Monday Morning Indie Interview
Somewhere out there is a book, one book, not a series, that you wish you had written. What is that book? Why? I wish so badly that I had written The Witch of Blackbird Pond that I am currently writing a story to pay homage to it! (See A Scalp on the Moon discussion below.) Why? Because this is my favorite childhood book, and I re-read it every year! I even named one of my kids after Nathaniel Eaton, although I’ve never told him that. Luckily there is a Nathaniel on my family tree, so I had a good excuse to use that name without revealing to my son that he just might have been named for a romantic hero from a book I first read in 8th grade!
What exotic setting would you like to visit and then use for a new book? Why? The exotic settings I am interested in visiting and writing about are all in the past: a theater in Restoration England, small towns in 1675 Puritan Massachusetts or 1825 New Hampshire, family and military conflicts in 1777 Pennsylvania, etc. Although I have visited many countries, and lived in a couple outside the U.S. (Brazil and Holland), for some reason I find the past to be far more exotic, compelling, and inspiring as far as writing is concerned. Don’t ask me why!
Who most influences your writing? Why? This is tricky to answer, as the primary influencers on my writing are the authors of great books for young readers written years ago. That is hardly present tense influencing. Of course, on a nuts and bolts level, what influences my writing of historical fiction for kids are the tiny details I find in my research that speak to me and inspire me to find ways to weave them into my stories. I always tell students that I feel as if I am panning for gold. (As a fellow writer in this genre, I’m sure you know exactly what I’m talking about, Connie.)
What is your biggest problem in writing historical fiction for young readers at this point? I used to be able to do research and keep the big picture, what I think of as the “virtual reality”, of my historical setting pretty much in my head while I was writing a story. Now that I am in the “grandmother” stage of my life, I find it more difficult to do this. My short term memory is not quite what it used to be. I have come up with some coping strategies that enable me to work around this problem, however.
What projects do you have in the works for your readers? I am working on a story set in Massachusetts in 1675, during the outbreak of King Philip’s War. My working title for this is A Scalp on the Moon. I got interested in this era when I moved back to New England and started doing genealogical research. In doing so, I discovered that this war, which based on percentage of the population killed, was the bloodiest in American history, was actually started by two men from my family tree, William and John Salisbury. They fired the opening shots and were the first two English casualties in that conflict. It will not be their story I will be telling, however. They were just the hook that engaged my interest.
Here’s a quick description:
In 1675, a teenaged boy who has trained his entire life for a career as an actor in Restoration London finds himself accidentally transported to Massachusetts Colony, where he knows the Puritans consider the theater to be a terrible evil. It is a time of great unrest and fear, as the Wampanoag and other Native American tribes are realizing that the English settlers are an unsettling, permanent and growing presence in their midst. For their part, some of the superstitious colonists insist they keep seeing a scalp on the moon, a portent that something terrible is about to happen. With the outbreak of King Philip’s War this portent might turn out to be all too accurate.
1.) Tell us a little about your early life, i.e. where you grew up, how many siblings, pets you had, favorite activities, etc.
I was born in Boston, Massachusetts on January 16, 1946, the second of five children. My dad was a medical student at the time, and my mom was a professional musician, a cellist. My birth was premature, and a famous Harvard neurologist examined me and opined that I would likely never walk or talk. My dad later told me my condition was then called “asphyxia pallida”, which I later found out was sometimes used as a synonym for “stillborn.” Hmmm.
Anyway, I did learn to walk and talk – which I did with a marked Boston accent. Because of this, I remember vividly that when we moved to Chillicothe, a small town in Illinois, when I was four, kids there thought the way I talked to be quite funny. I quickly morphed my speech to suit my new Midwestern home.
The first in our family was my older brother. I was followed by three little sisters, who all claim I bossed them around quite a bit. I claim I was just taking very good care of them.
All of us kids took lessons on musical instruments, and our house usually had the cacaphony of a music school.
My favorite activity was reading, which meant I spent a lot of time in closets trying to get away from all the noise. (Here’s a picture of me reading – in our living room, for once – in the mid 1950s) As a child, I read everything I could get my hands on, but I especially liked stories about the past. I finished reading the Laura Ingalls Wilder books when I was in 3rd grade, and my teacher told my mother that I cried all day at school because there were no more Wilder stories to read. When I was in 4th grade, a neighbor gave me his late mother’s full set of Louisa May Alcott’s books, which I devoured. Then, when I was in 8th grade, The Witch of Blackbird Pond came out, and I became profoundly hooked on historical fiction.
