Nancy Jensen, Author of THE SISTERS, Says: Learn To Love Revising As Much As Writing

A while back I put out a Twitter-request to help me discover new authors — and thanks to many of you, Women’s Fiction Writers is booked beyond April 2012!  One of the authors you kept mentioning was Nancy Jensen — and when I discovered Nancy’s website and all the great press surrounding THE SISTERS (and the fact that Nancy is published by St. Martin’s Press, as I will be) — I knew I could not make myself all of us wait until 2012 for an introduction!   

Please welcome author Nancy Jensen to Women’s Fiction Writers.  

Nancy Jensen, Author of THE SISTERS, Says: Learn To Love Revising As Much As Writing

ASN: Ok, let’s start with the big stuff.  The Sisters is on The Kirkus List for Best Fiction 2011.  How did you find out — and what did that feel like? (Really, we are dying to know!)

NJ: I found out when someone from Kirkus Reviews posted congratulations on the wall of my author page on Facebook:  www.facebook.com/authornancyjensen .   Of course I clicked on the link immediately, and then for a few seconds I didn’t believe it at all, thought the wall post must be some mistake, because in my excitement I failed to see that all the titles were listed alphabetically.  When I saw The Sisters was really there, sitting happily right next door to Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending, I screamed, which scared a couple of my cats into knocking a bowl of cat food off a table, scattering kibble everywhere, which my dog then took the opportunity to gobble up.  So first I restored feline and canine order in the house, and then I emailed my agent and my editor.  For once, they didn’t know before me, so it was a thrill to be the one to share the news and glorious to know that there was lots of whooping and jumping up and down happening on Fifth Avenue in New York at the same time I was whooping and jumping up and down in my little house in Kentucky, further scaring the cats.

ASN: I read your post about doing research for your book using eBay, and I must say I found that ingenious!  How long did it take you to write The Sisters?  Did the extensive research on and offline (the book spans decades) ever take you away from the writing for too long?

NJ: When I finally took some time to reflect on it, I admit I was surprised when I realized just how much research I wound up doing on eBay.  I also did quite a lot research using more conventional methods, but it never really felt arduous or time-consuming to me.  Mostly I researched details as I bumped up against them.  Often with the Internet I could find what I needed in a few minutes to a few hours.  Sometimes I ordered books or made lists of library chores and when I settled down to those, I might work a full day or two, but because my writing time is limited to summers, I always made it a priority to get back to the writing as soon as possible.  Because of this, I did a lot of my research in small patches of time through the school year, marking sections and jotting down notes on whatever I thought might be useful.  All told, it took five years (or five summers) to write The Sisters, depending upon how you count.

ASN: Who or what inspired Bertie and Mabel?

NJ: When I was about ten years old, I heard for the first time that my grandmother had a sister.  The news was shocking because I knew very well about her brothers, whom she referred to often in conversation, but never had there been a word about the sister.  The second after I heard of the sister I was also told, first by my sister and then by my mother, that I could not under any circumstances ever ask my grandmother about her.  Over the years, the order was repeated, always with the warning that asking my grandmother would upset her terribly, and of course I didn’t want to do that.  The question that troubled me and that has stayed with me through the decades is What could happen between sisters that would cause one to erase the other?  Dozens of other questions spring from this first one, including what effect this breach would have, not only on the sisters involved but on later generations.  I couldn’t help wondering how the experience had shaped my grandmother, and in turn how that change of character might have affected my mother and then me.  Though the adult Bertie began as a character very loosely based on my grandmother, I had to invent the 14 year old Bertie from nothing, and so ultimately the adult Bertie arises from the girl I created.  Mabel of course is entirely invention, since I knew nothing at all about my grandmother’s sister.

ASN: Can you share a little about your journey to publication?

NJ: I started the way so many writers do, publishing short stories in literary magazines.  I did this for years then stopped writing altogether for about ten years—a long, complex story.  When I started writing again, I worked on personal essays and was able to publish several of those over a period of a few years.   After I’d published six or seven essays,  I was approached by the editor of Fleur-de-Lis Press and asked to consider submitting a mixed-genre collection of short fiction and essays for consideration.  At first I thought it would never work, but when I started compiling what I had, sifting, re-sifting, and arranging material, I realized there were themes that linked my work, even across the twenty years from the first to the most recent publications.  Fleur-de-Lis Press published Window: Stories and Essays in 2009.  By this time, I’d been working on The Sisters for about four years.  At the end of summer 2009 I thought I had a final draft—at least a reasonably final draft—of the novel, so I started trying to find an agent.  Just sorting through names, trying to find who might be interested in the novel, figuring out how to pitch the novel to that person was far more arduous than hunting through listings of literary journals, and though I sent out a lot of mail, I really wasn’t having much luck.  I could see the process might easily last for two or three years without success.  I was already preparing an alternate plan of shopping the novel to small and university presses if I couldn’t find an agent.  Then, on March 1, 2010, a writer friend referred me to agent Lisa Gallagher, who immediately agreed to read The Sisters.  She called me on March 7 to offer representation and sent some notes for revision a few days later.  Luckily, I received the notes just in time for Spring Break, and for that week I became a high-adrenaline, perfectly focused writing machine—in spite of my dog, who barked for two days solid because there were men walking around on the house putting on a new roof.  I sent the book back to Lisa, who had been researching editors while I revised, and she sold it on March 31.  I will forever think of 2010 as the Year of the Marvelous March!

ASN: Will you (can you) share with us if you’re writing something new?

NJ: I’m still finding my new novel right now.  I worked on final revisions of The Sisters all summer in 2010, and after that of course I had to start my full-time teaching again.  Then, this past summer, 2011, I lost my writing months because I moved and changed jobs, but now that my first semester is nearly over and I’m getting settled in, I can see that I’ll have some writing time in the spring—time I’ve never had before, so I’m really looking forward to getting back to work.  Maybe by the end of summer 2012 I’ll know if I’m really on my way to something.

ASN: How do you write — are you a plotter or a pantser?

NJ: Hmm…I have no clue what a “pantser” is, so I don’t know if I’m one of those or not!  I don’t think of myself as a plotter in any conventional sense.  I never know where a story is going, and I never do anything like an outline.  Everything arises out of character for me, and so this is often a really slow process, as it takes a lot of time to get to know characters enough to fully inhabit them, but once I am able to do that, the events of the story start to take shape.  Sometimes I see an event coming for a while, and then it’s a challenge to figure out how to get there, but still that always comes from character, and if the characters just won’t go there, then the event is what changes.  Strangely enough—the only time this has ever happened—I knew the ending of The Sisters fairly early in the process—about a year in, I guess—and I wrote the ending, but I had absolutely no idea how the rest of the book would ultimately support the ending.  I didn’t hold onto it as absolutely hard and fast, but it was always hovering around the edges of my imagination as an explanation.

ASN: What is your definition of women’s fiction?

NJ: Categories of fiction always make me shudder a little, since they seem so limiting to me.  While I realize that The Sisters will appeal more strongly to women than to men, since all the main characters are women, it has thrilled me to hear quite a number of men tell me how much they like the book.  I think of women’s fiction principally as a marketing term—St. Martin’s Press, for instance, identifies The Sisters as literary fiction and historical fiction along with women’s fiction—so I’ll let the marketers decide what it means and I’ll just concentrate on trying to write another novel as well as I possibly can.

ASN: What is your best advice for aspiring authors of women’s fiction specifically — or of any fiction?

NJ: I offer the same advice I offer my creative writing students—read, read, read, read, read.  Read as much, as widely, and as deeply as you possibly can.  Read across genres—meaning fiction, poetry, drama, nonfiction—and read across centuries.  Be patient with your writing, learn to genuinely love revision as the real writing process, and keep near you one or two readers you really trust to tell you the truth and tell it clearly.

Nancy Jensen’s work has appeared in numerous literary journals, and her first book, Window, a collection of short stories and essays, was published by Fleur-de-Lis Press in 2009.  She has been awarded an Artist Enrichment Grant from the Kentucky Foundation for Women and an Al Smith Fellowship from the Kentucky Arts Council.  Nancy shares her home with eight rescued cats and her dog Gordy, who is her partner on a pet therapy team with Pawsibilities Unleashed of Kentucky, visiting hospitals, nursing homes, assisted-living facilities, and daycare centers.  When she isn’t writing or enjoying the company of her furred family, she teaches as a member of the core faculty in the MFA in Writing Program at Eastern Kentucky University. Her first novel, The Sisters, has been selected by the Independent Booksellers Association as the #1 Indie Next Pick for December and Kirkus Reviews has included it in its list for Best Fiction of 2011.

12 thoughts on “Nancy Jensen, Author of THE SISTERS, Says: Learn To Love Revising As Much As Writing

    • Thanks, Liz. I often felt very sad for my grandmother, too, and so of course one of the ideas that drove me forward was wondering how a person’s character is changed by such a breach. The character inspired by my grandmother is ultimately fictional, but it was an interesting and ultimately satisfying journey to come up with an answer that could be true, even if I knew, given that I was working in fiction, it was not the literal true answer.

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  1. Pingback: An Interview with Women’s Fiction Writers | Nancy Jensen – Author

  2. Your book has been on my list of must reads for sometime now. I hope to get to it soon. In your interview you said you did a lot of research on ebay. I am curious as to how you did research on ebay. I really enjoyed your interview.

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    • I didn’t feel like that about revision in my twenties–much too impatient–but having had that experience now helps me better frame the advice to my students. When they’re young, they don’t believe me, but I know that as they mature, they’ll come to realize that the real writing happens in revision–the shaping of the art! And, as you say, the solving of the puzzle. That’s a great image, making me think about a jigsaw puzzle. The draft is like all the pieces spilled in a heap onto the table. Revision is putting it all together and spending a lot of time rethinking how (or even whether) pieces fit.

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  3. Oh, Amy … I’m so happy you interviewed Nancy. When I first learned of her book on Jolina Petersheim’s blog, it went immediately on my to-read list. And now that Nancy has shared such great details about the kernel of family history that formed the basis of the story, I want to read it even more. I love character-driven fiction and can relate to your method of developing story based on fully inhabiting your characters, Nancy. I can’t wait to read THE SISTERS!

    I got a good chuckle out of the reactions of your cats and dog while you were screaming about the Kirkus List award (congratulations)! How lovely that you have rescued so many wonderful critters.

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    • Thanks, Melissa. I hope you enjoy THE SISTERS. Someone recently asked me how much my pets influence my writing. I knew the person was expecting me to say the influence was huge or that I wrote about animals all the time, but all I could tell her was that animals do show up in small ways in all my work–in THE SISTERS that’s mostly through the character of Grace–but really the influence has a lot to do with their insisting I slow down and give belly rubs. It’s amazing how many knotted writing problems I’ve worked out simply because one of my cats was sitting on my pages or my computer or because somebody won’t get off my lap so I can get up and work. Petting the fur children is wonderful for reflection!

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