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Interview with Jennifer Rogers Spinola

Like Sweet Potato Pie is Book 2 in Jennifer Roger Spinola’s Southern Fried Sushi series. It begins where book one ends with new Christian, Shiloh Jacobs, discovering what it means to live your faith in today’s world.

Jennifer, you have enough serious and hilarious tales of Shiloh Jacobs’ life to fill not only the first two books in this series, but a third as well. When you first began to write Shiloh’s story, did you envision stretching it out into three full-length novels?

Actually I tend to write a LOT once I get into the story, so I had planned four or five novels in the series. It was hard to condense it all into three!

Who chose the titles?
I came up with the titles, and Barbour liked them. I literally scratched out a brainstorm list on an old spiral notebook until I came up with combinations that seemed to fit.

How much of your globe-trotting travels have you incorporated into this series?
Many. I did live in Japan for two years (although not Tokyo), so writing this book was my way of reliving those moments in Japan where everything seemed new, wonderful, and exciting. I didn’t bring up Brazil much, or any of the other countries I’ve visited, although I hope to incorporate them in future novels.

How much of your faith, missionary experience and spiritual life finds its way into your storytelling?
Again, much. I fell in love with the Japanese people and so many aspects of Japanese culture even before living there, and it was a true blessing and gift to live among them for nearly two years. I also find that it’s hard for me to write fiction without including – or even basing – my stories on my longing to see people saved and set free from old habits and problems.

What sparked the idea for Shiloh’s story and when did you start writing it?
The idea for the book isn’t particularly glamorous or spiritual. I had been living in Brazil for about six years and was, to be blunt, sick of being a foreigner. I was homesick, lonely for my old American ways (like writing), and burned out from two difficult teaching jobs in a row. So without money for a ticket home, I found a cheaper way: conjuring up the old familiar, homey images through writing. It felt almost like a nostalgia-laced trip to the past and the present at the same time.

I started writing in January of 2009 shortly after praying for new and fresh ideas, and suddenly I had one. I never intended it to be published, though – just to fill up computer pages and bring back the joy of travel, memories, and fiction writing that I’ve enjoyed nearly all my life.

Reflecting back, what do you see as most significant to your publication journey?
The most significant thing, without question, was meeting my old coworker and friend Roger Bruner toward the end of 2009. Roger and I worked together at the International Mission Board (in different departments), and since then he’d become a popular published author with Barbour.

Until I met Roger and his wife, Kathleen, I knew about writing – but I didn’t know a thing about publishing. They took my manuscript and taught me about word counts, proposals, agents, and so many other aspects of publishing that proved invaluable. In fact, it was through Roger and the Barbour link that I was even able to come into contact with Rebecca Germany, who is now my wonderful editor.

After publication, it was definitely my crit group (Shelly Dippell, Karen Schravemade, Christy Truitt, and Jennifer Fromke) who made a huge impact on my writing as it is today. They are all fabulous writers and amazing Christian women, and together they hold a wealth of writing and publishing knowledge that is just mind-boggling.

What’s your biggest challenge in balancing writing time with your other responsibilities?
Well, I’ve got a super active three-year-old, so it’s really hard finding any time at all. When I was on deadline my husband was gracious enough to let the housework slide a bit, and he told me to write every minute Ethan was sleeping and not try to catch up on dishes or laundry. That was what I did until I got pregnant, and now I’m so tired I have to sleep when he does!

My goal is to carve out a little bit of time to write at night before Ethan wakes up.

What do you think makes your style of storytelling unique?
I think the thing that stands out to me is my habit of coupling humor and tragedy side-by-side. I’ve heard several readers say that the style seemed at first like a comedy, with funny one-liners and “laugh out loud” parts, but then in the next turn of phrase there’s a tragedy, or a deeper thrust that sort of sticks you in the gut. I’ve always liked coupling humor with tragedy because, for most of us, that’s sort of how life is.

Finish this sentence... If I won a trip to anywhere in the world, I would go to...
Japan because I haven’t been back since 2003, and I miss it. I still dream in Japanese sometimes.

Any parting words?
I remember when I was talking to Dr. Gayle Price, a favorite English professor of mine, about writing. I told her that I didn’t have any “publishable” ideas, and that nothing I had in mind would ever see the light of day on an editor’s table.

“Write anyway,” she told me soberly. “A true writer writes not to get published, but because she can’t not write.” Publishing is just the icing on the cake along the journey.

Dr. Price passed away a few months ago, just two weeks before I planned to visit her after moving stateside. But I’ll never forget her words, and the truth that she planted in me so powerfully all those years ago before “Sushi” had even entered my mind.

Thanks for sharing with us, Jennifer.

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