Jane Kirkpatrick is a best-selling, multi-award-winning author of two non-fiction books and twelve historical novels, and Literary Guild, Doubleday, Crossings and Book of the Month book club have featured her titles. Jane is a former mental health director in Deschutes County and a former consultant in mental health to the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs. An international speaker, she and her husband Jerry ranch along the lower John Day River in rural Sherman County, Oregon. www.jkbooks.com
What new book or project would you like to tell us about?
I’ve just put the finishing touches on the second novel in my Change and Cherish Series based on the life of the only woman who with nine male scouts was sent out from Bethel, Missouri in 1853 to the West to find a new site for their communal religious colony. It’s called A Tendering in the Storm and will be out in April. It follows A Clearing in the Wild which is the first part of Emma’s story. Just as we were working on the final galleys of this second book, I learned some new information about Emma that I just HAD to incorporate into the story. It’s one of the challenges in writing a novel based on the lives of real people. When I learn something from a descendant – which is what happened – that I hadn’t known before and it informs the story, I have to change it. Fortunately the publisher was fine with my doing that. Whew!
Tell us about your publishing journey. How long had you been writing before you got a contract? How did you find out and what went through your mind?
I’ve been very fortunate. Since my husband and I left suburbia and moved to where we live now, rattlesnake and rock ranch, I started writing nonfiction articles and essays for newspapers and magazines. That was in 1984. People thought we’d really gone off the deep end to leave our jobs (I’d been the director of a mental health clinic and my husband was a builder) to move to remote property that had nothing on it, no house, no power, 25 miles from the nearest town, seven miles from our mailbox. So I wrote to friends and family to assure them we were still alive and one of them wrote back and said they saved my letters and turned off the TV and read them out loud because they were like chapters of a book. That’s when I decided to write a book.
A memoir (as though I thought I had something fascinating to say!) It wasn’t to be a “how to” book, but a “follow your dream” book. Anyway, I wrote a proposal and sent it out along with 10 sample chapters – the proposal looked like a term paper! After six months I got a call from the editor in Texas. He asked if the manuscript was still available. Still available! I hadn’t written anything on it since I’d sent that proposal AND I hadn’t sent the proposal anywhere else. I assured him it was then went outside to tell my husband that the most extraordinary thing had just happened. I was about to write a book! We danced around on the deck as the dogs barked their happy jubilation thinking we were about to go for a walk. To me it was an affirmation of following our hearts and stepping out onto a cloud of faith, believing we wouldn’t fall through.
I received an unagented contract and that book came out in 1991 with Word. The book was just reissued with a new section from WaterBrook Press, a division of Random House this past fall. So I guess it was seven years of writing before I got a contract. But the book contract came from a proposal.
My first novel came out in 1995. I had a contract before I’d written it. My agent sold it by proposal and I’ve had contracts in advance of the writing for all of the now thirteen novels since. I have contracts for four more. The good news about “selling” a book before it’s written is that I know I’ve convinced someone it’s a great story and that’s how I felt about the novel, A Sweetness to the Soul published by Questar (which became Multnomah). My agent called to tell me and I was elated. She also said they’d be interested in possibly three more. The bad news about selling a proposal is that I never know if I can actually write it. So each novel is a step into the wilderness. (But as writer Terry Tempest Williams says, “to step into the wilderness is to court risk; but risk favors the senses which allow the good life.” I have a very good life.)
Do you still have self-doubts about your writing?
See above, but yes. Each time I start something new I think I can’t. I’ll re-read what I’ve written on a particular day and think it’s drivel. I tell my husband what I’ve done that day is awful and he’ll say “Gee, you’re feeling that way earlier in the process than before” so apparently it’s a part of my routine. With deadlines, I don’t have a lot of time to obsess about how bad my writing is. Anne Lamott’s words “You Don’t Have Time For That” sit on my computer.
