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Interview with Jo Ann Brown

Author Jo Ann Brown’s prolific career as a best-selling and award-winning author started in 1987 when she sold her first book. One hundred titles later, her books have been translated into a dozen languages and are sold on every continent except Antarctica.
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What were some of the challenges or setbacks you faced before the sale of your first book?
My greatest challenge was not having a network of other writers. We were in the middle of a move from Michigan to Massachusetts with three kids under the age of six, and I was working on a standard typewriter. I wrote three books that way until I got a computer. Six months later, I attended my first writing group meeting on the same day I heard from my first agent that he wanted to see a complete. It amazes me still that he and I connected because I did everything wrong – checking a list of agents and picking the first three and the last three on the list and querying them. But at that first meeting with other writers, I met someone who knew of the agency and assured me I’d be smart to send the complete. I did…and he sold that and several other books to Tudor Publishing.

Looking back over the past 35 years, did you ever dream you’d reach the milestone of 100 titles sold?
I never had publishing that many books as a goal. After my first publisher went out of business, I had three years when I wondered if I’d ever sell more than the six books they’d published. Then I changed genres (a half-step from big historical romances to smaller Regency romances), and I began getting contracts again. During that dry period, I kept writing and collecting rejection letters…and learning and honing my craft. I’ve been steadily under contract since with multiple publishers under multiple pseudonyms.

What is some advice that still resonates with you today?
First and foremost, I urge aspiring authors to listen to the advice from the movie Galaxy Quest – Never give up, never surrender. I tell my creative writing classes that nobody is going to come and knock on your door and ask if you’ve got something they can publish. So it’s important to keep writing, keep submitting (if going the trad route as I have) or keep publishing with the help of a skilled editor (if going indie). In either case, it’s vital to keep learning. Everyone else around you is working to improve their skills, so if you rest on your laurels, you’re going backwards. And, of course, don’t forget the advice of read, read, read in your genre and also widely. Read the best sellers and read first books to see what’s coming on the market now.

What do you consider the greatest moment of your writing career?
Oh, that’s a tough one. Every career has highs and lows, but for me the greatest moment has happened over and over. It’s when I get a fabulous cover which seems like a wonderful gift from my publisher. That’s one part of this job that has never gotten old, and I can’t imagine it ever will!

Being such a prolific writer, you must have discovered a way to balance your writing time with your other responsibilities. What is the routine (or not) that has worked for you? Has it changed over the years?
I definitely have a “regular” work schedule, though it often gets altered by events during the day. I try to write every day from lunch until 4 pm. Then I also work for 1-3 hours late at night. I try to keep my writing hours to five days a week, but when deadlines creep up, my Saturdays become work days, too. I always keep a calendar with a page of daily blocks on my desk. Each day when I finish writing, I make note of the number of new pages and the total amount of words for that day. A good day with good numbers will give me the incentive to keep going. A not-so-good day will make me eager to spend more time with the manuscript. The time I work has changed as my children grew up and needed my attention at different times of the day, depending on what they were doing. Early morning trips for swim club or late afternoon pick-ups for wrestling practice or evening transportation for choir or color guard sessions…and all the other things kids love.

You write in several different genres, how did that come about?
I started out writing historical romances because that’s what I was reading at the time. All the changes in what I write since then from Regencies to cozy mysteries and from general market to Christian market have been because of changes in both the markets and what I was reading and enjoying. I actually moved into cozy mysteries because my editor left one house and went to another and asked me to do a project for her at the new place. A few wanderings from that far-from-straight path came about because of suggestions from my agent. With her help, I’ve done work as a ghostwriter, a collaborator on a two book series in a genre I hadn’t written in before and novelizing two very different feature films.

Who/What spurs you to write? Where do your story and character ideas come from?
I write because I love this gift that God gave me. I’m a terrible oral storyteller, so my only choice for sharing the stories in my head are to write them down. Ideas come from everywhere. Usually a character appears in my mind and begins telling me her or his story, and I want to find out how the story unfolds. Often that happens when I’m doing research. Something in the pages I’m reading triggers that character to come alive and I get to start playing “what if/” But it can be anything that triggers an idea. My first published book came about because the newspaper tv section writer was clearly having a boring day when s/he wrote: Wagons West with John Wayne. Why don’t they go east sometimes? (This was before the Wagons East movie). That throw-away question intrigued me, and within minutes, the characters of a young woman and her family who wanted to head back home from California Gold Rush country after a tragedy came fully formed into my head. I do wish all stories emerged so clearly!

I’ve visited Prince Edward Island before and, of course, had to see where Anne of Green Gables lived. What made you choose that Canadian province as the setting for this series?
JAB: My husband and I had visited Prince Edward Island in 1999 when I was speaking at a conference in New Brunswick. We only had a couple of days there, and we loved it. When I heard the Amish were moving into PEI, I thought it would be fun to work on a miniseries set there. Of course, I got the approval for the series in 2020 in the midst of covid and closed borders, so I had to do a lot of research through memory and YouTube videos and books. We finally got to visit last summer, and I hope what I got to see firsthand has made the books richer and more immediate for readers. And, yes, we drove over to the Anne of Green Gables house!

What message do you hope readers take away from this book?
That God puts each of us in the right place at the right time, even if we don’t realize it at the time.

How do your faith and spiritual life play into the picture and affect your storytelling?
Even before I was writing for the Christian market, I wrote characters with a strong faith at the center of their lives. My favorite Regency heroine, who was in six books and a couple of more novellas, was the widow of an English vicar. Her faith was a part of her just as with my Amish characters…and just as it is part of me. I can’t separate myself from my faith, and I try to write characters who share that.

What do you like most about teaching creative writing?
Seeing light bulbs going off over my students’ heads when they grasp onto a concept. I’ve had about three dozen students published either traditionally or by indie publishing as that choice became available. That’s so exciting, and seeing those light bulbs means they’re a step closer to achieving their dream of holding a book they’ve written in their hands.

What question do you get asked the most from your students?
Usually the most asked questions are about traditional publishing or getting an agent, but I always ask them to save those questions until the last class session. As I tell them, you need to know how to write a good book before you concern yourself with publishing a good book. As far as writing questions, the ones I get asked the most are about point of view and how to write realistic dialogue. I start my classes from a character-centered method, so answering those questions flow naturally.

What do you enjoy doing when you are not writing?
I love taking pictures, especially when traveling (either for research or just for fun). Knitting is a favorite hobby, especially now that we’ve moved out of the sun belt and back to where sweaters are a necessary part of our wardrobes...and I’ve got twin grandsons coming (who should be here by the time this is shared). And reading. I love, love to read just about anything except horror. I was the kid who read the sides as well as the back of the cereal box when I ran out of other things to read.

What books are on your nightstand right now?
Right now, I’m reading back issues of Home Life Inspirational. Short articles that are perfect for quick read. I just finished God’s Guest List by Debbie Macomber and two days before that I was reading The Big Bang Theory and Philosophy. I’ve been reading a lot of nonfiction lately. I tend to do that when I’m deep into a fiction project so I don’t have to worry about someone else’s story bleeding into my own work.

Finish this statement: If I’d known then (at the beginning of your writing journey), what I know now, I would have ____________.
believed that the editor who wrote me a personalized rejection letter back in the first months of my submitting on my own. At the end of the letter, she asked me to send her something else. I thought she was just being nice, so I didn’t follow up. Talk about a beginner mistake!
Besides writing inspirational romantic suspense, Elaine Clampitt enjoys meeting with other writers to support and encourage one another. She loves to travel with her husband, watch ice hockey, play games with friends, family get togethers, and spending time with her sweet granddaughter. She lives in Colorado with her husband and the “Yorkie girls” – PJ and Gracie.

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