BookView Interview with Author Jena M Steinmetz

Welcome to BookView Interview, a conversation series where BookView talks to authors.

Recently, we interviewed Jena M Steinmetz, about her writing and her latest novel, The Witness Tree, a gripping, illuminating tale of identity, survival, war, and intrigue. (Read the review here.) Her non-fiction articles have appeared in the Lehigh Valley’s Morning Call, the Bucks County Herald, and the Bucks County Courier.

Jena M. Steinmetz graduated cum laude from DeSales University in Center Valley, Pennsylvania, with a BA in English/Creative Writing. Her non-fiction articles have appeared in the Lehigh Valley’s Morning Call, the Bucks County Herald, and the Bucks County Courier. Her first novel, Codename: Sob Story, was called a notable debut by Kirkus Reviews and was included in their Best Indie War Stories of 2013. Jena works in the suburbs of Philadelphia, where she lives with her husband and their son.

How often do you base your characters on real people?

Being friends with a writer is a double-edged sword; whether you like it or not, aspects of your personality or conversations will undoubtedly pop-up on the page. Personally, everything I write is driven from experience or emotional interactions with other people. The Witness Tree is no exception. I wouldn’t say any character is a complete mirror of someone in my life, but I pulled certain personality and physical traits into the DNA of each of my characters. Surprisingly, most of it was unintentional and only brought to my attention by family members who finished reading it. I’ve been told again and again that Breanne has my personality—my husband heard my voice with every snarky, quick whited reply she uttered. And A.M.P. and Rosie are most certainly based on my mother and my aunt; I realized through writing, that this book is my love letter to their sisterhood and undying devotion to each other.

How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have?

I wish I was one of those writers who has backlogs of work to publish. Man, it would make my life so much easier. When I am writing—whether it be a long-form story, blog, or social media blast—I have blinders on to anything else. I do not move on to another project until I am done with the current one. I don’t think its wise to “cross wires” creatively because it pauses momentum and can be confusing. The most I have are high-level concept drafts, with plot points and maybe a bit of character development. But it’s not something I’d ever share with someone else—because they’re usually awful.

What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?

When you write historical fiction, you need to live and breathe it, becoming almost an expert in that piece of history. So, my book was research HEAVY and very extensive. Everything I committed to page—including language, whether coffee was available in the area, the battle timeline, midwife and childbirth practices—was researched to death. I have an entire bookcase shelf dedicated to the Civil War and childbirth in the late 19th century. It’s better to overdo the research than have a reader come back to you and say, “That didn’t happen.” Additionally, I needed to do some secondary research, like the art of manuscript preservation and the ins-and-outs of the Gettysburg National Military Park. I tend to write organically so I wrote and researched at the same time. I found more inspiration that way and infused my storylines with tidbits I picked up.

If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?

NEVER EVER THROW AWAY EARLY DRAFTS! Even if they are complete crap, there could be something hidden deep within that could spark something else. Also, keep printed and handwritten drafts of EVERYTHING; you will thank me when your manuscript file is corrupted, and you must rewrite three years of work. I wish this wasn’t a personal anecdote.

What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?

The best money I spent was hiring a professional editor to work on my novel. Editing was the major feedback I got from my first novel, Codename: Sob Story—ego made me think I had the capacity to write and professionally edit my own manuscript. I still cringe looking at glaring mistakes I didn’t catch. I met Janet Benton at a Writers Conference (also a great investment) and we connected over the initial concept for what would become The Witness Tree. Bimonthly, I’d send her pages and then we’d meet to discuss storyline, grammar, and anything that needed improvements. It became almost like writing therapy; she really pulled so much creativity out of me and I owe a lot of the finished product to her. It was a HUGE investment, but I’d spend it again (and will) in a heartbeat.

Does your family support your career as a writer?

I am very fortunate that my family has always been my biggest support system. From a young age, my parents saw that I had a passion for the creative and they encouraged me to dive right into it. Whether it was on the stage or with a pen, they were always front row on opening night or my first beta-readers. It’s not easy being the parent of a child who doesn’t want to be a nurse or a teacher—career-paths with direct job placement and decent salaries—but they never pushed me to be anything more than myself. My spouse supports my passion as deeply. When I met my now husband, I was knee-deep in the development phase of The Witness Tree and I was very clear with him that my writing would always come first. For the first year that we dated, we only saw each other on the weekends, so I could dedicate my weeknights to honing my craft. He never complained. He never asked for more time or attention; he worked around my writing schedule and encouraged me to take all the time I needed. He’s also stepped in and helped create my website and social media presence—things I wouldn’t have done without him. It’s very rare to have someone blindly support something that most deem a “hobby” or something that isn’t financially lucrative. But he is my biggest fan and I am beyond lucky to have him in my corner.

How long on average does it take you to write a book?

Both of my books took years to complete: Codename: Sob Story, four years; The Witness Tree, seven years. To most that seems like an insanely long time to complete a project; authors typically produce at least 1 manuscript/short story a year. But keep in mind that I have a fulltime job AND I am perfectionist. Unless I’m writing to deadline, I don’t force myself to produce. Forcing creativity cheapens the product, so I take as long as I need to write the story I want to read.

Which scene, character or plotline changed the most from first draft to published book?

A pivotal aspect of the soldier’s backstory was changed in my last draft—pretty much at the last minute. My editor had just completed her line-by-line edit and she pointed out that the soldier’s rational for enlisting in the Confederate army wasn’t strong enough. Additionally, she thought there were too many “evil mother” characters in my manuscript—as I characterized the soldier’s mother in a similar light to the other mother-figures. In talking it through with her, I realized exactly what his character needed; a moral dilemma pushed by love of family. What I came up with flowed better with the rest of the story and I am beyond happy with how it all turned out. It was the best lesson in taking creative advice and putting your ego aside.

What sort of a relationship exists between you and the characters you created in this book?

I spent seven years creating these characters. My fingertips pumped blood into their veins. So for me, A.M.P. and Breanne are as real as you and me. They’re my best friends; no, they’re my sisters. When I finished writing, it was a bit heartbreaking to let them go; to not have them living in my head everyday. But now I get to share them with the world and allow others to love them as much as I do. My readers have truly embraced them and feel as strong a kinship with them as I do.

What’s next for you?

Currently, I am busy producing my next great American story; a second child, due in May. My husband and I are excited to expand our family and give our son, Wyatt, a sibling. Creatively, I’m in a bit of a slump; let’s blame my lack of inspiration on Covid and being consumed by Mommy-life. I regularly publish blog content for my website, but I don’t have any big ideas in the works for book #3. Just haven’t found my muse yet.

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