Janet Kay Jensen Author Interview

I’m a full-time writer with one book of nonfiction and one novel under my belt. I live in northern Utah with my husband and our two dogs, and we have recently become grandparents.

Interview with Author Janet Kay Jensen

It’s rare today to find an author who does nothing but write for a living. Do you have a ‘real’ job other than writing, and if so, what is it? What are some other jobs you’ve had in your life?

Janet Jensen: My first career was in Speech-Language Pathology and I worked in public school and university settings for more than 20 years. It was rewarding and challenging but at a certain point I found myself, surprisingly, ready to make a change in occupation. Fortunately, my husband is employed full-time so I am able to be a full-time writer.

What compelled you to write your first book?

Janet Jensen: A fellow writer approached me at a monthly meeting of our writers group and proposed a project, which eventually turned into The Book Lover’s Cookbook, Recipes Inspired by Celebrated Works of Literature and thee Passages that Feature Them (Wenger & Jensen, Ballantine Books, 2003). That project (researching literature and creating original recipes to match the literary references to food) dominated the next three years and put most of my other writing on hold. The resulting book was beautifully done and certainly taught us a great deal about the publishing world.

Have you always wanted to be a writer?

Janet Jensen: Academically, writing was always a strong suit for me. Actually writing a book and getting it published, however, was a goal that developed later in life.

Tell us a little bit about your book/s.

Janet Jensen: My most recent book is Don’t You Marry the Mormon Boys, a novel published by Bonneville Books, an imprint of Cedar Fort Press, released November 1, 2007 .

Gather ’round, girls, and listen to my noise, Don’t you marry the Mormon boys; If you do your fortune it will be, Johnnycake and babies is all you’ll see. -old western folksong

The prospect of one wife is more than enough for Mormon bachelor Andy McBride, a medical student at the University of Utah. Then he falls for Louisa Martin, a fellow student. There is only one obstacle to planning a life together: polygamy – a lifestyle that Louisa cannot escape and Andy cannot embrace.

Can a mainstream Mormon and a woman raised in polygamy overcome the cultural barriers between them? Both realize that their choices will not only affect their own lives, but will also have an impact on families, friends, and even their communities. Fearing that the sacrifices required of them would be too great, they go their separate ways.

Yet for Andy in Kentucky and Louisa in Utah, life does not go as they’d planned. While Andy is serving as a country doctor and trying to bury his pain, Louisa is coming to terms with the fact that all is not as perfect in her tight-knit community as she had believed.

As doctors, each will have to choose between keeping the peace in their communities or doing what they know is right. And someday, both will have to face their past and decide if they can make the sacrifice to be together.

Set in the red hills of southern Utah, the cosmopolitan center of Salt Lake City, the Smoky Mountains of Kentucky, and the lake-studded country of Finland, Don’t You Marry the Mormon Boys is the heartfelt and engaging story about the power of love and acceptance in an ever-changing and often surprising world. The Book Lover’s Cookbook (see question #2 for more details) Narrative unit developed for children’s book Stellaluna in The Magic of Stories (Strong and Hoggan, Thinking Publications) Contributing author, LDS Writing Secrets (LDStorymakers)

Are you currently working on any writing projects our readers should watch for release soon?

Janet Jensen: Yes. I’m writing a sequel to Don’t You Marry the Mormon Boys, a children’s book, and another novel.

Have you ever won any writing awards? If so, what?

Janet Jensen: League of Utah Writers: First place in humorous poetry, personal essay, short story, short-short story.

  • Don’t You Marry the Mormon Boys has won the following awards:
  • First runner-up, Best New Writing: The Eric Hoffer Award, commercial fiction
  • Finalist, USA Best Book 2007, religious fiction
  • Finalist, ForeWord Magazine’s Book of the Year, religious fiction
  • Semi-Finalist, Reader Views Critics Awards, religion/spirituality
  • Nominee, Whitney Award for LDS Fiction Writers
  • Honorable Mention, Marilyn Brown Unpublished Novel Award, Association for Mormon Letters

How did you feel the day you held the copy of your first book in your hands?

Janet Jensen: It’s an astonishing experience, next to seeing your newborn child for the first time.

What type of music, if any, do you listen to while you write?

Janet Jensen: I’m eclectic in my musical tastes and listen to whatever suits my mood at the time. I like classical, Broadway soundtracks, oldies, new-age, Celtic, folk and bluegrass.

What inspires you and motivates you to write the very most?

Janet Jensen: I’ll read a book and think: I could do that. And then sometimes a little germ of a story lives in my mind and gradually grows into a little kernel and I’m ready to begin writing the skeleton of a story. Reading other books, the newspaper, and attending writing critiques and workshops can also plant ideas in my mind.

What one thing are you the most proud of in your life?

Janet Jensen: I would say that my children are my greatest accomplishments. My husband and I have raised three sons, all of whom are attending universities, and we recently became grandparents.

What about your family? Do you have children, married, siblings, parents? Has your family been supportive of your writing?

Janet Jensen: My writing career has been a surprise to my family. It has taken a while for them to digest the fact that I am a published author as well as an educator, wife and mother. I love loved the fact that they’ve had to adjust to this new facet of me.

While they are proud and supportive, they have not been part of the creative process. They haven’t “jumped in” to give me feedback or ideas for stories. For that I have turned to other writers.

My two older sisters have been marvelous assistants and supporters. They have proofed and given me feedback and helped me format my manuscripts into professional documents. They’ve shared every step with me and been my sounding board when I’ve needed one.

My husband makes appearances at book signings, advises me on business questions, and listens to my angst. I would have to say he has the patience of a saint when it comes to my writing career.

The main characters of your stories – do you find that you put a little of yourself into each of them or do you create them to be completely different from you?

Janet Jensen: I think it’s easy to inject some of your own qualities into characters. It’s a challenge to create unique, believable characters who come from another place entirely. As I continue to write, I’m sure more of my characters will reflect less of me.

Is there an established writer you admire and emulate in your own writing? Do you have a writing mentor?

Janet Jensen: I would love to write with the grace of Ann Patchett or the clarity of Barbara Kingsolver or Anna Quindlen. Jodi Picoult is a master weaver of plot. Anne Tyler’s wonderfully flawed characters are a treat to know, and her humor is delightful. Joanne Harris is a pleasure to read as well. I love the books written by Australian author Neville Shute. And then there are the icons: Steinbeck, Dickens, Hugo, Faulkner, Wharton, Twain, Shakespeare . . . I’m sure I’ve left a few of them out.

I have colleagues who are honest and helpful and give continual feedback as we meet regularly and share our manuscripts. I have also recently become acquainted with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, and her books and websites are a treasure box of inspiration for writers.

I would love to have a mentor who is a master at seeing the whole plot of a book and helping me analyze it. That’s where I feel I need the most support.

When growing up, did you have a favorite author, book series, or book?

Janet Jensen: Like most other girls of my generation I read the Bobbsey Twins, The Five Little Peppers, Ginger Beverly Cleary books, Pippi Longstocking, Cherry Ames . . . My parents gave me the Golden Book Treasury of Poetry edited by Louis Untermeyer and illustrated by Joan Walsh Anglund when I was 8, and it was a marvelous introduction to appreciating poetry. It’s out of print, but I was able to find three copies on eBay and give them to each of my sons.

What about now: who is your favorite author and what is your favorite genre to read?

Janet Jensen: Fiction is my first choice. Biography is second. I plan to read all of Anne Tyler’s 17 novels. At the moment I’d say Edith Wharton is at the top of my list.

Hey, let’s get morbid. When they write your obituary, what do you hope they will say about your book/s and writing? What do you hope they will say about you?

Janet Jensen: I have already written my obituary. First, it was a practical consideration and it’s filed with the will and power of attorney. I’m the only one who could accurately write the facts: where I was born, the spelling of my parents’ names, where I attended school, etc. And when the time comes, my family will only have to fill in a few details. I’ve even listed some of my favorite music and poetry for whatever type of memorial they choose to have.

