Wednesday 29 May 2019

Author Profile and Interview with Jane Lebak

Author Profile and Interview with Jane Lebak

Over the last year I have read 15 novels or published short stories by Jane Lebak. Her series are as different as they can be, from a young woman who interacts with her guardian angel, to warrior nuns in the service of the pope, and a priest father Jay, who is a veteran and former gang member. I have yet to read a book from her I did not completely enjoy, even some in genres I do not typically read, and have never really read before. Jane took some time from her writing, reading, running, and raising a family to answer 20 questions for the readers here at Book Reviews and More. So here in her own words is Jane. 

1. When did you know you wanted to be a writer? How did you nurture that dream?

I wrote my first book when I was three years old. My mother saved this masterpiece, if you can believe it. She used to bring home big sheaves of green-bar computer paper from her job, so I stapled a bunch together and used a magenta crayon to write a harrowing tale called “The Creechur.” The creature looked like a big magenta squiggle. My art never got better, so I worked on the storytelling instead.

2. Who were some of your biggest supporters and contributors to your early success?

My parents, definitely. My father is a reader and used to bring me books at random. Nowadays I can identify that as an intermittent reinforcement schedule, but I think he was just buying me books when he happened to be in Waldenbooks. When I started writing stories, he’d read them and encourage me. He knew when to push me to tackle the next level up. My mother signed me up for classes, and she read a lot of awful early drafts too and discussed the characters and the story, giving me pointers on where things just weren’t likeable.

3. If you had not become a writer what do you think you would be doing for a living?

I started college as a natural resources major, so I’d like to think I would have become a park ranger or a land resource manager. Maybe I could have awakened every morning in a cabin with a wood-burning stove, and some mornings I’d be calling in to my boss saying, “I’ll be late for work this morning. There are three brown bears in the driveway.”

4. How many drafts or major revisions are part of your writing process, and what is your goal or timeline for each?

When I was in high school and college, I did two books a year on a consistent basis. Three months to write and edit, then three months of reading and recharging. After having kids, that slowed down significantly. In 2005 and 2006, I did National Novel Writing Month, and although I “won” both times by writing fifty thousand words in thirty days, that pace was too hard for me. It burned me out. 

By 2014 I was able to sustain that pace without trouble, and this year I’ve been writing a series where I regularly top three thousand words a day. These books are seventy-five thousand words apiece, and in April for Camp Nanowrimo I actually did an 83,000 word book in 27 days. (Which I then whittled down to 78K, and now it’s back at 80K. The writer giveth, and the writer taketh away.)

Edits are a different breed because each book requires different work. I’ve gotten faster at those, too, though. Plus I’ve learned to avoid issues that require vast rewrites (or entire rewrites). I could probably get back to doing a book every three months if necessary.

5. What does your writing process look like? Takes us through the steps from idea to publishing?

First, we have a question. What if? What if a guardian angel murdered the child he had vowed to protect? What if you had an order of assassin nuns? What if that story my Aunt Gracie told me had actually happened?

Then we have a character. He’s brazen but plagued by shame he won’t admit. She’s protecting himself by building up walls of rules and numbers around herself. He’s been injured in such a way that the life he thought he’d have is impossible to achieve, but because of that, he found a much better way of living.

Usually there are two or three characters who come into being at about the same time. Once I’ve got the characters in play, we start coming up with the story’s “tent poles.” Those are the pivotal moments I can see in my head right from the start. Father Joe playing basketball with the gang members, for example, or Kevin finding a tree bent double under the snow. The tent poles don’t always make it all the way through the process, but I do try to keep them around.

I use Blake Snyder’s sixteen “beats” from Save the Cat to create a loose outline, and once I know the first three chapters, I start writing.

6. Do you use a playlist when writing? Are certain books written while predominantly listing to the same music?

Not anymore, no. Nowadays I find I crave silence to write, probably because of the kids. I used to write with music on all the time. Some scenes are inextricably linked with the songs I listened to while writing, too. There’s a violent chapter in Seven Archangels: Annihilation where I know I was listening to a Styx playlist, but I didn’t hear even one word of it because I was so absorbed in writing that scene.

Sometimes I’ll create a playlist for a novel after finishing it, though. Two of my books actually have (or will have) that tucked in at the back.

7. One of the greatest strengths in your books are the characters, they are so solid and believable. The characters you create, are they reflections of people you know, composites of different people you know or entirely your creations?

Thank you! In general, no, I try not to base characters on people I know. 

People who listen to me blather about my stories will usually stop me and say, “You act like these people are real.” I’ve had characters refuse to do the thing I want, or surprise me by suggesting something that is totally in character but derails the story. I’ve met people who look just like my characters and been in awe just standing near them.

And then there are the characters who surprise me midstream during the writing because I thought all along that their situation was this one specific thing, and then it turns out they snuck something past me—and their actual situation is very different. That always leaves me stunned because I thought (laughably) that I was in charge here. Clearly I’m not.

