Jen’s Jewels | Interviewing Leigh Brill

Jen VidoDog named slugger
Living with a chronic disease presents daily challenges. Whether it is learning to navigate life’s obstacles with a physical disability or simply coming to terms emotionally with the harsh realities of an unremitting disease, it’s never easy. The best plan of action that I have found is to try to make peace with your situation and put your best foot forward each and every day.

This month’s Jen’s Jewels Leigh Brill discusses this very topic in her heartfelt new release, A DOG NAMED SLUGGER. Diagnosed with cerebral palsy, she tackles everyday activities with the help of an adorably smart guide dog aptly named Slugger. Through anecdotal tales of encouragement, she offers keen insight into the life of a person struggling with a debilitating chronic disease. Beautifully written from start to finish, her story is a true testament of courage, love, and hope.

As part of this interview, Bell Bridge Books has generously donated five copies for you, my favorite readers, to try to win. So, don’t forget to look for the trivia question. And as always, thanks for making Jen’s Jewels a part of your fall reading list.

Jen: The challenges that life presents often turn out to be blessings in disguise. A DOG NAMED SLUGGER is the story of your personal journey of self-discovery. So that my readers may have a better understanding of the woman behind the words, please share with us your educational and professional background.

Leigh BrillLeigh: After earning my Bachelors degree in psychology, I went on to obtain my Masters and Educational Specialist degrees in Community Agency Counseling. I worked for many years in the mental health/human services field. With my service dog Slugger by my side, I assisted clients who dealt with a wide variety of psychological and physical challenges.

Jen: During your time as a graduate student, your health became a major factor affecting your educational goals. Eventually, you were faced with the decision to explore other options in terms of coping with your disease. First of all, please give us a brief description of cerebral palsy and how it affects your mobility.

Leigh: Cerebral palsy is a broad term that actually encompasses a group of posture and movement disorders. It is related to the brain’s ability to control the body, and there are several different classifications of CP (spastic, ataxic, dyskinetic, or mixed). Therefore, one person with CP may deal with very different symptoms compared to another person who has received the same diagnosis. For me, CP means I cannot depend on my own body to do what I want it to do. I have difficulties with my balance, my depth perception and vision, my muscles, and my ability to move and function physically. Walking requires a lot of concentration and energy (and a bit of good luck). Even with all of these, I fall easily. I sometimes need to use my wheelchair. My CP also makes my hands shake and I often drop things. In addition to these functional challenges, I have to deal with a lot of physical pain.

Jen: The use of seeing-eye dogs by the blind is widely well-known; however, companion dogs are not. Please describe for us how their roles differ. And, which breeds work best for each?

Leigh: Like guide dogs, mobility service dogs are trained to assist individuals who deal with disabilities. They can learn more than fifty different tasks that increase the independence and quality of life for their human partners. For example, service dogs are often trained to pick up dropped items, carry small things in their mouths, open heavy doors, and retrieve specific things (like the telephone) for their partners. All working dogs need to be healthy, smart, calm, and eager to please. Various breeds and mixed breed dogs can fill that important role; and I personally know lots of Golden Retrievers and Labrador Retrievers who are service dogs.

Jen: How did the decision to apply for a companion dog affect your perception of your disease? In your mind, how did you make peace with it?

Leigh: When I as a little girl, my grandfather used to tell me that every part of life holds the promise of something good. As a child with CP, I’d thought he was wrong; I could not find anything good about growing up with my disability. But when I met Slugger, I realized something good had found me. My life was shaped by my congenital disability and ultimately re-shaped by my partnership with my service dog. It was Slugger’s unconditional love that enabled me to gradually make peace with my CP. My service dog was the single good thing to come out of my disability.

Jen: Briefly describe for us the application process required for obtaining a service dog. What was the most challenging part and why? And, did you select Slugger, or did he select you?

Leigh: The application process I experienced began with a phone call; I called Caring Canine Companions of Virginia and talked to the folks who worked there about my disability and how I hoped a service dog might help me. During this first conversation, I also began to understand some of the assistance tasks service dogs can perform. I was then sent a written application. Once completed, my application was reviewed and approved by the organization’s trainers and professionals. A thorough home visit followed. Once my home was approved for a working dog, I settled in to wait until the folks at CCC contacted me to let me know they had found a dog they believed might be suitable for me, my environment, and my physical needs. For me, this wait lasted nine months –and the waiting was the hardest part! Every partnership is a matter of give and take, but in order for the whole service dog bond to work, Slugger had to make it clear he was willing to work with me; that was our vital first step toward becoming a successful working team.

Jen: In terms of Slugger’s training, how active were you in his overall instruction? How long did it take? And, please share with us one of your favorite memories.

Leigh: Slugger’s training actually began years before I met him. It took nearly two years for him to gain the skills and confidence he would need to work by my side. After he had been trained for that time, he was matched with me and our team training took several months. One of my favorite memories of our training period was when, during our final team test, the instructor with CCC told me that Slugger and I were so well matched that our gaits were identical and our butts wiggled the same way when we walked together.

Jen: With Slugger by your side, your struggle with CP was no longer an individual plight. Rather, it became a team effort. What were his particular strengths? And, in what ways did his constant companionship impact your self- esteem?

Leigh: Slugger was incredibly loyal and steady, and obedient when we worked together. My sweet Labrador also had a sense of humor that helped me keep a balanced perspective about life. Slugger believed in me before I knew how to believe in myself. His unconditional love and assistance gave me a sense of confidence, completeness, and self-worth.

Jen: Your relationship with your future husband, Pranav, also came with its challenges due to your culturally diverse backgrounds. How did your willingness to embrace the diversity directly correlate to having grown up with a chronic disease?

Leigh: My personal experiences growing up with my disability helped me understand the importance of ‘seeing beyond the surface’ of individuals. This may have helped me be more open-minded in developing relationships as I matured— including my relationship with Pranav. I also think my CP forced me to adapt and be creative in how I handled challenges. That creativity has served me well in all my significant relationships.

Jen: In his later years, Slugger began to suffer from old age. How difficult was it to accept his need to retire? And, how did having a second service dog named Kenda help with the transition?

Leigh: If such things had been up to me, I would have seen to it that Slugger stayed young forever. I didn’t want him to get older; I did not want him to retire. Yet when he reached the point where working could have potentially been hard or painful for him due to his age, I absolutely knew it was time for Slugger to retire. I was fortunate to have caring guidance from our veterinarian. His input made it easier for me to do the right thing at the right time.

Kenda’s entrance into my life helped me feel a sense of continuity and security once it was time for Slugger to retire. I liked knowing that my first service dog and my second working partner would be a part of each other’s lives. My two dogs also made it clear they liked sharing their journeys with each other—and me—as well.

Jen: Throughout your life, you have experienced blatant acts of discrimination. Is it simply due to ignorance? Or, do you believe our society’s quest for perfection is to blame?

Leigh: Even with the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (, I believe that discrimination can arise out of either ignorance or choice. I feel that the discrimination I have faced over the years has in fact been a combination of both of these factors. Some people may not be familiar with service dogs. Some people may be uncomfortable with other individuals whom they perceive as being ‘different’. Still, neither discomfort nor ignorance should excuse discrimination.

Jen: Looking back, what was the most valuable life lesson you learned from Slugger? Leigh: Slugger shared so much wisdom with me in the years that we had together! He taught me that every partnership is a matter of give and take. He taught me that white fur on a dark skirt makes a wonderful fashion statement. And the most profound lesson Slugger shared with me was that even life’s biggest challenges can hold the promise of something good.

Jen: For those readers who want to know more about service dogs and the programs available, can you recommend some organizations?

Leigh: Having been involved with Saint Francis Service Dogs in Virginia for years, I would highly recommend the organization to those interested in learning more about service dogs in the state ( Assistance Dogs International ( also offers helpful information about service dogs in addition to a listing of service dog organizations throughout the United States and abroad. Delta Society ( can also provide valuable information about many different types of working dogs and those who are partnered with them.

Jen: Let’s switch gears now and talk about your website. Please take us on a brief tour highlighting your favorite parts.

Leigh: My website,, is pretty basic, yet it seems to suit the fundamental style and message of my work. I’m especially happy with the video that is featured on my welcome page. I love knowing that folks can watch it and see a service dog in action (my girl, Kenda). I’ve also included information about the book so that people can uncover details about the story, my publisher, and where and how they can get A DOG NAMED SLUGGER! My website features lots of links that relate to my story. I think it’s a great way to share resources as well as inspiration. Readers can get to know me a bit more on my site, too, and contact me if they want to share their thoughts. It’s exciting to be able to let everyone know what my dog and I are up to on our news and reviews page. I’ll be updating that very soon…

Jen: What’s next for you? Are you currently at work on another project? And if so, what can you share with us?

Leigh: Lately I have been very focused on letting readers know about A Dog Named Slugger. I am also hard at work on my next book; Miranda and Charlie and the Great Cupcake Caper is the first in a series of fictional juvenile stories featuring an energetic kid-detective and her service dog.

Jen: Thank you so much for stopping by to chat with my readers. Your story is such an inspiration for all of us living with a chronic disease. I wish you only the best.

Leigh: I’m honored by the opportunity, thank you Jen! I’m pleased and humbled to know my book is making a positive difference. Sharing some of the goodness that Slugger first shared with me is rewarding on many levels. Best to you and wags from sweet Kenda!

I hope you have enjoyed my interview with Leigh. Truly, she is such an inspiration to us all. Please stop by your favorite bookstore or local library branch and pick up a copy of A DOG NAMED SLUGGER today.

Better yet, how would you like to win one instead? Okay, be one of five readers to answer to the following trivia question and you’ll could win. Good luck!

What is the name of Leigh’s next book?

Next time, I will be bringing to you my interview with Cynthia Keller, author of AN AMISH CHRISTMAS. You won’t want to miss it.

Until next time…



Meet Jennifer Erin Valent

CATCHING MOONDROPSHave you ever wondered what it would be like if you were born a different race? I think oftentimes we are so comfortable in our own skin that we neglect to acknowledge the adversity faced by others. For example, the civil rights movement seems like an event found only in the pages of a history book, but in reality, it happened not too long ago. If it weren’t for bright, courageous authors who challenge us to remember the road once taken, we might forever forget the struggles our country has faced.

This month’s Jen’s Jewels Jennifer Erin Valent is an expert, in my opinion, in making the past come to life. In her latest release CATCHING MOONDROPS, she continues the story of a brave young white woman named Jessilyn Lassiter who comes face to face with social prejudices in Virginia in the 1930’s. The third book in the series, she takes the reader to a place where the Ku Klux Klan reigns supreme and the rights of those of a different race are put to the test.

As part of this interview, Tyndale Publishers has donated five books for you, my favorite readers, to try to win. So, don’t forget to look for the trivia question at the end. And as always, thanks for making Jen’s Jewels a part of your reading adventure.

Jen: A writer’s road to publication oftentimes is as fascinating as the story itself. So that my readers may have a glimpse into your world, please share with us your educational and professional background.

AUTHORJennifer: The only real writing-related educational experience I have dates back to high school. (Keep in mind that was the same place I nearly flunked a test on A Tale of Two Cities because I deemed Dickens unreadable!) I didn’t go to college, and I can guarantee I wouldn’t have majored in anything involving literature if I had. My passion for writing happened later in my life, but then living life is a great teacher when it comes to the study of people and how we live.

Jen: Describe for us your “Aha!” moment when you made the conscious decision to actively pursue a career in publishing.

Jennifer: It was similar to the experience I had when I decided to take voice lessons years ago and was told I was a soprano rather than an alto. I thought, “It’ll be fun to learn something new,” and then I thought, “I’m doomed to sing opera for the rest of my life”! Actively pursuing writing meant great things like spending vast amounts of time using my imagination to create people, places and stories. It meant sharing my heart with the world. But it also meant learning about an industry I knew nothing about, studying the craft and business, and determining that I’d stick to it no matter what… even if I got to a point where I wanted to burn my laptop and walk away. Clearly, I’m glad I made the decision to go for it, but in the beginning it was excitement and fear rolled into one.

Jen: As you have said, you have dabbled in many areas of publishing from magazines to children’s books. Currently, you write for the Christian Market. What has made this particular genre a good fit for you? And, what has been the most challenging part of writing for this audience?

Jennifer: It’s a perfect fit because my faith is the basis for who I am, and it’s why I do what I do. So it’s a market that I relate to easily. The difficulty is that the Christian market doesn’t get the same sort of publicity in some venues. It can be a struggle to get your work noticed. But ultimately, I leave that in God’s hands.

Jen: Your first novel FIREFLIES IN DECEMBER was the 2007 winner of the Jerry B. Jenkins Christian Writers Guild Operation First Novel award. Quite an accomplishment! Congratulations! For my readers who are unfamiliar with your work, please describe for us the premise.

Jennifer: FIREFLIES IN DECEMBER is the story of Jessilyn Lassiter whose family takes in her orphaned best friend, Gemma Teague. But Gemma is black and a white family taking a black girl in as their own in 1932 Virginia is not looked on favorably. The family faces the effects of segregation and come face-to-face with the Ku Klux Klan, throwing Jessilyn’s life into a tailspin of anger, fear and the harsh discovery of the darker side of humanity.

Jen: Approximately how much research was needed in order for the story to ring true with your readers? And, what was the most fascinating tidbit you learned along the way?

Jennifer: I primarily needed to have a feel for the time period and an understanding of racial prejudice during the Depression era. I watched documentaries, read non-fiction, Googled a lot. Sometimes, though, it’s the smaller details that are hardest to discover, like particulars about how their homes would have looked inside, what vehicles they would have driven, or what terms they would have used. You can’t just research certain time periods; you have to research that time period in that particular place. Someone living in the city in 1932 would have lived differently than someone in rural Virginia in 1932, which is where this story is set.

I suppose the most interesting things I learned had to do with the Ku Klux Klan. It amazed me to see just how pervasive they’ve been at times in our history, and how much they were able to circumvent the law. I think I knew something about that from things I’d read and watched before I started researching the book, but it really came to life for me when I plopped this family I’d created right into the midst of the turmoil.

Jen: Why did you choose to write about this time period from a young girl’s point of view?

Jennifer: It’s really as simple as sitting down at my computer with the desire to write a first person Southern drama and coming up with Jessilyn’s character first. From that point on, knowing the kind of character she was, I was excited to paint the story from her perspective. I’ve had some people who knew me as a teenager tell me she reminds them of me when I was that age, so I think I found it easy to step into her shoes.

Jen: The story continues in the sequel COTTONWOOD WHISPERS. What is the premise of this book?

Jennifer: In COTTONWOOD WHISPERS, we’re once again back in Calloway, Virginia, but this time it’s 1936 and Jessilyn is turning 17. She’s on that cusp of womanhood, and she’s no longer as naive as she was when the trouble hit in FIREFLIES IN DECEMBER. And when an elderly friend is accused of a crime she’s certain he didn’t commit, she’s determined to see right win out over wrong… at all costs. But when she finds out just what that cost might be to her and her family, she wonders how far she can go in her search for justice.

Jen: Was it your intention all along to write a series, or did the story just take on a life of its own? What works best for you in terms of plotting the storyline?

Jennifer: I had originally thought of following Jessilyn’s story through one novel, but as I worked it out in my head, I knew I’d never be able to dive into the storylines deeply enough without making it an epic-size novel. Considering I have an affinity for reading characters that I can follow through a series, I naturally decided to head in that direction.

Honestly, I’m not much on outlining plot, so I tend to wing it a lot. I think I’m just the type of writer who develops the characters first and then lets them weave the story together. As I flesh out the characters and have them interact, I start getting plot ideas, and it all just strings along as I go. So I usually start with a basic theme and idea of the story, but the particulars tend to come as I go.

Jen: In your latest endeavor CATCHING MOONDROPS, the main character Jessilyn Lassiter is facing a very emotional period in her life. Her best friend Gemma falls in love with Tal Pritchett a young, black doctor who has just recently moved to town. This new relationship puts a definite strain on their friendship. Why is Jessilyn so fearful of letting go of her friend?

Jennifer: Jessilyn is fiercely loyal. It’s one of her most endearing qualities, but it’s also something that makes life tough for her because it makes her resistant to change and growth. Letting go of Gemma means moving on to a place where life will never be quite the same again. That’s a difficult leap for most of us!

Jen: And, how does this mirror Jessilyn’s own doubts about her relationship with Luke Talley?

Jennifer: Jessilyn’s the kind of girl that wishes she could grow up in some ways and stay a kid in others. On one hand she wants to marry Luke Talley, and on the other hand she wants to stay with her best friend forever. Just by nature of who she is, and how dependent she is on the people who matter most to her, she has to make a lot of hard choices in order to grow into who she’s meant to be.

Jen: This story confronts the harsh realities of social prejudices in the South when a young black man is lynched. Jessilyn has faced these injustices before; however, this time is much different. Why does this specific incident throw her into such a tailspin? Does it have anything to do with her newfound sense of maturity?

Jennifer: Jessilyn’s been up close and personal with hate and violence before, but never quite so personally as this. She’s lost loved ones before, but not to brutality and murder. The picture of that lynching is etched into her mind, a permanent picture of hate, and it eats away at her soul.

The worst part of my research for CATCHING MOONDROPS was reading about lynching. Once you see pictures of someone hanging there like that, at the mercy of the dark side of human thinking, it sticks with you. Jessilyn saw it up close and personal, and it changed her forever.

Jen: Jessilyn struggles with accepting the Lord’s role in the injustices of her world. She realizes that she has disappointed her family and friends due to her disbelief, yet she can’t seem to move beyond it. Whose opinion among her circle matters most to her in this situation and why?

Jennifer: I always think it’s Gemma, but you’d have to ask Jessilyn to find out for sure! She wants to please her parents and make them happy, of course, but I think she really feels most convicted around Gemma. Gemma is like a mirror for Jessilyn – a portrait of the type of character that she should have – and because of that she feels more conviction from her than from anyone… without Gemma even having to say a word.

Jen: Luke Talley has been the constant in her life. He is the man she wants to spend the rest of her life with, God willing. What makes these two such a good pair? And, in what ways do their differences make their relationship more solid?

Jennifer: Luke and Jessilyn have formed a bond over the years that make them understand each other, and to me there are few things as comforting as having someone around who really gets you. Luke’s the guy who knows her, spots and all, and still sticks with her through thick and thin. When two people have been through so much together without killing each other, there has to be something good there, right?

I love how the Lord takes people and fits them together in complimentary ways, and that’s what I wanted for Luke and Jessilyn. His mild mannered ways are in stark contrast to her fiery personality, but he can come right back at her with his wit and doesn’t back down to her. At the same time, it’s Jessilyn’s spitfire nature that reminds Luke what’s worth living – and fighting – for.

Jen: Let’s switch gears now and talk about your promotional plans. Will you be participating in a book tour?

Jennifer: Right now we don’t have a tour planned. It’s amazing to me how much the internet has come to mean to the marketing world. Between interviews like this one, blogs, website ads, Facebook and Twitter, we’re able to get the word out to a lot of people.

Jen: Please take us on a brief tour of your website.

Jennifer: When you stop by, you can find out more about each of my books including sample chapters, critical reviews and purchasing information. There’s also a bio page where you can find out more about who I am and why I write, and an events page that will tell you about signings, speaking engagements, interviews and more. Plus, you can enter contests for books and other prizes, visit my blog, and drop me a note. I love hearing from readers!

Jen: Do you participate in Author Phone Chats? And if so, how would my readers go about scheduling one?

Jennifer: I’m always happy to do what I can to help readers experience more of the back story of my books. I’ve participated with book clubs before, and I’m always open to considering invitations. Readers can contact me on my website with any requests, and I’ll get back to them as quickly as I can.

Jen: What’s next for you? Will there be a book four in this series?

Jennifer: No, Jessilyn’s story (at least my part of it!) ends with CATCHING MOONDROPS. I realized early on that I didn’t feel comfortable carrying this story line on past three books, and as sad as it was to say goodbye, I still feel certain it was the right way to end it. I’ve got a book idea I’m working on now that would still be historical fiction, but we’ll see if it works out.

Jen: Thank you so much for taking the time to stop by and chat with my readers. I have loved reading all three of your books. The stories are so emotionally charged with historical informational and gripping plot lines. Thank you so much for bringing your readers back in time to a period that needs not to be forgotten. Best of luck in the future!

Jennifer: Thanks so much for the opportunity to share a little bit about myself and my books with you and your readers. I wish everyone very happy reading!

I hope you have enjoyed my interview with Jennifer. Please stop by your favorite bookstore or local library branch and pick up a copy of CATCHING MOONDROPS today. Better yet, how would you like to win one instead?

Answer the following trivia question correctly and you could be one of five winners.

Name the first book in the Jesssilyn Lassiter series.

Later this month, I will be bringing to you my interview with Leigh Brill, author of the true-life story A DOG NAMED SLUGGER. You won’t want to miss it.

Until next time…


Meet Myla Goldberg

FALSE FRIENDThe sight of leaves falling to the ground signals the arrival of fall. With the kids back in school, mothers can breathe a sigh of relief. That is until your son or daughter arrives home in tears with the story of how the school’s bully has ruined his or her life. It’s hard to believe that in this day and age of political correctness, bullying is still an issue. But, the fact of the matter is its real and it leaves deep emotional scars for years to come.

This month’s Jen’s Jewels Myla Goldbergtackles this ever timely issue in her latest release THE FALSE FRIEND. It’s the story of a group of childhood girlfriends who are forced to come to terms with past school-aged transgressions. Emotionally gripping as well as painfully true to life, this book deserves a place on the top of your must-read list.

As part of this interview, Doubleday Books has generously donated five copies for you, my favorite readers, to try to win. So, make a note to look for the trivia question at the end. You’ll be happy you did! And as always, thanks for making Jen’s Jewels a part of your reading adventure.

Jen: The path that leads to an author’s publication can sometimes be as interesting as the novel itself. So that my readers may have a glimpse into your life before the fame, please share with us your educational and professional background.

AUTHORMyla: I went to Oberlin College, where I majored in English. After that, I lived in Prague for a year, where I split my time between writing and teaching ESL–but mostly writing, because in the early ‘90s, Prague was a ridiculously inexpensive place for an American to live. When I returned to the States, I moved to New York City, where I variously worked for a literary agent, as a production assistant for a terrible movie, and as a freelance reader for television movies. I liked that last job best because it gave me the most time for my own work. I quit it when Bee Season started doing well, and since then I’ve been able to spend most of my time writing, while also serving as a migrant adjunct at various MFA programs around the city.

Jen: Has writing always been a passion of yours, or was there an “Ah! Ha!” moment when you knew that this would become your career?

Myla: I’ve wanted to be a writer since at least second grade. I used to sit at an electronic typewriter (it’s this machine where you press lettered buttons, and the corresponding letters are printed on a piece of paper) and pretend I was writing a novel.

Jen: Your writing career has been quite diverse from children’s literature to book reviews as well as novels. Of all the genres you have explored, which is the most rewarding personally and why?

Myla: Novels! I consider myself a novelist who occasionally moonlights in other genres. Novels are pretty much all I read, and all I’ve aspired to. I love the immersive experience a novel offers, and the room it offers a writer to explore all sorts of narrative and psychological back roads.

Jen: Your first novel BEE SEASON was a huge success garnering many awards as well as the prestige of being made into a movie starring Richard Gere and Juliette Binoche. First of all, how did you arrive at the premise?

