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Interview with Jennifer Lamont Leo

Jennifer Lamont Leo writes as if she saw the 1920s firsthand. She was probably born in 1909 and is celebrating her 108th birthday. Or something like that.

One year ago, sitting across from her at a conference, I was amazed at her youth and vitality. She looked and acted like a cute kid. Her life goals are gaining traction in the prime of her life. I could be wrong about her age, of course. Maybe she has a time machine? Yes, that’s it. She scurries about through time.

For Jennifer, history is seductive. But that doesn’t mean she thinks she was born in the wrong era. “I’ve always been fascinated with the past,” she said. “But, I just have a vintage soul.”

Her favorite authors, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Maud Hart Lovelace, and Lucy Maud Montgomery, attest to her love of the past. Jennifer writes history so clearly the reader feels like she’s standing in the 1920s.

How does she do it?

Jennifer has always loved words; choice words trigger a reader’s imagination. “I’m a voracious reader. “And I think if you read a lot, you naturally pick up an ear (or eye) for language, the way music-lovers develop an ear for music.”

Growing up, her family enjoyed word games. An appreciation for words, “a good turn of phrase or a sparkling morsel of wit or cleverness,” as she said, combined with her double major of English and French in college, has given her a natural clarity with her word choices.

Jennifer’s novel, You’re the Cream in My Coffee, started with a ‘what if’ question 12 years ago. “What if a woman, still mourning the death of her sweetheart in battle, visits a strange city and thinks she sees him walking around, alive and well?” She wrote a rough draft for NaNoWriMo, but then set it aside for two years. Finally, she decided to give the manuscript a fair shot, so she learned the craft of writing, attended conferences and workshops, and joined a critique group. Polished and perfect, her book was published.

Integrating issues in fiction

While charming, You’re the Cream in My Coffee doesn’t shy away from tough social and spiritual issues.

Front and center of her book stands the 1920s plus practice of Prohibition, the prevention by law of the manufacture and sale of alcohol. Alcohol is still a controversial topic in Christian circles, but Jennifer believes the topic is complicated. Her study of history enabled her to bring forward lessons from the past.

“I wanted to show the different sides,” she said. “While the ‘drys’ were well intentioned for wanting to eliminate societal ills that, in their view, were brought on by alcohol abuse, I believe they went about it the wrong way.” Sweeping government intervention, Jennifer suggests, is rarely an effective tool for solving social and moral problems.

In fact, her research showed that instead of reducing problems associated with alcohol, Prohibition inadvertently gave a boost to underworld vice and crime, and allowed homemade moonshine to sicken and occasionally kill people.

“As for the ‘wets,’ I don’t believe for a minute they were all unprincipled people looking for a chance to get drunk,” Jennifer said. “Many decent, upstanding people, including recently-arrived immigrants, were accustomed to enjoying beer and wine in moderation as a valued part of their culture.” So while You’re the Cream in My Coffee’s heroine, Marjorie, is a teetotaler, Jennifer hopes readers don’t come away with the idea that Prohibition was a great idea.

As for fashion in the 1920’s when shorter skirts and shorter hair were the fashion, Jennifer wanted to show that a woman doesn’t have to be frumpy in order to have high moral standards. “Compared to many of today’s fashions, 1920s fashions were downright modest—at least those worn by everyday working women like Marjorie.”

Her daily routine

Jennifer Leo at her desk in her office

Jennifer’s day typically begins at 5 a.m. with personal devotions. She then joins her husband for an hour to pray and read aloud together. By 7 a.m., she’s eating breakfast and shortly afterward starts pounding out fantastic words on her keyboard.

After lunch it’s either a nap or exercise—“too often the nap wins”—then she moves into editing clients’ projects and the business side of writing. The evenings are reserved for her husband and two cats.

While writing, she feeds her muse. “I often play a 1920s music channel (thank you, Pandora!) or classical music, while I work at my incredibly messy desk in my writing room that overlooks the mountain.

“Often a deer walks by my window, occasionally a moose. I also have a wing chair for non-computer work such as reading, but it’s usually occupied by the cats.” Jennifer plots before she writes and derives her original characters from a Myers-Briggs personality type.

Why writing?

Jennifer, who lives in the mountains, drinks coffee, prefers North America to Europe, enjoys romance over adventure, eats vegetables before fruit, prefers the stories from the days of black and white television, and is reading Tomorrow Will be Better by Betty Smith. She’s writing a play for her local history museum, where she volunteers and finds ocial media to be somewhat of a chore.

So, with all of these other activities, what made Jennifer think, ‘Hey, writing a book is a good idea’?

“When I was around 10, my mother took me to a bookstore appearance of Marguerite Henry, the author of Misty of Chincoteague. That was my first inkling that being an author was a ‘thing,’” she said. “Later, I studied English in college, intent on becoming an author, but after college I got distracted. I bounced around several jobs until I landed on the marketing side of book publishing and knew I’d found my tribe. Eventually, I was encouraged to test my writing wings.”

What about research?

Research actually makes Jennifer feel a little “unhinged,” she said. “When I walk into an old building, I can feel its history. It’s as if the modern people and trappings fall away and I can hear the people who came before, and their stories,” she said. “Then I find out as much as I can about the world they lived in. I rely a lot on books, magazines, newspapers, and catalogs of the period to clue me in on clothing, food, décor, and what people in general were thinking and talking about.

“For You’re the Cream in My Coffee, I also researched the history of Marshall Field & Co., even down to old promotional materials and employee rules.”

If being unhinged is what it takes to devise a tale as charming and thought-provoking as You’re the Cream in My Coffee, then nobody’s going to say a word to Jennifer about her methods. Don’t miss her amazing story. And, good news, she’s just finished the first draft to the book’s sequel!

When you meet Jennifer, tell her how great she looks for just celebrating her 108th birthday!

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Peter Leavell, a 2007 graduate of Boise State University with a degree in history, was the 2011 winner of Christian Writers Guild's Operation First Novel contest, and 2013 Christian Retailing's award for Best First-Time Author. Peter and his family live in Boise, Idaho. For entertainment, he reads historical books, where he finds ideas for new novels. Whenever he has a chance, he takes his wife and two homeschooled children on crazy but fun research trips. Learn more about Peter's books, research, and family adventures at www.peterleavell.com.





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