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Thursday, March 11, 2010

Author Chat: An Interview with Pam Jenoff

Today, I welcome Pam Jenoff to Bloggin' 'bout Books. She's the author of two historical novels - The Kommandant's Girl and The Diplomat's Wife - as well as a new mystery/thriller, Almost Home. Thanks so much for stopping by, Pam!

Me: I know you've wanted to be a writer since you were a child. What finally took you from wannabe to published author?

PJ: I always wanted to be a writer; I was one of those kids who was forever scribbling down stories and showing them to anyone I could. But my real impetus to get serious came about eight years ago. I became an attorney one week before 9/11 happened and after that tragic event, I had a life epiphany that I didn’t have forever and if I wanted to realize my dream of becoming a novelist I had to get started right away. So I took an evening course at a local college called “Write Your Novel This Year” and started to write.

Me: How does the reality of being a professional writer differ from what you supposed it would be like as a child?

PJ: Being a writer is just as great as I imagined it would be, even better. Maybe a little more work that I thought. The biggest difference is that when I was younger, I imagined myself as a writer of young adult fiction – that is still one of my favorite types of book. Plus, a good adult author is a good author, but a popular kids or young adult author is kind of a deity! But the novels that come from within me are adult novels and that’s great too.

Me: When did you first become interested in WWII? What draws you to that time period?

PJ: I always enjoyed books set during the war, such as those written by Herman Wouk and Leon Uris. My interest in the Second World War really took off when I worked at the Pentagon in the early 1990s and had the opportunity to travel around the world to 50th anniversary commemorations in places like Belgium, Slovakia and the Philippines.

Me: How has your work as a diplomat influenced your writing? What did you learn from that job that has helped you as a writer?

PJ: I transferred from the Pentagon to the State Department and spent over two years in Krakow, Poland, working on issues related to the Holocaust and Polish-Jewish relations. I also became very close to the surviving Jewish community there. These experiences affected me very profoundly and I came back to the States knowing that I wanted to write a novel (or two or three) reflecting those experiences. That is how I came to write THE KOMMANDANT’S GIRL. ALMOST HOME also has some World War II themes but it was inspired more broadly by my experiences as a diplomat and the many wonderful people I met while working in that role.

Me: Are you done with the stories of Emma, Marta and their friends from the Resistance, or will there be more sequels? I have my fingers crossed for more :)

PJ: I get asked a lot about another book in THE KOMMANDANT’S GIRL series. I am very fond of those characters too, so never say never! The biggest dilemma is that I worry a bit about coming forward too far in time and the books no longer being historical. Right now I am contemplating a prequel, which would look at some of the (really fabulous) characters years earlier.

Me: ALMOST HOME is a departure from your first two books. How is it different from them? How is it similar?

PJ: I’ve been asked quite a bit about the change in genre from historical romance to romantic suspense. I’m not a big one for labels; I don’t write for a specific genre, I write about the topics that interest me. But I do think that readers of my first two, more historical books will greatly enjoy ALMOST HOME because it has so many of the same elements: a strong female protagonist, romance, international intrigue and adventure plus a historical back story. It similarly shares a common central theme – a young woman, facing extraordinary circumstances, who learns more about herself and her inner strength than she thought possible. Finally, ALMOST HOME is also a passion project, conceived out of the same travels and experiences that affected me and influenced my other books so profoundly. Despite the differing time period, it really is a very similar type of book.

Me: You play many roles every day - mother, lawyer, teacher, writer - how do you juggle it all?

PJ: Not well! I’m kidding. I’ve always had to juggle writing with a full-time day job. But I’m so lucky, I have a ton of help – my parents are local and watch my son while I work, and my husband is an incredibly hands-on parent, which gives me time to work on weekends and also do the touring and such. But it is still challenging. I often say that I am boring and grumpy, meaning I don’t go out at night and am in bed by ten so I can get up to write at five. I gave up a lot of outside activities like being on boards when I got serious about writing. You have to make choices, and if it isn’t family, work, writing, or sleep, you won’t find me doing much of it.

Me: Do you have time to read with your busy schedule? If yes, what kinds of books do you enjoy? Who are some of your favorite writers?

PJ: I do try and find time read, though less so when I am in the throes of writing a book. I enjoy novels by Tracy Chevalier, Anita Shreve, Barbara Kingsolver, Laura Lippman and Kate Atkinson, to name a few.

Me: Your characters fulfill exciting, dangerous assignments for their governments. What was the craziest/funniest/most death-defying moment in your career working for the Army and State Department?

PJ: I’m glad to say I’ve never had any death-defying moments, but many crazy and unique experiences. I’ve seen vodka smuggling on a train crossing the Polish-Belarusian border and drank beer out of large steins with a roomful of Polish miners hundreds of feet underground. I’ve been shipped out to a spa in the Slovakian countryside because the hotel we were supposed to stay at was filled with the delegations of Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel. I’ve danced around bonfires and rocked out at concerts like Pearl Jam in Warsaw with wonderful people embracing life and freedom after decades of oppression.

And there were many somber moments in my government career too – visiting the Oklahoma City bomb site days after the explosion, meeting the Pan Am Flight 103 families who were trying to get a memorial at Arlington Cemetery, watching elderly World War II veterans weep at the memorial sites for fallen brethren, walking the steps of Auschwitz and the other camps over and over again. I’m so grateful for all of it.

Me: Lastly, I ask this of every author I interview, because I find the answers fascinating in their variety: How do you write? Do you outline your books or just go with the flow? Do you force yourself to write every day or wait for the muse to visit? Where do you write? Is there anything you HAVE to have in order to write (music, something to drink, etc.)? Do you ever have writer's block? What do you do to get past it?

PJ: I’ve always had a day job and I’m not a night person, so the writing generally happens from 5-7 in the morning, a little bit later on the weekends. I really try to stick to it, but there are always life interruptions. My one year old son, for example, has put the need for some additional flexibility into the routine. The most important thing is to allow the blips in the schedule and then get started again as soon as possible. You can’t let them derail you.

It takes me about a year to write a novel. The process varies depending upon whether I need to give the publisher an outline for synopsis at the beginning or whether I’m just writing for me. But generally I just type non-stop, and then when I have about 150-200 pages, I decide that it is time for structure. So then I go back and organize things, and create a chart to help me keep track of it all.

Laptop or desktop for the actual writing, notebook for brainstorming. And always quiet. I have even been known to ask them (nicely and with a good tip) to turn down the music in the coffee shop if it isn’t crowded.

I’m not sure if I believe in writer’s block. There are certainly times when I am more inspired than others, but I think there is always a way to get going. You can’t let the excuses slow you down.

Me: Thanks so much, Pam!

(Author photo is from Pam Jenoff's official website)

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