Myla: I read a Granta essay that framed spelling bees in terms of all the kids who lose, rather than the one who wins. Then, I visited the National Spelling Bee, and weeks later that experience combined in my back brain with this class I’d taken in college about Jewish mysticism and the Kabbalah, along with stories friends of mine had told about being in spelling bees, and that pretty much had me hooked.

Jen: Secondly, what role did you play in bringing your story to the big screen? And looking back, would you have done anything differently in the process and if so, why?

Myla: I was the one who told the movie producer that he could write me a nice check and go make a movie out of my book. Plus, they flew me out to the set once to meet everybody. I was pretty happy to let other folks take a crack at adapting Bee Season, because I had a hard time seeing how such an internal story could comfortably transition to a visual medium.

Jen: Your latest endeavor THE FALSE FRIEND is a powerful novel that examines the repercussions of childhood bullying on one woman’s life. A question I just have to ask…why did you choose to tackle this subject? And, were you a victim of childhood bullying?

Myla: About ten years ago, I remembered this girl who I’d sometimes been mean to in elementary school. We were both pretty socially marginal (translation: we were nerds; not the cool kind), so we clung to each other and battled each other with equal vehemence, each of us secretly seeing the other as an impediment to our own popularity. Until remembering this, I’d retained all sorts of memories of when I’d been bullied, but I’d forgotten the occasions when I’d been mean myself. When I tracked the friend down to apologize, she told me that she didn’t remember me doing anything particularly nasty, but that she knew she’d been pretty awful back then, and hoped that I’d forgive her, so we parted mutually forgiven and unsure of exactly what we were forgiving the other for. Nothing from my experience was remotely close to the scale of what happens in the book, but that was what laid the seeds of the story.

Jen: At the beginning of the book, the lead character Celia experiences flashbacks to the disturbing event that led to her friend’s disappearance. Why did this incident come to the forefront at that particular moment in her life? Was it simply that her guilt lay dormant too long?

Myla: To my mind, Celia’s dormant guilt effectively paralyzes her. She has progressed in her adult life to a certain point, but her personal life is being held hostage by these old memories, until finally her frustration and unhappiness forces them to the surface.

Jen: Her husband Huck is put in a precarious position when confronted with the supposed sins from his wife’s past. How does this revelation affect their relationship?

Myla: Well, for starters, he’s not her husband, as much as he seems like he is and would like to be, which is part of the paralysis I was just talking about. When Celia tells Huck what she remembers, he wants to be supportive, but isn’t sure if that means believing her despite what his own instincts might tell him, or siding with those who point out all the inconsistencies they see in Celia’s version of the past. All of this forces them to confront the stasis in their relationship, and whether there’s anything they can do – together or individually – to help move past it.

Jen: Celia’s parents choose to hide behind their rose-colored glasses rather than admit that their daughter may have played a part in the wrong- doing. Why would they rather turn a blind eye? Do they feel as if Celia would not be able to face the truth if it was to surface, or are they hiding something?

Myla: I’m not sure they’re turning a blind eye so much as feeling completely unequal to the task of open and honest communication. They both take a crack at communicating with Celia, with varying degrees of success, but talking is definitely not something they’re comfortable with, or used to. Celia’s dad definitely feels protective of her, so he’s held back in part by that. And I think it’s fair to say that almost all parents are blinded by their love for their children, to one degree or another. That said, I think Celia’s mom manages to communicate quite a lot to Celia about her own memories of that time, and what she thinks Celia may or may not have done.

Jen: The reaction Celia receives from her childhood girlfriends is not what she expected. How has the revelation of her cruelness changed her recollection of Djuna’s disappearance?

Myla: What Celia hears from her childhood friends affects her own memories of that time, which is always the case when you talk about old memories with somebody else. Every time you hash over a shared memory with someone, you come away with a different version of events than you arrived with.

Jen: Without giving too much away, is Celia capable of accepting the consequences of her actions? Or is she, too, a victim of her own circumstances?

Myla: I think Celia is deeply troubled by the actions she took as a girl, but the course of action she pursues in the book shows that she’s very much interested in understanding these actions and accepting the consequences. Everybody’s a victim of circumstance; that’s merely the baseline we all start from.

Jen: Let’s switch gears and talk about your promotional plans. Will you be participating in a book tour? If so, what can you share with us?

Myla: Lots of cities! Lots of very cool independent bookstores! I’m a little worried that my daughters will think I’ve run away from home, but other than that I’m excited to get out and go all over, reading from the book and meeting folks.

Jen: Please take us on a tour of your website.

Myla: No way! You should just go there: My book tour schedule is there, plus all sorts of weird little essays I’ve written over the years, along with a few interviews, and other oddments. Plus, it looks real pretty.

Jen: What’s next for you? Any new projects or films?

Myla: Um, yes? Just don’t ask me what they are, because I don’t know yet! I’m completely monomaniacal when it comes to writing. When I finish a project, it’s not like I can move onto the next item on my laundry list of ideas. I need to read a lot and talk a lot, and go look at art, and eavesdrop on folks, and wait for something new to obsess me.

Jen: Thank you so much for taking time to chat with my readers. I think your novel is quite appropriate for this time of year with back-to-school issues on everyone’s mind. Bullying needs to be addressed at all levels from pre-school to adulthood. Thanks for making it a priority in your writing. Bravo!

Myla: Well, that’s nice of you to say, but I didn’t have any sort of social agenda when I sat down to write THE FALSE FRIEND. The idea naturally arose out of my own thoughts, experiences, concerns, and desires, which is pretty much the only way I know for books to happen.

I hope you have enjoyed reading my interview with Myla. Please stop by your favorite bookstore or local library branch and pick up a copy today. Better yet, how would you like to win one instead?

Be one of five winners to correctly answer the following question for a chance to win.

What is the name of Myla’s book that was made into a movie starring Richard Gere?

Next month, I will be bringing to you my interview with one of my favorite authors, Jennifer Erin Valent. You won’t want to miss it.

Until next time….


Jen’s Jewels | Interview with Melissa Clark

I have a confession to make. I am a Food Network junkie. If you ask me what Giada made on her show yesterday, I can tell you. Where was Guy Fieri on the latest episode of Diners, Drive-in’s and Dives? In Baltimore, of course! If it’s being sautéed, chopped, or stirred on the Food Network, I am most likely right there watching it.

So, when the delectable cookbook by this month’s Jen’s Jewels Melissa Clark came across my desk, I couldn’t wait to check out her scrumptious recipes. You may recognize her name from the New York Times Dining Section. Her culinary writing career is quite amazing, to say the least. In her latest endeavor, she combines her favorite stories with the food she loves. Each recipe is a mouth-watering treat.

As part of this interview, Hyperion Books has generously donated five copies for you, my favorite readers, to try to win. So, don’t forget to look for the trivia question at the end. And, thanks for making Jen’s Jewels a part of your back-to-school reading list!

Jen: Without a doubt, your writing prowess is synonymous with culinary expertise. Whether the topic is fine dining or homemade comfort food, you have covered it. So that my readers may have a glimpse into your background, please share with us your educational and professional experience.

AUTHORMelissa:: I never did go to cooking school, though I thought about it. I spent my senior year of high school working in the kitchen of a small neighbor restaurant/bakery/ice cream shop, and I toyed with the idea of going to the CIA instead of college. But in the end I chose college. I realized that as much as I loved cooking, I liked writing about it better. I had discovered the works of MFK Fisher and held her up as a kind of model – not as the way to live my life though she and I do have being married three times in common – but as a way to combine two passions, writing and food. To that end I decided, post college (I went to Barnard) to pursue an MFA in writing. I chose nonfiction as a concentration and food has nearly always been a theme of my work, at least tangentially.

While I was earning my MFA, I was also catering for the faculty of Columbia University, and did dozens of those wine and cheese receptions that colleges always have, though I got a little fancier with the hors d’oeuvres. It was great training. I had my own catering company for 3 years, and branched out from the University to Soho gallery openings, a few music videos and even a few small weddings (and one not so small wedding, that was hell). Then I realized that catering was just too hard for too little money so I gave it up. I didn’t mind the little money part (you don’t become a food writer to make money), but the schlepping nearly did me in (I lived in a fifth floor walk up, had no car, you get the picture).

Professionally I started writing about food online, pitched tiny pieces to print publications, and eventually started freelancing for Time Out New York, where a friend of mine from college was working. I was also working part time at a small, now defunct food magazine, where I learned how to edit recipes.

About that time, I wrote my first cookbook, a bread machine cookbook. Again it was through a friend. My friend knew I was catering part time, and so recommended me to a small book packager whose writer on the project went AWOL and they were desperate. I wrote an entire cookbook in 6 weeks, had several bread machines going 24 hours a day and I would get up in the middle of the night (every 4 hours, which was their cycle) to “feed them.” I thought it would prepare me for motherhood but I had no idea.

From there I slogged away, getting bigger and bigger assignments. My first breaks were getting to write for the Times, and also Food and Wine Magazine. Once I had those credentials under my belt, getting work became easier.

Jen: Embarking on a freelance writing career specializing in food must have been an exciting undertaking. In the beginning, what was more challenging… mastering your knowledge of the art of cooking or establishing yourself among your peers? And, why so?

Melissa:: They both kind of happened organically at the same time. I just cooked and cooked and read and read and honed my cooking skills because I loved it. I had started writing cookbooks with chefs at that point, and that’s where I learned the bulk of my knowledge, from the masters themselves. As I cooked with more chefs, I met their friends and a whole network opened up. At the same time I was young and single and eager and going to every event I could to meet people to broaden my network of writers and editors. So it all grew at the same time.

Jen: Your prolific career has enabled you to collaborate with some of the best chefs in the business. Having written over 30 cookbooks, please share with us a few secrets for us over-worked and underpaid moms that would turn mealtime into a stress-free experience.

Melissa:: Hah! Being the mother of a 22 month old, I just can’t imagine how to answer this. Mealtime is hard, even if the food is good and easy and fast and all those other buzz words for convenience, or even if you’ve thrown up your hands and ordered in a pizza, f your kid in a mood and won’t eat any of it, what’s the use? The best chef in world couldn’t help.

All I can say is that at every dinner, I learn how to be a more patient person. It’s continually humbling though there are amazing moments, like when my baby realized the wonder of prosciutto-wrapped ripe melon. That got me through the week.

Jen: Your latest endeavor is an exquisite collection of recipes and stories titled IN THE KITCHEN WITH A GOOD APPETITE. How did you arrive at the premise?

Melissa:: It grew naturally out of my column in the Dining Section of the New York Times. I really love being able to tell the story behind the meal, and my column lets me do that. I realized it would work well in book form. The book has 100 new recipes and stories, and 50 of my favorites from the column.

Jen: Please describe for us the format of the book and why you choose to arrange it in this way.

Melissa:: I decided to be quirky and very personal with the chapter flow in the book and grouped the recipes whimsically and thematically rather than more traditionally (appetizers, salads, soups, entrees, etc).

The first chapter, called Waffling Toward Dinner, is about breakfast foods you can make for dinner, and vice verse. I just love eating breakfast for dinner, and grew up in a household where my parents ate leftover dinner – including wilted salad — for breakfast. So it made sense to me. Other chapters are called The Farmers’ Market and Me (veggie recipes that sprang from my obsession with my local greenmarket), It Tastes Like Chicken (which is a normal chicken chapter in disguise, but the narrative plays with the notion that everything parents want kids to eat “tastes like chicken,” including snake and rabbit), and Holiday Food, which is my family’s person repertoire of dishes we make for various holidays. There is a beverages and cocktails chapter because I think most cookbooks give those things short shrift. My mega-sized sweet tooth demanded an entire chapter on pie and a separate one on other desserts. And meat and fish chapters round out the offerings so people can find something normal to make for dinner and not just my ramblings….

Jen: As a former French teacher, I was green with envy as I read your charming vignette about your childhood culinary vacations in France. How did your parents’ love of food impact your choice of career? Who is the biggest food critic in your family…your parents, sister, or you?