I will shamelessly steal situations from people I know. (All those broken down car stories in Honest and for True had to come from somewhere! Plus Max’s dreadful grandmother is a spectacular combination of all the worst rides I gave when transporting the elderly to doctor appointments in my old city.) But in general, I try not to steal the people. Real people are so complex that the character would have to depart from the person eventually anyhow, or they’d seem like they were acting out of character.

8.Your series are drastically different from Father Jay, Archangels, and Bucky and Lee. With all the series and stand-alone books, you have some incredible characters. Which is your favorite character to write and why?

Oh, gosh. That’s a hard one. 

I love my version of the Archangel Gabriel. Martin and Tessa in Relic of His Heart were an absolute blast to write because of the way they took off when they started bantering. We’re never in Martin’s head, not really, and I think that was a shame, but what can you do? Lee and Bucky are a fun combination to write as well because of the shameless puns and the free-wheeling conversation. 

Lee is a lot of fun to write because whenever I’m not sure what she would do, I think of what I would do. And then I have her do exactly the opposite. That’s gotten me out of a few jams with her.

Tabris was…Tabris was lightning in a bottle. I loved his character with an intensity I never expected. He grabbed me by the throat and wouldn’t let go. I actually tried not to write his story for three months straight, but it never left my head until finally I just picked up a notebook and started pouring it out. During finals week. Right, just when you want to start writing thousands of words a day. (I got all As, though, so that’s good…?)

9. I once heard Madeleine L'Engle state that her characters were real to her and almost an extended part of her family, she said once that at the dinner table she sat up and stated, "Meg just finished her PhD." Are your characters real to you, do you ever get glimpses of what they are up to now, or once you finish a book is that it?

I try to leave the characters in a place where they’re better able to overcome the next major crisis that comes along. The characters who are in a series, I would like to follow up. The characters from stand-alones aren’t something I tend to follow up on. I tried once to come up with another story for Tabris, for example, but I couldn’t do that unless I undid some of the things he’d learned the first time around. It’s not worth it.

I heard a great explanation for why some sequels fail. Lousy stories have people take a bunch of characters and stick them together and see what happens. Good stories have a story question and a theme and a number of interesting characters who support the theme and function together to answer the story question. Then to make up the sequel to the great story, you….take that bunch of characters and see what happens. 

When a story ends with everyone in a better place, I tend not to want to mess that up again. THIS was the biggest story in their lives. Fifty years from now, when they’re telling someone about when everything changed for them, THIS should be the story they tell.

10. Is there a chance we will see another Father Jay story? If so is there a planned street date?

I would love to get another one out there this Christmas. I’ve got ideas and some tent poles, but, alas, what I’m missing is a plot. If Jay wants to tell me what he’d like to do, I’m all ears.

11. What books are currently in progress for you? Writing, researching, planning or even just ideas that you would like to work on?

My current project is a trilogy of three sweet romances that will be released under my pen name, Maddie Evans. After that, I’ve got another Seven Archangels story brewing in the back of my mind that I think will be really fun. I’ve got a couple of tent poles for that one already, but I don’t even know which angels would take center stage. 

12. When reading With Two Eyes Into Gehenna, I could not help but think about Vatican II, and rumors about Pope John Paul I. Could you picture the Catherinite nuns in a post Vatican II church? What would their main mission be?

The Church and the world have both changed so much that I don’t think we could have Catherinites in modern day. They’d be full-on ninjas nowadays, of course, rather than cobbling together interesting martial arts techniques from here and there. Sister Lena would be a sixth degree black who also ran marathons. 

But since my nuns only execute heretics, and the Church has changed her opinion on whether heresies deserve death, they’d have to be more about infiltration and stealth.

I hadn’t thought about Pope John Paul I being sentenced for heresy… Wow, I just went down that Google rabbit hole. That would have been fun. I would have combined all the conspiracy theories into one big conspiracy theory! 

I did grow up with my conspiracy-theorist relatives telling me that Pope Paul VI had been kidnapped and replaced with a doppleganger. (“Look, his eyebrow is a little bit curved in this photo, whereas it’s flat in this one!”) Yes, that’s part of the “prophecies” of Our Lady of Bayside. Of course it was. 

13. All of your books are available in electronic formats but with that comes bootleg distribution. What are your impressions of eBooks and the distribution of them through torrents and other illegal means?

I think ebooks are a great thing, and I like reading them just as much as paper books. It’s unfortunate that people steal ebooks with illegal downloads, especially when there are so many legitimate ways to get books for free!

The thing that annoys me more is when someone purchases an Amazon book, reads it, and returns it for a refund. When they go through your entire catalog one book at a time, reading and returning, I feel like Amazon needs to crack down on them. Maybe after you read 80% of the book, it should no longer be returnable. But Amazon never asked me what I think of their policies. I’m sure they don’t like losing money.

14. Some authors monitor torrent sites and have their publishers contact them to remove their content. Do you do so are have someone do so for you?

No. I don’t feel it would be worth it at this time.

15. Are there any plans for translated editions of your book?

Not right now, unfortunately. If I were to expand into new territory, it would be to do more audio books.

