Interview with Jennifer M Rodriguez, author of “Lunch on Thursdays”

Do all authors have to be grammar Nazis?

Authors use writing as a tool of their profession, so it is important to have a better than average knowledge of language and grammar. However, there are times when getting ideas down are more important than grammatical rules. Sometimes I will purposely ignore certain writing conventions to convey humor or portray a character in more depth. Remember, behind every great author is an equally great editor. We depend on them to point out some of the errors we make in our writing and help us decide when to change something to make it more clear, or when to leave it alone so that it fits the story and situation.

What makes this particular genre you are involved in so special?

Children’s literature is a blend of imagery in both language and art. Most picture books are meant to be read out loud, so the story has to please the ear as much as it pleases the brain and the eye. I am very blessed to have a talented illustrator Beverly Burris. When we discuss the books we are working on, I share with her what I imagine in my head as I’m writing a story, and she sketches a few drawings based on what I say. Like magic, she takes the images in my head and turns them into something much more wonderful than I could imagine. Her finished illustrations help bring to life the words on the page.

What inspires you to write?

I find inspiration in many different places. Sometimes it is things that I have experienced in my life, or things that I have observed. Lunch on Thursdays is based on a real situation that I experienced in second grade. The next two books in this series will also be based on actual experiences from my second grade classroom. Fairy Kisses is a story I made up when my oldest daughter was 4 years old to explain where her freckles came from. I love to write stories about ordinary people who do extraordinary things—there is a hero in all of us just itching to emerge!

How often do you write?

Not as often as I would like! Sometimes my life gets very busy with children, a husband, a job, 3 dogs, basketball games, softball games, and everything else that I have to do. One of my dreams is that I can make enough money with my book sales to be able to write full time!

Writers are often associated with loner tendencies; is there any truth to that?

I think it is different for everyone and every situation. Sometimes I can sit in the middle of my noisy living room with the kids watching a movie, my husband playing computer games, the dogs romping around on the floor, and crank out several pages. Other times, I need to have a quiet space alone to be able to write. I think it depends on what I’m writing and how much concentration it requires. I’m a social person, and I like to spend time with friends and family; but I also like to have my alone time to gather my thoughts and be creative.

Do you think writers have a normal life like others?

There is no such thing as a normal life for anyone! Every single person on this planet has a different set of values, beliefs, and experiences that are “normal” for them. My life is normal for me, but maybe you will think it is abnormal.

Do you set a plot or prefer going wherever an idea takes you?

I like to create a plot before writing. Part of my writing process includes time to simply close my eyes and imagine a story—almost like watching a movie in my head. Once I have the general idea of which direction a story is going to go, I jot down a quick outline, and then I can sit and write it out completely.

Have you ever left any of your books stew for months on end or even a year?

Absolutely! Some of my unpublished works have been sitting for 10 years or more! Books have a life of their own, and some of them take longer to be ready for publishing. Also, some of the things I write can be very personal and private, so I have to be emotionally ready to share them before letting the world read it.

Does a bad review affect your writing?

Bad reviews do not affect my writing. That’s like asking if I would stop eating mushrooms because someone else doesn’t like them. Every one of us has different tastes when it comes to the books we enjoy, and while one person may not like my work, another person may love it enough to read it over and over. I prefer to eat vegetable soup and grilled cheese sandwiches instead of hamburgers with crinkle fries—but not everyone has the same tastes I do!

Any advice you would like to give to aspiring writers?

The best advice I ever received as a writer is: write it down the way you would say it. I think of writing as having a conversation with the sheet of paper. So many times writing becomes a chore because we try to sound like someone we are not, but the natural voice we use to speak is a great voice to put in text as well. If I’m giving a speech to a room full of teachers I am going to use words and phrases that I would not use if I were giving a speech to a room full of second graders. The same is true for writing—I adjust what I say for my audience, but it is still my voice.

What did you want to become when you were a kid?

A princess, a detective, a police officer, a firefighter, a doctor, a teacher, a scientist, a lawyer, a make-up artist, a Broadway singer/actress, an opera singer, an artist, an author, a lion tamer, a tight rope walker, a pilot…I wanted to do everything! And I do! Every time I write a story it is like having an adventure in someone else’s life!

Do you read any of your own work?

Absolutely! Over and over, and I make edits over and over. And then once it is ready, I send it to an editor, and they suggest changes and send it back. And I read it over and over again. Once it is published, I read it on my Kindle or in print like I’m experiencing it for the first time. I love to visit schools and children’s organizations to read my books to them.

