For this weekend, we have another fascinating author interview. Today, we are hopping back across the Atlantic to New Jersey to talk to the prolific artist and writer, Janet Purcell, whose lovely books, The Long Way Home and Rooster Street: Legacy of a Runaway Slave are both published by Sunpenny. The covers of both books are particularly special to us because Janet painted them herself!
Now let's get started!
SP: Janet, could you tell us something of your background and how you came to be living in Hopewell, New Jersey?
JP: I grew up in Trenton, the capital city of New Jersey. My father was an award-winning pen & ink artist who worked by day as an aircraft inspector to support my mother, my sister and me. My mother owned and ran a children’s wear shop called Tiny Towne. She indulged her love of roses with dozens of rose bushes in our city-size backyard. She was also a seamstress who designed and created glitzy dance costumes for local and school performances. My older sister loved to play our piano, so I was surrounded by art in various forms throughout my childhood. I grew up drawing, writing in my journals writing poetry and letters to pen pals.
Then I met a handsome guy just home from the army when I was 19. We fell in love immediately, got engaged in a month and were married 6 months later. (He got appendicitis the second day of our honeymoon, by the way. I spent my honeymoon sitting by his bedside in a hospital about 300 miles from home!) He lived in the little village of Hopewell in New Jersey and when we returned from our “honeymoon” we settled in there, bought a house where we raised our three children and where he died at age 54 from Multiple Sclerosis which he had struggled with for 20 years. I love the home we created and still live there using it as home base even though now, I do go back and forth to a second home on Cape Cod.
SP: What a moving story, and no wonder you are so creative too. Could you tell us what do you find most inspiring as a writer about living in Hopewell, New Jersey and Cape Cod in Massachusetts?
JP: First, I must tell you that after being a widow for 10 years, I reconnected with Bob, my teenage sweetheart, who was living on Cape Cod. We divide our lives between Hopewell and the Cape.
|Janet's kitchen deck in her lovely NJ home|
|Hopewell in winter|
What I find most inspiring about Hopewell is my home that sits on 3 acres, partly wooded, where I love the peacefulness of being with the wildlife, watching deer graze, rabbits and squirrels scamper, the birds coming to my feeders. And my flower beds. Then I brave the 6 hour drive north through heavy traffic to our equally peaceful home on Cape Cod near a pond. There we have the beaches, the bay, the ocean and all joys of coastal living. What I find most inspiring about both of our places we live is they are both steeped in all the beautiful aspects of nature, in history and the arts which are all my lifeblood.
|Cape Cod, which inspired The Long Way Home|
SP: Ah, what inspiring surroundings indeed. So what prompted you to start writing books, and how long have you been writing?
JP: Although I have loved writing since childhood, when my husband died, my daughter, Jill, who is an English professor, encouraged me to continue my education at the local community college by taking a writing course. I am primarily a professional visual artist. You can see my paintings on my website, www.janpurcellart.com. But Jill knew I always loved to write but was shy about doing so. I stumbled by accident the first day at the college into a journalism class instead of the memoir writing class I had signed on for. The instructor invited me to stay for that one class. I loved it, stayed the whole semester, began writing for my town’s bi-weekly paper and have never been without a deadline since. I write features for magazines and I write a weekly fine arts column for our capital city’s primary daily paper—a Friday deadline for 24 years! Is that good, you may ask? To that I say, I love it!
So the journalism came first and fiction came sneaking in along the way. I was in hospital for some serious surgery and, while too weak to do anything but lie there, I decided to tell myself a story. I began with what I have always considered to be the most magical words I’d ever heard: “Once upon a time…” I lay there for days always adding to the story in my head, too weak to put it on paper. When I got home and bounced back to good health I wondered if it might still be there. It was! It became my first novel, Singer Lane and I was hooked! The Long Way Home followed and then my latest, Rooster Street, Legacy of a Runaway Slave.
