An Interview with Debra Jenkins.
When author Debra Woods Jenkins successfully released her first book, In the Midst in 2015, she was new to novel writing and the self-publishing business. She soon learned the value of connecting with other Christian fiction writers as a source of inspiration, fellowship, and the benefits of lessons learned. In my recent conversation with her, I learned more about her journey to publication and her plans for the future.
What were contributing factors in your road to publication?
First, I had the wonderful support of my husband David, and second, I spent countless hours at the computer!
When did you become acquainted with other Christian novelists?
I talked with another writer who told me about an organization called ACFW, or American Christian Fiction Writers. I saw the need for connecting with others. Although In the Midst was already published, I saw the bulk of my sales success after I started attending the ACFW chapter in Nashville. There were speakers at the meetings who taught us about the publishing business. Different agents and editors attended. It opened a whole new world for me. It’s as if I was trying to learn the English language on my own and then suddenly someone hands me a dictionary. I started making re-writes to my book and soon gained enough confidence to call myself an author—not just a writer. Now, there is a Knoxville ACFW chapter, which is closer to home.
I was also encouraged to attend writers’ conferences. I first sought out Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference because the timing worked out for me. This past year, I attended the ACFW Conference in Nashville. The information and support from those meetings have kept me going.
Do you have challenges in your writing?
I suppose everyone says they have trouble finding time to write. This is true for me. As far as the business of writing, I’ll say it’s challenging to hone on my characters and plot without dumping a lot of the backstory on the readers. And once I start writing, I don’t want to stop. I want a whole day with nothing else on the agenda. Snow days home from school are the best. It helps me to chew IceBreakers Ice Cubes Peppermint gum. I blow bubbles—lots of bubbles!
Have you had some moments of pride in your writing career so far?
Readers have contacted me with heart-warming stories of how my book caused them to see God in their present situations. It’s humbling. Some were people I didn’t think would ever read it, and many were strangers I may never meet. Through the internet, I learned I have readers in Germany, Turkey, Japan, and Australia. There has been more than one elderly reader who said they read In the Midst more than once because it blessed them. When I developed twenty-one-year-old characters I had no idea folks in their seventies would relate to them so well. Perhaps seeing life through Jesse and Ellie’s eyes made those older readers feel young again. Or maybe it was the thread of God’s divine intervention in the lives of young people that was woven in the story. That’s a theme that Hollywood and the secular world often neglect.
How do your faith and spiritual life play into the picture and affect your storytelling?
My storytelling reflects the traditional ways and beliefs of my southern heritage with a strong influence of modern spiritual demands. Today, fewer people attend church simply because it’s the right thing to do, and a “Visitors Welcome” sign does little to entice potential church attendees. Many folks want to receive ministry, but do not want to be preached to.
I grew up in a Christian home and attended a small country church steeped in tradition. My parents were proud to be old-fashioned, conservative God-fearing Christians who believed and worshiped the same ways their parents did. I feel my faith and spiritual life revolves around the disciplines I grew with but is accepting of contemporary needs and trends which lean toward discipleship and sowing into the lives of others. Though an integral part of my storytelling revolves around the traditions of my roots, I am touched by readers who can relate to my characters and setting.
How do you create the setting for In the Midst?
There was a snowstorm that crippled the Franklin, NC area during Christmas 2010. I went for a walk alone with my camera. The story and main characters came to me and never left my mind. For days, I kept thinking how the plot and setting would make a perfect movie. If a beautiful damsel in distress (my character Elle) was stranded on Gabby Mountain, who better to rescue her than my character Jesse? All I had to add were pretty horses.
My heart is in the mountains where I grew up, and I can’t think of a place or people I know more about. I chose to portray the mountain people the way they truly live today. Hollywood has it all wrong when they make Southerners—especially mountain people—look uneducated and ignorant. They’re not all moonshiners and tobacco spitters. I wanted to show why people come to the mountains from all over the world to find solace—a place of peniel. In the Bible, Jacob called the place where he was as Peniel, or “Face of God.” He said, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.” (Genesis 32:30).
I also added in-depth details in the book about the unfairness dealt to the Cherokee Indians after attending Trail of Tears symposium in North Carolina. Several friends and acquaintances from the Eastern Band of Cherokee said they were pleased with the way I honored their people and heritage in my writing.
This is a coming-of-age story, as well as a tale of family reconciliation. Did you plan it all out ahead of time?
I planned a lot, but other details evolved as I was writing. As a teacher, I’m closely involved with families. I have known people who have some of the same issues as my characters.
Ellie had every material advantage but did not feel loved. In contrast, Jesse had everything she could want in a family. He was not moved by money but by Christian love. Ellie’s father with all his money, power and prestige was not happy. He was living a lie and deceiving his own daughter. He was caught up in his own pain. My book explores all their interrelationships.
If you could have coffee with an author whose work you admire, who would that be?
Lynn Austin. I would talk about her book Wonderland Creek. I would like to ask her how she gathered so much good information about the people and their traditions in rural Kentucky.
What do you enjoy when you are not writing? My husband, David, and I enjoy traveling and finding out-of-the-way cafés, waterfalls, and mountain views. We particularly enjoy motorcycle riding and putting the top down on a convertible. I enjoy audiobooks and music—especially piano and guitar.
What books are on your nightstand right now?
The One True Love of Alice-Ann by Eva Marie Everson
Still Waters by Lindsey Brackett
Rumors and Promises by Kathleen Rouser
Any sage advice for new or aspiring authors?
Surround yourself with others who love writing. Friend them on Facebook and don’t hesitate to ask lots of questions. I’ve heard it said that writing is a marathon, not a sprint. I believe this is true. Enjoy the journey. I’ve found great strength in networking through the local ACFW chapter, of which I’m now Vice President, as well as Word Weavers.
If I didn’t enjoy writing, I wouldn’t think I was on the right path that God intends for me. But I enjoy the people, I enjoy the process, I enjoy my characters, and I enjoy borrowing things from other people’s lives. I’m looking forward to my next book, which is set in the 1950s. Stay tuned.
Interviewer Teresa Haugh is a graduate of the University of Montevallo and a retired public affairs specialist with the U.S. Forest Service. She and her husband live in Alaska, the Last Frontier. She takes pleasure in talking with other authors about their writing journeys.