Thursday, May 5, 2011

Interview: Jennie Helderman, Author of As the Sycamore Grows

Joining us today is Jennie Helderman, author of As the Sycamore GrowsHelderman broke the glass ceiling at age ten by becoming the first girl page in the Alabama State Legislature. That surge of girl power wouldn’t be the last time she saw a need to put women’s issues at the forefront.

A 2007 Pushcart Prize nominee, Helderman coauthored two nonfiction books, Christmas Trivia and Hanukkah Trivia and writes profiles for magazines. Previously she chaired the editorial board of the 120,000 circulation alumnae magazine of Kappa Kappa Gamma, The Key.

Welcome to The Book Connection, Jennie. It's wonderful to have you here. Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

I test the water before I jump in but then I may do a cannon ball from the high dive. I can’t sing; I can’t even clap to music. I’m still married to my first husband. I like puzzles, mysteries, Scrabble and good wine. I’m calm during a crisis. I appreciate good friends. I’m comfortable in my own skin.

Where did you grow up?
Gadsden, Alabama, the fourth largest city in Alabama way back then. With its four picture shows, it was bigger than Mayberry but similar in many ways. I walked to school every day and to the double feature on Saturdays. And when I did something wrong, my mother knew about it before I sneaked home.

When did you begin writing?

I was born writing, wrote a play at ten, edited the high school newspaper, but English 101 stymied me. Everybody had read James Joyce but me. I thought he wrote a poem about trees. And that was the beginning. Over the years afterward I wrote much nonfiction but I didn’t see myself as a writer. When I finally returned to fiction, I declared myself a writer. I was well into middle age by then and mature enough to see the worth of my words.

What is this book about?

As the Sycamore Grows is a true story about two people, Ginger, who escaped the padlocked cabin hidden in the woods to find emancipation and fulfillment; and Mike, who admitted the abuse and would do it all again. I liken it to a lifestyle akin to that of The Glass Castle while Sleeping with the Enemy in the woods, when the enemy totes a Bible and packs a .38. It’s a story about redemption, hope and the resiliency of the human spirit.

What inspired you to write it?

Curiosity at first. With her business suit and brief case, Ginger looked like a prosperous professional woman, yet she told me about living without electricity and eking subsistence from the land. What I saw didn’t jibe with what I heard. And that became a challenge for me, a puzzle to solve. I had no idea the story would sweep me along on a journey of discovery.

Are you a member of a critique group? If no, who provides feedback on your work?

Yes, an online group of women across the globe. We’ve been together almost ten years now. All are published; some are pro’s. One is a playwright in England, another a poet in Shanghai. I know I gain from this association, and we’ve become good friends. Of course, we had to meet face-to-face. Our one conference has turned into a regular event now with about 20 out of 30 attending. The group critiqued Sycamore until they almost memorized it! They are sharp, candid and constructive.

Who is your favorite author?

Today’s favorite might be different tomorrow. I think Rick Bragg is the best story-teller I know. I love Louise Erdrich’s descriptions. I like Margaret Atwood.

If you knew then, what you know now, is there anything you would have done differently?

I formed my own company and self-published. Had I known then---I would have started at least a year sooner, maybe two. The learning curve has been steep. I need two of me just to keep up with the business of a book, which means I haven’t done all that I need to do. Social networking is lagging, despite my good intentions.

Where can readers purchase a copy of your book?

As the Sycamore Grows is available anywhere books are sold. Any store can order it if they don’t have it in stock. And it’s available as an e-book. I intend to do a Spanish translation when I find time.

Do you have a website and/or blog where readers can find out more?

Oh, yes.  and Either one; they’re linked.

Do you have a video trailer to promote your book? If yes, where can readers find it?

Yes. The trailer is on the website.

What is the best investment you have made in promoting your book?

I hired two publicists, one who specializes in the Atlanta metro area and the other in Los Angeles who has his hand on the national media. Plus he’s now shopping a film treatment.

What is one piece of advice you would like to share with aspiring authors everywhere?

Nobody’s going to hack into your computer looking for your work, so submit, submit, submit. And when it bounces back, tweak and submit again.

What is up next for you?

I’ve just reclaimed the rights to my first two books, novelty gift books, which I’m revising for the 2011 holiday market. As soon as they’re off to the printer, then I’ll turn to one of the stories people have brought to me or one that’s circling through my head. Have you ever heard of funeral fresh flowers?

Is there anything you would like to add?

Newspapers are shrinking, e-book sales and self-publishing are soaring; the publishing industry is in upheaval. We all see changes ahead, but I think the changes will go beyond paper, ink, and downloads. I believe we’re on the cusp of major changes in how we communicate, every bit as big as the invention of moveable type or even of paper. Whatever form that takes will be good.

Thanks for joining us today, Jennie. We wish you continued success.

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