October 18th, 2006 14:55 EST
Up Close With Author and Breast Cancer Survivor Laura Jensen Walker
Award winning author Laura Jensen Walker describes her path to becoming an author, coping with breast cancer at an early age, and her love of movies.
Gretchen Ross: What was your background into becoming an author?
Laura Jensen Walker: "Well, I was born in Racine, Wisconsin and in the first grade I read 103 books and received the most gold stars. In high school in Phoenix, Arizona I was the editor of the school paper. I graduated when I was 17 and took my high school clips and went to apply for a job at the Arizona Republic/Phoenix Gazette. This was in 1974, and I was told I needed a college degree or life experience. I was offered a clerk typist position however, and I was deeply offended.
So instead of going to college, I joined the Air Force to gain life experience. I liked the uniforms and the commercials on TV because they had jets in the air with pretty music playing in the background and it was all romantic seeming. I wanted to see the world especially since I am a huge movie buff and watched movies set in foreign settings, so I wanted to get to Europe.
In February of 1975 I went to Texas for basic training, followed by tech school in Biloxi, Mississippi. I got orders to Germany and at only 19 years old, I thought it was fabulous because I also got to go to England. I always say I flew a typewriter across Europe because I got an administrative, clerk/typist job. I wanted to be an information specialist in the Air Force, but the field was frozen so I was a clerk/typist for five years.
At 23, I went to Sacramento to be closer to my family and use my GI bill for college. But I was too young and too impatient because I thought school was taking too long. So I went to upstate New York and Cleveland, Ohio to work. I started taking creative writing classes where I got to be humorous and received A's. I went back to California in 1984 and enrolled in Humboldt State University in northern California where the female students wore bandanas and Birkenstock sandals and didn't shave their legs - which kind of clashed with my girly-girl sensibilities.
Humboldt county was also notorious for its tons of illegal pot fields. A humorous story I remember about that time was that, being short on cash and looking for work, someone offered me a job as a manicurist. When I responded "but I bite my nails", I was informed that a 'manicurist' in that area was someone who went into the pot fields and harvested the pot. To which my horrified reply was, "But that's illegal!" Needless to say, that person quickly realized his mistake in offering naive, white-bread, non-druggie ME a job in the pot fields.
I became a Christian at age 27 and when I turned 30 I was still working a secretarial job. I knew that was not what I wanted to do. So I went back to American River Junior College and took a journalism class. I ended up getting a California Newspaper Association scholarship. I got an internship at a daily paper and began work at the Sacramento Bee covering the water board and school board among other things. I finally received my journalism degree by the time I was 35. I was married in May of 1992 and within three months I was diagnosed with breast cancer. The following March I was a full time reporter for the Bee in the neighborhood section.
Cancer changed my focus and priorities. I wanted to start writing books. Cancer compelled me to follow my dreams and pursue writing. I had seen ads in magazines about writers' conferences where I could meet book publishers. I started to remember funny stories from my singles Christian groups and for my first book idea, I came up with chapter titles such as: "Can I flirt or will I lose my salvation?"
I went to a conference in Santa Cruz and I found out that humor is a genre that is hard to write. I showed up clueless because authors are supposed to come with book proposals and I forgot to write a chapter so I was rejected. I had one last chance with Bethany House which is a major Christian publisher. We only had fifteen minutes to meet but I brought along a humorous magazine article I had written and a short book proposal. I was told the material was very funny and I was a "funny lady." I was to send in some chapters but was told by two different publishers that singles books don't sell. So I just kept writing. I had to think of another subject and I kept in touch with editors and came up with a new proposal.
In 1997, I wrote "Dated Jekyll, Married Hyde". It was a very long process because I had to hurry and write but then wait for a response. I still heard no response about the book the week before my 40th birthday and I thought maybe this was just not meant to be. I was getting ready to go see the movie "The Mirror Has Two Faces" with a friend when Bethany House called to give me my first book contract. It was the beginning of a new life.
I then wrote a total of 10 non-fiction humor books. The ability has come fairly easy. But deep down I wanted to write novels. When I was writing non-fiction I was flying by the seat of my pants. I came up with proposals again for non-fiction including general ideas, chapter titles, descriptions, and sample chapters. Funny titles come easy to me because I write to fit the chapter title. I am disciplined and write at home. I usually wake up at 7:30 a.m., make a cup of tea, and check my e-mail for an hour and start writing at 8 or 8:30.
