Welcome to Tea with Mrs B, an author interview series. Here to share a pot of tea and to chat about her brand new book, House of Wishes, is Jenn J. McLeod.
Jenn J McLeod was fifty when she started ticking things off her bucket list and so far she’s made that sea change, written that bestseller, and downsized her life to a 25-foot caravan named Myrtle the Turtle to do the big lap of Oz very slowly. A nomadic novelist since 2014, Jenn has penned six small-town stories, including the 2013 top-selling House for all Seasons. Her novels are life-affirming tales of friendship and family with a backdrop of country life.
In addition to her novels, Jenn is published in short form and in industry magazines (including the Australian Literature Review’s ‘Novel Writing in Australia’ education series). She also maintains her own blog and loves connecting with readers online.
Hello Jenn. It is my pleasure to warmly welcome you to my blog, Mrs B’s Book Reviews. Thank you for joining me for Tea with Mrs B, an author interview series. To set the mood for our tea infused interview, what is your preferred beverage, tea, coffee or other? And side accompaniment, scone, cake or other?
Coffee, please. Oh, and I am partial to a date scone, although not the messy hands when making them. Despite Ava’s magical 3, 2, 1 recipe in A Place to Remember (which does have readers craving scones, so they keep telling me) I always end up looking like a flour monster with doughy fingers gluing me to the mix. I now cheat with a boxed scone mix. (The LAUCKE The Country Women’s scone mix is way too easy—and too good). The scones freeze well, too, so I don’t have to eat the entire batch in one sitting—more’s the pity.
Can you tell us what genres you write and how many books you have had published?
House of Wishes is my sixth novel. My four ‘seasons’ books are published by Simon & Schuster AU and A Place to Remember was picked up by the same UK publisher responsible for The Thorn Birds and Maeve Binchy’s success.
My novels are categorised as contemporary fiction. I refer to them as: family relationship stories with a backdrop of country life.
House of Wishes is your latest release, can you describe it in just a sentence?
A mother’s wish to have her ashes scattered in a small-town cemetery leads a grieving daughter to understand life is about the choices we make, the connections that matter, the secrets we keep and the power of a wish.
What came first in the creation of the novel – the title, plot, characters or setting when you first set out to write House of Wishes?
I am so excited to be returning to the very familiar setting of Calingarry Crossing, which I created for my debut—House for all Seasons—because when I typed The End on House for all Seasons, I wasn’t ready to leave town. That’s why I set Simmering Season there and gave Maggie, the publican, her own story.
House of Wishes now makes three Calingarry Crossing novels, with each standalone* story featuring character cameo appearances. (*Standalone means you can read books in any order without spoilers and this aspect both excited me and, as an author who rarely plots, tested me.) As well as featuring the very unique and somewhat mysterious Dandelion House (home to Gypsy) House of Wishes introduces Dawson’s Run—a cattle property on the outskirts of town that is leading the way in future farming practices, such I.A. and robotics. (But I can’t say more on that without spoilers.)
How long did it take you to write House of Wishes?
This book took longer than usual for a number of reasons. There was special consideration required to avoid spoilers too soon in the story, while still tying all the threads to satisfy reader expectations. (I sure have a greater appreciation for those authors who do write connected storylines in a series covering multiple books). As a pantster—one who flies by the seat of their pants, rather than plotting—I can’t imagine the added difficulties of continuity and maintaining detail. My books simply share the same lovely landscape around Calingarry Crossing.
Creating complex storylines about secrets (my fave) is hard enough, but a loosely linked book takes the writing process to a new level. My greatest challenge with House of Wishes was ensuring the end result satisfied two reader types:
- those who have read the first two Calingarry Crossing novels, and
- those who will read them after House of Wishes. (And they will! See my teaser at the end of this blog!)
How different was the experience of writing House of Wishes, compared to the previous five novels?
Different! (See above!) But also because this was my baby from go to whoa. Taking control of the publishing journey has been both enlivening and daunting but so, so rewarding to see readers enjoying something that I’ve produced.
Can you tell us more about the main themes of your novel?
The main theme is about choices—the ones we make, and the ones sometimes made for us.
As is the case with my stories, I also like to play with motifs. Often an object will present itself as I’m writing. With A Place to Remember, it was the dragonfly. One literally landed on my laptop screen while I was outside, writing. Similarly, with House of Wishes, a ladybug landed on my screen—two, actually, on different occasions. (Clearly determined to be written into a story, so I did.) I have to say, my ladybug story thread worked a treat!
Where did the inspiration for your characters come from?
Still today I get emails from readers of House for all Seasons asking me if Calingarry Crossing and Dandelion House are real places, as they’d like to visit. Others are curious about the origins of Dandelion House: who built it, and why on an island in the middle of a river? In this latest Calingarry Crossing novel, it’s Tom who shares tales of when the century-old river house had been a swank summer residence for arty eccentrics in the 1930s, a maternity home for unmarried mothers, and home to Gypsy—whose mother, Maeve was a fortune-teller in a travelling carnival. The more Beth learns about the place, and the reclusive owner, the more Beth questions her mother’s wishes (her reason for being in town).
The idea of delving into Dandelion House’s history has bubbled away for some time, but I was unsure how to tell the story. Like all good pantsters, I sat down at the computer with a title and the name Beth. It helped that I was able to draw on a personal experience (a pretty tragic time in my life) and this fed into the opening chapter. Once I started writing, things fell into place and I began seeing signs—like those ladybugs that landed on my laptop. I knew I was onto something, so I kept writing.
Can you tell us more about the setting of your novel?
Calingarry Crossing is a small town situated on the edge of a vast inland region (NSW) but the original inspiration came from the coastal town of Sawtell (Coffs Harbour) where I owned a property and a café. There’s a great pub (that has beach parties—with sand); Val and Lorna run the op shop (based on, yes, Val and Lorna from Sawtell); there’s a hardware store, a general store and, of course, an awesome café with a laugh-a-minute barista! But I took that setting and dropped it on the western side of the Great Dividing Range. (As an author I can do that!!)
Dandelion House, however, is something quite unique. As such, it is pure imagination, although the river is based on the magnificent McLean/Clarence waterway, north of Coffs Harbour. On the imaginary island is a massive, single-storey homestead, accessible only by a single-vehicle punt. Mostly hidden behind trees, like the glorious Liquidambars on the book cover, Dandelion House sits perched atop a land mass that is carpeted by yellow dandelion flowers. On misty mornings it looks magical—like it’s floating on a cloud—but townsfolk remain unimpressed. Some claim the isolation offered is therapeutic, while many old-timers consider the place cursed. Here is an excerpt, where Tom tells Beth about the original owners:
‘Generous Georgie and Jessie, as they were known, were entrepreneurial, but not bothered by rules. Polite locals thought them eccentric. Others called them bohemians. While in my uncle’s era, kids made up stories about a resident witch who boiled bad children and used them for bait. But you know kids! Adults, on the other hand, claimed they were heathens and deserving of everything bad that happened.’
House of Wishes is a dual time period novel, did you find one time period easier than the other to write? How hard was it to link the time frames together?
My 4th novel was the first dual time period story and I so loved the process, and the end result, I carried the structure over to books five and six. The trick with a dual narrative is ensuring both story threads remain equally compelling. It’s not good to drag a reader kicking and screaming between story threads. The author’s job is to ensure a reader remains invested in both, equally.
What ingredients do you feel are necessary to compose a successful contemporary women’s fiction narrative?
Strong but relatable characters. Real people with flaws and, in Tom’s case (House of Wishes) a county bloke with bad taste in jokes! As an author I’m often torn, with political correctness influencing my choices. While there are some definite no-go places, an author has to keep their characters real. My challenge writing Tom was keeping the country in a country lad. If that means he’s a bit un-PC at times, dropping the occasional faux pas, so be it. I never set out to offend or upset a reader, but no one is perfect, and we all have to learn our lessons. (And Tom is trying.) I do recall my agent once told me to: “Never use the words ‘needy’ and ‘woman’ in the same sentence.” At the same time, however, if I make a female character too strong and feisty, readers may not relate. It’s all a big balancing act.
What do you hope readers will take away from reading House of Wishes?
There’s a line I’ve used in the book—advice spoken by different generations—that is along the lines of:
“Make sure you can say the life you lived was the one you wanted, and you left nothing undone. Choices can ripple through generations and sometimes, in order to move forward into tomorrow, we have to understand yesterday.”
What is the best part of being a published author?
Having your stories read. That’s why I write. It’s the challenge of taking nothing more than a combination of 26 letters and rearranging them on a page—page after page for 300-400 pages—to create compelling characters and landscapes into which readers want to escape. My reward comes from moving someone emotionally with just my words on a page.
Aside from writing, do you have any interesting hobbies?
Yes! Reading and travelling across the country to meet lovely readers and bloggers, like you, Mrs B!
If you could slip back in time, what era would you travel to and why?
The 70s. I was a teenager then, and if I’d known what I know now I would have started writing earlier. House of Wishes lets me go back to 1974 and that was definitely a fun part of the job.
What is next on the horizon for Jenn J. McLeod? Do you have any writing projects you would like to share with us?
I have so many novels half-written; I have to decide which one to go with next. But I’ve also written a three-book series for kids (rhyming picture books) so I’m looking forward to trying out new things.
What 2019 book releases are you most excited to read?
The year is almost over, and with a new release to publish I’ve had less reading time, but I did manage a few good ones, including Pamela Cook’s, Cross My Heart, and Lily Malone’s Last Café Before Home, and for something light, Kathryn Ledson is wonderful. (Even her bio makes me laugh. Google her!)
Finally, wrapping up our tea-themed interview, who would you most like to share a pot of tea with?
You! My trip to WA last year was way too brief.
Thank you for taking the time to visit Mrs B’s Book Reviews for Tea with Mrs B, Jenn. Congratulations on the publication of House of Wishes!
Three wishes, three mothers, three generations.
A story about the choices we make,
the connections that matter,
the secrets we keep,
and the power of a wish.
Dandelion House, 1974
Two teenage girls—strangers—make a pact to keep a secret.
Calingarry Crossing, 2014
For forty years, Beth and her mum have been everything to each other, but Beth is blind-sided when her mother dies, and her last wish is to have her ashes spread in a small-town cemetery.
On the outskirts of Calingarry Crossing, when Beth comes across a place called Dandelion House Retreat, her first thought is how appealing the name sounds. With her stage career waning, and struggling to see a future without her mum, her marriage, and her child, she hopes it’s a place where she can begin to heal.
After meeting Tom, a local cattleman, Beth is intrigued by his stories of the cursed, century-old river house and its reclusive owner, Gypsy. The more Beth learns, however, the more she questions her mother’s wishes.
When meeting Beth leads Tom to uncover a disturbing connection to the old house, he must decide if the truth will help a grieving daughter or hurt her more.
Should Dandelion House keep its last, long-held secret?
For print books: House of Wishes is available in print and ebook through all online retailers. (Direct link to ebooks: https://books2read.com/ap/RWKlqv/Jenn-J-McLeod)
*If you prefer supporting your local bookshop, ask them to order a copy in. Or you can buy direct from me via my web shop (https://www.jennjmcleod.com) and I’ll send a signed copy with a snazzy bookmark. Don’t forget, you can also choose to ask your library to order in a copy.
Connect with Jenn here: