Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Q&A with author Jennie Nash

One of the benefits of socializing on sites such as is getting to know other writers. It wasn’t that long ago I had the pleasure of meeting Jennie Nash, author of The Only True Genius in the Family. Naturally, I recruited her for an interview and am pleased to share this Q&A with you today. Please join me in welcoming Jennie Nash!

Hi Jennie. Can you tell us about The Only True Genius in the Family?
It’s a story about three generations of artists and the concept of whether or not talent is inherited. There is a famous landscape photographer, a prodigy painter, and a mother in the middle who is having a crisis of faith about her ability to make art. In the opening sentence, the famous photographer dies, and the book is very much about what his legacy will be, both in a traditional public sense and in a private sense for his progeny. The characters in the book are constantly creating – sweeping photographs of majestic mountains, paintings of the sea, commercial photos of high end chocolate, the perfect roasted chicken – and they struggle with what it means to succeed, creatively speaking.

Okay. But what’s it really about?
A woman in search of her creative voice, the resentment a daughter has for her father, the jealousy a mother feels for her child – how, in other words, your family can really mess with your creative impulse.

What sources of inspiration led you to write this novel?
I was originally inspired by a magazine article about the 12-year-old prodigy painter from Russia known as Petit Picasso. Her paintings were being sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars – and all I kept thinking about was her mother. What would it be like to be the mother? I did quite a lot of research on prodigies and genius, and was particularly moved by the Joan Aconcella book, Twenty Eight Artists and Two Saints. (Aconcella is the dance critic for The New Yorker, and is something of a genius herself.) One thing I learned was how much the people around very talented people tend to suffer – especially if they have the impulse to create themselves. I began to visualize my characters, and very quickly ended up with three generations of artists who each had very different ideas about the source of creativity.

That’s the “technical” answer. The personal answer –and really, the one that is by far more important -- is that The Only True Genius in the Family was the second novel in a two-book deal. The novel that came before it, The Last Beach Bungalow, was my first novel, but it was my fourth book. I had made a genre switch, and I wrote for three years not knowing if I could even finish a work of fiction, let alone sell it. The agent I had worked with on my non-fiction was not interested in representing my fiction, which was another big worry. So getting a new agent, and then getting the two-book deal on the first novel was just a huge vote of confidence. I had an editor who was waiting to publish whatever I wrote next, and was paying me in advance, to do so. Talk about being given permission. I felt absolutely validated as a writer, completely “legitimate,” and free – for a blessed short time – of any doubt about what I was doing or my ability to do it. I know what it’s like not to feel that; every artist does. And so The Only True Genius in the Family is, simply, a story about that – about a woman coming out of the darkness of creative doubt and into the light of creative sureness. At its heart, it’s a story about my getting to write the story.

What can you tell us about The Last Beach Bungalow?
It’s the story of a breast cancer survivor coming up on her five year cancer-free anniversary and not knowing why she survived – not knowing what the point of surviving really was. She falls in love with a quirky old house, because she thinks that it will give her life -- and her marriage -- the meaning it lacks. You know the way an old house feels – comfortable, and lived in, and resonant with story? That’s what she’s after. The house in question is being sold in a contest by a recent widow who has lived her whole adult life within its walls. The widow wants someone to buy her house who will cherish it the way she has because she, too, is looking for an external validation that her life had meaning. In the end, both women find what they need, but not in the way they expect.

I’m a breast cancer survivor – ten years now, actually – and I was very interested in what happens after you make it. I wrote about the illness part of the story (in a memoir called The Victoria’s Secret Catalog Never Stops Coming and Other Lessons I Learned From Breast Cancer) but that wasn’t the whole story, in my mind. The Last Beach Bungalow was the continuation of the story – and I loved wrestling with these questions in fiction rather than non-fiction. I loved creating drama and imagining possibilities. I was tired of writing about my own life, and was ready to break free.

Tell us a bit about your journey as an author.
I always knew I wanted to be a writer. My dad was a professor and a writer, and I loved the sounds of his typewriter and the quiet in his study. When I was in fourth grade I had some poems published in a school book – mimeographed pages, a cardboard cover – and I was just completely taken with the whole concept of my words underneath my name and other people being able to read it.

I had my first piece published the summer before I went to college, in the Wellesley alumnae magazine, which was the institution where I was headed. I was an English major and I wrote an honors’ thesis that was a collection of narrative essays. I thought that the next step was to go to graduate school, but I had a very wise advisor. He refused to write me a recommendation. He said he thought I would hate it. He said he thought I should go to New York and try to make it as a writer.