I attended the Mt. Hermon Christian Writer's conference several years in a row where I made author friends who taught there. Three years ago, I attended, tired of the non-fiction - and not earning much money from it - and really wanted to try my hand at fiction. At the time I had written nine non-fiction humor books, contracted for a 10th and was getting depressed and discouraged because the royalties were so little. I thought it was time to pack it up and get a 9 to 5 job. I was not feeling funny anymore. I had written about marriage, breast cancer, dating, and a book called Mentalpause about menopause. I had even written a book on home improvements called "This Old Dump". I was just bone dry of creativity. I wanted God to let me know if I needed to find a real job and become a responsible adult unless I could write fiction. New York Times best selling author Davis T. Bunn once said, "Before you begin to write fiction, know how to end." I attended a panel discussion of fiction editors and asked the panel, "Are you looking for humor in fiction." They said "If you can write it - most people can't." The opening line for Dreaming in Black and White ("My thighs were at it again.") about character Phoebe Grant came to me after that. I wanted to write in the genre of Chick Lit which included books like Bridget Jones' Diary, but that type of writing had not come to the Christian realm yet.
I wrote nine chapters about three or four weeks later. I didn't have to write the whole novel for the publishers to like it. Humor was my bridge from non-fiction to fiction and WestBow Press, a division of Thomas Nelson Publishing, offered me a two book deal.
GR: What was it like writing a strong character like Phoebe for your first novel?
LJW: Phoebe parallels parts of my life. She's based on me and my best friend, who is Lindsey in the books. For instance, Phoebe lives in Cleveland, I lived in Cleveland. Phoebe's character is a huge movie buff, I'm a huge movie buff. And after the book was published, I received letters from teenage girls who loved the list of old movies that I included in the novel. But one big difference between us: Phoebe's really into fashion and I'm not, so I had to get help on all the fashion stuff. The thing I love about writing fiction over non-fiction is that I get to be more creative and invent an entire world."
GR: You recently won Woman of Faith Novel of the Year for 2006 for "Reconstructing Natalie". Where did you draw the inspiration to write that book?
LJW: "That book was another God thing. I was in the middle of writing "Dreaming in Technicolor", the second Phoebe Grant novel. I went to the local mall to write and I was sitting in the food court with my notebook. Here I was middle-aged and had reconstructive surgery where my left breast had been removed and I began noticing the breasts on the women walking by. I wrote in my notebook, "I am obsessed with breasts." That became the opening line to the book. From there I wrote a whole page. I submitted a book proposal right away to a publishing company and I got a two book deal from it.
The second book is going to be called Miss Invisible about a plus size single woman due out in March. "Reconstructing Natalie" was hard to write and took a while to choose Natalie as the main character's name but I liked the way the name sounded. The book is about a young lady diagnosed with breast cancer at a young age and the changes that take place in her life as a result of the cancer."
GR: Have you promoted the book at breast cancer awareness?
LJW: "Since I am a breast cancer survivor I speak at events and travel around the country. I find more and more that younger, single women are getting breast cancer. Faith and humor got me through. I don't want women to be afraid. The thing about cancer is that it respects no one. Anyone can get it. I do book signings locally and at a fundraiser in New York City for the Young Survivor Coalition they were giving away free copies of "Reconstructing Natalie". I encourage young women to check out the American Cancer Society on the web and to talk to their doctors. They also need to start conducting a monthly self-exam.
GR: Do you have any stories from your battle with breast cancer?
LJW: A couple of funny things when I was going through my cancer experience... it was a little tense and scary the night before my surgery (modified radical mastectomy) and I wanted to break the tension and make my husband smile, so when we were laying in bed, I looked down at my chest and serenaded farewell to my breast-singing 'Bye, Bye Booby.' He not only smiled, he laughed, but also said that was the tackiest thing he'd ever heard :) It worked though.
Then later when I was in the midst of chemo and had lost every single hair on my body, one morning after getting out of the shower I walked by the large wall-size bathroom mirror and was struck by the contrast between my fuzzy, Teddy-bear husband and me, and said, "Oh look-its cueball and furball."
GR: What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
LJW: "Number one I would tell them to read voraciously and also to go to writers' conferences because those are great places to network and meet with publishers."
GR: When you have spare time, what do you like to do?
LJW: "I love to read. I also like going to the movies. I like watching mystery series from the BBC. My husband and I like watching comedies."
GR: What is your favorite movie?
LJW: "I will give you my top three I watch Casablanca at least three times a year. I also like the movie Random Harvest because it has romantic sentimental music. And I of course love The Sound of Music."
GR: What insight would you give to singles out there?
LJW: "Hang in there. We don't know about marriage. Only God knows. There is so much power in being single and being with your friends. Just relax. The more comfortable you are, the more confident you will be, and people will be drawn to you.
For more information Laura Jensen Walker's books visit her website at www.laurajensenwalker.com.