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Friday, May 30, 2014

Taking Tea with... Jenn J McLeod

My guest today is Australian author Jenn J. McLeod.  Jenn and I met over a cup of tea at a Romance Writers of Australia conference. We were both in a blue funk about the difficulties of breaking into the publishing industry. Fortune smiled on Jenn and within a year of that conference (or was it two?) she had found an agent and been picked up by Simon and Schuster just at the moment when Australian "rural" romance was taking off... although personally I would describe Jenn's books as more akin to "women's fiction" (if you are into labels). They are wonderful small town stories of real people and I am delighted to call Jenn a friend.

Jenn, it’s always a particular pleasure to welcome old friends and in honour of our Australian-ness… George is out the back swinging the billy for a cup of good old fashioned bush tea. However if that is not to your taste we can do something else…?

Any tea I don’t have to make is okay with me. Thank you, Ms. Stuart. Oh, and can I see a small slab of damper over there? (AS - it is... with real butter!) 

Oh, and speaking of boiling billies, hope you enjoy my little segue at the end. Ha! (AS:  )

I actually feel slightly nervous serving you tea as you are famous for having thrown in the corporate life and buying a tea shop in a small country town… can you tell me how that came about?

Funny you should use that word – famous. I discovered a sense of celebrity comres from moving into a small town and into a much-loved business. I had never made an espresso coffee – never even stood behind a coffee machine – but I had consumed a small continent of caffeine in corporate life so I figured how hard could it be.


Owning a small town cafe was a dream come true until I realised how physically demanding the work could be. One Sunday, over the breakfast/lunch period I walked 16 kms!! (Sitting on my butt all day at a work desk seemed suddenly very appealing!) We last 4 years before selling the café. We now run a dog-friendly B&B. Absolutely no regrets (in fact I champion sea changes. Get your life back, people!) Most importantly, my sea change allowed me to focus on ‘other’ next dream. To be a published author. Four years later … ! *smilie face*
(AS:  As a lawyer I saw clients who had always dreamed of owning 'a little cafe' trying desperately to offload their dreams when the reality of how HARD it was hit home)

I am curious – what was the worst/funniest/most memorable customer experience in your café?

Hmm, the worst was a phone call (after only a couple of weeks in the business). My chef had been locked up in jail for a traffic offence. We were on our own and I had never worked the grill or done more than assemble toasted sandwiches. No meals and definitely no poached eggs. Well, I did 35 breakfasts and 58 covers over the lunch that day. You don’t know what you can do until you do it. So, aspiring writers out there. Just start putting words on the page. (AS:  As that famous Chinese philosoper Ni-Ke said... Just do it!)

The most memorable customer experience was much later when I rather robotically said to a customer after they ordered at the counter: “Take a seat. I’ll bring the coffee over.”
His reply. “I have my own seat, thanks.”
Yes, the customer was in a wheelchair. Thing is, we had such a laugh that day. Glen (his humour and attitude to life) became the inspiration for my character, Will, in House for all Seasons. Both guys are just gorgeous.

Funniest – there is nothing funny about working that hard at my age! ;)

Your debut novel, HOUSE FOR ALL SEASONS, has been a great success. When did you start writing seriously and was this the book that first called to you?

Thank you. A highlight was certainly finding out HOUSE came in at #5 in the 2013 debut best-selling novels list (in Aust). I’d say 2008 was my ‘get serious’ phase. I’d sold the café and I set a deadline (my 50th). If I hadn’t managed to attract some attention for my writing by then I would stop trying to BE published and go back to writing for enjoyment. (I was living and breathing my books and had no time for family of life in general.) I signed with my agent the day before my 50th !

Like most authors, there are old books in the bottom drawer. I learned a lot by writing them. I learned what sort of writer I was and what I wanted to write. But it was NaNoWriMo 2009 that made me stop trying to be a writer and start being a storyteller. The process of writing as many words as possible very quickly (with no editing or endless perfecting) allowed my natural voice to come through. It was this that attracted Simon & Schuster’s publisher and won me a book-a-year offer. (AS: It sounds like a dream come true... but there is a lot of hard work behind making it all seem so effortless. Congratulations!)

I am very excited about your new book, SIMMERINGSEASON which is just out. Firstly is it in the same series as HOUSE FOR ALLSEASONS and are there are any more to come?  What is the premise behind the series?

Loosely linked is how I describe my first two novels (HOUSE and SIMMERING) as they are both set in the same fictional town of Calingarry Crossing and a couple of characters from HOUSE make an appearance in SIMMERING. Other than that they are standalone stories. Book 3 (Season of Shadow and Light) is set in a new town, but not too far away as I found it hard leaving Calingarry Crossing behind. Book 4 is looking more coastal, closer to some of the lovely areas near me in Bonville (a quaint rural hamlet south of Coffs Harbour).
The ‘seasons’ theme came about when planning HOUSE. It is the story of four estranged school friends who inherit a century-old house and have to spend a season each back in their old hometown. I wanted to write a story with four women, each as different as the seasons. To me, the seasons offer so many sights and smells and sounds. Such wonderful contrasts and contrast makes for great conflict. Don’t you agree?   

SIMMERING SEASON revolves around a school reunion. I have never actually been to a school reunion and after nearly 40 years I’m not sure I’m all that keen to start now…  Have you endured a reunion and if so what is your enduring memory of the day? If not… what is your enduring memory of school!

Funny thing, the day I finished SIMMERING SEASON edits I received an email from an old school friend inviting me to a reunion. I couldn’t attend but I have since connected with the Manly Girls High Facebook page. I think there is a little bit of me in my lead character, Maggie Lindeman when she thinks about school reunions. She and I both had a nemesis at school - P.E Class, balance beams and floor mats! Argh! Here is a little extract from the book in which Maggie sums up how I feel about reunions:

In a matter of days, her so-called youth would be catching up with Maggie, the past and present converging with the unpredictable in a celebration of Calingarry Crossing’s centenary.
The idea of a school reunion to Maggie remained both terrifying and fascinating, like a swollen river about to burst its banks; just going for a look could be dangerous, yet it was impossible to stay away. The worst thing was how this reunion was making her question her worth, her achievements ...
Her life.

Thank you for the tea, Ms Stuart. It was delightful. You know, Watching a simmering billy on the fire reminds me of the slow simmer in SIMMERING SEASON and how, if you turn up the heat a little and overload the pot with lies, pretty soon you will blow the lid of that lifetime of secrets. (What a segue!)


When a school reunion brings home
more than memories…
It’s summer storm season and Calingarry Crossing is sweltering.

A devoted mother, sole breadwinner, and now local publican, Maggie Lindeman is back in Calingarry Crossing with her teenage son to sell the family pub, hoping to turn their lives and finances around. The trouble is, the girl people once called Magpie is so busy protecting everyone else she has no idea the perfect storm is heading her way, until her past and present converge with the unexpected to blow the lid off a lifetime of secrets.

No stranger to embracing a second chance or trying something different, Jenn took the first tentative steps towards her tree change in 2004, escaping Sydney’s corporate chaos to buy a small cafe in the seaside town of Sawtell. Moving to the country was like coming home and she now spends her days maintaining her NSW property and writing contemporary Australian fiction—life-affirming novels of small town life and the country roots that run deep.

Ms. Stuart in her final year.
I recently participated in a blog Jenn put together in which she asked authors about their enduring memories of school... School Daze. A recommended read if you have a moment to spare :-)  
This was my contribution:
“Unpick it and do it again”… from Mrs. Plummer the sewing teacher. But seriously I think I owe my biggest debt of thanks to Miss Robinson who had the misfortune to try and teach a bunch of Year 9 girls English grammar. She was the first teacher who encouraged my creative writing.”

Dear readers... you have two days left to enter the May Rafflecopter Contest... so get in quickly and leave a comment for Jenn and I below. 

What are your memories of school or your experience of a recent school reunion?

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