I followed his advice – but only halfway. I think what he thought I should do was go and really dig in and write a meaty book. I went to New York and got a job as an assistant editor at Random House, and then I got a job as a magazine editor, and then I began writing for magazines. I was too scared to really just write. I published a memoir (about getting married) at age 25, but honestly, it wasn’t a very good book. I wrote the breast cancer memoir, which I am very proud of and which allowed me to reach a large number of readers, but I followed it with another memoir (about parenthood) that wasn’t very good, either. I didn’t trust my voice, didn’t know what I wanted to say. I was writing out of fear – fear that I would be known as “cancer girl,” fear that I better write another book fast. The Last Beach Bungalow was very healing because I allowed myself to go back to cancer as a topic, and I allowed myself the freedom to write fiction, and I allowed myself the time I needed to get it right. It was a big risk for me, and it paid off. It was a thrill to land that two-book deal.

I have just finished my third novel for the same editor who bought my first two (see below for details), and I feel incredibly grateful for her trust and support. I know that she wants me to succeed, and that she is doing everything she can possibly do to help me build an audience and a career. It’s everything a writer could ask for.

What advice do you have for writers starting out?
Make sure you have something to say and give yourself permission to say it. These things sound very simple, but of course they’re not. It took me about 25 years to finally get it.

I also like the advice Elizabeth Gilbert (of Eat, Pray, Love fame) gives, which is to forgive yourself – for your false starts and wasted pages; for wanting to be a writer in the first place; and if you’re lucky enough to achieve it, for your success. Being a writer takes a lot of self-forgiveness.

As for practical matters, I’m something of an evangelist for Twyla Tharp’s book, The Creative Habit. Tharp teaches you how to do it – how to actually live a creative life. It’s all well and good to have a story to tell or a facility for putting words together on a page – or both – but you have to also know how to pin down an idea, how to organize your day, how to open your mind to inspiration.

How has social media and technology changed the way you connect with readers?
Social media has made me realize that it’s my job to reach out to readers, to answer their questions, to pique their interest. It’s not something I squeeze in when I’m not writing; it’s an important undertaking in its own right—and becoming even more so. Readers no longer want their favorite writers to be unreachable. They want to interact with them, learn about their creative process, know something of their lives. I’m desperately trying to learn how to be an effective blogger and twitter-er while still being a good writer – oh, and a good wife and mother, too! I feel like I’m scrambling to figure it all out, but I also know that I’m hardly alone in the struggle.

You’re also a fan of meeting readers at book clubs. Care to share some experiences?
I love visiting book clubs, both in person and virtually. It’s just such a thrill to be in a roomful of people – usually woman, in my case – who have shared the experience of reading my work. I feel very humbled by it, because people see things in my work that I never knew was there. My oldest daughter’s AP English class read The Only True Genius in the Family this year, and it was an amazing experience. I walked away being simultaneously humbled and boosted up – humbled by their ability to analyze text and boosted up because I was able to clearly see what my subconscious had wrought! They kept saying things like, “I loved how you brought back the light/lightning motif in the storm scene,” and I would be thinking, There’s a light/lightning motif? Really? I couldn’t wait to get out of there to go check out all the places where I had mentioned light and lightning.

What title(s) can we look forward to next?
I just finished my third novel, which is called The Threadbare Heart. It’s a love story inspired by something that happened to my mother on her first weekend at Wellesley College in 1956. There’s also a mother-daughter component to this book – an intergenerational disagreement about what love is, and how you get it and hold onto it and what it means when it’s gone. It’s due out from Berkley Books in May 2010.

I feel the stirrings of my fourth novel, but they haven’t yet taken shape.

How can readers learn more about you and your writing?
Visit me at Write me emails at Invite me to visit their book clubs.

Thanks, Jennie! I appreciate you taking the time to talk about The Only True Genius in the Family and your latest news.

There are more great interviews with authors around the corner. I look forward to the many insider tips, personal stories, and successes upcoming authors will share. Too, if you have any suggestions for the author Q&A – or any other aspect of this blog – feel free to let me know your thoughts. I always welcome mail from readers!

Thanks for joining in today. Until next time…


  1. A published memoir at 25?! Wow that gives me great hope. Cause others are doing it, have done it and were published and at 25 I am guessing she had little in the way of platform.
    New book sounds great:)

  2. Hey Tabitha!

    Age is but a number… but it’s always encouraging to hear of really early successes, as well as successes achieved in one’s elder years when least expected. Both extremes are wonderful to hear about.

    As for platform, I know that’s the buzzword of late, but I think there has always been that one truth in writing and publishing: all you need is a good book, good timing, and a good dose of luck. Only one of those is controlled by the writer, which makes for a curious list of ingredients, but it’s also what keeps us all working at it, doesn’t it? :)

  3. Thanks for the great interview, Lori! It was fun to answer your questions! Cheers!