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Jenny Milchman

Denise: It looks like you’re finally living your dream of being a published author. I understand that your creative nature made itself known when you were only two years old, when you began reciting your first stories to your parents. By Kindergarten, you already had your first story written. How have you nurtured that creative part of who you are? Where do you suppose that creative spark came from?

Jenny: I’m going to start by answering with a story. Maybe that’s fitting. Anyway, when my first child was two years old, I asked her to take her toothbrush and her brother’s toothbrush back to the bathroom. As she carried them down the stairs, holding each one aloft like a little figurine, I heard her say, “The twins were on their way home…” At two years old, she was turning dental equipment into characters. So while I used to have no idea where the creative spark comes from, now I believe there must be some genetic or organic component to it. My mother tells me that I used to sit so silently on long car trips that she would get alarmed. I was making up stories. In terms of nurturing the spark, I think the main thing is that I allow myself lots of quiet time. I sit around a lot, read, or just stare out the window–oh, and eat. Eating’s good, too. Or I’ll drive, walk, or take long showers. I’m the opposite of over-programmed, and I think in the down time, a lot might actually be taking place, including the birth of new stories.

Denise: How did you benefit from attending Bard College? Had you observed an improvement in your writing through the classes?

Jenny: You know, I have mixed feelings about writing classes. On the one hand, I love them. I teach them. And I absolutely loved Bard–it was probably the most rich and creative environment I’ve ever been in. But I also think that creative writing classes can give rise to a kind of “group speak” and in the process hinder the individual writer from developing his or her own voice. When I look back on my decision not to pursue an MFA–which did not come from any of this reasonable analysis on my part; I wouldn’t have been capable of it then anyway–I’m glad, because I don’t think a degree would’ve helped me find the style in which I write, or the kind of suspense fiction I love writing. When writers improve–myself included–I tend to think it’s because a class gives a writer time and space in which to work, in addition to advice about craft, and a group of good sounding boards.

Denise: Was there still time to write since accepting a position as a psychotherapist in a rural outpatient clinic?

Jenny: I worked for ten years at that community mental health center, and it’s actually where I wrote my first novel. Literally–whole scenes were penned there. Without that period in my life, I don’t know if I would’ve become a suspense novelist. I had these terrifying cases–a cherubic little girl who had killed the family pet; a group therapy patient who took out a gun to shoot herself during session–and life was almost like a suspense novel. I wrote in order to be able to impose the wonderful and gratifying arc of beginning, middle, and end that crime fiction offers and real life so often lacks. Before that, although I always wanted to write, I was jotting down poems and taking stabs at Victorian-esque novellas: the kinds of things I studied in college. For me–color me dumb–it was a light bulb moment to realize, hey, if you want to write, shouldn’t you try the kind of book you like to read? But…I left psychotherapy practice before I ever got published. That first novel never sold, and six unpublished manuscripts later, I had two young children, and balancing being a stay-at-home mom with work outside the home and trying desperately to pursue my dream got to be too much. It would take another five years, but finally, writing allowed me to replace that first career.

Denise: After years of trying to break into print, what was it like to hear from Ballantine about interest in publishing “Cover of Snow?”


Jenny: Like watching the sky burst open and a shaft of sun shine down. Like seeing a river run candy ice cream pink. Like if a clock could turn backward and everyone grow young. After eleven years, and seven unpublished novels, three agents, and fifteen almost-offers, it was a new universe for me, one that I had forced myself to stop hoping to reach, lest I have to keep mourning a small death–the death of my dream–every single day.

Denise: What was your journey to publication like from acceptance to seeing the cover?

Jenny: I don’t want to sound too Pollyanna here, but it was excitement and wonder and gratitude. Oh, and busy. It was busy in a way that as you can tell from my previous statements about down time was a little challenging. But that’s okay. I wanted to be challenged–this was what I’d asked for. Editing is hard for me, and there was a lot of it in the twenty-one months from receiving my offer to holding my book in my hands. Cover of Snow was in its eighteenth draft when it sold, and it went through four more substantive revisions. (I have brilliant editors). There were also some dream-come-true moments, like when my editor ordered champagne at our first lunch (I told you she’s brilliant). I unwrapped my very first copy of my very first book on my birthday. I can still see the booth my husband and kids and I were sitting in. I wasn’t young anymore by this birthday. It felt like I’d traveled a long time to get here. But that was okay. It couldn’t have happened a moment sooner.