I’ve taken to imagining the negative voices sitting behind me as the harpies in a Greek tragedy and I have to imagine them with duct tape on their mouths. I don’t have time to listen to their negativity because it isn’t my job to write the great American novel nor to get Oprah to know my name. It’s my job to tell the story I’ve been given the best way I know how and to trust that I’m not alone in the telling. As Madeleine L’Engle noted, when we create, we co-create: with spirit and with our readers. So I trust that I’m sitting at that computer for a reason and somehow that story has found its teller and I just need to be truthful and faithful to that.
Was there ever a time in your writing career you thought of quitting?
I’ve been writing for other people to read for about 22 years. I never thought of not writing during that time, especially since I had contracts so I knew others depended on me. But I did not attempt to earn my living totally from writing until about four years ago. Up until then, I continued to work as a mental health consultant on an Indian reservation about 100 miles from our home. Sometimes I didn’t think I could keep that pace up, of working away from home three days a week, helping on the ranch and writing, but I never thought of giving it up. I just got up earlier to write and turned myself into a morning person!
What mistakes did you make while seeking a publisher or agent?
I sent a lot of my nonfiction pieces out to publishers that were just not going to be interested. I didn’t do the marketing survey as well as I could have. Sending a 75 page proposal is pretty naïve too though the editor at Word forgave me. I pitched my work and myself to agents at writing conferences and while I didn’t garner an agent or publisher from them, it was really good experience and exposure. I hadn’t really researched the agents to see what they handled and that would have saved my time and theirs. I also did get asked to submit some pieces to a NY agent at one of the conferences and I didn’t follow up on it because I was sure he hadn’t really meant for me to do that. I’d just wandered in to his session.
This past summer, I had a chance to talk with him about a writing conference I helped organize and in fact he remembered me! So who knows, if I’d trusted in my work, I might have had a NY agent! Ultimately I got my agent through referral from a publicist hired by the publisher to promote my first book and she’s been my agent for the past 14 years. We have a great working relationship. So whatever mistakes I made along the way did help me arrive with an agent who has been right for me.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve heard?
With my articles, it was to make a list of 10 markets and write them on a folder with the date I sent the query or article out. When it comes back, read it once and if it still reads well, send it to the next market on the list within 24 hours out. I did that and rarely did I get to number 10 before the article sold. I don’t think that’s because it was a great article. I think it was because when I was feeling good about the work, I located the markets and I had a next step to take when the rejection letter came back. Keeping our work in circulation is important and the rejection letters can devastate. So I like always having a next step.
As for fiction, I think the best advice I had was to make a commitment to a story and then trust that with the words of Goethe, “Providence moves.” I was advised to just choose the story I was going to tell and then trust that what I needed to tell it would be there. It always has been. A corollary is from a prayer by Barry Longyear published in Writer’s Digest 22 years ago that I have stuck on my computer and one of the lines is “Help me to enter and live my story.”
Living it and not worrying about whether it’s good or not is great advice I think. And finally, a fellow author took me aside after my fifth novel and told me I was a great writer but that I needed to write with a single person in mind, maybe the mom picking up a book at the grocery store or a grandmother looking for a book for her granddaughter but one she’d read herself first. Making one’s work accessible was his advice and it was good advice. It’s a challenge to write for many while still imagining that individual whose life I hope will be touched.
What’s the worst piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
I had this idea for a book once and I told a writer who had just gotten published about my dream to write a book. I didn’t say what it was about, only that I wanted to write. “You’re going to write a book? Good luck. It’s a more miserable process than you’d think.” I thought if a published author felt that badly about it, who was I to think that I could write something worthy or that I’d enjoy the process. I didn’t write that book and it was a couple of years before I had the courage to listen to my heart again and write ANY book. It wasn’t bad advice, really; but my poor interpretation of it. I deprived myself of the joy of this writing life!
Do you have a pet peeve having to do with this biz?
My husband says it’s the strangest business he’s ever heard of, where you GIVE books away to booksellers hoping they’ll order in more and where the author whose work is being sold receives the smallest percentage of the income…if there is any. But every biz has strangeness to it. You just have to find the way through. I’ve worked in large organizations: the pet peeves of publishing are nothing.
What do you wish you’d known early in your career that might have saved you some time and/or frustration in writing? In publishing?