My parents had many varied interests (history, theater, art, science, skiing, sailing etc.) and introduced us to all of these and more. It is no mystery that my brother ended up in science (teaching anatomy and physiology) and all four of us daughters in the arts (two are professional musicians; one is a theater professor, stage director, and professional actress, and I am a mostly amateur singer/actress and professional writer).
We were lucky enough to go to many historical sites when we were little. Somehow, my dad always seemed to make these sites feel “alive” to us. I’m sure that (in addition to my reading) is one reason I ended up writing historical fiction – to make history come alive for other kids.
In our family there was a high premium placed on word play. I grew up feeling that it was important to make other people laugh by putting words together in a funny way. (I believe that my dad, his brothers, his father, his grandfather etc. etc. going far back in our family tree were all known for their entertaining oral storytelling.) I used this skill to try to entertain my school friends, to make up for the fact that I was so much younger and physically immature than most of them. In the end, sharpening my wit turned out to be a valuable asset for me.
2.) Relate a couple of your favorite childhood memories.
1) Dressing up like pirates and “attacking” a Viking ship coming down the Illinois River. (I wrote about this on my blog.) http://dorotheajensen.blogspot.com/search?q=pirate
2) Spending lots of time in a log cabin built by 19th century settlers which my parents bought with a group of friends. Another “living history” experience which, of course, made me feel like Laura Ingalls Wilder. http://dorotheajensen.blogspot.com/search?q=log+cabin
3.) You lived abroad in Holland and in Brazil. What did you like most about living in both places? What did you like the least?
Of course, what I liked the most was seeing how people lived in other countries, how they viewed the rest of the world, what they ate, how they raised their children, what their traditional celebrations were, etc. What I liked the least was never having the facility with the languages to make good puns and jokes, which made me realize how important this was in making me feel “like myself”. Finally, living in rural Brazil in 1969, which was quite a repressive dictatorship at the time, gave me a huge appreciation for living in the U.S. I also was not crazy about the Very Large Cockroaches.
4.) You have also lived in many states. Which have you enjoyed the most? The least? Why?
I have enjoyed all the places I have lived, usually for different reasons. I liked living in New Mexico because of the fascinating mix of cultures, its many pueblos, its ancient Anasazi sites, its spectacular mountains, and its desert setting. Living in Virginia near Civil and Revolutionary War sites was wonderful. Living in Pennsylvania near Philadelphia was great because of all the American Revolutionary historical sites we visited there. (My two boys learned to ride bikes at Valley Forge, for example. One reason I wrote my first historical novel for young readers, The Riddle of Penncroft Farm, was to keep that sense of history alive for my own kids after we moved away.)
Of course, one reason I loved living near Philadelphia and in Minneapolis is that I was able to perform in The Gilbert and Sullivan Players, The Gilbert and Sullivan Very Light Opera Company, and in the Ex Machina Baroque Opera Company. This was despite the fact that as a mezzo/contralto, I usually lost the hero to the soprano.
Unfortunately, rural New Hampshire, where I have lived for the last 26 years, hasn’t offered performing opportunities like that. On the plus side, I have many terrific friends here, and it is a beautiful, beautiful place, close to mountains and the ocean. It is also chockful of history, which I evoked when I wrote A Buss from Lafayette.
5.) As a former singer and actress, you do a marvelous job in the recordings of the Elf series. In what other ways have you, or are planning to, utilize these talents with future book publishing?
I find that having a fair amount of acting/singing experience makes me comfortable appearing in a costume, like this 1825-style dress I had made for my Buss from Lafayette book launch party. In fact, the more I feel as if I am portraying a character by wearing a costume (“the author, Dorothea Jensen”) the easier it is for me to get up in front of an audience and talk about my work.
I will be recording an audio book of A Buss from Lafayette. I just haven’t had the time to focus on that yet. I have done a “trial” recording of the first chapter, which I will be posting online soon at abussfromlafayette.com.
I will also be doing audio books of other books as I write them, and I will start doing podcasts soon. For some reason I find it easy to talk to a microphone or to a camera about things that interest me. I just pretend I’m talking to a friend or a family member (or if “on the air”, just to the interviewer) and that seems to come across pretty well.
