderful additions to stories. They are social ice-breakers and sometimes they are heroes. They are also a good source of humor.

Since I spent years reading books to find descriptions of food, I include food descriptions in my books. It’s a strong sensory experience for the reader, hopefully. And who knows, I might include a recipe or two.

What is your advice for other writers?

Write, write, write; find other writers who will be honest and supportive; enter your work in contests; join writing groups; and read, read, read. Read good books and bad books. Read classics and decide why they are classics. Read bad books and analyze what makes them bad (how did they ever get published in the first place?). Read books out of your genre. Writing is a solitary profession, so you need to get out and interact with other writers. Keep abreast of what is happening in the writing world. Attend workshops several times a year; they’re vital to keep you inspired and improve your skills. Subscribe to writing magazines and read them.

Do not pin all your hopes on one agent or publisher that you know is just perfect for your project. You’ll be crushed when it doesn’t work out. Keep sending multiple queries and refine your work as you get feedback. Write blurbs of fifty, one hundred, and two hundred words. Write a synopsis of one page. Two pages. Proof your work. Proof, proof, proof. Have others proof your work; they’ll find mistakes you haven’t noticed.

Tell us about your new book.

The prospect of one wife is more than enough for Mormon bachelor Andy McBride, until he falls for fellow medical student Louisa Martin—a product of polygamy, a way of life Andy cannot embrace and Louisa cannot escape.

Can a man and a woman from two antagonistic cultures (mainstream Mormon vs. fundamentalist polygamist) overcome the daunting barriers that would deny them a life together? What sacrifices will each have to make in order to be together? What impact will their choices have on family, friends, and even whole communities?

Andy yearns to share every facet of his life with Louisa, including his medical practice, and he dreams of having a family with her. The consequences of this union would be major, however, as the two come from cultures that are mutually opposed. Each will have to sacrifice in order for Andy and Louisa to have a life together. Are these sacrifices too great? The reader will finish the last page with a greater knowledge of the two cultures and belief systems, compassion and tolerance for different beliefs, and hope that in the end, love and acceptance can change hearts.

Set in the striking red mountains of southern Utah, cosmopolitan Salt Lake City, the rural Smoky Mountain region of Kentucky and the beautiful, forest and lake-studded country of Finland, Don’t You Marry the Mormon Boys deals with engaging characters from two contrasting lifestyles with honesty and humor.

One objective I had in writing the book was to emphasize that Mormons are not polygamists, and polygamists are not Mormons. I wanted to address the confusion and misunderstanding that many people have about Mormons and polygamy. And with polygamy hitting the news regularly and Mitt Romney running for president, it’s a relevant topic.

It's been a pleasure to interview you, Janet. Thank you for being here.

Thank you!


  1. Your book sounds very interesting, Janet!

  2. I've had the pleasure of reading a draft of Janet's book. Janet is an excellent writer and has written a book with depth, and yet it's well-paced and suspenseful. I totally recommend it.

  3. Great interview!

    And thanks for letting me know about the missing code in my link -- it's all fixed now.

  4. This is a great interview. I am so proud of you. It's been worth all the hard work.

  5. Anonymous10:22 PM

    I am so proud of you-not only of your writing skills, but the drive and imagination necessary to get the book published! I have enjoyed reading all of the versions--and hope I have helped in some small way to getting the story of Andy and Lousia into print. They have become so believable and real because of your skill of story-telling. I can't wait to read more about Zina--as well as Grace, and your Irish family!

    Love, Ellen


I welcome your comments.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...