Melissa:: My parents are to blame for me being a foodie, I learned it all, good, bad, and annoying, from them! That was the culture in the family, cooking together, eating great (or terrible) meals and talking about them. I think I learned how to be a good critic from them, and we each have out passions and specialties, our prejudices and peccadilloes when it comes to talking about, and making, food.

Jen: So that I could truly appreciate the book, I experimented with recipes from each section. Let’s start by talking about those that particularly stood out. Pesto Scrambled Eggs with Fresh Ricotta…yummy! What makes this recipe so special?

Melissa:: It’s just one of those combinations of flavors and textures that really work well together. The fluffy, milky ricotta cheese, the zingy, pungent pesto, and the mild, savory eggs really fill your entire mouth. I can’t stop eating it whenever I make it!

Jen: Your mother’s love of the sandwich… “Each bite should be a little different, otherwise it gets boring”… made lunchtime into gourmet time in my house. The salami and horseradish cheddar bagel sandwich is to die for! In terms of school lunchboxes, what are your favorite sandwiches? And, how do you make lunch not so boring for the kids?

Melissa:: My daughter is still young enough to eat lunch in her highchair, so I’m not packing much more than almond butter and jam for her to munch at the playground as a snack. But I have big plans that I’m sure will evaporate when the reality of the daily school lunch grind sets in. But right now I’m imaging learning how to make my own vegetable sushi rolls, and lots of sturdy colorful salads with the likes of grilled tofu, steamed broccoli, edamame, string beans, bells peppers and salami in them (not all in the same salad). (Talk to me in three years and I’ll probably sing quite a different tune).

Jen: The Holiday Food section is chock-full of scrumptious recipes. What is your favorite recipe for Thanksgiving stuffing?

Melissa:: I love the sweet potato shrimp hash recipe – it’s completely different than the usual turkey stuffing, though seafood at one point in American history was traditional in stuffings. The flavors work really nicely together, with the honeyed sweet potatoes and briny shrimp seasoned with chili and lime juice.

Jen: For those of us fortunate to have Farmers’ Markets in our towns, mealtime is just bursting with freshness and flavor. What are the essential homegrown items that are a must for any cook?

Melissa:: the building blocks of every meal are herbs, onions and garlic and if you can get them fresh from the garden, they really are better, and will make your whole meal shine. And there is nothing as good as a fresh, ripe tomato.

Jen: And, are organic products truly worth the extra money? Or, is this just a marketing gimmick?

Melissa:: I think local and seasonal trump organic both for flavor and environmental friendliness. A lot of the organic stuff we get is grown in places like China.

Jen: Finally, we have to talk about desserts! Truth be told, I am a horrible baker. Which recipes in the book are the easiest for a novice baker such as me?

Melissa:: I’d say start with the shortbread cookies. Unless you burn them, you just can’t mess them up, they are so easy! And they are the cornerstone of a terrific dessert if you add ice cream and some fresh, ripe fruit. They also make terrific gifts.

Jen: Let’s switch gears now and talk about your promotional plans for the book. Will you be participating on a book tour?

Melissa:: I’ll be going on a loose tour to do events in San Francisco, Seattle, Austin and possibly Orlando, Fl. I’ll update my schedule on my website:

Jen: Please take us on a brief tour of your website. Do you have a blog?

Melissa:: I do have a blog. It’s at and it’s a snapshot of what I’m cooking, eating, and thinking about. Excuse the photos; I’m still learning how to use my nifty new camera. If something looks good, it was by accident.

Jen: What’s next for you? Perhaps reality television as a food judge? (You’d be perfect!)

Melissa:: That could be, I think it’d be fun! But for sure I’ll continue to cook, eat, and write about it because that’s what I love doing.

Jen: Thank you so much for stopping by and chatting with my readers. I thoroughly enjoyed your new cookbook and highly recommend it to my readers. Bon appétit!

Melissa:: Thanks, Jen!

I hope you have enjoyed my interview with Melissa. Please stop by your favorite bookstore or local library branch and pick up a copy of IN THE KITCHEN WITH A GOOD APPETITE today.

Better yet, how would you like to win one instead? Correctly answer the following trivia question and you could be one of five winners.

Where can you find Melissa’s blog?

Later this month, I will be bringing to you my interview with Myla Goldberg author of the novel THE FALSE FRIEND. You won’t want to miss it.

Until next time…



Interviewing Carolyn Haines

I am incredibly honored to introduce you to Carolyn Haines – writer extraordinaire, animal lover, and a pretty good gal all around!

Carolyn writes the Sarah Booth Delaney mystery series, and her latest book, BONE APPETIT, continues the adventures of a Southern gal who is tough as nails and smart to boot, and her haint, Jitty, the ghost from Sarah’s family past.

Before she began her mystery writing career, Carolyn spent nearly a decade as a journalist, qualities that she brings to her lively who-dun-its now. Now residing in Alabama, where she lives on a farm with three horses, four dogs and five cats. Did I mention that she was an animal lover?

Taking a break from a summer tour promoting her new book, Carolyn was kind enough to take some time to answer a few questions.

Sharon: At what age did you know that you wanted to be a writer?

Carolyn HainesCarolyn: My parents were both journalists AND story tellers. I grew up in the perfect home for a would-be writer. Although the central focus was on facts and digging out the truth, writing of all types was valued in my home. Writing and reading.

I published my first newspaper story in the Mobile Register at the age of 12. (I had a little help!) While my parents thought I was a genius at fiction writing, they urged me to learn an “employable skill.” So I first became a journalist, which is the perfect introduction to material that can be woven into mysteries.

Long answer, but I was very young. Animals and writing have always been the focus of my life. They continue to be the central theme in my day-to-day existence.

Sharon: How did you get interested in writing “cozy” mysteries?

Carolyn: I’ve always read all over the mystery genre, from dark thrillers to lighter and humorous stories. I actually didn’t set out to write a cozy with THEM BONES. I just caught hold of the characters and went with them into this world of Zinnia, Mississippi. Almost all of my books are set in the Deep South, particularly Mississippi. I have a deep love—but also a critical eye—for this land. As a journalist I saw how corrupt the political and judicial system can be, but I also saw the wonderful, unconquerable spirit of the people who live here.

As it turned out, Jitty, the “haint” was a real wise-acre. And Sarah Booth was at her mercy. It wasn’t until Sarah Booth stole the dog that I realized I was writing a mystery. And I was so excited—because I’d always loved reading them. I wasn’t certain I had the skill to develop the plot properly, but I was neck- deep already and I don’t like to quit in the middle of something.

Sharon: What inspired the Southern Belle/Private Eye theme of your series?

Carolyn: Sarah Booth is sort of an anti-Southern Belle. She’s a failed Daddy’s Girl. She is too direct for her own good, sometimes. But once Tinkie hired her to resolve the issue of Hamilton Garrett V’s past, then she was working at a P.I. I truly didn’t intend for her to start an agency—and who knew the relationship that would develop between her and Tinkie (a true DG with all the skill set). These characters grow and change and do things that startle me at times.

I realize Sarah Booth and Tinkie are the best P.I.s. They’re a lot like me—the sort of stumble into the truth. That’s one trait I share with both of them.

Sharon: What appealed to you about the genre of cozy mysteries as opposed to hardcore mysteries or suspense stories?

Carolyn: I love dark mysteries and suspense. I also write those kinds of books. But humor is also wonderful, and contrary to many opinions, as difficult to write as grit.

I have friends who act, and they always complained that comedy wasn’t as respected as drama. It’s as if any foolish person can be funny. I understand what they’re saying. Books with humor are sometimes dismissed as “light weight.” I think that’s a shame. I didn’t set out to write a particular type of books with THEM BONES. I just told the story that came to me. That’s my job as the writer. The labels applied are all about marketing, not writing or reading.

Sharon: Your main character, Sarah Delaney Booth is just a hoot, and so is her sidekick Tinkie- where did you gather your inspiration for these characters?

Of course they’re a combination of many people—mostly myself. Sarah Booth is who I might like to be. She has a good heart, and she tries to help people while stumbling around mired in the past.

Tinkie shares some traits with my friend Dixie. Dixie knows how things work, and she’s smart enough to hush up about it. At first, Tinkie seems to be superficial—a woman who manipulates men into providing her with what she needs and wants. Beneath that social façade, though, is a very smart gal. And one willing to risk a lot for those she cares about. She has learned the lesson my grandmother tried so hard to teach me—you can catch more flies with honey than vinegar.

Sharon: With more and more series coming out in the cozy genre, do you see the competition for readership becoming more fierce? What do you do to keep your readers coming back for more?

Carolyn: The only thing I can do is write the best book possible. I do think the publishers are making a mistake by slapping together books that are sub-standard and flooding the market with them.

Dean Koontz wrote about this in his book on writing. Paraphrasing what he said— Publishers have a big success with a particular book, then they rush to buy more and more of that “type” of book. In the frenzy to capitalize on that success, quality slips, the reader gets sick of buying shoddy books and ultimately abandons that genre to read somewhere else.

This has happened in horror, romance, and now urban fantasy is bloated with too many books. The really good writers are submerged by the flood. I hope this doesn’t happen in mysteries, but there is not a thing I can do about it—except write the best book I can and hope my readers hang with me.

Sharon: The cover art on your books is just gorgeous – very eye-catching! Who does the artwork for each book, and are you consulted as to how it will look?

Carolyn: I’ve been very lucky with the art work. I loved the Random House covers (which were done in-house by Jamie Warren Youll). The new covers are so different—but equally wonderful. These were also done with the in- house art department at the publishing house. Hiro Kimura is the artist. These artists are amazing—to be able to capture an essence of each book and visualize it and create a cover—so many talented people work on bringing a book to the reader.

Sharon: Who are some of your favorite authors? Who inspires you?

Carolyn: This is always a tough question because different authors inspire me in totally different ways. My first love will always be Flannery O’Connor, Doris Betts, Eudora Welty. Their short fiction inspired me to try to write. With one sentence they could pull me into the world of their creation. Dark, humorous, human—they explored the soul.

And Harper Lee. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, a coming of age story, captured a time and place and people. It is an amazing creation.

There is no living writer I admire more than James Lee Burke. I’m reading his newest novel right now, and I am in awe at the power of his language, the passion for justice, and his love for the New Iberia area of Louisiana. In that same vein I admire Pete Dexter’s The Paperboy and Dennis Lehane ’s Mystic River. Add Val McDermid, Stieg Larsson, oh, the list could go on and on.

I adore Carolyn Hart’s books, and those by Donna Andrews, Dean James (writing as Miranda James and Jimmie Ruth Evans), Mary Saums. What could be better than to settle into the hands of these talented writers. Charlaine Harris flips my wig with her incredible creativity. I could spend a week adding more to this list but I’ll stop.

Sharon: What do you have coming up in the future?

Carolyn: BONES OF A FEATHER is with my agent now, getting the final read through before I turn it in to St. Martin’s for 2011.

I edited an anthology of short fiction, DELTA BLUES, last spring and had such a blast, I might be looking to do that again. I love writing short stories and while editing was a huge job, I enjoyed it. Short fiction was truly my first love—so I’m delighted to say I have a story in FLORIDA HEAT WAVE and will have one in DAMN NEAR DEAD 2 (geezer noir! What could be more fun?)

And right this red hot minute, I’m working on a Southern gothic chiller. I love writing the Bones books, but I also love the dark side. This is a story that’s haunted me for two decades. I finally figured out a way to tell it, so I’m working on that—just for me. If it’s any good when I finish, I’ll try to sell it.

Sharon: What advise would you have for anyone wanting to break into the “cozy mystery” genre?

Carolyn: Be prepared to sacrifice.