Here’s an example, in which I talk about where the idea for A Buss from Lafayette came from: https://youtu.be/8Y5fpTktvUk
My husband has expressed amazement that the internet has made it possible for me to bring all my past and not-much-used-lately skills together and put them to use, via blogs, facebook, Pinterest, video blogs, musical videos, book trailers, etc. (I myself am amazed that I have had over 150,000 hits on the stuff I’ve posted online.) Needless to say, I am delighted to be able to do this!
6.) I have not had the opportunity to read The Catherine Moorhouse Trilogy nor The Riddle of Penncroft Farm. Was the latter book a time travel story? Share with us a little about it.
The Catherine Moorhouse Trilogy was my first writing venture, which I did as a lark with a friend, Catherine Allen. We lived hundreds of miles apart, and had to mail what we wrote back and forth. I wrote most of the dialogue (as “the Mouth of Catherine Moorhouse”) and she wrote most of the action/description (as “the Legs of Catherine Moorhouse”). These were romantic comedies set in early nineteenth century England, à la Jane Austen. Getting these published gave me the confidence to write on my own. So I did.
I wrote The Riddle of Penncroft Farm after I moved back to Minnesota from Pennsylvania. I reversed my family’s situation by creating a story about an unhappy boy, Lars Olafson, who had to move with his family from Minneapolis to an old family farm in Pennsylvania near Valley Forge. He meets an interesting character, Geordie, who tells him many stories about the American Revolution. Oddly enough, his tales turn out to be those of an actual eye-witness to those events, and also turn out to be the only clue for Lars to solve a crucial mystery.
I guess you might call this a “time travel” book, but it is not the modern character who travels in time. (I have written a lot about this story on my Bublish site, https://www.bublish.com/author/view/5755.)
- ) A Buss From Lafayette totally captivated my interest and was not at all as I expected. I learned interesting tidbits of History I never knew, and History is one of my favorite subjects. How much research did you do before writing these historical novels? Please elaborate.
I got the main idea for the story long ago, in 1997, on a Jane Austen Tour in England. (See above video.) Of course, I did not spend all those years researching Lafayette’s role in the Revolution, his Farewell Tour of 1824-5, and what life was like in America in 1825, but I estimate that I did spend four or five years doing so. (I’ve included many of my sources in the bibliography at the end of Buss.)
I must confess that one huge motivation for finally writing this story was the loss of my brother, aged 68, to brain cancer in 2013. I helped take care of him during his treatment, and found that, after his death, I felt absolutely compelled to write as many stories as I can in the time left to me. (My sisters obviously have felt the same creative impetus: since we lost Paul one has started a new chamber music group in New York City, http://www.chelseamusica.nyc/, another has started a new theater company in Minneapolis, (http://www.fullcircletheatermn.org/about) and the third has released new recordings of songs she has written and performed http://louisawise.com/. (The music I use for my elf and historical fiction book trailers is all by Louisa and her family and friends.)
For my part, I have written two books: A Buss from Lafayette and Frizzy, the S.A.D. Elf.
8.) In what ways, if any, has your travels influenced your writing?
I think that traveling so much, especially to historic places, has made me view writing historical fiction as traveling to the past. Reading about and visiting other countries, taking snapshots and videos there etc., helps me envision those places in my memory. In a similar way, reading about the past and finding pictures about the who, what, and where of historical events helps me create an historical “virtual reality” to set my stories inside.
9.) You have stated that [you] strive to “write stories that do not “talk down” to young readers”. In what ways and age ranges do you feel other authors “talk down” to young readers?
Obviously, most serious authors do NOT talk down to their young readers. I was mostly talking about “mass market media” like books based on the Smurfs and the like, which reduce most of the language to only a few words and don’t stretch kids’ vocabularies or imaginations.
This also refers to the fact that I had to fight to keep the archaic words I used in The Riddle of Penncroft Farm. The Harcourt editor was sure that these would not appeal to young readers, but nearly all of the fan mail I received after that book came out talked about how much kids loved these interesting old words. I used some of these in A Buss from Lafayette as well. Both books actually have archaic words in their titles, and both have glossaries at the end with definitions for all of the antique terminology.
10.) You have created a classroom reading guide. Is it just to accompany A Buss From Lafayette or does it cover other material? Enlighten us.
