In her nearly 10-year tenure as the former editor-in-chief and editorial director (and now editor-at-large) of Writer’s Digest, Jessica Strawser has interviewed hundreds of globally recognized authors, from Khaled Hosseini, David Sedaris and Alice Walker to (in WD’s February 2018 issue) The Nightingale’s Kristin Hannah. As she spoke with these esteemed thought leaders and steered WD’s success over that time, Strawser learned what she needed to write her 2017 debut novel, Almost Missed You. Now, a year after its release, we turn the mic around to talk to Jessica about her journey from editor to author, and about her new book, Not That I Could Tell, on shelves March 27, 2018.
After nearly a decade working from the WD offices every day, you’re now a full-time writer. How has your routine changed, and what does a day in the life look like?
Given that by the end of my time at WD, I was essentially working two full-time jobs as my writing commitments had grown, the most amazing shift is simply that I’m able to see my children off to school in the morning and to meet the bus in the afternoon. It used to be that if I had an evening author event or a book club meeting to attend, which was happening more and more, I would scarcely see them that day. Now, I can spend quality hours with them even if my workday will later resume and take me away for dinner or for bedtime. We’re all much less stretched in this new family routine.
(Plus, I always leave little notes in my kindergartener’s lunchbox, and sometimes I’ll sit down at the computer to find one from him on my keyboard. It’s the sweetest thing.)
Beyond that, I’ve shifted from a nighttime writer to a daytime writer, and believe it or not, that took some doing! It was what I wanted, but it was also the exact reverse of how I’d been working, and it took some time—stubborn days and weeks of feeling like it was taking me six hours to accomplish what I used to in two—before I started getting comfortable in a new rhythm.
When I first left WD I was still editing for the magazine part-time from home (now I contribute to more select projects, though I do still miss it), but I wrote almost my entire third novel’s draft between Labor Day, when I left the full-time editor’s desk, and Christmas. From January on I’ve been splitting time between promoting the new-in-paperback release of Almost Missed You, gearing up for the launch of Not That I Could Tell, and revising my third novel, which is due later this spring. I’ve also done some freelance work and will be teaching at quite a few conferences coming up. So my schedule is still full, I often find myself back at the laptop after the kids are in bed, just as I used to, and of course now I wonder how I ever managed it all for as long as I did.
When it comes to balancing, what advice would you give to other writers who are parents?
Balance is easier, of course, now that I’ve left my full-time role at WD, but that doesn’t mean it’s ever easy. Sometimes it feels hard to say yes to practically anything without feeling a twinge of guilt over something that must be sacrificed in the process. Whether you’re a parent or not, there will be times when life intervenes and threatens our available time, or our creativity, or even our energy: People get sick, accidents happen.
I suppose my best advice, though I don’t know that I’m qualified to give it, would be to not be afraid to make changes—even scary ones—to sustain the balance you need to keep your head above water, or to make your family a priority, or, at other times, to make your writing more of a priority. It’s a constant juggling act and we’re all just doing the best we can.
I also had a wonderful moment in my WD Interview with Debbie Macomber a few years back when she put our conversation on pause to share her own experiences of pursuing writing when her children were young, and to offer up the perspective that we are setting for them a wonderful example of what it means to follow your dreams, to work hard and to see it pay off. Her children are grown now, and have expressed that to her, and it meant a lot to me that she took the time to impress that upon me. I try to remember that as well.
Parenthood is a central theme in your books, and your settings are areas that you know well (e.g., the Cincinnati area). Considering write-what-you-know and beyond, what prompts you to invest in these themes and settings so deeply?
I think typically I’m focusing on a central question or a theme that I do want to explore more on the page—often questions without clear answers, such as how much stock we should put in the idea of fate (in Almost Missed You) or how much responsibility we should feel toward our friends and neighbors (in Not That I Could Tell)—and the best way I know to focus there is to shore up those themes with things that ground me as a writer, things I know well but will never know completely and thus will always feel called to write about, whether that’s a stage in life or a place in town.
The fuel that feeds the suspense in your plots is the way you gradually unravel your characters’ motivations—even though we, the readers, are inside their heads. How do you go about developing your characters, and how can other writers apply your tactic of maintaining steady mystery about characters with whom we are intimately familiar?
I had just about enough credits for a theater minor in college, and it’s probably evident in the way I sort of channel my characters in my mind, much as an actress might in trying out a new role. I don’t have sheets or checklists or anything formal that I do in advance, but I do try to know some defining characteristics going in, and then build organically from there.
When it comes to the suspense, I always go back to what Lisa Scottoline says on the subject: That characters and plot are, in her view, the same thing, or at least inseparable. Character drives plot, and plot develops character. I try to keep the two intrinsically linked at all times, and when a scene isn’t working, sometimes pulling that thread tighter does the trick.