I heard an editor speak at a conference a long time ago. She said, “if you can walk away from writing, do it now.” Unless you are driven to do this, find another way to make a living. This is really hard. The pay sucks. The hours are long, long. And you must do it in solitude. This applies to any genre, not just mysteries. Writing is not something to do when you’re inspired—inspiration doesn’t come along that often or linger that long. It’s plain hard work.

I work every day. Not because I have to, but because writing is how I define myself. This is not an easy life. But there is nothing that equals it. I love it.

The best advice I can give is read. Read with your gut. Figure out what things you like and go deeper—why do you like them.

Sharon: You were named the 2010 recipient of the Harper Lee Award for Alabama’s Distinguished Writer of the Year – can you tell us a little about this honor and what it means to you?

Carolyn: The award is given annually by the Alabama Writers Forum, which is part of the Alabama State Council on the Arts. There have been 13 winners. The award honors a body of work from a writer who is from Alabama, lives in Alabama, or writes about Alabama.

Of all the writers in the world, Harper Lee had more influence on me than anyone. To receive an award named for her is just amazing. I was given a bronze sculpture of the Monroeville courthouse clock tower. Sometimes I have to go and touch it to really believe that the award is truly real. It’s an honor that goes right to my Southern roots.

My thanks to Carolyn for taking time to come by the Cozy Corner. For more information on her writing, her latest projects and to get a look at her gorgeous horses, check out her website at

Next month I’ll be interviewing Hannah Reed about her debut mystery, BUZZ OFF: A Queen Bee Mystery. Be sure to come back and check it out! Until then, happy reading ya’ll!

Interview with Corinne Demas

As a writer, I am always looking for ways in which to fine-tune my craft. From professional groups such as Romance Writers of America (which I highly recommend) to educational seminars that teach how to avoid common first-time writing blunders, there are myriads of lessons to be learned, and there is always room for improvement. Not only is having the right tools an essential part of the process, but also having the desire to succeed is critical to a writer’s success.

This month’s Corinne Demas touches upon this very topic in her latest release THE WRITING CIRCLE. It’s a fascinating story about a group of eclectic writers who come together on a literary journey like none other. From their diverse viewpoints comes a unique story with an unexpected twist. Emotional yet engaging, this novel is a must- read for every person who has ever contemplated becoming a writer.

As part of this interview, Hyperion Voice has generously donated five copies for you, my favorite readers, to try to win. So, don’t forget to look for the trivia question at the end. I hope you are enjoying the last days of summer. Happy Reading!

Jen: The path to publication a writer has taken in order to achieve her goal can be as interesting as the novel itself. So that my readers may have a better understanding of the woman behind the words, please share with us a brief overview of your educational and professional background.

AUTHORCorinne: I went to Hunter High School in New York City, (it was all girls at the time) then on to Tufts University, where I majored in English and took a lot of creative writing courses, then on to get a PhD in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia. I did my thesis on the short story, one of my favorite genres. I taught for ten years at the University of Pittsburgh, and ever since, I’ve been teaching literature and creative writing at Mount Holyoke College; so, I’ve never left school!

Jen: No stranger to the publishing business, you have written a memoir, short stories, and even children’s books. Your latest endeavor is a fictional novel titled THE WRITING CIRCLE. How did you arrive at the premise?

Corinne: I’ve always been interested in the way groups work—how a new member fits in, what happens when someone betrays the group—and since writers are the people I know best, I decided to focus on a writing group.

Jen: The story follows a group of eclectic writers each with his or her own struggle in life, whether it is professionally or personally. Nancy, the main character, is the newest member who has her doubts about joining the group. Is her reluctance to belong due to her insecurities in the merits of her work, or is it simply her fear of not measuring up to her counterparts?

Corinne: Both. The group she’s joining has several high-profile writers in it and Nancy is worried about laying her raw work before them, especially since her new novel is based on her father’s story, and close to the bone. Of course all writers have some insecurity!

Jen: Bernard, the biographer, serves as the unofficial leader of the group due to his varied history with its members. Even his ex-wife Virginia, the historian, belongs to the writing circle. Why does he choose to bring Nancy in the fold? Is it simply an act of kindness, or does he have an ulterior motive?

Corinne: Bernard is rarely simply kind. He knows Nancy is an astute reader and critic, and he thinks she’d be an asset to the group as well as beneficial to him. He values her feedback. Nancy is also a genuinely nice person, so he imagines her participation will be without conflict. (How wrong he is!)

Jen: As I mentioned, Virginia wears two hats…Bernard’s ex-wife and fellow club member. Why does she choose to keep Bernard close to the vest? And, how has their post-divorce relationship affected the rapport with their children?

Corinne: Virginia is genuinely fond of Bernard and respects him as a writer. As I say in the novel: “. . . now that she was no longer married to him . . . the love she felt for Bernard was undamaged by frustration. Everything she didn’t like about Bernard was Aimee’s [his second wife] to deal with. No marriage counseling could have ironed out all their difficulties as a couple as neatly, as successfully as their divorce and realignment had done.”

Virginia’s rapport with their two grown children has always been excellent. Bernard has been on the outs with his son, and even though he and Virginia have an amicable relationship, it hasn’t helped.

Jen: Gillian is the snooty world-famous poet who feels her opinion matters most. Why has she chosen poetry as her means of expression? And, in what ways does her superior attitude resemble a mask in which to hide behind?

Corinne: Gillian believes poetry is the superior genre—the most intellectual, the most artistic, so of course she chose to be a poet. She’s also not interested in other people, just herself, and a fiction writer has to be interested in other people and their stories. You’re right that she hides behind a mask—but don’t tell her that!

Jen: Chris is a divorced dad who writes thrillers. Seemingly, he is always one step behind when it comes to the group due to his troubled personal life. Of all the club’s members, which person does he most identify with and why?

Corinne: Poor Chris, there’s no one whom he really identifies with. He makes the most money as a writer of anyone in the group, but he feels no one respects him because he’s a genre writer. He looks to Nancy, the new member, with hopes she might become an ally.

Jen: Adam is the youngest member who is pursuing a career as a novelist. Not surprisingly, he latches onto Gillian in a state of awe and admiration. Does he believe that his desire to emulate the successful poet is an effective way in which to achieve his literary goals? Or, does he single her out simply due to his inability to define his own path?

Corinne: You put that well, yes; Adam is definitely “in a state of awe and admiration.” He finds Gillian beautiful, seductive, and mysterious, and has fallen under her spell. He’s a devotee of her poetry, but my guess is that his infatuation is sexual as much as intellectual.

Jen: Which member is the most talented of the group and why? And, which member is the weakest link and why?

Corinne: What an interesting question! Everyone in the group is working in a different genre—except Nancy and Adam, who are both novelists—so we can’t really compare their talent. Gillian, Virginia, Bernard, and Chris are all at the top of their game. Nancy hasn’t published a novel for years, and Adam is as yet unpublished, so they might seem like the weakest link. But what seems to be the case doesn’t necessarily prove to be true.

Jen: Interestingly enough, within the storyline you raise the issue of the potential risk of an author having ideas stolen by fellow writing circle members. In light of this, are you a big proponent of writing circles? Why or why not? And, are you a member of one?

Corinne: Plagiarism is a hot topic in the literary world these days, and it’s a subject that certainly comes up in my novel.

I’ve belonged to a number of writing groups, and belong to two, now—one where we share manuscripts, the other where we just gather for coffee and offer support. Writing is a lonely profession, and I’ve loved being part of a community of writers. My writing critique group (who are all thanked in the acknowledgments for THE WRITING CIRCLE) listened to me read aloud drafts of this novel, chapter by chapter, and offered me wise advice.

I think writing circles can be beneficial at any stage in your writing career, but of course it will depend on finding a group that it is both supportive and smart.

Jen: Let’s switch gears and talk about your website. Please take us on a brief tour.

Corinne: Because I write for both adults and kids, offers two different directions from the home page. Each of my twenty-five books has its own page, which includes reviews and relevant background information. For my children’s books I have “behind the scenes,” as well as profiles of the illustrators. My website includes biography (you can even see photographs of my miniature donkeys), a bibliography, and contact information. The great benefit of my website is that my name is spelled correctly!

I hope readers who enjoy THE WRITING CIRCLE will join the Facebook fan page and follow me on Twitter. You can link to both through my website.

Jen: Will you be heading out on a book tour? If so, where can readers find a list of dates and locations?

Corinne: I just finished a book tour, but will be doing a reading September 22 at the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, Massachusetts, right across the street from Mount Holyoke College. Details about that event and other future appearances are all listed on my website under Events.

Jen: Do you participate in author phone chats? And if so, how would my readers go about arranging one?

Corinne: Yes! Contact information is on my website.

Jen: Are you currently at work on your next novel? If so, what can you share with us?

Corinne: I just sent the manuscript in to my editor at Hyperion. The novel is about a family–two sisters and two brothers–who inherit an old house on Cape Cod at the death of their eccentric mother. The working title is The Married House, but that may well change. Part I of the novel takes place on the wedding day of Sofie, an entomologist, the youngest of the clan. She’s getting married at the seaside house the week before it goes on the market, and has invited all her siblings, with hopes the wedding will bring peace among them. But instead of settling their differences, something occurs at the wedding which divides them even further, and Sofie uncovers a well-buried secret which not only changes the way she sees her family, but the way she sees herself. Part II of the novel takes place twenty four years later at the same house, at another family wedding. Startling changes have taken place in the family, and a new secret comes to light which turns everything upside down.

Jen: Thank you so much for stopping by to chat with my readers. I truly loved the depth of your characters and the way in which you tied the storyline together. Bravo! I highly recommend it to all of my readers. Best of luck with its success!

Corinne: It’s been a treat being your guest. Many thanks for your penetrating reading of my novel and your thought-provoking questions. And thank you for all you do to help connect books and readers.

I hope you have enjoyed my interview with Corinne. Please stop by your favorite bookstore or local library branch and pick up a copy today!

Five readers to correctly answers the following trivia question will win a copy of THE WRITING CIRCLE.

Name the snooty world-famous poet in THE WRITING CIRCLE.

Next month, I will be bringing to you my interview with Melissa Clark, author of the New York Times column “A Good Appetite.” You won’t want to miss it.

Until next time…



Interview Elizabeth Spann Craig / Riley Adams

Elizabeth Spann CraigDelicious and SuspiciousSummertime means having fun, being lazy and eating lots of good food – at least it does around my house! And around my house, with four big ol’ boys to feed, we love and eat a lot of barbeque!

So I was so pleased to find out my good friend, Elizabeth Spann Craig, has written a new cozy mystery series featuring – barbeque!

Writing as Riley Adams, her first book in the “Memphis BBQ Mysteres,” DELICIOUS AND SUSPICIOUS, debuts this month, and Elizabeth was kind enough to stop by to answer a few questions about her writing career and her love of cozy mysteries!

Sharon: At what age did you know that you wanted to be a writer?

AUTHORElizabeth: Sharon, I wish I could say that I had other career options! But writing is the only thing I can do…and I found that out at an early age. Probably by second grade, definitely by fourth grade. My father is an English teacher, and so I think the writing came naturally to me.

Sharon: How did you get interested in writing “cozy” mysteries?

Elizabeth: Cozies, or traditional mysteries, are my favorite mysteries to read. I cut my teeth on Nancy Drew and Trixie, and then moved on to Agatha Christies shortly after that. Now my bookshelves are crammed with the spines of cozy novels—from Christie to M.C.Beaton, to modern day authors.

Sharon: What appealed to you about the genre of cozy mysteries as opposed to hardcore mysteries or suspense stories?

Elizabeth: I do enjoy other types of mysteries, but I have to skip over the gritty parts! I love police procedurals and thrillers, but when the story gets too intense or too graphic, then I’ll fast-forward a few pages until the coast is clear. So writing a cozy mystery, where the murder happens off-stage and there’s no gory description, came naturally to me.

Sharon: What inspired the Memphis BBQ theme of your series? And where did you find those yummy recipes that are included?