Coping skills. My husband once asked me to get him a hacksaw from the shop and I brought him his saw but also one that looked a little different. It was shaped like a U. It was called a coping saw and he said it was used to fit things into tight places like a cabinet into a corner. He told me the blade was very strong but also very flexible. If it was too strong it would splinter what you’re trying to fit; if it was too flexible, it would leave gaps. The blade also allowed you to change directions quickly without a lot of friction. In order to cope you have to be strong, but not so strong you’re rigid and you have to be flexible but not so flexible you stand for nothing. And then there’s that changing part, without friction. (It was the Marlboro man meeting mental health!).
So I wish I’d realized early on that change is just a part of the process, that authors don’t always get to choose their titles; that publishers have more than one book (mine!) to promote; that when an editor makes a suggestion and I have to defend why I want that scene, that defending makes me a better writer and if I can’t defend it well enough, then I have to decide whether to trust the wisdom of someone who ALSO wants me to succeed or get rigid and maybe splinter what I’m trying to fit. Publishing really is a team effort. It’s not all about the author. It’s about production and promotion and sales and distribution and it’s about the reader, getting the best story into the hands of the reader. I wish I’d known that earlier. I think I’d have not taken things personally that were just part of the process.
Was there ever a difficult set back that you went through in your writing career?
One of my books, a second in a series, was rejected by the publisher. I hadn’t written a series before, only a “collection” so I didn’t realize I had to carry the stories of these characters through the entire series. I got in to introducing new characters and of course, readers want to know what happened to the others they fell in love with. But I didn’t know that. I was devastated. It was like getting an F when you’re an over-achieving-A kind of person. The good news is that after a couple of days of crying…the editor and I talked again and she had some great suggestions for how to salvage the book, what we might do, etc. Her suggestions made me dig deeper and find a way to retain the new characters and weave them into the story of the original characters. It worked! Book three was also much easier to write and that series has gone on to be my bestselling series ever.
When a book goes out of print, that feels defeating, the hassle of getting rights back, etc. and trying to resell it. Fortunately I’ve been able to find other publishers for the two books of mine (nonfiction) that went out of print so that now all fourteen of my books or a version of them are in print.
What are a few of your favorite books?
Vinita Hampton Wright’s Dwelling Places is an all time contemporary favorite along with Marilyn Robinson’s Gilead. I loved Linda Hall’s Sarah’s Song as well as her other mysteries. B.J. Hoff’s books are gems and Liz Curtis Higg’s books, too. Sue Grafton novels. Linda Hunt’s Bold Spirit: Helga Estby’s Forgotten Walk across Victoria America is terrific nonfiction read. Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner. Ivan Doig’s English Creek. The Persian Pickle Club by Sandra Dallas (along with her others) and this may seem strange, but Ted Kooser’s The Poetry Home Repair Kit is just the best book about writing. Oh, but of course Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird and Stephen King’s On Writing. Molly Wolf’s White China: Finding the Divine in Everyday Life and Christina Baldwin’s book StoryCatcher: Making Sense of our lives through the Power and Practice of Story. Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water. Kathleen Norris Amazing Grace and Dakota. And finally, anything at all by Barbara Brown Taylor and Frederick Buechner.
What work have you done that you’re especially proud of and why?
Does this have to be about writing? Because I think some of my best work has been with families of children who have disabilities and my being able to learn from them while hopefully helping them to discover their own strengths. I also believe that mentoring or encouraging young writers is good work and I’ve done that in a number of ways. And encouraging people to remember and write their own stories down is important work. I feel blessed that my counseling life and my writing life do blend, for as it’s said, stories do heal. Work with traumatized children at Baylor University verify that, that such children benefit most from music, dance or movement (quilting? Woodworking?) art and story.
It seems no coincidence to me that the Hebrew word for parable meaning “toss along beside” like a pebble is similar to the Greek word for comfort meaning “to come along beside.” In my writing life, I’m proud of my first novel, getting it written and believing it was a good story before I even tried to write it down. It earned a national award and was recently named to Oregon’s Literary 100: 1800-2000 being named one of the best books about Oregon written in the past 200 years. That’s cool.