How much of yourself do you put into your books?

Writing is very personal to me, so I put a lot of myself into my books. Most of my characters are based on people I have met. Even ideas that come straight from my imagination are still personal because they are my unique thoughts.

Who are your books mostly dedicated to?

That is different for every book! My first book is dedicated to my children’s literature professor when I was a student at Baylor University. One of the projects she assigned was to write a counting book that addressed several different educational concepts in a way that was accessible to very young children. I got an A on that project and her note to me read: “You should consider publishing this book.” So I did! Other books have been dedicated to my children, the teachers and friends from my elementary school, my friends, and other people in my life who have inspired me.

Who is the most supportive of your writing in your family?

All of my family is supportive of my work: my husband, my children, my brother, and my parents. I would say my mother is probably the most supportive. She purchased a classroom set of Lunch on Thursdays, took them to an elementary school in her local town, and read the story with the children; and then donated the books to the school so that they could read it again year after year!

Do you have a day job other than being a writer? And do you like it?

I have a day job now, and I have had several in my lifetime. I taught 4th grade and middle school language arts, was an editor for standardized tests, worked as an educator at SeaWorld in San Antonio, ran an after school program, worked in an office as an administrative assistant, founded a non-profit organization that helped children and families in crisis, and now I am working on building a second organization that supports people who have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I have liked most of my jobs, but one of my favorite work experiences was meeting all kinds of marine animals while working at SeaWorld. Walruses are my favorite, and I even got a kiss from one!

Does your day job ever get in the way of your writing?

Yes and no. Sometimes I work so much that I don’t have time to write like I want to; but, if it weren’t for all of my experiences out in this world, I would have very little to write about. Many of the people and things I write about have been inspired by things I’ve experienced while working a day job.

Another misconception is that all writers are independently wealthy, how true is that?

My bank statement is laughing right now! Authors who are lucky enough to experience the type of success that allows them to write full time and pay all their bills are not as common as those who have to find other ways to support themselves while writing. I view writing as a hobby and a passion, and I might make some money while I do it.

Is it true that anyone can be a writer?

I believe that anyone can tell a story. Some of us tell it through writing. Some of us use music or art or drama. It is important to find a medium that speaks to your soul, and then use that to tell your story.

Do you like traveling or do you prefer staying indoors?

Both! It depends on my mood. I love to go new places, meet new people, experience new things, see new views. I also love the cozy comfort of my own home and my own bed.

How did it feel when your first book got published?

The first publishing deal I received was for Two Frogs: A Counting Book. I was 21 or 22 years old at the time, and I got a funny feeling about the representative from the publishing company. I asked my father to attend a meeting with me so that he could give me feedback, and he also thought something was not quite right with the situation, so I turned that deal down. This was a huge disappointment to me, so I set my writing aside until I was 32. At that time, I met my wonderful illustrator Beverly Burris and she created illustrations for Two Frogs: A Counting Book as well as Lunch on Thursdays. I met a publisher shortly after that, and we signed a 2 year publishing deal. I was giving a presentation at an educational conference, so we timed the book release to coincide with that conference. The publisher purchased a booth at the conference and I had several scheduled “Book Reading” times to help attract customers. It was a total flop! I sold ONE book! ONE! Again, I felt very discouraged and upset; but Beverly encouraged me to keep marketing our book. When our contract with that publisher expired we did not renew it. Instead, we self-published both a print version and an e-book for Amazon.com. The first year we sold a couple hundred books, and that was exciting for both of us! I have received comments from several fans about how much they enjoyed the book, so it feels like creating them was a worthy project, and I look forward to creating more!

How are your relations with your family? Do you like to stay in touch?

I have family all over the nation, and I try to keep up with them as best as I can. I live in Texas, my parents live in New Mexico, my brother lives in Montana, and I have aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents living in California, Florida, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Iowa, Kentucky, Minnesota, Virginia, and Utah. We don’t get to see each other as often as we would like, but Facebook helps us share family photos, recipes, ideas, and memories just like if we lived down the street from each other! We always have a great time when we get together and visit. I just wish it could happen more often!

Has it ever happened to you that someone published your story in their own name?

It has never happened that someone has plagiarized my work as an author, but I do remember a story when someone took credit for a project I did in my 7th grade history class. Our assignment was to create a piece of art depicting the Trail of Tears. I worked very long and hard to create a picture that showed a young Native American woman’s face on one side of the page with tears streaming down her cheeks, and in the background was a landscape showing the march of the Native Americans from their homes into a strange land. My teacher selected it as one of the best in the class and I was so proud of myself! Then she called another girl to the front of the room and gave my picture to her, and told her she did a very good job. I waited for the girl to say it wasn’t hers, but she never did! She took that picture home with her, and I was devastated! It’s 25 years later and I still remember that experience like it happened yesterday!

Have you ever written a character based on the real you in some part?

Yes! Cassie is based on me as a child! Cassie has a different name and she has red hair instead of blonde; but she behaves the way I did in school, and her parents are like my parents!

Can you tell us about your current projects?

I’m so excited about my upcoming projects! There are at least 2 more books that feature Cassie. Wendy the Wonder Dog is about a time that Cassie faces her fear of dogs and grows to love the crazy antics of her beagle Wendy. The next book doesn’t have a title yet, but it is about the time Cassie and her classmates watched a very special shuttle launch that included one of their friends’ fathers as an astronaut on that mission. It is the true story about my experience in second grade when the Challenger exploded shortly after launch, and how our school healed from the tragedy. Another children’s book that is in process is How to Haiku, which teaches kids how to write Haiku poetry, shares some of my own poems, and some of my own artwork. I’m also working on a middle school level chapter book about a girl named Sylvia who has to take charge during a scary incident while she is babysitting. I have half of it written. For the grown-ups I’m working on a parenting book that should be published this year and also on writing my memoire, which will probably take me several more years to publish because it is a very personal story.

If you were given the opportunity to form a book club with your favorite authors of all time, which legends or contemporary writers would you want to become a part of the club?

There are so many great authors! My book club would include Patricia Polacco, Lemony Snicket, Lois Lowry, J. K. Rowling, Frank Baum, Louisa May Alcott, Mark Twain, and Dr. Seuss (also known as Theodore Geisel), and Louis Sachar.

How many children do you have? Do you see any young writers in any of them?

I have two biological daughters, Alexandra who is 15 and Francesca who is 13. Both of my daughters are good at writing, but I’m not sure they truly enjoy the writing process. I have an honorary son who joined our family when he was 15. He is 19 now, and lives in his own apartment. He is also a good writer, but he is much better at making videos to tell his stories. All 3 of my children are amazingly talented, intelligent, and fun; and I can’t wait to see how they share their ideas with the world!

Do you encourage your children to read?

Every day! We have cable TV and we have gaming systems, but my children are more likely to play a board game, read a book, or do something crafty. We instilled this in them at a very young age by implementing “Technology Free Days” in which we kept all the TVs, computers, and mobile devices turned off. It helped us find other ways to entertain ourselves, and it kept the children from becoming addicted to the screen. Even now, we have only 1 TV in our home, and all 4 of us share it—but it is rarely on!

Do you have a library at home?

I have been a book worm my entire life! Our home library consists of some of my childhood favorites, college textbooks, some of my recent favorites, and my children’s favorites. Much to my husband’s dismay, we packed up more than 2 full sized bookshelves worth of literature and moved it from California to Texas. Books are heavy! My husband has been totally blind for nearly 20 years, so he reads digital books which are easily stored and transported on flash drives.

Is there a particular kind of attire you like to write in?

In the winter I want to write in my cozy pajamas, and in the summer I want to write in some comfy shorts and a tank top! I don’t like to get dressed up unless I have to, so for my everyday life I typically wear jeans and T-shirts. Most of my T-shirts are from my alma mater Baylor University, or one of my kids’ schools.

Do you often meet with younger writers and discuss their ideas to help polish them?

I love to meet with young readers and writers! I am always willing to go to a school and do a presentation for a classroom or and assembly for the whole school. It is especially fun to hang out with them at lunch and recess to talk to them and sign their books! My first job out of college was as a Language Arts teacher, so I feel at home in a school.

Were you a troublemaker as a child?

Of course not! I was an angel! Please don’t ask my parents this question.

How many siblings do you have? How many of them share your passion?

I have one brother Brandon, and he is married to a wonderful lady who is now my sister-in-law Michalee. They own a publishing business in Montana, and publish periodicals. I never would have guessed that our career goals would have aligned as similarly as they have. Brandon’s passion is for wildlife and he worked as a Game Warden in New Mexico before going to law school to become an attorney. He has worked as both a criminal defense attorney as well as a criminal prosecutor. He still takes a few law cases, but his primary focus is publishing, and he loves it!

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