Ten Questions for Jane Kirkpatrick
1. Tricia: Jane, I read on your bio that you grew up on a dairy farm. What are three things about that time that stand out to you the most?
Jane: 1)watching the sunset come up standing beside my dad and the comfort that brought knowing we were working side by side; 2) There’d been a community argument over schools and my parents chose to send me from the one room school near us to a newer two-room school 5 miles away. Most of our neighbors didn’t send their children to the new school until a few years later so during that time, people didn’t wave at us when we met them on the road and I remember asking why not? So I discovered community alienation at an early age and how people deal with disappointment; and 3)I used to sit on top of the barn cleaner (it took the manure out and dumped it into a spreader) and sing to the cows and tell them stories while they chewed their cuds. Great audience. Not a one ever got up to leave.
2. Tricia: You’ve been married for 30+ years. Congratulations! If you had to give one piece of advice for newlyweds today, what would that be?
Jane: Someone asked me that just the other day! I told them to be absolutely forgiving of your partner no matter what; keep the bar low; and chose to be happy rather than being right! We are all of us imperfect and I feel so blessed to have married my best friend who overlooks those imperfections.
3. Tricia: Your home is “seven miles from the mailbox and eleven from pavement.” How does this isolation help your writing? How does it hinder it?
Jane: I think we’re remote but not so isolated as you’d think! We now have a phone, internet access, so that really helps with research, editorial connection. When I was working part time and gone from home two nights a week, then I felt more isolated in some ways because I wasn’t “at home”. I get my writing energy from an internal sense rather than engaging with lots of people. I can sometimes go all day without going outside because I’m writing, my husband does the cooking, we have no children at home. If I dont have to go to town for 10 days I am happy, happy. But I do need to be able to look out and see the river, the rimrocks and hills, to know that very likely few people will be “dropping in” on us without a call first. It’s like a cocoon of sorts but I suspect that can be created in the midst of Manhattan, too. I can take the puppy out in my night clothes and not worry that a neighbor is going to complain!
The distance hinders my writing because of the time just maintenance consumes. Almost any trip out takes a whole day. It’s an hour long drive one way to the vet or to buy groceries or run errands. It’s a half-hour one way to the nearest library or to church. I write early in the morning so I feel like I’ve accomplished something by 9:00 knowing I’ll be spending several hours just doing little things that might take someone in town 15 minutes. I don’t engage in as many community things as I’d like because of the time and wanting to have writing time as well as family time at home so I think I miss out on the richness of connection that happens among groups of people. It’s that kind of richness that helps me tell stories…
4. Tricia: I love the title of your newest book “A Clearing in the Wild.” Even though it is a historical novel, how do the desires of the characters in that book match those of many people today?
Jane: This is the story of a German American community and the German language has a word, Sehnsucht, that means “yearning or longing” in a spiritual sense. I think it’s part of the human condition to be known for our uniqueness and many of us struggle with being known in communities that don’t always honor individual voices. Children and teens often feel unheard; women; people with disabilities, even in communities of faith there are those who feel silenced. And yet we yearn to be known. We also yearn to be known by God, I believe, and to find spiritual answers. That hasn’t changed through the years.
Part of this story is that this religious community felt that their young people were being led away and so they wanted a more isolated place to live; and yet they were successful business people in part because they interacted well with the “outside world”. That tension between being salt and light, I think continues for us today. And then there are just the family issues involved in trying to be heard within a large extended family. So I believe historical novels allow people from the past to step into our generation to teach us and touch us with their lives.
5. Tricia: If a new writer wanted to write historical fiction what advice would you offer?
Jane: Go for it! I’d encourage them to read about the era they love, to have that environment be as real to them as their own bedroom. I read lots of non-fiction about all kinds of things like the history of hat pins or the history of cholera. I find writing historical novels one of the most engaging activities ever because I get to do research that I love and can justify the time spent doing it! And I get to create stories about things that matter to me and set them historically where hopefully the story will transcend what I wrote and reach a reader where their heart is. Sometimes that is easier than when writing a contemporary novel because people put up barriers and might say, well, that’s not my problem. But when it is an historical character they might be more willing to let their guard down and in the process discover an insight that could help them live more fully in their very contemporary lives.