I also compiled some encouraging words I’d given my sister when she was dying and said she couldn’t concentrate long enough to read an entire book. A Simple Gift of Comfort grew from that book and I’m grateful for that.
Do you have a scripture or quote that has spoken to you lately in regards to your writing?
I’m fond of Deuteronomy (a word that means “these are the words”) 6: 6-9 which I paraphrase to mean that we should remember the stories and teach them diligently to our children and “write them on the door posts” and never forget what God has done in our lives. This scripture gives encouragement to write, to remember, to encourage others to do likewise. I have this little saying at the end of my email: Stories are the sparks that light our ancestors’ lives; they’re the embers we blow on to illuminate our own. Deuteronomy says to remember and to write it down.
Can you give us a look into a typical day for you?
When I’m in my “writing” part of the year, I’m up early, sometimes at 4:00 AM taking a break around 9:00 then back to write most of the day with a break for lunch and I finish at dinner time. I have an office that looks out onto the rimrocks and the ridges of the John Day River. I use a computer. I begin each book by doing a timeline of significant historical events in the life of the characters and also in the country at large, to see how my character might have been affected by the Civil War, let’s say; or the British influences in the Northwest Fur Trade. I spend a lot of time seeking out descendants and interviewing them to hear the family stories that often aren’t written anywhere.
That’s especially true since I write about historical women, primarily, and I really have to scrounge to find authentic information about women. Usually I have to track their husbands, fathers, brothers or sons to know where they might have been and to wonder how their lives were spent. I don’t look at emails until 11:00 AM Pacific time, in case my editor has contacted me and then I don’t look at them again until 5 or so. I don’t answer the phone, just take messages and answer them back in the late afternoon or evening. Otherwise I get distracted.
I usually don’t write on Saturday or Sunday but on those days I read books I’ve been asked to read for endorsement and do pleasure reading. I also make presentations, lead women’s retreats, speak at historical societies etc. I’m doing research in the evenings and weekends too but usually that’s sandwiched in between the things of living like cleaning the house. This is my January to June routine. I’ve had a book come out in April or May for several years now.
That means I’m on the road launching the new book but I’ll still be writing using a laptop and my flash drive to finish up the manuscript due in June. I don’t like that writing as much because I can’t access the shelves of reference books available to me that I accumulate for each book. As I get close to finishing and with a deadline looming, I often wake up at 1 or 2:00 AM and just go in and work then come back to bed at 8:00 AM to nap. I don’t set any number of words or pages as goals for my day. I do write one chapter at a time and not specific scenes that I later move around. It’s pretty much chronological for me. Boring, eh?
Then from June to December, I’m researching the next book and rewriting the manuscript I turned in the previous June. I usually don’t get up so early; I’m showing up by 9 and work until 3:00. I can participate in blog interviews! I look at my emails more often. I have a three to four week break when I don’t read the manuscript or work on it but let it cook and wait until the editor has comments for me before I begin the rewrites. This is the best part of writing for me because I know where the story is going and now I can put in the things that deepen it for me and hopefully for the reader.
Usually during the latter half of the year I’m also re-reading galley proofs, talking with the copy editors and I’m researching the next book but I may also be verifying something a copy editor has questioned. In between I’m spending time with my family, writing Christmas cards or at this time of the year, going pheasant hunting with my husband and our Wire haired Pointing Griffon dog. I’m always thinking ahead to what the next book might be. I never know when a particular story will hit me and I’ll have to write it down.
I also participate in a writer’s organization called Women Writing the West and that takes time away from writing so I have to watch that just as I have to be careful of spending too much time on other loops, blogs etc. There are other writing on-line groups (ACFW, CHI LIBRIS, Western Writers of American) that I belong to and I could easily churn my day away reading about writing rather than, well, writing.
Do you have a word or page goal you set for each day?
No. I like to write an entire chapter in a day but I rarely get to. They’re usually 5 to 6000 words so I guess that’s a goal. But mostly I feel like I’ve been successful when I’ve shown up, kept my commitment to “assume the position of a writer” and then just trust what will happen. I have good days and bad days of writing but even the worst days of writing are better than not writing at all.
