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Thursday, March 27, 2008

Author Interview ~ Joy Jordan-Lake

Born in Washington, D.C., Joy Jordan-Lake’s first vivid childhood memory was watching her mother weep in front of the television, where newscasters were just reporting the shooting of Martin Luther King, Jr. Later moving south with her family, she was raised in the East Tennessee mountains, where she learned to observe the ways in which communities respond to racial prejudice with justice, hope and reconciliation --or fail to do so--and also to appreciate the beauty, the painful history, the humor and the storytelling gifts of the South.

After earning a masters degree from a theological seminary, Joy re-located to the Boston, Massachusetts, area where she earned a masters and a Ph.D. in English and American Literature from Tufts University. While in New England, she founded a clothes and food pantry targeting low-income and homeless families, served as a minister of a multi-ethnic church, worked as a free-lance journalist, and taught writing. Her first book, Grit and Grace: Portraits of a Woman’s Life, was a collection of stories, poems and essays, followed several years later by Whitewashing Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Nineteenth-Century Women Novelists Respond to Stowe, a reworking of her dissertation on literature, theology, and race in American culture.

During this period, life for Joy and her husband, Todd Lake, was becoming increasingly chaotic with two careers, numerous re-locations for Todd’s work, two young biological children and the adoption of a baby girl from China. Joy’s nearly-manic need to ask everyone around her about how they managed--or not--to balance kids and career led to her third book, Working Families: Navigating the Demands and Delights of Marriage, Parenting and Career. Joy’s fourth book, Why Jesus Makes Me Nervous: Ten Alarming Words of Faith was published last fall, and her first novel, Blue Hole Back Home, will be released this spring.
Having taught at universities in Massachusetts, North Carolina and Texas, she currently teaches part time at Belmont University in Tennessee. Joy and her husband share life with their three children, as well as the family’s menagerie of pets.
Time to crow: What new book or project do you have coming out?

On March 1, my first novel, Blue Hole Back Home, arrives in bookstores, and I’m so excited. I’ve had two nonfiction books come out earlier this year, but this novel feels entirely different from the release of the other books--maybe because it’s based partly on actual events from my own past--racial conflict and reconciliation in the small town South--and at a time when our country is talking a lot about race and about hope.

How did you come up with this story? Was there a specific 'what if' moment?

The story is based loosely on events from my own teen years in the late 1970s. There was one particular incident in which a girl my own age moved to my all-white mountain town in Tennessee, and we became friends. Then, although she was welcomed by my little, all-white church and by many people on the mountain, the KKK came out of dormancy and began to agitate, eventually burning a cross and terrorizing her family--and driving them out of town.

I’d written a short story about it ten years before in my first book, and a reviewer commented at the time that I should consider turning it into a novel. That immediately struck me as, “Yeah. I’ve got to do that.” Writing about it more fully became a journey not just into telling a story about fictional characters, which these are, but also about trying to work out in my own mind how the South of my childhood and teen years, which was a sweet, loving, beautiful and safe place to be growing up for a middle class white Protestant girl like me could have had--even by the late 70s and early 80s--a terribly ugly, dangerous side.

In fact, one of the incidents that became part of the novel was my learning while I was living as an adult in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and watching the movie Ghosts of Mississippi, that Byron DeLaBeckwith, the assassin of Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers, had lived, safe and unmolested after his acquittal by an all-white jury, on my mountain all those years of my growing up. My horror in learning that, and in beginning to add up other racial incidents from those years--like three white young men riding through an African-American part of Chattanooga, at the foot of our mountain, and firing a rifle all up and down the streets--had to get worked out somehow, I suppose, and writing a novel was cheaper than therapy.

Every novelist has a journey. How long was your road to publication? How did you find out and what went through your mind?

I’ve actually found getting nonfiction published relatively easy--emphasis on the relatively. But a novel--oh, my goodness: now that has been a long and winding road. I actually began my first novel, still unpublished, in 1996, and assumed it would be the first thing in bookstores. My first book turned out to be an odd little collection of stories and essays in 1997, followed by three other nonfiction books, all entirely different from one another. All the while, though, I kept writing fiction, and getting rejected, and making myself hear the critique that a few kind and encouraging editors or agents would drop along the way (in hand-scrawled notes on the rejection letters, for example) and learning from novelists whose work I admired.