My first historical novel for kids, The Riddle of Penncroft Farm, has been used as an “enrichment resource” in American classrooms for many years. It is really fun for me to find it listed along with Johnny Tremain and other classics to be read when kids are studying the American Revolution. I found out that someone had written a comprehensive guide for using Riddle in the classroom. I bought a copy, took a look at it, and realized that I could write an even better guide than that for A Buss from Lafayette. Along with my colleague and fellow “seasoned teacher,” Sienna Larson, that is what I did.
It was certainly written to accompany A Buss from Lafayette, but its purpose is to use that story as a springboard to help students learn about the American Revolution. It highlights the role which the very young (only 19) General Lafayette played in that war, especially in making the French Alliance (without which we would have lost our struggle for independence) endure and work.
We have now published it as a paperback and as a Kindle book on Amazon. Here’s the link: https://www.amazon.com/dp/1539308421/ref=nav_timeline_asin?_encoding=UTF8&psc=1. (I will be posting an excerpt online soon, too.) By the way, there is also a short reading guide (4 pages) that can be downloaded for free from abussfromlafayette.com.
11.) What was your main object in creating the Elf series?
I talk about what was my main inspiration for creating the Izzy Elves here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-ZnhKPK-Z6o&t=4s&spfreload=10
I have always loved writing in rhyming verse, and especially loved Clement Moore’s 19th century poem, “A Visit from Saint Nicholas”, so that’s what I used as a model when I decided to write my first elf story. This was Tizzy, the Christmas Shelf Elf, about an elf accidentally trapped in the home of some children. As I wrote this, I decided to create other elves with names rhyming with Tizzy, and then I felt compelled to write their stories, too. I’ve written three more so far, (Blizzy, the Worrywart Elf; Dizzy, the Stowaway Elf; and Frizzy, the S.A.D. Elf). All have won awards/honors of some type.
12.) What inspired you to incorporate your six grandchildren into
the Christmas Elf series? How much of their personalities does
each character have? Which elf resembles which child the most?
When I first started writing the story about Tizzy, my grandchildren weren’t even born yet. That’s how slow a worker I am. When I decided to prepare it for publication many years later, I had four grandsons, so I decided to make a couple of them, Owen and Alex, the children who live in the house where Tizzy gets marooned. I’m not sure they could be quite as helpful to a stranded elf as they are in the Tizzy story, but I’m sure they’d do their best to help him get home to the North Pole. When I started writing Dizzy, the Stowaway Elf, I used two more grandsons, Stuart and Drake, who are certainly every bit as mischievous as their counterparts in that story. (Although they are disappointed that they have never actually had the chance for a joy ride in Santa’s sleigh.) Here’s an interview with Stuart about the Dizzy story: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d73cYdnb-qo&spfreload=10 By the way, this is the same grandson whom I overheard explaining to his younger brother several years ago that I have the Izzy Elves inside my head and they tell me what to write. This is actually quite accurate.
Since then, my daughter has given birth to twin boys, Henry and Miles. My next Izzy Elf book, Bizzy, the Know-It-All Elf, will feature them.
13.) What is your next Big Project?
I am part-way through another historical novel for young readers that I have tentatively entitled A Scalp on the Moon. It is set in 17th century Massachusetts at the time of King Philip’s War. One reason I got interested in this era was that I discovered that my own ancestors, William and John Salisbury, actually started that very bloody conflict: firing the first shots and becoming the very first casualties. (The story isn’t actually about them, however.)
As I mentioned before , I am also working on another elf story, Bizzy, the Know-It-All Elf.
I find that writing such wildly different projects at the same time helps stave off writer’s block. Whenever I get stuck on one, I start working on the other!
14.) What goals do you hope to accomplish within the next five to ten years?
I plan to finish A Scalp on the Moon, and Bizzy, the Know-It-All Elf within the next year. After that, I will tackle the stories about the last three Izzy Elves: Quizzy, Whizzy, and Fizzy. I might do another historical novel for young readers at that point, but I haven’t decided on a topic or era for that one. (This all depends on my staying mentally competent and physically healthy, as at the end of the next ten years, I will actually be over 80 years old. Yikes!)
Lafayette’s 1825 tour illustrated in new novel
Contoocook writer Dorothea Jensen got the idea for A Buss from Lafayette while on a Jane Austen tour in England with her mother in 1997. There was lots of downtime on the bus, so the group told stories to pass the hours. Jensen offered the tale of her eighth-grade teacher shaking hands with Geronimo, the last Native American warrior to formally surrender to the United States.
May 12, 2016 Radio Interview: WEMF Citywide Blackout program with Max Bowen and Gina House. The podcast is below!
