Friday, May 01, 2009

Author Interview: Jane Kirkpatrick

Today's Author Interview is with historical novelist Jane Kirkpatrick. Jane, who lives at the end of an eleven-mile-long dirt road in rural Oregon, is a prolific and award-winning writer. The list of her books are on her website. She blogs here. Jane's newest novel is A Flickering Light.

There's a substantive comment contest attached to this interview, for readers in the U.S. Make a comment (more than "me me!") and I'll put your name into consideration. The prize is a copy of Jane's new novel, A Flickering Light. On May 8, I'll draw and post a name from amongst the commenters to be the winner. Said winner has until May 13 to send me their mailing address. Email me here.

Welcome, Jane! Tell us who you are and what you do.
I’m a writer and rancher living in eastern Oregon, the dry side we like to call it. For a number of years I worked in mental health as a therapist, administrator and later as a consultant in early childhood programs on the Warm Springs Indian reservation in Oregon. My husband I raise hay now on our 160 acres along the John Day River. His son works for us full time. I’m a retired Clinical Social Worker.

What type of writer are you? Do you plan ahead/plot or do you simply fly by the seat of your pants?
I’m a mix of both. I don’t officially outline or plot but I spend a lot of time preparing for the book, making a timeline for the character, identifying the major life events in his/her life, creating the arc of the story. I have an idea of the turning point in the characters' lives and the beginning and ending. Since I write most stories based on the lives of actual people, their lives tell me much of the plot, but I get to fill in the blanks of why they did what they did when they did. That’s the fun part. The historical research also often changes my plot as I’m going along so I’m still researching as I’m writing. I also refer to the book Structuring Your Novel by Meredith and Fitzgerald and do some of the exercises they suggest before I ever start writing. I’ve done that with 15 novels now and it helps. If I have to write a synopsis, I have to write the whole book first and THEN do the chapter by chapter.

Do you write best at a certain time of the day?
When I’m in my writing mode, which is usually December through March, I write early in the morning, often from 4:00 a.m. until 5:00 in the afternoon with a break for lunch. When I’m in the promoting and researching mode which is the rest of the time, I may not get up that early, but I usually write every day for several hours. I can’t wait for inspiration. I have contracts to meet. :)

What food or snack keeps the words flowing?
Great question! String cheese. And almonds.

What sparks a story?
Could be anything! I once read a quote from a physicist (I’m not one!) who, when asked if he had any advice for young people, said yes: tell them to find something strange and thoroughly explore it. That’s what I do, I think, look for the unanswered question to something strange. We visited a beautiful state park one time and on all the kiosk information we learned about the man who developed this amazing garden, built the estate, and that he gave it to his wife. Her name was only mentioned once throughout the park and I wondered, what kind of woman would inspire this and why don’t people talk about her? That led me to A Gathering of Finches. Each book has some similar beginning like that. For A Flickering Light, it was wondering about my grandmother as a photographer and how she fell in love with her very married mentor…how did that impact her life and frankly, how might it have impacted my own all these years later?

What was it about your genre that interested you enough to choose to write in it and not in another genre?
I never liked history in school. Too many dates to memorize. In graduate school (my first degree was in communications and public address, not clinical social work) we had to study the great speeches of the world and explore why they were remembered. From Cicero to LBJ. Anyway, to discover the why of a speech, one had to know the context, what else was happening. That piqued my interest in history and I realized then that I had always loved reading historical novels and getting my history that way. I think of historical novels this way: history is the spine but the people, what they did, the landscapes they did it in, their relationships, their work and their faith, those things make up the blood and flesh of the story. Without the people brought to life, the spine is just a skeleton. I had written nonfiction and been published before trying fiction but once I went there, I didn’t want to come back so I do both. I’m sure the mental health part of me was intrigued too by exploring the landscapes of the mind, but that isn’t limited to historical novels.

Character you wish you had created?
Oh, Mamah Borthwick Cheney who was the paramour of Frank Lloyd Wright in Loving Frank by Nancy Horan or any of Molly Gloss’s characters in The Hearts of Horses.

What authors do you look to as a role model and inspiration?
Molly Gloss, Shannon Applegate, Irene Brown, Harriet Rochlin, Frederick Buechner, Kathleen Norris, Robert McKee, Ann Parker, and I just read my first Craig Johnson novel and was amazed at his depth and craftsmanship.

What's the best advice you ever received?
It isn’t about me, it’s about the story.

I believe good writers read a lot. What do you use to mark your page when reading?
Whatever I can find; a beautiful quilted bookmark given me by a friend, Kleenex, grocery receipts, dental floss – it’s based on where I am and what I can easily grab.

What one thing do you like most about writing? Least?
I love being able to live inside the heads and times of others. I love speculating as I’m doing the research wondering what it must have been like then. I love discovering things about myself I didn’t now I needed to learn.
Least? All the extra stuff like posting things on Facebook or proofing my brochure or following up on whether a group I’m speaking to will have a microphone or not, the necessary parts that really don’t involve the actual “writing”. I guess I don’t look forward to the copy editing queries but I’m doing better with that. It isn’t about me. Its about making the story the best it can be.

Your novel is called A Flickering Light, published by WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group, a division of Random House. Tell us what the book is about and why you wrote it.
It’s based on the life of my grandmother who was a photographer in Minnesota at the turn of the century. She was trained to run studios while the photographers recovered from mercury poisonings. She fell in love with her mentor, a very married man. The story is told through her eyes, her mentor’s eyes and his wife. I wrote it because I so admired who she was, her spirit of “can do” and not letting the past hold her hostage. She lived to be in her 90s and her optimism was always an inspiration to me. Yet she never told the family she once owned her own studio. That was a bonus I found in doing the research and made me wonder more why that hadn’t been discussed. And then there was her mention that she’d married the same man twice….

Why should anyone part with their hard earned cash and precious time to read your book? Sell it to us!
It’s a story about temptation and faith, shadow and light and how creative people often sabotage their gifts. I’ve used several glass plate photographs in the first book and given my grandmother a first person voice as she tells us about that particular photograph, what was going on, the context etc. I’ll include several more in the sequel due out next year called An Absence So Great. Publisher’s Weekly gave A Flickering Light a starred review describing it as “exceptionally authentic, a compelling portrait, both aching and hopeful.” I hope that readers will discover things about their own lives and relook at photographs from their own family albums through new eyes.

Where can readers buy your book?
Everywhere…Amazon, Indies, Christian bookstores, even Costco sometimes.

What is your next project?
The sequel to A Flickering Light. Then I have contracts for three more books so I’ve got my ears out for that next story that says “choose me!”

What advice would you pass along at this point in your career?
Enjoy the journey; celebrate along the way, the little things like getting a personal rejection letter from an editor or having someone ask to see the entire manuscript or submitting an excerpt for a contest, or meeting interesting people to interview, who are passionate about their own specialties like weapons or art or quilts that expand the story and give it depth and add to our own pleasure, too. I’m fond of a Mary Oliver poem called “When Death Comes” and there’s a line that says and when that time comes for her that she wanted to be able to say “I was a bride married to amazement, a bridegroom who took the world into my arms.” I hope to be able to say that myself and I’d encourage people to live their lives in such a way that they pay attention to the gifts this passion for writing gives us.

Anything else you want readers to know?
I’ve been blessed with some award-winning stories (a Wrangler in 1996 and a WILLA Literary in 2008) and being on the short list for several, including a Spur in 2005, so someone besides my mom thought they were worth the price and I’m grateful. I also do a monthly essay called Words of Encouragement on my site. People might like reading that to see sort of how I write before they risk their time on a book.

Jane, thank you for the Interview!

Thanks for having me visit, Marsha.


  1. I enjoyed reading Jane's interview and getting to know her better. She's got a fascinating life and her words of wisdom were insightful and interesting. Thank you for sharing her with us, Marsha. I'm excited to read her book!

  2. I'm intrigued by the story. I'll have to look for it. Fiction is fun to create, but I think it is even better when you can weave an ancestor's story into it. That must have brought a lot of joy to the writing. Thanks for the interview, Marsha and Jane!

  3. Great interview. My compliments to both hostess and guest. I look forward to learning more from and about both of you.