I belong to several book clubs, and the discussion of the book always begins with a brief bio of the author, and I think it’s helpful to give some background information on myself when I present about my own book. Working on that introduction, it began to sound like an obituary, so I continued in that vein, adding some humor and little-known facts, such as my penchant for practical jokes and membership in the nonexistent “Organization for Directionally Impaired People.” In lieu of flowers I suggest donations earmarked for our sons’ ongoing university tuition and frequent flier miles. It’s actually been well-received; someone even asked for a copy of it. Now that was a strange request.

In a more serious vein, I’d like to be remembered as a loving wife and mother, a dedicated Speech-Language Pathologist, someone who gave service to the community, and a successful author of numerous books.

Location and life experience can sprinkle their influence in your writing. Tell us about where you grew up and a little about where you live now.

Janet Jensen: I was born in Berkeley, California and we lived in Walnut Creek until I was seven, so I don’t have many memories of the Bay Area. We moved to Phoenix and lived there for five years. Then we moved to Utah, where I attended junior high and high school. I graduated from Utah State University and then married my college sweetheart. We honeymooned in Chicago where we both obtained graduate degrees at Northwestern University. We love Chicago and try to visit every few years. After grad school we were able to return to northern Utah where we have lived for more than 35 years.

I have always been a city girl, though the community where I live is surrounded by farmland and there is a definite rural influence in the valley. Our local university is a land-grant university, so there is a strong emphasis on programs focused on irrigation, animal husbandry, poisonous plants, forestry, agriculture, etc. We also have a living historical farm museum in our valley, which is a marvelous place for children to get hands-on experiences in the farming life circa 1914.

Most of the time, I would say that I am living where I want to live right now. When a blizzard hits and makes driving treacherous and downright dangerous, or it’s so cold that the electric blanket remains on high all night, I think longingly of a place with a more temperate climate. But I live in a strong and healthy community and the university and local arts organizations offer many opportunities to meet my interests. I felt it was a safe place to raise our children. Since I moved around a lot as a child, it was particularly important to me that my children attended the same schools and even had some of the same teachers, and all three graduated from the high school their father attended. I feel rooted in my adopted hometown.

Do you have any pets? What are they? Tell us about them.

Janet Jensen: When our second son’s friend called, thrilled that his family had adopted a new baby, my son turned to me and said, “Couldn’t we do that, Mom?” and my reply was “You know that puppy we’ve been promising you? We’ll get it.” And we did. Chevy, a cocker mix, is now 14 and has shared many ups and downs with me. She is a loyal and understanding friend. We have also had several other dogs who have passed away, and that is pure heartache. Lita, a border collie mix, attended college with our middle son but now lives with us as he now lives in Finland. Lita is an intelligent and affectionate dog who likes us, but she’s ecstatic when our son comes to visit. We don’t mention his name in her presence, or she looks for him.

Bring us into your home and set the scene for us when you are writing. What does it look like?

Janet Jensen: When the nest emptied, so to speak, I turned a bedroom into my office. I have three large bookcases, a desktop computer, a scanner and two printers, and lots of unorganized papers in stacks. I also have notebooks of clippings and tote bags filled with items I need when I give a presentation on my book. I have a laptop that I use when traveling, and also when I speak to book groups. I show a 60-second movie trailer made of my book, and I also play a recording of the song that inspired the title of my book, as many have never heard it. It’s a tongue-in-cheek folksong and sets the tone for the presentation.

Do you watch television? If so, what are your favorite shows? Does television influence of inspire your writing?

Janet Jensen: I’m hooked on Lost. It’s great storytelling. I think they use flashbacks brilliantly. Of course, each episode presents more questions than it asks, and there are “Easter eggs” or other hints that I miss completely until I read about them on the web. And the number of references to other books, movies, great scientists, etc. is overwhelming, but it’s fun to read about those, too.

I was also a fan of Boston Legal in its earlier seasons and loved the mixture of serious issues with humor, and of course it has a very strong cast.