Both of your books occupy a particular niche of suspense that focuses on friends, family, and domestic intrigue. How did you identify the genre that was right for you?
Domestic suspense is a newer and still evolving hybrid, and this is definitely tricky. Some of WD’s most talented contributors—Paula Munier and Hank Phillippi Ryan among them—have been collaborating on a new site called “Career Authors,” and they invited me there to offer up “3 Rules for Writing Cross-Genre Suspense.” I tried to discuss the pros and cons thoughtfully in a way that might be hard to do more succinctly here, but will gladly redirect anyone looking to do the same to give it a read.
You’ve mentioned that you’re a very disciplined writer. What do you do to stay organized and on track?
It’s not so much a matter of staying organized—while my years managing magazine schedules did teach me to be deadline- and process-oriented, I don’t plot my books out in advance, though I often wish my brain worked that way—but sustaining forward momentum is key for me. In my case, that means at least five days a week at the keyboard, and some purposeful thought toward solving story problems on the days I’m not actively in front of my WIP.
I think a part of me thought that once I had some more flexibility in my schedule, that consistency might evolve into some ebb and flow, but in my experience novels grow better from slow, steady progress than they do from spurts and fits. And so I take very few days off, even now, even when my kids have a snow day or are ill. I might spend only an hour, but I’m trying to repeatedly and reliably show up for the story, having faith that my efforts will pay off if I do.
As someone following in your prestigious footsteps, I have to ask a few questions about WD. What are your top 3 favorite WD interviews you’ve conducted, and why?
That’s such a tough question, because I have so much respect for so many of the writers I’ve interviewed—more often than not I was a fan going into the conversation, and a super-fan coming out. How about we touch on three of my favorites instead? In that case I’d say:
David Sedaris—his thoughtful, humble perspective on his work and how it’s grown, his respect for his readers, and his absolute grace really blew me away.
Lisa Scottoline—I know I already mentioned her, but there’s good reason for that. She also keynoted the WD Conference in 2107 and brought the house down, so I think anyone who was there knows exactly what I mean about her funny, approachable perspective on the craft, her unwavering belief that perseverance is key, and (as mentioned above) her light-bulb-moment-filled craft advice.
David Baldacci—sometimes publishing involves some headaches behind the scenes, and it can help to step back and remember why you love writing so much, why you’ve always loved it, why you never want to stop doing it. That’s David Baldacci, in my memory—pure passion for the craft at the other end of the phone line. It’s contagious, in the best possible way.
If you could interview any author from history, who would it be, and why?
I’d have loved to have the chance to talk one-on-one with Maya Angelou. I saw her speak at a ticketed event when I was a student at Ohio University, and the feeling of even being in the same room with her was just so electric, magic.
WD has been around for almost 100 years! What’s your favorite thing you’ve ever found in the archives?
Oh, I miss the archives! My favorite thing was never any one article or cover image, but simply to be among them—all those old leather binders, some of the pages crumbling, so much history inside. It’s a humbling reminder of how much publishing has changed (some of the advice is so dated it seems unimaginable that things once operated that way), and yet how much the art of writing has remained the same in the loveliest of ways. I can’t wait until they’re released in digital form so that the readers can experience them in full for themselves.
What can you tell us about that third novel you’re working on?
It’s another stand-alone cross-genre suspense/women’s fiction blend, a book club book tentatively titled Forget You Know Me, and with any luck will be out around this time next year.
More about Jessica Strawser:
Jessica Strawser (jessicastrawser.com) is the editor-at-large at Writer’s Digest magazine, where she served as editorial director for nearly a decade and became known for her in-depth cover interviews with such luminaries as David Sedaris and Alice Walker. She’s the author of the book club favorites Almost Missed You, now new in paperback, and Not That I Could Tell, a Book of the Month selection and Barnes & Noble Best New Fiction pick for March 2018. She has written for The New York Times Modern Love, Publishers Weekly and other fine venues, and lives with her husband and two children in Cincinnati. Connect with her on Twitter @jessicastrawser and on Facebook @jessicastrawserauthor.
For a bit of background and deeper insights into Jessica’s process, check out these articles charting the course of her novels’ progress and publication.
- How I Got My Agent and Book Deal: Writer’s Digest Editor Edition
- 10 Lessons Learned Behind the Scenes of a Book Deal (Part 1)
- 10 Lessons Learned Behind the Scenes of a Book Deal (Part 2)
- What No One Tells You About Page Proofs, Blurb Requests & More
- 5 Things All Writers Should Know When Writing a Second Novel
- From One Writing Dream Job to Another