Jen Stephens released her first book this spring, but she has been on a writing journey for a number of years, beginning with the books her dad read to her as a child. The comfort he brought to Jen is the comfort she hopes to give others through her stories.
Her story, as her life, revolves around family and a strong commitment to letting God lead through both the good and the difficult times.
The title of your first book is The Heart’s Journey Home. Tell us about your personal writing “journey.” How long have you been writing?
I’ve been writing since I was in grade school. My first story was about a boy who befriends an Indian chief and together they capture a burglar who breaks into the boy’s house. I was (and still am) a slow reader with a very active imagination, so I didn’t do a lot of reading as a child, but I was always making up stories. I wrote my first novel when I was in junior high and another one in high school, which I wrote in spiral bound notebooks. My friends read it as I wrote it and then wrote their name in the margins where they left off. Anyway, I took a break from it while I was in college and gradually returned to it after I got married eleven and a half years ago. The Heart’s Journey Home started out as a mainstream novel mostly because, well, I kinda didn’t feel “Christian” enough to write Christian fiction, if that makes any sense. Once I finished it, though, I wasn’t satisfied at all. What a downer that was! Finally, after some considerable prompting from the Holy Spirit, I decided to rewrite it for the Christian market and see, if nothing else, if I’d be happier with it. That was about five years ago. The story took turns that I honestly didn’t expect and in the process, my own faith grew. Personal healing took place. It was a really awesome, sometimes trying, journey, and I’m beyond satisfied with it now!
Besides being a writer, you are a full-time teacher. Do you use your teaching skills when writing? What do your students think about your recent success?
Hmmm. That’s an interesting question, Kathy. Somehow my writing and teaching compliment each other and yet they’re completely separate. Writing fiction is my release from “real life” but I use my “real life” to inspire my writing.
I teach third grade so really my students are more interested in lunch and recess than my books! Ha! Ha! I had one student, though, who had his mom get a signed copy for him. I thought that was sweet. Of course, this past year I had the privilege of teaching my daughter and so naturally she thought it was pretty cool…but eventually recess won out with her, too!
Who/what has influenced your writing career the most?
My daddy had the most influence on my love of writing. I was (and still am) a slow reader so unlike many other successful authors, I didn’t do a lot of reading as a kid. But I loved stories so I would make them up or take every opportunity to be read to. My mom and dad divorced when I was just a baby and for a while he’d get us every weekend. He spent every waking moment doing something memorable with us. He’d say it’s about quality time, not quantity time. Well, I’d beg him for bedtime stories and since he was the epitome of daddies, he started writing a book about a little boy named Henry just for me. Every time I saw him he’d add another chapter. When he started, Henry was in grade school and he made it all the way to high school! Henry grew up with me. Daddy kept the story in a three ring binder that I now have and it’s just precious to me because my daddy’s left us for his home in Heaven nine and a half years ago, but also because it’s my roots in writing.
Let’s talk specifically about The Hearts Journey Home, the first book in your Harvest Bay series, published by Sheaf House. Tell us about the book!
The Heart’s Journey Home is a story about life, love, loss, and finding love again. It’s a story about how faith can lead you home…though it may not be on the path that you expect. Here is a brief synopsis:
Three years after Kate Sterling’s heart was shattered by the unexpected death of her husband, she packs up what is left of her life and moves back to Harvest Bay, Ohio, with her young daughter. She soon discovers that her sleepy hometown has changed—and that she has been given a second chance at love. But, is God leading her to a love linked to the past…or to one who will walk with her into the future? Which road will Kate take on The Heart’s Journey Home?
The Heart’s Journey Home is very special to me, and I hope and pray that whoever reads it will be as touched as I was writing it. I believe that many of the scenes were Spirit-led because of the way it flowed and the way I felt as I wrote them. This is NOT my biography, but, as I said earlier, I come from a blended family and my Daddy passed away nine and a half years ago, so in many ways writing this book was an emotional release for me. I pray that my readers can sense even a fraction of that emotion.
Where did you get the idea for the story? For the series?
Well, I knew I wanted to write about a young widow who moves “home” to try to find herself again. And I knew there would be an old high school classmate and a guy from the life she was leaving who would both vie for her heart. And “home” had to be in North Central Ohio because that’s where I’m from. But I wanted it to be a fictional town loosely based on mine and my husband’s hometowns. That was about all I had when I first got started on this story. The more I got to know my characters and learned what made them tick, their issues and quirks, the more I learned how this story was going to go.
I invented the fictional town of Harvest Bay, fell in love with it, and just began imagining all the stories in the town. Every small town is full of stories, you know. The more I thought about it the more I thought that I just may be able to create a series based on the town, not the characters. And so, the Harvest Bay Series was created.
What do you most hope readers will take away from this book?
I want those who read The Heart’s Journey Home to feel a sense of hope above all else when they finish the last page. I want this book to clearly illustrate Romans 8:28, that “all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.” The key words here, I believe, are “His purpose.” God has a plan and a purpose for our lives that often may not be what we expect and sometimes doesn’t make a bit of sense in our minds, but it’s ALWAYS perfect. It’s when we put our hope and trust in Him that we can begin to see that. I also hope that my readers come to think of my characters as friends and Harvest Bay as their favorite vacation destination.
How does your faith play into your writing? Do you start with an inspirational theme when you begin a book, or does it evolve through the writing process?
Faith has everything to do with my writing. Funny, huh, since I didn’t start writing Christian fiction because I didn’t think my faith was strong enough. First of all, I have to feel confident that the Lord wants me writing. Otherwise, there’s just no point. Second, I have to rely on my faith daily as I try to balance being a wife, mama, friend, teacher, writer, and, most of all, dedicated Christian, and it’s His grace that picks me up when I feel like I’m failing in one (or more) area, which happens often. Then, I use my own experiences in my faith walk, all the the ups and downs, to help me write the scenes as my characters deal with their faith issues. What’s really cool is when my own faith is strengthened by witnessing the breakthrough of one of my characters.
I suppose I write a “story” more than a “theme.” When I begin a book, I know where my characters are in their faith walk, and I know where they need to get to. Their journey to that point evolves as the story develops and I get to know each character better and, if I write it well, will become the theme of the book.
I love the cover of The Hearts Journey Home. Please tell us how it came about.
I’m rather fond of it, too! My publisher gave me a ton of creative freedom and the go ahead to try to capture my vision which was simply Kate and Madeline walking down an old country road away from the camera. I just felt it represented so much–not just her physical move, but her spiritual one as well, and the fact that she had to find a way to move on with her life. I found the perfect models for Kate and Madeline and I have a friend, Terri Petitt, who’s a super talented photographer. I told her my vision and she went with it. She found the perfect location, which was a pretty big deal because it had to look like Ohio even though it was shot in Tennessee. Once the photo shoot was done, we got the pics to my designer, Marisa Jackson, who picked the perfect font and *squeal* made it PINK! The first time I saw it I was just over the moon. I can’t believe I’m going to admit this but I kept saying, “It’s so preeety!” (You can’t tell I’m a girlie girl, can you?) The same team is working on the cover of The Heart’s Lullaby so you can imagine I’m excited to see what they come up with!
Has God ever provided an unexpected “detour” in your life that turned out to be positive?
Yes! I love to tell this story every chance I get because it was one of the scariest times for me but I’d never felt the presence of God more and I knew without a doubt that He was leading me in a certain direction.
In November ’04, I was teaching a multi-grade level classroom in a very, very small Lutheran school. I loved it there, but it was so small (and had no support of the pastor) that they decided to close it after the school year. Now, at this point of my life, I liked the Christian atmosphere, but the best thing about it for me was there was a nursery and preschool right there so I got to have my girls (at that time ages three and eight months) with me.
My students (all eight of them) were great and would occasionally tell me casual stories of the teacher who left to have triplets a few years before I came. We’ll just call her Mrs. I. Once, just one time, they brought a yearbook in and I saw her picture.
So as the school year was drawing to a close, I knew I was going to be out of a job. Very scary thing. I didn’t make much money, but it was something. That spring, Livi had an ear infection that wouldn’t go away so we were waiting in the doctor’s office for the umpteenth time, it seemed like, and a woman came in with one child. And the Lord revealed to me that it was Mrs. I. There’s no way I could’ve known her otherwise. I introduced myself and told her where I taught. She’d heard that we were closing and asked what I was going to do. I told her I had no idea. She had gone back to teaching and said they were looking for a teacher. That’s how I got to the school I’m teaching at now–where my girls are getting a quality Christian education, but also where I grew (and am still growing) leaps and bounds in my faith walk by learning from the godly men and women that I work with. I believe that I had to have that growth to write The Heart’s Journey Home. Too cool, huh? Gives me chills every time I tell it.
Do you write every day? How do you juggle having a full-time career and a young family, as well as finding time to write?
I try to, but it doesn’t always happen. Like, for example, the past two weeks. The end of the school year is always busy, but this year Livi graduated from Kindergarten so we had to get ready for family to come to visit. Juggling it all is by far the single most challenging part of writing for me. I try to keep a routine of writing from about 8 p..m-12 a.m. year round. During the school year, I teach all day and then have my girls in the evening and usually have to run them to soccer, fiddle lessons, cheerleading, church, etc. During the summer I can sometimes write more, but I also have my girls who want my attention and I’m very aware that they won’t be young and wanting my attention for long. My husband works long hours much of the week, which I’m grateful for, but he isn’t able to be much of a help to me. Routine is very important for me. I’m working on the discipline part. As long as I’m inspired, the two aren’t a chore but a pleasure. But it’s still hard. I mean, juggling is just not an easy task!
Most writers are readers first. What genre do you prefer to read when kicking back with a good book?
I prefer to read what I write–Christian Women’s Fiction/Contemporary Romance. I can kill two birds with one stone that way–I’m reading for pleasure, but also studying the craft. But really, I’ll read anything that’s a great story. As I said before, I’m a slow reader so I have to be drawn in within the first chapter.
A few fun questions…
When the words aren’t flowing—or when you want to celebrate if they are—what is your favorite comfort food and why?
My Grandma Dominick’s spaghetti and meatballs. She was married for somewhere around 50 years to a 100% pure Italian so, I mean, it’s really the best there is. It’s hands down my very favorite food no matter the occasion. Unfortunately, she lives in my hometown in Ohio so I only get it a few times a year.
This website features writers as well as musicians, so I like to mix it up a bit. Do you have musical, as well as literary, talent?
NO!!!!! I played saxophone for four years in grades 5th-8th where I never learned to read notes so I had to always write the letter above the note. Terrible! Then I quit band and joined the high school choir (mostly because that’s where all my friends were). I figured out quickly how to just blend in. No vocal talent whatsoever. Now the extent of it is singing in my van where my girls are my only audience and they’re still young enough to think I sing well! Heaven help them!
What kind of music do you listen to when you’re relaxing with the radio or an mp3 player? Does music help you write?
I like a mix of contemporary Christian and country. Occasionally I get in the mood for 80’s or classic rock, but usually only when we’re bored on the eight hour drive to see our families in Ohio. I love, love, love to write with Jim Brickman. He’s my favorite writing companion.
If you were a song, what kind of song would you be?
If you’re looking for a specific title, I think I’d be, “She’s Not Just a Pretty Face” by Shania Twain.
Are you a major or a minor chord?
Well, Kathy, I had to consult with my husband on this one. He is the music person in our house. He said I am a major chord because they sound happier, positive, upbeat. Have I mentioned I married a really good man???
In the story that is your life, are you the strong, female lead; the girl next door; the mysterious woman behind dark glasses; the super heroine; or the little girl trying to walk in high heels?
The little girl trying to walk in high heels because I’ve always felt like I have to try to measure up—to my awesome big sister, to my cooler peers, to my more dedicated teacher friends, to my more talented writer friends. I’m always striving to be a little better and do a little more than I did before. I guess that can be good to an extent.
Please tell us about your pets, your other hobbies, your family, etc.
My family is my biggest blessing. Chris and I have been married 11 ½ years. He is a songwriter so he gets the whole writing thing—the time and dedication it takes—in a way other men wouldn’t. We have nine year old Alison and six year old Olivia who are complete opposites. Ali has long, straight hair and is as easy going as they come. Livi has tight corkscrews and is a complete busybody from the minute she wakes up until she lays her head on her pillow at night! Both love reading (YEA!) and both already love the Lord (DOUBLE YEA!). I’m so incredibly, ridiculously proud of them both! I have a very sweet, old husky/shepherd mix that we adopted from the humane society named Mikita. We also have an ornery little cat named Pudge. Occasionally we will have a turtle when Chris finds one on the road in his FedEx truck and brings it home to “save” it. Besides writing, which I still consider my hobby because I have a day job and because I love it too much to be my “job,” I love to cook and I dabble in photography.
What advice would you give other writers waiting for their first break? Is there anything you would have done differently?
Be patient. I’m not a very patient person so I sent out a few queries before I was ready, which didn’t do anything but discourage me when I got a rejection. Get involved in writers’ groups. Mentors are so important when you’re learning a craft and other writers can help you in a way others can’t. Lastly, just write. This is something I still struggle with. I’m one who will write something and go back over it a hundred times. You have to just get the story out, and then you can polish it up. Above all else, believe in the gift God has given you.
Is there anything I’d do differently? No, Kathy, I don’t think there is. My journey has been perfect for me. Some may choose a bigger publishing house or maybe to self publish, but for me and where I’m at in my life, if I had it all to do over again, I’d do it all the same.
Thanks for sharing with us, Jen.
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For more information about Jen, logon to www.jenstephens.net. Follow Jen’s blog at http://theheartsjourneyhome.blogspot.com/.
For information about Sheaf House, logon to www.sheafhouse.com/.