Meet Jenny Wingfield, Homecoming Queen!
If you read my review last week of The Homecoming of Samuel Lake, you are already a bit acquainted with the work of Jenny Wingfield. We met (cyber-like) through a mutual friend, Kathy Patrick (a great book club cheerleader and founder of the 400+ chapter book club, The Pulpwood Queens) who told me, “You have GOT to read this book!” (It’s hard to say “No” to Kathy, so naturally, I did.) When I fell in love with The Homecoming of Samuel Lake, and the Moses and Lake families—I contacted Jenny and asked if she would like to be a guest on Book Club Cheerleader, and she graciously accepted. (I guess it helped that I was already such a drooling fan of her work…) In any event, here’s an email interview of Jenny who chats with us about her book, and writing process. Three cheers for Jenny!
BCC: Every writer starts with inspiration. What was the inspiration for The Homecoming of Samuel Lake?
JW: I started out tinkering around with the idea of writing a play. With no particular story in mind to tell, I envisioned three sets in one (the house, the store, the bar), plopped in a few family members as the main characters—and those rapscallions took over. My grandfather was bound and determined to kill himself just like in real life, I couldn’t keep the kids on the set (they kept running off to play in the pasture), and the very first line I wrote sounded more like the beginning of a novel than the opening of a play. Before I could get the situation under control, Samuel came back from Methodist Conference without a pastorate (another thing that happened in real life), the family moved in with the widowed grandmother (something that did not happen in real life), and my plans for writing a play evaporated—at least for the time being.
BCC: Some authors sit down at their computers and let their muse do the writing and their characters dictate the plot—it sounds like you might be one of those! On the other end of the continuum, some others fully outline their books before they begin to flesh out the details. What is your writing process and at which end of the continuum do you write?
JW: I tend to do a combination of the two. I’ll get an idea and start playing around with it. I make up characters, or pluck them from real life, and describe them (usually in a notebook) in a good bit of detail. Then I start playing “what if”. What if this is going on, and then that happens?
Basically, a story starts out with “Once upon a time, everything was going along just like normal, and then something happened that changed everything.” And that’s every story that’s ever been told. I don’t care whether you’re talking about Cinderella or Ghost Busters or Gone With the Wind. There were these people living over here or over there, and this is what their lives were like, and then KABOOM—all of a sudden, they had a situation on their hands. The rest of the story is what they did about it. How they resolved it, and how they changed in the process. I want to know before I start out who these people are, what they ordinarily do, how they look at life, what they consider themselves capable of. I also want to avoid writing myself into a corner or wandering along aimlessly, so I spend a lot of time on this part of the process.
Of course, once I start actually writing, the characters take over, and they may tell me what I can do with my outline. Generally, I listen to them, because they’re better writers than I am.
BCC: I heard you say that writing this novel was like dancing. Could you elaborate on what you meant?
JW: I meant that, in writing this story, I could literally feel the rhythm of it. It picked me up. It carried me. It spun me around. You know how you can dance for hours, and feel exhilarated instead of getting tired? That’s the way it was with this work. I’d go to bed at night when I came to what my mother would have called “a stopping place”—and the story would keep whirling in my head. Not in a worrisome, stressful way. It was more like I could still hear the music. Sometimes I’d hear a new chord or progression, and I’d jump out of bed and go fix some passage that hadn’t been ringing clear, and then I’d go back to my room and go to sleep smiling.
JW: Writing screenplays taught me a lot about structure and the need to keep the work a bit on the lean side. Lovely words are wonderful, but I don’t want the reader to start skimming over poetic passages to find out what happens next. Something what blows me away is the realization that I’ve also learned a lot about writing from having studied watercolor. The same principles apply. Overlapping, interlocking, juxtaposition—and the vital fact that when the lightest light, brightest bright and darkest dark are all brought together in one place, the effect is powerful.
BCC: That’s a great analogy and it also explains why so many artists work in more than one medium!
It’s often said that ”good writers are good readers.” What other authors or books have influenced your life and your writing?
JW: One of my favorite books of all time is A Patch of Blue (originally titled Be Ready With Bells and Drums), by Elizabeth Kata. The first time I read it, I got so excited I wanted to jump out of my chair and shout out loud. The dialogue hummed and sizzled and crashed and whispered. It was alive! You could see the people. You could almost smell them. And yet the sentences were simple and straight to the point. That one book had an incredibly strong effect on me, because the writer just told an honest story in all its beauty and ugliness and glory.
Other favorites are Mark Twain (first, last, and always), Truman Capote, Irwin Shaw, Harper Lee, Frank McCourt, Dennis Lehane, Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman—the list is long and varied.
BCC: Were any of your characters based on anyone you know, or were they composites?
JW: Most of the major characters in this book were based on my family (but, yes, some were composites). Every time I say these things, I feel compelled to remind people that, although some of the people and events are real, the story is fiction.
BCC: It’s said that Harper Lee wrote Scout in her own image. Does Swan have a lot of Jenny in her?
JW: Oh, yes, she does. She has my hardheadedness, my yearning to fit in, my indignation over cruelty of any sort, my tendency to leap first and go “uh-oh” in mid-air. She’s braver than I was at that age, though, and much better at cussing. (I was a late bloomer in that department.)
BCC: I found the given names in your novel to be quite humorous—this from a woman with Aunts named “Fannie Lee” “Mona Belle” and “Dillie Mae” and a father with the surname “Toy.” “Swan Lake” especially gave me a chuckle. Did you actually know people with these names—or did you just have fun making them up?
JW: I truly did know people with these names—all except for “Swan”—and since the book came out, I’ve even read about a woman with that given name.
BCC: I don’t think I have read about a character as truly vile as Ras Ballenger since Bob Ewell of To Kill a Mockingbird and August Rosenbluth of Water for Elephants. How did you arrive at such an evil antagonist?
JW: Ras Ballenger is modeled after the only truly evil person I’ve ever known. And, believe it or not, the real Ras made the fictional Ras look like a cherub.
BCC: Yikes! Glad I never met him (or her…)
We all know someone who has lost their job in these tough economic times. Why is Samuel’s situation so much worse than your typical job loss?
JW: Samuel’s hardest struggle was to figure out what was going on between him and God. With so many troubles hitting him at once, he had to wonder why all his faith and faithfulness weren’t paying off. He hadn’t just lost his livelihood; he’d lost the feeling that he had God’s favor. For a man like Samuel, nothing could be more devastating.
BCC: I loved your use of paradox in the story—Calla’s love for her husband vs. her behavior toward him; Willadee’s support for her husband’s ministry vs. working in her family bar; Toy’s reputation as a war hero and a murderer. What was your favorite paradox in the book?
JW: Probably Toy. He was a man of few words, but when he spoke, people listened. He loved selflessly and beyond all reason, but he covered the ground he stood on. I didn’t set out to write him as a hero, but every time he showed up in a scene, he seemed to quietly take over. A young woman came up to me at a book signing a while back, with tears in her eyes, and confided, “I want to meet someone just like Toy.” And I thought, “Darlin’, we all do.”
BCC: “Homecoming” reminded me of one of my favorite books, East of Eden for its strong theme of Good and Evil. Was this intentional? Was there any “message” you wanted to get across to your readers?
JW: It definitely was not intentional. There’s an unusually good man in this story, and an unfathomably bad one, and they come up against each other, but I didn’t plan it that way. As a matter of fact, Ras got into the mix by accident. In the scene in the store, where Swan has asked Toy if it’s true that he killed a man for messing with Bernice (and Toy has shut down on her), I just needed a way to get out of the scene without losing the juice of their confrontation. It wasn’t until I wrote that a red Apache pickup truck was pulling up out front that I knew who had to be behind the wheel. And even then, I didn’t dream where his arrival would lead.
I never had any message that I wanted to get across to the world. I just started spinning a yarn, and the characters did what was in their nature to do.
BCC: I heard that your working title for this novel was “Moses Never Closes” a nod to the two retail operations run out of the Moses home. How and why did the title change?
JW: My editor, and apparently everyone in New York who was consulted on the subject, felt that my title was less than literary. (For one thing, it rhymed. And for another—well, there were a number of “other things”.) I thought of Moses Never Closes as being a character in its own right. “A certain place, in an uncertain world.” It even has its own personality and character arc. I dug my heels in and argued my case for a very long time before deciding that it was remotely possible I could be wrong and anyone who disagreed with me could be right. I mean, maybe the reason Susan Kamil is so respected in the publishing world is because she knows her stuff. Y’know?
BCC: That’s a great way of explaining it. I think some of the best stories include the setting or sense of place as a character.
There is a lot of tragedy in the book, yet it manages to be hopeful. In addition, the difficult dramatic scenes are balanced by some great comic relief. What is one of your favorite gags in the book and how did you come up with it?
JW: I had an awful lot of fun writing about Papa John and his interrupted suicide attempt, although honestly, I don’t think of that scene as a gag. It’s something that might actually happen under those circumstances, and he’d be humiliated by it.
To me the funniest parts of the book are just odd bits of dialogue. The story is told the way my family and I talk, and sometimes nothing is more comical than the truth—especially when the speaker is trying to get away with a whopper of a lie.
BCC: I just noticed when I posted my review on GoodReads, that “Homecoming” currently enjoys a 4.31 average rating—which is phenomenal! So obviously it’s being well-received by your readers. Have you gotten any surprising feedback or reactions from any of them?
JW: I was a little surprised that so many people commented on the names. (In the places I’ve lived, these names are not all that unusual.) I’m thrilled that so many people have said such good things about the book, and when a reviewer points out some particular passage that spoke to him or her, I’ve noticed that it brings back whatever feelings I was experiencing when I wrote the lines. Every time that happens, I want to find the person and hug them.
BCC: Some reviewers have categorized your book as “Christian Fiction.” What is your reaction to that label?
JW: When I was writing this, I expected that some people would dislike it because it doesn’t promote a traditional view of religion, and that some would pass it by figuring it would turn out to be a sermon posing as literature. The truth is, I wasn’t trying to promote any particular belief, and I wasn’t trying to undermine one, either. I had these characters, and I tried to get inside their heads and hearts and tell their thoughts and feelings. To Samuel, God is as real as his wife and children are, and nothing is more important. As Willadee puts it, Samuel is in love with God, and when someone is in love, they just can’t stop talking about it. Swan is full of doubts and questions, but she thinks in the same terminology her father uses, because she’s heard it all her life. None of the other characters care one way or the other about religion. (Okay, Bernice pretends to, but she’s using religion to try and get Samuel into bed with her.) This is not a religious story. It’s a story with one main character who is deeply religious.
BCC: I’m sure all of your fans are looking forward to your next project. So, tell us, what are you currently working on?
JW: I’m working on a murder mystery, which gives me a few qualms, since I don’t know how readers who loved “Homecoming” will react to it. It’s a thriller, not a horror story, but when my daughter read it, she announced that she wasn’t going to sleep in the same house with me anymore.
BCC: Well after reading your wonderful book and chatting with you, tell your daughter that you can come and stay with me any time! Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts with our readers, and I hope to actually meet you in person next January at the Pulpwood Queen’s Girlfriends Weekend in East Texas!