Are you an SOTP (seat of the pants) writer or a plotter?
Someone once asked Albert Einstein how he worked and he said “I grope.” I grope too (and I’m groping dead people whose stories I’m telling so there is probably some mental health disorder named for that) But I’m both a SOTP and a plotter. Because I write about actual historical events or people, I do have some sort of historically based plot or sequence of events that I know I’ll be working into the story or that drives the story forward. I also have an idea of where I want to start and where I think I’ll finish, a final scene, let’s say. But in between, if I know my characters and the setting well, then they are free to lead me and I am then going by the SOTP method. I like it when I end a chapter with “As she looked over the hill she knew from what she saw before her that her life would change forever.” But then not know what she saw until the next day when I start writing again. Writing ought to have surprises for the writer and the reader, at least that’s my theory.
What author do you especially admire and why?
Frederick Buechner. Because he writes both fiction and nonfiction, he writes with great wisdom and compassion. He’s innovative with his thinking and he integrates issues of faith so delicately and with such grace that I am always moved, never led to feel guilty but always led to be a better person, live a better life, deepen my faith and reach out to my neighbor because of what he wrote. I’d like to move people in that way, to write like that.
What is your favorite and least favorite part of being a writer?
Favorite part is “having written” as some wise person once said. Knowing I did it, that I silenced the harpies in my head. Least favorite? Writing the “suggested reading list” because I have to remember the style requirements: last name, first name, period. Title of book. Place published. Date. All that stuff so I have to lay my hand on the book to get it right.
How much marketing do you do? What’s your favorite part of marketing?
When my first book came out and I realized it wasn’t going to be a bestseller and the publisher would move on to their next releases, I asked my brother, a successful salesman, what he wanted in a product that made it easy for him to sell. He said two things: you want to know that you have a quality product, the best it can be. Second, you want a story. A story? I asked. Yes, he said, because if it’s a quality product, people can buy it anywhere, but they’ll buy yours and from you because they’ll remember your story.
So first I want to be sure that my book is the best I can make it. Then I become a marketer not of my books but of the importance of story in our lives, of the people I write about and how I think it’s important for the world to know about them and what they have to teach us about living today. I also “market” my own story about living on Starvation Lane and how my life changed when we took a chance and followed a dream and that we’re still here at the end of the rutted dirt road. We have a sign on our gate that says “We seek neither convenience nor ease but to live at the edge of possibility.” In some ways, that’s what I market. I like best the chance to be with readers, telling them stories, answering their questions.
More specifically though, I have a website www.jkbooks.com and I write a monthly essay of encouragement on it to bring people back. I respond to my guest book entries personally. I participate in some blogs on a regular basis. At signings I have a guest book where I solicit postal addresses and my niece maintains my mailing list and when a new book comes out or I’ll be at an event in an area, we send postcards to announce that. I also keep a schedule on my website. At various time I’ve paid for a publicist’s help. At times I’ve been fortunate to have the publisher provide a publicist to work with me to set up events etc.
I speak or attend signings maybe 100 times a year. Out of those events have come some great connections (including being asked to speak to the European Council of International Schools) as well as learning about new stories. The people who like my books are my best marketing. They tell their friends and family, order signed books from me, attend events even when they don’t plan to buy a book, they just come to support me. What could be better than that? My least favorite part of marketing is having a signing that’s set up for say two hours and we’re trying to get people to come into the store to just stop and buy a book. I much prefer having an “event” where I’m talking about stories or history or women’s issues for a half an hour or so and then signing afterwards. When it’s just a “signing” and since I’m not famous, it can sometimes get pretty lonely and I feel badly for the store. I do read a lot of other people’s books that way, though. The end cap books I pick up while waiting for a customer.
Do you have any parting words of advice?
Only that you can see by the length of my answers why I have to work with good editors, to keep me within a word count! Brevity is good. Writing spare is good. But finding your own style and voice is best of all. I hope you keep writing until you do. Thanks for staying with me to the end!