January 24, 2016 Online Interview:
Meet Dorothea Jensen, Author of A Buss From Lafayette
BBB: Tell us about yourself.
DJ: I just turned 70, but am still going strong. For a number of years, I was a singer/actress in amateur and professional companies. (As a mezzo, I usually lost the hero to the soprano.) I have been having fun putting all my old skills to work with video blogs, audio recordings of songs from the stories, audio book recordings etc.
I earned a BA in English at Carleton College and an MA in Education at the University of New Mexico. I have one husband, three kids and six grandsons (whom I put in my Izzy Elf stories). I have lived all over the U.S., as well as in Holland and Brazil.
People often ask me how a “woman of a certain age” has learned to create/maintain book trailers, YouTube channels, websites, blogs, Pinterest, Bublish, Google+, Twitter accounts, etc. I tell them I do it the same way I learned my way around the many places I have lived: I get hopelessly lost and stumble around until I figure out where I am.
BBB: What inspired your book, A Buss from Lafayette?
DJ: I met an elderly woman whose great-grandmother was one of the little girls who presented Lafayette with a posy when he was touring the U.S. in 1824-25, for which he apparently “bussed” her (a playful smacking kiss). That buss was passed down in my new friend’s family, and she passed it along to me. I then learned that General Lafayette came right by my house in June, 1825, on that same tour. This all piqued my interest about Lafayette and the immense part he played in the American Revolution. After years of research, I wrote a story about a troubled teenager who lives in my little town in New Hampshire at the time of Lafayette’s “Farewell Tour”.
BBB: Tell us about your main character.
DJ: Clara Hargraves, 14, lives on a farm in Hopkinton, New Hampshire, during the early 19th century. She has a couple of big problems. First of all, she has a stepmother, “Prissy” Priscilla, formerly her spinster schoolteacher aunt, who keeps trying to make her act like a proper young lady. Secondly, she has red hair that makes her a target for teasing. Clara, however, has a secret plan she hopes will change this.
In June,1825, Clara’s town is abuzz because General Lafayette, hero of the American War of Independence, is about to visit their state. In one eventful week, Clara learns a lot about her family, herself, and, most of all, about Lafayette and his huge and vital role in America’s Revolutionary War. She also just might find that her problems are not quite so terrible after all.
BBB: What other books have you written?
DJ: The Riddle of Penncroft Farm;Tizzy, the Christmas Shelf Elf; Blizzy, the Worrywart Elf; Dizzy, the Stowaway Elf; and Frizzy, the S.A.D. Elf. All have won awards, I’m happy to say!
BBB: What do you think readers will find most appealing about your book?
DJ: As one 11 year old “previewer” said, “It’s like getting two stories in one book! I got to learn all about Clara, and to learn all about Lafayette, too.”
BBB: How did you come up with the idea for your book cover?
DJ: I wanted it to echo the current cover for The Riddle of Penncroft Farm. Something like 130,000 copies of that story have sold over the years, so I hoped that making the covers similar would lead people to pick it up. Besides, as soon as I saw the redheaded girl’s photo, I knew she was Clara!
BBB: What are you currently working on?
DJ: I am working on a story called A Scalp on the Moon, that takes place in 17th century Massachusetts at the time of King Philip’s War. (Superstitious English settlers there at the time who were worried that there might be a war with the native population swore that they saw “a scalp on the moon” that portended terrible trouble.) I’m also trying to finish another of Santa’s Izzy Elf books (which are illustrated modern Christmas stories in rhyme) called Bizzy, the Know-It-All Elf.
BBB: How can readers discover more about you and your work?
DJ: Go to my website, www.dorotheajensen.com. It has information about my work, and also links to all my social media. I particularly recommend visiting my blog (http://dorotheajensen.blogspot.com/) and my Bublish.com account (https://www.bublish.com/author/view/5755) for background information etc. about my books.
MIscellaneous Q & A I Thought Might Interest Readers:
Q: Where did you get the idea for Clara’s family problems?
A: A few years ago, I did some genealogy study of my family, and found that one of my ancestors married his deceased wife’s sister in the early 1800s. I wondered how his children would have felt about this, although they were younger at the time of their father’s remarriage than I have made Clara and her brother. I also know that in this age of divorce, many young people are having to adjust to stepmothers in their lives. I thought that Clara’s situation might seem familiar to them, even though she “lived” two centuries ago.