Jennifer Rogers Spinola loves the South. Born in South Carolina, she grew up in rural Virginia and graduated with a B.A. in English/journalism from Gardner-Webb University in North Carolina.
After graduation, Jenny pursued a career in journalism, eventually taking a position as staff writer for the Southern Baptist International Mission Board and serving as a short-term missionary to Japan. In 2000, during a reporting trip to Brazil, Jenny fell in love with that country and its people. Soon after, she fell in love with one specific Brazilian, her future husband, Athos.
Jenny, Athos, and their two-year-old son Ethan now reside in Brasilia, and Jenny has traded journalism for fiction writing. Her first novel, Southern Fried Sushi, was released on October 1 by Barbour Books.
You studied journalism and worked in the field for several years. What sparked your fiction-writing aspirations?
I’ve always been interested in writing—always, always! I’ve been creating stories and stapling little paper books together since I could write—before I could write, even, using drawings. I think journalism was more of a practical career where I could use the thing I loved (writing) and not only make a living, but report on good things like missions that people could pray about and get involved with.
I re-started my fiction writing after I got married and moved to Brazil with my Brazilian husband, and suddenly I couldn’t work in journalism anymore. So working on my old story ideas became one of my favorite pastimes and a way of staying in touch with writing and words. As our years in Brazil stretched out longer and longer, eventually reaching more than seven years, I began to use fiction writing, too, as a sort of escape: to remember the places I longed for and bring them back in comforting bits and pieces.
How does your faith play into your writing?
I notice that whenever I think of writing a book that is uplifting and represents good moral character, but without an overt Christian message of salvation or redemption, I can’t do it. I just blank. It’s like everything I write *has* to speak of the Lord, or it just falls flat.
I know that some writers can pull this off beautifully, but I can’t. My faith is a big part of who I am, and just like my love for my husband and some come out without trying, so does my Christian faith.
Let’s talk about your new book, Southern Fried Sushi (Barbour Books, October 1, 2011). Fun title! Please tell us about the book.
Thanks! I’m excited about this book! I started writing it in January of 2009 shortly before we adopted our son, Ethan, and have enjoyed working on the sequel and then the third book since then. Here’s the teaser Barbour is using for the book:
Ride the rollercoaster of Shiloh Jacobs’s life as her dreams derail, sending her on a downward spiral from the heights of an AP job in Tokyo to penniless in rural Virginia. Trapped in a world so foreign to her sensibilities and surrounded by a quirky group of friends, will she break through her hardened prejudices before she loses those who want to help her? Can she find the key to what changed her estranged mother’s life so powerfully before her death that she became a different woman—and can it help Shiloh too?
The idea for this book came in part from the writing suggestion to “write about what you know.” Previously my books always required a lot of research: about wilderness survival, about orphanages and adoption laws, and so forth. And sometimes the research got so cumbersome that my writing slacked off. So I sat down to make a list of the things I really know about and came up with two (pitiful) things: Japan and rednecks.
I looked at my list and felt like a dork, since I don’t have much expertise in a particular exciting area like biology or jewelry making or World War II guns that would make great books—but those two things, Japan and rednecks, yes, I knew about them, all right. From up-close and personal experience.
And that’s how the book came about. I never dreamed it would be published at that time—I just wanted to write. And I came up with a wacky story that combined both so-called “areas of expertise.”
Besides entertainment, what do you hope readers will take away from it?
I definitely hope readers will think about the relationships in their own lives that need healing and forgiveness and turn them over to God. This has taken me some time to come to terms with, but I realize that it is possible, and the peace God brings to troubled relationships is far better than carrying grudges.
I also hope they’ll see that God is present everywhere, when life seems set and also when life seems to be falling apart—and that He’s always at work in our lives no matter where we are.
In addition, I have a real pet peeve about fiction heroes and heroines who are beautiful, perfect, and “larger than life.” I want people to know that you can be exactly who you are and be used by God, and that the people in your life don’t have to be perfect and beautiful, either—even your closest friends and (gasp) spouse or romantic interest! Beauty is overrated in our looks-saturated culture, and unrealistic expectations of perfection ruin marriages. Even God, Scripturally, cares virtually nothing about physical looks as we see in the anointing of young David, who would eventually be king of Israel. Samuel kept thinking that the tall, handsome brothers were the ones God had chosen, but God said, “Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart. Do not consider his height or appearance, for I have rejected him.” This is pretty powerful stuff about what’s important and what’s not!
Can you tell us something about your next book, Like Sweet Potato Pie?
