In November, I met with author Jennie Shortridge for an interview about her most recent release, When She Flew. During our discussion, I was primarily focused on the how and why behind Jennie’s decision to write this novel which is based on the real-life events of a Vietnam veteran and his daughter who were found living in Forest Park in Portland, Oregon. You can read that interview in the January 2010 issue of Portland Family Magazine.
After I took a workshop that Jennie taught at the Write On The Sound conference in 2009, I was intrigued by the bio she has posted on her website. Her experience of burnout with the corporate world and her desire for a more reflective life is a common thread among the people I meet:
“By age 35 I’d become director of sales and marketing for a Denver firm, but I was burned out. I realized I wanted a less stressful, more reflective life. With [my husband] Matt’s support, I left my job and began to write and learn about the business of writing. I considered this period my apprenticeship, the college education I’d missed. Within a year or so I was regularly publishing in newspapers and magazines in the Rocky Mountain region, as well as getting the odd article placed in national magazines such as Mademoiselle, Glamour, Southwest Art, Natural Home, and various inflight publications. I’d also had a short story published and was working on a novel based on it.”
At the end of my interview with Jennie about When She Flew, I was happy to have the opportunity to ask more about her experiences as a writer and about her writing life. I’m posting our discussion about those topics here as I know Jennie’s advice and insight will help not only me but other writers as we all try to make our way in the writing world. Jennie will be stopping by over the next few days to answer questions from Motherlogue readers, so please be sure to post your questions and comments for her below.
How do you not let publishing four books in six years go to your head?
That’s so funny, I still feel like I haven’t done enough. Publishers would like for you to publish a new book every 12 – 15 months. If I think about publishing the books realistically, I think, “That’s pretty amazing.” But I don’t think about it that way, of course I think about it with my own filters. Right now I’m so focused on the path, the momentum and continuing to stay published because that’s really difficult right now. It’s a busy, busy lifestyle and a bit stressful. I am really proud of it, once I published three novels, I felt like my work here on earth was essentially done and anything after this, I’m fine with. I do feel fulfilled by it, that’s for sure.
When you draft your novels, do you use an outline or not?
My first three books evolved from personal experiences or stories and the next three are inspired by true stories that I will re-interpret. The next three all have guideposts that I will follow; I know the beginning, middle and end. For my next book I actually wrote an eleven page synopsis for the first time. I’ve always written knowing the end, I know where I’m headed and the target.
How do you think of your titles?
My titles always come last, at the very end. They are the most difficult part for me. I had a list of 40-45 possible titles. You try them out. I have a post card of a Brian Andreas print that I got years ago and this one said, “She flew only when she thought no one else was watching.” I got permission from him and that’s exactly where the title for When She Flew came from. I liked it because I thought it was applicable to all the female characters in the story. I wanted it to evoke more than just one character. It was about all these women trying out different flight.
In your Question Everything workshop at the WOTS conference, you said youyou’re your characters questions to help flesh out who they are. What questions did you ask of the character Jess in When She Flew?
For Jess it was all about her family values from her upbringing, losing her dad when she was young, having a mother who wasn’t capable and becoming the mother of the family. It was about how all of that influenced her as a parent. A big part of forming her was also about dealing with “bottom feeders” all day. As a police officer a lot of what you deal with is the bad stuff and how does that impact you? Does that make you become someone who only does stuff by the book and loses the human element? What is it like to wear a duty-belt, especially as a small, female police officer? I was interested in seeing the clash between being a police officer and a mom.
Are you working on a new book and can you share what it’s about?
Yes, it’s based on a true story that happened in Olympia, Washington. There’s a disorder called dissociated fugue in which people who experience an emotional trauma have a fugue episode and develop amnesia. With this type they run away and leave their environment and ditch their identity. They come to somewhere far away and don’t know who they are and develop a new identity. Sometimes they get some of their memory back and sometimes they don’t get any.
That’s what happened to a man in Olympia. Six weeks after he left his fiancé in Olympia, his picture showed up on TV in Denver as a John Doe who couldn’t remember who he was. His fiancé’s brother-in-law recognized him and she went to get him. He didn’t remember who he was, but he came back and was going to start again. Where did his identity go? Why did it go? What would happen in the situation? I think of it as an amnesiac’s love story.
What is your advice for those who want to write a novel?
Every writer starts with things that are way too hard for us and they end up in the drawer. I started one that I got 39 pages into and had six viewpoint characters. It ended up in the drawer. It’s a horrible thing to say, but what most people who want to write a novel should understand is that very often the first one you write might be your master’s thesis. It might get filed and not published. And it’s still worthwhile because you need to learn how to write a novel. What comes out of the process might not be a publishable novel.
It’s often really hard to change it because it’s your first one. And you’re really attached to it. It’s like your baby. That’s not always the case…some people publish their first novel. But it’s more often not that case.
It’s always easiest to write something very close to your experience – something about which you feel deeply. You need to have emotional involvement in the story and in the characters. It’s easier if you do know it intimately. A lot of people want to distance themselves from emotions and the truth of their lives so they try to write something completely outside of themselves and it’s not that compelling.
Many thanks to Jennie for her time, support and for serving as an inspiration. I look forward to your next release!