I’d also tell them to silence the voices of people saying “historical novels don’t sell” because we all write, to some extent, historically, as we draw from our memories and experiences. I like to believe that a story that is well-told and wishes to convey meaning and hope will be read regardless of what era it is set in. The latest Pulitzer, MARCH, is an historical novel. COLD MOUNTAIN is an historical novel. But it is the richness of the characters and their challenges and their spiritual journeys that engage readers, I think.
6. Tricia: How long does it take you to write a novel? Do you have a system you use when approaching each new book?
Jane: All my life 🙂 I try to set aside six months to write (even though I am also researching during that time); and six months to research (even though I’m also rewriting, revising, copy-editing etc. during that time). I have contracts for four more novels so that gives me some idea of how much time I have to research and meet deadlines. The very first novel took me four months because I didn’t know how long it was supposed to take. I just wrote it until it was finished. Now I make up an extensive timeline of my characters (I write about real historical people, primarily women) and try to identify the life-changing events for them. Why was Emma Giesy with 9 men crossing the continent; when was her child born and where. When did her parents come out? When were her daughter’s born and where, those kinds of things. then I do a timeline of what was happening nationally: why was 1853 important in Missouri? What was happening in 1855 in Washington Territory that might have affected my characters? Then I use the three questions from Structuring the Novel by Meredith and Fitzgerald: What is my intention in writing this story; what is my attitude (what do I feel deeply about); what is my purpose (how do I hope a reader will be changed by writing this). I spend many pages trying to answer those three questions and getting them into one sentence each that I can attach to my computer. So when I get lost or wonder what I’ve done by trying to write this novel I can look at those sentences and remind myself why I’m writing.
7. Tricia: Sunrise or sunset?
8. Tricia: If a publisher approached you about writing an autobiography of your life what would the title be?
Jane: I did that! I have a memoir published called HOMESTEAD: Modern Pioneers Pursue the Edge of Possibility though originally I wanted it titled A Sweetness to the Soul but named my first novel A Sweetness to the Soul instead.
9. Tricia: You often speak at women’s groups. If you were to start writing a new talk based on your experiences this past month, what would the topic be?
Jane: Great question! I think it would be about what we hunger for as women. At a booksigning two nights ago, a woman told me she’d found my book in the library (between Steven King and Barbara Kingsolver) and had read the book within two days. She said what she most appreciated was that while my characters might see the world differently than she, that I did not judge them harshly and she therefore, didn’t feel judged harshly for her struggles and her own journey as a wife and mother trying to do the best she could for her family without losing herself in the process. At another signing a man told me how much he appreciated my work because even the villains were not profane and that the men made him feel like he had a community when he read the books, that he wasn’t alone in how he expressed his faith, lived with his neighbors, treated his wife. His wife stood beside him and cried she was so moved by how the stories had enriched his life. (And it was the story, not me).
Then at a radio interview, the interviewer asked about the writing process and what questions had to be answered by fiction rather than by fact. Again, that made me think of the kind of things we women hunger for. Unless there’s a journal somewhere or the historical figure wrote down the desires of her heart, the novelist is left to speculate about what motivated that woman. We women often don’t name our desires. We name the desires of our children or husbands or parents but not our own. And then Monday I read a sermon by Frederick Buechner whose work I admire and he spoke about the hunger we have as humans to know God, to be known by God. And finally, I struggle with being “filled up” and allowing that to happen without discounting the many gifts I’m given in people’s kindnesses, their time, their words to me. Kathleen Norris writes of the word “sloth” and how she defines it as “the perverse unwillingness to accept the possibility of joy.” I think we hunger for joy and find ways to keep ourselves from receiving it. As women, we spend way more time with sloth than we need to.
So I think I’d write a new presentation about hunger and how we can be less judgmental of ourselves and find new ways to allow God to fill us. Well, maybe that’s a part of what I frequently talk about; but I’d have new insights based on my experiences this past week.
10. Tricia: If I gave you a gift certificate for any book, which would you choose to purchase?
Jane: The latest edition of Oxford Dictionary of English Entymology. I love words.