Elizabeth: If there were an official food of the South, barbeque and grits would vie for bragging rights. Barbeque is serious business in Memphis, prepared with lots of love and pride. I wanted to pull in Memphis’ tradition of food, music, and fun to my fictional Aunt Pat’s barbeque restaurant and really make the readers feel like they were on a mini-vacation.

The recipes were mainly from word-of-mouth recipes and old recipe cards from my family. My mother drives me a little batty by not writing down her recipes…but I think now I’m getting her to record the ‘dashes’ and ‘pinches’ of things she tosses in her cooking—for posterity’s sake, if not for my books’ sake.

Sharon: Your main character is a lively restaurant owner – where did you gather your inspiration for Lulu Taylor and her family?

Elizabeth: Lulu is a tribute to the many funny, strong, loving Southern women who helped raise me. There are so many traits that Lulu has—from humming in the kitchen, to fussing at being on hold, to automatic endearments that are shared by my grandmothers and mother.

Sharon: With more and more series coming out in the cozy genre, do you see the competition for readership becoming more fierce? What do you do to keep your readers coming back for more?

Elizabeth: My experience as a reader in the genre is that the more cozies I read the more I want to read, and the more I purchase. I think that many cozy readers are avid mystery lovers and there’s room for all of us in the genre. What I hope, though, is that readers will connect with my characters and the Southern settings that I enjoy writing so much.

Sharon: The cover art on your books is just gorgeous – very eye-catching! Who does the artwork for each book, and are you consulted as to how it will look?

Elizabeth: Isn’t it pretty? Hugh Syme did the artwork for Delicious and Suspicious. Usually my editor will submit my manuscript to the art department and they’ll pull elements out for the cover. Then my editor sends me a draft of the cover and asks for my thoughts. I loved it right away!

Sharon: Who are some of your favorite authors? Who inspires you?

Elizabeth: M.C. Beaton is one of my favorite cozy authors—I just love her Scottish Hamish Macbeth. I’m also a huge fan of Elizabeth George and Deborah Crombie, who both write police procedurals. I’m inspired by the number of books these ladies have written and the way they’ve kept their series fresh and interesting throughout.

Sharon: What do you have coming up in the future?

Elizabeth: The second of the Memphis Barbeque mysteries should launch early next year and I’m currently working on the third. I’m also working on developing another cozy series.

Sharon: What advice would you have for anyone wanting to break into the “cozy mystery” genre?

Elizabeth: Of course you’ll want to read the genre—there are a ton of great books out there to take a look at. That’s the best way for you to know how cozies are structured. You’ll want to write an amateur sleuth with a plausible reason to investigate, suspects and secondary characters that are off- beat or interesting, clues that play fair with the reader and give them a good puzzle to figure out, and possibly a good sidekick for the sleuth to confide in and bounce ideas off of.

My thanks to Elizabeth Spann Craig for stopping by the Cozy Corner! For more information on her Memphis Barbeque series, and other projects she has coming up, check out her website at

She is also a member of a lively group of cozy mystery writers who love to cook – check out their fun and yummy at

Be sure to stop by next month when Carolyn Haines, author of the Sarah Booth Delaney Mystery series, will be stopping by to chat with us!

Until then, cozy reading ya’ll!

Jen’s Jewels | Interview with Deborah Clearman

TODOSHave you ever imagined what it would be like to start anew, even for just a few weeks, in a foreign country? A new identity, new customs to learn, and most especially a new lease on life! I guess if I really wanted to know the ins and outs, I could ask the members of the Russian spy ring! All kidding aside, life sometimes seems so fast-paced and all-consuming that it is difficult to find time to stop and smell the roses.

This month’s Jen’s Jewels Deborah Clearman addresses this very topic in her debut novel, TODOS SANTOS. Set in Guatemala, it’s the story of one woman’s plight to start anew while coming face to face with adversity in the jungles of a third world country. Beautifully written with the richness of the countryside accenting the backdrop of her tale, it’s a novel worth the read.

As part of this interview, Black Lawrence Press has generously donated five copies for you, my favorite readers, to try to win. So, don’t forget to look for the trivia question at the end. And as always, thanks for making Jen’s Jewels a part of your reading adventure.

Jen: In order to truly appreciate your path to publication, it’s necessary to start at the very beginning. So that my readers may have a better understanding of the woman behind the words, please share with us your educational and professional background.

Deborah Clearman Deborah: I graduated from Bryn Mawr College with a BA in Fine Arts, then went on to get a BFA from Cooper Union and an MFA in Painting from Indiana in Bloomington Indiana. I managed to spend most of my twenties in school, when I wasn’t working as a waitress.

Jen: Living in the Baltimore area, I found it fascinating when I read that you had grown up on a tobacco farm in Southern Maryland. Describe for us this experience and how it affected your perception of the world in which we live.

Deborah: Upper Marlboro was very much steeped in the past when I lived there, with old families who still owned farms granted to their ancestors by Lord Baltimore. The house I grew up in was built in 1820. My family (newcomers— we moved there when I was 7) rented. The owner was a Hungarian movie actress living in D.C. who had bought the house and 40 acres during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, hoping some of her relatives would get out. Apparently none did. The first few years we were there, she rented the fields out to a local tobacco farmer. I vividly remember the planting. A tractor dragged an attachment that poked a hole in the ground, into which a man or boy riding on the attachment stuck a young tobacco plant by hand, which was then watered by rudimentary container on the machine. On some farms nearby, this machine was still pulled by horse, rather than tractor. In summer the tobacco fields were lush and green. Our barn filled up every fall with the harvested plants, hung in the rafters to dry. The delicious spicy aroma of the drying tobacco filled the countryside (and I’ve never been a smoker!). In February, the farmer and his family and hired help gathered in our barn to strip the leaves off the plants, tie them into bundles—called hands—and pack them into giant barrels, called hogsheads. I helped with the stripping. It was great fun for me—work for them. There were large warehouses in Marlboro where the tobacco was auctioned in late winter, a major event in the town. Most of the buyers came from Europe. There was only one shabby hotel in town; I can’t imagine what it was like for them.

Later, with the landlord’s permission, my mother took over the fields and barn for her horses. Marlboro was also horse country and my mother rode with the Marlboro Hunt Club. To this day, in her eighties, she still owns and rides horses pretty much daily. Growing up in the country—with woods, fields, streams, and barns as my playground—had a profound impact on me. Living in New York City, I miss nature. It’s something I love about TODOS SANTOS. As different as it is, TODOS SANTOS reminds me of my childhood. When I see a Todosantero planting corn by hand with a digging stick, it reminds me of that tobacco planter.

Jen: Your background is unique due to your impressive artistic talents as well as numerous literary endeavors. In terms of your artwork, what is your primary style of painting and preferred subject matter? Are your works currently on display?

Deborah: My paintings are representational and often show people doing things in landscape. Long before I started writing seriously, my paintings tended to tell stories, often made-up and metaphorical stories. There’s one of Nero fiddling while Rome burns, and another of a human sacrifice on an imagined volcano-top in the Andes. A few are on display in my living room. Otherwise, they show up in odd places.

Jen: How did you become involved with the NY Writers Coalition? And, what is their mission statement?

Deborah: I met Aaron Zimmerman, the founder of NYWC, at a writing residency at Vermont Studio Center in 1999, when I was just “coming out of the closet” as a writer. At the time, he was offering a writing workshop in NYC, and I immediately joined it on my return. I was enthralled by the safe, supportive, and inspiring atmosphere the workshop created for writing. When Aaron went on to form NYWC in 2001, in trained with him to become a workshop leader. He asked me to join the organization as Program Director in 2004, and I’m still leading workshops as well.

NY Writers Coalition creates opportunities for people who have been historically deprived of voice in our society to be heard through the art of writing. Writing with others in an atmosphere of respect and acceptance, participants discover the value of their own stories, gain confidence and a stronger sense of self, and become less isolated from themselves and from society. NYWC provides free, long-term writing workshops throughout New York City for a diverse population that includes the homeless and formerly homeless, incarcerated and formerly incarcerated, at-risk and poor youth, recent immigrants, war veterans, seniors, cancer survivors, and many others. With more than 1,000 workshop sessions at approximately 45 sites in a year, we are one of the largest community based writing organizations in the country.

Jen: Please share with us your “Ah! Ha!” moment that led to your pursuit of writing a novel.

Deborah: I first visited TODOS SANTOS in 1998. Like Catherine, I was thinking of setting a children’s book there. Like Catherine, I went with a guide. I only stayed one night, but I fell in love instantly with the mountains, the terrace of the hotel (which is no longer there), and the people I met. When I got home to the US, I told a friend about the trip over lunch, and I must have sounded pretty excited. She said to me, “That’s it, Deborah—the subject for your novel!”

At the time, I didn’t know I was writing a novel. My friend went on to add, “But your character will have to have an affair with the guide.”

Jen: In terms of nuts and bolts, how did you arrive at the premise for TODOS SANTOS?

Deborah: Having survived a long marriage crisis that ended in divorce, I knew that Catherine would be struggling with an unhappy marriage. I wanted her struggle to be different from my own. Catherine isn’t me. But I gave her a son who resembles my own son when he was that age. Fortunately, my son was never kidnapped. I really didn’t know what Catherine would decide to do about her marriage. I wrote the novel to find out.

Jen: Interestingly, the novel is set in Guatemala. Why did you choose this locale? And, what was the most difficult part of accurately portraying this third world country to your readers?

Deborah: I’ve had a fascination with different cultures since childhood, and in my teens thought I would become an anthropologist. Even after I changed my mind, I continued to study Spanish. In the 70s I started visiting Guatemala with a close family friend who was an anthropologist and Mayan linguist. Nora England gave me an insider’s introduction to the country and the people. When I went to live in Guatemala for a year in 2001, it was the fulfillment of a dream I’d had since childhood, to live in a foreign culture.

Whether it’s Guatemala or Nigeria or Indonesia, I think third world countries matter. I think small countries matter. Living in Guatemala changed my perspective on my own country, and my life here. My biggest challenge is not to get preachy. To present Guatemala to my readers with its beauty and its flaws and let them make up their own minds.

Jen: The story begins as your lead character Catherine and her son Isaac embark on a summer journey to Guatemala to visit with Aunt Zelda. Both mother and son have different agendas yet together they are on a journey of self- discovery. Why is Catherine so drawn to TODOS SANTOS?

Deborah: She loves TODOS SANTOS because it’s so far away—geographically and culturally—from her problems, so isolated, and yet so connected on an emotional level to the same questions she is asking.

Jen: Rather than attending summer school due to his errant ways, Isaac agrees to work for his aunt despite his father Elliot’s objections. Is his willingness to go a true journey of retribution? Or, is it simply his way of getting back at his Dad for the problems in their relationship?

Deborah: We don’t see very much of Isaac’s relationship with his father in the novel. Only at the end, when he’s happily eating breakfast with Elliot. I don’t think of Elliot as a bad or disengaged father, even though he may disagree with his wife on the best way to handle their son’s issues. However, I’m happy to let the readers draw their own conclusions on this question.

Jen: Along the way, Isaac finds himself in dire straits. Without giving too much away, from where does he find the inner strength that enables him to forge ahead? Is his mother Catherine the source of his inspiration? Or, is it simply his own desire that wills him to hopefully overcome the impossible?

Deborah: I see Isaac as a smart kid who gets in over his head and makes some bad decisions. I would guess his inner strength comes from confidence he has in himself, even though it’s tested. Whether his confidence comes from good parenting or the genetic roll of the dice, I’ll let the reader decide.

Jen: Catherine finds herself in a precarious position with her tour guide Oswaldo. Exactly what does she see in him that makes her even consider the possibility of throwing her marriage to Elliot away?

Deborah: Catherine was Elliot’s student before she was his wife. She continues to feel judged by him, and belittled by comparison. Oswaldo respects and admires her in a way that Elliot never could, because of the dynamic of their marriage. That respect helps her to see herself in a new way.

