Saturday, February 2, 2008

An Interview With Janna McMahan, author CALLING HOME

1.What’s the backstory behind your latest novel?

Back story is really everything to the conclusion of Calling Home. How could Virginia and Roger Lemmons always have had such a sour marriage and yet stayed together for so long? How can the Lemmons be so fractured and still represent the core of what a family should be? I can’t go in-depth about the back story in Calling Home since it provides the motivation for all of the characters and drives their decisions. I never do character outlines as some writers do, but their pasts do play heavily in my mind when I write. I think it is very important to see characters in all their flaws and glories in order to fully understand and relate to them. That’s one reason that “Lost” is such a popular television show. It is as much about back story as it is about who gets kidnapped next.

2. How important is the sense of place in Calling Home?

One reader told me Calling Home made them want to visit Kentucky. That was a great compliment. They said they could tell how much I loved the land. It was easy to write about people who lived so close to the land since I grew up on my grandparents’ farm. I never thought of us as dirt farmers, but that’s what we were. I’ve dug potatoes and shucked corn and shelled butter beans until my fingernails were bright green crescents.

When I was younger I spent a lot of time driving country roads just looking at things. In college, I drove around observing the hundreds of thoroughbred horse farms that ring Lexington. It seems that I’ve developed a habit of seeing a place in terms of its natural amenities before thinking about people or other things. I’m always pained to see a landmark that I admire turned into an eyesore of commerce. In Calling Home, I describe Versailles Road in Lexington, still a spectacularly beautiful area of undulating Bluegrass featuring the entrance to Keeneland Race Course and Calumet, the world’s most famous horse farm. So far, Lexington has managed to keep this road from being turned into just another burger joint littered, chain-store infested strip; but I understand that it’s a constant fight to keep developers from ruining it.

3. Where do you see yourself as a writer in five years?

In five years I’d like to be making enough money from my fiction that I won’t have to hold down another job. Right now I’m head writer and media relations director for an entertainment marketing firm. Our clients are major motion picture studios and television properties. I love my day job, so it’s difficult to tear myself away from all that fun that pays the bills. Still, I’d like my promotional work to focus on my own projects. I’d like to try my hand at screenwriting. I’ve certainly read my share of scripts at work.

4. What’s the most satisfying part of writing a novel/book? The least satisfying part?

The most satisfying part is when somebody who is not my friend or relative admires one of my stories. Of course, it’s wonderful to have your friends tell you how much they enjoyed your novel, but it is unsolicited praise from random readers that lets me know that I need to keep writing.

Least satisfying? I guess the money could be better in fiction, but I’m hoping that improves for me soon.

5. Who are your influences as a writer?

I read widely and I study books that appeal to me. I’ve challenged myself to read all the Pulitzer-winning books. I’ve finished about a dozen of the more recent winners. Some are absolutely wonderful and some I wonder why they were chosen. I’m trying to discern if there is some commonality among them that made them Pulitzer-winners. The jury is still out on that note, but I’m developing a theory.

Lee Smith and Silas House have both been influential to me over the past few years. Through their novels I learned that my own experiences and history are valid sources of fiction. More important, their friendship and advice was helpful when I was discouraged.

6. What books are on your bedside table right now?

I usually have an unmanageable stack of books on my bedside table that spills to the floor and grows like moss on every flat surface of my bedroom, but recently I had my entire house painted, which forced me to purge and organize. In my sadly reduced cache of bedside books there is Lisa Alther’s hilarious memoir, Kinfolks. I have Richard Russo’s new novel Bridge of Sighs. I always keep my bookmarked, dog-eared copy of Story, Robert McKee’s book on screenwriting, close at hand for inspiration. I have Pat Conroy’s The Prince of Tides. The opening chapter is one of the most lovely pieces of literature ever created and I read it occasionally just to remind myself how far I have to go with my own writing. I also have my friend Sandra Johnson’s book Standing on Holy Ground, waiting in the wings. There are always a number of short story collections which include various years of New Stories from the South and Best American Short Stories.

7. How did you get published?

The key was finding the right agent. I went through the rejection process, although I must imagine more gently than some writers. I never had real horror stories like I’ve heard about. Although it sounds like an oxymoron, I received encouraging rejection letters—personalized and specific with praise and suggestions. These letters basically said to keep searching for the right agent, that my work had merit.

I also rejected a few agents. Not something I relished, but publishing is a business and you’ve got to like the people with whom you work. I knew from my freelance magazine work that there are all types of personalities and talents in the publishing world. I was determined to find the right agent since I would be putting my career in her hands for a long time. When I met Katherine Fausset, who is with Curtis Brown, I felt a great connection. She was enthusiastic and responded quickly. She moves fast, which is my style too. She sold my novel in less than two months to Kensington Publishing. I was offered a two book deal, so I’ve been very pleased with Katherine and her concern for me. I’m in the middle of writing the next book as this first one is released. I must admit that now things seems to be moving a little too fast for me.


Anonymous said...

Hello Janna,

I just ran across your interview. Our backgrounds are quite similar. I grew up in rural Western Kentucky. I've been writing novels for many years and am about to query Katherine Fausset. I have used settings outside Kentucky for most of my work, but I'm sure my farm senibilities are throughout. Your comment about connection to the land struck a chord with me. Are you still with Ms. Fausset?

Have you ever been to Green River Writers? I attended several of their workshops years ago.

You can reach me at

viagra online said...

what a honor, be face to face with someone like Janna, I envy you really envy you, not all days you have the chance to know someone soo important.