Sure! In fact, this is my favorite of the trilogy because it touches on exactly the theme of beauty versus character that I mentioned above. I notice that a lot of women are so hung up on a man’s looks that his character is secondary or even insignificant—and I see a lot of fiction romance books that continue to push the “looks” envelope: comparing heroes to movie stars, giving him “over the top” looks and a gorgeous body, and giving him lots of attention for being one of the “beautiful people” Hollywood gushes about—except with a Christian stamp embossed on the cover.
And to me this is completely contrary to the heart of God, who urges us in Proverbs to seek wisdom and character in a spouse. Looks are never once mentioned. Sure, attraction to a husband and wife should be celebrated, and physical beauty is nice, as we see in Proverbs, but it should never be the main draw!
With these thoughts in mind, I created a story about a rather attractive woman who finds herself falling for a common, average-looking guy with a good heart, as opposed to the good-looking, wealthy types she used to date. And it was fun to see how these things would unfold and what issues would come up!
Most of all, I see Like Sweet Potato Pie as a continuation of the romance with God the main character finds in Book One—learning what love truly is from God’s perspective, and how it includes not only forgiveness, but sacrifice and selflessness.
Why is James 1:27 a special verse to you?
I’ve always wanted to adopt—even since childhood. It’s funny, because I never knew anyone who was adopted or had adopted, but it was always a “thing” with me. When I played dolls, they were almost always adopted (and usually different colors). I’ve always thought it’s our responsibility as Christians to care for orphans as God does, perhaps by opening our homes and taking some in.
These verses really hit home for me as an adult when I read Matthew 25:35, where Jesus says, “I was a stranger, and you invited me in.” Nowadays it’s risky to invite an adult stranger into your home, but what if that “stranger” is an infant or a small child? Could we invite him or her in? And my answer was YES.
The thing that is most troubling to me regarding adoption is the misconception that adoption is “only” for those who can’t have children for one reason or another. I hear this over and over: “Oh, you adopted! So you can’t have children?” Whether or not we can have biological children has NOTHING to do with the choice to welcome a child who needs a family into your home! Adoption is a blessing on your family! Adoption gives a father to the fatherless, shows evidence of “pure religion” (James 1:27), serves others as we would serve Christ (Matthew 25:35), and pleases God.
Our son Ethan has blessed our home and family in a thousand ways—too many even to list. He is so precious—so loved of God. Why were we chosen to raise this wonderful boy for the Lord? I’m tearing up even as I type…
A few fun questions…
You grew up in the United States but have lived outside the country for a while. What American comfort food do you miss the most? What’s your favorite international comfort food?
Oh, what great questions! I love to talk about food! : )
My favorite American comfort food that I miss most… well, that’s a hard one. Can I give you a short list? I’d start it with grits—buttery, cheesy grits. I really love them. I miss my Aunt Lois’s scrumptious manicotti and homemade peanut butter and coconut cream pies. Lots of things—tortilla chips, blueberries, blackberries, sweet corn, bagels and cream cheese, chicken sandwiches from Chik-Fil-A.
I also miss (ironically) ethnic foods that I can’t get here, like Thai and Vietnamese noodles and spring rolls, and my favorite of all, Indian food. I absolutely LOVE Indian food! I love spices, and I miss all the curries and samosas and the whiff of cardamom, garlic, ginger, and cilantro that smells like “home” to me, in a weird way.
As for international comfort foods (as in from Brazil), my favorite cozy dish is probably Brazilian stroganoff (estrogonofe) with beef or chicken. My mother-in-law makes the BEST version I’ve ever had—she’s amazing! It’s nothing like our American version of stroganoff with noodles and ground beef. We use either chicken breast or steak cut into small pieces, and my mother-in-law sautés it with garlic and onions and white wine. When the meat is cooked, we add tomato sauce and some canned corn and let it simmer, and stir in some cream at the end. It’s served over white rice with shoestring potatoes (batata palha) and a sprinkle of chopped green onions and cilantro on top. Wonderful!
This website features musicians as well as writers. Do you have musical, as well as literary, talent?
I love music! I play the violin, although I really need lessons. It’s been hard bouncing around different cities and countries all these years without lessons. I did take some lessons in Japan (in Japanese) which was fun, but then I moved, and since then we’ve struggled financially just to live in the very expensive city of Brasilia. So lessons have been out of the question.
I’ve always been involved in music in some way, though—singing, playing the trombone in middle school (ha ha!), or doing promotional articles and photos for bands.