Jen: What did you learn about yourself as a writer by completing this project?

Deborah: Since I came back from TODOS SANTOS late in 2002, I’ve kept a drawing taped to my refrigerator door. It was done by a friend and given to me at my going-away party in TODOS SANTOS, and it shows a Todosantera reading a book called TODOS SANTOS. I kept it as a reminder that people there were expecting me to finish this novel. Through many later drafts, whenever I felt terror or despair that I wasn’t up to the task, I looked at the drawing and thought, I have to do it.

Jen: Let’s switch gears now and talk about your promotional plans. Will you be going on a book tour?

Deborah: I’ll start in my hometown of New York City with two events— Cornelia Street Café on July 8 and Idlewild Books on July 11. Then I’m off to visit friends and bookstores on the West Coast, including Third Place Books in Seattle on July 17 and Annie Bloom’s in Portland on July 15. Later I’ll swing through Massachusetts, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia, Washington DC, Philadelphia, and more. Details of my tour are posted on my website.

Jen: As for your website, please take us on a brief tour.

Deborah: Please visit me at for an excerpt from the book, reviews, events, and a short video about me and my novel made by Olivia Carrescia, a filmmaker who has documented life in TODOS SANTOS before and after the brutal civil war in two beautiful, award-winning films.

Jen: Do you participate in Author Phone Chats? And if so, how would my readers go about scheduling one? Will there be a Reading Group Guide available for TODOS SANTOS?

Deborah: TODOS SANTOS includes a Reading Group Guide and Author’s Q&A at the end of the novel. In addition, I’m available to visit reading groups within a drivable range of New York through my website.

Jen: Are you currently at work on your next book? If so, what can you tell us about it?

Deborah: Absolutely! After the time I’ve spent in Guatemala, I decided I had earned the right to speak in the voice of the natives. I’m working on a series of linked short stories and a novella in which the main characters are Guatemalan, and Americans are peripheral. Themes dealt with include migration, illegal immigration, foreign adoption, as well as the universals of love, loss, and family.

Jen: Thank you so much for taking time out of your busy summer schedule to stop by and chat with my readers. Best of luck with TODOS SANTOS!

Deborah: Thank you! It’s been a pleasure.

I hope you have enjoyed my interview with Deborah. Please stop by your favorite bookstore or local library branch and pick up a copy TODOS SANTOS today.

Better yet, how would you like to win one instead? Be one of five readers correctly answer to the following trivia question and you could win!

What is the name of Catherine’s son in the novel TODOS SANTOS?

Next month, I will be bringing to you my interview with Tilly Bagshawe, author of AFTER THE DARKNESS which is a continuation of Sidney Sheldon’s fabulous novels. You won’t want to miss it.

Until next time…


Jen’s Jewels | Interview of Cecily von Ziegesar

Cecily von Ziegesar1401323472
If I were able to turn back the clock and revisit any period of time in my life, I would have to choose my college days. Words just can’t describe that feeling of exhilaration experienced when I first tasted the sweetness of freedom. Sure, I made mistakes (many of them); however, they were of my own doing. And somehow, that made them seem less painful and perhaps even okay.

This month’s Jen’s Jewels Cecily von Ziegesar explores this very topic in her latest release, CUM LAUDE. Known as the mastermind behind the Gossip Girl series, she has written a hip, yet edgy look at life through the eyes of college-aged young adults. With a juicy storyline and salacious characters, she creates the perfect read for a hot July day.

As part of this interview, Hyperion Books has generously donated five copies of CUM LAUDE for you, my favorite readers, to try to win. So, don’t forget to look for the trivia question at the end. And, thanks for stopping by and making Jen’s Jewels a part of your summer reading.

Jen: Most readers would associate your name with your highly popular Gossip Girl series upon which the television show is based. So that my readers may have a better understanding of the path that led to publication, please share with us your educational and professional background.

Cecily: I went to a private girls’ school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan from first through twelfth grade. We wore uniforms. There were 35 girls in my graduating class. If you’ve read Gossip Girl, this should all sound sort of familiar. From there I went to Colby College in Maine, which had an outstanding creative writing department, and I took every class it offered. I went on to graduate school at U of AZ Tucson for my MFA in creative writing, but the program wasn’t as strong as my undergraduate program so I quit after a year. I traveled and dabbled in various jobs before going to London to live with my boyfriend. After we were married and I was legal to work, I got a job as an editorial assistant at a children’s book publisher. Three years later we moved to Manhattan where I got a job as an assistant editor at the book packager for whom I later developed Gossip Girl. I wrote the proposal for the series and when a certain editor at a certain publisher expressed interest in publishing the series she requested that I be the one to write the books. I’d always wanted to write, not just be an editor, so I felt very lucky. I gave birth to my daughter a week after I’d finished the manuscript for the second book and three months before the first book was published. When the third book hit the bestseller list, I realized I could quit my editing job and write full time.

Jen: Let’s talk about the Gossip Girl series. First of all, why did you choose to write a teen drama rather than an adult series? And, how did you arrive at the premise?

Cecily: I was editing young adult books at the time so it was logical for me to try to write in that genre. But so many of the books I was working on took place in fictional suburban towns that didn’t resonate for me. And the boys were all objects of desire with no point of view. I thought, why not set something in NYC and give the boys as much play as the girls? The premise of the book is very much based on my experience of going away for 6th grade (my family lived in Rome for a year) and coming back to my school and finding out that none of my friends would talk to me and had all been gossiping about me while I was away. There were also two girls who entered my class in junior year who had been kicked out of boarding school. When their old schools in the city wouldn’t take them back, they came to mine. We were all fascinated by them—why had they been kicked out? What had they done? One of them was blonde and beautiful. Thus, Serena’s story was born—with a little inspiration from Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence.

Jen: In terms of feedback, how did you determine your manuscript’s appeal to the teen scene? In what ways did you “research” current trends and social networking sites in order to accurately portray them within your storyline?

Cecily: I did absolutely no research at all. I really steer clear of all that ‘being current’ stuff, which I know may come as a surprise. I want to write books that will last, and so I try to avoid slang and technological references, if at all possible. It’s very ironic because “blogging” is a dictionary term now and I suppose Gossip Girl was one of the original bloggers, but that term didn’t even exist when I wrote the books. I’m a total technophobe. My Iphone’s capabilities are much underused. Anyway, if you’re wondering how I could write about the so-called ‘teenage experience’ with such wit and aplomb well….I was a teenager once too, not so long ago. And I really don’t think that much has changed, except maybe the technology.

Jen: Describe for us its evolution into a sensational television phenomenon.

Cecily: I’m not involved with the show, so I can’t really describe that evolution. Josh Schwartz (show creator) kept hearing about the books and when he finally read the first one he was like, “I have to make this show.” So he bought the rights and the rest is history. His partner, Stephanie Savage, was kind enough to take me out for lunch and pick my brain when they were working on the pilot, and I took her for a tour of the Upper East Side. We stood outside my old school, stalking the girls. I was so afraid that since they’d done The OC they’d turn Blair and Serena into California girls, driving SUVs to school, and Nate would be a lifeguard or something. But of course they knew what they were doing. And even though I’m not involved in the running of the show they always welcome me on set. Everyone is very nice.

Jen: And, what was the most challenging part of the process?

Cecily: Since I had no involvement—writers of novels often have no input in the adaptations of their books—the hardest part was waiting and seeing what they did with it. The pilot stayed very faithful to the first book—with some big changes, as was expected. What they created vastly exceeded my wildest expectations. The cast is awesome. The show is amazing.

Jen: Your latest project, CUM LAUDE, is your entree into the adult market. In terms of the creative process, how has this change in platforms enabled you to step out of your comfort zone? Has it been more or less difficult than expected? How so?

Cecily: I think part of being a writer is stepping out of your comfort zone and challenging yourself with each new book. Gossip Girl was pretty risqué—there was nothing like it at the time. While I was writing it I didn’t think about the audience. I just wrote the kind of book I would want to read. I’m still doing that with Cum Laude. It’s about college freshmen, so I’m still writing about young adults, but in this one they’re really struggling to figure out who they are and where they belong in the world. It’s their first time living away from home, without adult supervision. And they get into a lot of trouble.

Jen: The story is set in an idyllic New England college town and centers around five freshmen as they embark on the next season of their lives. The main character is the well-to-do Shipley who is trying to break free from her upper crust family. With that being said, why then does she choose to follow in her wayward, absentee brother’s footsteps and attend the same school he did? Is she simply looking for an answer to his vagrant lifestyle, or is she looking for much more?

Cecily: At first Shipley just wanted to piss off her parents by going to the same school as her brother when she could’ve gone to Dartmouth. But she’s also very competitive—so many of us private school girls are—and she wanted to show that she could succeed where her brother had failed.

Jen: Despite her rebellious spirit as well as her desire to experience the sweetness of freedom, she immediately delves into a serious relationship with Tom. Why do they both choose to commit so early in the year? In what ways are these two kindred spirits?

Cecily: Shipley and Tom are two attractive freshmen from the same privileged background and neighboring suburbs of New York City. They cling to each other in the sea of students from elsewhere. I saw this happen all the time in college, although some of us were more adventurous. Shipley also gets together with the townie, Adam. She wants it both ways—safe and risky.

Jen: Eliza is a wild and edgy girl looking for a good time. Underneath her tough exterior is just a lonely girl who wants to be loved. How are she and Shipley alike? Who is the stronger character and why?

Cecily: Both girls have their strengths. Eliza has a great sense of irony. Shipley may not be as loud and abrasive as Eliza, but she is actually more confident. She is quietly becoming the person she couldn’t become back home in Greenwich.

Jen: Pothead Nick is a quirky guy who is trying his best to fit in. What is his biggest character flaw? And, does he have the where-with-all to realize his shortcomings?

Cecily: Nick spent his entire time at boarding school emulating somebody else. He’s also growing out of a lifetime crush on his mom. Now he has to figure out who he is. And it looks like it’s going to take a while….

Jen: Siblings Tragedy and Adam add an element of commonality to the plot due to their humble surroundings and down-to-earth upbringing. Which of the two is more resilient and why?

Cecily: Tragedy is the strongest character in the book, even though she’s the youngest. Adam is going to have to get away from Home to really grow into himself. I love their relationship though. I have a thing for brother- sister relationships.

Jen: Will these characters be part of a new series, or is this a stand alone title? What are you currently working on?

Cecily: I’m not writing a sequel to Cum Laude right now. I’d rather not get stuck in a long-running series, although I’d like to write a sequel at some point. Original I had it in mind to write three books—Cum Laude, Magna Cum Laude, and Summa Cum Laude. But first I’m going to write another book set in the city. Stay tuned….

Jen: Let’s switch gears and talk about your promotional plans. Do you have a website? Do you participate in author phone chats? And if so, how would my readers go about scheduling one?

Cecily: I love speaking directly to my readers and an author chat sounds fun, but I don’t have my own website. I’ve always felt like it’s sort of cheesy to push my wares and an invasion of privacy to be all over the internet. That said, I’ve just started getting into Twitter – check me out at @cesvonz. And book clubs and classes who are interested in having me call in for a discussion of Cum Laude can send a request to As I said, I really do love hearing from my readers.

Jen: Will you be going on a book tour? If so, where can my readers find your schedule of events?

Cecily: I’m doing an event at the Barnes & Noble in Union Square in NYC on July 14 with Candace Bushnell, but I’m not doing an official book tour. If you’d like me to come to a bookstore in your home town please tell the bookstore to contact my publisher. I love to travel and I wish I was doing more of it right now.

Jen: Thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to stop by and chat with my readers. I wish you all the best.

Cecily: Thank you, it was fun.