Denise: Tell us about Nora Hamilton’s life changing discovery one winter morning in her farmhouse.

Jenny: Oh, I can’t! It’s a spoiler. And I know that every review gives it away…not to mention the flap copy on the book…but somehow I just can’t. I recently got back from a 7 month/35,000 mile book tour and during the tour, I read the opening scene in Cover of Snow about 150 times. And every single time, I stopped just before Nora made her dread discovery. But I will say this. Although Nora discovers something terrible in her farmhouse, something that will upheave her entire life, the worst thing she finds was already there, living inside herself.

Denise: What doesn’t make sense to Nora?

Jenny: Hmmm, that’s a good one. Everything, her whole life, at the start. And at the end, how she could not have known it all along.

Denise: How does she begin her search for answers?

Jenny: Like most of us–well, like me anyway–she finds her answers in family. They hold the secrets to who she is, and that in turn made her marriage what it was. Concretely, I think the first scene where Nora begins to seek understanding is when she confronts her cold whip of a mother-in-law. Although she leaves this encounter shaken, even beaten, it’s really where she first begins to find her strength.

Denise: What was the most important thing you wanted your readers to know as they read this book?

Jenny: Don’t keep secrets. Dig to be the most honest person you can be. Sometimes, secrets kill.

Denise: Tell us about your second novel, Ruin Falls.

Jenny: Cover of Snow takes place in the fictional Adirondack town of Wedeskyull, and Ruin Falls is also a “Wedeskyull” novel. It concerns all new characters…you get to see the town through the prism of a very different story. The story starts with a family setting off on a long-awaited vacation. Liz and her husband Paul wake to find their two kids missing from the hotel room. Then Liz realizes who has taken them, and why. But that will be only the first step in getting them back.

Denise: You’re involved in so many things: International Thriller Writers, Debut Authors Program, Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day, Made it Moments forum and Writing Matters. Can you share info and links to all of the above?

Jenny: ITW’s Debut Authors Program is one of the best resources I know for new authors. Through membership, you can get to know some of the biggest thriller writers in the business, learn from them, make strides in your own career. You also meet authors right at your stage of the game–and in an industry as dynamic and changing and challenging (and wonderful) as this one, that kind of camaraderie and support is invaluable.

Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day began when my children were very young and I was taking them to story hour at our local bookstore almost every week. Book for them, book and latte for me. Nurturance all around. I started thinking that while many fine writers focus on kids and literacy–James Patterson’s Read Kiddo Read or David Baldacci’s Wish You Well Foundation–there wasn’t a specific focus on bookstores and the experience of being physically surrounded by books and people who have made books their lives. TYCBD is celebrated the first Saturday of every December, and in four years it’s grown from eighty bookstores celebrating to over six-hundred and fifty in all fifty states and four foreign countries. And we’re just about to become a national non-profit thanks to my new crack board of directors!

Made It Moments is a forum on my blog that asks writers the question, “How did you know you’d made it?” About 300 authors have appeared, and the answers are fascinating in that every single one is unique, and yet each says exactly the same thing: “I haven’t yet.” The Moments were sources of hope and inspiration to me when I was struggling to get published, and I hope they’ll serve the same purpose to other emerging authors, while continuing to be interesting, amusing tales long after we’ve all made it. One of my favorites is by an author named Colby Marshall whose book just happened to be the ten thousandth one published by her press. The press decided to do a giveaway to celebrate, and so Colby was able to put a check for $1,000 into the hands of the woman who had bought her novel. This woman decided to take her grandchildren to Disney World. How’s that for making it?

Writing Matters is a series I co-hosted at a local bookstore, Watchung Booksellers in Montclair, NJ. It ran for almost four years, featuring panel discussions on everything from whether there’s any difference between a cat cozy and a Jonathan Franzen novel (“Literary Versus Genre Fiction: Real Distinction or No Difference At All?”) to where the publishing industry is going (“Brave New World: Publishing a Novel in 2010 and Beyond”). When I set out on that aforementioned book tour and left New Jersey, the series changed shape, but we will have a reunion panel in April of this year, and I just contacted a wonderful bookstore in my new town, Oblong Books, about starting up again.