I also like Grey’s Anatomy and Without a Trace.

When I was recuperating from surgery a friend brought me the DVDs of Alias and I became hooked on it. It was better than becoming hooked on painkillers. And I’m also an unabashed fan of Dancing With the Stars. I can’t dance, but I love to watch it. What the pros accomplish with their celebrity partners is remarkable. It’s just fun viewing. And Masterpiece Theater on PBS.

What about movies?

Janet Jensen: To Kill a Mockingbird, Harvey, Arsenic and Old Lace, Dear Frankie, Chariots of Fire, The Englishman Who Went up a Hill and Came Down a Mountain, the A&E production of Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, The River Wild, The Sting, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the Shawshank Redemption, The Full Monty.

Focusing on your most recent (or first) book, tell our readers what genre your book is and what popular author you think your writing style in this book is most like.

Janet Jensen: One reviewer wrote that a particular section of Don’t You Marry the Mormon Boys took on an O’Henry feel, and I took that as a compliment. I love to inject humor when I can, and I suppose you could say that I am more the “Gentle Reader” type of author who wants to tell a good story without resorting to vulgarity and gratuitous sex. I’m stumped when asked whose style I emulate. A writing friend said that my humorous columns reminded him of Robert Kirby, a very funny columnist for the Salt Lake Tribune. I wish I could be that amusing all the time. Other than the mention of author Jan Karon, no one I’ve queried has come up with an author for comparison. Basically, they say “you have your own unique style.”

How long did it take you to write your first book?

Janet Jensen: I started it in 2000, but then The Book Lover’s Cookbook took over for a few years. I had some major health issues that seriously impaired my creativity for about a year and a half after that, and then it took at least a year (and 75 rejections) to find a publisher. So technically, it took seven years. I did not write it quickly, either. I made many, many revisions and edits before I was satisfied, and during that time I was learning a lot, which I then applied to my work-in-progress.

Is there anyone you’d like to specifically acknowledge who has inspired, motivated, encouraged or supported your writing?

Janet Jensen: My parents always encouraged us to read great books, and they read to us. My mother was a librarian. My parents read to us when we were small. I would say that early influence was critical. Ken Rand, who is an author, editor and teacher, came into my career early when I took one of his workshops. He was so clear on the basics of writing and self-editing, that I came home with an entirely different mindset. I would say he was very influential in helping me develop as a writer. I have attended Writers@Work in Salt Lake City for four week-long workshops, and I attend other workshops when I can. They are always valuable and provide me with new ideas and inspiration. My local writing group nurtured me when I was new and inexperienced in creative writing, and that was key to developing confidence and learning the craft.

Is there any one particular book that when you read it, you thought to yourself, “Man, I wish I’d written that one!”?

Janet Jensen: To Kill a Mockingbird, Ethan Frome, A Separate Peace, Cannery Row, Bel Canto. . . those books are seamless and powerful.

Thinking about your writing career, is there anything you’d go back and do differently now that you have been published?

Janet Jensen: I would have started earlier when the “what am I doing with my creativity?” question began to nag me.

What is your main goal or purpose you would like to see accomplished by your writing?

Janet Jensen: I would like to tell good stories and tell them well. I would like my audience to appreciate my use of language, but I would never want the language to interfere with the story. I’d like my readers to feel satisfied, entertained, informed and uplifted when they close the book.

How has having a book published changed your life?

Janet Jensen: It’s brought a little fame and a lot of stress to my life. Certainly, I haven’t become rich and I rather doubt I will. I have worked tirelessly at promoting my novel, as I believe in it and its message. Small publishers aren’t known for extensive promotions or marketing strategies. Ironically, it took some national recognition that I was able to obtain before for my publisher began to promote my book more energetically in the regional market. Fortunately, the two major LDS bookstores (stores catering to the interests of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or Mormons) carry my book and it I understand it is doing well in their stores. Without that exposure, and my efforts at national publicity, I don’t know where my little book would be . . . there would probably be a few dusty boxes in the warehouse.