I hope you have enjoyed my interview with Cecily. Please stop by your favorite bookstore or local library branch and pick up a copy of CUM LAUDE today. Better yet, how would you like to win one instead? Okay, be one of the first five readers answer the following question for a chance to win.

Name the date and location of Cecily’s upcoming book signing.

Later this month, I will be bringing to you my interview with debut novelist Deborah Clearman. You won’t want to miss it.

Until next time…


Interview with Lauren Belfer

A FIERCE RADIANCEModern medicine is fascinating. We all know that the medical breakthroughs that scientists discover today will significantly change the world in which we live. With the help of technology, the wealth of resources available gives us hope that cures for arthritis and cancer are on the way. It’s hard to imagine how disease affected our world, even just fifty or sixty years ago, before today’s common vaccinations were discovered.

This month’s Jen’s Jewels Lauren Belfer tackles that very question in her latest release, A FIERCE RADIANCE. Author of The New York Times Best-selling novel CITY OF LIGHT, she takes the reader on a fictional journey into the discovery of penicillin in her spell- binding new novel. Incorporating true medical advances of the 1940’s within the framework of her romantic suspense tale, she creates the perfect novel to kick- off the long, summer months.

As part of this interview, Harper Collins Publishers has generously donated five copies for you, my favorite readers, to try to win. So, don’t forget to look for the trivia question at the end. And, thanks for making Jen’s Jewels a part of your summer reading.

Jen: The path to publication can sometimes be as interesting as the story itself. So that my readers may have a better understanding of the woman behind the words, please share with us your educational and professional background.

Lauren: I grew up in Buffalo, New York, where my dad taught high school history and my mom taught art and design at the local college. I attended Swarthmore College, outside Philadelphia, where I majored in Medieval Studies. After graduation, I moved to New York City. I have an M.F.A. in fiction from Columbia University. I’ve worked as a paralegal at two law firms, as a fact- checker at several magazines, as an assistant photo editor at a newspaper, and as a file clerk at an art gallery. For eight years, I worked at CBS News, where I started as a secretary, and afterward I worked freelance in documentary film production as a researcher and associate producer.

Jen: What was the driving force behind your decision to become an author? Did you dive in head first, or did you write while working?

AUTHORLauren: I decided to become a fiction writer when I was six years old. I can’t recall what prompted this decision. I do remember that I always enjoyed hearing and telling stories. One day I woke up and knew that I wanted to become a writer. Except for a time in my early 20s when I thought about becoming a photojournalist, I never wavered in that conviction. When I was eight and nine years old, I wrote stories about animals and about powerful princesses. In high school I wrote poetry, for which I received rejection letters from all the best publications around the country. After I finished college, I still dreamed about becoming a fiction writer, but I had to earn a living, too. I’d get up early, before going to my job, to work on novels and short stories.

The first short story I ever published was rejected 42 times before it found an editor who loved it. The second short story I published was rejected only 27 times. This felt like a huge triumph, to go from 42 rejections to 27. All these rejections taught me a lesson about the subjectivity of literary judgments: what one reader hates, another reader loves. Submitting the work for publication is what matters. Persistence has been the hallmark of my writing life.

Jen: Your first novel, CITY OF LIGHT, became a New York Times Best-selling novel. For those readers unfamiliar with your work, please give us a brief overview of the plot.

Lauren: CITY OF LIGHT takes place in my hometown, Buffalo, New York, in 1901 – a time when Buffalo was one of the centers of the nation, one of the most vibrant, exciting, and prosperous places in the country. In 1901, hydroelectric power was being developed in nearby Niagara Falls, and electrification was transforming society. I grew up in Buffalo during its bleak years of recession, however, and I didn’t even know about its glory days when I was young. I learned about this years later, when I happened to stop by the local historical society when I was in town visiting my parents. Once I discovered the city’s glorious past, I felt compelled to portray it in a novel. CITY OF LIGHT centers on a strong, independent woman, Louisa Barrett, whose position as headmistress of a prominent school for girls gives her access to the most important people in the city. But Louisa has a secret, and everything she does is to protect that secret.

I was very lucky with CITY OF LIGHT, which was chosen as a New York Times Notable Book, a Library Journal best book of the year, a number one BookSense pick, and a Main Selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club. CITY OF LIGHT was a bestseller in Great Britain and has been translated into seven languages.

Jen: In terms of the creative process, what was the most challenging part of writing your first novel? And, what did you learn about yourself in the process?

Lauren: CITY OF LIGHT took six years to research and write, and I did the research and writing simultaneously. Often I’d discover something unexpected in my research that I decided to include in the novel, and I’d work it into the lives of the characters. For example, one day when I was waiting in the library for some rare books to be brought out, I glanced at a history magazine which included an article about the awful conditions in orphanages around 1901. What I read was so horrifying that I knew I had to portray it in my novel, and I created a subplot to include this. Alternately, as the characters took on lives of their own, they’d become interested in various issues that in turn I’d research, so that I could help them pursue their interests. (I say this somewhat facetiously, but in fact, when fiction writing is going well, the characters do seem to take over.)

During the six years that I worked on CITY OF LIGHT, I sometimes wondered if anyone would ever want to read what was turning into a five hundred page book about Buffalo. Sometimes I felt despair about whether I would be able to combine all the subplots I had in mind and keep the plot suspenseful for the reader. Whenever I thought about giving up, however, I remembered the 42 rejections for my first published short story, and the 27 rejections for the second, and I pushed myself forward.

Jen: Your latest release, A FIERCE RADIANCE, is a superb historical novel which includes intrigue, romance, and even espionage. Set in New York City in December 1941 after the attack on Pearl Harbor, it follows the scientific discovery of penicillin as a viable medication. How did you arrive at the premise? And, what made you want to explore this topic?

Lauren: The topic of A FIERCE RADIANCE is very personal to me and touches on my own family. For all the years I knew her, my aunt kept on her bureau a photo of her brother in the 1920s, when he was 9 or 10 years old, a blond boy paddling a canoe with his father, both of them laughing, in high spirits. This was the last photo she had of him, because he died at age 11 from a fast-moving infection contracted after a Fourth of July celebration. Antibiotics probably would have saved his life – except antibiotics didn’t exist then. Years after his death, my aunt mourned him. She reflected on the future he was denied and told me about the never-ending anguish of her parents. The light and happiness went out of her parents’ spirits after he died, she said, and she grew up in a home filled with sadness. Her mother never hugged her again, and her father slipped into depression. I wondered how different my aunt’s life would have been, and the lives of her parents, if he’d survived.

When I spoke to friends about this story, they often responded by telling me stories of their own: about a grandmother or grandfather, an aunt or uncle, a brother or sister, son or daughter, who died from a sore throat, or from the scratch of a rose thorn, or from a blister caused by new shoes – the story of a beloved family member who died because antibiotics didn’t exist.

These stories compelled me to write A FIERCE RADIANCE.

Jen: In terms of research, approximately how much was needed in order for the story to ring true with its readers? And, what was one of the most fascinating facts you uncovered?

Lauren: I struggled with how much science to put into the novel so that readers could understand the issues involved with the development of antibiotics but not be overwhelmed by this part of the story. I never lost track of the fact that I was writing fiction – about individuals and their families. The science had to be presented through the eyes of the characters and through their struggles and dreams. I knew nothing about the history of antibiotics when I began to work on the novel, and the research took years. In trying to learn and understand this history, I felt as if I were learning a foreign language – and I had to become fluent in this language, before I could create rounded, believable characters who were living and pursuing the science every day.

The most compelling piece of information I learned during my research was that antibiotics won’t work forever. The problem of resistance has already become so severe that several strains of bacteria are resistant to even the strongest antibiotics. Scientists are trying to develop new types of antibiotics, that will kill infectious bacteria in new ways, but it’s a tough battle. My great fear is that in a few decades we’ll return to the era when children died from a scratch on the knee.

Jen: Your main character Claire Shipley, a well-respected photographer for Life Magazine, is given the monumental assignment of documenting the clinical trials of penicillin. Why did you choose to tell the story from a woman’s perspective?

Lauren: I always conceive my stories and plot lines from a woman’s perspective. I hope I create strong male characters, too, but my lead characters are female. This gives me (as a fellow woman) a passionate concern for the complex issues that motivate the central characters in my novels. I need to feel close to my characters in this way, and give them some of the experiences which I’m familiar with, in terms of raising children, being married, and balancing work with family life.

Jen: Her love interest, Dr. James Stanton, is the mastermind, if you will, behind the trials. Why does he allow Claire to play an active role in the process? What does he see in her that allows him to let down his guard?

Lauren: James Stanton first meets Claire Shipley in her professional capacity, as a prominent photographer for Life Magazine assigned to do a story on a medical test that he’s conducting. They fall in love as equals, each successful in their chosen work. Claire’s independence allows him to let down his guard. Later they discover the vulnerabilities that each has tried to hide.

Jen: How does Claire’s relationship or lack thereof, with her ex-husband significantly impact the way she deals with her estranged father and even with Dr. Stanton? Is her need for independence merely a defense mechanism to protect herself from further disappointment and pain?

Lauren: Independence is part of Claire’s nature. Because she’s so independent-minded, she reacts to disappointment and pain by taking refuge in her confidence that she can support herself and her son both emotionally and financially.

Jen: Detective Marcus Kreindler has the gargantuan task of finding the killer despite the roadblocks from the government. What about this case makes it so personal for him?

Lauren: For Detective Marcus Kreindler, this case is indeed very personal. He thinks of the murder victim (and I don’t want to reveal too much to people who haven’t read the book) as his daughter. He’ll do anything to find the killer. In a broader sense, he’s fiercely independent, with years of work experience, and the more the government fights him, the stronger his commitment becomes to resolve the case on his own terms.

Jen: Consisting of over 500 pages, this novel depicts a volatile period in our country’s history. You touch briefly upon the Japanese internment camps mandated by FDR. In your opinion, what can we do to ensure that history will not repeat itself in spite of the constant threat of terrorism in our country today?

Lauren: History is constantly repeating itself, and sadly I’m not sure there is anything that we, as individuals, can do to stop this. Blind prejudice tends to triumph when people are afraid, or are made to feel afraid, about their futures and the futures of their families. As a fiction writer, I’m interested in how individuals react to the pressures put upon them by their societies and by history itself.

Jen: What do you hope your readers take away from this novel?

Lauren: Most important, I hope readers will enjoy A FIERCE RADIANCE as a good story, with compelling characters. I hope readers will come to care about these characters, about their choices and their fates, as if the characters were members of their own families. I also hope readers will take away a sense of the fragility of life, and of the appreciation we must always have for our loved ones, who can be taken from us in an instant, whether from war, or disease, or an accident crossing the street.

Jen: What’s next for you?

Lauren: I’ll be spending the next few months visiting book stores to talk about A FIERCE RADIANCE. After so many years spent home alone writing, I can’t wait to be out in the world again meeting readers.

In addition, I’m well into my third novel – but I’m very superstitious about work in progress, so I can’t say anything more than that.

Jen: Do you have a website? E-mail notification of upcoming releases? Do you participate in author phone chats? And if so, how would my readers go about scheduling one?

Lauren: My website is

On the HarperCollins website, readers can sign up for Author Tracker, so they’ll know where I’ll be appearing. And I love to do phone chats with readers and learn what’s moving and interesting to them. Readers can contact my publicist at to set up events, or they can learn more about my novel at Harper Collins

Jen: Thank you so much for taking the time out of your touring schedule to stop by and chat with my readers. A FIERCE RADIANCE is a phenomenal novel. I look forward to seeing it at the top of the New York Times Best-seller List. Congratulations!

I hope you have enjoyed my interview with Lauren. Please stop by your favorite bookstore or local library branch and pick up a copy today. Better yet, how would you like to win one instead?

What is the name of the man in charge of the penicillin trial?

Next month, I will be bringing to you my interview with Cecily von Ziegesar, author of the popular Gossip Girls series. You won’t want to miss it.

Until next time…