    Peggy Ullman Bell, Author

  4. This is a wonderful interview, Marsha. Jane's is a HUGE success story and it's always interesting to learn how she applies herself to her craft.

    Many years ago we were camping in her part of Oregon, though I didn't know that at the time. We stopped at a cute little museum in Moro. While I was elsewhere in the museum, my husband Bruce wandered over to the book section. He found me with a book in his hand. "This looks like something you'd like."

    It was Jane's "A Sweetness to the Soul." That wonderful book was the first of many books I've read by Jane Kirkpatrick.

    Mary E. Trimble

  5. Wow, I can't wait to go out and get some of her books. I'm amazed by the breadth of her reading and need to do better in that venue.

    Thanks for the shot in the arm to do better and the direction to do it with all those authors you mentioined.

  6. What a wonderful interview, Jane, Marsha. Whenever Jane shares insight into her work or methods of writing, I sit up and take notice. Nicely done. After reading this interview, I have a question as to whether Jane has to occasionally change the sequence of events on her character's timeline in order to create a narrative arc?

    Fern J. Hill

    Author of Charley's Choice: The Life
    and Times of Charley Parkhurst a
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  7. Anonymous10:16 AM

    Jane is a writer's writer. She is always generous in sharing her process, both hazards and successes. I especially liked the discoveries shown in this interview as she uncovered some of her grandmother's secrets. I really want to kinow why Grandma didn't tell the family about her own studio. The hint about mercury poisoning suggests a medical story to be unveiled in the reading. I'll look forward to yet another good read from this prolific and wise writer.
    Thank you, Jane and Marsha

    Arletta Dawdy

  8. Boy did she sell it! A woman photographer at the turn of the century in love with her mentor who is married? What happens? I must know!
    I am also intrigued by "A story creative people often sabotage their gifts.". I really would like to understand that one. I will have to pick up this book. Unless, of course, you...pick me, pick me ;)!!

    Leah Adair

  9. Jane, you give such wonderful advice. And it's so true that you spark interest in telling a story. I love this: "look for the unanswered question to something strange." That's the "what if?" that we all should strive to answer in our writing.

    Thank you Jane and Marsha. Great interview!

  10. Marsha and Jane. Good interview. The story sounds interesting. I'm intrigued by the 3 points of view in the triangle of woman, married man, and the wife. I wonder how that episode turned out. Also intrigued by your statement, Jane, about "how we sabotage our gifts." I've enjoyed several of your books, but especially liked Marie Darion's story in Every Fixed Star and A Name of Her Own.
    Interesting that you write from 4 a.m to 5 p.m during your writing months. How do you fit in family and friends? If I should attempt to put in those hours, I would have to work from late evening into day, instead of morning into night.

  11. I've only just discovered a love for historical fiction. Janes description of history being the spine and then adding the blood, flesh and bones with the people, their backgrounds and everything that they went through, made so much sense. I can see how writing it could be a lot of fun. Also I admire the schedule she keeps. What a go-getter.
    Thanks for the great interview, Marsha.

  12. I wasn't a fan of history, either, which makes it odd that I now write (and therefore research) Regency, but hearing that you didn't like history but write historicals makes me feel better.
    I hear so many say their they are plotters or organic pantsers, that I wondered if I were an oddball because I only loosely plot my story. I was glad to hear that you only loosely plot your story, too. Your story sounds lovely - and what a great tribute to your grandmother!

  13. Great interview. I'm always interested in seeing how other people fit writing into their lives (or how they fit their lives around their writing, as it sometimes happens).

    Historial fiction fascinates me, even while I'm intimidated by the idea of getting the details right, so I haven't done more than tinker with it a little. I might have to play a little more. =)

  14. This is a great interview, Marsha and Jane!

    No matter how often I hear Jane speak or read her blog or read her works, she always has nuggets of helpful information for readers and writers.

    I even took notes!


  15. Nice interview, Jane and Marsha. I can't wait to read this latest book!

  16. I have been visiting various blogs for my Term Papers research. I have found your blog to be quite useful. Keep updating your blog with valuable information... Regards


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