There is also the matter of timing. My book deals with modern polygamy, and of course it’s in the news every day and probably will remain a big media item for quite a while due to recent events in Texas, where law enforcement have taken FLDS women and children into custody and parental rights are at stake. But when I started the book the FLDS compound that was recently raided by law enforcement for suspected child abuse didn’t even exist in Eldorado, Texas, Mitt Romney wasn’t running for president, Big Love wasn’t being produced by HBO, and Warren Jeffs wasn’t on the FBI’s Most Wanted List. Oprah, Dr. Phil and Dateline and other television journalists weren’t interviewing and investigating polygamy.

My story, when I began to write it, had very little to do with current news. I had known about polygamy all of my life; there was polygamy in my father’s line, as he was descended from Mormon pioneers. I went to school with the son of a polygamist leader, a man who was later killed by a member of a rival clan, and when the son was interviewed on television, I was stunned to see him. I never knew about his background at all when we were in school. He was an excellent student, a quiet well-behaved young man and a member of the debate team. He and his family have been in the news locally on occasion, and I have followed their story as they eventually left the polygamous lifestyle.

My high school classmate’s sister, Dorothy Allred Solomon, also wrote a compelling book, Daughter of the Saints, which gave fascinating insights into the polygamous lifestyle and the tremendous challenges faced by those who live it. Jessie Embrey’s scholarly work and other books provided more background, as well as in-depth newspaper stories in the Salt Lake Tribune, Los Angeles Times and the Deseret Morning News. Recently, several books have been published by women who have left the polygamous life, and I have read them as well. I had seen polygamous families on occasion and observed their unique (old-fashioned appearance) and apparent mistrust of the outside world.

We drove through Colorado City and that was an eye-opener. I had expected to see a well-organized old-fashioned farming community, but what we found were unpaved red dirt roads, unfinished haphazardly-built homes (until the homes are finished, property taxes can’t be assessed), houses with very few or very high windows, rusting trailers that surely would not meet any existing codes, a graveyard consisting of homemade red cement mounds with names and dates scratched on them that told in some cases a very sad history, and, saddest of all, a school with no playground – not a basketball hoop, hopscotch grid, swing or slide in sight. It looked like a warehouse, had high windows, and was surrounded by a tall fence topped with barbed wire. One small neighborhood at the edge of the community looked like any American suburb, with brick homes, sidewalks, and landscaping. These belonged to the leaders. The appearance of a strange car caused residents to go inside their homes; we saw a few children scatter as we entered town.

Promoting my book has taken a lot of energy I would normally be applying to other areas of my life, including my works in progress. It’s a choice I have made. At some point I must immerse myself back into the craft and let the publicity continue based on the momentum my publisher and I have been able to create so far.

Many authors have said that naming their characters is a difficult process, almost like choosing a name for their own child. How did you select the names of some of your lead characters in your book/s?

Janet Jensen: Naming my characters was much easier than naming our own children. In one of our baby books is a long list of names, each one eventually crossed out until only one remained. It was a long labor, and even the nurses offered suggestions.

It wasn’t difficult to name my characters at all, partly because this time it was not done by committee. I used some names from my own family history, as a tribute to them, and also chose some old-fashioned Biblical names as appropriate. It took a little longer to name my fictional communities. I named the dog after a famous Utah poet, Eliza R. Snow, and that provokes chuckles among readers who know who she was.

Have you ever had a character take over a story and move it in a different direction than you had originally intended? How did you handle it?

Janet Jensen: Oh, yes. Zina, Louisa’s younger sister disappears one night. Later, her father realizes she must have overheard him give an older man with several wives permission to court and therefore marry her. Zina loves her father but she cannot face him and tell him about her strong aversion to the idea of plural marriage. Instead, she leaves. I tried to tell Zina’s story at the same time I was developing Louisa’s, but the timeline was very problematic and the canvas became quite cluttered with new characters wandering around as Zina’s story began to take over. I finally had to remove her story from the book and promise her that she would have her own book. I love Zina and I owe it to her. So in the first book, Don’t You Marry the Mormon Boys, all we know is that she is missing and has been for years. Zina’s story is the sequel in progress.

Miss Carolina, the eccentric Healer Andy meets in Kentucky, was a minor character in the beginning. But I liked her so much I began to give her more to do. And then I researched natural remedies and Appalachian sayings and introduced each of the Kentucky chapters with them, crediting “Miss Carolina’s Remedies and Advice.” Some readers have asked me if the cures really work! So, in the preface to Zina’s book, I will ask Miss Carolina to address my readers on that issue.

Is there any lesson or moral you hope your story might reveal to those who read it?

Janet Jensen: I was very pleased to see my book listed as Christian Fiction, as some denominations do not consider Mormons to be Christian. That acceptance meant a great deal. Carolyn Howard-Johnson lists my title on her website as a book promoting tolerance and fair treatment of women.

It was very important to clarify to the reader that Mormons aren’t polygamists and polygamists aren’t Mormons. This concept is still unclear to many people, and if they read the book they will understand this distinction.

It’s also an ageless story about two people from antagonistic cultures who fall in love and want to marry, and all the trouble and heartbreak that can cause to both groups, who have such strong feelings about their religion and way of life. In my story, we see the development of tolerance and acceptance begin to develop among people within these two cultures, and that’s really where our interactions with others should begin, with individual respect and acceptance of differences.

Do you have any book signings, tours or special events planned to promote your book that readers might be interested in attending? If so, when and where?

Janet Jensen: I’ll be signing at the USA Best Books booth at the Los Angeles USA Book Expo at 9:00-9:30 on May 30.

Other upcoming events: I’ll be attending the Fife Folklore Workshop at Utah State University June 2-6, and I’m looking forward to that. I will present at a writers workshop in Springville, Utah on June 7, attend the LDS Booksellers Association Convention August 6-8, and may present on family literacy at Brigham Young University’s annual Education Week Aug 18-22 (that hasn’t been finalized). I am scheduled for presentations at book clubs in Logan, Utah on August 26 and in Hyrum, Utah on October 2. And I’ll be attending the League of Utah Writers Roundup September 12-14. I imagine other opportunities will be extended when local book clubs resume in the fall and plan their yearly agendas. It’s been my experiences that book clubs enjoy hearing from published authors, and people in my area have been very supportive.

It’s said that the editing process of publishing a novel with a publisher is can be grueling and often more difficult than actually writing the story. Do you think this is true for you? How did you feel about editing your masterpiece?

Janet Jensen: The revisions and edits were minor and I’ve always been a team player. I would estimate that 95% of the edits proposed by my editor were excellent and appropriate and made the book better. To the remaining 5% I responded with something like, “No, the character would really say that,” and there was no further discussion. 95% agreement was awfully pleasant and my editor and the proofer were very thorough.

Now that you are a published author, does it feel differently than you had imagined?

Janet Jensen: Well, I would say that it garners a little more attention in public when people approach me and tell me they’ve heard about my book or better yet, they’ve read it. Most people have been very gracious and complimentary about my book. My neighbor bought 11 copies for her large family because there were historical references to both her husband’s ancestors and to hers in the first section. I had no idea, of course, that I was writing about their people, but was glad I had done my homework. I was thrilled to feel validated in that way.

Polygamy is a very touchy and complicated subject but most readers feel I handled it with sensitivity and that was certainly my goal.

Now, use this space to tell us more about who you. Anything you want your readers to know?

Oh, goodness, I feel as if I’ve written my autobiography already! I had no idea I was so fascinating. These questions were great and very thought-provoking. I welcome visitors to my website and blogs, where they’ll find pictures and essays and humor and regular columns.

My webpage is http://www.janetjensen.com and I blog at three locations:


And my newest blog is here, at Xanga,


Visitors to the Xanga site can listen to the song, Don’t You Marry the Mormon Boys, an old folksong that inspired the title of my book. A video preview can be seen at all of the above locations.


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