SP: Again, a wonderful back story! So what do you prefer writing? Fiction or fact and why?
JP: I love them both. I took to journalism first because, being a rather private person, I felt I could hide behind other people’s stories. I soon learned you can’t hide. What you choose to focus on in the story, the way you present the facts---there you are! I love presenting someone else’s story. I think I’d like to do some ghost writing someday. But when I took the plunge into fiction I found—and still find—I love how the story takes over and tells itself through me. How the characters become so known to me I almost think of them as real life friends. I want to know what’s going to happen next with them. And I miss them when the story ends. Hence, my 3 novels carry many of the same characters forward as I add new ones
SP: If you had to give readers a tip about how to get started on a book, what would it be?
JP: Just start writing, don’t stop to edit, just let it flow. The editing will come later. The best advice I ever got about writing was in a book by Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down The Bones, Freeing The Writer Within, in which she told new writers to think of writing like sex, just keep your hand moving, don’t stop to think, just enjoy what you are doing. The editing will come after. I’m paraphrasing, but I keep remembering that when I sit on my back porch, my two cats snoozing nearby, and I put my pen to the legal pad on my lap and just keep it moving. I edit in the evening when I get to my computer and add it to what is developing there.
SP: Great to hear you still start in longhand writing. Janet, what is your greatest strength in life: and then (of course) what do you see as your weakest point:
JP: I feel my greatest strength is my innate empathy and my understanding of what others are living---the difficult and the joyful. My mother survived a difficult childhood, and I drew strength from her example which instilled in me the fortitude to deal with whatever life throws at me. As far as my weakness I remember my husband used to tease me about being a Pisces, the two fishes going in opposite directions. I can always see both sides to a dilemma and that makes me, in his teasing words “wishy-washy.”
SP: We see nothing wishy-washy about your writing, that's for sure. Now then, if you had to live a year with only one book, what would it be? And do you have favorite authors? If so, why do you admire their work?
JP: My one book would be Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s “Gifts From The Sea.” I first read this book when I was needing so desperately to find alone time to write, to pursue my art. She was my hero when she took that cabin on the beach and spent time with her own thoughts, her own responses to the rhythms of the sea—a woman living alone in a bare-bones beach house. It satisfied me so much at the time I was caretaking my dying husband but even now, upon re-reading, I find it is still what I need as a professional woman. I am blessed with a multitude of people and things to do in my life, but I also have a great need for solitude. I need that to replenish.
Anne Morrow Lindbergh is my favorite author as are the more contemporary Ann Patchett, Annie Dillard and Elizabeth Strout.
SP: Are you writing anything at the moment? Can you tell us what it is?
JP: I am constantly writing my journalism articles. My fine arts column comes out every week and can be found at: connect.nj.com/user/njopurcell/posts/html and on my Pinterest page.
When I finished Rooster Street, I told my daughter it was my last novel. I’d written about some of the same characters through all three novels, and I was ready to let them go. But I also felt as though Rooster Street had allowed me to represent through story my most deeply held beliefs about both freedom and human equality. That gave me a sense of completion, too. But several book clubs have asked me to come talk about Rooster Street and I’ve been fascinated by what they see in the book. Those discussions have gotten me thinking like a novelist again, and every time I finish a long piece of journalism, I can feel the tickle of fiction in my fingers. So we’ll see!
SP: Wonderful. Okay, last question, Janet. If you had a bucket list what would be in the top three positions”
JP: That's a good question! I think these three ideas sum them up:
1. Unlimited-Unscheduled time to just enjoy my little village of Hopewell, NJ and all the places I have yet to explore on Cape Cod.
2. Additional river boat cruises in Europe to villages I’ve not yet visited.
3. Riverboat cruises in the U.S.
Janet, thank you so much for joining us here and thanks too for the links to your own websites. It's been a fascinating chat and very good to get to know more about you and your inspiring environment.
However, we still need to give our readers a sight of your lovely books, so the Amazon links are below: