Author Interview: JENNEY EGERTSON
I am delighted to welcome an award-winning author to the blog today, who tells me all about her journey to publication and plans for the future!
Please meet Jenney Egertson…
Writing has been a significant part of every professional job I’ve had: as an English teacher at a St. Louis alternative high school in the 1980s; as a freelance writer and later as a corporate executive in the 1990s; and since then, as I’ve worked myself in and out of several corporate communications jobs, with happy periods in between as a freelance communications strategist, writer/editor, and meeting facilitator.
I began writing Before I Leave in 2000, after meeting an 80-year-old woman I couldn’t forget. For the next 18 years I interviewed, came to love, and wrote about a total of six women, all over the age of 80 at the time I met them, and most in their mid-to late 90s by the time they died. My final subject—my mother, Edith—still lives with my dad in St. Louis, Missouri.
I’ve lived in Minneapolis for 33+ years. These days, I divide my time between writing about the topics I explored with the women I interviewed for Before I Leave, working part-time for a North Minneapolis nonprofit and a few fabulous clients, traveling with my handsome partner, caring for my beloved greyhound and an adorable chihuahua, spending time with my extended family, and fishing—either alone at a city lake or with anyone who will take me to a new and different lake or river or stream. I also set aside time every day for my favorite pastime, reading great fiction.
In 2019, Before I Leave won the Silver Medal for the Aging/Death & Dying Category of the INDEPENDENT PUBLISHER Book Awards (IPPY Awards).
In July of 2000, Jenney Egertson met 80-year-old Maude Kelly. The following day, Jenney had an idea that felt more like a command: give Maude and a diverse group of women over the age of 80 a voice by writing a book to capture their stories and advice. It was the first step in a journey that would span decades.
As Jenney interviewed and wrote about her subjects during the fifteen turbulent years that followed, she learned about aging, parenting, facing adversity, navigating systemic racism and sexism, and accepting community. As she grew to know and love these women, they became her mentors and friends. In the end, these powerful relationships gave Jenney the courage she needed to reclaim a precious gift: her voice as both a woman and a writer.
Who are you and what do you write?
I am a former teacher, corporate communications executive and consultant who wrote for everyone else—teachers, employees, corporate executives, clients—until I was in my mid-40s. That’s when I met an 80-year-old woman whose demeanor, style, wisdom and advice was so instantly compelling that I had to find a way to see her again and record her story. Nearly 20 years later I published Before I Leave, which captures stories, advice and wisdom from six women over the age of 80. Now I’m working on my second book, about the people I met in Selma, Alabama, some of whom knew Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. personally during the Civil Rights movement in the mid-1960s.
Where and when and how did the writing life begin for you?
I discovered writing in 1961, the first time I wrote a rhyming poem. I still have it. The next milestone came in fifth grade, when my teacher wrote at the top of my essay, “You are the cleverest cutie.” I am still in touch with her and she still likes my work at age 85. I’ve always kept a diary and enjoyed writing school papers before I began writing and editing for a living. But I’ve stayed away from writing classes, workshops and peer groups, opting instead to work with a few trusted mentors. When deeply moved, my first response is to write a short story—about the death of my daughter’s beloved hamster, for example, or an impossible relationship between my alcoholic brother-in-law and his beautiful, empathetic friend. These aren’t published. My longest-term writing project was Before I Leave; it took 20 years and the first edition was published in 2018.
How has the journey to this point been? Can you give us a basic rundown?
I was lucky to have clients who valued my work, and friends and family who encouraged me. But the process of writing the book was long and hard. I couldn’t figure out how to structure or connect the chapters. I doubted my decisions for the first 15 years of the process until a gentle, talented editor showed me how what I had written would actually look as a chapter. Meanwhile, I listened to my mentors and took most of their advice, but not all of it. And finally, in late 2017, I took seriously the horror stories about losing control to publishers and decided to hire a fabulous independent publisher. That was an expensive decision but one I will never regret—I maintained total control throughout the process and am very happy with the result.
What's been the hardest part of your writing/publishing experience so far? And the most enjoyable?
By far the hardest part has been marketing and promoting the book. When I can afford to hire help I do, but for new authors who haven’t earned fame some other way—as an actor, journalist or public figure—selling books requires continuous attention. It’s hard to identify a “most enjoyable” part of writing—I’ll never forget those first moments of inspiration, the same day I saw the title of my book in my mind. And later, getting to know my subjects, earning their trust, writing their stories … those moments are priceless. But I’ve loved taking myself on writing excursions, too: once to a lake house that I rented for an entire winter; another time to a tiny house in the Missouri wine country; and the weekend I took my mom to a B&B, where we ate delicious food, drank good wine and talked about her life for two days straight. (Her story is chapter six!)
Would you go back and change anything?
No. As frustrating as it’s been, I believe my life as a writer has evolved exactly as it should. When I have something to say in writing, I say it. When I don’t, I sharpen my skills by reading as much as I can, as often as I can. And I still write for others who need my skills.
Where would you like to be in 5 years’ time? And 10? Or, what are your plans for the future?
By the time I retire from my current nonprofit and freelance work (within five years), I hope to have published a second book and established a consistent way to promote my work. I’m updating my website and social media strategy, but that world changes so fast that who knows what might work two years from now? My goal is to be an author who hands off the marketing to a pro!
What's one piece of advice you'd give to new writers just starting out?
Make sure you have something to say before you publish your work—I think readers sniff out and ultimately abandon contrived writing. In the meantime, practice writing about topics that give you pleasure—via diaries, letters, articles, stories, poetry—whatever gives you joy, as that will be your best work.
And most importantly...
Ketchup or Mayo? - Mayo
Night or Day? - Day
Inside or Outside? - Outside
Dogs or Cats? - Dogs
Twitter or Facebook? – FB (just getting to know Twitter)
Ebook or Paperback? – Paperback
Sun or Rain? - Sun
Keyboard or Pencil & Notebook? – Pencil and notebook for taking notes but keyboard for writing
Comedy or Drama? - Drama
Chips or Chocolate? – Hard choice, but I probably reach more often for chocolate, even though I prefer savory food to sweet.
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