Interview: Jennie Helderman

Alabama native Jennie Helderman, who now lives in Atlanta, holds a B.A. in English from University of Alabama and a Master’s in Public Administration from Jacksonville State. She has taken 10 advanced writing courses and has attended five major writers’ conferences. She has co-authored two books, published many stories and magazine articles and edited a 150,000-circulation magazine.

Enjoy this interview.

Tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from and how long have you been writing?

I’ve lived in Atlanta for two years but Alabama is home, and I’ve been writing all my life. Don’t even ask how long that is. About me? I like to find out the how and why of things, whether it’s reading mysteries, playing word games or working at Pompeii as I did one summer. I like to travel, but not with groups. I don’t stay in line very well. I need to walk, let my feet touch the earth, and meet the people along the way. Back in 2000 I walked 125 miles of the Camino across northern Spain and I cherish that experience.

Tell us about your latest book. What do you hope readers take away from it?

A cabin hidden behind a padlocked gate, no power, no phone…just Revelation and a .38. As the Sycamore Grows is a nonfiction narrative about abuse, loss, redemption and hope that stretches from south Texas to north Alabama. Think of it as Foxfire living while Sleeping With the Enemy out in the woods.

I want readers to feel something for the people in Sycamore. More than abuse, loss, or control, I want readers to be moved by the people, and that includes Mike. Ginger believes that deep inside each of us, there’s a soul, piece of humanity, whatever you call it, that allows us to change and thus have hope. I want readers to see that humanity in Mike and Ginger, and perhaps in all of us.

Share some of your writing goals. What’s next for you?

First goal is to learn to write faster, else I’ll never write all the stories swimming in my head. I left a historical novel on the back burner to write Sycamore, then there’re all the family funeral stories, and now civil rights stories are forming in my head. I remember well the first cross I saw burning. There are many stories yet to be told about those days…

What’s the most interesting book you’ve ever read?

Today I’d say The Magus, one of John Fowles’ first books. It’s been a long time but I remember reading it again and again, finding different levels of meaning each time. For a good, totally absorbing story, I liked Centennial by Michener. I cried when Ellie died. Tomorrow I’ll have a different answer. “Most” and “favorite” questions are hard for me.

Favorite authors?

Rick Bragg, Louise Erdrich, Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, Pat Conroy, Hemingway, Herman Wouk, Dostoevsky. The list could go on.

Book you’re currently reading?

I just started Room: A Novel by Emma Donoghue, an advance copy since the book will launch later this fall. Emma spoke at a writers’ event and I was enthralled by her words.

Any type of writing ritual you have?

It’s not exactly a ritual, and I just noticed this about myself, that I make a nest when I write. I spread notebooks, scraps of paper, photos, everything I may need for a quote or a reference across my desk and on the floor circling my chair. If I swept out the clutter, all my words would leave me.

Do you believe in writer’s block? If so, how did you get past it? If not, why not?

Writer’s block isn’t a problem for me. Finding time to crawl into a story and stay there is the problem. Because I freelance, I usually have several assignments going at the same time. If one draws blanks, I can switch to another, unless there’s a deadline pending. Amazing how deadlines spur creativity.

In your opinion, what’s the measure of a successful writer?

Ideally, literary acclaim coupled with commercial success. The answer, of course, depends on how you define success. I’d love to have a best-seller.

Advice for other writers?

If you want to be published, then polish up your best stories and ship them out. And when they come back, refine them and send them out again. Nobody’s going to knock on your door asking for them.

Where can we learn more about you?

I don’t think I have a police record and my family will only tell so much. Best bet is the internet. Either www.jenniehelderman.com or www.asthesycamoregrows.com.

Anything else you’d like to add?

I’ve answered a number of questions here and been honest with my answers. But these questions didn’t probe to the quick, they didn’t burn nor did I risk anything of value by answering them like Ginger and Mike did during my five years of digging. I felt they were truthful with me. Mike never hesitated nor denied any of the abuse of Ginger. He corrected my terminology once—he didn’t kite checks, he manipulated the coding some way—but he readily helped me reconstruct scenes. And one day I thought he took a deep look inside, possibly a first. Ginger held back nothing. I’ve never known anyone so willing to open herself nor to accept the enormous risks of doing so.

In writing Sycamore, I felt a heavy obligation to each of them to get it right, to make it do and be worth what they had put into it. And I wondered if ever I could be so honest.

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