16. I once had a university professor state that the true goal of a university education should be to teach one to learn how to think. What would you state should be the goal of higher education and why?

That is exactly the value of a university education! College in the US has become the equivalent of high school in many respects, as if they’re just preparing you for a job. College should be about learning to analyze, exposing oneself to new ideas, and learning to debate ideas based on their merits. 

When my son enrolled at Fordham, they had planned most of his first four semesters around what they call “the core.” They taught them ancient history, ancient philosophy, ancient art and music, and ancient literature. The kid was majoring in math and computer science, but the core was the same for everyone. The next semester dealt with medieval history, literature, philosophy, art, and music. And so on up until modern times. The intention was to expose students to ways of looking at the world that they wouldn’t get if they treated college as a trade school.

17. Who were some of your favorite authors or books in your youth?

Diana Wynne Jones, Walter Farley, Marguerite Henry. Watership Down. Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. CJ Cherryh. Tanith Lee. Stanislaw Lem. CS Lewis.

18. Who are some of your favorite authors or books now?

I still love Diana Wynne Jones, and I periodically re-read Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. I haven’t been systematically reading through any particular authors lately, which is kind of a shame. I love the books of Karina Fabian and LS King, and I’ve read all but one of Normandie Fischer’s books. 

19. If you were stuck on a desert island and could only have 10 books to read again and again, what books would you want with you?

Johnson’s Guide to Better Shipbuilding, and nine books about carpentry, sail-making, navigation, and farming for beginners?

20. What advice would you give to young aspiring authors and artists?

The advice I gave my daughter was Betsy Lerner’s advice from “The Forest for the Trees.” To wit, if anything else will make you happy, anything at all, do that instead.

I actually blogged it:  
"But I hungered to tell her, don’t do it. Don’t give your heart to people that no one else will ever meet. Don’t look into the depths of someone else’s soul and love them so hard it hurts, and then put them into untenable positions where they have to make impossible choices. Don’t forge an entire person only to take him apart and put him back together again, while you’re rooting for him the whole time."
My current advice is a little different, though. It still hurts to write, but you no longer need to pander directly to editors who are looking for books that feed the widest possible audiences.

Independent publishing opened up a world of opportunity for writers that means you can find an audience even if you’re appealing to a niche market. None of my books are going to have widespread appeal, for example, because they’re all kind of off-beat. They’re good, but how do you market Gehenna? My agent had no luck placing my books because after you write enough weird things, you become an unsellable product. 

Ah, but when you can market directly to readers, you’re no longer unsellable. You’ll find the readers who like angels and clever women (and angels having to deal with clever women,) and those readers will follow you through the occasional book about relic-hunting or a priest and his agnostic brother. 

So my newer advice would be to get as good as you can in the craft. Write without worrying about being able to publish it. Don’t worry about the market because the market is only the driving force for traditional publishing. Traditional publishers are looking for the dozen or so books every year that will sell fifty thousand copies. But you? You can be quite happy selling a thousand copies. Or a hundred copies. You will have time to nurture your talent and develop an audience. 

Set your own definition of success. Turn out a quality story where all the characters are fully-realized. Write characters you love and put them in situations where you find yourself thinking about them when you’re driving or washing the dishes. At some point in time, when you’re talking about any of your characters, you should find yourself on the verge of saying, “I love him,” or “I love when she does that.” 

Make the writing an adventure rather than a job. Play with it and have fun. People will be able to tell, and they’ll love your characters for the same reasons you do.

Jane thank you for taking the time to answer the questions for the readers here. I know I eagerly look forward to your future works and encourage my readers and those who stumble across this interview to give your books a try, I am certain there is something for all readers! 

Books by Jane Lebak:
Pickup Notes
Love's Highway
Forever And For Keeps
Half Missing

Relic of His Heart
With Two Eyes Into Gehenna
Rain in Hell
The Space Between

Father Jay Series:
Bulletproof Vestments
The Boys Upstairs
A Different Heroism


Seven Archangels:
1.0 An Arrow In Flight
2.0 Sacred Cups
3.0 Shattered Walls
4.0 The Wrong Enemy
5.0 Annihilation

Seven Archangels Short Stories:
2.1 Damage
2.2 Even A Stone
2.3 Hired Man
2.4 Winter Branches
5.5 Once Only

Seven Angels Short Story Bundle 2.1-2.4

The Adventures of Lee and Bucky:

0.5 Upsie-Daisy
1.0 Honest And For True
2.0 Forever And For Keeps

Books as Maddie Evans:

Sweet Grove:
1.0 Love's Highway
2.0 Love's Rules of the Road


Carrying to Term: A Guide for Parents after a Devastating Prenatal Diagnosis


Contributed to:

Author profile and interview with Jane Lebak.

1 comment:

Normandie Fischer said...

Wonderful interview! And may I suggest to your readers that Jane's Seven Archangels books rank with the best in thought-provoking literature? Each one offers a glimpse into the heart of God as angels come face to face with obedience, trust, faith, and forgiveness.