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How did a French and secondary ed major end up writing novels and children’s books?
I suppose I never perceived my major as a boundary. I’m convinced that my liberal arts background fed my natural curiosity and provided me with the critical thinking skills that I use every day. That being said, I did teach French and German (my minor) at a high school in Fairfax, Va. for several years after graduation. When I landed my first book contract with a small Maryland publisher (their office was above a pet shop), I was scared to death. I didn’t even own a computer, was a new mother, and had no creative writing degree. What I did have, though, was confidence in my ability to research, to write clearly, and to solve problems.
You’ve written professionally for over 20 years. How has the digital age changed what you do?
The biggest impact has been in how I spend my time. With the advent of social networking — blogs, Facebook, Twitter — it’s become imperative for writers to stay connected with readers. We all do a lot more marketing and promotion now than we did even five years ago. On the other hand, the writing process hasn’t changed that much: although now anyone with a computer can write a “book” and call themselves an “author,” good literature still takes a long time to create. Art suffers if you try to fast-forward and cut corners.
You write on many topics. How do you choose?
I have to be emotionally connected to my subjects to write about them, so it’s more like the book chooses me! My recent book A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin is a good example. I discovered Pippin’s work while researching the Wyeth family of painters for my novel Pieces of Georgia. I wrote the Pippin manuscript as I was finishing the novel, but the former was rejected several times. Later, I pulled it out again, revised it a bit, and resubmitted it. Pippin’s life fascinated me; I knew if I could get it into the right hands, it would make a great picture book.
How do you work with illustrators?
Most people think that authors choose their illustrators, when in fact it’s more like a marriage arranged by the publisher. My Pippin biography is an exception: after Melissa Sweet won a Caldecott Honor for my biography A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams, the publishers were eager to have us paired again on new work. With all my previous books, though, I did not see the illustrations until just before they went to press. We might share research materials, but I don’t tell them how to do their job.
Which writers helped you find your own voice?
I could go on for pages here (but I won’t!) as there are so many. Jerry Spinelli ’63 and his wife Eileen are two of my favorite people as well as two of my favorite authors. They’ve been invaluable mentors in the business as well as the craft. I also love the poets Billy Collins, William Stafford, Emily Dickinson and Mary Oliver, and the novelists Barbara Kingsolver, Erik Larson, Annie Dillard, and Anne Patchett.
Many liberal arts grads feel they have a book in them. What advice do you have?
The digital age has given everyone access to self-publishing, so if your goal is to see your name on a book cover, you need only download a software program and voila. But … if your goal is to become a writer of stories, poems, or nonfiction that lasts and has an impact on people’s lives, then you need to approach it the same way you would painting, dancing, or musicianship: study the masters, imitate their techniques but in your own style and voice, submit your work (but expect it to be rejected most of the time), write for several hours each day, and never, ever give up!
Jen (Fisher) Bryant ’82 has served on the Alumni Board of Directors and the Communications & Marketing Advisory Council. She visits campus often to share her career experiences. The author of 26 books, she has taught writing and literature at West Chester University and Bryn Mawr College. She gives workshops and author talks across the U.S. She lives in Chester County, Pa. with husband Neil ’82 and daughter Leigh. Visit Jen at jenbryant.com
Email your thoughts on this topic and suggestions for future “Voice of Experience” topics to firstname.lastname@example.orgPosted: Fri, 25 Jan 2013