My husband plays the piano beautifully, although he’s out of practice like me, and our son Ethan has shown keen interest and giftedness in music since before he could talk. He loves to watch videos of people playing instruments (namely bagpipes, drums, violin, cello, and piano) and even tries to play my adult-sized violin. And he actually makes a pretty good sound! He loves to sing and is already matching our pitches and singing on-key, and not yet three years old.
Detours in life can be frustrating although the outcome is often more intriguing than our original plan. Has there been a recent “detour” in your life—or in one of your character’s lives—that taught you something?
My whole life has been a detour of sorts. I remember feeling God’s call to be a missionary when I was a young girl, and I desperately didn’t want to. I used to leave in the middle of missionary presentations when the “urge” felt too strong, and pray that God would never send me overseas. I don’t know why I felt so strongly against it; fear, perhaps, of the unknown?
But God has a way of making the unknown close and personal, and He did it through international friends and foreign exchange students who intrigued me with their customs, stories, and lives. For the first time I began to think about life overseas and feel excited about it. And when I took my first international trips as a reporter, it was like coming home. I couldn’t get enough of it. I felt challenged, motivated, alive—like God was calling me to step in and join!
After that I served two years in Japan as a missionary, which widened my scope even more and changed my life forever, and then I married Athos (a Brazilian) whom I met in Japan—with the intent to stay here in Brazil just one year. It’s been more than seven years now, and we have a Brazilian son! We’ve seen one friend saved and baptized, several others brought closer to the Lord, and so many prayers answered and dreams come true. I can’t imagine all the blessings I would have missed if God had let me have my way and stay in my tiny hometown in Virginia…
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?
I thought about this one a long time, and I think (if I could suggest a different one) that I’d be the weirdo lady next door that everybody thought was bats. The one with vats of kimchee cabbage fermenting on her back porch, blue potatoes and white pumpkins growing in her garden, and rehabilitating raccoons and possums in her kitchen.
I don’t know if I’ve ever done anything conventionally—not that that was ever a choice on my part. I remember during my early high school years I so desperately wanted to be like everybody else—and yet still I managed to do everything differently, it seemed: having a crazy conservative political viewpoint unlike my classmates, or spending Saturday afternoons at the gun range with my dad, or holed up in my room writing stories instead of at the mall. And yes, we did have rehabilitating raccoons and possums in our kitchen—and stray dogs and cats of all sorts that we “fixed up” and gave away to good owners. : )
I love trying new things, and meeting people from other countries—and eventually living in some of these places myself has changed me for life. I love to explore! I can’t wait to have a microscope and telescope again. Supposedly it’ll be for Ethan (ha ha) but I’ll probably do most of the playing with it.
Oh, and there really are blue potatoes and white pumpkins, and a number of other oddly colored (non-GM) vegetables that I can’t wait to grow once I have a garden!
Please tell us about your pets, if any, or your favorite pet as a child.
Oh, I just love animals… It would be hard to list all the ones I’ve had and loved. We did have a cat here, Maki, who ran away shortly after our move to this new apartment. We were heartbroken, and Ethan called for her for months.
Before Maki we had Toby, who was a stray yellow tabby cat I picked up, starving and freezing in the middle of winter, outside my apartment in Richmond. He was sort of a grumpy, antisocial cat, shy and scared, but he loved me, and I loved him. When I moved to Japan some years later he didn’t do well, and he fell into a sort of depression and stopped grooming. After I got back from Japan I promised I’d never leave him again, so we brought him to Brazil with us—and he was happy here. Such a great cat—never clawing anything, sleeping at the foot of our bed, waiting at the apartment door for me when I got home. He died of cancer here, but he’d lived a full and happy life.
And I do love dogs just as much as cats—cats are just easier in apartments. Growing up we had a beautiful red collie/retriever mix named Shanny, and I loved her dearly. She was with me from the time I was born until I was fourteen years old, and I could hardly imagine my life without her for a long time.
Thanks, Jenny It’s great to have you as a guest at DivineDetour!
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For more information about Jenny, visit her website at http://jenniferrogersspinola.blogspot.com/.
To purchase Southern Fried Sushi logon to:
Someday I hope to be mentioned in the same breath as Jennifer.
Kathy, thank you so much for letting me do this interview with you! What a pleasure! I loved your questions!
It was my pleasure, Jenny!
Hey, Jim! Let’s do another interview sometime soon to talk about your new book *The Chair*.
Jim – you are too funny! 😀 I just saw this now, remembering Roger’s post…
Kathy – I’m looking for you on Facebook but haven’t found you – are you there?
[…] Gilroy, Jennifer Rogers Spinola, and Lynda Lee Schab are back with their second novels. Here’s a sneak peek of what to expect […]