As part of the “Writing Family” series, I had the wonderful opportunity to interview Jennifer Gracen, author of the Seasons of Love books. Like many of us, Jennifer is a storyteller with a real passion for writing. Like most of us, she has also had her share of hard knocks, and trying times.
I have had the privilege of watching from the sidelines as Jennifer met her trials head-on, and triumphed over them to become the successful author she is now. So I asked her if she would be willing to share her story, and what role her writing played in the healing process.
Below is her wonderfully transparent interview. Thank you, Jennifer, for sharing your story with us!
Often, when hard times come, the great temptation is to give up entirely on what you love. What was it about your personal crossroads that led you back to your first love of writing?
I wrote a lot as a kid, as a teen, into my 20s, but then stopped when I became a mother of not one but two babies who were precious and delightful but didn’t like to sleep very much. I was sleep deprived for seven years straight, no joke. It’s not a coincidence that I started writing seriously again in the summer of 2009, once both sons finally actually slept through the night regularly and I had more than two hours a day to myself for the first time in years. And once I started writing again, I didn’t stop.
The most intense personal crossroads for me was in 2013. I’d already attained and parted ways with an agent in the beginning of that year. Then, with a new agent I hoped would sign me, I worked on 6 months (2 rounds, 3 months each time) of revisions on one of my manuscripts. My hopes were up, I thought I was close… and after all that work and hope, she declined in the end. I was beyond disappointed. But I immediately queried a few other agents and editors, unwilling to give up. One agent and one editor both took my full MS. The carrot was again dangled very close, but ultimately, they declined too. That just took it out of me. I hit a wall. It got to the point where I was getting bitter, I was drained, and ready to give up. The joy of writing had been beaten down by the letdowns and the rejections, which come over and over in this industry. I’d dealt with that before and managed to keep a hopeful, positive attitude, but not at that point. The whole process of trying to get published had finally flattened me.
Of course, this was coupled with the fact that my personal life completely imploding at the same time. In the early summer, I’d told my husband of 15 years that I wanted a divorce, and that whole situation quickly turned even more toxic than it had already been. It was a horribly stressful situation, needless to say. My young sons were my main concern, and worrying about how all of it was affecting my young kids on a daily basis took a toll. And then, someone who I loved fiercely and thought would be there for me was in and out of my life for months (more disappointment) until by the fall, he ultimately left my life without explanation.
By Fall 2013, the writing stuff hit the wall, and I took two major personal hits. To say I was depressed, disappointed, and disillusioned doesn’t quite cover it. I was the walking wounded. I couldn’t even write. And what was worst of all was, I didn’t want to.
I spent the better part of New Year’s Day 2014 in a ball on my mother’s bathroom floor, crying and having the closest thing to a nervous breakdown I’d ever experienced.
But here’s the thing about hitting rock bottom: there’s nowhere to go but up. And even in the depths of my despair, that exact thought kept going through my head.
It was time to try again. To try something, anything, to nudge myself out of the hole I was in. And I realized that while I had no control over the two personal hits, I had control over the creative hit. Maybe the Universe had been trying to tell me I wasn’t meant to work with any of those agents or editors, and maybe it wasn’t even the right book.
In mid-January 2014, I started writing again. A new book, one I’d been thinking about writing for months. I guess I was ready, because the writing flowed freely, easily. After a few days of writing steadily, when I was confident that my gift hadn’t dried up and it would be sticking around, I let my writing friends online know that I was writing again, because they’d never given up on me, even when I had. Their collective support and warm encouragement meant the world to me. It helped propel me forward. I’ll never forget that.
I guess it was a chicken-or-the-egg thing, in a way: I started feeling better when I started writing again, and when I started writing again, I started feeling better. They were absolutely connected. Over the course of 2014, I found the newer, stronger version of myself and rose from the ashes. I was able to regain my positive mindset and attitude of gratitude that I’d lost when my life was falling apart, and the writing successes I achieved in 2014 absolutely helped.
In the end of February 2014, I got a message from Jesse James Freeman at Booktrope Publishing. He wanted to publish my book. I finally had a publishing deal. The rest is history… a contract with Tule Publishing in June, then signing a 3-book deal with Kensington in September. Surreal. It’s seriously mindblowing.
I am grateful every single day. I don’t take any of it for granted. Every time something good happens with my writing career, when an opportunity comes my way, or when I even get an email from a colleague or a fan (I have a few of those now, whaaat?!?), I very, very clearly remember that day on my mother’s bathroom floor. Seriously, I do. It’s a reminder of where I’ve been, so I’m that much more appreciative of the good things.
Each person’s hardships are very different from the next. Yet the pain and difficulty is, I think, largely recognizable no matter what the circumstances. How did writing help or heal you during this time? Was it one particular writing project that made the difference, or the process itself?
See above looooong answer. 😉
Also, I think initially, it was the writing itself that helped me regain my passion for it. The book I started in Jan.’14, the one I mentioned? It just flowed. And I knew it was decent, that I was onto something good with that book — and it’s the one that I ended up selling to Kensington, that got me my editor and the 3-book deal, so I guess I was right. That book, which is called MORE THAN YOU KNOW and will be released in January 2016, featured a spitfire, wounded heroine… and yeah, I may have channeled some of my angst into her, and that story. Looking back, I guess it did help me heal in some ways, both personally and as a writer. I’m proud of that book, and can’t wait for people to be able to read it.
Looking back, what would you say was the most surprising revelation about your writing — or yourself as revealed through your writing — during this transformative time?
That I was more determined and tenacious and gritty and willing to do the work than I’d thought myself to be. I’m lazy by nature. I am. But not with writing. It’s the one aspect of my life (other than mothering my kids) that I take very seriously, work really hard, and do whatever it takes. And it doesn’t feel like work, because I want to be doing it. It truly is my passion.
How has your writing changed from before your Testing Time? Did it change your entire process, your targeted genre or audience, or just strengthen your overall craft?
Wow, I had to think on this one. My process didn’t change, nor did my targeted genre or audience. I think my writing just keeps growing, hopefully gets better with each book, because I’ve been through more and I hopefully keep learning. I’m an extremely emotional, passionate person, and just as I’m not afraid to live out loud that way, I’m not afraid to channel that and put it into my work. I guess that somehow comes through.
What project are you working on now? Can you give us some hint of what publishing or writing news is on the horizon?
Ah! Great things, thankfully. The trilogy for Kensington, called The Harrisons, all come out over 2016: Book 1, MORE THAN YOU KNOW, in January; Book 2, SOMEONE LIKE YOU, in May; and Book 3 in October, which doesn’t have a title yet because I’ll be writing that one all this summer. The Harrisons are about three very different brothers from a billionaire family from Long Island, NY, and their dynamics put the fun in dysfunctional. I’m so excited for this series to be released; I love those characters.
The Christmas in New York anthology I was part of for Tule last November will be having a follow up. All four of us (Jeannie Moon, Patty Blount, Jolyse Barnett, and I) will be writing summer novellas— again based in NY, featuring secondary characters from the Christmas stories. That project will be my next two months of writing, and it will be released in Summer 2015. I’ve also been asked to write a third book, to come out in November 2015 (in time for Christmas). Yes, a new series, and I’m thrilled! It’s fun writing those passionate McKinnon siblings… I think a trip to Ireland might just HAVE to happen. For research purposes, of course.
And I really want to write another book for Booktrope, but with these my obligations to the other two publishers already on the table, I’m all booked up for 2015, writing wise. I’m not going to be able to start writing another book for Booktrope until I don’t know when, which is a wonderful, amazing problem to have. I’ve discussed this with them, and they’re awesome as always and are patient, for which I am grateful.
Always grateful, for all of it.
To connect with Jennifer on social media or – more importantly – read her books (!), you can check out the following links: