Today, I welcome author, Jenn J McLeod, into the attic.
These days, Jenn lives the gypsy life in a fifth-wheeler caravan, her days spent writing heart-warming, small town fiction: tales of friendship, family and contemporary country life. House for all Seasons was Nielsen’s #5 Best Selling Debut Novel in 2013. Her fourth novel, The Other Side of the Season, is out now with Simon and Schuster Publishers.
Along with writing her own novels, she’s a great supporter of emerging writers, including myself. Please enjoy reading her story.
Embracing a second chance
‘I do so in the hope it tells other dreamers that it’s never too late to embrace a second chance at life.’
I think I grew up wrong.
When I look through my attic I find only the remnants of the life I was supposed to live. There’s music—lots and lots of music—and not so many books. That’s because I was expected to be a multi-disciplined musician (like my Dad), study piano at The Conservatorium (like my Aunt), or be a famous opera singer (like my cousin, Michael Lewis, whose sons Ben and Alexander Lewis are making their own musical mark internationally). My childhood was all about music. I was the all-dancing, all-singing brat who, when not being pushed into impromptu performances by proud parents, would hide in my bedroom singing into a hairbrush and dreaming of making it big in Broadway musicals.
Anything but a novelist!
While I did dabble with words at a young age they were mostly lyrics—poems that when combined with a tune (thanks to my bedroom mirror and trusty hairbrush) were like those ‘angsty’ country ballads that can tell an entire story of heartbreak and betrayal in a single song. (I’m sure you’ve heard the joke: if you play a country song backwards, the guy gets his girl and his job back, finds whatever he’s lost, quits crying and leaves the bar sober!)
So, no, I wasn’t born to be a writer and I wasn’t delivered into this world with a pen in my hand. Unlike many, I proudly admit to being a late bloomer when it comes to books. I do so in the hope it tells other dreamers that it’s never too late to embrace a second chance at life.
My late love of books has meant trying to fit a lifetime of reading and learning into the latter decade of my life because I was told when first embarking on this publishing journey: “To be a good writer you must be a great reader”.
Yes, I wish I’d appreciated the importance of books earlier, but reading about someone else’s life wasn’t my idea of fun. I was too busy living my own, which basically meant disco-ing my twenties away—Saturday Night Fever style, even though Dad did not think disco rated as music. In my thirties I tried to find the discipline required to learn to play piano. Instead, the old upright has languished in the living room with daddy longlegs weaving their web around the piano’s soundboard and strings. Two decades later, with the urge to start weaving stories, I learned about discipline and patience the hard way.
The publishing dream tests a person in more ways than I ever imagined and while there is a stack of advice out there, perhaps one of the best and most succinct is a quote I pinched from a previous essay in Louise’s ‘attic’ series by WA author, Marlish Glorie: “Often, I think of my life not as a writer but as a reader.”
I love that, along with my own tip—“Be a storyteller first and a writer second”. That refers to my early writing experiences when I would try so hard to be a writer that I put all the emphasis on grammar and punctuation and making every sentence perfect rather that telling a story. It took a writing challenge (getting 50,000 words down in 30 days) to flip my brain and my focus. Finally I understood I needed to be a storyteller first. Even now, after four novels, I’ll still remind myself: “Stop trying to be a writer. Just tell the bloody story!”
What a massive turning point. That writing challenge helped me understand who I was as an author, while reading other novels helped me understand how I could develop a point of difference and a style/voice that brings something different to the Australian rural genre. My stories are about women in their forties and fifties embracing a second chance at life and love and the issues covered are serious, but laced with a little humour, because we all need to laugh more.
I’m no stranger to embracing a second chance and trying something different, which might explain why, at twenty-three, I left my hubby of two years to travel the Australia outback with a girlfriend. We headed off, much to my dad’s dismay, with $400 in our pocket, a Ford F100, a tent and a rifle that neither of us knew how to use. Our first job was only four weeks out of Sydney—a roadhouse on the turn-off to Uluru (Ayres Rock, as it was called at the time). We filled up our fuel tank only to be told: “no credit card here, love”. So we stayed and worked off the amount we owed (in the process adding to our $400) before heading to Alice Springs, Katherine Gorge and Darwin and all the way down the west coast (which I hope to get back to one day soon).
Two years later we were home: no wealthier, but wiser and richer in the ways that matter the most. I knew one day I’d go back to the country for good.
In 2003, my partner and I decided to do the big sea change. First a café in a seaside town of Sawtell (NSW), then a country B&B for dog lovers, until August 2014 when we hit the road full-time in a 24 foot caravan.
Regrettably, I still can’t play the piano (although just as well as I have no idea where one would fit in the van!). But I do have a tiny desk where I sit and write my very big stories. I’ve come a long way since my first writing attempt at age nine. (The Naughty Painter was about a pup whose penchant for paint tins gets him in a whole lot of poop!)
I still love dogs (rescuing many in my time) and my passion for storytelling has become an addiction. I’m living the gypsy life in a fifth-wheeler caravan, touring the country and visiting rural towns to talk—my days and nights spent writing heart-warming tales of the Australian country that weave intricate tapestries of friendship, family and love, contemporary human issues and small-town life. Stories and characters that will make you laugh, maybe even cry, but definitely embrace a second chance.
We all deserve one of those.
I’m overwhelmed by the response to this series of essays, both from readers and writers. I have pieces booked until mid-September, but please continue to send them in, or start writing one now—you have plenty of time to get it to me!
The invitation is open to published and unpublished writers, in any genre—fiction, non-fiction, blogging, journalism, even those who secretly journal! You can be of any age, gender, experience, nationality, or background.
I want to know your writing story, told through your eyes—your inspirations and goals, the reasons you write, and the obstacles and battles your face. (If you’d prefer a Q&A, I can send some questions to ponder.)
I envision the posts being 600-1200 words in length, but that’s not set in stone. I’m drawn towards personal writing that digs beyond the superficial, but only write what you are comfortable sharing. Pseudonyms are welcome, too.
I’d also need a photo, a concise bio, and a link to your website and publications.
If I publish your essay, I’ll send a $20 gift voucher from Booktopia (or Amazon if you’re overseas).
Please drop me a line via the Contact page if you’re interested in writing something for this series—I’d love to hear from you!