Do you ever bang your head against the wall from the dreaded writer's block? If so, how do you overcome it?

I have plenty of irritating hang ups, but writer’s block is not one of them. I have three kids and professional responsibilities, so writer’s block strikes me as a luxury of those who have extra time on their hands. That’s not to say I don’t struggle with getting focused when I do sit down to write. And that’s not to say that everything I write is worth keeping. But I never allow myself a block of time I’ve set aside for writing to simply get diddled away because I couldn’t think of anything brilliant to put on the page. It may often not be brilliant, these words I pound out, but it’s funny how often the mere act of putting my fingers on the keyboard begins to loosen up the cogs in my brain, and every now and then, something surprising happens that I’d never planned or seen coming.

Novelists sometimes dig themselves into a hole over implausible plots, flat characters or a host of other problems. What's the most difficult part of writing for you (or was when you first started on your novel journey)?

Plot for me has definitely been the biggest hurdle. Even early in my fiction efforts, editors would comment positively on my characters or dialogue or sense of place. But often, these lovely characters with their clever comments would simply sit and talk…for pages upon pages. I did a doctorate in 19th-century fiction, so maybe that’s partly where my problem comes from, or maybe it’s partly an unwillingness to have anything bad happen to the characters I like. Or, maybe I’m just hopelessly boring left to myself--without an editor or trusted reader to tell me the brutal truth about what parts of the story drew them in, and held them in another world, and what parts they found incredibly easy to set down, yawn, and go get some ice cream out of the freezer.
How did (or do) you climb out (overcome it)?

I’ve had to force myself to pay attention to contemporary fiction in which things actually HAPPEN, and at a good clip. And I don’t mean just car chases and grisly murders, but also substantive change in character development. I’m guessing that in an effort to be subtle and literary and intellectual, my plots were mostly extended musings by a character on what they believed, or didn’t, and how awfully full of anguish they felt. I knew I was at an all time low when an editor from The New Yorker, which at that time was doing mostly stories of existential angst, complimented my “beautifully sustained comic Southern voice,” but added that there really wasn’t much of a story there. Ouch.

I was hugely blessed with an editor on this novel, Blue Hole Back Home, who heard me when I said that even though the publisher had accepted this manuscript, and even though I’d revised it countless times, I still felt like things lagged terribly in the middle. She agreed with me, and we began shuffling scenes, and I added some and re-envisioned others, and cut lots. It was the world’s best tutorial on better plotting--that is driven by characterization, not just something super-imposed.

Where do you write: In a cave, a coffeehouse, or a cozy attic nook?

In a coffeehouse actually works best--one in which I’m friendly with the people behind the counter, and we exchange familiar banter, but I don’t actually see people I know well who might want to sit and chat. I can sometimes write from my home office with my big dogs at my feet, but I have to be careful not to see the clutter or tumbleweeds of dog hair around the house, since that knocks all the creativity out of my head and replaces it with guilt for not reaching for the vacuum right that very minute.

What does a typical day look like for you?

When I’m not teaching or doing book promotion, I try to write four hours a day, preferably in the mornings. Sometimes, as when facing a deadline, I’ll write more, which I love, but family responsibilities and teaching duties more often than not make even four hours a day really tough to maintain. Sometimes it’s one hour a day--but if that’s early in the morning, even that one hour might produce something with potential. It’s terribly important never to go too long without writing at all. I always begin to convince myself then that I’m delusional to think I’m a writer. It’s a downward spiral.

Some authors report writing 5-10 thousand words a day. Do scenes flow freely from your veins or do you have to tweeze each word out?

Totally depends. The tweezing part usually happens in revision stages. If I’m tweezing too early, it’s probably going to be really horrendous writing.

Briefly take us through your process of writing a novel—from conception to revision.

From what I understand from my own experience and listening to more experienced novelists, the process for every novel is different. But I do think that any act of writing is an act of faith and of self-discipline. I spent years thinking about the books I wanted to

What are a few of your favorite books (not written by you) and why are they favorites?

I re-read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby every few years, and learn something new every time. Ditto, for very different reasons, for Leif Enger’s Peace Like a River and Bret Lott’s Jewel. I love Southern novels and historical novels. I’ve been reading some Isabel Allende lately. I used to read a great deal of 19th-century novels, but with the exception of Jane Austen, I try to stay away from them now, since my own sentences get longer and longer and my need to describe every tree and gopher hole more urgent at every page.

What’s the best writing advice you’ve heard?

I love Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird on writing, which is full of hilarious and painfully true counsel for those of us nutty enough to try to write and hope someday someone might actually read our writing.

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?

That if you think you can just write your books and they’ll jump right off the shelves into people’s arms, you’d better be either incredibly lucky and become one of the few who get a first novel made into a movie and life-size action figure, or be incredibly nonchalant about the fact that your books will not ever sell well. Most of us ought to start thinking from the beginning like writers AND marketing masterminds. I’ve had to learn that the hard way.

How much marketing do you do? What have you found that particularly works well for you?

I’ve only just recently gotten serious about marketing. And it takes a great deal of time and energy, whether you travel on book tours or use the internet or send out postcards to every living soul you know. I’m taking a financial risk right now by taking time out from teaching to spend more time promoting books. No idea if it will pay off, but there comes a time in any profession when you need to quit griping and being frustrated, and do something about what needs work--even if that means taking a risk.
I’m basically a fairly shy person, but promoting books also means being willing to go out and speak about what you’ve written, so I’m having to edge out of my comfort zone and say yes--and, God forbid, sometimes even drop hints to friends that wouldn’t it just be peachy to have me come to a signing or talk or whatever. The typical writer is not tremendously business-minded--most of us need remedial help. And a willingness to learn from each other, and from our publishers--who are also trying to figure out what works, by the way.

Do you have any parting words of advice?

Really glad you asked. Two quotes by two Churchills:

First, Sir Winston Churchill: “Never give up. Never, never, never give up.”

The second comes from a friend who works for a children’s publisher. Just this week, she sent me a link to an article about one of their authors who’d met only with rejection her whole writing life, and now she’s just won the Newberry medal. The article began with a quote that I’ve found myself running over in my mind--and holding onto: Lord Randolph Churchill once characterized the career of Benjamin Disraeli as "Failure, failure, failure, partial success, renewed failure, ultimate and complete victory."
I love that.


  1. Thank you for the wonderful post/interview. I am not a writer but I am always looking for good reads. And I love supporting first-time authors. I have a lot of respect for writers. It's hard enough for me to comment on a blog let alone write a book. So, if you'll all keep writing, I'll keep reading!

    I just found/read a book by first-time author Paul Miller. His book is called A Place To Belong. A wonderful story somewhere between "To Kill A Mockingbird" and an American version of "Angela's Ashes". It's a wonderful story telling of terrible times with the added element of faith as a factor in surviving an incredibly rough childhood. I hope you have time to check it out. I heard that Mr. Miller may not write another book because the reason he wrote this was for his own therapy!

    Keep up the wonderful work!

    Happy writing and reading.

    Mary :>)

  2. Thanks, ladies, for a wonderful interview. I have to admit that I wrote my first novel for therapeutic reasons too (but was too ashamed to say it). Thanks, Joy, for your honesty and insight.

    Be certain I'll be looking for Blue Hole Back Home.

    Linda Leigh Hargrove,
    author of The Making of Isaac Hunt

  3. I loved this interview. Your book sounds beautiful.

    Thanks for sharing your writing process. I agree with you on the nonfiction/fiction publishing arena. It was easier for me to sell NF than F.

    Keep writing,
    Mary DeMuth

  4. I really liked that interview. Thanks!

    Beth Fehlbaum, author
    Courage in Patience, a story of hope for those who have endured abuse
    Chapter One is now posted online!


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